Why Women in India Should Defend Arundhati Roy
Disclaimer: The editorial below reflects my personal views about Arundhati Roy, Kashmir, the Indian army's presence there and threats to free speech in India. I hope I have all my facts right, but if not, please share your perspective.
I was surprised and saddened to turn on the TV one day last October and see every TV channel flagrantly attacking writer-activist Arundhati Roy for a speech she made in favour of Kashmir’s independence from India.
I have seen Arundhati Roy speak in Berkeley some years ago, downloaded her audio books and frequently watched her interviews on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now TV show. Based on her record of speaking out against various injustices, I felt that she was less likely to put the volatile Kashmiri situation at risk for her own gain than to use her fame to bring attention to the grave atrocities being perpetrated by the Indian army against ordinary Kashmiris.
A few days later, I received a full transcript of her speech through an email forward and thought that it was passionate and well-informed. But the news gurus seemed to be fanning patriotic flames on TV while debating whether the government should arrest her on sedition charges. This had further implications on the free speech of the people of India, frequently toted as ‘the world’s ‘largest’ democracy.’ Worse still, the tone and language used to criticise Arundhati Roy was offensive and I felt that it was an attempt by the patriarchal establishment to demonise her in the media. Leading male lawyers took turns dismissing Roy as irrelevant and someone who should ‘at best, be ignored.’
The popular newspaper The Hindu’s National Bureau Chief Siddharth Varadarajan remarks at a recent debate organized by the Foundation for Media Professionals corroborated my views. He said, “A combination of ‘hypernationalistic ventilation and cut-throat competition’ among TV channels had fanned the demand for the arrest of Arundhati Roy, when the Home Minister himself was not enthusiastic. A ‘pusillanimous political leadership’ had played along, fearing to say in public (that it is not keen on prosecuting Roy) what it admitted in private. Illiberalism was on the rise because of this.” On the other hand, online comments under news stories about Roy’s speech were often obscene, with jingoistic male users calling her unmentionable curse words.
Eventually, the ruling Congress party did not charge Roy with sedition because her speech was not inciting people to violence, a prerequisite for a sedition judgment, according to the Supreme Court. This was a relief, because not long before, authorities sentenced another activist - Dr Binayak Sen - to life imprisonment for sedition, even though incitement to violence was not alleged. His crime was medically treating armed revolutionaries who are generally from neglected tribal backgrounds in the state of Chhattisgarh. Incidentally, Roy was nearly booked for sedition previously in Chhatisgarh too, for her speech in support of the same revolutionary groups. Human Rights Watch has asked the Indian parliament to repeal ‘the colonial-era sedition law’ which it said ‘was employed to silence peaceful political dissent.’
Recently, when faced with the decision of publishing videos online featuring women protesting against brutal State repression of civilian dissent in Manipur, I consulted a lawyer because I felt that I could be putting myself at risk. It struck me that I would feel safer if I perceived our country to be a healthier democracy, where unknown citizens like myself need not shy away from speaking out for the voiceless. But now I thought to myself: if a world-famous writer like Arundhati Roy can be attacked for voicing her opinion, what protection can I expect for making a video or writing an article that goes against the State or populist views?
Then there was another twist in the nightly news drama. Women activists from the right-wing Hindu party called the BJP attacked Arundhati Roy’s house in Delhi. In Roy’s own words: "In what is becoming a common political strategy, officials outsourced their displeasure to the mob; the women’s wing of the [BJP] staged a demonstration outside my house, calling for my arrest. Television vans arrived in advance to broadcast the event live. The murderous Bajrang Dal [another right-wing party] have announced that they are going to 'fix' me with all the means at their disposal, including by filing criminal charges against me in different courts across the country."
How unfortunate that these women activists subscribe to the Hindu right-wing agenda of identity politics, which pits the Hindu majority of the country against Kashmir, populated by Muslims, the largest minority group in India. By extension, the majority (read Hindu) population in India would probably support the Indian occupation of Kashmir rather than admit defeat to majority Muslim archrival Pakistan. All the years of cricket rivalry and terrorism (both male-dominated coincidentally) have driven a deeper wedge between the two communities and the two nations. People tend to forget that our two countries were one nation only 60 years ago and don’t realise that the Partition supported by the British colonisers was probably a parting shot at long-term divisiveness, and hence weakness of the Indian subcontinent.
On the contrary, I think women should be inspired by Arundhati Roy’s selfless bravery, speaking up against powerful establishments like the Indian State. Anyone who has read her essays knows that she is educated enough to succeed without needing to resort to publicity from her political views. Women should admire her level of sensitivity for the oppressed and her insight on the links between economics and politics in the new globalised world. It is a shame that one who is so well-respected for her insight abroad, is under-appreciated in her own country. Perhaps Arundhati spoke on behalf of Kashmiris because the conflict has been going on for so long that it is under-reported and consequently, largely ignored. A lady professor of English at Kashmir University said that Arundhati Roy was holding a mirror up so India sees what’s going on in Kashmir and that she should be honoured for encouraging democracy.
Najeeb Mubarki, a Kashmiri journalist working with the Economic Times in New Delhi believes that the Indian media cannot be free so long as Kashmir is not. By calling the Kashmiri struggle an unfinished agenda of Partition and labeling separation as a fundamentalist Islamic demand that has little support in the Valley, let alone Jammu and Ladakh [the other two regions in the same state], the Indian media has acted as a ‘PR department of the government.’ Indian media reports about killings by security forces are preceded by qualifications that somehow suggest that the Kashmiris asked for it, he said. It is a bad marriage and the Kashmiris want out; the media would be doing its duty if it persuaded the rest of India about the inevitability of divorce.
Now, if I may, here is my take on the actual speech that caused the media flare-up. One of her contentious remarks was that ‘India became a colonizing power the moment it became independent.’ I think it’s not easy for elite Indians in Delhi to acknowledge that India is not wanted in Kashmir, that the army is perceived poorly and that Kashmiris feel colonized by India. India is also asserting its domination by not allowing the plebiscite that Kashmiris were promised at the time of accession, on the grounds that Pakistan hasn’t withdrawn its forces from the part of Kashmir that it administers. The government always boasts that democratic elections take place in Kashmir but Kashmiris rightly argue that elections do not replace the need for a plebiscite since people are not given a choice to opt for independence.
Arundhati Roy is also right to bring attention to the fact that Kashmir is one of the most militarized zones in the world with 700,000 soldiers in the valley, which is a ratio of one soldier for every 20 Kashmiris. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (criticized by Human Rights Watch) that has been in force for a decade now is another reason that Kashmiris are frustrated with India because it allows soldiers to shoot at sight and they are perceived to have abused these undemocratic privileges with impunity. The army is even rumoured to be instigating violence in Kashmir to justify its expensive presence there. A boatman told two of my friends who were visiting tourists in Kashmir recently, that he believes they fire rounds of ammunition to stir up trouble when there hasn’t been any in a while. Whether this is true or not, it reflects the public sentiment and explains why Kashmiris want independence, even if it leaves them vulnerably sandwiched between India and Pakistan. When I visited Srinagar in 2008, it was an unfamiliar experience right from the time I left the airport. First, my mobile phone wouldn’t work although it did everywhere else in India. Text messages were banned for fear of instigating violence. Most of all, I was struck by the over-bearing military presence at every turn. On our eight-hour-long drive from Srinagar to Leh across the state, we stopped at least eight times so that the Australian tourist in our shared car could register himself.
Supporting resistance does not mean that one is sleeping with the enemy. Supporting resistance can mean that we acknowledge ours is not a perfect system but is one that can be improved upon. Women are natural peacemakers and I think educated, urban, women on both sides of the border can do a lot more to challenge the status quo in Indian and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. We should not shy away from engaging in public debate, understanding history, contemporary politics and making up our own minds. We must take the lead in finding better solutions for preserving our fragile democracy and understand that any erosion of fundamental rights means that we are surrendering rights that were extremely difficult to gain in the first place.
It bodes very badly that the few people who dare to speak out are not even supported by educated political moderates. It is difficult to be the lone dissenter in a room but we must speak up to unethical media if we feel that they are not acting in the public’s interest. Blog, blog, and then blog some more. Share your views, show that you care. Women activists need to network, join forces, and defend one another. We must stand behind brave women like Arundhati Roy and never allow speakers like her to be ‘dismissed as irrelevant’. Everyone may not agree with her, but she is anything but irrelevant. We should also send right-wing political groups the signal that attacks against free speech will not be tolerated.
We need rational, peace-loving, energetic leaders who are not afraid to stand up to the army as well as extremist politicians. We must question policies like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and bring to justice any rapists and murderers who may be hiding behind their uniforms. Let us show Kashmiris that we support them although we may not be there or be in positions of power… If we add our voice against their victimisation, the tide may turn someday. If we could all let go of our individual identities of gender, religion, birthplace, and realise that culturally we are not all that different, we could go a long way towards solving mutual development issues in the region.
As a rising economic power in the world, we desperately need political stability. This cannot be achieved by silencing voices for justice. We need education and opportunities to reach the poor tribal communities in Chhatisgarh, rather than trying to mask uprisings by imprisoning free thinkers on sedition charges. I hope the state will work towards ensuring equitable distribution of resources to avoid public dissent rather than using brute force against the poor and hungry. The government and army need to improve their human rights record and the media need to be responsible watchdogs defending freedoms in order to keep the government and army in check.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.