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Why Women in India Should Defend Arundhati Roy

A still from a WAVE video about Kashmir's 'half-widows' - women whose husbands have been abducted by the Indian army, never to return.

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.

Comments

Farona's picture

Arundharti’s speech made

Arundharti’s speech made int’l headlines, and someone who have been closely following stores from Kashmir and the conflict – I was genuinely surprised to hear what she manage to say, she is extremely courageous !

Stark difference of opinion among women is healthy, but to attack her house shows desperation.
“Sedation law” sounds interesting, would love to know more. Has anyone politically controversial ever been charged?

You beautifully expressed yourself in succinct manner ;- ) I feel your passion! like Arundharti, you have taken a step forward ; - )

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Farona.

Sedition law exist in a lot of ex-British colonies I believe. They were originally meant to keep people from speaking against the colonisers. But now governments seem to be using the law to silence political dissent. Certainly, the Binayak Sen case I cited in my story is a recent example of this from India.

Farona's picture

Ahhh...has there been any

Ahhh...has there been any attempts to repel or change the sedation law?

Sounds like sedation law is pretty much used to silence dissent views rather than speaking directly against the establishment. I learned a lot from this post ;- ) thank you !

sapnashahani's picture

No I haven't heard of any

No I haven't heard of any attempts to repeal the sedition law. Unfortunately, in our democracy, the political party that were to suggest the law's repealing would be targeted by other parties as un-patriotic and hence they may lose votes. That's why the parliament would not be keen to repeal this law.

Glad you liked my post :)
Sapna.

Nusrat Ara's picture

What can I say. She was

What can I say. She was booked for sedition because of speaking in favour of my people. She is an important voice and a loud one for that.

Thanks for writing on the issue.

Love

Nusrat

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Nusrat. Actually, she wasn't booked, but the government was threatening to, before P Chidambaram, the Home Minister announced that they would not book her (probably because they realised there was no case since she wasn't stirring people towards violence, which the Supreme Court had said previously, was required for a sedition charge).

But yes, she stood up and spoke as a non-Kashmiri and the fact that she was attacked for it, is what prompted me to write this article. Let's hope more non-Kashmiris are inspired to speak up and take action,
Sapna.

Iffat Gill's picture

Dear Sapna, Nice write-up!

Dear Sapna,

Nice write-up! Arundhati Roy is am inspirational writer and I did follow a discussion on a social media platform, where I noticed that people who admired Ms.Roy previously turned against her within no time after her statement on Kashmir. I have to say, it is very brave and courageous of her to stand up for such an issue.

Best.

Iffat Gill

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks MariposaAsia! It's a

Thanks MariposaAsia! It's a very sensitive subject with a lot of misinformation around about Kashmir thanks to the tight control of media by the government. So it's not really ordinary people's fault but we have to work towards providing more information online that presents the true picture,
Sapna.

Potter's picture

Arundharti achieved

Arundharti achieved international recognition through her fiction and has gone on to be a consistent voice of conscience on pressing social issues. Kashmir needs all the supportive voices it can garner. This conflict has gone on far too long. Thanks for adressing Kashmir and thanks for your endorsement of Roy's efforts.

sapnashahani's picture

Thank you Jana!

Mola's picture

thank you!!

Thank you Sapnashahani for your eloquent support of Roy and other outspoken women like her. Your life experience and knowledge of history show your intelligence and bravery.

It is an inspiration to know that women like you are out there and continue to fight for the betterment of your country and the world!! And, it is an honor to support you in your work as a correspondent!!

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks for your kind comments

Thanks for your kind comments Mola! It was a somewhat risky piece for me to write but I feel encouraged by comments like yours :)

Maura Conlon's picture

I learned so much

Very inspiring piece. And what a role model is Arundhati Roy for all women. I am inspired to read more of her work.
Women are the peacemakers. Your story so captures that and provides such an important historical background to the issues discussed! And how one woman's voice can charge through the resistance!

I am wondering if you posted your online videos of women leaders protesting? It raises such an important point for journalists working online, that is, the choice one makes to "broadcast" material that may be controversial. It is a decision so many women leaders/citizen journalists must make and not lightly!

I appreciate learning all that I did in your inspiring story!

Cheers,
Maura Conlon
Portland, Oregon USA

Maura Conlon-McIvor, Ph.D
author, founder and social change psychologist
legacybeyondborders.com
celebrate life/tell your story/live your heart's legacy
mauraconlon.com

sapnashahani's picture

Thank you Maura!

It's so wonderful as a new writer to hear such thoughtful comments about my work, and I feel encouraged to write more articles like this one. Kashmir is a complex issue and I myself was very unclear about the history so this article gave me the opportunity to research and reproduce what I learned along with current political context.

Yes, we did upload a video about women protesting which you can watch on our website here:
http://www.waveindia.org/videopl.php?vid=143

as well as another video that we were worried about getting in trouble for - showing Indian security forces inadvertently killing civilians in Manipur (north-east India)... and you can watch it on our website at http://www.waveindia.org/videopl.php?vid=248

Our platform is a community media one, so we felt that we must support our women videobloggers who want to publish little known information like this which is ravaging their homeland!

All the best :)
Sapna.

Singmila Shimrah's picture

Hi Sapna I have been away

Hi Sapna

I have been away from Pulsewire for long. Today i log in and read ur post. What more can we say? You've mentioned everything so clear about the voice of dissent for truth in India. I am very happy to read about your take on Arundhati Roy. She is a woman of courage and strength!! I applaud you for speaking the truth!! Many of the mainstream dare to do that.. The situation is nonetheless different from Nagas or northeast region how the Indian government have failed miserably and the region is still colonized with military might. I would like to send you one video on 'Nagas: the other side of silence'.

I would like to introduce you the Naga guy, who has completed mass media, so that he can also contribute in ur wave. Maybe you can send me ur email id and i'll wirte a mail to both of you.

Take care
Singmi

sapnashahani's picture

Wow, thank you Singmi!

That would be fantastic if you could introduce me to your friend who's made the video. I will send my email address to your inbox...

We are very keen to have more videos from the northeast and other parts of the country that are being bullied by the massive army forces against dissenters... Will look forward to interacting with you more :)
Sapna.

Dear Sapna,

I love the line "It is a shame that one who is so well-respected for her insight abroad, is under-appreciated in her own country." I think this is true in many cases around the world. People, let alone nations, don't like to have a mirror held up to their own actions.

I also think it is very important to keep writing about Kashmir, and to tap into the voices on the ground. Rarely do we hear from anyone other than politicians, what is actually going on there.

I would love to know a little bit more about what happened with your videos and your experience working with the widows of Kashmir.

Keep up the great work!

R

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Rachael!

You're right, Kashmir is a very important area for us to work. In fact, I'm speaking with an ex-VOF journalist who lives there to help us find another NGO partner to promote WAVE there.

We continue to show the half-widows video wherever we can to raise awareness, but I hope we grow to incorporate action pledges with our videos in the future. So that people would be able to sign a petition that our NGO partner submits to the government, to let them know people are watching.

Thanks for all your support, I will certainly keep writing now that I am skilled in this area :)
Sapna.

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Fabulous~

I love to hear that you are working with Nusrat! The two of you together is sure to get things started! Were you also able to speak with the 10x10 project yet? I think they could go a long way towards promoting WAVE and Kashmir issues in regards to women.

Kind regards,

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

sapnashahani's picture

:)

Yes Nusrat seems wonderful. No I haven't spoken to 10x10 yet... I sent my mobile # to Justin and he said he'd call when he got to India but I haven't heard from him yet. I just sent a check-in email though. Thanks for the reminder!
Sapna.

warona's picture

Strength upon strength!

Dear Sapna,

Yes my sister! you can say that again & again ,thats very important indeed you cannot afford being silenced.Voices must raised in order to achieve in life, even as a country, or a community. " 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" Great sister! Otherwise the suffeing will never cease.Women like Arundhati Roy are rare, we need such people.

Well done sister!

All the best

Warona

"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

sapnashahani's picture

Thank you Warona :)

Thank you for reading and for commenting! The support is very encouraging, and I hope Arundhati Roy hears enough of this too...
Sapna.

Rita Banerji's picture

Why it's not a good idea

Sapna,

I've supported Arundhati's stand on many issues and I've had many criticisms of things she's said as well. If she had made this speech about Kashmir in the 80s, I would have supported it. But ever since the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, that entire region -- including Pakistan and Kashmir has become a hot-bed of the Taliban and other such outfits, and many have died from that too. If India pulls out of Kashmir today -- I can guarantee you we will see a repeat of the blood-bath we saw in the after-math of 1947. Whatever Hindu's are left in Kashmir will be slaughtered. There will be counter-attacks in India, and there will be counter-attacks to that in Pakistan and maybe even Bangladesh. Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah made a massive mistake in 1947. They were blind-sighted. We have our lesson from history. It is important to keep it in mind.

Rita Banerji
www.ritabanerji.com

Rita,
You may be right but I still support the idea that Kashmiris should be allowed to decide that for themselves in the referendum they were promised. State and media machinery need to inform the public of the implications of India leaving Kashmir, and then they should be allowed to decide for themselves. Hopefully, if the state invests in PR as opposed to increased defence expenditure, Kashmiris will choose to continue as part of India. Thanks for your comment!
Sapna.

Ms. Asha Purna Kachru's picture

well i have read sapna's

well i have read sapna's defence of Arundhati, and i may inform her that i was a great fan of AR till i came to know of her alliances with the Seperatists. this bcoz as a sensitive person i expected from her a little more reflection of the life situation of all Kashmiris, not just the ones living in the valley and dominating the whole Kashmir debate worldwide with their minority mindset. six lacs Kashmiri Hindus are forced to live away from their homes in different regions of India, not suited to their body requirements, particularly the old. the homes in which their foremothers and -fathers lived and and gave the region the spirit and the culture it is famous for, namely kashmiriyat, a type of spirituality which accommodates all religions, hindus, muslims and buddhists besides various hill people's cultures. one must always keep in mind that even today's Muslim Kashmiris are actually forcibly converted Kashmiris by the Muslim invaders, who have invaded Kashmir more than five times till today. the Kashmiri Hindus have lived through these five exoduses peacefully, but this last one has been a bit too harsh, due to the added role of Pakistan and of the increasing Islamic fundamentalism worldwide, with its negative repercussions. so much that i would like to include AR in my list of ideologues who have meant a lot for me in my long life (I am seventy now!), but sorry such Indians I cannot accept.and the whole issue of independence for Kashmiris (actually it is only the Muslims who want it) is irrelevant as it is not the times when the kings ruled and people were unhappy with the rulers. now it is a democracy ruling Kashmir with so much support from the big brother India, either we openly accept that it is Islam that guides our decision making process and we would like the Khilafat/ sharia rule to prevail and so we want independence from India or else just stop this waste of energies, resources and hate mongering of one against the other. the only problem with the first alternative is that we non-Muslims dont believe in a religion dictated politics. we want to keep the two apart and hence will never ever allow such a system to prevail in Kashmir. so either all of us together follow a democratic system and stop talking about plebiscite and the like people like AR support, also because itis taking place all the time, though with difficulties, or else those who dont like India at all, they can move over to Pakistan. i personally would however like us all Kashmiris to live together again as before but with improved governance and development of the whole region, valley, jammu, ladhak etc. let us concentrate on that!

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