Author Arundhati Roy has been making Indian headlines – and causing mild hysteria – in the last few days after comments she made about the disputed region of Kashmir.
I say author, because that was the first context within which I encountered her, reading the brilliant The God of Small Things for my degree, before moving on to her other non-fiction activism works. I’ve been lucky enough to hear her speak, and am consistently struck by her eloquence in articulating potent and persuasive arguments about power relations between a state and its people, with other states, and the ideology insidious to both.
It seems to me that her work is special because it not only translates beautifully from an Indian context to a ‘Western’ one, but makes the issues very tangible in an entirely unpretentious way. I would hope also that the social and economic causes about which she speaks – her full-time occupation after her sole work of fiction in 1997 – have benefitted from the additional attention a Booker-prize-winner inevitably bestows.
I could pick any one of two dozen quotes to evidence my admiration for her writing, but here’s a particularly memorable extract describing the euphoria around India’s successful nuclear tests in 1998:
“’Explosion of Self-Esteem’, ‘Road to Resurgence’, ‘A Moment of Pride’, these were the headlines in the papers in the days following the nuclear tests. Reading the papers, it was often hard to tell when people were referring to Viagra (which was competing for second place on the front pages) and when they were talking about the bomb…” (2002, 16)
I can’t think of many writers that encapsulate rabid nationalism, patriarchal militarism and the argument for disarmament in so few sentences.
Since winning the Booker, Roy’s acquired a reputation for troublemaker-in-chief. After being feted as a national hero upon her return home – an uncomfortable experience – she’s since waded into all manner of debates.
These are all deemed rather unbecoming for a cultural icon to muddy herself with, and include having criticised the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, drawn attention to the travesty of the Sardar Sarovar Sam project, spoken out against the treatment of ‘untouchables’ at the bottom of the caste system, spent time with Maoists rebels in the depths of India’s forests, and having a pop at the wider ‘free market at all costs’ ideology that dictates the relationship between India and the West.
On the penultimate point, Lenin’s Tomb says (and I largely agree):
“… Roy’s approach to the issue has stimulated some debate …the criticism is that she is naive about the politics of the Maoists and thus uncritically celebrates their resistance without recognising the limitations of their outlook and methods, and the damage they can do the popular movements that Roy supports.
Nevertheless, whatever the weaknesses of Roy’s approach, she has used her celebrity to champion the oppressed, to lay into the Hindutva reactionaries, attack the Gandhian pieties of the liberal bourgeoisie which relies on the right-wing and the state do its dirty work, and force these issues into the capitalist media.”
No wonder she’s had pretty much everything thrown at her from accusations of treasons through to death threats. Not quite the literary darling of the South Asian/postcolonial fiction wave of the 90s that the Booker panel probably hoped.
Anyway, it seems that her latest comments have inflamed sensitivities, and I was struck by the vitriol spewing from Indian tweeters and commenters:
“Arundhati is a fake who bedded her way up to fame”
“…has she ever thought of the plight of women in Kashmir if it is separated from India ? The Muslim fundamentalists will impose Sharia there , and even Ms. Roy would not be spared from wearing a chador or even a burqua…Is this the kind of freedom that Ms. Roy want to bring to Kashmir?”
“I don’t know what Arundhati Roy said but I will tell you this: She had no business saying it.”
That’s right woman, get thee to a nunnery! Or some suitably nationalistically Hindu equivalent. Ashram anyone?
As for the offending speech there is no full transcript around yet, though it has been handed in for examination by authorities so that they may deem whether or not it qualifies for the charge of sedition. It seems the most offensive section currently in the public realm is the following quote:
“Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this.”
A controversial statement, but hardly an incitement on which to base imprisonment. The Times of India outlines the history of the region, pointing out that technically India-as-we-know-it was an entirely arbitrary entity drawn up one night in August 1947. They go on to say though, that under this argument, a number of other states or districts could also legitimately be up for debate also. As this opens a can of worms, it suggests that it’s best we peg Roy’s comments to her simply getting muddled up.
At the moment the area is caught in a seemingly perpetual tug-o’-war between India and Pakistan, each with their own claim to it. Incidentally, the Kashmir conflict dates back to the year before the Israel/Palestine one was born, but has received far less international attention. An additional but significant thorn is China, who is also in the picture and has its own interests.
In terms of how this Roy/Kashmir saga plays into the wider political agenda, William Connelly usefully describes the creation of identity thus:
“…seldom, if ever, does a policy of repression or marginalisation simply present itself as such. It typically presents itself as a response to an evil posing an independent threat to goodness or as a regrettable structural necessity built into the order of things.”(2002, 159)
It seems Roy’s main crime was becoming an outspoken advocate of ‘azadi’ or ‘freedom’ for Kashmiris. From the backlash I’ve seen online, it appears that most have bought into the idea that India is doing the right and moral thing by protecting Kashmiris from the inherent evil corruption of Islamic Pakistan.
In fact, as one aforementioned commenter points out, think of the women who are being saved by India’s benevolent care! The irony that this liberation-of-the-oppressed-women argument was used not so long ago by Western colonialists against Indians themselves, escapes them. And that fact that Hindu extremists hardly have a better track record when it comes to gender equality. I shall leave aside the misogynist overtones of many antagonistic comments towards Roy, because they’re not worth elaborating on.
Anyway, it’s near-impossible to say what Kashmiris themselves want, even if they can be categorised as a cogent entity. However a Chatham House paper from earlier this year suggested that the overwhelming opinion was against joining either country, and slightly in favour of independence – an option not currently offered by either country (Bradnock, 2010).
Further, government corruption and human rights abuses were both significantly higher concerns for those on the Indian side of the ‘border’ than those on the Pakistani side. Intriguing stuff, but hardly the near-forgotten plebiscite ordered by the UN; particularly as the survey was based on only a few hundred people in each district.
Nevertheless, it seems the key point of contention for many is not what the Kashmiris want, but whether or not Roy should have spoken out so anti-patriotically. It appears that whilst she’s been largely humoured for a few years, the massive explosion in vitriol – significant enough that even I on my humble laptop here in London now know of the situation – suggests that she’s overstepped the approved mark. Its ‘objectionable’, and shows that there’s ‘too much freedom’, lament government ministers.
It seems that because her interpretation of history runs counter to others, she should be imprisoned for incitement to insurrection in Kashmir. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read elsewhere about their obsession with centralisation and desire to crush dissent, it seems the Indian authorities are managing that all by themselves.
The benefit to politicians in appealing to a coherent national identity is not news to anyone in the UK who’s ever seen the BNP at work, or somewhat less offensive calls to arms from more mainstream figures. Who dare defy the sacrosanct entreaty for the national interest? Very few, apparently. Roy’s speech may well be an act attention-seeking, but what protest or political act isn’t?
I note that the currently argument raging isn’t about the future of those living in Kashmir, but about whether what Roy said was acceptable or not – to this end, one could legitimately argue that her point of view has backfired. A rule of thumb is that to a particular degree, controversy can ignite debate. Time and time again though, campaign and pressure groups have instead come up against a backlash of ‘going too far’. Often it seems to me that invoking this diktat of decorum is simply a way of winning public support against a figure espousing uncomfortable truths.
In a letter to the Times of India, Roy defends herself, asserting that her speech was “fundamentally a call for justice”. So where does freedom of expression become ‘too much’? Here in the UK, we’re called ‘domestic extremists’. In India it seems they’re ‘seditious’. Both are crimes worthy of intimidation of/and incarceration. The powers that be are monopolising the public argument by yet again applying powerful discourse about the nation and her interests.
Freedom of speech and association is at risk here if Roy is actually imprisoned, and though I’ll resist quoting Voltaire, his sentiment remains pertinent. I sincerely hope that she is allowed to continue speaking her mind and questioning things the government preferred she wouldn’t.
I leave you with a final extract from one of her essays, which I think is particularly appropriate. I’ve exchanged ‘the nuclear bomb’ for ‘oppression’:
“If protesting against [oppression] is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth, I own no territory…Immigrants are welcome.” (2002, 19).
Robert W. Bradnock, 2010. Kashmir: Paths to Peace. London: Chatham House.
William E. Connelly, 2002. Identity\Difference, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Arundhati Roy, 2002. ‘The End of Imagination’, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, London: Flamingo.