The Risks in Modi Government's Attempts to Corner Arundhati Roy

It is difficult being a champion of democracy when a Booker award-winning writer is treated as a terror sympathiser.

5 min read

The problem with politics is that what one perceives as a threat to someone may be viewed by the person in question as an opportunity. One wonders if Ms Arundhati Roy, fiery writer and human rights activist, and frequent commentator on India's social order and politics, is in that kind of a situation.

After the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Vinai Kumar Saxena, gave his sanction last week to prosecute Ms Roy for a statement she had made in 2010 on Kashmir, tongues wagged and eyebrows went up on what would happen to her.

Given that she has been accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), framed to fight terrorism and considered draconian for its omnibus powers, theoretically, there is every chance that the writer can be hauled up or detained.

However, her controversial speech, and the context in which it was said and understood, are such that all indications are that she may actually enjoy all the attention being showered on her by a nearly forgotten event where she said what she said.

“Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this,” she was quoted as saying at a stormy, day-long conference in 2010, organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners.

It brought back memories of my own brief meeting with Arundhati Roy in 2003. I had bumped into her at a hotel breakfast in Hyderabad, where we both were staying. I was there to cover a global business conference. She was there to silently stand with the left-wing Asian Social Forum, and I met her thanks to a mutual friend who was accompanying her.

"I am here to promote globalisation," I joked candidly as I spoke of my day ahead. "I also believe in globalisation — of human rights," she replied with her disarming trademark smile that is quite the opposite of her words that critics sometimes describe as incendiary.

There is a whole load of technicalities surrounding her Kashmir remarks that make it a legal minefield. My reading is that it will not travel far in courts and will figure more in the confrontationist politics that has become an everyday affair in New Delhi.


Consider this: Ms Roy is well capable of portraying an act of legal prosecution as political persecution.

First up, one is not sure if a 14-year-old statement can be exhumed all of a sudden and resurrected as a valid case of sedition, which is itself a debated offence in a post-colonial world. Notably, as news reports observed, the Delhi Police did not take any action in response to a complaint that alleged sedition soon after the 2010 conference "in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law."

Here's the catch.

We call the better part of the border in Jammu and Kashmir separating India and Pakistan as the Line of Control (Loc). India claims the part of Kashmir including the towns of Muzaffarabad and Gilgit as its own, although it is under Pakistani occupation. As far as India is concerned, that is the disputed part. Internationally, if you follow Western media, Kashmir, including the Indian side of the region, is considered to be disputed.

The British left a lasting impression of their divide-and-rule legacy through the Kashmir problem. What Ms Roy was discussing involves an international diplomatic viewpoint, though much water has flown down the Jhelum. When I covered the Kargil War in 1999, I was at first near what is called the IB, or International Border, on the southern Jammu side, and later near the LoC on the northern Kashmir side, which is literally a minefield. Landmines along the mountainous LoC silently, some of which must still be around, stand in sinister memory of the three wars India and Pakistan fought over Kashmir before the Kargil conflict.

Messy diplomatic legacies are not the stuff you want to discuss in Indian courtrooms. Given Ms Roy's extraordinary capacity to marshal facts and laws, any attempt to try her in Indian courts would only provide her an opportunity to further air her views.

The second option, the kind of which the BJP-led Narendra Modi government is so fond of using, is to detain her and launch a loud propaganda offensive against her kind. That might help domestic politics, but not Modi's international statesmanship.

With controversies chasing his government after diplomatic spats with Canada and the US over the alleged use of Indian intelligence agents to target Khalistani separatists baiting India from Western countries, Modi's diplomats have their hands full. Can India afford to make more Western adversaries in the name of defending its sovereignty?

With China illegally occupying a large swathe of land on the Ladakh side of Kashmir, it seems unlikely that Modi would want to add a controversy over Ms Roy to his to-do list. Ms Roy has the support of a number of international rights organisations that may lobby a bunch of sympathetic ambassadors based in Delhi.

Modi's allies in his new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government may also not play ball in an effort to corner Ms Roy beyond scoring brownie points in domestic politics. Both Janata Dal (United) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) would want Modi to focus on efforts to help their states economically rather than draw them into a geopolitical quagmire.

TDP leader Nara Chandrababu Naidu, in effect, represents the strongest friend of Washington among India's chief ministers. He was the pro-Western chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh hosting international investors when I met Ms Roy in Hyderabad. From all indications, Naidu would want India to be on the right (read: American) side of globalisation (be it capitalism or human rights).

Modi 3.0, which is widely believed as an avatar of the prime minister softened by coalition pressures and impending assembly elections in vital states, may have to rely on what one might call a low-intensity ideological warfare against the likes of Arundhati Roy, to target local liberals in TV debates, rather than risk a messy courtroom or diplomatic confrontation.

It is difficult being a champion of democracy when the occasional act of a maverick speech by a Booker award-winning writer is treated as the handiwork of a terror sympathiser. From all indications, Narendra Modi does believe that discretion is the better part of nationalistic valour — unless there is an unpredictable strategy lurking somewhere.

You never know with Modi.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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