The Phantom Trial of Arundhati Roy

By seeking to silence Roy, Modi 3.0 is establishing a sense of continuity in how it will react to criticism.

7 min read

India ranks 159th out of the 180 nations polled for the Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders – sandwiched firmly between Turkey and the UAE.

Perhaps it is fitting that the ruling establishment, having delivered a precarious electoral hat-trick, wants to go after Arundhati Roy – one of its most successful writers, activists, and public intellectuals.  

So rattled at the near loss of its pride and incumbent status is the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that it has chosen to bring out of cold storage a 14-year-old investigation to reassert its place and muscular rhetoric. 

India’s newly elected parliamentarians have only just been sworn in, and one of the first spectacles the government seems to want to orchestrate is the butchering of free speech at the altar of democracy by initiating criminal proceedings against one of its sharpest and finest critics. 

Incarcerated Under the ‘Mighty Rule of Law’

Some have dubbed the resurrection of this frozen non-case as headline management and textbook tactics of distraction to divert citizens’ attention away from the alleged stock market scam, the NEET scam, the terror attacks in Jammu, and the climate and heat emergency that north and central India are going through.  

Either way, for a vishwaguru with aspirations to be the third largest economy in the world – that has also self-anointed itself as the mother of democracy – even if nobody asked, it makes sense then for such a perilously-held-together government to go back to its favourite antinational banquet of profiling and arresting its dissidents.

India has, after all, seen an illustrious laundry list branding any citizen that has dared criticise the government in the last 10 years as anti-national.

First, it was students and universities they branded with the help of prime-time television studios that aligned with the government as ‘tukde-tukde gang’ and ‘urban naxals’. The NDA has made an example of Umar Khalid, their poster boy for crushing student dissent, who’s been behind bars without a trial for more than 1,300 days.

Student leaders like Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita of Pinjra Tod continue to appear in court despite being out on bail for their alleged role in the Delhi riots.

This, even as Gulfisha Fatima, Sharjeel Imam, and Kashmiri civil society members Khurram Parvez and Irfan Mehraj, and many of the Bhima Koregaon case continue to remain incarcerated.  

Then, there were Muslim women who led the movement against the CAA who were deemed anti-national.

India’s farmers who led an organised movement against the farm bills that were brought in without consultation were branded Khalistani in an effort to discredit their democratic right to oppose the legislation.

Standup comics, academics, priests – everybody got a dose of the mighty hand of the "rule of law."

There’s No Humbling the Incumbent

In the last decade, hundreds of journalists have been arrested, detained, interrogated, served noticed, and raided. The sheer exodus of young, middle-career journalists from the media space has been alarming in the context of shrinking media freedom.

The list of ‘seditious and antinational’ journalists in the NDA 3.0 may continue to grow.  

One expected the cloud of fear, paranoia, self-censorship, raids, arrests, intimidation, threats over civil society, the media, and the culture industries to finally lift, making way for a glimpse of light post the latest general election verdict.

The electoral mandate for the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) – with a mere 240 seats – should have humbled the party, what with its coalition partners – the Nitish Kumar-led Rashritya Janta Dal (RJD) and the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – gaining a fair and mighty place at the negotiating table. Sans their support, the BJP risked losing all legitimate ground to stake a claim at forming a government at the Centre.   

And yet, heavy is the head that wears a crown made of borrowed jewels from coalition partners.


A Continuity in the Govt’s Reactions to Criticism

Even if election results brought a renewed sense of optimism for India’s continually diminishing and malnourished civil society – in that a weakened NDA 3.0 may be forced to walk the path of consensus-building and show greater tolerance – that wishful thinking is fast beginning to disappear and is already being replaced by an excessively familiar fatigue. 

There were glimmers of hope that a bulk of the corporate-owned Indian media ecosystem may begrudgingly return from a far-right to a right-of-centre position – even as the media is supposed to be dispassionate, objective, and neutral; that India may make some recovery from the plummeting democratic backsliding depths it had been descending into through the last decade. 

Quite the contrary, the slippery NDA 3.0 government’s appointee Lieutenant Governor of Delhi VK Saxena green-lighting the prosecution of Roy in a 14-year-old investigation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) reeks of its continued attempt at governance by stealth.

The original complaint had named four accused parties – writer Arundhati Roy, Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and former professors Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani and Sheikh Showkat Hussain. Two of them – Ali Shah Geelani and Syed Abdul Geelani – have died since the original complaint was filed in 2010.  

By seeking to silence Roy, Modi 3.0 is establishing a sense of continuity in how it will react to criticism.


What About Arundhati Roy Scares the Govt?

Having rolled up their sleeves and readied on their marks, the Opposition and civil society will now assert themselves a lot more firmly.

Armed with much greater lucidity and courage of conviction, they will aspire for the return of a widened democratic spirit and the newly carved space for dissent, free speech, and holding power accountable.  

The imminent five years will hopefully see greater contestations over the limits of free speech, expression, democratically organised nonviolent expressions of dissent, consultative dialogue, and the influencing of public opinion.

The courts are likely to step in and rescue civility, common sense, and democratic ideals far more unabashedly.

But what is it about Roy’s writing that scares governments, heads of state, ideologues, political parties, big corporations, oligarchs, the state apparatus, religious zealots, bigots and dictators, and even many liberals?  The simple answer is her refusal to be silenced in the face authoritarianism. 

The chronology of events in Amit Shah retaining the Ministry of Home Affairs for the second time and the LG sanctioning this investigation within days of the NDA 3.0 forming government is clear to anyone who cares to notice.

Even then, that Roy had characterised the Modi-led government iterations as fascist, authoritarian, and a threat to democracy in her essays, public speeches, and interventions over the years, and dubbed Amit Shah a ‘single-string instrument’ who can strike only one note and that is ‘fear’ to The Guardian in a scathing profile by Atul Dev earlier this summer may be the least of reasons why the Delhi Police may have acted as swiftly as they have in reanimating this case.  


Roy 'Who Must Pick Sides'

During the anti-incumbency and anti-corruption wave that booted UPA 2.0 out of power, the most liberal among liberals – such as political theorists and writers like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Gurcharan Das, Ashutosh Varshney – fell for the fallacy of the promise Modi held for India back in 2014 just before he first came to power.

Roy, unlike the liberal brigade and many others in India’s civil society, never bought into this detergent-washed image of Modi. That Roy has, in the 10 years since Modi occupied the PM’s office, consistently critiqued the excesses and leaks of his style and intent of governance, the continued diminishing of liberties and freedoms, the complete capture of media in the last few years, the jailing of its thinkers, activists, and dissidents, and the decaying of public institutions.

Through her essays – a form for which she was most recently decorated with the 45th European Essay Prize – Roy has relentlessly worked at offering piercing and foretold diagnoses about our ailing times. She has consistently stood for those at the receiving end of Modi’s governance by stealth, by those affected by the snatching away of their civil liberties – the Bhima Koregaon 16; jailed students; the women against CAA, NRC; the farmers of north India that protested against the farm laws.

She has also critiqued the heavy-handedness and lack of empathetic thinking for India’s working classes and poor when the Modi government announced its first lockdown during the COVID pandemic – these are now all badges of honour Roy wears with humility and pride in equal measure. 

Roy’s literary clairvoyance has shaped the political, literary, and social fabric of India in enormous ways.

Her impact on the form of the political essay; on the limits and limitlessness of fiction; her lifework as the writer as a political being ‘who’ – in her words – ‘must pick sides’ will all go on to become a critical archive of our times. 

That she remains one of the most internationally visible, heard, platformed, available, translated, published, awarded, decorated, and articulate thinkers of our times is why the government is teasing to go after her.

The government gesturing to clip her wings is aimed at supposedly puncturing her reach, but in equal measure also reaffirm its might and muscle.    

Roy’s literary prowess, the urgency of her nonfiction prose and the sheer clarity with which she speaks truth to power aside, she is but a placeholder for a spectrum of worldviews that stand in stark contrast to the kind of majoritarian India that the BJP has to offer to a billion-plus diverse, thinking and discerning citizens.

Should the NDA take this to its full conclusion and jail Roy and Professor Hussain as under-trials – even as the chargesheet for this case is far from being drafted, let alone being filed – they would have heralded the assault on imagination itself.

Little do they know; it will only sharpen her pen and brighten the light under which she writes. 

(Chirag Thakkar is a publishing professional, writer, and editor based in Delhi. He tweets @chiraghthakkar. The views expressed here are entirely his own and do not represent that of an organisation nor those of The Quint.)

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