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India: Roy is often wrong, but she still has rights

By Index on Censorship / 28 October, 2010

Arundhati Roy has been accused of sedition after claiming Kashmir was not part of India. Her comments may be controversial, but the real scandal is the law, says Salil Tripathi


“Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian Government has accepted this.”

These words may exasperate an Indian nationalist, but they are hardly unusual, and if they are considered inflammatory and capable of inciting hatred, then something is indeed rotten in the state of India.

And yet, Arundhati Roy, who won the Booker Prize for her novel, “God of Small Things” in 1997 and who has since become an outspoken critic of the Indian state, now faces a possible prosecution under India’s sedition laws for saying just that at a seminar in New Delhi on October 21.

If sentiments expressed on the Internet — through Twitter and Facebook — are an indicator, her remarks have outraged many Indians. Some want her to be sent away to jail for a long time. One even tweeted that she should face capital punishment, although the maximum punishment under the sedition law is life imprisonment. For its part, the government has not said it will prosecute Roy, although a lawmaker of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party from the northern state of Uttarkhand has filed an official complaint, which could set the stage for some legal action.

That is outrageous. To be sure, Roy is not popular among Indian politicians and with the country’s burgeoning middle class. She is an ardent and fervent critic of the Indian state, which, as per her worldview, can do nothing right. She has spoken out against India’s nuclear policy, has condemned economic liberalisation, decried the treatment of people displaced by the construction of major dams, championed the cause of indigenous people who have been fighting large corporations making incursions into lands that they consider theirs, and cheered on the Maoists, who claim to represent India’s poor, underprivileged underclass.

Initially her dissent was seen as admirable, then as a novelty, and now her view is largely marginalized. She may even have more fans at liberal campuses in the West and among the readers of the Guardian (which faithfully co-publishes her long essays that also appear in Outlook magazine in India, while marginally editing them for a western audience) than in India. But her popularity is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the kind of democracy India is, or wishes to be.

With all its flaws, India is a democracy, and a real democracy has room for dissent. Roy has her critics in India, and those critics are not cheerleaders of “neoliberal capitalistic imperialism”, but thoughtful development experts, historians, and even left-leaning academics. Many have joined issue with her, debating her positions on matters of substance.

That is how India deals with such disputes — through debate and argument, not threats of prosecution. India seems to want it both ways — it wants praise for being a democracy (which it is) but doesn’t want to be criticized when it turns on its own writers and intellectuals (which it does). As the writer Hari Kunzru said in a statement issued by the English PEN:

“India trumpets its status as the world’s largest democracy, but the Indian establishment is notoriously unwilling to listen to dissident voices. Whether or not one agrees with Roy’s positions on Kashmir or the Maoist insurgency in Central India, the issues she raises are important and deserve to be debated. The willingness by elements of the Indian establishment to use the legal system to intimidate critics is lamentable. India’s writers are an important part of the nation’s identity on the international stage. Supporting their right to free speech goes hand in hand with applauding them when they win the Booker prize. One is meaningless without the other.”

It is worth stressing that what Roy has said is not particularly controversial, nor necessarily new. The status of the province that India calls Jammu and Kashmir is a matter of an international dispute. As the state’s chief minister Omar Abdullah — grandson of the state’s most influential politician, the late Sheikh Abdullah — put it recently, at the time of Independence in 1947 Kashmir acceded to India, but did not merge with India. (The BJP condemned that statement and wanted action taken against him at that time). Abdullah’s statement – like Roy’s – is unremarkable, if less assertive than Roy’s. At the time of Independence in 1947, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler Raja Hari Singh did not decide immediately if he wanted his Muslim-majority province to be part of the Muslim state of Pakistan, or the secular state of India. While he dithered, Pakistan-supported tribesmen overran parts of Kashmir. The ruler sought Indian military assistance, which India was willing to provide, if Kashmir agreed to join India. An accession treaty was signed, with the condition that India would hold a plebiscite to formalise the accession, but such a plebiscite was never held. Indians said they could not hold such a plebiscite so long as Pakistan-backed tribesmen remained in the part of Kashmir they had overrun.

Over the past 60 years, India has held several elections in the state, and says those elections have made the plebiscite unnecessary, since Kashmiris have participated in those polls. But some of those elections have been rigged, violence has followed, and the Indian Government has frequently deployed troops or removed inconvenient regional leaders. Since the late 1980s, the mood has soured in the Valley, with more Kashmiris openly seeking azadi, or freedom. India has responded with force. Meanwhile, the legitimate freedom movement has been overshadowed by extremists from Pakistan and elsewhere, who have sought to impose a fundamentalist Islamic identity in a region traditionally inspired by the more liberal Sufi tradition of Islam. And those extremists are hardly pristine freedom fighters: they have terrorised the state’s Hindu population, known as Pandits, many of whom have been forced to leave Kashmir. In the dreadful violence of the past two decades, thousands have died, and there have been appalling instances of extremist violence on one hand (sometimes against women who don’t follow the dress code they’ve prescribed), and of torture and degrading treatment of young men the Indian army has arrested, on the other.

Roy is not the first writer to point out these problems. But her persistent critique of India, which does not acknowledge that other than western democracies, India is among very few countries where a dissident like her can express such contentious views freely, that riles her opponents. A leading Indian broadcaster tweeted on Oct 27: “hope she will finally appreciate the space this democracy gives her and find ONE good thing to say about India.” That is a common Indian lament, but it misses the point: freedom of speech is not a privilege India grants Roy; it is her right.

Writers shouldn’t be expected to toe a specific line; they are not meant to behave. The whole point of freedom of expression is that the right is not restricted even when the person exercising the right says things that are utterly unpalatable, offensive, and outrageous. Writers challenge the boundaries of what is acceptable; they challenge the status quo; they push; they make people see what they don’t want to see. The atrocities committed by the extremists are horrendous – but that doesn’t justify the way the Indian troops have acted.

And yet, it does not mean that whatever Roy says is necessarily right. She is often — some would say usually — wrong. Her valourisation of Maoists, for example, is reprehensible and irresponsible; in her poetic flourishes about the romantic, revolutionary lives the Maoists lead (which she wrote about in her embedded journalism), she did not mention that Maoists have used child soldiers, did not question their show trials which lead to execution of people they consider informers, and didn’t feel appalled that they placed roadside bombs, including sophisticated improvised explosive devices.

But she has the right to express her views. The biggest demonstration of India’s openness is that even a critic as unforgiving as Roy is not prosecuted. Using sedition laws — which the British used against Gandhi — against her is exceptionally myopic. Rather than prosecuting Roy, India should revoke the sedition law, which undermines its democratic credentials.

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27 Responses to India: Roy is often wrong, but she still has rights

  1. Pingback: Arundhati Roy: Goddess of Small People « The Asianist

  2. Pingback: Global Voices на македонски » Индија: Слободa на говор или противдржавно дејство?

  3. Peter The Great Reply

    2 November at 08:42

    Dilip D’Souza hates India and even more so he hates the Hindus. What a miserable life he must be living in India, surrounded by practically everything he hates.Perhaps he should go that paradise of freedom and religious tolerance, the Land Of The Pure, for a better life, since he so often in his writings compares it favourably with ‘beastly’ Hindu India. Talk about gratitude and parasites!

  4. Pingback: Arundhati Roy has stirred up a debate, not about Kashmir, but about herself | Leo Mirani | Tracepk – Latest News From All Over the world

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  6. Pingback: India: Free Speech Or Sedition? :: Elites TV

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  9. sonei Reply

    31 October at 13:24

    hi , i read the article which is according to me doesn’t tell the true story as the space is small. As a person who has been witnessing the complete story through various media sections,journals, articles,editorials referring to sedition,freedom of speech.the following point i have to raise

    1) first its not a freedom of speech regarding a writer Roy but an activist roy who is working with a masses of India influencing people in a same way as a politician maybe we can brand it with altruistic and social cause but doest that give a right to incite views of people without rationally bringing out the other aspect or say counter view

    2)I guess all the intelligent people should read the exact speech given by her and by Extremist Gelani and desecration caused to the nation was with an intention to incite people to join their side rather than protesting against the issues

    3) thirdly she should consider the case of all sections of minority pandits,people from ladakh and then generalize the view

    4)India is a democracy of 60-65 years and still a very young one and being such a diverse country with boundaries all around on basis of culture,caste,creed its integration remains intact is very important. In a country like US ,UK which is already developed and has problems completely diverse from India and they can take upper moralistic view on freedom of speech

    5)Roy is talking about freedom to create an islamist state i don’t know what kind of freedom she asking for them under Sharia law . if that according to her is freedom of people then nothing more can be addressed through her divisive and polemical view

  10. Dilip D'Souza Reply

    30 October at 16:05

    Salil, I am indeed A writer from Bombay, whether I’m THE writer from Bombay is a moot point …

    Don’t get me wrong, I see nothing wrong with the demand for a plebiscite too, and I think any reasonably mature nation would start making moves towards holding one in Kashmir. (This essay I wrote on this theme won me an unexpected prize 2-3 years ago).

    No, I only wanted to point out the letter of the UN resolution, because that’s one reason India has proferred for not holding the plebiscite all these years.

    Keep writing.

  11. Hemant Puthli Reply

    30 October at 06:06

    And BTW, I couldn’t agree more with you when you say:

    “I don’t like the idea of keeping any people as part of the union by force. The end point of such force is a violent civil war. None of us would want things to go down that path.”

  12. Hemant Puthli Reply

    30 October at 06:01

    Salil, thanks for your responses to my comment.

    I agree that the potential for misuse exists. But that is true for most laws in India. And indeed, there is a lot of misuse at various levels.

    That said, it does not obviate the need to have laws. This is about a cost/ benefit analysis, rather, a cost/ cost analysis: the cost of potential misuse if it exists vs. the cost of inability to prosecute potential offenders (who qualify) if it doesn’t. I would prefer a government armed with adequate provisions to prosecute, because I have a modicum of faith our democratic institutions. (True, sometimes I wonder if it is misplaced!) And so I would rather keep the sedition law, in my back-pocket.

    It is also about political reform towards having a government we can trust. Reform towards reduction, if not elimination, of rampant abuse/ misuse of power and the corruption that seems to be ubiquitous in India.

    I don’t think we disagree significantly here – we just seek different solutions!

  13. Peter The Great Reply

    29 October at 23:28

    What is this utterly discredited creature Dilip D’Souza doing on this site? As always trying to fish in sewage.

  14. Salil Tripathi Reply

    29 October at 22:22

    Hello Dilip, thanks, nice to hear from you (assume you are indeed the writer from Bombay)…. Sonia Jabbar pointed out this aspect to me earlier today. I stand corrected on that, but personally I see nothing fundamentally wrong with the demand for a plebiscite, even if it goes beyond the UN resolution. I recognise this might be a deeply unpopular thing to say, especially for those who’d like to stick by the text of the UN resolution, but I don’t like the idea of keeping any people as part of the union by force. The end point of such force is a violent civil war. None of us would want things to go down that path.

  15. Dilip D'Souza Reply

    29 October at 18:12

    While I see nothing wrong with Roy’s recent statements on Kashmir, and I abhor the calls for prosecuting her for sedition, I wanted to make clear one thing about the Kashmir plebiscite.

    You write: “An accession treaty was signed, with the condition that India would hold a plebiscite to formalise the accession, but such a plebiscite was never held. Indians said they could not hold such a plebiscite so long as Pakistan-backed tribesmen remained in the part of Kashmir they had overrun.”

    Actually the plebiscite was not a condition to the accession treaty at all. Instead, it was proposed in the 1948 UN resolution (47 of 1948). That resolution calls explicitly for the Pakistan-backed tribesmen to be withdrawn as a *precondition* — and the first such — to holding a plebiscite.

    (See the text of the resolution, for example, here).

  16. Salil Tripathi Reply

    29 October at 15:27

    Peter, I suggest you read Gail Omvedt’s critique of Roy’s views on dams; B.G. Verghese’s critique of Roy’s views on development; Ramachandra Guha on Roy’s views on environment; and the spirited responses on the website kafila.org about her embedded journalism – when she was a guest of Maoists in their pristine forest wonderland of social justice and egalitarianism, where even children get to hold weapons and fight their parents’ wars. As for my privileges? I have a laptop, I can type. And for decades I’ve championed the rights of those I’ve often disagreed with. How about you?

  17. Peter Simmons Reply

    29 October at 14:46

    The only people critical of Roy are the privileged, because what she says, and believes in, is critical of privilege. And that includes ‘India’s burgeoning middle class’, and ‘thoughtful development experts, historians, and even left-leaning academics’ who can all be, and often are, privileged hypocrits.
    Why do so many view democracy as the only acceptable social system [including this site] as in ‘With all its flaws, India is a democracy’, so what? At best democracy is the dictatorship of the majority over the minority, at worse [and this is most usual] it is the dictatorship of a minority, and party driven, so voters have a choice between powerful and wealthy political parties’ vetted candidates who toe the party line, no real choice then. The poor and powerless rarely feature in democracy, nor have their voice heard, which is where Roy comes in, and the affluent middle-class ‘left-wing’ posers find her too hot to handle. Tough.
    How privileged is Salil Tripathi, and what qualifies her/him to say Arundhati Roy is often wrong?

  18. Salil Tripathi Reply

    29 October at 12:18

    To qualify what I said, following Robert’s thoughts: all societies need laws to protect civilians from violence. Human rights laws also are clear about that. So I’m not at all suggesting that Maoists, Kashmiri extremists, etc should be free to carry out their acts. But the act of speech, for want of a better word, is sacrosanct. Arguments must be settled with counter-arguments, and not through laws like sedition. So unless there’s evidence to show that Geelani is actually a violent insurgent, he should be free to say what he wants. (Even as a violent insurgent, he should be free to *say* what he wants – he should be prosecuted for any violent act he may have committed or be complicit in).

  19. Salil Tripathi Reply

    29 October at 12:15

    Hemant, thanks – on the sedition law per se – my view is that it should never be used against non-violent activists, writers, etc. As for those who lead an insurgency, those who are armed extremists, commandos, and so on, there may be a case to use it, even in a democracy. I haven’t studied Geelani’s background enough to know if he leads an armed insurgency or not. There, too, I’d like to see the application of ordinary criminal laws, before such “high treason” type laws are brought in, because the potential of misuse is so enormous.

  20. Robert Reply

    29 October at 12:10

    Hemant – There is nothing in Salil’s posts which suggests that the sedition law should only be abolished for Roy and not Geelani. Laws should apply to – or be abolished for – everyone. The sedition laws criminalise speech and have no place in a modern democracy. They are a hangover from colonial times and should be done away with, as Ghana, New Zealand and the UK have already done.

  21. Robert Reply

    29 October at 12:07

    Sorry I disagree with you as Celebrities cannot speak anything under the banner of Freedom of speech – especially when the peace talks are in process and the matter is very sensitive.

    Sorry I disagree with you, Gagrin. Free speech is meaningless if it does not also include the right to offend and to say controversial and inconvenient things.

  22. Hemant Puthli Reply

    29 October at 04:53

    Good post, and thank you for a succinct but comprehensive and objective narrative on Kashmir, which could be a pretty long, sad and sordid story.

    Roy, undeniably, has the right to be wrong (about Kashmir or about anything else) and the right to express her views – left, right or wrong. So do all of us. Let’s get that out of the way. I think far too much time and energy is spent on the (non)issue of Roy’s right to spew her spiel.

    As you have observed, Roy’s controversies themselves are irrelevant. What’s relevant are the issues her controversies throw up. In this case, an issue worthy of reflection and debate is the sedition law itself, of which you have said little. Only in your last sentence do you recommend that India revoke the law, and your article on the whole provides no rationale to it other than mentioning that (in your opinion) using the sedition law against Roy is myopic and that it undermines India’s democratic credentials. Are you suggesting that it would be different if used against someone else, say Geelani? Less myopic perhaps?

    Secondly, does it follow from your opinion (that India’s sedition law does not apply to Roy), that India’s sedition law does not apply to anyone at all (among the range of actors across the broad swath of hot spots in India – Kashmir separatists, Maoist insurgents, terrorists in the far eastern states, etc.) and hence may be done away with?

    I was expecting a somewhat elaborate argument in favour of repealing India’s sedition law. Perhaps some other time, then.

  23. Mansolaris Reply

    28 October at 22:37

    I agree with much – not all – of what you’ve said about the impregnable sanctity of the written word. Then, again, since the written word and the spoken word are two sides of the same coin, you’d have to defend with as much fervour as you’ve shown here the flammable, communal shrillness of Varun Gandhi. In the manner that she executes her vocation, Arundhati Roy is less a writer than a (faux, I would submit) journalist, and a journalist’s right to free speech comes with the caveat of responsibility – not so much to style and deductive argumentation as to balance, to presenting as many sides of a story as possible, or at least as many as are evident. Roy falls short.

  24. Gagrin Reply

    28 October at 19:10

    Sorry I disagree with you as Celebrities cannot speak anything under the banner of Freedom of speech – especially when the peace talks are in process and the matter is very sensitive. Don’t blame the country’s laws its the prob when celebrities tries all types of monkey tricks to gain personal popularity …

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