My final thoughts on Arundhati Roy…

Venky Vembu


In my column published in DNA yesterday, I thought I’d said all I wanted to say about the controversy surrounding Arundhati Roy’s recent pronouncements on Kashmir. I don’t have the luxury of being called upon to write 20,000-word essays to flesh out my thoughts, but in most cases the 570 words I’m given on the Opinions page are more than adequate. But, as it turned out, this time I was called upon to say something more.

Late last evening, the BBC World Service’s World Have Your Say producers called to say they’d come across my column, and asked if I would join a panel discussion on this topic, along with Outlook magazine’s editor Vinod Mehta and a few others. The broadcast from London was to go live at an ungodly 1 am for me in Hong Kong, but I gamely sat up. And although the format of the moderated discussion didn’t always allow for freewheeling interaction, I made the following points:

“I’m not calling for Arundhati Roy to be arrested or tried for sedition. I also vehemently oppose the online outpourings of extreme right-wing lynch mobs. Nor do I defend the role of the Indian State in Kashmir.

“However,  Ms Roy’s delineation of the situation in Kashmir is overly simplistic, intellectually dishonest and wholly lacking in nuance or balance; in her reductionist worldview, the Indian State is Downright Evil; poor Kashmiri civilians are tortured without reason. But Kashmir’s contemporary history is more complex than that. There are other geopolitical forces – including Pakistan-backed jihadi elements whose larger aim is the disintegration of secular India – that she does not acknowledge. That incomplete narrative amounts to a denial of history on her part. And in a volatile situation of the sort that exists in Kashmir, her selective outlining of history has enormous, dangerous real-life consequences.

Vinod Mehta defended Roy’s right to free speech and noted that she was “entirely within her rights to say what she is saying” given India’s “vibrant and robust” democracy. And in response to my question, he said that Roy’s words reflected the “dominant view in the valley”; it wasn’t she who coined the phrase azaadi, which in any case should be interpreted as “freedom from human rights excesses”, not as a desire to secede from India.

The format of the discussion – with call-ins from listeners, and moderated by the producers – did not permit more intense interactions among the panelists. Which left me with a couple of points that I would have liked to make but couldn’t.

  • The presence of Indian troops in Kashmir has come in for a lot of criticism, and of course human rights abuses – of which Kashmiri civilians bear the brunt – are never to be condoned. But as this blogger points out, for four decades from 1948, until jihadi violence started in 1988-89, you didn’t hear azaadi war cries in Kashmir, nor was the State under “brutal military occupation”. (Remember Shammi Kapoor shimmying in Kashmir? Remember seeing any “occupation army” in the background?) To fail to acknowledge that connection is downright disingenuous.
  • What do Kashmir people want for themselves? The answer would have been different at different points in time. Today, after more than 15 years of jihadi indoctrination and inept handling of the situation by successive Central and State governments, they may want azaadi, but if their jihadi fever were to subside, who knows that they might not reject that notion. Let’s not forget: India faced a Khalistan separatist campaign in Punjab in the early 1980s. Today, who in Punjab wants to break free of India? And while we’re on the subject, (and without trivialising the anguish of Kashmiri civilians), the characterisation of azaadi as merely “freedom from human rights abuses” and not secession is overly benign.

One last point: some commentators – including phone-in callers during the BBC panel discussion – have resorted to attacking Arundhati Roy personally and attributing motives to her extremely critical public positions on issues that go to the core of India’s identity as a nation-state. But that’s not where I come from: in fact, as I said on air:

“I’m not so cussed as to say that Ms Roy has it all wrong. She does an important job of holding up a mirror to Indian civil society and forcing us to focus on our failings. That’s an important function. In 1998, when she declared herself an ‘independent mobile republic’, I met her at a public talk and I asked for citizenship in her ‘republic’. So she’s greatly admired, even by some of us who critique her work.”

My criticism of her only springs from the fact that as someone who knows the power of words, and who uses them inventively, there’s a case for her to offer a more intellectually honest and balanced historical narrative on Kashmir than she’s offered so far.

Failing which, I just might be tempted to secure azaadi from the independent, mobile republic of Arundhati Roy…


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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6 Responses to My final thoughts on Arundhati Roy…

  1. Pingback: My final thoughts on Arundhati Roy… | Classifieds | Featured blogs from INDIA.

  2. gregorylent says:

    smart stuff …

    that ms. roy has some unhealed personal issues, has never been in doubt. when expressed in the public light, the magnify. the insanity of the partially educated commenters throughout the blogosphere is also indicative of some major unhealed personality issues built into the fabric of indian society. like china. like america.

    in stock market terms, long psychology.

    • Venky says:

      Re “unhealed personal issues” – you obviously know Ms Roy better than I do. 🙂 But, yes, there’s something about the uninformed commentariat on the blogosphere in the three jurisdictions you mention. Must be something in the water…

  3. Saroja says:

    I always tell people preparing for exams like the CAT you don’t have to agree to all she says but you have to appreciate how she says it, so read her. Unfortunately she also picks contentious topics that she is passionate about, for a little while. The only constant is the “EVIL big brother”. So her stand on kashmir is hardly surprising.

    Unfortunately, the touchy sections of the society take umbrage at every little thing any one says irrespective of their sphere of influence. How likely is it that her words will get anybody, any azaadi. why can’t the civil society ignore such outpourings?

    • Venky says:

      Words in general – and her words, in particular – do carry enormous weight. Which is why they ought to be chosen wisely and well. I wouldn’t be so dismissive about the capacity of words to influence minds. That said, some of the online responses to her thoughts are completely over the top.

  4. Hariharan says:

    > It is India’s wealthy elite that is turning its back on the nation and its people, not Arundhati Roy

    It’s not just India’s wealthy elite, but sadly, the so-called intellectuals have also turned their backs on the people. And that includes Arundhati Roy. She’s is in Kashmir to make controversial remarks only for her own publicity. It’s about her alone, not Kashmiris.

    RTI (Right to Information Act) activists have been threatened and murdered by wealthy elites. Why hasn’t Roy not written a single piece on such a serious issue? Syed Masood (India’s Bernie Madoff) pulled off a huge investment scam worth thousands of crores of rupees. Every penny has been seized from Madoff (who is now in prison). Why is Syed Masood not yet convicted for defrauding hundreds of thousands of people of their life savings? Why haven’t law enforcement officials followed the money trail to recover huge sums of money laundered overseas? Why was Syed Masood’s wife and daughter let go to the US and there’s no call for extradition of criminals? Why hasn’t Roy written a single article on the largest ponzi scheme in the history of India? These are just two examples and there are dozens of such issues plaguing India — the 85% of India’s population shut out from the economic miracle. Why has she not focused writing constructively on issues that matter?

    > Roy’s work with the anti-dam campaign in Gujarat, which after years of struggle was unable to prevent hundreds of thousands of tribal people being forced off their land.

    Roy can’t be headless enough to be anti-progress. Unfortunately, she has taken such a stance over and over again. China is not going to wait for any country as it ascends to superpower status. Building dams is not for anyone’s personal pleasure. It creates jobs for thousands of people, provides water for irrigation, and the electricity powers millions of homes. An adequate solution would be just compensation for those who lost land in the process.

    > And yes, on the Kashmir issue…

    Kashmir is named after an ancient Indian sage — Rishi Kashyap. Kashmir is and has always been an integral part of India for over 5000 years. Was Pakistan not a part of India not too long ago? And why did the maharaja of Kashmir sign the letter of accession with India? Or maybe millions of Kashmiri Hindu pundits never existed? Or perhaps, inside Roy’s twisted little brain, among the dozens of Muslim-majority regions within India, none was actually a part of India, ever? Or in her viewpoint, maybe India never existed, and therefore every state should call for independence? What’s all this nonsense? What’s the point of continuous hysterical diatribes against all things Indian and India?

    What does she really want? Dissolution of the union? Or starvation and death of millions on the Indian subcontinent in the future by carving out yet another state, just to please some intellectually deficient folks like her? Does free press means a journalist should write how he or she ‘feels’ depending on mood swings? How does anyone know that Roy didn’t secretly get foreign cash to put on a show of whistleblower while openly engaging in seditious writings? If anyone were to take Roy’s arguments seriously, we’d have hundreds of Muslim-majority regions in the world that will need to be carved out for Muslims. That’s just plain ridiculous!

    Consider this — say journalists in China were to call for an independent Tibet, they’d be quickly thrown into prison, and if lucky, avoid broken bones. Here you have an ordinary journalist, Arundhati Roy, who goes on to write that Kashmir was never an integral part of India! Really? Liu Xiaobo is a true scholar and wrote to his government about reforms on free speech guaranteed by his country’s constitution. Roy’s behavior is the exact opposite — she is taking undue advantage of free speech and free press to trample on India’s constitution and sedition laws (section 124A).

    With journalism in particular, there is a difference between scholar and squalor. To cite another example, Roy says Maoists are “Gandhians with Guns.” Anyone who knows even an ounce of Gandhi will tell you that the phrase is an oxymoron and an insult to a great man who courageously stood up for a non-violent freedom struggle. There’s no reason why squalor should be encouraged in the name of free press. If democracy isn’t working all that well with a billion plus people, a new model of “socialism with Indian characteristics” might be a wise option to current anarchy.

    Content matters. A free press is great but what’s missing in India is constructive solution-oriented journalism, which is a byproduct of intellectualism. The underlying foundational problem needs to be fixed through strong education. Pity the nation that produces journalists like Arundhati Roy who’re just publicity-seeking anti-nationalist traitors.

    > We’ve become the repressive, authoritarian society she suggests we already are.

    She’s Prannoy Roy’s cousin. That’s her ladder to star power. Who is she with an IQ of a peanut to pass judgement on the state of Indian society? Folks, express yourself freely without kowtowing to the anti-nationalist nobody Roy.

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