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…