The Shape of the Beast

Middle-class Indians might hate Arundhati Roy, but shutting her out would leave us a poorer society. An assessment of the writer-polemicist and why she rouses so much ire

October 2, 2012 in People
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No quarters Roy’s positions on all big issues have evolved into a strident critique of the State

No quarters Roy’s positions on all big issues have evolved into a strident critique of the State
Photo: Abid Bhatt

Arundhati Roy’s position on Kashmir is just the latest provocation. The truth is her very existence — her persona and her politics — has become a sort of affront to a certain strata of Indians. White-collared terrorist. Serial offender. Activist butterfly. Secessionist. Attention-monger. Rabble-rouser. Hate-merchant. Watching the enraged epithets being shot at her on national television a few days ago, it was difficult to remember that Arundhati Roy is a writer and public intellectual who has, at many crucial junctures, brought the nation’s attention to chasms that threatened to tear it apart.

OVER THE last decade, in fact, Roy has been there first at almost every trench line: illuminating, dissecting, warning, presaging. Taunting the cosy out of their towers. Magnifying the fights of the voiceless. Few other contemporary Indian writers have engaged so fiercely and urgently with the idea and reality of India. And none have taken it apart as unflinchingly.

It is impossible to understand the profound, yet scrappy and conflicted, impact of Roy’s political writings and utterances on India unless one recalls the dizzy euphoria of her arrival and the irony of the journey she picked for herself afterwards. Watching her now, few will remember that Roy was first announced to the world by a breathless article in a leading Indian magazine. The year was 1996. Liberalisation was just five years old. An ebullient middle-class was looking for a mascot. Roy came tailor-made from heaven: she had an elfin beauty, a diamond flash in her nose, a mane of gorgeous hair, a romantic backstory and a manuscript that triggered an international bidding war. India loved her. From the moment The God of Small Things was published, Roy was deemed the chosen one. As the successes of the book piled up — the huge advances, the translations in 40 languages, and finally the Booker (the first time any resident Indian had won it) — it was a done deal: Arundhati Roy was India’s triumphant entry on the global stage. She was the princess at the ball.

If she had stuck to script, Roy would have remained the celebrated first of a series of triumphant notes: Aishwarya Rai winning Miss World, Tatas taking over Jaguar, Indian billionaires making the top of Fortune 500 lists, an awesome 8 percent growth and a burgeoning consumer class. The India Shining story was all stitched up. Everyone was raising a toast.

No one could have anticipated that the princess would strike the gong even before the midnight hour. Willfully bust the party. Pick open the seams of the gown. Show the chariot for a pumpkin. Smash the glass slipper.

But that is what she did. In May 1998, barely a few months into her Booker win, India tested the nuclear bomb. In August, Roy wrote The End of Imagination, an angry impassioned critique of the bomb, her first piece of writing after the novel.

Since The End of Imagination, there has never been a silence from Roy. It was the first in a series of essays that would grow in moral strength and clarity, moving from the shrill, somewhat over-emotional hyperbole of the nuclear piece to the clear-eyed discomfitures of her later ones.

The fact is 21st century India is not one country: it is two continents. If you are moneyed, middle-class or English-speaking, your continent is a great place to live in. There is a lot of opportunity: great jobs, great bars, many houses to buy, many holidays to afford. Elections are held with exhilarating freedom and democracy has never felt more robust.

If you are underclass, tribal or Muslim, your continent is much darker. Roy had crossed over to the dark side.

With each counter-narrative she has written since, Roy has set herself more askance from mainstream India’s wishful idea of itself. At each step, she has rejected the shoe that would allow her to slip back into a rose-tinted world. Instead, she has steadfastly worked at growing into her own ideal: to be a “troublesome citizen”. Expressing her love through critical vigilance.

This is not a love middle-class Indians understand. This is not a continent they have ever visited. At the heart of the constant and angry face-off between Roy and the India that had once toasted her, therefore, there is a fundamental disagreement: what is the nature of the Indian State?

Dam activist With other protesters at the Narmada

Dam activist With other protesters at the Narmada
Photo: Lakshman Anand

THE CRITICISMS of Roy are manifold. In fact, to say someone is an “Arundhati wannabe” has become a kind of abuse in media studios and swish urban salons. This is the sum of what Roy’s detractors dislike about her. They say she sees no greys: she is too polemical, too one-sided, too untempered, seeing only the negatives about India, never the positives. That she flits from issue to issue — a serial crusader with no real locus standi. That she is hypocritical because, while she herself lives in one of the most tony neighbourhoods in Delhi and has made considerable money on her book out of a globalised market, she is ruthlessly — often mockingly — scathing about rich and middle-class Indians. That she is unforgivingly critical of the Indian State and its instruments even while she enjoys the privileges and freedoms it accords. That she paratroops into situations. That she overstates things. That she uses this to seek attention. That she is too self-regarding. And finally, that she is incapable of understanding how complex it is to govern a country because she has no stake in anything and her only creative position is opposition.

A lot of this is pure chagrin. But in nano measures, some of it is true. For instance, Roy is indeed fiercely impatient of those who have never taken a ride to the dark side. She does not seek to be a gentle persuader, does not seek to whisper to middle-class conscience. She is not interested in people’s comfort zones. She is a striker of gongs. She is in the business of laying bare, not building.

With the Booker, Roy was India’s proud entry on the global stage. She was the princess of the ball, but she bust the party. Showed the chariot for the pumpkin

She may not always persuade, therefore, but she certainly challenges. Last week, then, it was terribly dismaying to see the frantic attempt by the electronic media to isolate and outlaw Arundhati Roy. The discussions were not centred on why she said what she did on Kashmir. The discussions were: had she crossed the line? Should she be arrested for sedition? The point is, even if one disagrees vehemently with her tone or her positions, does it make what she is saying illegal? Far from “arresting or ignoring” our intellectuals — as several television anchors urged us to do — should we not engage with and debate their positions?

Arundhati Roy’s speech at the Azadi Conference

Democracies are built on some foundational stilts: free speech and free votes are two of the most key ones. It should be obvious then for a country that counts itself as the world’s largest democracy that peaceful dissent is the fundamental right of a citizen. For a writer: even more so. Governments might be tasked to protect the territorial integrity of nations: writers and intellectuals are tasked to protect a society’s soul. They are meant to think and speak and push the boundaries of how we see and understand ourselves. They are not meant to be court poets, toeing the government line. The self-righteous prescriptions that flowed at Arundhati Roy last week — how she should have behaved, what she should have said, what causes she should pick up — show that we are forgetting the catalytic role of a writer in a society.

Even the worst of Roy’s detractors cannot claim she is a dilettante. Over 12 years of urgent public interventions, she has grappled with all the big issues of our time: big dams, displacement, land acquisition, industrialisation, privatisation, globalisation, terrorism, US imperialism, Hindutva nationalism, Maoist insurgency and, now, Kashmir. Far from being erratic positions, this has evolved into a strident but coherent critique of the Indian State. And, though every time she has diagnosed she has been reviled, with time, she’s been proved right on most of these issues. India is riven by conflicts today, born out of unjust approaches to land and development: the colonisation of the darker continent by its fairer half. Exactly as she presaged. The absurd witch-hunt last week, therefore, drummed up mostly by the media, was not really about the offence of sedition. It was about India’s increasingly narrow ideas about what counts as patriotism and citizenship. It was proof that all key conversations in India have moved away from freedoms to security. From nationalism to jingoism. From citizenship to compliance. It was proof that the media, the middle-class and the Indian State are no longer creative counters in a healthy society. They have morphed into one entity. Not just in interests but in self-image.

Middle-class Indians therefore can continue to hate Arundhati Roy, but it might be a colossal mistake to do so. Like the valiant people’s resistance movements on the ground that have stopped corporate juggernauts and forced the media and Indian Parliament to revise its views on issues like the Land Acquisition Act and the Special Economic Zones Act, Roy is a crucial rung in the ladder of deterrence — the vital pushback — that keeps the idea of the Indian State on its toes, forcing it to remain alive and dynamic. Out of this deterrence arises new thought. Possibilities of change. New conscience. New ways of looking.

Shut the door on Roy — shut the door on voices that taunt and dissent and challenge — and Shining Indians will find they are suddenly left with a poorer society.

SO WHAT exactly did Arundhati Roy say on Kashmir that invited sedition? Going by accounts in the media, in giving voice to the Kashmiri demand for self-determination, Roy committed the apparently cardinal crime of saying, “It is a historical fact that Kashmir is not an integral part of India.”

“This is not India’s official position,” gasped many television anchors and commentators. “How could Arundhati Roy say such a thing?” Set aside the rights and wrongs of the premise for a moment. Ask the basic question: is Arundhati Roy the prime minister, home minister or foreign minister of this country? So what if her “endorsement” of the popular sentiment on the street is uncomfortable for many Indians? Why does she need to mouth the official line? As a writer, is she not meant to voice the world as she sees it? (Was it right that Nobel- winning Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk and Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi were jailed because their views on their countries did not match that of their States’? Should America’s writers and intellectuals not engage with the epic revelations of Wikileaks on Iraq and Afghanistan because Hillary Clinton has said it will harm national interest and US army morale?)

Ironically, if Roy had been booked for sedition, she would have had illustrious precedents. Mahatma Gandhi was charged with sedition in 1922 for his views in Young India. At the trial he said, “I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me… Sedition, in law, is a deliberate crime… but it appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.” Inspiringly — displaying the rare commitment to the liberal values that were the founding ideas of this nation — he went on to say, “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen… If,” he continued, “one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite violence… Some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.”

The British colonial government may have given way to the Indian State, but surely the principle of free thought and speech survives. So the key question many forgot to ask last week was — did Arundhati Roy incite people to take up arms? Did she brew disaffection where there was none? She was accused of “hate speeches” — but is hate really what she was preaching?

Roy’s positions on Kashmir are quite evident from her essays and speeches: in a line, she thinks India deserves azadi from Kashmir as much as Kashmir deserves azadi from India. She thinks it is a colossal waste of material resources and human life to maintain a 700,000-strong security force in the Valley. She stridently decries the huge human rights violations by the forces that are routine in Kashmir. She sees India’s heavy militarisation there as akin to an occupation. And even as she supports the rising call for azadi on the street, she urges Kashmiris to think more rigorously about the nature of the society they want to create: What space will minorities have in their country? How will they accommodate the aspirations of Kashmiri Pandits, the people of Ladakh and Jammu and the nomadic tribes? How will a religious state sit comfortably with civil liberties? Do not be selective about justice and injustice, she warns.

Last resort Roy has been outspoken about the Maoists too

Last resort Roy has been outspoken about Maoists too
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The pity is, in the furious noise over arrests and anti-national stances last week, the real tenor of the two seminars on Kashmir in Delhi and Srinagar were lost. While the optics of Roy sharing a dais with separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has a long and chequered past, and Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao may have clouded the picture, the truth is even Geelani’s speech was marked by a new moderation. According to one of the speakers, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Geelani said he wanted to see a strong and resurgent India; he pleaded with Kashmiri Pandits to return to the Valley; he quoted Gandhi to assert that he understood the necessity of conducting a non-violent struggle; he said a free Kashmir would have to be a just Kashmir in which all minorities would be guaranteed security and freedom. And he said he was only advocating for a plebiscite. If the outcome of a free and unhindered plebiscite was that the majority in Kashmir voted to stay with India rather than merge with Pakistan or opt for independent Kashmir, he would bow to that.

IT IS true the story of Kashmir is an impossibly complicated and complex one. Any statement on it — almost every version of it — can always only be a partial truth. Just a cursory glance at its milestones tells you that: a Muslim-majority state ruled by a Hindu king in the fraught year of 1947. The invasion of Pakistan army and tribesmen to free “fellow Muslims” from the Dogra king. The king’s hurried plea for help from India; the hurriedly signed Instrument of Accession; the arrival of the Indian Army. Nehru’s promise of a plebiscite when the situation is under control. Three bloody wars with Pakistan. A dismal history of jailed chief ministers and puppet governments. Dozens of UN Resolutions. Dilutions of Article 370. The rigged elections of 1987. The explosion of militancy in the 1990s. The tragic and forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. The apocalyptic and internecine killings that followed: army, civilian, militants, mercenaries. The continuing infiltrations. The eternal ISI hand. The thousands of crores the Indian government has spent in developing Kashmir. The daily human rights violations. The suffocating security grid. India’s legitimate security concerns. The spells of peace. The economic blockade. The competition between National Conference and the PDP. The relations between Centre and state. Dozens of rounds of failed talks. Fluctuating moods. The stone-pelting. The deaths. The cry for azadi.

Is Arundhati Roy the prime minister, home minister or foreign minister of the country? Why does she need to mouth the official line then?

It would be easy to lose one’s way in the morass of this history. Lock oneself in old formulations. But even a week’s visit to Kashmir now tells you that, propelled by a new generation, the place is ripe for creative intervention. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once captured the Valley’s imagination by promising that the issue of Kashmir would be solved within the boundaries of humanity — “insaniyat ke dayare mein”. Why not let others prise open new conversations? (Even if one disagrees with them.)

The greatest learning any society can have is that the protection of the collective lies in the exercise of individual conscience.

Also Read: ‘An independent Kashmiri nation may be a flawed entity, but is independent India perfect?’

1 Comment

  • SHAN December 18, 2012 - 3:41 pm Reply

    I have read some of her pieces. all that I can say is – its wonderful prose but very questionable logic. Also, the claim that most of her thinking has proven to be true is wrong. things have happened the way they happened not based on what arundhati roy said but for totally different reasons.

    the basic problem here is that the writings of arundhati roy are driven by ideology and not by logic that firmly rooted in the ground. the ideology also is very questionable. utopian thoughts don’t run the world as we know it. this is not to say that the indian state is great. the indian state is clumsy, shoddy, corrupt and unjust. it is filled with power hungry and self serving people who care only about their interest and the interest of their cronies. BUT, this is the best option we have. any other option will be even worse. In those situations the likes of arundhati roy may face execution instead a comparatively harmless sedition charge

    Just has arundhati roy has the right to say what she thinks is right (which she should have), her detractors have right to reject her saying terming the same as bullshit (which they should have). taking a stance that she is ignored at some else’s peril is condescending and trying to hint that the rejection is without little basis. we all know that her stance is leftist… and ideology that has failed everywhere and is bankrupt

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