On October 10, 2023, Delhi’s lieutenant governor Vinai Kumar Saxena acted against the writer Arundhati Roy and a former professor, Sheikh Showkat Hussain. Prosecution under Section 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code – provisions for ‘hate speech’ – requires the sanction of the government. Saxena duly noted that a prima facie case against Roy and Hussein was made under these two sections.
The First Information Report (FIR) accuses Roy and Hussein of disrupting social harmony and of acting in ‘public mischief’, but more seriously of sedition. The accusation is not about an event held last week or even earlier this year. Saxena, a high official of the government, went back 13 years to draw from a complaint filed on October 28, 2010, by Sushil Pandit against Roy, Hussein and two men who have since died (Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani). Last year, the Supreme Court said that cases of sedition could not advance while the government reviews the law. Saxena noted that while a ‘case of sedition is made out’, the police itself was not pressing the matter in the light of the Supreme Court staying all sedition matters.
The action by the government against Roy and Hussein comes days after the massive raids into the homes and offices of journalists and researchers across India. On October 3, 500 officials of the Delhi Police interrogated reporters associated with the news website NewsClick and arrested its founder (Prabir Purkayastha) and its human resources head (Amit Chakraborty) under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act; Purkayastha and Chakraborty have now been moved from police to judicial custody and are in jail. The raids and arrests provoked mass demonstrations across the country in defence of press freedom. The day after the raid and arrests, a protest meeting was held at the Press Club of India in New Delhi. Roy sat prominently at the front of the room with a sign around her neck that read, ‘Free the Press’.
It was no surprise that Roy was at the protest. Since she won the Booker Prize for her landmark novel A God of Small Things in 1997, Roy has been a vocal critic of imperialism and the rise of the toxic right-wing Hindutva movement. After India’s nuclear test in 1998, she wrote a brave essay – ‘The End of Imagination’ – which introduced an entire generation of readers to a poetic voice of moral clarity.
In rapid succession came a stream of remarkable essays – ‘The Greater Common Good’ (1999), ‘The Cost of Living’ (2000), ‘The Algebra of Infinite Justice’ (2001), ‘Listening to Grasshoppers’ (2002), ‘War Talk’ (2003) – that picked away at the suffocating discourses of war and profit, rooted in an India that seemed to be slipping away into deep inequality and horrible violence (many of these essays, and more, are collected in the cheekily named My Seditious Heart, 2019). In her fabulous IG Khan Memorial Lecture in April 2004, Roy characterised the developments in India as a ‘dual orchestra’ – ‘While one arm is busy selling off the nation’s assets in chunks, the other, to divert attention, is arranging a baying, howling deranged chorus of cultural nationalism’. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power at that time but would lose the elections the next month.
The BJP has an elephantine memory. Nothing of these kinds of remarks is forgotten. Everything is remembered. The BJP returns at some point to cash its cheque. Roy made a speech in 2010. It was not forgotten. She was at the protest against the arrest of Purkayastha and Chakraborty. The FIR against her has been activated by the LG less than a week later. The FIR is not just about that speech in 2010. It is against everything she has stood for since ‘The End of Imagination’.
What happened in 2010? So much happens in Kashmir that it is impossible to remember the details of even last year, let alone so many years ago. In April 2010, the Indian Army shot dead three civilians from Rafiabad and then claimed that they had infiltrated from Pakistan. The murders took place so that the soldiers could claim cash rewards being offered for such killings; five soldiers received life imprisonment for their actions (suspended by the Armed Forces Tribunal in 2017). Inevitably, large mobilisations in Srinagar and other places demanded the complete de-militarisation of Jammu and Kashmir (it has one of the highest military-to-civilian ratios – one million soldiers to 14 million residents). The protests led to more military violence, which then led to more anger and mobilisations. By September, these protests became a mass movement, and so the Indian government offered some concessions to calm matters. The public meeting held in Delhi on October 21 was part of this cycle of protests.
In 2008, Roy had travelled to Kashmir. Since 1987, it has been relatively impossible to be in Kashmir and not experience either terrible violence or a mass demonstration. She was fortunate to be there at a time when a major non-violent uprising resulted in the ordinary people of Srinagar taking over their city. In an essay in Outlook, Roy wrote, ‘The city floated on a sea of smiles. There was ecstasy in the air. Everyone had a banner: houseboat owners, traders, students, lawyers, doctors. One said: “We are all prisoners, set us free”’.
Roy went to a rally addressed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. She writes about how uncomfortable the religious character of the movement made her (‘I imagined myself standing in the heart of a Hindu nationalist rally…Replace the word Islam with the word Hindutva, replace the word Pakistan with Hindustan, replace the green flags with saffron ones, and we would have the BJP’s nightmare vision of an ideal India’). Roy stood there to observe the spontaneous energy of a people seeking to exit the militarisation of their society, but she was not standing there to cheer on the immediate options that lay available to them. To characterise her one-dimensionally is to miss the writer in Roy, who seeks nuance and moral ambiguity – two qualities lost to the rigidities of the hard right.
It was with that strong sense of the democratic potential in the world that Roy joined Geelani at the meeting in Delhi on October 21, 2010. The conference she attended was called by the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners. The banner behind the podium read, ‘Azadi – the Only Way’. The word azadi has come in for a great deal of confusion since that time, leading to a struggle at Jawaharlal Nehru University when the students in 2016 chanted the word as a mark of their frustration with the BJP government and what was happening to education. The term – which means freedom – has been used by Indian nationalists against British rule as well as by feminists against patriarchy. It is not especially associated with Kashmir, although sections of the Kashmiri movement use it as part of their secessionist politics.
Sushil Pandit, a right-wing activist who comes from a Kashmiri Pandit family, decided to file a complaint at the Tilak Marg police station against Roy (this, despite Roy’s careful attention to the plight of Kashmiri Pandits who left Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s). A FIR was registered, charging Roy with sedition (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code), UAPA, hate speech and other sections of law. She did not back down. She held her own. Nothing came of Pandit’s complaint – at that time or for another 13 years – because there was nothing in it.
In the 1990s, Roy began to pay attention to the negative impacts of capitalist development. She spent time with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a movement led by Medha Patkar, that wanted to prevent the displacement of large numbers of small farmers from their land to build a large dam complex. Roy’s essay – ‘The Greater Common Good’ (1999) – took issue with the Big Projects. As if echoing the title of her novel, The God of Small Things, Roy wrote: ‘Perhaps that’s what the Twenty–first century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there’s a small god up in heaven readying herself for us. Could it be?’
The essay is often misunderstood. Roy does not want to condemn the people of India to a life without electricity. She is attentive to the importance of modernity, but asks the simple question: modernity for whom? The Dalits and Adivasis who will be displaced from the villages of the Narmada will not be the beneficiaries of the project; the beneficiary will be large capital, which will use the electricity – at a government subsidised price – to strengthen its control over the Indian economy. The poor will vanish. ‘It’s time to puncture the myth about the inefficient, humbling, corrupt, but ultimately genial, essentially democratic, Indian State,’ Roy writes. ‘Carelessness cannot account for fifty million disappeared people. Nor can Karma. Let’s not delude ourselves. There is method here, precise, relentless, and one hundred percent man-made’. That method is the efficient use of the State by capital for its own interest. This efficiency was going to be mobilised to good effect by Gautam Adani in Gujarat, and – after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014 – in India.
If Patkar and Roy wanted to lift up the voices of the poor, V.K. Saxena, a businessman in Gujarat, set up the National Council for Civil Liberties in India in 1991 to champion the voices of the corporate sector.
Saxena’s bête noire was Patkar, who had begun to gain popularity within sections of India and had been able to force the World Bank to review the Narmada project with her protests. On April 10, 2002, Saxena went with politicians from the BJP (Amit P. Shah and Amit D. Thaker) and the Congress party (Rohit N. Patel) to Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. Patkar was at a meeting being held there to galvanise a peace movement during the anti-Muslim violence of 2002. Saxena and the other politicians are accused of physically assaulting Patkar at this meeting. A First Information Report was filed against Saxena.
Over the years, as his political power grew through proximity to the BJP, Saxena has been able to hold off the impact of that FIR. In May 2022, Narendra Modi’s government appointed Saxena lieutenant Governor of Delhi. At that time, the Aam Aadmi Party’s Sanjay Singh raised the issue of the 2002 assault to no avail. (Singh, incidentally, has himself now been arrested – illegally says his party – as part of the investigation of the liquor scam just days after the arrest of Purkayastha and Chakraborty.) Undeterred by Singh, Saxena moved the courts against the FIR, saying that he has immunity as a nominee of the President of India. A year later, this May, the Gujarat high court gave Saxena an interim stay on the case. Now, Saxena has lifted out of his drawer the old FIR filed by Pandit to go after Patkar’s close friend and comrade, Roy.
On September 12, 2023, Roy was honoured with the 2023 European Essay Award. The honour went to essays such as ‘The Greater Common Good’. In her acceptance speech, Roy said that today ‘it is unthinkable that any mainstream media house in India, all of whom live on corporate advertisements, would publish essays like these. In the last 20 years, the free market and fascism and the so-called free press, have waltzed together to bring India to a place where it can by no means be called a democracy.’
The arrest of Purkayastha and Chakraborty and the threats against Roy and Hussain are part of this ‘dismantling of democracy’. That ‘small god up in heaven’ that Roy had been trying to listen to in 1999 must shudder every time she turns her eyes to India.
Vijay Prashad is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. His latest book – written with Noam Chomsky – is The Withdrawal.