guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 November 2010
The writer Arundhati Roy, once a national heroine for being the first Indian to win the Booker prize, today finds herself a reviled figure. The demonisation of Roy has taken just over a decade, and many will tell you it's her own fault. She just won't stop opening her mouth and saying uncomfortable things.
Roy's latest sin was to express her doubts about India's right to rule Kashmir. It's a rule enforced by 700,000 soldiers and, by all accounts, most ordinary Kashmiris want them gone. They are calling for azaadi, the freedom to determine their own future via the plebiscite called for in UN resolution 47, which since 1948 India has ignored.
Roy evidently thinks this offers a better way forward than the present violent stalemate. This is her personal opinion, but after daring to express it, politicians, media and public figures have called for her to be prosecuted for treason. There are rumours that charges are imminent. Times Now TV ran a story "Net closing in on Roy", as if she were bandit queen Phoolan Devi. She deserves the death penalty, say some, for showing sympathy to Maoists and advocating the secession of Kashmir from India. Note that word, "secession".
Watching from across the world, I've been appalled as one Indian intellectual after another queues up to call for limits to freedom of speech and to have a go at "this author-turned-rabble-rouser", this "one-book wonder". I am amazed at the violence of their rhetoric, and their eagerness to give away their democratic rights. I was seriously scared for her safety when I heard that her house had been attacked by a stone-throwing mob.
Roy is married to Pradip Krishen, an old schoolfriend of mine, and in 2008 I had dinner with them in Delhi. We talked about Krishnen's book, Trees of Delhi; about my work campaigning with the Bhopalis over the past 15 years; and 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. We also talked about central India, where tribal people had been brutalised and driven from their forests so their lands could be handed over to mining corporations and steel-makers, and where the failure of laws, media and politicians to protect people's lives and fundamental rights had bred a full-scale Maoist insurrection.
We discussed the futility of using Gandhian forms of protest in modern India. My Bhopali friends were just about to set out on a 500-mile walk to Delhi (the second in two years) to ask the prime minister to honour promises he had made on the previous occasion and not kept. I said that I feared the long walk would get little attention, that the subsequent sit-in would be ignored by ministers, and that a hunger strike was inevitable.
In the silence that followed, our thoughts trespassed on the borders of forbidden territory, not quite daring to confront that taboo question: when all peaceful attempts at protest are ignored, or worse, crushed; when laws are twisted, broken or brushed aside as if they don't matter; when people who speak up are intimidated, imprisoned or killed, what should we do?
People are rightly scared to face this question, and it's the one question that modern India must answer. Roy's frustration and anger have led her to speak bluntly. People can't bear to hear what she is saying, so instead of listening they find fault with her voice, her attitude.
Why does she make such a fuss? Things can't be so bad, surely. Last week the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport tourer was launched in India for a mere £2.2m. "India is the hub of luxury, the country of the erstwhile maharajas," said Bugatti's Julius Kruta. "I think this launch will truly delight our discerning audience."
Well that's all right then. As for the masses, they can go hang themselves. Literally. And they do. But there's no need to worry about the thousands of farm suicides because, with a population of 1 billion, the per capita farm suicide rate is not as high as in the UK. And if 85% of India's population is shut out of its shining economic miracle, that still leaves 15% of 1 billion, which is a huge market in anyone's terms. When India's middle classes accuse Roy of promoting "secession", it is a huge double irony, for she has indeed talked of secession.
In an interview with the magazine, Tehelka, she said: "What we're witnessing is the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in independent India – the secession of the middle and upper classes from the rest of the country. It's a vertical secession, not a lateral one. They're fighting for the right to merge with the world's elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere."
Who are the real traitors?