As a section of the political class and the media bays for her blood, author Arundhati Roy tells Shoma Chaudhury why her opinions do not amount to sedition
The State has been contemplating charges of sedition against you for your speeches in Delhi and Kashmir. How do you understand sedition? Did you see yourself as being seditious? What was your intention in speaking from those two platforms in Delhi and Srinagar under the rubric — Azadi: The only way.
Sedition is an archaic, obsolete idea revived for us by Times Now, a channel that seems to have hysterically dedicated itself to hunting me down and putting me in the way of mob anger. Who am I anyway? Small fry for a whole TV channel. It’s not hard to get a writer lynched in this climate, and that’s what it seems to want to do. It is literally stalking me. I almost sense psychosis here. If I was the Government of India I would take a step back from the chess board of this recent morass and ask how a TV channel managed to whip up this frenzy using moth-eaten, discredited old ideas, and goad everybody into a blind alley of international embarrassment. All this has gone a long way towards internationalising the ‘Kashmir issue’, something the Indian government was trying to avoid.
One of the reasons it happened was because the BJP desperately needed to divert attention from the chargesheeting of Indresh Kumar, a key RSS leader in the Ajmer blast. This was a perfect opportunity, the media, forever in search of sensation, led by Times Now, obliged. It never occurred to me that I was being seditious. I had agreed to speak at the seminar in Delhi way before it was titled “Azadi: The only way”. The title was provocative, I guess, to people who are longing to be provoked. I don’t think it is such a big deal frankly, given what has been going on in Kashmir for more than half a century.
The Srinagar seminar was called ‘Whither Kashmir? Enslavement or Freedom?’ It was really meant for young Kashmiris to deepen the debate on what they meant by and what they wanted from azadi. Contrary to the idea that it was some fire-breathing call to arms, it was really the opposite — it was about contemplation, about deepening the debate, about asking uncomfortable questions.
You have always been fiercely individualistic. Why did you choose to share a platform — or look aligned — with Syed Shah Geelani and Varavara Rao, who are both very doctrinaire and represent very specific political positions? (Your statements might have been received differently if you had made them from an individual platform as a writer/ thinker or a civil society platform.)
It was a civil society platform! A platform of people who hold no public office, who have a range of different views. After all, Varavara Rao and Geelani have very different ideologies. That in itself should tell you that here was a platform of people who have diverse views and yet have something in common. I expressed my views, as they did theirs. I did not stand up and say I was joining the Hurriyat (G) or the CPI(Maoist). I said what I think.
Geelani, in particular, is not just pro-azadi or anti-India. He is very vocally pro-Pakistan, pro-sharia, pro-Jamaat, and has had an ambiguous past with the Hizb and violent internecine battles within the Kashmiri leadership itself. While you were perfectly right to voice your perspective on Kashmir, why did you choose to do it in conjunction with him? Why would you not be as critical of him as you are of the Indian State?
There are many Kashmiris who seriously disagree with Geelani’s views and still respect him for not having sold out to the Indian State. Speaking for myself, I disagree with many of his views, and I’ve written about it. I made that clear when I spoke. If he was the head of a state I lived in and he forced those views on me, I would do everything in my power to resist those ideas.
However, things being what they are in Kashmir, to equate him with the Indian State and expect an even-handed critique of both is ridiculous. Even the Indian government, it’s all-party delegation and the new ‘interlocutors’ know that Geelani is a vital part of what is happening in Kashmir. As for him being involved in the internecine battles within the Kashmiri leadership — yes that’s true. Terrible things happened in the nineties, fratricidal killings — and Geelani has been implicated in some of them. But internecine battles are a part of many resistance movements. They are NOT the same thing as State sponsored killings. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) and Black Consciousness had vicious fights in which many hundreds were killed, including Steve Biko. Would you say then, that sitting on the same platform as Nelson Mandela is a crime?
By talking at seminars, by writing and questioning what he says, Geelani is being persuaded to change — there is a world of difference between what he says now and what he used to say only a few years ago. But what I find so strange about your question is this — how many people questioned Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani when they accepted Gujarat Garima awards from Narendra Modi, and embraced him in public? It wasn’t a seminar, was it? They didn’t question him, they didn’t express their views as individuals, they did not criticise the mass killing he presided over… they backed him. They said he would make a great Prime Minister. That’s okay, is it?
Ditto for Varavara Rao. While their concern for social justice and critique of the Indian State as it stands may overlap with your own critique, the Maoists philosophically espouse armed revolution as the central path to change. In all your writings, that is not your position. So why choose to share a dais with Geelani and Varavara Rao at a particularly volatile moment in Kashmir?
I have written at length on my views about the Maoists and am not going to squeeze them into a sentence here. I admire Varavara Rao in many ways, even if we don’t agree about everything. But I speak about the Maoists and about what is happening in Kashmir precisely because it’s important to do so during critical times such as these, when the media is acting for the most part like a blood-thirsty propaganda machine, busy trying to drum the last intelligent thought out of everybody’s head. This is not theoretical stuff, it’s about peoples’ lives and safety and dignity. It doesn’t get more crucial than this.
Again, you are critical of the concept of nation states and the power they wield over people’s lives. Why support a man who wants to wrest Kashmir from India and merge with Pakistan — another extremely (and perhaps more) flawed nation state?
Who is this man I am supposed to be supporting? Geelani? Are you, of all people, seriously asking this? Could you produce one thing that I have said that supports the idea of ‘wresting’ Kashmir from India and merging it with Pakistan? Is Geelani the only man asking for azadi in Kashmir? I support the Kashmiri peoples’ right to self-determination. That is different from supporting Geelani.
The second part of the question — yes, I am among those who are very uncomfortable with the idea of a nation state, but that questioning has to start from those who live in the secure heart of powerful states, not from those struggling to overthrow the yoke of a brutal occupation. Sure, an independent Kashmiri nation may be a flawed entity, but is independent India perfect? Are we not asking Kashmiris the same question that our old colonial masters asked us: are the natives ready for freedom?
The controversy over your speeches arises largely out of one point you made: “Kashmir is not an integral part of India. That is a historical fact.” Would you like to elaborate on why you said that? (Historical fact being different from legitimate sentiment arising out of ill treatment.)
The history is well known. I’m not going to give people a primary grade history lesson here. But isn’t the dubious history of Kashmir’s “accession” borne out by the present turmoil? Why does the Indian government have 700,000 soldiers there? Why are the interlocutors saying “draw up a road map for azadi”, or calling it a “disputed” territory? Why do we squeeze our eyes shut every time we have to look at the reality of the streets in Kashmir?
Even among those who defend your right to voice your views — no matter what they are — there are some people who say you could have framed your statement a bit differently to say “Kashmiris don’t feel they are an integral part of India,” or that “they want the right to self-determination and they should have that right”. Can you elaborate on why you wanted to be more categorical than that?
What if the British had said “Indians may not feel they are an integral part of the British Empire, but India is an integral part of the Empire?” Would that have gone down well with us? Are these well-intentioned “defenders” of my views unaware of what links people to their land? Does this well-intentioned “defence” apply to the Adivasis of Bastar — that the Adivasis are free to feel that they are not an integral part of India, but their land (with all its riches) certainly is! So the Adivasis should translocate their rituals and traditions to urban slums and leave their lands to the mining corporations, yes?
How do you interpret azadi? Going back to the earlier question about your critique of nation states, why would you be advocating the birth of a new nation state? Why not intellectually urge the dilution of nation states instead — more porous borders, less masculine constructs based on power and identity.
It doesn’t matter how I interpret azadi. It matters how the people of Kashmir interpret azadi. About my critique of the nation state — as I said, if we are keen to dilute its masculinity, let’s begin the process at home. Let’s dismantle the nuclear arsenal, roll up the flags, stand down the army and stop the crazed nationalistic rhetoric… then we can preach to others.
There is an allegation and heated anger that you urged people not to join the army and become “rapists”. This sounds as if it is tarring a big institution in broad brushstrokes. As hoary as its track record has been, I guess the story about the Indian Army is not a black and white one. Is this a mutilation of what you said ? Could you put on record what you said about the army in your speech?
The mutilation of what I say, and not just about this, is legion. I watched words I never ever said being attributed to me in TV debate after TV debate. It’s lazy, it’s convenient and it’s vicious. In many cases, it is deliberate. The Pioneer reported in banner headlines that I advocated Kashmir’s secession from “Bhooka Nanga Hindustan”. Many have pounced on this as an illustration of my “hate-speech”. What I actually said, and have written about in some detail, is the opposite: how angry and upset I was when I heard the slogan “Bhooka Nanga Hindustan, Jaan se pyaara Pakistan” on the streets of Srinagar during the 2008 uprising. I said it shocked me that Kashmiris were mocking the very people who were victims of the same State that was brutalising them. I said that to me this was blinkered, shallow politics. Of course, I know that this clarification will not make The Pioneer apologise. It will carry on lying. It has done it before. I have never called the Indian Army an institution of rapists. I am not a moron. What I said was that all colonial powers actually establish their power by creating and working through a native elite. It has done this in Kashmir. It is Kashmiris themselves, who, among other things, by joining the police and the CRPF and army are collaborating with what they see as an occupying power. So I said that perhaps if they were keen on dismantling the occupation, they should stop joining the police! This kind of idiotic conflation and absurdity is getting truly dangerous. I sometimes feel that my real campaign is against stupidity (talk of lost causes!) If what emanates from our TV channels is a measure of the nation’s intelligence, then we really are in deep trouble — the decibel level of the debates is in inverse proportion to the IQ. Fortunately, I travel around and speak to enough real people to know that things are not so bad.
‘The media is acting like a blood-thirsty propaganda machine, busy trying to drum out the last intelligent thing out of everyone’s head’
Your critics are accusing you of not being sensitive to the plight of Kashmiri Pandits.
Well my critics should read what I write and hear what I say. But for the record: I think what has happened to the Kashmiri Pandits is a terrible tragedy. I think that the story of the Pandits is one that still remains to be told in all its complexity. Everyone was at fault, the militancy, the Islamist upsurge in the Valley, and the Indian government, which encouraged (even helped) the Pandits to flee when it should have done everything it could to protect them. Apart from losing everything they had and the only home they really knew, the poorest Pandits are still living in camps in Jammu in the worst conditions, and have had their voices hijacked by some well-heeled and noisy charlatans who feed off the destitution of their own people to get a lot of cheap political mileage. They have a vested interest in keeping them poor, so they can show them off, like animals in a zoo. Do you think that if the government really cared it could not have helped those poor people to better their lot? In all my visits to Kashmir I have sensed that ordinary Kashmiri Muslims feel a terrible sense of loss at the departure of the Pandits. If that is true, it is the duty of the leaders of Kashmir’s present struggle to get the Pandits to return. That needs more than rhetoric. Apart from it being the right thing to do, it would give them enormous moral capital. It would also help shape their vision of what kind of Kashmir they are fighting for. Let’s also not forget that there are a few thousand Pandits who have lived in the Valley through these troubled years, and unharmed.
Your critics see you as disloyal and unappreciative of India and its strengths, even as you enjoy its freedoms. Could you explain how you see and understand your relationship with India?
I’m bored of my critics! They can work it out for themselves: I’m not going to explain my relationship with this country and its people. I am not a politician looking for brownie points.