Activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mahila Morcha (women’s front) attacked writer Arundhati Roy’s residence in Delhi this past Sunday. Like the Islamic extremists who recently chopped off the hands of a Christian teacher in Kerala, this marks a new low in the destructive activities of the forces of bigotry and intolerance in India. India has slipped far from the constitutional ideal of a liberal democracy which genuinely respects the freedom of expression and the right of dissent.
The Morcha obnoxiously rationalised its attack as a protest against Roy’s remarks about azaadi in Kashmir. The attack, it said, was timed to coincide with the birth anniversary of former Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, whom the Hindutva forces are trying to appropriate. But Patel had banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent, after Gandhi’s assassination, and warned Hindutva supporters against trying to suborn the Indian state.
The events leading to the attack follow a definite pattern. First, Roy’s remarks on Kashmir are distorted to mean that she favours India’s break-up. What she said was that the status of Jammu and Kashmir is not settled despite its Maharaja’s October 1947 accession to India.
This is something that many Kashmiris, including most recently, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, have often reiterated. Indeed, the Shimla agreement of 1972, and efforts by various Indian governments to reach a settlement on Kashmir with Pakistan, testify to the existence of an issue or dispute. Roy also spoke of Kashmir’s brutal military occupation. Over 400,000 security and police forces are present in the Valley, and some 20,000 deaths have occurred over two decades.
Second, the BJP demands that the government sue Roy – equating her with hardline separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani – for sedition. By saying it’s examining the issue, the Centre partly legitimises the repugnant idea that Roy’s sober reflection on Kashmir was meant to create “disaffection” against the state. This erases the vital distinction between remarks which are controversial and contentious, even disagreeable, but acceptable in a democracy, and those which constitute a direct, explicit incitement to violence.
Three, mercifully, the Centre drops the idea of prosecuting Roy, but sections of the media call Roy an “impostor” and a “traitor”. TV channels send outdoor broadcasting vans to Roy’s residence ahead of the BJP mob. They become an accessory to a criminal attack and trample on the fundamental right to free expression – in pursuit of higher Television Rating Points!
This is a repetition of what some TV channels did last June when Roy’s house was first attacked. The groundwork for this hysteria against Roy was laid with the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Then, a Right-wing TV anchor known for his jingoism screamed: “Arundhati Roy, where are you? We want to tell you we hate you ....” This is akin to the fascist targeting of dissidents and critics through calumny. Roy’s crime was that she exposed and criticised nationalist hysteria.
The Supreme Court too had punished Roy for contempt of court for saying, in the Narmada dam context, that the judiciary complacently believes that those who build large dams respect the constitution and the human rights of displaced people. This interpretation of contempt of court, against which truth is no defence, and which elevates the higher judiciary to divinity, victimises a writer with the courage to speak the truth about the state’s excesses and destructive projects.
One doesn’t have to agree with Roy one hundred per cent to say this. I disagree, for instance, with her analysis of the Naxalite movement in Chhattisgarh. But I unconditionally defend her right to express herself. The attack on Roy comes just when the Hindu Right has launched a two-pronged offensive upon free speech and democracy. The first is a campaign against books, plays and films which it dislikes for arbitrary, irrational reasons. It wants them banned for offending the sentiments of “the majority community”. But it doesn’t represent that community. This has culminated in the Shiv Sena’s successful attempt to get Rohinton Mistry’s fine novel removed from the reading list of Bombay University’s English literature course.
There’s a long lineage to such assaults on artistic freedom and scholarly writings – witness the parivar’s many raids: on Sahmat’s Ayodhya exhibition in Delhi, on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune (for its indirect association with a book critical of Shivaji), and on M F Hussain’s gumpha (cave) in Gujarat. The parivar has driven Hussain, India’s best-known modern painter, into exile. Over the years, India has “absorbed” such offences against freedom and tolerance as normal, without acknowledging that they degrade its democracy.
Once intolerance by those who claim to speak for “the majority”, for “the real India” (as if there’s only one!), for “Indian culture”, for “Bharatiya Nari”, for whoever, comes to be accepted as tolerable, we destroy the soul of tolerance and punish those with whom we might disagree, but who cause no harm to others. We become numb towards the value of freedom for social life and the health of the public sphere. A society which cannot countenance multiple ways of looking at reality, or diversity of cultures and beliefs, and which cannot debate differences without feeling paranoid, isn’t healthy.
Tolerance and respect for difference and diversity are essential attributes of democracy. India is being driven by the Right towards a devalued half-democracy and a majoritarian – not a free, egalitarian and enlightened – political system. The Hindu Right’s second campaign aims to shield some of its most violent elements, implicated in a well-organised network which has recently conducted numerous terrorist bombings of Muslim dargahs and mosques.
The latest disclosure here comes from the charge-sheet filed in the Ajmer dargah blasts of October 2007, which killed three persons. The Rajasthan Anti-Terrorism Squad names five accused, of whom four are associated with the RSS. Suspicion centres particularly on the RSS executive council member Indresh Kumar. He organised a secret meeting in 2005 which discussed the strategy for conducting the Ajmer blast. He was in regular contact with Sunil Joshi, believed to have made and triggered the bomb with Harshad Solanki. Solanki has just been arrested. He’s a prime accused in Gujarat’s Best Bakery case – an ominous connection. Indresh Kumar and other RSS members are connected with the shadowy Jai Vande Mataram – itself linked to Abhinav Bharat, which was behind the September 2006 Malegaon blasts and Hyderabad’s May 2007 Mecca Masjid bombings.
The RSS has responded to these events by deciding to launch nationwide “protests” (read, a campaign of bullying) against “a political conspiracy” to link it to terrorist activities. If the link is indeed established, the RSS’s “nationalist” credentials would collapse like a house of cards, with consequences similar to those in 1948-49, when it was accused of involvement in Gandhi’s assassination.
These are despicable tactics on the part of an organisation which believes it’s legitimate to kill the religious minorities to fulfil its narrow political goals, but which also hides behind labels like “cultural nationalism” to deny it has a political agenda. The Hindu Right’s terrorism is no less pernicious than Islamic-jihadist extremism. It’s often more insidious – when it’s treated with kid-gloves by the state and successfully infiltrates the police. Punishing the Hindutva terror network is a litmus test for India’s democracy. It must not fail it.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: [email protected]