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Pankaj Mishra and Salil Tripathi on the Arundhati Roy case and other Indian writers being silenced by Hindu nationalists

3 February 2016

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The Guardian - 2 February 2016

Author Roy is facing criminal trial for contempt of court in India. Of course, Narendra Modi’s government has left no clear fingerprints on this scene of a crime against art and thought

by Pankaj Mishra

The governments of Egypt and Turkey are brazenly leading a multi-pronged assault on writers, artists and intellectuals. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month denounced his critics among Turkish academics as treasonous fifth columnists of foreign powers; many of them have been subsequently dismissed and suspended. Both Turkey and Egypt have imprisoned journalists, provoking international protests. But the suppression of intellectual and creative freedoms is assuming much cannier forms in India, a country with formal and apparently free democratic institutions.

’This is not a suicide but murder’: protests in India over lower-caste scholar’s death

Controlled by upper-caste Hindu nationalists, Indian universities have been purging “anti-nationals” from both syllabuses and campuses for some months now. In a shocking turn of events last month, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student in Hyderabad, killed himself. Accused of “anti-national” political opinions, the impoverished research scholar, who belonged to one of India’s traditionally and cruelly disadvantaged castes, was suspended, and, after his fellowship was cancelled, expelled from student housing. Letters from Modi’s government in Delhi to university authorities revealed that the latter were under relentless pressure to move against “extremist and anti-national politics” on campus. Vemula’s heartbreaking suicide note attests to the near-total isolation and despair of a gifted writer and thinker.

Students in New Delhi protest at an anti-government rally after the suicide of Rohith Vemula. Photograph: Shaurya Yadav/Demotix/Corbis

The extended family of upper-caste nationalists plainly aim at total domination of the public sphere. But they don’t only use the bullying power of the leviathan state – one quickly identified by local and foreign critics – to grind down their apparent enemies. They pursue them through police cases and legal petitions by private individuals – a number of criminal complaints have been filed against writers and artists in India. They create a climate of impunity, in which emboldened mobs ransack newspapers offices, art galleries and cinemas.

And they turn the medium into their message in a variety of ways. Big business cronies of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) are close to achieving Berlusconi-style domination of Indian television. The Hindu nationalists have also learned how to manipulate the new media, and shape instant opinion: they hire, to use Erdoğan’s words, a “robot lobby” on social media to drown their audiences in disinformation – until two plus two looks five.

Indian Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi. Photograph: Reuters

It is possible to identify institutions and individuals across the realms of business, education and the media who serve as attack-dogs and sentinels for the party in power. All these networks of political, social and cultural power – from suave editors to rancid trolls – work synergistically to build dispositions, and dictate perceptions. Together, they can exert pressure at multiple points on individuals much less vulnerable than Rohith Vemula.

Last week, as the novelist Arundhati Roy abruptly faced criminal trial for “contempt of court” that could result in imprisonment, a circulating text message claimed that the writer was part of a conspiracy by Christian missionaries to murder Vemula and break up India. It wasn’t easy to dismiss this farrago of paranoid nonsense. And then the indifferent, if not hostile, reports in India’s mainstream media could have made anyone think that Roy had a case to answer.

Institutions and individuals from business, education and the media serve as attack-dogs for the party in power

In reality, Roy’s “offence” to the court was an article in May last year calling attention to the incarceration of a severely disabled academic called Saibaba, a lecturer in English at Delhi University who had been kidnapped by the police and imprisoned for his “anti-national activities”. Roy had argued in passing that if Modi’s associates, convicted of dozens of murders, could be granted bail, so could a wheelchair user with rapidly deteriorating health.

Seven months later, a judge in the central Indian city of Nagpur, while rejecting bail, chose to denounce Roy as a “nasty”, “surly”, “rude” and “boorish” individual whose article, part of a nefarious “gameplan” to get Saibaba out on bail, constituted contempt of court (never mind that there was no bail petition for Saibaba pending at the time Roy’s article was published; nor had she criticised any court judgment or judge while asking for due legal process). He accused Roy of using the “prestigious awards” she is “said to have won” to rail against a “most tolerant country like India”. Roy, who has been working on her second novel in recent years, emerges in his thunderous indictment as a vicious foe of all those who “are fighting for prevention of unlawful and terrorist activities in the country”.

A caricature is held up at a student protest in Guwahati after the death of a student Rohith Vemula. Photograph: Xinhua Press/Corbis

You would have no trouble believing this if you recently watched a short film about Roy on one of India’s most popular channels owned by Zee Entertainment Enterprises, one of India’s largest media companies and Modi’s most fervent cheerleader. The film, broadcast in November, purports to show the “true” and wholly malign face of an anti-national.

Thus, Roy faces potent antagonists in the courts of law and public opinion; their calumnies throttle her freedom of speech and also destroy the relative freedom from worldly encumbrance and anxiety that allows a writer to stay in a room of her own and write. Of course, Modi’s government has left no clear fingerprints on this scene of a crime against art and thought. But then the suppression of artists and intellectuals in a formal democracy such as India manifests itself in many interlocking patterns.

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher: shouted such slogans as “beat the literati with shoes” at a demonstration against Indian authors who had returned their awards in protest. Photograph: Deepak Sharma/AP

It involves not only censorship by a ruthless regime and self-censorship by its powerless individual victims. It depends on a steady deterioration in public and private morality, a rise in lynch-mob hysteria, and a general coarsening of tone in civil society, to which judge and jester contribute equally.

Narendra Modi: the divisive manipulator who charmed the world

On the day Roy faced criminal charges in Nagpur, the Jaipur literary festival, unironically sponsored by Zee, hosted a debate on freedom of speech. The rowdiest arguments against the motion “Should Freedom of Speech be Absolute?” were presented by Anupam Kher, a Bollywood actor popular for his buffoonish turns. In November, Kher organised a demonstration against Indian authors who had returned their literary awards in protest against the assassination of three writers and the lynching of Muslims and Dalits. He repaired from shouting such slogans as “beat the literati with shoes” to pose for photos with Modi at the prime minister’s official residence in Delhi.

The presence of Kher, a disturbing case of a jester on screen mutating into a dangerous clown in politics, at a literary festival would have been egregious even if he hadn’t pumped his fists and joined members of the audience chanting “Modi, Modi”, or if he and his fellow debaters had mentioned the silencing of Roy. It would have still spoken of a broadening – and increasingly normalised – contempt for the life of the mind and the individual conscience. Writers – from Adam Mickiewicz to Rabindranath Tagore – once wrote the national community into being. The Hindu nationalists are now demonstrating that there are many ways to assassinate a writer.

o o o

“Arundhati Roy case important, but no more or less than those of other Indian writers”

by Salil Tripathi

The Jaipur Literature Festival ended on 25 January with its customary debate, which is usually about a topic of current concern. The theme this year was whether freedom of speech is absolute. The same day, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy faced contempt charges at a court in Nagpur. Three Indian writers—Pankaj Mishra, Saba Naqvi and Omair Ahmed—expressed surprise and disappointment that writers assembled in Jaipur did not speak out for Roy.

Roy faces the contempt charge for a spirited—and entirely justified—article she wrote, defending a disabled writer, G.N. Saibaba, who teaches at Delhi University, whose bail application was denied by a court. Saibaba has been accused of links with Naxalites, an extreme left group. Roy is hardly alone in criticizing Saibaba’s detention; former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju has publicly expressed his concern too. Roy asks, indignantly, that if politically well-connected individuals accused of murders can be granted bail, why couldn’t Saibaba?

However, a judge in Nagpur didn’t like Roy’s tone. Declaring that India is a tolerant country, he issued the contempt notice on Roy, which is curious and puzzling, if not ironic.

In his article in The Guardian, Mishra implied that writers in Jaipur didn’t defend Roy; that their commitment to free speech was limited; and that corporate sponsorship may have influenced the assembled writers.

Those implications aren’t fair. I was there.

At a session on the final day, novelist and critic Nilanjana Roy spoke along with Hindi writers Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi (who have both returned their national awards protesting the growing climate of intolerance in India). She raised the litigation threats Arundhati Roy faces, pointing out the broader principle of how Indian laws interfere with free expression—a point other writers made in different sessions too. Later that afternoon, Roy held a session on the value of poetry, where Vajpeyi, the Punjabi poet Nirupama Dutt and I read poems of Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, who faced the death penalty in Saudi Arabia over blasphemy charges (a punishment since “reduced” to eight years in prison and 800 lashes). In another session I moderated, I joined panelists in condemning the attacks on freedom of expression during the Emergency of 1975-77—the topic of the session—and the current political climate in India.

Much of the concern of the critics, including Mishra, is focused on what happened at the final debate.

Speaking for the motion—that free speech is absolute—were the Tamil writer P. Sivakami; the Delhi state minister Kapil Mishra (who showed remarkable talent in speaking louder than a section of the crowd trying to drown his voice); senior journalist Madhu Trehan; and myself.

Speaking against the motion were actor Anupam Kher, who has lately wrapped himself in nationalistic colours and led a crusade against the dissenting writers who are returning their awards; author and diplomat-turned-politician Pavan Varma; and public relations professional Suhel Seth, a frequent feature in debates on Indian television.

Kher seemed to think that the stage was a wrestling arena and displayed his muscles first, to the applause of a vociferous section of the crowd. Then he egged on that section which loudly chanted “Modi, Modi,” referring to the Indian prime minister, and made arguments which were at best non sequiturs.

Kher and his teammates then made the intriguing claim that India was the freest country in the world. In response, I asked them to go to Dharwad in Karnataka and visit the family of the scholar and academic M.M. Kalburgi, and tell them what he just told us. Last August, unknown assailants murdered Kalburgi, who wrote critically against Hindu nationalism. Or, I suggested, they could go to meet the families of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar or Marxist writer Govind Pansare, who too have been murdered in recent years, and whose killers have not yet been apprehended. I also mentioned the cases of the young woman arrested for liking a particular Facebook post and some of the laws that restrict freedoms in India. I also urged the audience not to trust any of the politicians on the stage. They must safeguard free speech, which was their right, and not a privilege the government had granted them.

I didn’t mention Arundhati Roy not because anybody had told me or my teammates not to do so, but because I didn’t mention many other threats—by defamation and criminal laws and by mobs—which threaten and intimidate writers in India. It would have been ridiculous if any of the sponsors had told any of the debaters what they could or could not speak. But that didn’t happen.

Five days later, on 30 January (the day Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated) I was in Dandi, the coastal town where in 1930 Gandhi defied the colonial salt tax. Here, the academic Ganesh N. Devy had organized the Sarva Bhasha Samwad (Dialogue of All Languages), which drew more than 500 authors from Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra, including members of the families of Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare, along with historian and author Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson.

The assembled authors pledged to defend freedoms and fight intolerance. They didn’t single out Roy either, but that didn’t mean they would not defend her. I know; I was proud to be part of the group.

Arundhati Roy matters, of course; but no single case should become the litmus test for an entire country. The fight to defend freedom of expression never ends, and Roy’s case is just as important as the many other struggles Indian writers are fighting—no more, no less.

Salil Tripathi is the Chair of PEN International’s Writers-in-Prison Committee. His most recent book is Detours: Songs of the Open Road. He is also the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (2009) and The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (2014).


The above articles from The Guardian and LiveMint are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use