Arundhati Roy and Indian De-MOCK-racy

Speaking her mind Arundhati Roy’s views on the Kashmir issue have invited brickbats from all possible quarters (Tehelka). PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The democratic tradition in India is only skin deep. It’s as superficial as the skins or membranes we buy to put on expensive cellphones and other gadgets. You realize this whenever a public figure criticizes the government, or generally adopts an unpopular position.  How dare they? A virtual fatwa is issued against the offending party by irate citizens with not even the slightest pretence that they might have the right to express their views, whatever these may be. So after weeks of outrage expressed on Twitter about the writer Arundhati Roy’s stance on Kashmir (that it should be allowed to secede) today the inevitable happened. A horde of protestors accompanied by TV cameras lynched the writer’s home, vandalizing property and shouting slogans at her and her family.

As fellow writer Salil Tripathi tweeted: Everytime Arundhati Roy writes or speaks, she incites people and there’s unrest, demonstrations, and threats of violence: erm, against her.

If only people would get their knickers in as much of a knot over serious things like the corruption that was highlighted during the Commonwealth Games or the scandal over the Chief Minister of Maharashtra allotting several posh apartments in a fancy building to himself and family members. To make matters worse the building “originally meant to be a six-storey structure to house Kargil war heroes and widows … was later converted into a 31-storey tower, apparently in violation of environmental laws,” and divided up among top politicians and army personnel in Mumbai.

How on earth is it that in the face of such crimes people can find the time to lynch a writer merely for expressing her views? And even if some people were foolish enough to do this how come members of the media accompanied the unruly protestors to the location and stood by doing nothing while the writer’s house was attacked? Is this the Indian version of ‘embedded media’? Below is the statement issued by Arundhati Roy on the mob attack this morning.

SOMETHING FOR THE MEDIA TO THINK ABOUT

Arundhati  Roy

October 31st 2010

A mob of about a hundred people arrived at my house at 11 this morning (Sunday October 31st 2010.) They broke through the gate and vandalized property. They shouted slogans against me for my views on Kashmir, and threatened to teach me a lesson. The OB Vans of NDTV, Times Now and News 24 were already in place ostensibly to cover the event live.  TV reports say that the mob consisted largely of members of the BJP’s Mahila Morcha (Women’s wing). After they left, the police advised us to let them know if in future we saw any OB vans hanging around the neighborhood because they said that was an indication that a mob was on its way. In June this year, after a false report in the papers by Press Trust of India (PTI) two men on motorcycles tried to stone the windows of my home. They too were accompanied by TV cameramen.

What is the nature of the agreement between these sections of the media and mobs and criminals in search of spectacle? Does the media which positions itself at the ‘scene’ in advance have a guarantee that the attacks and demonstrations will be non-violent? What happens if there is criminal trespass (as there was today) or even something worse? Does the media then become accessory to the crime? This question is important, given that some TV channels and newspapers are in the process of brazenly inciting mob anger against me. In the race for sensationalism the line between reporting news and manufacturing news is becoming blurred. So what if a few people have to be sacrificed at the altar of TRP ratings? The Government has indicated that it does not intend to go ahead with the charges of sedition against me and the other speakers at a recent seminar on Azadi for Kashmir. So the task of punishing me for my views seems to have been taken on by right wing storm troopers. The Bajrang Dal and the RSS have openly announced that they are going to “fix” me with all the means at their disposal including filing cases against me all over the country. The whole country has seen what they are capable of doing, the extent to which they are capable of going. So, while the Government is showing a degree of maturity, are sections of the media and the infrastructure of democracy being rented out to those who believe in mob justice? I can understand that the BJP’s Mahila Morcha is using me to distract attention the from the senior RSS activist Indresh Kumar who has recently been named in the CBI charge-sheet for the bomb blast in Ajmer Sharif in which several people were killed and many injured. But why are sections of the mainstream media doing the same? Is a writer with unpopular views more dangerous than a suspect in a bomb blast? Or is it a question of ideological alignment?

One of the best responses to the entire situation came from Vir Sanghvi. In a cunningly argued article in the Hindu Times he asks a crucial question and then provides the answer:
Is the damage to India so great that it justifies curtailing free speech?

Obviously, it isn’t. No violence followed her statements and nor did she incite it. Moreover, there will still be an India with Kashmir as an integral part of it long after Roy herself is forgotten.

So, let’s just cool down. We have a perfect right to dislike Roy. We are entirely justified in being angered by her statements. But the moment we compromise on the principles that make us a liberal society —especially when her remarks pose no real threat to us at all — we start playing her game.

We become the repressive, authoritarian society she suggests we already are.

The Indian Mujahideen and the Commonwealth Games

As i sit here listening to samples of songs on the split personality riddim, one of the latest products from Kingston’s teeming studios, I’m actually battling a sense of dread. News has just come of an attack on tourists in India’s capital Delhi, two weeks ahead of the nineteenth staging of the Commonwealth Games there. The attack was accompanied by an email to the Indian media from a group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen. They want vengeance and are threatening retaliation for alleged atrocities in Kashmir. Congratulating India on its hosting of the CWG, the email goes on to say:

“Rejoice! We will now rightfully play Holi with your blood in your own cities. Scores of fidayeen are restless to drop the Evil ones into the hellfire… we Warn you to host the Commonwealth games if you have a grain of salt. We know that preparations for the games are at its peak; Beware!! We too are preparing in full swing for a Great Surprise! The participants will be solely responsible for the outcome, as our bands of Mujahideen love death more than you love life. In Kashmir you have succeeded in usurping our Right of self-determination with all your Chanakya policies.”

The language is accidentally poetic in places, occasionally striking a tragicomic note: Remember! As we bleed, so will you seep…

It’s hard not to weep. India presents a large, slow-moving target and is inadequately equipped to deal with the fallout from situations like the long-standing war over Kashmir. Just yesterday we (#JNSS) distributed “safety catalogues” to foreign tourists in Paharganj came a tweet from Delhi.

Only a short while ago India was faced with the prospect of shooting young 9 and 10 year old boys in Kashmir who were pelting stones at the army. Today the situation in Kashmir has escalated to the point where the nation is now being held hostage. Perhaps its time to let go? Incidentally  Arundhati Roy’s advocacy of independence for Kashmir (see video at the end of this post) was one of the issues that earned the person tweeting in her name the wrath of Indian tweeters.

A recent article What Are Kashmir’s Stone Pelters Saying to Us? (Economic and Political Weekly, VOL 45 No. 37 September 11 – September 17, 2010) summed up the problem well:

Like an obstinate nightmare, Kashmir has returned to haunt India’s political discourse, in this third consecutive summer of massive protests. For almost two months now we are witnessing the brazen  courage of Kashmiri youth, armed with stones in their hands, in groups of no more than a few hundred at a time, taking on Kashmir’s much vaunted “security grid”. This carefully welded network deploys at least 6,00,000 soldiers in uniform, and another 1,00,000 “civilian” intelligence and surveillance operatives. But pinned down by this summer’s showers of carefully aimed rocks, the grid has begun to appear clumsy and vulnerable.

As the sang-bazan, the stone-pelters, insolently stormed into prime time, they brought with them an intensity that made the newspaper pundits, and the usual chorus of television-studio experts, briefly wilt. Images of boys as young as nine and ten being dragged off into police vehicles, or shot dead by the paramilitary forces, have begun to dent conventional truisms about what is happening in Kashmir. Startling photographs of middle-aged (and middle class) women in the ranks of the stone-pelting protesters have also destabilised those who have hidden behind a morbid panic of the “Islamists”, or the fear of Pakistan’s venality, to obscure their understanding of events in the Valley. Although reluctant to grant this uprising the same political pedigree, at least some Indians seem to be curling their tongues around the word intifada. On the whole, the David and Goliath disproportion of the protests, and its sheer effrontery, has begun to capture the imagination of a growing number of people in India.  So beyond their furious defiance, what are Kashmir’s stone-pelters saying to us?