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Nov 1, 2010

No damage to India from Arundhati Roy's remarks

How should the government respond to the remarks made by Arundhati Roy about Kashmir and about the behaviour of our armed forces in that state? So far, public opinion has been largely guided by two factors. The first of these is the public view of Roy. Many — if not most — educated Indians have no time for Roy. In a recent TV discussion, the actor Anupam Kher characterised her as a 'one-book wonder', as a woman who has shot her literary bolt and now keeps herself in the news by making increasingly outrageous anti-Indian statements for the benefit of the foreign media. Her caricature of India as some sort of neo-Nazi state where minorities are routinely persecuted and the poor cheerfully exploited offers foreign journos a useful counterpoint to the 'Indian success story' headlines and gives them a lazy way of adding dissenting notes to the usual India pieces.

Kher may have been overstating his case for the benefit of the TV cameras but his position is, broadly speaking, the view of the educated Indian middle class. Even within the liberal Left, it is getting harder to find support for Roy's views. Some years ago, the historian Ram Guha wrote that the problem with Roy was that she damaged the many good causes she often associated with because of her style and over-statement. At that time, Guha's view was controversial. Now, it is pretty much the conventional wisdom.

So, many of the public responses to Roy's statements have been guided less by the statements themselves and more by the public perception of Roy.

The second factor is the nature of Roy's speeches. Eminent lawyers argue that a case for sedition could easily be made out on the basis of her demands for Kashmiri independence. Certainly, there is much in her comments to offend most Indians: the suggestion that India is an occupying power that imposes its rule on Kashmir through torture, brutality and rape is deliberately provocative.

These two factors have been enough to cause many people — including political parties — to demand her arrest. She should be tried for sedition or treason, they say. Freedom of speech is all very well up to a point. But we all accept that there must be restraints on free speech and treason is one area where free speech can be legitimately curtailed.

Roy's defenders fall back on an argument suggested by Roy herself ("pity the state that jails its writers..."). Artists must not have their freedom curbed. The Indian State has already erred by persecuting MF Husain. The Shiv Sena is running a pointless campaign against Rohinton Mistry. So, why add a Booker Prize winner to the list?

The problem with this defence is that it casts Roy in the role of Alexander Solzhenitsyn smuggling his manuscript past Soviet censors or Nadine Gordimer battling the apartheid regime to get her fiction out.

In fact, the truth is that when she made those statements, Roy was functioning not as an artist but as a political activist. Those political activists who have written novels cannot claim greater freedom than other political activists with no best-selling fiction to their names. Political statements made in a political context must be judged on a political basis. Artistic freedom does not enter into it.

So, to return to the big question, what should the government do?

It is instructive to examine the experience of other liberal societies faced with apparently seditious statements made by photogenic celebrities. During the Vietnam War, the actress Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam, a country with which the US was at war. During her widely-publicised visit, she expressed her support for the struggle of the Vietnamese people, condemned the role of the US and even went on Vietnamese radio to ask US pilots to stop bombing Vietnam.

Or take the case of the British actress, Vanessa Redgrave, who took time off from her generalised condemnations of corporate-dominated, poor-exploiting, British society to campaign against British forces when they were battling the terrorist IRA.

In both cases, there was widespread public outrage accompanied by demands for their arrest and cries of 'treason' and 'sedition'.

And yet, how do you suppose the US and UK responded? Britain was run by a Conservative government and the majority of Conservative party members clearly wanted Redgrave locked up. America was run by Richard Nixon, the champion of the so-called Silent Majority.

But in both cases, the governments were content to let the actresses be. The British view was that Redgrave represented a fringe element and that by locking her up, the government would only give more publicity to those it was fighting. In America, the attorney-general said, "Most of us in the Administration shared the view that the damage was slight and the interest in favour of free speech was very high."

One of the FBI agents asked to examine Fonda's case wrote on her file, "There are more dangerous characters around needing our attention...The basis for investigation appears to be — pick someone you dislike and start investigating."

My feeling is that we would do well to follow the example of England and America. It does not matter how we feel about Roy herself. The principle of freedom of expression is far more important than any individual. It is true that free speech can be curtailed on grounds of sedition. But we should restrict such curtailment of freedom of expression to those times when there is a real threat to the unity and integrity of India.

In this case, I would argue, Roy's statements pose no threat to us at all. Some years ago, she wrote a very long article for The Guardian and Outlook, demanding azaadi for Kashmir. The consequences of that article were hardly damaging or dangerous. India did not collapse. Kashmir did not secede. And the piece itself was quickly forgotten.

There is no reason to believe that these statements will have consequences that are any more serious. In fact, they would have faded from the news in hours had the TV channels not continued fuelling public outrage.

Ultimately, we must be guided by the principle followed by the US in the Jane Fonda case. 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.

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