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Arundhati Roy Faces Anti-Terror Prosecution in India as Modi Expands Crackdown on Critics

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Acclaimed author Arundhati Roy could soon face trial under India’s contested “anti-terror” laws in a case that has drawn outrage from free speech advocates in India and beyond. An official from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right ruling Bharatiya Janata Party gave the go-ahead on Friday for Roy’s prosecution over comments she made about Kashmir in 2010. This comes as Modi was sworn in last week to his third term as prime minister after the BJP won the most seats in Indian’s Parliament, but lost its outright majority. “This case is so convoluted, it’s hard to say where it begins and where it ends — and that’s the point. The process is the punishment,” says Indian author and journalist Siddhartha Deb, who teaches at The New School in New York. Deb says Modi is trying to show that “everything is normal” despite the shocking electoral setback, with the case against Roy being used to placate his “rabid attack dogs of Hindu nationalism.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The acclaimed author Arundhati Roy could soon face trial under India’s contested “anti-terror” laws, after an official from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right BJP party gave the go-ahead for her prosecution. The charges against Roy stem from comments she made about Kashmir in 2010. This is an excerpt of those comments. Listen closely.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Look, Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. However aggressively and however often you want to ask me that, even the Indian government has accepted in the U.N. that it’s not an integral part of India. So, why are we trying to change that narrative now?

AMY GOODMAN: Free speech advocates have expressed outrage over the persecution of Arundhati Roy, as well other critics of Narendra Modi, who was sworn in last week to his third term as prime minister, albeit with the BJP having lost its parliamentary majority in a stunning setback.

Last year, as Arundhati Roy was awarded a European Essay Prize in Switzerland, she warned that Modi’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric and policies were spreading throughout India society.

ARUNDHATI ROY: It is no longer just our leaders we must fear, but a whole section of the population. The banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt would have called it, the normalization of evil, is now manifest in our streets, in our classrooms, in our very many public spaces. The mainstream press, the hundreds of 24-hour news channels, have been harnessed to the cause of fascist majoritarianism. India’s Constitution has effectively been set aside. The Indian Penal Code is being rewritten. If the current regime wins a majority in 2024, it is very likely we will see a new constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Arundhati Roy last year.

For more, we’re joined by the award-winning Indian author and journalist Siddhartha Deb. His most recent novel is The Light at the End of the World. His new nonfiction book is Twilight Prisoners: The Rise of the Hindu Right and the Fall of India. He’s also professor of literary studies at The New School here in New York.

Siddharth, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what we have just learned, the possible prosecution of Arundhati.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Hi, Amy. Thanks. It’s good to be back, but always under terrible circumstances.

Yes, it’s so convoluted, it’s very hard to figure out what is going on — but that is precisely the point in Modi’s India, with these terror charges and the kind of, you know, trumpeting it on media. But my understanding is that this is a seminar that Roy took part in in 2010 with a number of people. It was a public event. There was obviously a lot of media there. And it —

AMY GOODMAN: Just in her speaking now, we saw it was like a press conference, where you had mics from everywhere.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Right, right, and it was. But it was meant to be a kind of a public sort of discourse or some discussion on Kashmir and its very, very troubled status within India. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Could you actually stop for a second, though I asked you about Arundhati, and explain the status of Kashmir?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, as far as Kashmiris are concerned, it is militarily occupied by the Indian state, and it’s very hard to argue against that. I was there myself in 2014, actually to write a profile of Arundhati Roy for The New York Times Magazine. And, you know, Kashmir, like certain other parts of India, including the northeast, which is where I grew up, is under — you know, there is very little in terms of civil liberties. There is — or, almost nothing in terms of civil liberties. And, you know, Kashmiris see India as an occupying imperialist force in Kashmir, and justifiably so, given their experience especially in the last 30 years.

But these are not things you can say in India. This could be — what I just now said could be construed as anti-national, is by Modi and the Hindu right and the media, the mainstream media, which is completely behind him. But the point isn’t really about Kashmir. The point is really about the fact that the Hindu right don’t want anyone like Arundhati critiquing the government, critiquing its policies, not just on Kashmir, but that it is completely — it’s a fascist political party. It is against all minorities. It is against women. It is against the poor. And that is what Roy has been speaking up and writing about for over 30 years. And that’s what they’re against. And they want to shut down not just speech. They want to shut down thought. And that’s what this is about.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what happened, because Narendra Modi was reelected to a third term, which is almost unprecedented.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, yes, but I think it’s pretty much accepted, both by the Hindu right as well as the opposition, that it was a stunning electoral reverse, because this is — they did not achieve a majority. They lost the parliamentary seat in their sort of showpiece, which was the Ram temple built on the site of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the Ram temple.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, this was — so, the problem is that the Hindu right doesn’t have an agenda beyond hatred. I mean, we could reduce their political program to a haiku. It is basically Kashmir, Assam, Muslims, anti-nationals and the poor, and we are against these things. That is its agenda, and the Ram temple, temples on the site of mosques as a way of proclaiming the victory of the Hindu right and as a way of proclaiming Muslims as outsiders.

And so, the Ram temple is basically — the campaign to build the Ram temple is how the BJP came to power from the 1980s, when it had two seats in the Parliament. They went from two to something like 86 in this whole reviving the Ram temple. They are very, very good at manipulating these emotions, these sort of atavistic emotions.

But one of the things that this election result has made clear, that that is — that sort of hatred is running thin. That’s why it is so significant that they lost the parliamentary seat where they have poured in this massive temple. I was in India in January when they inaugurated the temple. And Modi was almost like the deity, and that the whole nation was supposed to be praying to. So, the thing is, the BJP has the entire media behind it. You know, it has cracked down. It has made it very hard for opposition political parties to campaign. They have done it through all sorts of things, including — and they have all this incredible money. And in spite of that, to not achieve a majority, that is a significant defeat.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s fair, Siddharth, to say it was the poor who actually defeated the BJP majority? I’m talking about what used to be called the untouchables, the Dalits. This is the largest election in the world, what happened in India, over many, many weeks.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why the BJP did not achieve that majority?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. I think it’s absolutely true to say it is the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized groups, the rural areas that voted against the BJP. And I think even within the Hindu right, there is some — there is some kind of, you know, fallout happening from this. But that’s because India is a disaster in terms of public health. We saw that in Modi’s terrible handling of the pandemic, the number of people that died, the way that the government and Modi disappeared in so many ways. Public health is terrible. You know, India is economically in a shambles — food prices, employment. And these things have now begun to matter, even to people who might previously have been persuaded by this rhetoric of hatred. I think people want jobs. People want food. And climate change, climate collapse. I mean, Delhi was 127 degrees just a few weeks ago. This, the Hindu right has nothing. They are anti-science. They are anti-women. They’re anti-poor. They’re anti-Muslim. They have nothing beyond an agenda of hatred and temples built on demolished mosques.

AMY GOODMAN: Arundhati Roy is being prosecuted alongside a former university professor, Sheikh Showkat Hussain. What do you know about Hussain, and why is he being targeted?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, look, Kashmiris are always — have always been targeted. I mean, it is India — Indian state does treat Kashmir and Kashmiris as occupied territory, as, you know, with not having the same rights.

The point is that now they have extended it to the entirety of India. And we have to remember that it is not just Kashmiris. I mean, Kashmiris are in prison in large numbers. But the terror law, the UAPA, which is being used in this case, that is not something that the BJP is responsible for creating. It was created in the 1960s. It was updated by the Congress government in 2008. But in the first four years since Modi came to power for the first time in 2014, arrests under UAPA nearly doubled to something over 5,000 cases.

These cases take between five to 10 years to go to court. They are — you know, and that’s the whole point. Often people are let go of, but they have spent 10 years in prison, someone like Father Stan Swamy, who was a Jesuit activist priest in his eighties, who has done much more for the poor and the marginalized in India than the entire Hindu right put together. He was a man with Parkinson’s. They put him in prison under UAPA. They denied him a sipper straw to drink from, because, you know, he had trouble holding a normal glass. He died in prison. This is the record of UAPA. The BK-16 — he was one of the group of, you know, activists, intellectuals, Dalits, Muslims, leftists, academics, scholars, who are — and their only crime is that they are against the Hindu right’s fascist vision of India. And so, it’s important to keep that in mind, that that’s what this is about.

And this is meant to be a signal from Modi and the party, but especially from Modi, that things are under control, that they remain strong. And that’s why my understanding is that Roy’s lawyers have not received anything official from the government. This is all being played out in the media. It’s meant to rally the attack dogs of the Hindu right.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who aren’t familiar with who Arundhati Roy is, the author of, among many other books, The God of Small Things, I think she was the youngest, at the time, winner of the Booker Man Prize. Can you talk about who Arundhati is, in India and how she is known around the world?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. I have written — I mean, one of the chapters in the recent book is the profile that I did off Roy from 2014. And essentially, Roy, in some sense, comes out of nowhere, in the Indian context, which is deeply hierarchical, and she won this Booker Prize for this amazing first novel. And she was fêted around the world, including by the Indian elite.

But the trouble with the elite, the Hindu right began when the BJP actually won the elections in ’98, and they celebrated by carrying out nuclear tests. And this was greeted with wild, rabid and nationalist fervor, not just among the Hindu right, but by the liberals in India, because this was seen as a sign of a new, strong India, not Gandhian, not nonaligned, not committed to peace, but a military, macho, masculine society. And Roy wrote an essay called “The End of Imagination,” where she really mourned this. She saw this as kind of the end of something better and the beginning of something very vile. And she was absolutely right. And she went from being this sort of poster child of brand India to becoming anti-national public enemy number one among the elite.

And, you know, Roy took that on with gusto. She has written and campaigned and traveled extensively and, you know, challenged every single sort of aspect of this new Indian Hindu nationalism. The big dams — she wrote against the big dams. And she turned out to be right. These big dams, all they achieved was dispossessing tens of thousands of poor, marginalized villagers, often Indigenous, and they have not achieved anything in terms of agriculture, anything in terms of actually increasing power. She has consistently spoken out against India’s policy in Kashmir, India’s policies against the poor, the neoliberalism that India embraced both under the Congress and the BJP governments. And that’s why, on the one hand, she is really detested by the Hindu right and by the elite, because she’s seen as sullying India’s name. She’s the opposite of Modi. Modi makes a certain section of Indians proud, because he’s strong.

But then, I think Roy is translated widely into Indian languages. And people read her widely through the same sections, the same parts of India that voted against the BJP, against the Hindu right, because, to them, these things about climate change, they are not fantasies, they are not imagination, the imaginary things. These are experiences of their daily lives. They face it. There are people who work construction in 127 degrees outdoors. You see them. There are men, women and children who carry out the — who built these giant sort of shopping malls and, you know, office complexes and centers for Boeing aerospace, in this kind of incredible heat, without rights. And, you know, Roy has consistently spoken about that over the last 30 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Greek finance minister, leader of the pan-European leftist political party DiEM25, Yanis Varoufakis, issued a challenge to the international community. He said, “Only yesterday I was expressing concern over the rumors that Arundhati Roy might be Modi’s next political prisoner. A day later the rumor is becoming a reality,” Varoufakis posted on social media, saying, “Will there be an uproar in the [so-called] 'civilized' West? Or will complicity be the order of the day a la Assange?”

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Oh, that’s a great question from Varoufakis, a really pertinent one, because the sad truth is that the West, the Western democracies, particularly United States, Britain and France, have been completely complicit in the rise of the Hindu right and in the rise of Modi. I mean, in that sense, as an Indian, as somebody from the Global South, it is terrible to see how it makes no difference whether a Democrat comes to power or a Republican comes to power. Every single U.S. administration — Obama, Trump, Biden — have embraced Modi, have treated him with great respect, have treated him with great dignity. They know what is going on in India in terms of civil liberties. They know what is going on with the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is almost like a version of India’s Nuremberg laws. It’s an attempt to disenfranchise people based and just on their Muslim identity in Assam, which, again, I have written about extensively, reported — 

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Assam is.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Assam is a state in the northeast. It borders Bangladesh. It has a very mixed population. It is because of India’s tremendous sort of terrible colonial history. A large number of Bengali-speaking people were moved to Assam by the British to work there in the bureaucracies, to work there in the farms. But when the British departed in 1947, there were many refugees, mostly Bengali Hindus, who entered India from East Pakistan. My father was one of them as a 21-year-old refugee, as were the rest of the family. And in 1971, when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan under a horrible, brutal, genocidal civil war, which the United States supported, naturally, was Henry Kissinger’s — that is one of Henry Kissinger’s crowning moments of glory — a number of refugees again moved across the border.

And this clearly created a kind of, you know, tremendous anxiety among the Assamis, which is understandable. But the BJP, the Hindu right, has weaponized this sort of anxiety of the Assamis and made it entirely about Bengali Muslims having to prove their identity, having to prove their citizenship. These are people who are farmers, who live on river islands, who often have received nothing from the state in terms of education. They are required to go to these elaborate tribunals and provide extensive documentation to prove that they are Indian citizen. A million people were faced with, you know, being disenfranchised. Now, Bangladesh obviously refuses them, to take them back, because they are Indians. Their only crime is that they are Muslim.

So, this is what has been going on. This is something that, you know, the United States government is completely aware of. But it seems to make no difference, because India is a very good military strategic partner of the United States, of France, of Israel, of the U.K. India is one of the major weapons buyers of the world. I believe it might be number one now. It was among the top 10 when my last nonfiction book came out 14 years ago. I believe it might be the first right now. When Modi came to visit Biden and was greeted at the White House, he went back with a — he put in a purchase order for drones. And so, the West has chosen to look the other way while this incredible sort of violence has been unfolding in India. And Roy has been at the forefront of this, speaking out. And that’s one of the reasons the Hindu right particularly detest her, because she’s articulate, and she’s fearless, and she represents a kind of spirit of freedom and imagination. And that is what they’re against.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Siddharth Deb, I wanted to ask you about another issue. This was just in The Washington Post. An Indian citizen accused of attempting to kill a Sikh separatist in New York has been extradited to the U.S. ahead of an expected federal court appearance, people with knowledge of the situation confirmed. The defendant, Nikhil Gupta, has been charged with murder for hire linked to a foiled plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen who advocates for an independent Sikh state Can you explain what this is all about?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: An assassination has already — was already carried out in Canada of a Sikh separatist leader, presumably by Indian agents. That is what the Canadian government brought to the Indian government, to Modi’s notice. They were apparently tipped off in this by U.S. intelligence.

But the thing is, this is entirely with posturing. None of these — the Sikh separatist movement is not very strong politically anymore. These are people. They have views. But this is entirely about the Hindu right’s posturing to its domestic audience. And what they are saying — and to some degree, it was successful — is that they are saying, “Look, we can do what the U.S. or Russia does. We are as strong and as violent as the strongest, most violent states in the world. We can cross borders and assassinate people we don’t like with impunity.”

And obviously, it also creates a kind of threat for anybody, all of us, including people like me, you know, living in the United States or living in Canada, that “We can just come and kill you.” So, it’s meant to be partly — it’s meant to be, you know, appeal to the Hindu right audience in India to show it’s this kind of strength, it’s this kind of toxic sort of nationalism, militarism. And it is also meant to put critics of the Modi government under — you know, in a warning. So, yes, UAPA law, for those living in India, and the threat of assassination for those living abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Canadian citizen separatist leader in British Columbia who was assassinated. And if you could just put it, overall, in the context for people who aren’t familiar with Indian politics or why are some Sikhs calling for a separate homeland in India?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, this dates back to the '80s and when, you know, a Sikh separatist movement broke out in Punjab, in the northern part of India. But one of the things that — and, you know, again, it is part of this sort of — India is a tremendously contested terrain. Minorities often don't feel secure within what was, even before the Hindu right, a kind of Hindu majoritarian government. And India is quite colonial and imperialist in many parts, including, again, in the northeast, where I grew up.

But in Punjab, a Sikh separatist movement did take place, partly stoked by Indian government intelligence themselves, because, you know, this is also one of the things that imperialist governments do. But when the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs, in retaliation for a military attack carried out on the Golden Temple in Punjab, where Sikh separatists were holed out and Indira Gandhi sent in troops — and, you know, it is the holiest site for Sikhs — and two of her bodyguards assassinated her, and that unleashed a kind of incredible pogrom. And this was when the Congress government was in power. Sikhs were just brutally tortured and killed across India, particularly in Delhi. And that stoked the — that led to the Sikh diaspora, particularly in the West, it created a support for the state, for a separate Sikh state. But that movement has really not had any kind of major support among Sikhs, whether among the diaspora or in India. There are other issues.

So, this is completely — it’s not dissimilar to the attempt to — it’s not dissimilar to this announcement that, you know, Roy will be prosecuted. It’s an attempt to rake up the embers of Hindu nationalism by pointing to these enemies. And the enemies are always people speaking for Kashmir or people speaking for Sikhs or people speaking for Dalits. It’s an attempt, because, as I said, the Hindu right doesn’t have a program of development or growth or a vision of the nation beyond a nation of a Hindu majority and completely oppressed minorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Siddhartha Deb is an award-winning author and journalist, born in northeast India. His most recent novel, The Light at the End of the World. His new nonfiction book, Twilight Prisoners: The Rise of the Hindu Right and the Fall of India. He’s a professor of literary studies at The New School in New York. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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