India: Arundhati Roy, the debater of big things
On trial for sedition in 1922, Mahatma Gandhi told the court in Ahmedabad, Gujarat: "I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me." Sedition "in law is a deliberate crime", he admitted, but it "appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen". History does not repeat itself, nor does it always rhyme. Still, the words of the father of modern India come to mind when considering the case of Arundhati Roy, who faces arrest under pretty much the same colonial sedition laws that earned Gandhi a six-year prison sentence.
The writer is under threat of a sedition charge after claiming in Delhi this weekend that "Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this." Ever since, the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party has been demanding the author's arrest and trial. The party's general secretary claimed: "Anyone speaking against India should be hanged."
As sentiments go, this is both daft and directly contrary to the Indian tradition of open debate and healthy dissent – and the Congress-led government should say so. The BJP may find Ms Roy's position shocking, but her comments are hardly new – she has been making similar public statements for years now. Nor is her argument a novel one; as the author (and occasional contributor to this paper) points out, she has only been voicing "what millions of people ... say every day". All she has done is bravely use her position to draw attention to the unjustifiable repression of unrest in the Kashmir valley that has been taking place over the past few months. Rather than chase after a novelist for speaking at a seminar, the Delhi government would be better off investigating the 100-plus people who are believed to have died in violence in Kashmir since June.
When Ms Roy won the Booker for The God of Small Things in 1997, the Indian press celebrated her as a powerful writer, an international success and an addition to the country's deservedly renowned literature. To be all those things means also having the liberty to speak your own mind – as Indians know very well. As Amartya Sen points out in his book The Argumentative Indian, there is a long, deep tradition in the country's discourse, of encouraging argument from all comers. Mr Sen quotes a poem from the 19th-century Bengali writer Ram Mohun Roy help make his case: "Just consider how terrible the day of your death will be. Others will go on speaking and you won't be able to argue back." Such sentiments are far more Indian than nonsense from irate BJP activists.
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