Pankaj Mishra on Arundhati Roy: Hindu nationalists have many ways to silence writers
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
Photo:Arundhati Roy: the subject of hostile reports in India’s mainstream media. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Tuesday 2 February 2016 17.11 GMT
Last modified on Wednesday 3 February 2016 10.42 GMT
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.
Photo: 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.
Photo: 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”.
Photo: 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.
Photo: 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.