None of us is exempt: Arundhati Roy
As Roy writes in her apology note, her work has to be judged in terms of her consistent output and political positions, and not one stray remark uttered in a fit of absentmindedness nearly ten years ago. Yet, what we say in fits of absentmindedness does lead to some insight. In this instance the insight to be gained is stark.
I had not meant to write this column. But some columns demand to be written. Over the last couple of days, a small video clip of the writer Arundhati Roy has been generating some unpleasant controversy in social media. She is captured in the video as suggesting that Pakistan has never used the army as savagely on its own people as India has. It has been attacked for its perceived insensitivity and ignorance from two distinct quarters. First, right-wingers in India have been critical because it appears to praise Pakistan in explicit comparison with India. Second, citizens of Bangladesh have been hurt that a towering public intellectual from India appeared to display no sympathy for the brutalities the Pakistan army had wrecked on an entire population of its own people before they fought and won an independence war. India, let us not forget, had a leading role to play in that war as an ally of the then East Pakistan, which after independence became Bangladesh. Roy has since apologised, and the matter, in all fairness, should now be laid to rest.
The controversy, however, raises some larger questions, which in turn call for serious reflection. The questions pertain to the role of public intellectuals, and of how not to be provoked by cleverly manufactured propaganda. It is necessary therefore to set the controversy in perspective and to face up to some ruthless introspection.
It is not yet clear exactly where and against what particular context Ms. Roy made that remark. But make it she did. A Facebook page called Updates published it on August 28. As of now, it only has 362 followers. Most of its content over the last three months appears to follow no particular logic, except that almost all of them relate to Pakistan. There are quite a few video excerpts of Pakistani political leaders and army men holding forth. In fact, the only two India-related videos posted there over the last three months are a dance performance of a yellow saree-clad Raveena Tandon dancing in some Bollywood award ceremony, with actors Ranveer Kapoor and Boman Irani looking on admiringly, and a snippet from an India-Pakistan cricket match in which Indian captain Virat Kohli appears to steer a delivery from a Pakistan pacer safely to the third man area and setting off for a run. There is no preface to any of these videos. Even a cursory scroll down the page will convince anyone who cares that this is no serious attempt at anything constructive or meaningful, except perhaps to its owner. There is nothing wrong in it really, for everyone is free to post whatever she fancies, unless it is picked up by others and made to go viral. In this instance, it unfortunately has.
The video has absolutely no details about where Roy was speaking, or to which audience. All that the one-minute twenty-second clip offers is a list of provinces where the Indian state has in the past deployed its army against its own people. There is no need to defend or contradict anything about that list, for it is historically true, and too well documented to be repeated here. Whether or not the conduct of the Indian state or its army in all those instances was morally or legally defensible is a matter of debate that can be taken up separately. Perhaps it is, or is not, and the jury is still out, and not only on those questions. They are all complicated stories, and need not detain us here. My position on almost all those questions is ambivalent. The Indian state could well have done better in terms of human rights concerns. But all of those provinces and their people at the time had been locked in an ideological and military hostility against the mainland Indian state. If the focus is brought down to the individual level, it could be shown that almost every stakeholder had something to lose. If every one of them could be made to speak, almost all of them would have blamed everyone else except himself or herself. Memory, whether individual or collective, always comes with selective amnesia in which the projected self always has to come clean, if it has to make sense to itself.
Two points are clear. Whoever has uploaded that context-denuded video was looking only to defend Pakistan and malign India, loosely speaking, although it is hard to attribute a precise motive based on the pitifully limited information available. It is more than likely that this person had been looking to strengthen Pakistan's hand since that country these days survives on the single point agenda of complaining everywhere against what it calls the 'takeover' of Kashmir by India. That Roy had for long been a steadfast critic of the conduct of the Indian state concerning Kashmir, apart from being arguably the most globally recognisable resident critic of the Indian state's treatment of various minorities over the years, made her particularly vulnerable to this sort of targeted manipulation by vested interests. The very fact that the owner of the Facebook page did not bother to come out with a name and a clear statement of her politics is indication enough that their intention was not entirely noble.
There is no need to harp on the credibility or the intent of the source, for it is prima facie not respectable. It is time to focus on the controversial sentence now. Let us be emphatic. What Roy said was not only insensitive but downright ignorant. Every Indian child who went to school is taught some history, and it includes the history of contemporary India. No one in her right mind can claim, by any stretch of excusable fancy, that the Pakistani state has never used its army against its own people. The liberation war of Bangladesh has been so vivid a part of India's recent past, and India's collective imagination of its self-confidence as a nation-state, that no honest or conscientious Indian can feign ignorance of it. It was perhaps one of the handfuls of occasions in the history of independent India when the deployment of the army cannot be easily questioned, and has never, generally speaking, been questioned. It has been for the last forty or so years paraded, fairly enough, as a living refutation of the two-nation theory which effectively caused the partition of India. It is no small irony, of course, that a Pakistani journalist first exposed the brutal genocide of the Pakistan army in Bangladesh. It is a greater irony that he was by religion a Christian. It beggars belief that Arundhati Roy has not heard of Anthony Mascarenhas, or read his work. She probably has, for all I know, and I have been reading her since the nineties. No one deserves a benefit of doubt more.
But she was quick to admit her mistake, and called the mistake 'thoughtless or stupid'. She also furnished, in the apology note published in several media platforms, at least two examples from her writing in which she explicitly appears to concede and outrightly condemn that genocide.
That leaves only two more questions. The first has already been partly addressed, that of timing. Over the last twenty or so years, Arundhati Roy has consistently spoken against the excesses of the Indian state against its minorities and dissenters. The Kashmir problem has occupied a rather prominent part in her voluminous output, and almost none of it is flattering to the state, irrespective of which party has been running it at the time of publication. Indeed, falling foul of the state and its mandarins is something Roy considers a badge of honour, as indeed do many other respectable Indian authors and journalists, such as Raj Kamal Jha, who had once uttered those very words in the presence of Prime Minister Modi. More than once she has written or spoken to that effect.
Photo by Nick Kaiser/picture alliance via Getty Images
But Roy is not just another writer. She is probably the most successful, articulate, and self confessedly political among the Indian writers with a global reputation. The world does not recognise her exclusively for her fiction, even though it is so luminous that her very first novel won her the Booker. That was twenty-two years ago, however, and her second novel appeared after a long gap of twenty years, to what can, at best, be called a mixed reception. Meanwhile, she has made a name by publishing polemical essays, long and beautiful, dripping with passion and horror in equal measure, about various humanitarian crises in the subcontinent. Her prose is searing, and her titles unfailingly hard-hitting and penetrating. How do you not respond to phrases like Gandhians with guns or Return of Rumpelstiltskin or End of Imagination or Summer Games with Nuclear Bombs or Walking with the Comrades? In almost all cases, the prose is irresistible, even if the pitch is sometimes over the top, and by the time you finish each of these essays, you are persuaded to give her subjects a hearing, even if you do not always agree with her advocacy of their unqualified innocence or victimhood. But of their relative marginality before the might of a militarised state or a networked, globalised, and flighty corporate capital, there remains absolutely no doubt in your mind.
As Roy writes in her apology note, her work has to be judged in terms of her consistent output and political positions, and not one stray remark uttered in a fit of absentmindedness nearly ten years ago. Yet, what we say in fits of absentmindedness does lead to some insight. In this instance the insight to be gained is stark. Arundhati Roy is no credible authority on India's history or politics. She is one of the very best fiction writers India has ever had, or will; she is that good. She is probably also one of the most strident, honest, and consistent friend of the marginalised in India, whether they are a Dalit, a tribal, or a Muslim, or anyone subject to the vastly asymmetrical power and authority of the state or capital. She is a polemicist per excellence. But she is no scholar. She is free to criticise Mahatma Gandhi for his caste blindness. She is entitled to question any perceived excess of the Indian state, in any language that she herself deems adequate. But she cannot anymore be approached as an entirely reliable guide to history or politics in India, or anywhere else, or as a scholarly authority. To be fair to her, she has never herself claimed any absolute authority or a disinterested vantage point. She is no venerable scholar, but then she never means to be one.
Arundhati Roy is an endangered species. If we do not listen to her voice with attention, we risk becoming a mere conformist pawn in the hands of aggrandising state machinery. But if we hold on to every single word she has to write or speak, and she asks us, as an author, to accord priority to her written words, we risk losing our grounding on well-researched and well-established scholarship on history and politics. As she quotes one of her characters in the apology note, absolutely 'no one is exempt' from human frailty or fallibility. She's human. Let's not turn her not into the devil she certainly is not. Roy the writer survives entirely unscathed. But this slip, whatever it is or however it was caused, has to cost Roy the public intellectual dearly. I am sure she will now choose her spoken words more carefully.