Arundhati Roy does not deserve to be arrested (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nothing will please the Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy more than being charged with sedition for advocating “azadi” or freedom for Kashmir. Ever since she won the prize in 1997, she has devoted her life to fighting for lost causes - Kashmir, the nuclear deal, Maoism and now Kashmir again. Perhaps realising that her evocative literary skills have morphed into a shrill pamphleteering tone, she has seemingly chosen to be a professional contrarian to gain fame.

Indian democracy gives her an excellent opportunity to practise her new craft. It is possible to say and do almost anything in India. Up to a point. Separatists find this out in different ways - Laldenga by becoming the chief minister of Mizoram, Bhindranwale by dying in a hail of bullets in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, A.Z. Phizo by living and dying as an exile in London and his successors in Nagaland like T. Muivah and Isaac Swu by negotiating for decades with the Indian government.

If none of them were able to achieve their original objective of independence, it was because of the realisation that democracy went a long way to meet their demands, as Laldenga and Muivah and Co understood while Bhindranwale and Phizo didn’t. Those who survived also saw the futility of an armed struggle against the patently powerful Indian state.

There have also been others, like Irom Sharmila, who is on a prolonged hunger strike as she wages a lonely battle against the “atrocities” of the security forces in Manipur. Or Shabbir Shah, who was declared a prisoner of conscience in Kashmir. Or Binayak Sen, who was jailed in Chhattisgarh for his supposed links with the Maoists. As is obvious, the distinguishing feature of all of them is that their idealism exposes them to intimidation and incarceration.

The difference in the case of Roy and, to some extent, Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, is that they are utilising and enjoying all the freedom of an open society without experiencing any discomfort. Their activism is like that of the “caf-going intellectuals”, the phrase which Marxist historian Victor Kiernan used to describe Indian communists.

Being a politician, Geelani is in a different category. He is under house arrest at present, but the government which he decries bore the expenses of his medical treatment at a time of serious illness. He also does not man the barricades, like the stone-pelters in Srinagar who are encouraged by him to risk their lives. Geelani faces no such danger himself.

He is only one among a number of separatists - Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Yasin Malik, for instance, not to mention the fiery Masrat Alam and Asiya Andrabi. Geelani, therefore, is not an unquestioned leader. Moreover, as neither he nor his fellow secessionists contest elections, the extent of their popularity remains unknown unlike, say, the appeal of leaders like Farooq and Omar Abdullah and Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti, who fight elections.

What all this underlines is Roy’s and Geelani’s inconsequence. They may attract small crowds while on their lecture tours to preach “azadi”, as they did in New Delhi recently. But no one expects them to create a huge stir as they go about breathing fire and brimstone.

Their lack of relevance is the main reason why they do not deserve the “dishonour” of being arrested on so serious a charge as sedition. They may be secessionists at heart - Roy, for instance, had declared her personal secession from India at the time of the nuclear deal - but their inconsequence makes them no more than minor irritants.

Roy, of course, would love to be arrested, for it will bring her far more publicity than her verbal and written diatribes as the television cameras follow her from the courtroom to the jail. But even if her prosecutors are able to prove her intention to bring the government into “hatred and contempt” under the penal code - she will probably provide them with more ammunition by making even more outrageous allegations - locking her away will be like using the proverbial hammer to swat a fly.

The best course is to let Roy and Geelani go on with their attempts to seek the limelight. They may speak and act even more wildly to attract attention. But there is little doubt that the audience, small as it is, will continue to dwindle.

It may not be out of place in this context to consider the less than flattering description of Roy’s concern for the Kashmiris and the Maoists by Leela Naidu, the actor who died recently. She says in her autobiography, “Leela: A Patchwork Life”: “I admire the way Arundhati Roy has turned her status as celebrity author into a catalyst for the causes she cares about, but there was very little of the caring Ms Roy on the set of ‘Electric Moon’. I wonder if it is easier for us to sympathise with anonymous masses than with the actual people we are confronted with in real life”.

In real life, Roy is a cocktail circuit revolutionary while Geelani is a politician who does not have the potential to develop either into a Laldenga or a Bhindranwale. They should be allowed, therefore, to grow old gracelessly and finally fade into obscurity.

(30.10.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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