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Vishwaguru And Arundhati Roy

By SHYAM G MENON
June 20, 2024 14:35 IST
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The go-ahead given to prosecute Arundhati Roy would be seen by supporters of freedom of speech as an announcement that the Right-Wing doesn't feel humbled by the results of the elections, argues Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

For the Vishwaguru, it seems, there is nothing as worrying as an intellect.

The reported mid-June decision of the lieutenant governor of Delhi giving approval for the prosecution of Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), helped highlight once again the never-ending fears of India's political Right-Wing as well as sections of our electorate who constitute its supporters.

The specific charge against Roy -- that of allegedly making provocative statements -- is 14 years old.

That aside, as everyone knows, Roy has been a longstanding critic of Narendra Modi.

Roy is a much-respected figure in liberal and intellectual circles, locally and globally.

As reported in The Indian Express newspaper on June 15, 2024, the sanction for prosecution covered Roy and Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, former professor at the Central University of Kashmir.

The provision in law invoked was Section 45(1) of the UAPA and it concerns a FIR filed by social activist Sushil Pandit in 2010 over 'provocative speeches in public' made at an auditorium in New Delhi.

The context was a conference organised under the banner: Azadi - The Only Way.

According to the Indian Express report, in October 2023 the lieutenant governor had granted permission to prosecute the accused under Section 196 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

It said that the Delhi police on the other hand, had sought prosecution sanction under four sections of the Indian Penal Code and UAPA Section 13.

In October, the lieutenant governor granted sanction only for the IPC sections. Roughly eight months later, news reports say, sanction for prosecution under UAPA has been given.

The main aim of UAPA is to make powers available for dealing with activities undermining the integrity and sovereignty of India.

A 2019 amendment to the UAPA (its most recent amendment) made it possible for the government to treat individuals as terrorists without following any formal judicial process.

In an article in Scroll on the reported move against Roy under UAPA (published,June 17, 2024), Vineet Bhalla highlighted both the lack of transparency regarding the reasons for prosecution (an order sanctioning prosecution under UAPA should reflect the reasoning used for the grant of sanction) and absence of the information needed to check whether the sanction was lawful.

The article also pointed to speculation that the resort to UAPA may have been 'to bypass the period of limitation applicable to the other offences under the Indian Penal Code invoked against Roy and Hussain.'

June 18 evening, Press Trust of India quoting 'official sources', reported that the Delhi police may file the charge sheet under UAPA, the following week.

IMAGE: Arundhati Roy speaks to journalists during a hunger strike in Bhopal October 27, 2000 against the controversial enlargement of the Narmada dam. Photograph: Reuters

The administration's reported decision of mid-June approving Roy's prosecution under UAPA, prompted two responses in a lay person like me.

The first was to treat the news as reason to look around and see if anything else was afoot as the case in question was 14 years old, nothing pointed to a pressing current requirement to rekindle it and based on past experience, the Bharatiya Janata Party government is known to have us look one way while doing something totally different, somewhere else.

Second, the timing genuinely puzzled because over and above the alleged offence being 14 years ago, the courts and lawyers were on vacation in mid-June (the Communist Party of India- Marxist pointed this out in its statement on the subject), recent elections in Jammu and Kashmir had left an even divide in the number of seats won between the BJP led-National Democratic Alliance and the Opposition INDIA bloc and there had been new terror attacks in Kashmir with casualties alongside.

Plus, it was only less than a fortnight earlier that the BJP had seen its kitty of seats won in Parliament get reduced in the general elections and subsequently assumed power through a coalition government.

In theory, the government would have to consult more than before and the Opposition had gained strength in Parliament.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi. Photograph: ANI Photo

Nobody therefore would consider the present juncture as opportune to fan a fresh controversy involving Kashmir, UAPA and one of India's best-known authors, unless we remind ourselves that following the 2024 general elections, the country is back in the hands of an optics-hungry dispensation that has a problem with freedom of speech.

Some observers argue that a move against Roy would help restore the climate of fear, which used to be the normal before the 2024 elections.

In the immediate run-up to the elections, when the Modi magic weakened (especially in states like Uttar Pradesh), the Opposition was gaining and election discourse revolved around real issues like employment; the BJP government was getting openly criticised.

Modi's return via a coalition government hasn't altered the situation. It won't be surprising if there are those who wish for an old fear to be back, this constituency argues.

As someone who periodically reads what Roy writes in the media and someone who values her as a critical, dissenting voice, in the wake of the reported approval for prosecution, I was reminded of the Right-Wing's unending provocation of those with a perspective different from its.

The go ahead given to prosecute Roy would be seen by her fans and the supporters of freedom of speech, as an announcement that the Right-Wing is back to taunt and it doesn't feel humbled by the results of the just ended elections.

It would also seem a rather shrewd move.

IMAGE: Arundhati Roy addresses a press conference on people's democratic rights and against the criminalisation of 'right to public protest' at the Press Club of India in New Delhi, October 22, 2020. Photograph: ANI Photo

Roy is a writer commanding respect across states. She has roots in Kerala and Bengal, has lived for long in Delhi and, besides her works of fiction, has written about various issues in India.

The mid-June approval for prosecution follows one of the celebrated gains of the BJP in the 2024 elections -- the first Lok Sabha seat from Kerala won by the BJP.

It is an outcome that is widely believed to have been aided in part by a shift in votes from the Christian community.

A state with a sizable Communist presence and a land that takes its creative arts seriously, sections of Kerala's population have been supportive of Roy, the writer and intellectual.

In Delhi, where Roy lives, the BJP swept all the seats on offer in the Lok Sabha elections. Finally, the offence in question harks back to 2010, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power.

It provides scope for the Right-Wing to argue that the charges are from an era when the Opposition ruled.

Thus, even as its Lok Sabha footprint diminished nationally, from the perspective of moving against Roy, the authorities would appear to have relevant bases covered, except, of course, the domain of the political Opposition and the domain of intellectuals, lawyers, liberals and people from the creative fields, where the BJP and its military mindset typically find limited traction.

IMAGE: Arundhati Roy speaks at a protest outside Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, January 11, 2020, against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Photograph: ANI Photo

The question of whether Roy would be arrested under UAPA or not hangs like a Damocles Sword.

It's a sword bent like a question mark because as mentioned earlier, leading media outlets have reported glaring gaps in the information available yet on the order to prosecute.

Between 2010 and now, many things happened in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. In 2016, India said it caried out surgical strikes, hitting terror camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

In 2019, following the revocation of special status for J&K granted under Article 370, the region was bifurcated into J&K and a separate Ladakh.

Subsequently, there was a long period of tight security and restrictions on communications.

Amidst the regular regimen of politics, high security and pilgrimages in J&K, a major development was the February 2023 announcement of lithium deposits found in Reasi district, Jammu.

In the run-up to the last general elections, in April 2024, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh referred to PoK being firmly a part of India. These are part of the updated optics for viewing Kashmir.

Roy's supporters meanwhile point to figures in world literature who refused to bow before authority and stood by the principles they believed in.

Following her literary success with The God of Small Things, Roy has been more a political activist than a novelist.

Those who look at existence as an exploration usually have no problem listening to her opinions.

Those with identity surrendered to inflexible tenets and muscular nationhood find her views difficult to digest, almost an affront. This author does not know what Roy exactly said at the 2010 conference.

Given she is a renowned author and the incident at the heart of the latest UAPA-related development concerns remarks on Kashmir and not any literary debate, it is a moot question whether by prosecuting Roy, the ruling dispensation will score points or invite even more international glare and scrutiny to the Kashmir issue.

The decision to prosecute also puts in focus the versatility of the UAPA as a tool to silence intellectuals, who by definition, periodically tread controversial space.

Should they take ownership for what they utter? Yes, they should.

Are we poorer, if they are silenced? That is what cases of this sort should make us contemplate.

All I can say is -- strange is the Vishwaguru, which wishes for intellect and dissent to be gagged.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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SHYAM G MENON