The Union Government, at last, is reported to have decided against hauling up Arundati Roy (and Syed Ali Shah Jeelani) on charges of sedition. This is after having wavered on the issue and the BJP making a lot of noise demanding her arrest and prosecution. It looked as if Arundati Roy was such an influential person and that her speech in a hall at New Delhi’s Constitution Club was going to make or break India’s unity. I do not think that India’s unity is as fragile as it was made out.
Well. The demand for an independent Kashmir is only one dimension of the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir. It may be true that this is the most audible demand sometimes and is most articulated from among the various groups in the valley. But then, the truth is that the agitation or the unrest in the valley (I am consciously avoiding using the word movement in this context for it sends a section of our readers into a tailspin!). The fact is that the people in the valley are so alienated from the Indian state that it calls for a lot of political initiative and dedication to retrieve their confidence. The three-member team, now in the valley, could mark a beginning of this effort.
Coming back to my concerns, it is relevant to note here that Arundaati Roy’s remarks that historically Kashmir was not a part of India is indeed a half truth. In that sense, Hyderabad, Travancore and Junagadh too were not part of India as much as many other small kingdoms that merged into the Union only a few months after independence. A casual look at the history of our own times, until about 63 years ago will reveal this truth to anyone. But then, I said it was a half truth. The other half of the truth was that Kashmir became a part of India as much as Hyderabad and Junagadh at one point of time and that too is history.
Arundati Roy, probably, does not consider events as old as some 65 years as history. Or even if she does, she did not bother to define what she considered as history to the audience at the Constitution Club that day when she made the statement. The media that highlighted that specific part of her speech (and I know Roy’s speeches are not one sentence affairs as much as her writings are) must have bothered to clarify with her as to what she meant by that sentence in her speech. I must confess that this was a rule when we reported for newspapers as late as some 15 years ago. If someone spoke in a manner that was provocative, journalists would wait for the speech to be over to ask if what the speaker meant was in the way that was perceived.
With TV channels proliferating, this rule was thrown to the winds and reporting came to mean the ability to show things in a manner that it raised a lot of noise; the redefinition of what news is in terms of the sound and fury that something provoked was an outcome of the media ecology that emerged some ten years ago. The tragedy is that something became news because it was caught on TV cameras and not because it was meant to be news or because it was news that mattered to the people.
Let me clarify this further. In the given instance, the unrest in Kashmir is neither led by Arundati Roy nor one that involves her. Like another person, whom we would come across in the local library or in the neighbourhood tea-shop, holding the view that gunships with bombs and chemical weapons must be sent to the Maoist dominated area or to Kashmir and all those who oppose the Indian state must be smoked out (like George Bush wanted the US forces to do to Osama bin Laden), Arundati Roy may hold an opinion different from some others and express that too. In a sense, both the views are critical of the Indian state; one on grounds that the state is not violent enough while dealing with the unrest and the other on grounds that there is too much violence.
Both, in fact, are to be seen as seditious if causing disaffection towards the state (which is how Section 124 of the IPC defines sedition) is to be held as sedition. My argument will be that both these as well as any other opinion on the issue must be allowed in a Democracy rather than gagging them. It is possible that the state adopts either of the two or a combination of the two at some point and thus ends up having its foot in the mouth then. Recall the several positions that the Government of India has held as its own on the question of the Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka; almost from one end to another of the spectrum. The Indian state once held that the LTTE fought for the Tamils (and hence armed them) and held sometimes later that the organisation to be terrorist.
Let us, hence, resist the temptation to go ballistic over something that Arundati Roy says. India, as a nation, is not as fragile as it is made out that she can break it! India, after all, has survived as a nation despite a number of crooks and thieves stalking the political, social, cultural and the corporate world in the sixty-three years after independence. Arundati Roy is certainly not more powerful than anyone of them.