On Arundhati Roy
The Guardian, of which I am a regular reader, today carried an editorial titled ‘Arundhati Roy: The Debater of Big Things’. While the by-line is ample testimony to the wit of the editor, I wonder whether a demonstration of wit and wordplay was the most appropriate reaction by a reputed newspaper on a matter of considerable importance and sentiment for Indians. Especially given the fact that the editor claims to know in the piece what is genuinely ‘Indian’-a tradition of noble and lofty argumentation rather than instinctive rabid sentiment- I was surprised that she chose wit over wisdom in her choice of title regarding a sensitive issue and a smattering of patronising orientalism over healthy respect for a widely held popular view expressed in newspapers, television and on internet fora, perhaps unpalatable to the Guardian, that Roy had overstepped the mark and needed to exercise restraint.
But the title, perhaps unwittingly, has beautifully encapsulated what is wrong with Arundhati Roy. That she is a debater of ‘big things’. Not small things, not everyday matters that affect the lives of people in India. Arundhati Roy does not stand up for the rights of girl children to go to school in Bihar, peasants fighting for right to information in Rajasthan against an obstinate bureaucracy; she does not stand up for Gorkhaland rebels in Bengal fighting for self-determination, or for farmers in Raigad fighting to save their land from a SEZ project, or slum dwellers in Mumbai who live without basic health and sanitation and a constant fear of police eviction. Of course, one cannot fight for every single issue affecting every single Indian, you may object. I agree- one can’t. But I have begun to doubt that it is a mere coincidence that every time there is a high-profile civil society issue that attracts sustained media attention, Arundhati Roy is there. For the rest of the issues which deserve popular support, they’ll just have to do with some other champion; perhaps, if they are lucky someone who actually passionately believes in it, because it’s not high profile enough for Arundhati Roy’s attention.
Let’s consider the issues Roy has taken up in the recent past. Narmada. Pokhran. Naxals. Singur. Kashmir. See a link? I see two actually- one, these are issues which are constantly covered by the media; two, they are bellwethers potentially signalling the way in which the Indian state or an entity thereof responds to popular protest at a given time. Significant in this is the timing of Roy’s intervention- she has, in these instances, never been at the forefront of the protests from the very beginning. Her love for anti-dam protests lagged behind the Narmada Bachao protests by a time period that would make the backlog in the Indian judiciary look good, her disarmament drive began only after India tested its nuclear device in Pokhran, her empathy with the Naxals, came not when the movement was at its infancy but at a time when it had attracted significant public attention; Singur was a bus she hopped on when protests had already reached fever pitch and Kashmir, well she did take her time to make her statements didn’t she? It surprises me that she has rarely, if ever espoused these causes at times when they were not popular, not headline-grabbing, not threatening to rip asunder the fabric of the nation. Her principle, inductively seems to be, when the media talks about something, so will she.
And if Roy’s espousal of these issues are an expression of her ‘love and pride’ for India, as she claims, then it is the most warped definition of love that has ever existed. What kind of love prompts you not to sympathise with a Naxal tribal policeman’s daughter whose father was killed ruthlessly by the Maoists and instead justify the murderers? What kind of love prompts you to go to Delhi and express a sentiment held dear by sections of the Kashmiri population in a flippant, provocative and utterly casual fashion? What kind of love prompts you to present one-sided pictures of a development projects like the Sardar Sarovar Dam focusing solely on the villages it may submerge and not on the villages it may irrigate? Competing views of India and its development of course exist and must be spoken about. But there is a duty on everyone to do so responsibly. Sadly, Roy is far from responsible. And how can we expect her to be responsible about anything? Because before you know it she has a new problem to solve and another inflammatory 33 page article to write.
In the final analysis, I can safely say that in India today Arundhati Roy’s espousal of an issue rings its death knell. Even those with genuine grievances should be best warned to keep Roy away since all she does is spread hate and ill-will, heighten polarisation and create a near-insuperable roadblock for an effective solution, while ensuring she herself gets a lion’s share of the spotlight.
Arundhati Roy is dangerous. Both for India and the issues that affect India most today. Instead of thinking of arresting her for sedition and allowing her to proclaim her own martyrdom at the altar of free speech, It’s best that we ignore her. She deserves nothing better.