Listening to Arundhati Roy warn about India at European Essay Prize event

Arundhati Roy during 'Where is Najeeb?' protest gathering in Janter Mandir

“If you’re living in India right now and if you’re a Muslim, the law applies differently to you,” says an impassioned Arundhati Roy to an intimate audience at a theatre in the small city of Lausanne. It is the night before she will be awarded the prestigious 45th European Essay Prize for lifetime achievement to honour her 25 years of writing and the French translation of her book, “Azadi”, the Urdu word for freedom. 

The audience hangs on Roy’s every word as she discusses various pressing topics: from the dire realities of minorities in India to Kashmir and Manipur, caste, rising nationalism underwritten by corporate money, climate change and the fight of the Adivasi people. Roy magnifies the hypocrisy of democratic foreign governments attending a press-conference-free G20 Summit recently held in India in trading deals, weapons, planes, and fleets in exchange for silence.  

“They know”, Roy says damningly. All G20 dignitaries, though she emphasizes the President of France, Emmanuel Macron and the President of the United States, Joe Biden who both respectively hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this year. Macron extended an invitation to Modi for Bastille Day; an act Roy finds incredulous, while Biden hosted Modi in June. 

Roy’s stance is unequivocal; world governments are complicit; they know exactly what is happening under the Modi regime. They know that Kashmir was subject to the most prolonged communication blackout in a democracy.

Roy says, “Today there can be no voice from there [Kashmir]. The journalists have been silenced; the press club is closed. The newspaper can only publish either advertisements or government and army press releases. Everybody has to speak up. You cannot say only Kashmiris should speak – they’re not allowed to speak.” 

They know about the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 that barefacedly discriminates against Muslims. Roy’s unflinching draws parallels to Nazi Germany reminding us, “the idea of a government asking people to produce a set of documents that it will approve to decide who is a citizen and who is not was last done in Nuremberg by the Third Reich.” 

They know about how the Delhi Police forced grievously injured young Muslim men lying on the street to sing the Indian national anthem while they prodded and kicked them. The imagery of a dying man while being forced to recite a national anthem is as gruesome as it is symbolic. 

Roy traces the meticulous orchestration, strategic organizing and sinister weaponization of language from right-wing politicians and relentless 24-hour news cycles referring to minorities as “termites” and “illegals” and how successfully this operation has penetrated the public psyche. “When Coronavirus came, it was Muslims are spreading Corona,” echoing historical accusations against the Jewish community by the Nazis that they were spreading typhus. 

As Roy is awarded the 45th European Essay Prize at the Lausanne Palace, she begins her lecture by saying, “I am going to make an urgent intervention right now”. She explains that her 25 years of writing have mapped step-by-step India’s descent [although she states some see it as an ascent] into majoritarianism and then fascism. Roy has signalled a warning, heed of where India has been heading since it entered the free market and then since the BJP came into power in 1998. She humbly describes herself as a failure – while she is anything but – she says to the audience that her writing has been met with mockery and criticism even in liberal and progressive circles and has not yielded the BJP or fascism from its slow climb to power. “One has written and written and yet things have become deeper, harder, more violent and more frightening”, she says. 

The time for warning is over. “We are in a different phase of history”, Roy says firmly. This difference is highlighted in the recent hate crimes Roy shares with the audience: a chilling video of a teacher instructing her Hindu students to slap a 7-year-old Muslim boy. While a barbaric civil war has been burning in the state of Manipur, not only did the Manipur police hand over two women to a mob who were paraded naked through a village and gang raped but women who belonged to the same community as the rapists stood by the rapists and even incited their men to rape.

Roy explains a “banality of evil”, the sickening regularity of Muslims being publicly lynched and the celebration of lynchers. The process of Muslim segregation and ghettoization, burning down hundreds of Christian churches, shutting down of Amnesty International, mysterious no-fly lists that government critics find themselves on and pressure on academics both local and foreign – they know, she compels.

While Biden and Macron were fawning over Modi, Muslims were fleeing a small town in northern India, Uttarakhand, after Hindu extremists marked an “X” on their doors and asked them to leave in their open pursuit of a Muslim-free Uttarakhand. In fact, “there is nothing they don’t know about the man they are embracing”, Roy concludes. 

Even while knowing, the world powers have consciously chosen to give Modi oxygen. While Western governments peddle narratives of strengthening their economies and countering China’s influence and many are soon up for re-election in their home countries, Roy has a divergent perspective.  

Roy does not mince her words: “This is a form of racism, they claim to be democrats, but they are racists. They don’t believe their professed values should apply to non-white countries; it is an old story of course. Democracy for themselves and fascism or whatever else for the non-white world.” Roy goes on to say, “If world governments imagine that the dismantling of democracy in India is not going to affect the whole world, they must indeed be – delusional.” 

When Roy says, ‘everybody has to speak’, she is not just referring to the Indian population. While she has always detested the phrase, “giving voice to the voiceless”, she stresses the importance of voice. “It is not about speaking on anyone’s behalf”, she explains, “it is about speaking for yourself on what kind of society you want to live in”. When asked by a Swiss panellist, “What can we do?”, Roy replies – “Speak to your governments”. As the world as a whole grapples with a rising tide of nationalism and authoritarianism, Roy’s words reverberate as an undaunted clarion call. Roy tells the audience that there is a tremendous fight back against fascism in her home country, she also declares, “None of you must pretend you didn’t know what was going on”. 

In her closing remarks, Roy’s words cut through the air like glass taking her audience as she sometimes does in her writing to a place they fear most. She says unapologetically, “What is happening in India is not that loose variety of internet fascism, it’s the real thing. We have become Nazis. Not just our leaders, not just our TV channels and newspapers but vast sections of our population too. Large numbers of the Indian Hindu population who live in the US, Europe and South Africa support the fascists politically as well as materially. For the sake of our souls, for those of our children and our children’s children, we must stand up. It does not matter whether we fail or succeed, that responsibility is not on India alone.” 

Roy leaves her audience in a state of contemplation, how exactly does one un-poison a river? And then, if this can be done, how does one build another kind of world? Roy reminds us that other kinds of worlds are possible if we dare to imagine. 

A full transcript can be found here.

Sarah Awan is a Kashmiri-Australian writer, Practice Fellow at the Cambridge Center for Social Innovation at the University of Cambridge, and Executive Board Member for the non-profit, Girl Be Heard.