Defending Arundhati Roy

By having made the statement that “Kashmir is not an integral part of India”, the acclaimed Indian novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy has angered the Indian government yet again. Earlier on by championing the Naxalite insurgency and by casting doubt on Pakistan’s alleged involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks she had made herself unpopular with Indian nationalists and Hindu extremists alike.

But this time the outspoken and brilliant lady might really be in some real trouble as the long arms of the law (i.e. qanoon kay lambay haath) will aim to charge her with sedition as set out in section 124A of India’s Penal Code 1860. If found guilty Roy could be sentenced to a life’s term in prison.

Just to be really Eurocentric, and also because of the fact the Convention is a “living instrument” to be followed universally, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 sets out a person’s right to free speech as:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.”

Moreover, the constitution of the world’s largest democracy is far from silent on the rights which Roy enjoys and it is worthwhile setting them out fully so that we can defend her in cyberspace. In the Constitution of India 1950 “fundamental rights” are enumerated in Articles 12-35. More specifically Article 19 establishes that:

Roy: outspoken yet again

Right to Freedom

19. (1) All citizens shall have the right—

(a) to freedom of speech and expression;

(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;

(c) to form associations or unions;

(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;

(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India;

Of course the Indian government will advance skilled arguments in relation to what is reasonable in relation to how a citizen such as Roy may exercise their constitutional rights in speaking freely. They will, no doubt, say that Roy’s remark is “unreasonable” and free speech is subject to limitations if the speaker exceeds the “reasonable” threshold and strays into an area where criminal or “seditious” activity might give rise to liability under the country’s 1860 Penal Code which, like most Indian legal instruments, is inherited from the British Raj.

Therefore, it is beneficial to for us to examine what the British did with seditionists during Empire’s heyday in India. Firstly, sedition laws contained in India’s Penal Code 1860 were compounded by additional laws such as the Rowlatt legislation. The Rowlatt Act 1919 was introduced into India’s legal system by Sir Sidney Rowlatt who was an English judge and it provided that the “emergency” rule which the country was governed under during the First World War would be extended indefinitely even after the war had ended. Although the Raj tried to disguise its coercion by stating that the objective of the Rowlatt legislation was to replace the more punitive measures contained in the Defence of India Act 1915, it is submitted that this was, just like most things said by the British at the time, a big fat lie.

Rowlatt allowed the Raj extreme and unrivalled coercive powers during peacetime. The thrust of the legislation was, no doubt, to stymie the momentum which was gathered by the various parties which constituted India’s diverse Independence movement. Therefore, the government was allowed extreme coercive powers such as detention without charge, trial without appeal, and two years in prison for the possession of a “seditious pamphlet” to ensure that advances made by Indian nationalists were curtailed. Ultimately, the Act was repealed in 1922 but before it bit the dust Indians experienced the tragedy of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919 where they had protested against the Act in peace.

But the question for India, and indeed inter alia for the whole of South Asia, is whether India’s democracy is strong, and indeed wise, enough to ensure that no charges are brought against one of its most brilliant citizens?

Should India’s brilliant human rights lawyers, its lofty academics and erudite politicians not do something about it if the government goes ahead with charging Roy?  Mazdoors and kissans scattered across the world would like to see nothing less than a Salt March to stop Roy from being charged. For our part if the need arises we will without qualification rise to the defence of the great lady.

Saying that Kashmir is not an integral part of India is a very reasonable thing to say. We say this not as Pakistanis but rather as people who want to see better relations with the Indians and the world at large. If more people could embrace Roy’s stance in relation to the “not an integral part of” and then input the “country” then the world’s foremost conflicts such as the ones in Palestine, Kashmir, and others in Sudan etc can be resolved very quickly and amiably.

Qadam barhao Arundhati Roy hum tumharay saath hain!

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