Arundhati Roy could soon go to jail over a 14-year-old speech.
Arundhati Roy, pictured in January 2020, ten years after she gave the speech she could now go to prison for. (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

India’s Star Dissident Is in Danger

Why has the Hindu nationalist regime chosen this moment to go after Arundhati Roy for a 14-year-old speech?

The great novelist Arundhati Roy could soon go to jail over a 14-year-old speech. Last week, Delhi’s lieutenant governor VK Saxena gave the police the green light to charge her under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—which is supposed to be aimed at terrorists—over “anti-India” comments made in 2010. The Act permits detention without trial.

Roy has long been politically fearless. Her 1997 novel The God of Small Things, for which she received the Booker Prize in the West, earned her charges of obscenity in her home state of Kerala. Since then, she has become as well-known for her activism as her fiction in India—speaking up for lower castes, and challenging Hindu nationalist bigwigs.

The charge against Roy relates to a speech in which she frankly discussed the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, half of which is ruled by India, and the other by its next-door nemesis Pakistan. But this de facto reality is obstinately denied by India’s nationalist bureaucrats—causing newspapers and textbooks to pretend the whole region belongs to India.

In her speech, Roy had the temerity to point out that Jammu and Kashmir had never been an “integral part of India.” More controversial still, she argued that the Indian state treated its part of Jammu and Kashmir as if it were a colony. (Just days before her speech, over 100 protesters had been killed in the region by Indian police.) Hindu nationalists promptly launched into splenetic rants about her “anti-India” views. 

That Modi is digging up such an old affront has less to do with Roy’s views in 2010 than Modi’s in 2024. It comes at a moment when India is still reeling from a surprise election result. Having frozen the bank accounts of its rivals and locked up two opposition chief ministers, the alliance led by Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had expected to win 400 of the 543 seats. Instead, it won just 293. The result was widely hailed as a victory for Indian democracy; Modi, his critics said, had been cut down to size. Yet as the intimidation of India’s star dissident shows, the celebrations may have been premature.

Pratinav Anil is a history lecturer at Oxford University, and the author of, most recently, Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947–77. Follow him on X @pratinavanil.

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