Arundhati Roy’s recent volume of essays and lectures provides an eye-opening account of current political developments in India. Written during the run-up to the last general election, «Azadi» charts India’s disturbing slide into authoritarianism. Richard Marcus read the book
For those of us outside India, who only hear about what’s happening in the country through news reports and social media, it’s incredibly difficult to understand the reality of life in the country. We may say isn’t that horrible, or words to that effect, but we can have no real comprehension of not only how bad the situation has become, but the potential it has to become even worse.
The articles and lectures published in Arundhati Roy’s «Azadi» are like pieces of a puzzle. Each of them tells a little bit of the story, and they are all disturbing. However, the entire picture they paint is one that will shake you to the core and make you realise how far things have shifted in India.
It’s not often we are able to read about history as it is taking place, but that’s what Roy has done in Azadi, providing us with up-to-the-minute commentary on world events. More specifically she’s writing about the current despicable state of affairs in India and the ongoing establishment of an authoritarian and fascist regime under its current government.
If you think that description is an exaggeration you need to read Azadi. It’s not just the mob violence targeting Muslims – lynching people for eating beef, for example.
It is legislation depriving non-Hindus and lower caste Hindus of citizenship; the removal of textbooks from universities containing ideas and thoughts (including historical events) that contradict Prime Minister Modi and his current government’s view of the world; not to mention the destruction of India’s rural regions, where the majority of the population strives to eke out a living
The BJP’s insidious political agenda
Then there’s Kashmir, disputed by India and Pakistan. The state, nominally within India yet with a predominantly Muslim population, has long been a hot spot. Both India and Pakistan have a history of using Kashmir as an excuse for inciting violence against each other.
In August 2019 Modi’s government sent the army into Kashmir, subjecting it to martial law. They completely locked down the state – cutting off all telecommunications with the region, thus effectively preventing any information from getting in or out of the province save through official channels. No Internet or phone service for anybody.
In recognition of the uniqueness of its population and location, Kashmir was awarded special status as a semi-autonomous state within India when the latter gained its independence in 1948. Modi’s government has unilaterally cancelled that status and taken over its governance.
The essays in this book were written during the run-up to the 2019 general election in India and its immediate aftermath. They show how, in spite of disastrous policies such as eliminating certain currency denominations – supposedly to curb illegal activity – yet thereby inflicting undue suffering on the poorest people in the country, Modi and his party were swept back into power.
Roy also details one of Modi’s most insidious policies, The National Register of Citizens. Initially confined to the state of Assam to weed out what Hindu nationals described as «unregistered nationals» – Bengali Muslims who were expelled from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 – the Modi government has since expanded it to include all of India.
While the law initially stated the police and government had to prove a person wasn’t a citizen, it was changed to mean the burden of proof was now on individuals to prove they so now a person had to prove they are «Indian». If your papers demonstrate any inaccuracies, such as your name being misspelt, you can be judged to be a non-citizen. India’s poor have few or no resources that would allow them to furnish the proper paperwork, nor can they afford to hire lawyers to assist them in the process.
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Fearless in her condemnation of Modi
That the majority of India’s poor are Muslim or lower-caste Dalits is, according to Roy, the whole idea. What better way to deal with the problem of people you don’t like, than by declaring them non-citizens? Anywhere in India, if a person is unable to prove they were resident in the country before 1971, they can now be declared a non-citizen and locked up in a detention camp.
Roy doesn’t mince her words in this book. She is fearless in her condemnations of the rampant discrimination against anyone who doesn’t fit into the Brave New World envisioned by Modi, the BJP and the even more insidious Hindu nationalist organisation, the RSS. Throughout the book, she reveals just how deeply the roots of the latter are buried in the soil of India’s social and political structure – and how they pre-date the creation of India and Pakistan.
Azadi, the word for freedom in the Urdu language spoken by most Muslims in Southeast Asia, is a searing indictment of the creeping rise of totalitarian rule in India. It is also testament to Roy’s bravery: her work has been singled out by backers of the current government as an example of the type of writing that needs to be removed from textbooks. As academics, teachers, and intellectuals are rounded up in India, she continues to be an outspoken advocate for the poor and minorities in her country, despite the very real danger this puts her in.
The work collected in Azadi gives the world a clear picture of how an authoritarian government can yoke hatred and fear into a powerful weapon in order to consolidate their grip on power. In fact, Roy has provided us with a handbook to help people identify the warning signs of creeping totalitarianism. Warnings we should all take care to heed.
Arundhati Roy’s Azadi is a collection of essays and speeches that speaks to the heart and the mind. Intelligent and thoughtful, and written with empathy, it brings the reality of the current situation in India home in a way few other writers can.