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Arundhati Roy's dangerous Kashmiri cause

October 27, 2010 | 10:14 am

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On Tuesday the Indian government took steps to authorize the arrest of author Arundhati Roy for "sedition" because of statements she has made about the territory of Kashmir. In response, Roy, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, says she has simply called for justice. "I said what millions of people here say every day," she said in a written statement e-mailed from Srinagar, Kashmir.

Kashmir is the mountainous territory at the northern tip of India bordered by Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. In 1947, after the partition that accompanied India and Pakistan's independence from Britain, Kashmir became part of India. Yet the region has remained the focus of disputes between India and Pakistan, with wars between being fought over the territory in 1947-48 and 1965, and further conflicts in 1971-72. The region has become a lightning rod between India and Pakistan over a number of disputes, including nuclear activities, secular/religious tension and state security.

The long-standing conflicts over the region have bled into daily life, evolving into what L.A. Times reporter Mark Magnier describes as a "murky cycle of violence." A half-million Indian security forces are in the region, enforcing curfews and other restrictions and manning checkpoints.

This summer, tensions in Kashmir were inflamed after a number of incidents involving security forces: It came to light that Indian security forces killed three civilians, then staged a firefight to make it appear as though the killings had been committed by militants; two officers were suspended. Three teenagers were killed in June when security forces fired on a demonstration calling for independence. Another died in early July when he used a drainage canal to flee from security forces and drowned.

"Politicians, academics and human rights groups have long cited a culture of impunity among security forces in Kashmir," Magnier reports, "epitomized by a controversial 1990 national law granting soldiers the right to detain or eliminate all suspected terrorists and destroy their property without fear of prosecution. Critics have called the provision, which doesn't clearly define 'terrorists,' as a license to kill."

Arundhati Roy's Tuesday statement reflects on these issues. "Anybody who cares to read the transcripts of my speeches will see that they were fundamentally a call for justice," she wrote. "I spoke about justice for the people of Kashmir who live under one of the most brutal military occupations in the world; for Kashmiri Pandits who live out the tragedy of having been driven out of their homeland; for Dalit soldiers killed in Kashmir whose graves I visited on garbage heaps in their villages in Cuddalore; for the Indian poor who pay the price of this occupation in material ways and who are now learning to live in the terror of what is becoming a police state."

Roy's recent speech was made at a politically charged event in New Delhi on Oct. 21, the Wall Street Journal reports. "A group of more than 16 speakers consisting of politicians, activists, writers, artists and academicians from across India who participated in the convention asked the Indian state to 'formally admit that Kashmir is an internationally recognized dispute' and urged 'all democratic people in the world at large to pressurize the Indian state to take immediate steps in this regard.' "

A congressional representative was quick to point out that Roy holds no elected office, maintaining that her position is "not in the political mainstream."

Nevertheless, steps were taken to file charges against her for her statements. "A go-ahead to file a case of sedition against hardline Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geenlani and activist Arundhati Roy has been given to Delhi Police by the Union Home Ministry," the Times of India reported Monday.

"Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds," Roy writes.
Literary figures have been lining up in agreement. "One of the few voices in India who has spoken loudly against the continuing Indian atrocities in Kashmir, she is now being threatened," writes historian Tariq Ali on the London Review of Books blog. "If she doesn’t shut up they’ll charge her with sedition, aping their colonial masters of yesteryear."
"Since June, Kashmiri journalists and broadcasters attempting to report on unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir have been subject to violence and gagging," says Lisa Appignanesi, president of English PEN, which has called for the Indian government to withdraw the threatened charges. "The truth of what is happening in Kashmir needs to be told. Brutality by the state, and the silencing of reporters, is no option for a modern India."

In addition to winning the Man Booker prize in 1997 for her novel "The God of Small Things," Arudhati Roy is a recipient of the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize.

 -- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: An Indian army soldier kicks the door of a residential house during a search operation near the site of a gun battle with suspected militants in Maloora on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir, on Oct. 21, 2010. Credit: Danish Ismail / Reuters

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