Arundhati Roy should have acted more responsibly. But, so should have we
Cover photo: Manish Swarup/AP Photo
If you happen to follow news outlets on social media, chances are you have already read the headlines about Arundhati Roy’s controversial comments about the Indian and Pakistani armies. Arundhati was heard saying in a 2-minute clip snipped from a lecture she delivered in 2011 that unlike the Indian army “the Pakistani military was never used against its own people”.
Naturally, there was a massive outrage from people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, followed by a backlash to the outrage. As the controversy unfolds in real-time, it’s worth examining just what happened in the span of the last few days that put Arundhati Roy, a well respected social activist, in hot water with the press and the public.
The controversial speech
The 2-minute clip where she apparently made the statement was widely circulated on social media this week. She was heard claiming that since India’s birth, the country had been waging war on its own people and that Pakistan had never deployed its army against its people the way India had.
The repercussions were almost immediate. People wasted no time in pointing out the Pakistani army’s role in massacring over 3 million people in the then East Pakistan in 1971 and the sustained poverty and the plunder of the resource-rich Balochistan province.
She was branded a liar, hypocrite and pseudo-intellectual.
Some said her selective blindness to the bloody genocide through which Bangladesh emerged was appalling and that she was desperately in need of a history lesson. Many in the press tore into her supposed anti-Indian sentiments.
The issue lies with her ill-conceived idea to contrast the severity of the force used by the Indian and Pakistani armies on the people of their own country. In trying to illustrate the severity of the Indian state’s crimes against its own people, she unintentionally reduced the struggles of Bangladeshis who fought hard to obtain their freedom as well denigrated the continued oppression of the Baloch people as they are deprived the riches of their own land.
Read more: Kashmir, a paradise lost?
Unintended though it may have been, to many people who still grieve over the indelible trauma of the past (and for the Baloch, the present), she seemed like an apologist for the Pakistani army.
Roy’s humble apology
On Wednesday, Arundhati Roy said people unintentionally “say something thoughtless or stupid” at some point in their lives, adding that what she devoted to words in her writing was far more significant than what she “might say extempore in the course of a freewheeling talk”.
The author said further that her opinion on what Islamabad was doing in Balochistan and the “genocide that the Pakistan Army committed in Bangladesh has never been ambiguous” and were reflected in her writings. To support her claim, she referenced two examples of her literary works, one of them being the novel ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ published in 2017. In it, one of the main characters, an Indian Intelligence Officer, Biplab Dasgupta aka Garson Hobart, who has served in Kashmir, says:
“It is true we did—we do— some terrible things in Kashmir, but… I mean what the Pakistan army did in East Pakistan—now that was a clear case of genocide. Open and shut.“
But are we asking the right questions?
At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, I would wager that Arundhati Roy never explicitly intended to malign Bangladeshis or the Baloch. Her comments lacked nuance and were disappointing given the standard to which we hold the wordsmith, but with that said and done, I do question whether they deserved such intense scrutiny at the cost of omitting what the rest of her 90-minute lecture was about from the discussion.
The now infamous 2-minute clip of hers that went viral was extracted from a 90-minute lecture from 2011. Arundhati, who was reading out from her essay ‘Democracy’s Failing Light’ at a conference on Democracy and Dissent in China and India at the University of Westminster in the UK, talked about the way the Indian state became a colonizer immediately shaking off the shackles of colonialism itself. She named place after place that the Indian state has waged war on within its boundaries since its inception, from Kashmir and Telangana to Manipur and Mizoram to Goa, embarking on a campaign of suppression to consolidate its rule over the lands.
Anyone who watches the full video will understand that she is trying to make a point here about the bias of the international community in giving Pakistan its fair share of negative coverage for the brutality of its militarism, while simultaneously shying away from depicting India as anything but a bastion of democracy when many of its own people have been reduced to second class citizens.
In this context, her contention that India has ‘perpetually been at war’ with its own people does seem to make sense.
Furthermore, this 2-minute snippet miraculously resurfaced a few days after Arundhati Roy penned a searing opinion piece in the New York Times against PM Narendra Modi’s ambitions in Kashmir and India at large.
Arundhati minced no words saying, “Given my views on what is happening in Kashmir now, it is not surprising that Hindu Nationalists are rushing to generate outrage over this exciting new/old canard they have dug up about my supposed denial of the genocide in Bangladesh and the deeds of the Pakistan Army in Pakistan.”
The Yellow Press
With distrust in the media growing by the day, one must be ever vigilant of the content one comes across online. The yellow press relies on clickbaity headlines which draw us in to confer upon us details of the juiciest sort. The resulting outrage encourages us to share more and more, thus motivating these outlets to concoct headlines that are even more removed from reality.
Even reputable news outlets have their slip-ups, quoting people out of context and sometimes downright misquoting them. Only by admitting when one is mistaken and taking actual steps to correct said mistakes can these outlets regain the trust of their readers.
In this day and age, we must be conscious of both how we consume information and what information we put back out into the world. Let’s not let our outrage get the best of us.
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