You Mustn’t Pretend You Didn’t Know: Arundhati Roy on the Condition of India Under Modi
By Arundhati RoyOctober 21, 2023
The following text, delivered in Lausanne as Roy’s acceptance speech for the prize, originally appeared on the Indian independent news website Scroll.in.
I thank the Charles Veillon Foundation for honoring me with the 2023 European Essay Award. It may not be immediately apparent how delighted I am to receive it. It’s even possible that I am gloating. What makes me happiest is that it is a prize for literature. Not for peace. Not for culture or cultural freedom, but for literature. For writing. And for writing the kind of essays that I write and have written for the past 25 years. They have mapped, step by step, India’s descent (although some see it as an ascent) into first majoritarianism and then full-blown fascism. Yes, we continue to have elections, and for that reason, in order to secure a reliable constituency, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s [BJP] message of Hindu supremacism has relentlessly been disseminated to a population of 1.4 billion people. Consequently, elections are a season of murder, lynching, and dog-whistling—the most dangerous time for India’s minorities, Muslims and Christians in particular. It is no longer just our leaders we must fear, but a whole section of the population.
The banality of evil, the normalization of evil, is now manifest in our streets, in our classrooms, in very many public spaces. The mainstream press, the hundreds of 24-hour news channels, have been harnessed to the cause of fascist majoritarianism. India’s constitution has been effectively set aside. The Indian Penal Code is being rewritten. If the current regime wins a majority in 2024, it is very likely that we will see a new constitution. It is very likely that the process of what is called “delimitation”—a reordering of constituencies—or gerrymandering as it is known in the US, will take place, giving more parliamentary seats to those Hindi-speaking states in North India where the BJP has a base. This will cause great resentment in the southern states and has the potential to balkanize India. Even in the unlikely event of an electoral defeat, the supremacist poison runs deep and has compromised every public institution that is meant to oversee checks and balances. Right now, there are virtually none, except a weakened and undermined Supreme Court.
Let me thank you once again for this very prestigious prize and for the recognition of my work—although I must tell you that a lifetime achievement award makes a person feel old. I’ll have to stop pretending that I’m not. It’s a great irony in some ways to receive a prize for 25 years of writing—warning about the direction in which we were headed—that was not heeded but instead often mocked and criticized by liberals and those who considered themselves “progressive” too. But now the time for warning is over. We are in a different phase of history. As a writer, I can only hope that my writing will bear witness to this very dark chapter that is unfolding in my country’s life. And hopefully, if my work and the work of others like myself lives on, it will be known that not all of us agreed with what was happening.
My life as an essay writer was not planned. It just happened.
My first book was The God of Small Things, a novel published in 1997. That happened to be the 50th anniversary of India’s independence from British colonialism. It had been eight years since the Cold War had ended and Soviet communism had been buried in the rubble of the Afghan–Soviet war. It was the beginning of the US-dominated unipolar world in which capitalism was the uncontested victor. India realigned herself with the United States and opened her markets to corporate capital. Privatization and structural adjustment were the anthem of the free market. India was taking her place at the high table. But then, in 1998, a BJP-led Hindu supremacist government came to power. The first thing it did was to conduct a series of nuclear tests. They were greeted by most people, including writers, artists, and journalists, in a language of virulent, chauvinistic nationalism. What was acceptable as public discourse suddenly changed.
At the time, having just won the Booker Prize for my novel, I had inadvertently been cast as one of this aggressive New India’s cultural ambassadors. I was on the cover of major magazines. I knew that if I didn’t say something, it would be assumed that I agreed with all of this. I understood then that keeping quiet was as political as speaking out. I understood that speaking out would be the end of my career as the fairy princess of the literary world. More than that, I understood that if I didn’t write what I believed regardless of the consequences, I would become my own worst enemy and would possibly never write again. So, I wrote, to save my writing self. My first essay, “The End of Imagination,” was published simultaneously in two major mass-circulation magazines, Outlook and Frontline. I was immediately labeled a traitor and anti-national. I received those insults as laurels, no less prestigious than the Booker Prize. It set me off on a long writing journey, about dams, rivers, displacement, caste, mining, civil war—a journey that deepened my understanding and entwined my fiction and nonfiction in ways that can no longer be separated.
I will read a brief excerpt from one of the essays in my book Azadi, which is about how these essays live in the world. It’s called “The Language of Literature”:
When the essays were first published (first in mass-circulation magazines, then on the internet, and finally as books), they were viewed with baleful suspicion, at least in some quarters, often by those who didn’t necessarily even disagree with the politics. The writing sat at an angle to what is conventionally thought of as literature. Balefulness was an understandable reaction, particularly among the taxonomy-inclined, because they couldn’t decide exactly what this was—pamphlet or polemic, academic or journalistic writing, travelogue, or just plain literary adventurism? To some, it simply did not count as writing: “Oh, why have you stopped writing? We’re waiting for your next book.” Others imagined that I was just a pen for hire. All manner of offers came my way: “Darling, I loved that piece you wrote on the dams, could you do one for me on child abuse?” (This actually happened.) I was sternly lectured (mostly by upper-caste men) about how to write, the subjects I should write about, and the tone I should take.
But in other places—let’s call them places off the highway—the essays were quickly translated into other Indian languages, printed as pamphlets, distributed for free in forests and river valleys, in villages that were under attack, on university campuses where students were fed up of being lied to. Because these readers, out there on the front lines, already being singed by the spreading fire, had an entirely different idea of what literature is or should be.
I mention this because it taught me that the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When it’s broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.
Today it is unthinkable that any mainstream media house in India, all of whom live on corporate advertisements, would publish essays like these. In the last 20 years, the free market and fascism and the so-called free press have waltzed together to bring India to a place where it can by no means be called a democracy.
In January of this year, two things happened that serve to illustrate this in a way that nothing else probably could. The BBC broadcast a two-part documentary called India: The Modi Question, and a few days later, a small US firm called Hindenburg Research, which specializes in what is known as activist short-selling, published what is now known as the Hindenburg Report, a detailed exposé of shocking wrongdoing involving India’s biggest corporation—the Adani Group.
The BBC–Hindenburg moment was portrayed by the Indian media as nothing short of an attack on India’s twin towers—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India’s biggest industrialist, Gautam Adani, who was, until recently, the world’s third-richest man. The charges laid against them aren’t subtle. The BBC film implicates Modi in the abetting of mass murder. The Hindenburg Report accuses Adani of pulling “the largest con in corporate history.” On August 30, The Guardian and the Financial Times published articles based on incriminating documents obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that further substantiate the Hindenburg Report. Indian investigation agencies and most of the Indian media are in no position to investigate or publish these stories. When the foreign media does, it’s easy then, in the current atmosphere of pseudo-hypernationalism, to portray it as an attack on Indian sovereignty.
Episode one of the BBC film The Modi Question is about the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom that raged through the state of Gujarat after Muslims were held responsible for the burning of a railway coach in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive. Modi had been appointed—not elected—chief minister of the state only a few months before the massacre. The film is about not just the murders but also the 20-year journey that some victims made through India’s labyrinthine legal system, keeping the faith, hoping for justice and political accountability. It includes eyewitness testimonies, most poignantly from Imtiyaz Pathan, who lost 10 members of his family in the “Gulbarg Society massacre” in which 60 people were murdered by a mob, including a former member of Parliament, Ehsan Jafri, who was dismembered and burned alive. He was a political rival of Modi’s and had campaigned against him in a recent election.
It was one of several similarly gruesome massacres that took place over those few days in Gujarat. One of the other massacres—not in the film—was the gang rape of 19-year-old Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 members of her family including her three-year-old daughter. Last August, on Independence Day, while Modi addressed the nation about the importance of women’s rights, his government, on the very same day, pardoned the rapist-murderers of Bilkis and her family who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. They had spent most of their jail time out on parole. And now they are free men. They were greeted with garlands outside prison and are now respected members of society and share the stage with BJP politicians in public programs. The BBC film revealed an internal report commissioned by the British Foreign Office in April 2002, so far unseen by the public. The fact-finding report estimated that “at least 2,000” people had been murdered. It called the massacre a preplanned pogrom that bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” It said reliable contacts had informed them that the police had been ordered to stand down. The report laid the blame squarely at Modi’s door. After the Gujarat pogrom, the US denied him a visa. Modi won three consecutive elections and remained Gujarat’s chief minister until 2014. The ban was revoked after he became prime minister.
The Modi government has banned the film. Every social media platform complied with the ban and has taken down all links and references to it. Within weeks of the film’s release, the BBC’s offices were surrounded by the police and raided by tax officials.
The Hindenburg Report accuses the Adani Group of engaging in a “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme,” which—through the use of offshore shell entities—artificially overvalued its key listed companies and inflated the net worth of its chairman. According to the report, seven of Adani’s listed companies are overvalued by more than 85 percent. Modi and Adani have known each other for decades. Their friendship was consolidated after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. At the time, much of India, including corporate India, recoiled in horror at the open slaughter and mass rape of Muslims that was staged on the streets of Gujarat’s towns and villages by vigilante Hindu mobs seeking “revenge.” Gautam Adani stood by Modi. With a small group of Gujarati industrialists, he set up a new platform of businessmen. They denounced Modi’s critics and supported him as he launched a new political career as “Hindu Hriday Samrat,” the Emperor of Hindu Hearts.
So was born what is known as the Gujarat model of “development”: violent Hindu nationalism underwritten by serious corporate money. In 2014, after three terms as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was elected prime minister of India. He flew to his swearing-in ceremony in Delhi in a private jet with Adani’s name emblazoned across the body of the aircraft. In the nine years of Modi’s tenure, Adani became the world’s richest man. His wealth grew from $8 billion to $137 billion. In 2022 alone, he made $72 billion, which is more than the combined earnings of the world’s next nine billionaires put together. The Adani Group now controls a dozen shipping ports that account for the movement of 30 percent of India’s freight, seven airports that handle 23 percent of India’s airline passengers, and warehouses that collectively hold 30 percent of India’s grain. It owns and operates power plants that are the biggest generators of the country’s private electricity.
Yes, Gautam Adani is one of the world’s richest men, but if you look at their rollout during elections, the BJP is not just India’s but perhaps even the world’s richest political party. In 2016, the BJP introduced the scheme of electoral bonds to allow corporations to fund political parties without their identities being made public. It has become the party with by far the largest share of corporate funding. It looks very much as though the twin towers have a common basement.
Just as Adani stood by Modi in his time of need, the Modi government has stood by Adani and has refused to answer a single question raised by members of the opposition in Parliament, going so far as to expunge their speeches from the parliamentary record.
While the BJP and Adani accumulated their fortunes, in a damning report Oxfam said that the top 10 percent of the Indian population holds 77 percent of the total national wealth; 73 percent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest one percent, while 670 million Indians who comprise the poorest half of the population saw only a one percent increase in their wealth. While India is recognized as an economic power with a huge market, most of its population lives in crushing poverty. Millions live on subsistence rations delivered in packets with Modi’s face printed on them. India is a very rich country with very poor people—one of the most unequal societies in the world. For its pains, Oxfam India has been raided too. And Amnesty International and a host of other troublesome NGOs in India have been harassed into shutting down.
None of this has made any difference whatsoever to the leaders of Western democracies. Within days of the Hindenburg–BBC moment, after “warm and productive” meetings, Prime Minister Modi, President Joe Biden, and President Emmanuel Macron announced that India would be buying 470 Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Biden said the deal would create over a million American jobs. The Airbus will be powered by Rolls-Royce engines. “[F]or the UK’s thriving aerospace sector,” PM Rishi Sunak said, “[t]he sky’s the limit.”
In July, Modi traveled to the US on a state visit and to France as the chief guest on Bastille Day. Can you even begin to believe that? Macron and Biden fawned over him in the most embarrassing manner, knowing full well that this would be spun into pure campaign gold for the 2024 general elections in which Modi will stand for a third term. There is nothing they would not have known about the man they are embracing.
They would have known about Modi’s role in the Gujarat pogrom. They would have known about the sickening regularity with which Muslims are being publicly lynched, how some lynchers were met with garlands by a member of Modi’s cabinet and the precipitous process of Muslim segregation and ghettoization. They would have known about the burning-down of hundreds of churches by Hindu vigilantes.
They would have known about the hounding of opposition politicians, students, human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists, some of whom have received long prison sentences; about the attacks on universities by police and suspected Hindu nationalists; the rewriting of history textbooks; the banning of films; the shutdown of Amnesty International India; the raid on the India offices of the BBC; the activists, journalists, and government critics placed on mysterious no-fly lists; and the pressure on academics, both Indian and foreign.
They would have known that India now ranks 161 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, that many of the best Indian journalists have been hounded out of the mainstream media, and that journalists could soon be subjected to a censorious regulatory regime in which a government-appointed body will have the power to decide whether media reports and commentary about the government are fake or misleading. And the new IT law that is designed to shut down dissent on social media.
They would have known about the sword-wielding, violent Hindu vigilante mobs that regularly and openly call for the annihilation of Muslims and the rape of Muslim women.
They would have known about the situation in Kashmir, which, beginning in 2019, was subjected to a months-long communication blackout—the longest internet shutdown in a democracy—and whose journalists suffer harassment, arrest, and interrogation. Nobody in the 21st century should have to live as they do, with a boot on their throats.
They would have known about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act passed in 2019 that barefacedly discriminates against Muslims, the massive protests that it touched off, and how those protests only ended after dozens of Muslims were killed the following year by Hindu mobs in Delhi (which, incidentally, took place while President Donald Trump was in town on a state visit, and about which he uttered not a word). They would have known about how the Delhi police forced grievously injured young Muslim men who were lying on the street to sing the Indian National Anthem while they prodded and kicked them. One of them subsequently died.
They would have known that, at the same time they were feting Modi, Muslims were fleeing a small town in Uttarakhand in northern India after Hindu extremists affiliated with the BJP marked x’s on their doors and told them to leave. There is open talk of a “Muslim-free” Uttarakhand. They would have known that, under Modi’s watch, the state of Manipur in India’s northeast has descended into a barbaric civil war. A form of ethnic cleansing has taken place. The Centre is complicit; the state government is partisan; the security forces are split between the police and others with no chain of command. The internet has been cut. News takes weeks to filter out.
Still, the world’s powers choose to give Modi all the oxygen he needs to destroy the social fabric and burn India down. To me, this is a form of racism. They claim to be democrats, but they are racists. They don’t believe their professed “values” should apply to non-white countries. It’s an old story, of course.
It doesn’t matter. We will fight our own battle—and ultimately, we will win our country back. However, if they imagine that the dismantling of democracy in India is not going to affect the whole world, they must indeed be delusional.
For all those who believe India is still a democracy, these are a few of the events that have happened just over the last few months. This is what I meant when I said we have moved into a different phase. The time for warnings is over, and we must fear sections of the people as much as we fear our leaders.
In Manipur, where a civil war rages, the police, who are entirely partisan, handed two women over to a mob to be paraded naked through a village and then gang-raped. One of them watched her young brother being murdered before her eyes. Women who belong to the same community as the rapists have stood by the rapists and have even incited their men to rape.
In Maharashtra, an armed Railway Protection Force officer walked down the corridor of a train, shooting Muslim passengers and calling on people to vote for Modi.
A hugely popular Hindu vigilante, often photographed hobnobbing with top politicians and policemen, called on Hindus to participate in a religious march through a densely populated Muslim-majority settlement. He remained at large even though he was the prime accused in the murder of two young Muslims who were tied to a vehicle and burned alive in February. The town of Nuh abuts Gurgaon, where major international corporations have their offices. The Hindus in the march carried machine guns and swords. The Muslims defended themselves. Predictably, the march ended in violence. Six people were killed. A 19-year-old imam was butchered in his bed, his mosque vandalized and burned. The response of the state has been to bulldoze all the poorest Muslim settlements and cause hundreds of families to flee for their lives.
The prime minister has had nothing to say about any of this. It is election season. Next May, there will be a general election. It’s all part of an election campaign. We are braced for more bloodshed, mass killing, false-flag attacks, pretend-wars, and anything to further polarize an already polarized population.
I have just watched a chilling little video filmed in a classroom of a small school. The teacher makes a Muslim child stand by her desk and asks the rest of the students, Hindu boys, to come up one by one and slap him. She admonishes those who haven’t hit him hard enough. The action taken so far has been that the Hindus in the village and the police have pressured the Muslim family not to press charges. The Muslim boy’s school fee has been refunded and he has been taken out of school.
What’s happening in India is not that loose variety of internet fascism. It’s the real thing. We have become Nazis. Not just our leaders, not just our TV channels and newspapers, but vast sections of our population too. Large numbers among the Indian Hindu population who live in the US and Europe and South Africa support the fascists politically as well as materially. For the sake of our souls, and for those of our children and our children’s children, we must stand up. It doesn’t matter whether we fail or succeed. That responsibility is not on us in India alone. Soon, if Modi wins in 2024, all avenues of dissent will be shut down. None of you in this hall must pretend you didn’t know what was going on.
If you permit me, I will end by reading a section from my first essay, “The End of Imagination.” It’s a conversation with a friend about failure—and my personal writer’s manifesto:
I said in any case hers was an external view of things, this assumption that the trajectory of a person’s happiness, or let’s say fulfillment, had peaked (and now must trough) because she had accidentally stumbled upon “success.” It was premised on the unimaginative belief that wealth and fame were the mandatory stuff of everybody’s dreams.
You’ve lived too long in New York, I told her. There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honorable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors whom I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day, knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less “successful” in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled.
The only dream worth having, I told her, is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead. (Prescience? Perhaps.)
“Which means exactly what?” (Arched eyebrows, a little annoyed.)
I tried to explain, but didn’t do a very good job of it. Sometimes I need to write to think. So I wrote it down for her on a paper napkin. This is what I wrote: To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.
Let me thank you again for the honor of this award. I loved the part in the prize citation in which it says, “Arundhati Roy uses the essay as a form of combat.”
It would be presumptuous, arrogant, and even a little stupid of a writer to believe that she could change the world with her writing. But it would be pitiful if she didn’t even try.
Before I go … I just want to say this: this prize comes with a lot of money; it will not stay with me. It will be shared with the very many impossibly courageous activists, journalists, lawyers, and filmmakers who continue to stand up to this regime with almost no resources. However grim the situation is, please know that there is a tremendous fight back.
Arundhati Roy lives in New Delhi and is the author of the novels The God of Small Things, for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize, and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), finalist for the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book is Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus (2022).
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