Push to silence Modi’s critics hits Arundhati Roy

Narendra Modi recently won a third term as Indian prime minister after his BJP was returned to power, albeit as part of a minority government leading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition. Having expected to win another majority from which to pursue his Hindu nationalist – or Hindutva – agenda, Modi will have to operate within the constraints of a considerably reduced mandate.

His government – dubbed “Modi 3.0” in India – has plenty to do including completing its program of reforms and reworking foreign investment policy. Yet barely had the new government been sworn in than the BJP lieutenant governor of New Delhi was given the go-ahead for the prosecution of the noted author and public intellectual, Arundhati Roy for remarks she made as far back as 2010 about the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain, formerly professor at the Central University of Kashmir, have been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – an anti-terrorism measure. The charges relate to “provocative” speeches they made at a seminar in October 2010, which allegedly “propagated the separation of Kashmir from India.”

But all this was 14 years ago, before the BJP took power nationally in 2014. Why is the Modi government risking international opprobrium by persecuting such an internationally famous figure over what she said years in the past?

The answer is that picking a fight over Kashmir is an easy win for Modi’s style of Hindu nationalism. Anyone who insists on raising the myriad problems of militarization, mismanagement, human rights abuses and repression in Kashmir tends to be accused of being anti-national, seditious, pro-Pakistani or terrorist.

Modi’s BJP has been in power for a decade and has introduced major constitutional changes in the Jammu & Kashmir region. But the government has addressed neither militancy in the region nor India’s loss of considerable amounts of territory to China along the line of actual control.

The BJP opted not to field any candidates in Muslim-majority Kashmir in the 2024 election (it had two candidates in neighbouring Hindu majority Jammu). At the polls voters shunned candidates from Kashmir’s mainstream pro-India parties, preferring local independents who had opposed the Modi government’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. One of the candidates elected has been in prison in Delhi since shortly after the decision was taken in 2019.

As a result, the BJP is clearly ultra-sensitive about Kashmir. Targeting a globally prominent figure such as Roy in such a vindictive manner is part of a multi-pronged political strategy aimed at baiting and discrediting opponents of Modi’s Hindu nationalist ambitions.

‘Anti-national’

The BJP wants to use the persecution of Roy – and other progressives and Kashmiris – as leverage over its main political rival, the Congress party-led Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (India), which outperformed expectations in the recent election. If the alliance speaks out over stunts like this, it risks being delegitimized as “anti-national.” If it stays silent, it risks alienating its own progressive supporters.

Meanwhile, for right-wing Hindu nationalists, any discussion of Kashmir is something of a dog whistle. They tend to see any reference to human rights and freedoms in Kashmir as a sign of seditious tendencies.

So the prosecution of Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain for speaking out on the issue is also intended to galvanize the BJP’s own support base. And it’s a message to other Modi critics: if someone with Roy’s profile can be targeted, so can you.

Becoming a target

Its indicative of a wider pattern in Indian politics under Modi. This sort of targeting is particularly pronounced for those who not only defend democratic values and critique Modi’s authoritarianism but also have spoken in support of Kashmiri people’s rights or aspirations at any time in the past.

I know this from bitter experience. I’m an academic and author, of Kashmiri origin, focusing on democracy and human rights in India and beyond. In 2019, I provided testimony at a US congressional hearing on Kashmir, that pro-Modi government news agencies sought to suppress.

In February 2024, I was invited by the Congress-run state of Karnataka to a constitutional convention. But when I arrived in India, immigration denied me entry even though I held all the valid papers. “Orders from Delhi” was all I was told. I was detained under armed guard and deported. Several weeks later, I was sent a notice of intent to revoke my overseas citizenship of India.

All the while I was subjected to coordinated and vicious attacks on social media from prominent right-wing individuals and Modi-supporting accounts. The chorus of online hate focused on a 2010 tweet of mine relating to Kashmir, which was cited as proof of my anti-national views. When Congress leaders spoke in my support, the Karnataka BJP referred to me as a “Pakistani sympathiser who wants India’s break up” and criticized “#AntiNationalCongress” for having invited me.

I had traveled to India numerous times since 2010. The issue for the BJP wasn’t my 2010 tweet – which I explained in some detail. It was my more recent work on problems such as the increasing authoritarianism under Modi, the use of anonymous political funding instruments called electoral bonds and the treatment of dissent by the BJP government. Though I grew up in, and work on, India, I cannot know when I will see my only living parent again – an elderly and ailing mother who is unable to travel to me.

Various other authors, journalists, academics and activists have been targeted similarly. Many who have spoken up from Srinagar or from Delhi have been imprisoned.

Roy’s persecution is part of this wider pattern that attempts to delegitimize any criticism of Modi and his government and clamp down on freedom of speech while trying to trap the opposition into being called anti-national. Roy’s and Showkat’s persecution must be seen as a chess move that is part of a strategy designed to continue the undermining of democracy in India.

Nitasha Kaul is a chair professor at the University of Westminster.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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