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Arundhati Roy Must Go To Jail. Soon

By Sadanand Patwardhan

29 October, 2010

Arundhati Roy must be jailed. She must be booked under IPC-124a for sedition. The demands for her arrest from some quarters are strident & shrill. Her fault is that she said Kashmir was never part of India. Roy has responded from Kashmir to the news that she may be arrested for sedition by pitying the nation , which has to silence its writers for speaking their minds. Though she says writers, she probably means only herself. Because right now she is alone in the news save Geelani, who is a well known separatist leader but not known as a writer. When she pities the nation, I wonder if she realizes, she pities everyone. She pities those whose causes she espouses. She pities those who have rose up in her defence. Or does she consider only those who clamour for her head the nation? On 21 st October during a seminar “Aazdi – The Only Way” held at LTG in Delhi, she said, “ ....In 1947 we were told that India has become a sovereign, independent nation. A country that became a country because of the imagination of its colonizers – the British had drawn the map of India in 1899. That country became a colonizer from the moment of its birth..... ” She has reduced to nothing in one fell swoop the sacrifices made by countless people, known & unknown, to throw away the yoke of British colonial power. Her hyperventilation draws applause but it so overstates the case as to lose its moorings altogether. Whether she says this for effect, or she seriously believes everything she says, only she can tell. But even for those who admire her guts, her forthright espousal of pivotal causes of our times, and her literary skills, it becomes difficult to take her seriously every time. Should her free speech be curtailed for this reason?

Free speech is about justice, equity and freedom. It is not about airing freely what the rulers or even majority would like to hear. Public space is about the clash of ideas. Ideas question the tyranny of the society. They interrogate long held cherished notions, which often pass as self evident truths. Free speech is crucial for progress and movement in society. It needs to be nurtured and protected even if it runs the risk of abuse. Like for example the demands for jailing of Roy should & do receive the same protection from censorship. Question is how the government is going to act? Already somebody in Jharkhand has filed a private case in court for Roy's arrest. Obviously, it is a pathetic attempt to bask in some of the publicity that surrounds Roy. But it is exactly this media glare enveloping Roy that is likely to deter the government even if elements within it or without would be egging it on into filing a case against her.

Roy is famous, some would say notorious, not only in India but internationally too. She is seen as a conscience keeper to our nation, and a leading advocate of human rights in the country. She has associated herself with and lent her energies to many struggles of the people starting from Narmada Bachao Andolan. Her articulation of such causes has often pulled them into media glare from the relative obscurity or deliberate neglect they earlier suffered. But probably in her desire to promote the causes effectively, she makes highly provocative statements ( sample this collection in Daily Pioneer ) for the effect they produce. Her tactics have proved hugely successful in promoting the causes, but have ended up making her the cause célèbre, where she corners more attention than the causes she seeks to promote. Smart guys in government recognise this and appreciate the danger of all round condemnation in international quarters were she to be jailed. International image is something this government assiduously cultivates, and would hate to invite comparison with autocratic China, whose dissident citizen – Liu Xiaobo - has received this years Nobel Peace Prize only recently. His citation talks of “ .... non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in.... ” Roy in jail is more inconvenient than Roy at large . Even Roy must be aware of the predicament Indian government finds itself in and therefore dares it relentlessly. But government will rush to arrest her only at the cost of letting its democratic credentials collapse abjectly, that too in the eyes of its international fraternity. A suicidal course in view of its desire to have a permanent seat on the security council and its aspiration to be a global leader of the “free world”. Roy would remain a free citizen despite the shrill chorus for her arrest. But here in lies the real rub. It lets the government absolutely free to behave undemocratically otherwise.

Central & state governments have been extremely liberal in the use of IPC-124a to stifle dissent, especially since last 10 years or so. States in the forefront of its free wheeling use are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Gujarat, & West Bengal, where people are resisting their eviction from the lands that have sustained them through the ages. Invariably such land grab in active connivance with state governments takes place by blatantly flouting laws of the land as was recently exposed in the case of Vedanta and Posco. A few index cases of the application of the charge of sedition : In Gujarat, several senior activists were arrested under FIR 1-37/2010 filed at police station Kamrej – Surat Range and charges included among other things IPC-124a; Tamil Nadu police arrested activist Piyush Sethia for distributing pamphlets criticizing Operation Green Hunt at a Republic day parade this year after slapping IPC-124a; Three journalists in three states were arrested for alleged links with Maoists after invoking IPC-124a; Orissa police use IPC-124a to intimidate journalists; and so on. The cited cases are merely indicative of the widespread malice plaguing our polity, where extremely serious sections of IPC that need to be carefully invoked are routinely applied to put away in jails activists and leaders who have become thorn in the flesh of ruling dispensation. It hardly matters if they are declared innocent of the charges pressed against them few years down the line by law courts. Immediate purpose of silencing the dissent is well served by then.

Section 124A is the prince among the political sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC), designated to suppress the liberty of the Citizens” was said by Gandhi in his written Statement before a British Judge, when he was charged with “Sedition” by British regime . There is a crying need to repeal such reprehensible sections that still stand on the statute books of our nation. Civil rights activists and organizations working for deepening such rights keep fighting whenever instances of such gross police misconduct come to their notice, but media hardly takes notice. Mostly the targeted people in such cases are only locally known and their obscurity becomes their bane. Roy's pre-eminence will help hold the harsh light of world scrutiny to such draconian laws and to the elected governments who use them with impunity for their narrow partisan ends. It would be good for Indian Democracy if Roy goes to jail for sedition. Even Roy would be happy if it helps the causes she espouses. It will.