Author Arundhati Roy Could Be Prosecuted for 2010 Speech

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Amid growing concerns surrounding India’s declining free speech, renowned author Arundhati Roy has been charged for public comments she made thirteen years ago about Kashmir, widely regarded as a disputed territory.  

Indian media reported Tuesday that VK Saxena, the lieutenant governor of Delhi, said there is sufficient evidence to charge Roy and Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Kashmiri law professor, as part of a 2010 complaint that accused them and two others of sedition. Roy has long been a critic of India’s Prime Minister Narandra Modi and some experts say the case is an effort to silence her. 

Roy—who became India’s first citizen to win the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel The God of Small Things—and Hussain have been charged by Indian authorities with offenses related to provocative speech and the promotion of enmity between groups. According to the New York Times, Hussain said he was not formally made aware of the charges, while Roy told the publication she would speak to her lawyer before discussing the case. Two other co-defendants Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a Kashmiri separatist leader, and Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, a professor, have died since the original complaint. 

The original complaint was brought by a right-wing Kashmiri Hindu activist against speakers at a conference titled “Freedom — the Only Way.” The activist claimed that Roy’s speech, and a number of others, “jeopardized public peace and security” by advocating for the separation of Kashmir from India. Kashmir, an Indian-administered territory home to a Muslim majority, is a hugely controversial topic as India and Pakistan both claim its land in its entirety. The two nations have fought two wars and continue to engage in countless skirmishes over control of the territory.

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During her speech, Roy recalled an incident where she was pressured by a television reporter to answer the question, “Is Kashmir an integral part of India?” According to video footage of the event, she told the audience: “So, I said, look, ‘Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. However aggressively and however often you want to ask me that, even the Indian government has accepted that it is not an integral part of India.’” 

In the immediate aftermath of Roy’s comments, her Dehli home was swarmed with protesters. Tensions surrounding Kashmir were particularly high at the time, following the death of a teenage boy who was hit with a tear-gas canister by Indian forces. The death caused outrage in Kashmir and ignited a year of protest action that saw 120 demonstrators die. 

A number of high profile literary and legal figures have since expressed concern over Roy’s charges, calling out Modi for the decision. “Message to @narendramodi: Hands Off #ArundhatiRoy! You have no idea what you will unleash is [sic] you pursue this political prosecution aimed at silencing your most eloquent critic. She is a hero to millions and we see you,” writer Naomi Klein posted on X on Tuesday. 

Indian poet Meena Kandasamy, who also criticized Modi and the decision on X, tells TIME, “For a case like that to be revived a dozen years after it was clamped against [Roy] shows the extent of their desperation.” She adds, “It is not only a punishment to Roy, but a deterrent deployed against India’s radical writers. It is the regime’s way of saying-—we have contained her—do you dare to speak?” 

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If convicted of sedition under India’s draconian sedition law, Roy could face punishment ranging from a fine to life imprisonment. 

The case comes amid a government crackdown on freedom of expression under Modi. Since 2014, the South Asian nation has dropped from 150 to 161 in this year’s media freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders, which orders 180 countries in total. 

Meanwhile, the homes and offices of journalists linked to online publication NewsClick, a prominent critic of the government, were raided in early October. On Tuesday, NewsClick’s founder Prabir Purkayastha, and another person associated with the site were denied bail after facing charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a stringent antiterrorism law. Similarly, BBC offices in India were raided by tax officials in February in the wake of a documentary that outlined Modi’s involvement in Gujarat’s 2002 religious riots that left over 1,000 people dead.  

“What Modi’s regime has managed has been to make the entire media landscape into a lapdog media, a pitiable pliant media. The few journalists who did not cower were forced to leave their jobs,” says Kandasamy. She adds that the space for critics to safely critique the government is depleting. 

“What is brilliant about Roy is that she never needed this traditional media, this crony-capitalist, pro-regime corporate media in order to be heard. They cannot stage-manage her, they cannot contain the PR damage that her criticism will inflict,” Kandasamy says.

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