Approaching Gridlock: Arundhati Roy on Free Speech and Failing Democracy

The following is from a speech given by Arundhati Roy at the Swedish Academy on March 22, 2023, at a conference called Thought and Truth Under Pressure and reprinted from Literary Hub.

I thank the Swedish Academy for inviting me to speak at this conference and for affording me the privilege of listening to the other speakers. It was planned more than two years ago, before the coronavirus pandemic unleashed the full scale of the horror it had in store for us and before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But those two cataclysmic events have only intensified the predicament that we have gathered here to think about—the phenomenon of democracies transmuting into something unrecognizable but with unnervingly recognizable resonances. And the escalating policing of speech in ways that are very old, as well as very new, to the point where the air itself has turned into a sort of punitive heresy-hunting machine. We seem to be fast approaching what feels like intellectual gridlock.

I will reverse the sequence suggested by the title of this talk and begin with the phenomenon of failing democracy.

Arundhati Roy

The last time I came to Sweden was in 2017, for the Gothenburg Book Fair. Several activists asked me to boycott the fair because, in the name of Free Speech, it had allowed the far-right newspaper Nye Tider to put up its stall. At the time I explained that it would be absurd for me to do that because Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of my country, who was (and is) warmly welcomed on the world’s stage, is a life-time member of the RSS, a far-right Hindu Supremacist organization founded in 1925, and constituted in the image of the Blackshirts, the “all volunteer” paramilitary wing of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.

In Gothenburg I watched the Nordic Resistance Movement march. The first Nazi march in Europe since the second world war. It was countered on the street by young anti-fascists.

But today a far-right party, even if not openly Nazi, is part of the ruling coalition in the Swedish Government. And Narendra Modi is serving his ninth year as India’s Prime Minister.

When I speak of failing democracy, I will speak mainly about India, not because it is known as the world’s largest democracy, but because it is the place I love, the place I know and live in, the place that breaks my heart every day. And mends it, too.

Remember what I say is not a call for help, because we in India know very well that no help will come. No help can come. I speak to tell you about a country that, although flawed, was once so full of singular possibilities, one that offered a radically different understanding of the meaning of happiness, fulfillment, tolerance, diversity and sustainability than that of the western world. All that is being extinguished, spiritually stubbed out.

India’s democracy is being systematically disassembled. Only the rituals remain. Next year you will surely hear a lot about our noisy, colorful elections. What will not be apparent is that the level playing field—fundamental to a fair election—is actually a steep rockface in which virtually all the money, the data, the media, the election management and security apparatus is in the hands of the ruling party. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, with its detailed, comprehensive data set that measures the health of democracies, has categorized India as an “electoral autocracy” along with El Salvador, Turkey and Hungary, and predicts that things are likely to get worse. We are talking about 1.4 billion people falling out of democracy and into autocracy. Or worse.

The process of dismantling democracy began long before Modi and the RSS came to power. Fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay called Democracy’s Failing Light. At the time, the Congress Party, a party of old, feudal elites and technocrats newly and enthusiastically wedded to the free market, was in power. I’ll read a short passage from the essay—not to prove how right I was—but to chart for you how much has changed since then.

WHILE WE’RE still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be?

So the question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?

That was 2009. Five years later, in 2014, Modi was elected Prime Minister of India. In the nine years since, India has changed beyond recognition. The “secular, socialist republic” mandated by the Indian Constitution has almost ceased to exist. The great struggles for social justice and the dogged, visionary environmental movements have been crushed. Now we rarely speak about dying rivers, falling water tables, disappearing forests or melting glaciers. Because those worries have been replaced by a more immediate dread. Or euphoria, depending on which side of the ideological line you are on.

India for all practical purposes has become a corporate, theocratic Hindu state, a highly policed state, a fearsome state. The institutions that were hollowed-out by the previous regime, particularly the mainstream media, now seethe with Hindu supremacist fervor. Simultaneously, the free market has done what the free market does. Briefly, according to Oxfam’s 2023 report, the top 1 percent of India’s population owns more than forty per cent of total wealth, while the bottom 50 percent of the population (700 million people) has around 3 percent of total wealth. We are a very rich country of very poor people.

But instead of being directed at those who might be responsible for some of these things, the anger and resentment that this inequality generates has been harvested and directed against India’s minorities. The 170 million Muslims who make up 14 percent of the population are on the frontline. Majoritarian thinking however, cuts across class and caste barriers and has a huge constituency in the diaspora as well.

In January this year the BBC broadcast a two-part documentary called India: The Modi Question. It traced Modi’s political journey from his debut in 2001 as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat to his years as India’s Prime Minister. The film made public for the first time an internal report commissioned by the British Foreign Office in April 2002 about the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Gujarat under Modi’s watch in February and March 2002, just before elections to the State Assembly.

That fact-finding report, embargoed for all these years, only corroborates what Indian activists, journalists, lawyers, two senior police officers and eyewitnesses to the mass rape and slaughter have been saying for years. It estimates that “at least 2,000” people had been murdered. It calls the massacre a pre-planned pogrom that bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” It says reliable sources had informed them that when the murdering began the police were ordered to stand down. The report lays the blame for the pogrom squarely at Modi’s door.

The film has been banned in India. Twitter and YouTube were ordered to take down all links to it. They obeyed immediately. On February 21st the BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai were surrounded by the police and raided by Income Tax officials. As Oxfam’s offices have been. As Amnesty International’s offices have been. As many major opposition politicians’ homes and offices have been. As almost every NGO that isn’t completely aligned with the government has been. While Modi has been legally absolved by the Supreme Court in the 2002 pogrom, the activists and police officers who dared to accuse him of complicity, based on a tower of evidence and witness testimonies are either in prison or facing criminal trials.

Meanwhile, many of the convicted killers are out on bail or parole. Last August, on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, eleven convicts walked out of prison. They had been serving life-sentences for gang-raping a nineteen-year-old Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano during the 2002 pogrom and murdering fourteen members of her family, including her one-day-old niece and her three-year-old daughter, Saleha, by smashing her head on a rock. They were given special amnesty. Outside the prison walls, the murderer-rapists were greeted as heroes, garlanded with flowers. Once again, there was a state election around the corner. The special amnesty was part of our democratic process.

Earlier today Professor Timothy Snyder asked, “What is Free Speech?” Let none of what I have just said make you conclude that there isn’t free speech in India. There is freedom in speech and deed. Plenty of it.

Mainstream TV anchors can freely lie about, demonize and dehumanize minorities in ways that lead to actual physical harm or incarceration. Hindu godmen and sword-wielding mobs can call for the genocide and mass rape of Muslims. Dalits and Muslims can be publicly flogged and lynched in broad daylight and the videos can be uploaded on YouTube. Churches can be freely attacked, priests and nuns beaten and humiliated.

In Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, where people have fought for self-determination for almost three decades, where India runs the densest military administration in the world, and where no foreign journalists are allowed to go, the government has allowed itself to freely shut down virtually all speech—online and otherwise—and freely incarcerate local journalists.

In that beautiful valley covered with graveyards, the valley from which no news comes, the people say, “In Kashmir the dead are alive, and the living are only dead people pretending.” They often refer to India’s democracy as “demon-crazy.”

In 2019, weeks after Modi and his party won a second term, the State of Jammu and Kashmir was unilaterally stripped of its statehood and the semi-autonomous status guaranteed to it by the Indian Constitution. Soon after that Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This new Act manifestly discriminates against Muslims. Under it, people, mostly Muslims, now fear losing their citizenship.Our new India is an India of costume and spectacle.

The CAA will complement the process of creating a National Register of Citizens (NRC). To be included in the National Register of Citizens people are expected to produce a set of state approved “legacy documents”—a process not dissimilar to what the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany required of German people. Already two million people in the State of Assam have been struck from the National Register of Citizens and stand to lose all their rights. Huge detention centers are being constructed, with the hard labor often done by future inmates—those who have been designated “declared foreigners” or “doubtful voters.”

Our new India is an India of costume and spectacle. Picture a cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It’s called the Narendra Modi Stadium and has a seating capacity of 132,000. In January 2020 it was packed to capacity for the Namastey Trump rally when Modi felicitated then US President Donald Trump. Standing up and waving to the crowd, in the city where during the 2002 pogrom Muslims had been slaughtered in broad daylight and tens of thousands driven from their homes, and where Muslims still live in ghettos, Trump praised India for being tolerant and diverse. Modi called down a round of applause.

A day later Trump arrived in Delhi. His arrival in the capital coincided with yet another massacre. A tiny one this time, a mini-massacre by Gujarat’s standards. In a working-class neighborhood only kilometers away from Trump’s fine hotel and not far from where I live. Hindu vigilantes, once again turned on Muslims. Once again the police stood by. The provocation was that the area had seen protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. Fifty-three people, mostly Muslim, were killed. Hundreds of businesses, homes and mosques were burnt. Trump said nothing.

Burned into some of our minds from those terrible days is a different kind of spectacle: a young Muslim man is lying grievously injured, close to death, on a street in India’s capital city. He is being prodded and beaten and forced by policemen to sing the Indian national anthem. He died a few days later. His name was Faizan. He was 23 years old. No action has been taken against those policemen.

None of this should matter much to the provosts of the democratic world. Actually none of it does. Because there is after all business to attend to. Because India is currently the West’s bulwark against a rising China (or so it hopes), and because in the free market you can trade a little mass-rape and lynching or a spot of ethnic cleansing or some serious financial corruption for a generous purchase order for fighter jets or commercial aircraft. Or crude oil purchased from Russia, refined, stripped of the stigma of US sanctions and sold to Europe and, yes, or so our newspapers report, to the United States, too. Everybody’s happy. And why not?

For Ukrainians, Ukraine is their country. For Russia, it’s a colony, and for Western Europe and the US, it’s a frontier. (Like Vietnam was. Like Afghanistan was.) But for Modi, it’s merely yet another stage on which to perform. This time to play the role of statesman-peacemaker and offer homilies such as “This is not the time for war.”

Inside what is increasingly feeling like a cult, there is sophisticated jurisdiction. But there is no equality before law. Laws are applied selectively depending on caste, religion, gender and class. For example, a Muslim cannot say what Hindus can. A Kashmiri cannot say what everybody else can. It makes solidarity, speaking up for one another, more important than ever. But that, too, has become a perilous activity, and this is what I mean by the title of my lecture—Approaching Gridlock.

Unfortunately, at just such a moment, the list of things that cannot be said and words that must not be uttered is lengthening by the minute. Time was when governments and mainstream media houses controlled the platforms that controlled the narrative. In the west that would, for the most part, be white folks. In India, brahmin folks. And then of course there are fatwa folks for whom censorship and assassination mean the same thing.If we lock ourselves into the prison cells of the very labels and identities that we have been given by those who have always had power over us, we can at best stage a prison revolt. Not a revolution.

But today censorship has turned into a battle of all against all. The fine art of taking offense has become a global industry. The question is how does one negotiate this hydra-headed, multi-limbed, hawkeyed, forever-awake, ever-vigilant, heresy-hunting machine? Is it even possible, or is it a tide that must ebb before we can even discuss it?

In India, like in other countries, the weaponization of identity as a form of resistance has become the dominant response to the weaponization of identity as a form of oppression. Those who have historically been oppressed, enslaved, colonized, stereotyped, erased, unheard and unseen precisely because of our identities—our race, caste, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference—are now defiantly doubling down on those very identities to face off against that oppression.

It is a powerful, explosive moment in history in which, enabled by social media, wild, incandescent anger is battering down old ideas, old patterns of behavior, entitled assumptions that have never been questioned, loaded words, and language that is coded with prejudice and bigotry. The intensity and suddenness of it has shocked a complacent world into re-thinking, re-imagining and trying to find a better way of doing and saying things. Ironically, almost uncannily, this phenomenon, this fine-tuning, seems to be moving in step with our lurch into fascism.

This explosion has profound, revolutionary aspects to it, as well as absurd and destructive ones. It’s easy to swoop down on its more extreme aspects and use these to tar and dismiss the whole debate. (For example: should women now be called ‘people who menstruate’? Should an art professor in the US teaching the rich diversity of Islam be summarily sacked for showing her students a 14th-century painting of Prophet Mohammed after announcing that she was going to do so and excusing from her class all students who might be offended or upset by it? Should there be an established, immutable hierarchy of historical suffering that everybody must accept?)

That is the fuel which the far-right uses to consolidate itself. But to buckle under it, fearfully and unquestioningly as many who think of themselves as liberal and left-wing do, is to disrespect this transformation, too. Because in the politics of identity there is all too often an important pivot, a hinge, which when it turns upon itself begins to reinforce as well as replicate the very thing it wishes to resist. That happens when identity is disaggregated and atomized into micro-categories.Solidarity can never be pristine.

Even these micro-identities then develop a power hierarchy and a micro-elite, usually located in big cities, big universities, with social media capital, which inevitably mimics the same kind of exclusion, erasure and hierarchy that is being challenged in the first place.

If we lock ourselves into the prison cells of the very labels and identities that we have been given by those who have always had power over us, we can at best stage a prison revolt. Not a revolution. And the prison guards will appear soon enough to restore order. In fact, they’re already on their way. When we buy into a culture of proscription and censorship, eventually it is always the Right, and usually the status quo, that benefits disproportionately.

Sealing ourselves into communities, religious and caste groups, ethnicities and genders, reducing and flattening our identities and pressing them into silos precludes solidarity. Ironically, that was and is the ultimate goal of the Hindu caste system in India. Divide a people into a hierarchy of unbreachable compartments, and no one community will be able to feel the pain of another, because they are in constant conflict.

It works like a self-operating, intricate administrative/surveillance machine in which society administers/surveils itself, and in the process ensures that the overarching structures of oppression remain in place. Everyone except those at the very top and the very bottom—and these categories are minutely graded, too—is oppressed by someone and has someone to be oppressed by.Coming specifically to fiction, there can be no fiction without appropriation. Because we fiction writers are predators too.

Once this maze of tripwires has been laid, almost nobody can pass the test of purity and correctness. Certainly, almost nothing that was once thought of as good or great literature. Not Shakespeare, for sure. Not Tolstoy. Leave aside his Russian imperialism, imagine presuming he could understand the mind of a woman called Anna Karenina. Not Dostoevsky, who only refers to older women as “crones.” By his standards I’d qualify as a crone for sure. But I’d still like people to read him.

Or, if you like, try reading the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. I can guarantee you that you’ll be appalled on every count; race, sex, caste, class. Does that mean he should be banned? Or re-written? Even Jane Austen wouldn’t make the cut. It goes without saying that by these standards every sacred book of every religion would not pass muster. Read the rest here