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17 June 2024

Will Arundhati Roy be arrested?

By targeting the celebrated author, Narendra Modi is determined to show that none of those who defy his regime are safe.

By Alpa Shah

On 14 June, Narendra Modi told world leaders gathered at the G7 Summit in Italy that India’s election results earlier this month were a “victory for the democratic world”. But back in India, there is every sign that his style of fascism is strengthening as he begins an historic third term in power.

On the same day, the Lieutenant General of Delhi, Vinai Kumar Saxena, granted the police permission to prosecute the Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy and the former Central University of Kashmir professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). This could lead to their imminent arrest.

Roy is one of the world’s most famous and admired writers, and has long been considered as protected against state repression as one could get in India. The act for which the 62-year-old author may be prosecuted is a speech she gave in Delhi 14 years ago at a conference on Kashmir. This followed intense unrest in the region after Indian police killed more than 100 demonstrators who were protesting the death of a 17-year-old Muslim boy who had been struck down with a tear gas cannister days before. In her remarks, Roy said that Kashmir, India’s Muslim majority, was never an integral part of India. A Hindu right-wing activist reported her and four other speakers to the police for allegedly making anti-India statements.

In October last year, Saxena said the police could prosecute Roy for her statement under two sections of the Indian Penal Code. Now, he has said that she can be prosecuted under the draconian UAPA, which allows for incarceration without trial.

Since the Indian election results ten days ago, commentators around the world have rejoiced that voters have stripped Prime Minister Modi of his parliamentary majority, declaring that “democracy had been saved”.

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While campaigning, Modi claimed that he had been put on earth by divine intervention, and that his party, the BJP, would win a crushing majority with as many as 400 of the 543 parliamentary seats. Had it done so, there would be no stopping the aggressive project to subvert India’s founding values of secular democracy and establish a Hindu nationalist hegemony in India. This “Hindutva” had rapidly gained strength over the last decade, relegating the country’s many minorities, including its 200 million Muslims, as second-class citizens to be targeted by state-led intimidation and violence.

But the opposition, led by Rahul Gandhi and his Indian National Congress party, campaigned hard on national unity and the defence of constitutional values. It did this despite having fewer financial resources than the BJP (its bank accounts were also frozen for weeks during the campaign), as well as the threat of arrest. In the end, Modi’s ruling party lost 62 of the 303 seats it had previously held. Indian voters delivered a sharp rebuke to the Hindu right wing.

Commentators claimed that a more moderate Modi was now in power, that he had been “re-sized”, and that his magic had faded. His government will now have to rely on coalition partners that many Indians hope will weaken his authoritarianism. There was also optimism that India’s decade-long lurch toward fascism has been halted.

But it’s time for a sobering reality check. Modi, his party, and its parent organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which seeks to establish a Hindu-first state, may have suffered a setback at the ballot box, but the BJP’s share of the national vote barely changed since the last election in 2019. Over the past 10 years they have inflicted tremendous harm on the country’s democratic institutions and to relations between the country’s diverse peoples that is going to be hard to restore. It has captured many of the most important institutions, from the judiciary to the media to academia, subverting them by appointing judges and university officials with RSS sympathies, and turning the media into a loyal mouthpiece for the regime.

The government has also weaponised anti-terrorism laws for the mass incarceration of dissenters. Roy’s potential detention under the UAPA would only be the most recent and high-profile example. Perhaps the most infamous is the Bhima Koregaon case – a disparate group of 16 professors, lawyers, artists, journalists and human rights activists fighting for social justice and against inequality – who were thrown into jail without charge or trial from 2018 under the UAPA. This happened despite some of the world’s leading US-based cyber forensic researchers showing that the evidence used to incarcerate them was planted on their computers. More than six years since the first arrests, many of the 16 remain in prison without trial, and one died in custody. Judges have repeatedly recused themselves from presiding over their bail hearings, or cases are removed at the last minute from judges who may give bail and transferred to those who are known to tow the BJP party line. After leaving their posts, two recent High Court judges declared their ideological loyalty to the RSS. Such affinities among ideologically motivated public officials may be too ingrained to easily remove.

Officials who have spoken out against Modi have been jailed, sometimes for life on questionable charges, or faced other dire consequences. Media organisations that don’t conform to the regime have faced the threat of shutdowns, while individual journalists have been jailed or silenced, sometimes by being targeted by tax or anti-corruption authorities. This has also happened to research organisations, charities and NGOs. The targeting of Roy is a sign that this repression will not cease but get stronger.

The most disturbing feature in India today is perhaps the armies of mostly young men who have been radicalised by the Modi regime, who believe that it is their duty to patrol and preserve Mother India from Muslims. Two days after India’s election results were announced, a mob reportedly attacked a truck loaded with cattle in the state of Chhattisgarh. Two men aboard the truck were beaten to death, their bodies thrown from a bridge. A third man was seriously injured when he jumped off the bridge to save his life. The victims were Muslims, and the attack has been blamed on “cow vigilantes” – mobs of Hindus who consider the cow sacred. Since Modi came to power a decade ago, hundreds of such mob attacks have occurred across the country, fuelled by the religious hatred of a generation of Hindu youths raised on Modi’s communal enmity, bigotry and violence. They are waiting with their tridents, pistols and daggers, to police those they believe transgress Hindu supremacism.

A wounded tiger is a dangerous beast. Narendra Modi is known to seek out those who defy him to teach them a lesson. Targeting Arundhati Roy seems to be a way for him both to show his critics that no one is safe, and to reassure his supporters that he remains stronger than ever. There is much to celebrate in India’s election result, but things may well get worse before they get better.

[See also: India chooses political instability over Modi]

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