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Arundhati Roy’s radical zeal Her Hindu nationalist critics have lost the battle of ideas

Roy has ventriloquised the rage of the rabble. Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Roy has ventriloquised the rage of the rabble. Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/Getty Images


July 3, 2024   7 mins

After bagging the Booker for The God of Small Things in 1997, Arundhati Roy made a life-altering decision: “to postpone reading Don DeLillo’s big book” about nuclear and bodily waste in order to make time for “reports on drainage”. This was a swipe at Mahatma Gandhi, a curmudgeonly champion and later a begrudging reformer of the caste system, who could do no better than deride the American writer Katherine Mayo’s criticisms of casteism and misogyny in Mother India as a “drain inspector’s report”. Roy has the obverse habit of mind: bring on the drain inspectors’ reports.

One suspects she has still not got around to plodding through DeLillo’s Underworld. What a shame, you might say, but rest assured that in her case, it was a sensible choice. For the past 30 years or so, perhaps more so than any other denizen of her class, Roy has ventriloquised the rage of the rabble. What’s more, hers has been an admirably dependable dissidence, all the more welcome in a landscape where liberals such as the columnists Ashutosh Varshney and Pratap Bhanu Mehta turn coat at the drop of a hat; both have since returned to their original anti-Hindu nationalist positions, the latter only after he was hoisted with his own petard when Hindu nationalists forced his resignation from Ashoka University. Roy, by contrast, has been a paragon of clarity, nothing short of a national treasure. ¡No pasarán! has been her motto, and it has largely served her well.

Until now. Smarting from his recent humbling at the polls, India’s Hindu nationalist ruler Narendra Modi has decided to lash out at his long-standing critics. Roy, it seems, is enemy number one. A speech she made in 2010 has been strenuously unearthed, on the strength of which she has been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which permits detention without trial. Accordingly, Delhi’s top mandarin has given the city police the green light to prosecute Roy. Will she be arrested? We don’t know yet. What is clear, though, is that the celebrations by liberals following the election have been premature. So long as Modi is in power, his reduced majority notwithstanding, the war on free speech and religious minorities will continue.

Roy’s small-minded critics can tar her with the brush of “anti-Indian” sentiment all they like, but, as she has time and again made clear, it is a higher nationalism that she tenaciously answers to. Indeed, there can be no greater act of patriotism than to point to the enormities in one’s own land. Lesser mortals, of course, would much prefer to sweep injustices under the carpet.

“There can be no greater act of patriotism than to point to the enormities in one’s own land.”

Roy’s cardinal sin, it appears, was to argue that “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India”, a self-evident truth to any right-thinking person. A third of the majority-Muslim region is, in fact, directly administered by Pakistan. As for the part that falls in India, it has alternated between military, presidential, and scarcely democratic rule; in other words, Kashmiris have been denied the free and fair representation accorded to their brethren in the Hindi belt. To all intents and purposes, Delhi’s rulers have treated the place as an internal colony, subjecting its people to the strappado, pellet guns, internet blackouts, and — until 2019 — even different laws. But in stating the obvious, Roy has been consigned by both of India’s main parties, the press and the bien-pensant bourgeoisie to that circle of hell reserved — in her words — for “hysterical, lying, anti-national harridans”.

Her critical perspective, one surmises, owes to her intellectual formation. Born in Shillong in India’s forested and tribal northeastern enclave — a world away from the Hindi heartland — Roy perforce could not partake in the democratic self-congratulation of the country’s ruling class. This was a land — in nationalist lexicon — infested with insurgencies. The governance of these areas was for long given over to Delhi’s emissaries, typically paramilitary outfits operating a shoot-on-sight policy.

Then there is Roy’s Jacobite Syrian heritage, something her Hindu nationalist critics never fail to mention. When they call her Suzanna Arundhati Roy — her full name — it’s a dog whistle everyone can hear. As a contemptible Christian, the insinuation goes, she has it in for India. Roy, however, has never been an uncritical admirer of the faith. She has followed in the footsteps of her feminist mother, Mary Roy, who used to be a name to reckon with in the Eighties, when she successfully campaigned to institute equal inheritance rights for Syrian Christian women, hitherto denied their fair share.

Thereafter, Roy grew up between Kerala’s backwaters and the hilly Nilgiris, both pastoral arcadias that nurtured an interest in conservation, before going up to the School of Planning and Architecture, where she read the latter and met her beau, Gerard da Cunha. The two spent the rest of their university years quite literally slumming it in a nearby slum, not long after she became estranged from her family; “they pretended to be married in deference to the slum’s conservative mores,” the New York Times explains.

A second relationship accompanied a turn to the cinema. This was a productive period for Roy, who played a “tribal bimbo” in Massey Sahib and wrote the screenplay for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, both directed by her husband Pradip Krishen. Fame and notoriety followed in 1994, when she took the director Shekhar Kapur to task for depicting the rape of Phoolan Devi, a Robin Hoodesque outlaw turned lawmaker, in Bandit Queen. “You’ve turned India’s most famous bandit into history’s most famous rape victim,” and without her consent at that, wrote Roy.

Her breakout year was 1997. It was, in a sense, India’s breakout year too. The country celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence amid serious stocktaking. Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things, for which she received a £500,000 advance, no doubt profited in some small measure from its propitious timing — Elizabeth Windsor was visiting India when Roy won the Booker, and the British press was gripped by a sense of patrician benevolence to the former colony — though this, of course, does not diminish her many considerable talents. Roy’s achievement was her singular authorial voice, reassuringly universalist but at the same time free from the corny clutches of magical realism. “My book doesn’t trade on the currency of cultural specificity,” she said at the time.

The laboriously political work of intercaste erotica wasn’t for everyone. Carmen Callil, chair of the previous year’s panel of judges, thought it “vulgar and execrable”. Peter Kemp of the Sunday Times found it twee and puerile. Even so, few could deny that it was unlike anything else available in the post-Cold War literary market — passionate, political, punchy, prurient. Kerala’s communist government put her on trial for obscenity, though one wonders if it was instead her “anti-Communist venom” — as Kerala’s chief minister put it — that incensed the apparatchiks. Roy lampoons the democratic Left much in the manner of Jaroslav Hašek, who sent up The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law. In Small Things, communist waiters dance attendance on fat-cat tourists at the Hotel People, located in the ancestral home of the communist party chief, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, no less.

If all of this is a little on the nose, it also points to a broader defect in her writing, and indeed her activism, which has taken centre stage since the publication of Small Things: her intransigence. The fact is that the violent overthrow of the state that she advocates has failed every time it has been tried: 1948, 1967, 1969. In the face of state repression, the insurrectionary Left simply doesn’t stand a chance. The democratic Left that she disparages has, by contrast, delivered not only high literacy and decent healthcare, but also meaningful land reform in Kerala.

Likewise, as the historian Ramachandra Guha has pointed out, Roy’s earnest stance of ¡no pasarán! may be well-meant, but it is hardly a principle fit for the real world. As an activist, she cut her teeth opposing the construction of the Narmada dam in Gujarat that would have displaced half a million with only a smidgen of compensation. A laudable cause, no doubt, yet her outright opposition to that project, many felt, did the proles a disservice. More moderate parties called for higher compensation and a smaller construction, recognising the uses of a dam to the water-starved peasants of arid Saurashtra and Kachchh. Roy, however, would have no truck with compromise. In her radical zeal, she was ready — in the words of the sociologist Gail Omvedt — to sacrifice the “drought-afflicted” on the altar of the “dam-afflicted”.

Guha upbraided her for her “atavistic hatred of science”, though it seems to me to be more a case of primitivist enchantment. Roy’s bedside reading, one Guardian journalist discovered, was Thomas Paine and Charles Dickens. In the same interview, she gave vent to her disgust with bourgeois philistinism: “the Indian middle class has just embarked on this orgy of consumerism.” Elsewhere, she has patted herself on the back for forgoing a life of cultivated literary elegance in “ridiculously posh” hotels out of love for the lower orders.

Her embrace of the Naxalites, who are waging a guerrilla war against the Indian state, is of a piece with this worldview. True, their grievances against a parade of governments that have dispossessed them in order to sell their lands to grasping industrialists, not to mention deployed private militias to persecute them, are real enough. But the monochromatic fresco she has painted of the militants, extolling them as saints, has been just as misleading as the official narrative, villainising them as terrorists. The districts under Naxal control are no prelapsarian paradise. Many of the Naxal leaders are upper-caste, upper-class Calcutta types, on the run from well-heeled boredom; as it is, they treat the hapless primitives with the same contempt as state authorities. Protection rackets, even deals with the very capitalist nemeses they are meant to be fighting, are common enough.

Similarly, in pooh-poohing what she calls the “Progress project”, Delhi’s target of 10% growth, she betrays the same impulse of Western degrowthers, who fetishise permanent recession. Now, world-historically speaking, no society has been able to redistribute the pie in a more egalitarian fashion without also growing it. Roy would do well to remember the instructive example of the trente glorieuses.

Still, all of this is minor carping. She does a marvellous job of asking the big questions, though one wishes she would also ask the hard ones. For all that, the world needs Arundhati Roy more than it needs her critics. In the war against casteism and sexism, she has distinguished herself as an intrepid front-line maquisarde. The political boldness, moreover, has gone hand in hand with snappy lucidity. Roy’s chosen idiom is the thundering zinger. Here she is ironising the misplaced priorities of Hindu nationalists: in contemporary India, “it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman”. On the priapic flood ejaculated in the press in the wake of India’s nuclear test: “reading the papers, it was often hard to tell when people were referring to Viagra and when they were talking about the bomb.”

This is a voice at once playful and powerful. That Narendra Modi can do no better than silence it with brute force is evidence enough that the Hindu nationalists have lost the battle of ideas. If anything, Roy’s impending arrest is a vindication of her worldview.


Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

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John Murray
John Murray
8 days ago

So, Arundhati Roy supports a violent insurrection against the government of the Indian state of Kerala? She does not like the communists in charge of Kerala, but also does not like consumerism or growth? In the meantime, Modi wants to throw her in jail for saying Kashmir isn’t properly Indian (or words to that effect)? Do I have that all right? She sounds a bit like an Indian version of an Islington liberal Corbyn supporter.
Honestly, I feel like there is maybe an interesting character profile to be done, but this article is terribly disorganized and rather assuming I know more about Roy and Indian domestic politics than I do.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

You have got it right!

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
7 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

Here is an interesting fact. Not opinion, fact

The Kashmiri muslims whose “independence” she supports , exterminated the Hindu minority who were the original inhabitants of the region. Not some “radicals” or “terrorists”, ordinary muslims who were neighbours of those Hindus
Hundreds of thousands of those Hindus, vanished within the space of weeks, completely genocided to oblivion as a community. If lucky, then they ended up impoverished, penniless in a camp far from what was their home for centuries. If not, well….

Note that Roy, or her fellow intellectuals, don’t seem to have much to say about what has happened to Hindus and other minorities, or to women’s rights,in every single part of pre 1947 British India, without exception, where muslims happened to be in a majority.

So, just be glad you Westerners are not the only one’s blessed with “liberals”.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago

Anil is so predictable in his rants and raves against the Indian people and nation, that he really needs to form his Oxford version of the Monster Raving Loony Party( expat chapter). He can spew his lies, agit-prop etc from such a forum.
Apologies to the real MRLP who I am sure are more decent than this venomous Tamanny Haller of the Marxist globalist groves of academe.
His fundamental desire is to contrive any charges against the present Prime Minister, ignoring the fact that the charges against Roy are from 2010, when his Congress buddies ruled the roost. Also the legal system in India is not of his favourite Maoist version but an independent judiciary in the best traditions of Western institutions( in fact a lot inspired by the American Constitution)
But UH- at this pace of featuring an absolute disaster of a columnist on India, I am really not wasting precious foreign exchange in renewing my subscription.
Last but not least- I am curious about Anil’s CCP links-given his great overall admiration for Maoism in India. Of course his proximity to Communist party of India boss is well known.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
7 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

I’m not impressed by “i’m going to take my ball home” reactions. Those of us who aren’t familiar with Indian politics find counter-arguments from those who are to be useful. Would you rather Anil’s viewpoint went unchallenged?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
7 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

It is rather futile to try and counter arguments such as “it is safer to be a cow than it is to be a woman” in a country like India where it’s muslims who have demanded backward religious laws that are horrible for women, such as “triple talaq” and these same “liberals” find nothing to criticise about it

And just as White people who died in large numbers to end slavery are tired of the endless “racism” rhetoric, Hindus are just fed up.

Hindus gave sanctuary and freedom to every faith – Parsis, Jain’s, Sikhs, Buddhist, even Jews when they were persecuted virtually everywhere. And this is in stark contrast to how these minorities were treated, where the “other” religion was in a majority.

I think we would rather just take our ball home at this point.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
7 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Like LL I also look for your contributions on Indian politics about which I know nothing.

If this author was trying to praise Roy he failed. My impression of her is entirely in line with John Murray’s

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Comments to both of you held back by UH.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Critiquing your own country, supposedly a democratic and free one, is not “ranting and raving” about the nation. India is a fascinating country ,but its caste system resembles 1500 year old series of Jim Crow laws, only worse, sanctified by religion and supported by many so-called Indian nationalists.

It’s kind of strange, isn’t it that charges from 2010 are now being unearthed 14 years later to prosecute (persecute would be more like it) Arundhati Roy. She may be inconsistent and have many flaws – but she’s absolutely right about Kashmir, which has a very different historical tradition, a largely Muslim population and doesn’t even form part of the Indian subcontinent.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
7 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Maybe you should educate yourself on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits and how Kashmir was violently Islamised.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

The agenda of someone who questions whether Kashmir is even a part of India betray his leanings.

David McKee
David McKee
7 days ago

Excellent piece, Pratinav. Thank you for a fascinating and critical evaluation of Arundhati Roy.

It is disappointing to see so many disapproving comments from Indians. I don’t know if they live in India or are NRIs. At any rate, they seem to think anything that does not read like a Soviet government press release, extolling the motherland’s latest achievement, as treasonable. This is silly and self-defeating.

No country is perfect. It’s only by debating its imperfections openly that positive, and occasionally painful, progress can be made.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
6 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

Use those Soviet adjectives on yourself instead of demonizing Indians. Of course there are imperfections in India, but we don’t need charlatans who want to Balkanise India like Anil or Arundhati Roy , funded from abroad by Soros Inc with agendas and axes to grind, to wade in.
I am sure you have enough problems in the UK to worry about, so reserve your missionary zeal for those issues.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago

I have countered this author several times. I suggest you look up these to get the drift.
To summate in short, Anil represents a global Marxist identitarian cabal of opinion formers, who strangely finds a place on Unherd, which I had thought was not the Guardian or the rest of the legacy media. His views echo a specific political formation which is hard left, neo-Marxist and against any form of Westphalian nation- state formations which are opposed to splintering societies and polities on the basis of fractured and fragmented identities.
It is not possible to summarize a very complex phenomenon called Indian politics in just a paragraph or two especially as many here are not familiar with either Indian history or its complicated political-cultural landscape. If you wish to see parallels, the closest I can suggest is to France, and the rise of the RN. Perhaps Italy to some extent.
Else feel free to engage with me elsewhere if you have further specific queries, as I have indicated on my previous ripostes to Anil’s UH contributions.
( This is not posting as a response for whatever peculiar reason- Lancashire Lad and Martin)

Nanu Mitchell
Nanu Mitchell
7 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

I admire your energetic ripostes- but don’t always empathise with your rebuttals

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

“Anil represents a global Marxist identitarian cabal of opinion formers”. This formulation hardly indicates that you are some neutral, balanced observer. It seems to be just name calling rather than arguing with anything that she specifically says. Someone who identifies as a Marxist might in any case be making a particular point which has justification. But in any she explicitly says that she is not a Marxist, although she has sympathised with insurrection Maoist groups (not hidden). Do you have any evidence that Roy is trying to destroy India as a state, rather than having strong views on how its governance could be improved, especially for the poor? Couldn’t you quite as easily argue that Modi, in terms of appealing only to one section of India society, is the person using division as a main political weapon?

In your own terms, India isn’t a nation state simply speaking. France has a much more homogenous population as though with many recent immigrants, and in no way resembles India’s complexity. You talk about fractured identity – it’s extraordinary that you don’t recognise to recognise the immense complexity of your own country and the needs to recognise the rights of all groups within it, not just Hindu nationalists. (The whole concept of “Hindu nationalism” – or even Hinduism itself as a separate coherent religion with some kind of doctrine – is a reaction to Western rule and ideas in any case, just as much as Marxism is).

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Mr Fisher, start by reading some history on India. Percival Spear is not a bad starting point or R.C Mazumdar. Your comments above on caste show you to be staggeringly ignorant. Obviously you have not read Rajni Kothari, heard of the Mandal movement or followed the trends of Indian politics since 1989. You seem to be trapped in some kind of Raj sunset groove of 1947 if that is what you know about India. Perhaps you don’t even know that PM Modi is himself from the lower castes or that President Murmu and President Kovind before that are from the Scheduled Tribes and Castes community respectively ( both were appointed under BJP governments).
Kindly refrain from misquoting me. I merely stated that there are trends in France and French politics resembling Indian politics of today. I presume you know that France has a huge Islamic immigrant population from its former colonies. In that sense India which underwent Islamic conquest for almost 1000 years is similar in having a community which has allegiances elsewhere in sizeable presence.
Anyone who uses tropes like ” Hindu nationalism” misunderstands both present and past Indian history. Frankly you show your true colours when you deny Hinduism is even a coherent religion. What are you? Sunni ideologue? ISI bot? Or Corbyn script writer? Shameful comments.
As regards Arundhati Roy, your ignorance again is staggering. There is lots of writing out there to show where her sympathies lie. But to you and your ilk, it won’t be seen as you choose to live in denial of the realities.

michael harris
michael harris
7 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

It is strange, is it not Sayantani G, that many of those in the ‘West’ who sneer at the caste system (who was it who said that it was no system at all or rather many systems mixed together?) have not noticed that their own societies are fast becoming caste based (One strong marker of caste being a strong preoccupation on what one is NOT).
The caste division in the ‘West’ is breaking between the credentialled and the deplorables. What else can Trump Derangement Syndrome be but a pure example of caste hatred?

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
7 days ago
Reply to  michael harris

Those who sneer are usually those with stereotypical notions of retaining their domination long after their sell by date.
TDS is very similar to MDS( Modi Derangement Syndrome) and it is no great surprise that to a great extent the symptoms of both are exhibited by the same kind…

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
7 days ago

Roy could read Biochemical Engineering at University College, london and design sewage treatment systems. A Consultant Surgeon said to me ” Clean water had done more to improve peoples health than all the medicine in the World”.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
7 days ago

Move on, Pratinav. The world has moved on. You have begun to sound like a record stuck in a groove.

michael harris
michael harris
7 days ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

Vijay Kant, do you curate a collection great Hindustani music on youtube? Or have I confused you with someone else?

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
7 days ago
Reply to  michael harris

Sorry, wrong number!