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Authors: Arundhati Roy

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The prime minister said nothing.

The students of JNU and Hyderabad Central University, on the other hand, had plenty to say. The protests on those campuses spread to the streets. And then to universities in other parts of the country. In Delhi, on the day Kanhaiya Kumar was to be produced before a magistrate, the war zone shifted to the courts. On two days in a row, sheltering under an oversized national flag, a group of lawyers who boasted openly of their affiliation to the BJP beat up students, professors, journalists, and finally Kanhaiya Kumar himself inside a courthouse. They threatened and abused a committee of senior lawyers that the Supreme Court had urgently constituted to look into the matter. The police stood by and watched. The Delhi police chief called it a minor scuffle. The lawyers gloated to the press about how they “thrashed” Kanhaiya and forced him to say “Bharat Mata ki jai.” For a few days it looked as though every last institution in the country was helpless in the face of this insane attack.

The RSS has now declared that anybody who refuses to say “Bharat Mata ki jai!” is an anti-national. The yoga and health-food tycoon Baba Ramdev announced that, were it not illegal, he would behead anybody who refused to say it.

What would these people have done to Ambedkar? In 1931, when questioned by Gandhi about his sharp critique of the Congress—which was seen as a critique of the party’s struggle for an independent homeland—Ambedkar said, “Gandhiji, I have no homeland. No Untouchable worth the name would be proud of this land.” Would they have charged him with sedition? (On the other hand, garlanding portraits of Ambedkar, as the Sangh Parivar has done, and suggesting that he—the man who called Hinduism “a veritable chamber of horrors”—is one of the founding fathers of the Hindu Rashtra is probably much worse.)

The other tactic the BJP and its media partners have used to silence people is an absurd false binary—the Brave Soldiers versus the Evil Anti-nationals. In February, just when the JNU crisis was at its peak, an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier killed ten soldiers, whose bodies were flown down for military funerals. For days and nights, screeching television anchors and their studio guests inserted their own words into the mouths of the dead men and grafted their tinpot ideologies onto lifeless bodies that couldn’t talk back. Of course they neglected to mention that most Indian soldiers are poor people looking for a means of earning a living. (You don’t hear the patriotic rich asking for the draft, so that they and their children are forced to serve as ordinary soldiers.)

They also forgot to tell their viewers that soldiers are not just deployed on the Siachen Glacier or on the borders of India. That there has not been a single day since Independence in 1947 when the Indian Army and other security forces have not been deployed
within
India’s borders against what are meant to be their “own” people—in Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Junagadh, Hyderabad, Goa, Punjab, Telangana, West Bengal, and now Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in conflicts in these places. An even greater number have been brutally tortured, leaving many of them crippled for life. There have been documented cases of mass rape in Kashmir in which the accused have been protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, as though rape is a necessary and unavoidable part of battle.
9
The aggressive insistence on unquestioning soldier-worship, even by self-professed “liberals,” is a sick, dangerous game that’s been dreamt up by a cynical oligarchy. It doesn’t help either soldiers or civilians. And if you take a hard look at the list of places within India’s current borders in which its security forces have been deployed, an extraordinary fact emerges—the populations in those places are mostly Muslim, Christian, Adivasi, Sikh, and Dalit. What we are being asked to salute obediently and unthinkingly is a reflexively dominant-caste Hindu state that nails together its territory with military might.

What if some of us dream instead of creating a society to which people
long
to belong? What if some of us dream of living in a society that people of which are not
forced
to be part? What if some of us don’t have colonialist, imperialist dreams? What if some of us dream instead of justice? Is it a criminal offense?

So what is this new bout of flag-waving and chest-thumping all about, really? What is it trying to hide? The usual stuff: A tanking economy and an abject betrayal of the election promises the BJP made to gullible people, as well as to its corporate sponsors. During his election campaign, Modi burned his candle at both ends. He vulgarly promised poor villagers that Rs 15 lakh would magically appear in their bank accounts when he came to power. He was going to bring home the illegal billions that rich Indians had parked in offshore tax havens and distribute it to the poor. How much of that illegal money was brought back? Not a lot. How much was redistributed to the poor? Approximately zero point zero zero, whatever that is in rupees. Meanwhile, corporations were eagerly looking forward to a new Land Acquisition Act that would make it easier for businessmen to acquire villagers’ land. That legislation did not make it past the upper house. In the countryside, the crisis in agriculture has deepened. While big business has had tens of thousands of crore of rupees worth of loans written off, tens of thousands of small farmers trapped in a cycle of debt—that will never be written off—continue to kill themselves. In 2015, in the state of Maharashtra alone, more than 3,200 farmers committed suicide. Their suicides too are a form of institutionalized murder, just as Rohith Vemula’s was.

What the new government has to offer in lieu of its wild election promises is the kind of deal that is usually available only on the Saffron stock exchange: Trade in your hopes for a decent livelihood and buy into an exciting life of perpetual hysteria. A life in which you are free to hate your neighbor, and if things get really bad, and if you really want to, you can get together with friends and even beat her or him to death.

The manufactured crisis in JNU has also, extremely successfully, turned our attention away from a terrible tragedy that has befallen some of the most vulnerable people in this country. The war for minerals in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, is gearing up again. Operation Green Hunt—the previous government’s attempt at clearing the forest of its troublesome inhabitants in order to hand it over to mining and infrastructure companies—was largely unsuccessful. Many of the hundreds of memorandums of understanding that the government signed with private companies regarding this territory have not been actualized. Bastar’s people, among the poorest in the world, have, for years, stopped the richest corporations in their tracks. Now, in preparation for the as-yet-unnamed Operation Green Hunt II, thousands of Adivasis are in jail once again, most of them accused of being Maoists. The forest is being cleared of all witnesses—journalists, activists, lawyers, and academics. Anybody who muddies the tidy delineation of the state-versus–“Maoist terrorists” paradigm is in a great deal of danger. The extraordinary Adivasi schoolteacher and activist Soni Sori, who was imprisoned in 2011 but went straight back to her organizing work after being released in 2014, was recently attacked and had her face smeared with a substance that burned her skin. She has since gone back to work in Bastar once again. With a burned face. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a tiny team of women lawyers that offered legal aid to incarcerated Adivasis, and Malini Subramaniam, whose series of investigative reports from Bastar were a source of embarrassment to the police, have been evicted and forced to leave. Lingaram Kodopi, Bastar’s first Adivasi journalist, who was horribly tortured and imprisoned for three years, is being threatened, and has despairingly announced that he will kill himself if the intimidation does not stop. (Four other local journalists have been arrested on specious charges, including for posting comments against the police on WhatsApp.) Bela Bhatia, a researcher, has had the village she lives in visited by mobs shouting slogans against her and threatening her landlords. Paramilitary troops and vigilante militias, confident of impunity, have once again begun to storm villages and terrorize people, forcing them to abandon their homes and flee into the forest as they did in the time of Operation Green Hunt I. Horrific accounts of rape, molestation, looting, and robbery are trickling in. The Indian Air Force has begun “practicing” air-to-ground firing from helicopters.

Anybody who criticizes the corporate takeover of Adivasi land is called an anti-national “sympathizer” of the banned Maoists. Sympathy is a crime too. In television studios, guests who try to bring a semblance of intelligence into the debate are shouted down and compelled to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation. This is a war against people who have barely enough to eat one square meal a day. What particular brand of nationalism does this come under? What exactly are we supposed to be proud of?

Our lumpen nationalists don’t seem to understand that the more they insist on this hollow sloganeering, the more they force people to say, “Bharat Mata ki jai!” and to declare that “Kashmir is an integral part of India,” the less sure of themselves they sound. The nationalism that is being rammed down our throats is more about hating another country—Pakistan—than loving our own. It’s more about securing territory than loving the land and its people. Paradoxically, those who are branded anti-national are the ones who speak about the deaths of rivers and the desecration of forests. They are the ones who worry about the poisoning of the land and the falling of water tables. The “nationalists,” on the other hand, go about speaking of mining, damming, clear-cutting, blasting, and selling. In their rulebook, hawking minerals to multinational companies is patriotic activity. They have privatized the flag and wrested the microphone.

The three JNU students who were arrested are all out on interim bail. In Kanhaiya Kumar’s case, the bail order by a High Court judge caused more apprehension than relief: “Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.”
10
Amputation?
What could she mean?

As soon as he was released, Kanhaiya appeared on the JNU campus and gave his now-famous speech to a crowd of thousands of students. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with every single thing he said. I didn’t. But it’s the spirit with which he said it that was so enchanting. It dissipated the pall of fear and gloom that had dropped on us like a fog. Overnight, Kanhaiya
and
his cheeky audience became beloved of millions. The same thing happened with the other two students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Now, people from all over the world have heard the slogan the BJP wanted to silence: “
Jai Bhim! Lal salam
!
” (Salute Bhimrao Ambedkar! Red salute!)

And with that call, the spirit of Rohith Vemula and the spirit of JNU have come together in solidarity. It’s a fragile, tenuous coming together that will most likely—if it hasn’t already—come to an unhappy end, exhausted by mainstream political parties, NGOs, and its own inherent contradictions. Obviously, neither the “Left” nor the “Ambedkarites” nor the “OBCs” are remotely homogenous categories in themselves. However, even broadly speaking, the present Left, is for the most part, doctrinally opaque to caste and, by
unseeing
it, perpetuates it. (The outstanding exception to this, it must be said, are the writings of the late Anuradha Gandhy.) This has meant that many Dalits and OBCs who do lean towards the Left have had bitter experiences and are now determined to isolate themselves, thereby inadvertently deepening caste divisions and strengthening a system that sustains itself by precluding all forms of solidarity.

All these old wounds will act up, we’ll tear each other to shreds, arguments and accusations will fly around in maddening ways. But even after this moment has passed, the radical ideas that have emerged from this confrontation with the agents of Hindutva are unlikely ever to go away. They will stay around, and will continue to be built upon. They must, because they are our only hope.

Already the real meanings, the real politics behind the refrain of “
Azadi
,” are being debated. Did Kanhaiya pinch the slogan from the Kashmiris? He did. (And where did the Kashmiris get it? From the feminists or the French Revolution, maybe.) Is the slogan being diluted? Most definitely, as far as those who chant it in Kashmir are concerned. Is it being deepened? Yes, that too. Because fighting for
azadi
from patriarchy, from capitalism, and from
Brahminvaad
is as radical as any struggle for national self-determination.

Perhaps while we debate the true, deep meanings of freedom, those who have been so shocked by what is happening in the mainland over the last few months will be moved to ask themselves why, when far worse things happen in other places, it leaves them so untroubled. Why is it all right to for us to ask for
azadi
in our university campuses while the daily lives of ordinary people in Kashmir, Nagaland, and Manipur are overseen by the army and their traffic jams managed by uniformed men waving AK-47s? Why is it easy for most Indians to accept the killing of 112 young people on the streets of Kashmir in the course of a single summer? Why do we care so much about Kanhaiya Kumar and Rohith Vemula, but so little about students like Shaista Hameed and Danish Farooq, who were shot dead in Kashmir the day before the smear campaign against JNU was launched?
Azadi
is an immense word, and a beautiful one too. We need to wrap our minds around it, not just play with it. This is not to suggest some sort of high-mindedness in which we all fight each other’s battles side by side and feel each other’s pain with equal intensity. Only to say that if we do not acknowledge each other’s yearning for
azadi
, if we do not acknowledge injustice when it is looking us straight in the eye, we will all go down together in the quicksand of moral turpitude.

BOOK: The End of Imagination
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