(Text of an address by Arundhati Roy at a gathering of writers and artists at Jantar Mantar, organised by the Jan Sanskriti Manch)
Beloved friends, comrades and my fellow writers,
This place where we are gathered today is only a short bus ride away from where four days ago a fascist mob, fired up by speeches made by members of the Ruling Party, backed up and actively assisted by the police, assured of round the clock support by a vast section of the electronic mass media, and comforted by the belief that the courts would do nothing to come in their way – mounted an armed, murderous attack on Muslims in the working class colonies of North East Delhi.
The attack had been in the air for a while, so people were somewhat prepared, and so defended themselves. Markets, shops, homes, mosques and vehicles have been burnt down. The streets are full of stones and debris. The hospitals are full of the wounded and dying. The morgues are full of the dead. Both Muslim and Hindu, including a policeman and a young staffer of the Intelligence Bureau. Yes. People on both sides have shown themselves capable of horrifying brutality as well as unbelievable courage and kindness.
However, there can be no equivalence here. None of this alters the fact that the attack was begun by lumpen mobs chanting “Jai Shri Ram” backed by the apparatus of this now nakedly fascist state. Notwithstanding these slogans, this is not what people like to label a Hindu-Muslim “riot”. It is a manifestation of the ongoing battle between fascists and anti-fascists – in which Muslims are the first among the Fascists’ “enemies”. To call it a riot or a “danga”, or “Left” versus “Right” or even “Right” versus “Wrong” as many are doing, is dangerous and obfuscatory.
We have all seen the videos of the police standing by and sometimes participating in the arson. We have seen them smashing CCTV cameras, just as they did when they vandalised the Jamia Millia Islamia University library on December 15. We have seen them beat wounded Muslim men as they lay piled up against each other and force them to sing the national anthem. We know that one of those young men is dead. All the dead, wounded and devastated, Muslim as well as Hindu are victims of this regime headed by Narendra Modi, our nakedly fascist Prime Minister who himself is no stranger to being at the helm of affairs in a state when 18 years ago a massacre on a much larger scale went on for weeks.
The anatomy of this particular conflagration will be studied for years to come. But the local detail will only be a matter of historical record because the ripples based on hateful rumours fuelled on the social media have begun to eddy outwards and we can already smell more blood on the breeze. Although there have been no more killings in North Delhi, yesterday (February 29) saw mobs of people in Central Delhi chanting the slogan that built up to the attacks: “Desh ke Gaddaron ko, Goli maaron saalon ko.”
Only a few days ago. the Delhi High Court Judge, Justice Muralidharan was furious with the Delhi Police for having taken no action against Kapil Mishra, former BJP MLA candidate who had earlier too used it as an election slogan. On the night of February 26, the judge was given midnight orders to take up his new assignment in the Punjab High Court. Kapil Mishra is back on the streets chanting the same slogan. It can now be used until further notice. Fun and games with judges isn’t new. We know the story about Justice Loya. We may have forgotten the story of Babu Bajrangi, convicted of participating in the killing 96 Muslims in Naroda Patiya, in Gujarat in 2002. Listen to him on YouTube: He’ll tell you how “Narendra bhai” got him out of jail because of “setting” the judges.
We have learned to expect massacres such as this one before elections – they have become a sort of barbaric election campaign to polarise votes and build constituencies. But the Delhi massacre happened just days after an election, after the BJP-RSS suffered a humiliating defeat. It is a punishment for Delhi and an announcement for the coming elections in Bihar.
Everything is on record. Everything is available for everyone to see and hear – the provocative speeches of Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma, Union Minister Anurag Thakur, Chief Minister of UP Yogi Adityanath, the Home Minister Amit Shah and even the Prime Minister himself. And yet everything has been turned upside down – it’s being made to appear as though all of India is a victim of the absolutely peaceful, mostly female, mostly – but not only – Muslim protestors who have been out on the streets for almost 75 days, in their tens of thousands, to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The CAA, which offers a fast-track route to citizenship for non-Muslim minorities, is blatantly unconstitutional and blatantly anti-Muslim. Coupled with the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens, it is meant to delegitimise, destabilise and criminalise not just Muslims but hundreds of millions of Indians who do not have the requisite documents – including those who are chanting “Goli Maaro Saalon Ko” today.
Once citizenship comes into question, everything comes into question – your children’s rights, your voting rights, your land rights. As Hannah Arendt said, “citizenship gives you the right to have rights.” Anybody who thinks this is not the case, please turn your attention to Assam and see what has happened to twenty lakh people – Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis. Now trouble has started between local tribes and the non-tribal population in the state of Meghalaya. There is curfew in Shillong. The state borders are closed to non-locals.
The sole purpose of the NPR-NRC-CAA is to destabilise and divide people not just in India but across the whole subcontinent. If they do indeed exist, these phantom millions of human beings who India’s current Home Minister calls Bangladeshi “termites”, cannot be kept in detention centres and cannot be deported. By using such terminology and by thinking up such a ridiculous, diabolic scheme, this government is actually endangering the tens of millions of Hindus who live in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who they pretend to be concerned about, but who could suffer the backlash of this bigotry emanating from New Delhi.
Look where we have ended up.
In 1947, we won independence from colonial rule that was fought for by almost everybody with the exception of our current rulers. Since then all manner of social movements, anti-caste struggles, anti-capitalist struggles, feminist struggles have marked our journey up to now.
In the 1960s, the call to revolution was a demand for justice, for the redistribution of wealth and the overthrow of the ruling class.
By the 1990s, we were reduced to fighting against the displacement of millions of people from their own lands and villages, people who became the collateral damage for the building of a new India in which 63 of India’s richest people have more wealth than the annual budget outlay for 1,200 million people.
Now we are reduced to pleading for our rights as citizens from people who have had nothing to do with building this country. And as we plead, we watch the state withdraw its protection, we watch the police get communalised, we watch the judiciary gradually abdicate its duty, we watch the media that is meant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted do the very opposite.
Today is the 210th day since Jammu and Kashmir was unconstitutionally stripped of its special status. Thousands of Kashmiris including three former chief ministers continue to be in jail. Seven million people are living under a virtual information siege, a novel exercise in the mass violation of human rights. On February 26, the streets of Delhi looked like the streets of Srinagar. That was the day that Kashmiri children went to school for the first time in seven months. But what does it mean to go to school, while everything around you is slowly throttled?
A democracy that is not governed by a Constitution and one whose institutions have all been hollowed out can only ever become a majoritarian state. You can agree or disagree with a Constitution as a whole or in part – but to act as though it does not exist as this government is doing is to completely dismantle democracy. Perhaps this is the aim. This is our version of the coronavirus. We are sick.
There’s no help on the horizon. No well-meaning foreign country. No UN.
And no political party that intends to win elections will or can afford to take a moral position. Because there is fire in the ducts. The system is failing.
What we need are people who are prepared to be unpopular. Who are prepared to put themselves in danger. Who are prepared to tell the truth. Brave journalists can do that, and they have. Brave lawyers can do that, and they have. And artists – beautiful, brilliant, brave writers, poets, musicians, painters and filmmakers can do that. That beauty is on our side. All of it.
We have work to do. And a world to win.