Freedom in Kashmir


REPORTS THAT police in New Delhi are weighing sedition charges against Booker Prize-winning author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy are alarming. Her weekend comments on Kashmir independence have brought calls from the Hindu-nationalist BJP for vigorous prosecution, and Indias justice minister, M Veerappa Moily, has insisted that while “Yes, there is freedom of speech ... it cant violate the patriotic sentiments of the people.”

Even the suggestion of prosecution, however, reflects again the heavy-handed approach taken by Indian authorities to Kashmir where, since June, more than 100 demonstrators, many of them children, have died. Largely it has been at the hands of the out-of-control, 500,000-strong Indian army faced by rolling protests demanding an end to military rule and independence. The army operates under special immunity laws, and there are repeated claims it is involved in widespread brutality, including rape, killings, and torture of prisoners, difficult to substantiate because of media curbs.

Roy, the 1997 Booker winner for The God of Small Things, had at the weekend questioned, not for the first time, the legitimacy of India’s control of Kashmir. “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this,” she told a conference in the regional capital Srinagar.

Sufficient under Indian law, it appears, to prompt charges for the offence of bringing “into hatred or contempt” or exciting “disaffection towards the government established by law in India.”

Writing in 2008 Roy, who is not a Muslim and has not advocated violence, had also warned that “The Indian military occupation of Kashmir makes monsters of us all. It allows Hindu chauvinists to target and victimise Muslims in India by holding them hostage to the freedom struggle being waged by Muslims in Kashmir. India needs azadi [freedom] from Kashmir just as much as – if not more than – Kashmir needs azadi from India.”

Before his 2008 election US President Obama had declared that resolving the “Kashmir crisis”, a source of huge regional instability and friction between India and Pakistan, was among his “critical tasks”. But from the start of his presidency New Delhi has blocked US attempts to include a Kashmir strategy as part of one to bring stability to Pakistan and Afghanistan. When he visits India next week to bolster relations, the eloquent voice of Roy will still be echoing, and the open sore still very raw, an indictment of India’s great democracy .