An estimated 70,000 people – civilians, militants and security forces – have been killed in the conflict. Thousands have 'disappeared', and tens of thousands have passed through torture chambers that dot the valley like a network of small-scale Abu Ghraibs, describes Arundhati Roy while discussing the conditions in Kashmir in her latest book Azadi.
The book, a collection of nine essays delivered as speeches or published as political articles by the author, describes India's current political climate in horrific detail. The essays written between 2018 and 2020 reflect the author's views on contemporary issues that at times go beyond the Indian border.
Arundhati Roy, a Booker Prize-winning author, is best known for her fictions like 'The God of Small' Things' (1997) and 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' (2017). But she has also been active over the years as an activist against free-market capitalism that preys on the poor, environmental degradation, displacement of the native population by the corporate interests as well as the mistreatment of minorities. All of these have been reflected in her non-fiction writings for decades.
The book is available on The Bookworm page at Tk 999.
'Azadi' in that sense, is a continuation of her earlier works. Yet it is unique in many ways too. Azadi, the Urdu word that derives from Persian, means 'freedom' and 'It's best known in India as the rallying cry of Kashmiri Muslims against the Indian occupation of their state.
Arundhati Roy describes how the right-wing nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has been using the minority population of India as the 'Jews of 1930s' Germany.' Abrogation of Article 370 and 35(A) of the Indian constitution which guaranteed Kashmiris the stewardship of their own landmarks an important milestone in the BJP's dream of changing Kashmir's demography and put the natives under permanent occupation. In this regard, the author points to the irony of Indian Nationalists decrying British colonialism and yet engaging in the same in Kashmir.
It's not about Kashmir too. People of India want Azadi' too which is, as the author notes, a different kind of Azadi. The book quotes Kanhaiya Kumar, a young charismatic politician in India, who describes the urge for freedom among common Indians the best, "It's not Azadi from India, It is Azadi in India."
The people want freedom from hunger, poverty and repression. Since the current Indian ' 'government's being led by former RSS members (RSS or Rashtriya Samajsevak Sangh is an extreme right-wing group that was founded in 1925 and supported European fascism), the author believes religious polarisation and ghettoization of minorities have become the new norm in India turning people against people and putting the socio-economic issues out of limelight.
The book notes the terrible effects of the Caste-system in India which has taken new forms in modern times. This institutionalized inequality has been in effect for thousands of years and still has terrible implications on society, a condition that's worsening with the BJP's hateful policies towards the so called lower caste or Dalits (The Untouchables). The book comments in the essay 'Imitations of an ending',
Arundhati writes in her book,"The National Crime Bureau shows a sharp increase in atrocities against Dalits, including lynchings and floggings. In September 2019, while Narendra Modi was being honoured by the Gates Foundation for making India open-defecation-free, two Dalit children, whose home was just the shelter of a plastic sheet, were beaten to death for shitting in the open. To honour a prime minister for his work on sanitation while tens of thousands of Dalits continue to work as manual scavengers - carrying human excreta on their heads - is grotesque."
Apart from featuring fierce condemnations of Casteism, Indian colonialism and extremism, the book also includes essays on the persecutions of religious minorities who are part of India, yet expected to prove their loyalty to the flag and the anthem repeatedly to disprove the permanent mark of a traitor which is painted on them by the Hindu nationalists.
Arundhati Roy vehemently denounces the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (which seeks to grant citizenship based on religion) and the National Register of Citizens (which seeks papers dating back decades to prove citizenship at the threat of incarceration and deportation) both of which disproportionately affects the poor and the Muslim population of India.
Amazingly the Indian government wants to hold on to Kashmir which doesn't want to be a part of India and wants to expel millions of Muslims in Assam and Bengal who do wish to be Indians. But amid all these, the author sees a glimmer of hope in the nationwide protests against the discriminatory laws that occurred in 2019 and 2020.
Yet nonetheless, she also sees doom and gloom as the ever-increasing power of the Hindu nationalists have brought forth riots in the streets of Delhi amid the peaceful protests killing dozens of people. The riot resembles the horror of the Gujarat massacre (2002) that claimed the lives of over 2000 people, most of whom were Muslims.
The essay 'The Graveyard talks back' is a chilling reminder of what the extremist nationalists are capable of. BJP's chants to send the Muslims to Kabaristhan ya Pakistan (grave or Pakistan) are just as dangerous because these, though primarily used to stir up emotion during election times, often lead to violence against minorities.
Apart from the fear for the minorities in India, the book raises the ominous question of what if Bangladesh and Pakistan follow suit? What if fascism takes hold in those countries as well and does to the Hindu minorities the same things that are being done to the Muslims in India? What if public shaming, floggings, lynchings, killings (which Muslims like the brutally murdered Tabrez Ansari of Bihar have been facing for the past few years under the extremists holding the reins of the government) become the norm? That possibility doesn't look improbable at all as the secular constitution of India gets torn to pieces.
Yet, after all these, the author remains hopeful. In the final essay 'The Pandemic is a portal', she hopes for a new world. When we cross to the other side of the pandemic, she wishes we would be able to leave all our prejudices, avarices and hostilities behind. Perhaps then the next world will be one we can share in happiness and harmony.
Azadi is rated 4.1 out of 5 in Goodreads as well as critically acclaimed by various respected critics globally. Anyone who wishes to dive into the journey of millions searching for their identity and their freedom in a far-right neo-fascist world would love Azadi.