“If freedom is what they want, freedom is what they should have”: Arundhati Roy on Kashmir

On 12 November, acclaimed novelist and writer Arundhati Roy, delivered the Jonathan Schell Memorial 
lecture to a packed auditorium in New York City. In her address, she tackled the rise of Hindu nationalism and its threat to democratic values, minority rights and the environment in India. She also spoke at length about India’s occupation of Kashmir. Here are excerpts of her speech about Kashmir. Her full address has been published in full at The Nation.

On the military siege


Right now, seven million in the Valley of Kashmir, overwhelming numbers of whom do not wish to be citizens of India and have fought for decades to their right of self-determination are locked down under a digital siege and the densest military occupation in the world. Today that siege enters its 99th day. (it is now 107 days- ed.)


On Kashmir’s water resources


The Indian government’s 5th August 2019 annexation of Kashmir has as much to do with India’s imminent water crisis and the urgency to secure access to the five rivers that run through the state of Jammu & Kashmir as it does with anything else. And the National Register of Citizens which will create a system of tiered citizenship in which some citizens have more rights than others is also a preparation for a time when resources become scarce.


On the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A


On the fifth of August the Indian parliament unilaterally breached the fundamental conditions of the Instrument of Accession by which the former princely states of Jammu & Kashmir agreed to become part of India in 1947. It stripped Jammu & Kashmir of statehood and its special status which included its right to have its own constitution and its own flag.


The dissolution of the legal entity of the state also meant the dissolution of Section 35A of the Indian Constitution which secured the erstwhile state residents’ privileges and made them stewards of their own territory.


In preparation of the move, the government flew in more than 50000 troops to supplement the hundreds of thousands already stationed there.

By the night of the 4th of August, tourists and pilgrims had been evacuated from the Kashmir Valley. Schools and markets were shut down. More than 4000 people arrested.


That included politicians, businessman, lawyers, rights activists, local leaders, students, and three former Chief Ministers, Kashmir’s entire political class, including those who have been loyal to India, were incarcerated. By midnight the internet was cut and the phones went dead.


On deflecting blame


The abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the promise of an all-India National Register of Citizens, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya are all on the front burners of the RSS and BJP kitchen. To reignite flagging passions all they need to do is pick a villain from the gallery and unleash their dogs of war.


There are several categories of villains: Pakistani jihadis, Kashmiri terrorists, Bangladeshi infiltrators, or anyone of a population of nearly 200 million Indian Muslims who can always be accused of being Pakistan lovers or anti-national traitors.



Each of these cards is held hostage to the other and often made to stand in for the other. They have little to do with each other and are often hostile to each other because their needs, desires, ideologies, and situations are not just inimical but an opposing and existential threat to one another simply because they are all Muslim. They have to suffer the consequences of each other’s actions. In two national elections the BJP has shown that it can win a brute majority in Parliament without the Muslim vote. As a result, Indian Muslims have bene effectively disenfranchised and are becoming that most vulnerable of people: a community without political representation and without a voice. Various forms of undeclared social boycott are pushing them down the socioeconomic ladder and, for reasons of physical security, into ghettoes. Indian Muslims have also lost their place in the mainstream media.

So while Kashmiris, brutalized as they are because of their history and more importantly their geography, still have a lifeboat, the dream of Azadi, of freedom, Indian Muslims have to stay on deck to fix the broken ship.

Not all the roaring of the 60,000 in the Houston stadium could mask the deafening silence from Kashmir. That day, 22nd September, marked the 48th day of curfew and communication blockade in the Valley. Once again Modi has managed to unleash his unique brand of cruelty on a scale unheard of in modern times and once again it has endeared him further to his loyal public. When the Jammu & Kashmir reorganization bill was passed in India’s parliament on August 6th, there were celebrations across the political spectrum. Sweets were distributed in offices and there was dancing in the streets.

A conquest, a colonial annexation, another triumph for the Hindu nation was being celebrated. Once again, the conquerors eyes fell upon the two primeval trophies of conquest: women and land. Statements by senior BJP politicians and patriotic pop videos that notched up millions of videos legitimized this indecency. Google trends showed a surge in searches “marry a Kashmiri girl” and “buy land in Kashmir”. It wasn’t all limited to loutish searches on Google. Within days of the siege, the forest advisory committee cleared 125 projects that involved the diversion of forestland for other uses. In the early days of the lockdown, little news came out of the valley.

On the Ecological disaster ahead

The Indian media told us what the government wanted us to hear. Kashmiri newspapers were completely censored. They carried pages and pages of news of cancelled weddings, the effects of climate change, the conservation of lakes and wildlife sanctuaries, tips on how to live with diabetes, and front page government advertisements about the benefits that Kashmir’s new downgraded legal status would bring to the Kashmiri people. These benefits are likely to include the building of big dams that control and commandeer the water from the rivers that flow through Kashmir in order to address India’s looming water crisis. They will certainly include the erosion that results from deforestation, the destruction of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem, and the plunder of Kashmir’s bountiful natural wealth by Indian corporations.



Real reporting about ordinary people’s lives came mostly from journalists and photographers working for the international media. Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the BBC, the New York Times, and Washington Post. The reporters, mostly Kashmiris working in an information vacuum with none of the tools usually available to modern day reporters, traveled through their homeland at great risk to themselves, to bring us the news. And the news was of nighttime raids, of young men being rounded up and beaten for hours, their screams broadcast on public address systems for their neighbors and families to hear, of soldiers entering villagers’ homes and mixing fertilizer and kerosene into their winter food stocks. The news was of teenagers with their bodies peppered with shotgun pellets being treated at home because they’d be arrested if they went to the hospital. The news was of hundreds of children being whisked away in the dead of night, of parents debilitated by desperation and anxiety. The news was of fear and anger, depression, confusion, steely resolve, and incandescent resistance. But the home minister Amit Shah said that the siege existed only in peoples imaginations.



The government of Jammu & Kashmir’s governor Satyapal Malik said the phone lines were not important for Kashmiris and were only used by terrorists and the Army Chief Bipin Rawat said normal life in Jammu & Kashmir has not been affected. People are doing their necessary work. Those who feel that life has been affected are the ones whose survival depends on terrorism. It isn’t hard to work out who exactly the government of India sees as terrorists. Imagine if all of New York City were put under an information lockdown and a curfew managed by hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Imagine the streets of your city remapped by razor wire and torture center.

On being tortured for your own good


Imagine if many Abu Ghraibs appeared in your neighborhoods. Imagine thousands of you being arrested and your families not knowing where you have been taken. Imagine not being able to communicate with anybody, not your neighbor, not your loved ones outside the city, no one in the outside world for weeks together. Imagine banks and schools being closed, children locked into their homes. Imagine your parent, sibling, partner, or child dying and you not knowing about it for weeks. Imagine the medical emergencies, the mental health emergencies, the legal emergencies, the shortage of food, money, and gasoline. Imagine being a day laborer or a contract worker, earning nothing for weeks on end. And then imagine being told that all of this was for your own good. The horror that Kashmiris have endured over the last few months comes on top of a 30 year old armed conflict that has already taken 70000 lives and covered their Valley with graves.


They have held out while everything was thrown at them: war, money, torture, mass disappearance, an army of more than half a million soldiers, and a smear campaign in which an entire population has been portrayed as murderous fundamentalists. The siege has lasted for more than three months now. Kashmiri leaders are still in jail. The only condition under which they are offered release is the signing of an undertaking that they will not make public statements for a whole year. Most have refused. Now, almost 100 days later, the curfew has been eased, schools have been reopened, and some phone lines have been restored. Normalcy has been declared. In Kashmir, normalcy is always a declaration, a fiat issued by the government or army. It has little to do with people’s daily lives.


On India’s claims of normalcy in Kashmir


So far Kashmiris have refused to accept this new normalcy. Classrooms are empty, streets are deserted, and the Valley’s bumper apple crop is rotting in the orchards. What could be harder for a parent or a farmer to endure? The imminent annihilation of their very identity, perhaps? The new phase of the Kashmir conflict has already begun. Militants have warned that from now on all Indians will be considered legitimate targets. More than 10 people, mostly poor non-Kashmiri migrant workers, have been shot already. Yes, it’s the poor, almost always the poor, who get caught in the line of fire. It’s going to get ugly, very ugly. But soon all this recent history will be forgotten and once again there will be debates in TV studios that create an equivalence between atrocities by Indian security forces and Kashmiri militants. Speak of Kashmir and the Indian government and its media will immediately tell you about Pakistan, deliberately conflating the misdeeds of a hostile foreign state with the democratic aspirations of ordinary people living under military occupation.


On continued Kashmiri resistance


The Indian government has made it clear that the only option for Kashmiris is complete capitulation, that no form of resistance is acceptable: violent, non-violent, spoken, written, or sung. Yet Kashmiris know that to exist they must resist. Why should they want to be part of India? For what earthly reason? If freedom is what they want, freedom is what they should have.


It’s what Indians should want too, not on behalf of Kashmiris, but for their own sake.


The atrocity being committed in their name involves a form of corrosion that India will not survive. Kashmir may not defeat India, but it will consume India. In many ways it already has. This may not have mattered all that much to the 60,000 cheering in the Houston stadium living out the ultimate Indian dream of having made it to AmericaFor them Kashmir may just be a tired old conundrum for which they foolishly believe the BJP has found a lasting solution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *