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India: The Place I Love, the Place I Know and Live In, the Place That Breaks My Heart Every Day. And Mends It, Too

India: The Place I Love, the Place I Know and Live In, the Place That Breaks My Heart Every Day. And Mends It, Too

  • The following is from speech given at the Swedish Academy on March 22, 2023, at a conference called “Thought and Truth Under Pressure.”

I thank the Swedish Academy for inviting me to speak at this conference and for affording me the privilege of listening to the other speakers. It was planned more than two years ago, before the coronavirus pandemic unleashed the full scale of the horror it had in store for us and before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But those two cataclysmic events have only intensified the predicament that we have gathered here to think about—the phenomenon of democracies transmuting into something unrecognizable but with unnervingly recognizable resonances. And the escalating policing of speech in ways that are very old, as well as very new, to the point where the air itself has turned into a sort of punitive heresy-hunting machine. We seem to be fast approaching what feels like intellectual gridlock.

I will reverse the sequence suggested by the title of this talk and begin with the phenomenon of failing democracy.

The last time I came to Sweden was in 2017, for the Gothenburg Book Fair. Several activists asked me to boycott the fair because, in the name of Free Speech, it had allowed the far-right newspaper Nye Tider to put up its stall. At the time I explained that it would be absurd for me to do that because Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of my country, who was (and is) warmly welcomed on the world’s stage, is a life-time member of the RSS, a far-right Hindu Supremacist organization founded in 1925, and constituted in the image of the Blackshirts, the “all volunteer” paramilitary wing of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.

In Gothenburg I watched the Nordic Resistance Movement march. The first Nazi march in Europe since the second world war. It was countered on the street by young anti-fascists.

But today a far-right party, even if not openly Nazi, is part of the ruling coalition in the Swedish Government. And Narendra Modi is serving his ninth year as India’s Prime Minister.

When I speak of failing democracy, I will speak mainly about India, not because it is known as the world’s largest democracy, but because it is the place I love, the place I know and live in, the place that breaks my heart every day. And mends it, too.

Remember what I say is not a call for help, because we in India know very well that no help will come. No help can come. I speak to tell you about a country that, although flawed, was once so full of singular possibilities, one that offered a radically different understanding of the meaning of happiness, fulfillment, tolerance, diversity and sustainability than that of the western world. All that is being extinguished, spiritually stubbed out.

India’s democracy is being systematically disassembled. Only the rituals remain. Next year you will surely hear a lot about our noisy, colorful elections. What will not be apparent is that the level playing field—fundamental to a fair election—is actually a steep rockface in which virtually all the money, the data, the media, the election management and security apparatus is in the hands of the ruling party. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, with its detailed, comprehensive data set that measures the health of democracies, has categorized India as an “electoral autocracy” along with El Salvador, Turkey and Hungary, and predicts that things are likely to get worse. We are talking about 1.4 billion people falling out of democracy and into autocracy. Or worse.

The process of dismantling democracy began long before Modi and the RSS came to power. Fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay called Democracy’s Failing Light. At the time, the Congress Party, a party of old, feudal elites and technocrats newly and enthusiastically wedded to the free market, was in power. I’ll read a short passage from the essay—not to prove how right I was—but to chart for you how much has changed since then.

India for all practical purposes has become a corporate, theocratic Hindu state, a highly policed state, a fearsome state.

WHILE WE’RE still arguing about whether there’s life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be?

So the question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the Free Market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?

That was 2009. Five years later, in 2014, Modi was elected Prime Minister of India. In the nine years since, India has changed beyond recognition. The “secular, socialist republic” mandated by the Indian Constitution has almost ceased to exist. The great struggles for social justice and the dogged, visionary environmental movements have been crushed. Now we rarely speak about dying rivers, falling water tables, disappearing forests or melting glaciers. Because those worries have been replaced by a more immediate dread. Or euphoria, depending on which side of the ideological line you are on.

India for all practical purposes has become a corporate, theocratic Hindu state, a highly policed state, a fearsome state. The institutions that were hollowed-out by the previous regime, particularly the mainstream media, now seethe with Hindu supremacist fervor. Simultaneously, the free market has done what the free market does. Briefly, according to Oxfam’s 2023 report, the top 1 percent of India’s population owns more than forty per cent of total wealth, while the bottom 50 percent of the population (700 million people) has around 3 percent of total wealth. We are a very rich country of very poor people.

But instead of being directed at those who might be responsible for some of these things, the anger and resentment that this inequality generates has been harvested and directed against India’s minorities. The 170 million Muslims who make up 14 percent of the population are on the frontline. Majoritarian thinking however, cuts across class and caste barriers and has a huge constituency in the diaspora as well.

In January this year the BBC broadcast a two-part documentary called “India: The Modi Question.” It traced Modi’s political journey from his debut in 2001 as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat to his years as India’s Prime Minister. The film made public for the first time an internal report commissioned by the British Foreign Office in April 2002 about the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Gujarat under Modi’s watch in February and March 2002, just before elections to the State Assembly.

That fact-finding report, embargoed for all these years, only corroborates what Indian activists, journalists, lawyers, two senior police officers and eyewitnesses to the mass rape and slaughter have been saying for years. It estimates that “at least 2,000” people had been murdered. It calls the massacre a pre-planned pogrom that bore “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.” It says reliable sources had informed them that when the murdering began the police were ordered to stand down. The report lays the blame for the pogrom squarely at Modi’s door.

The film has been banned in India. Twitter and YouTube were ordered to take down all links to it. They obeyed immediately. On February 21st the BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai were surrounded by the police and raided by Income Tax officials. As Oxfam’s offices have been. As Amnesty International’s offices have been. As many major opposition politicians’ homes and offices have been. As almost every NGO that isn’t completely aligned with the government has been. While Modi has been legally absolved by the Supreme Court in the 2002 pogrom, the activists and police officers who dared to accuse him of complicity, based on a tower of evidence and witness testimonies are either in prison or facing criminal trials.

Meanwhile, many of the convicted killers are out on bail or parole. Last August, on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, eleven convicts walked out of prison. They had been serving life-sentences for gang-raping a nineteen-year-old Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano during the 2002 pogrom and murdering fourteen members of her family, including her one-day-old niece and her three-year-old daughter, Saleha, by smashing her head on a rock. They were given special amnesty. Outside the prison walls, the murderer-rapists were greeted as heroes, garlanded with flowers. Once again, there was a state election around the corner. The special amnesty was part of our democratic process.

Earlier today Professor Timothy Snyder asked, “What is Free Speech?” Let none of what I have just said make you conclude that there isn’t free speech in India. There is freedom in speech and deed. Plenty of it.

Mainstream TV anchors can freely lie about, demonize and dehumanize minorities in ways that lead to actual physical harm or incarceration. Hindu godmen and sword-wielding mobs can call for the genocide and mass rape of Muslims. Dalits and Muslims can be publicly flogged and lynched in broad daylight and the videos can be uploaded on YouTube. Churches can be freely attacked, priests and nuns beaten and humiliated.

In Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, where people have fought for self-determination for almost three decades, where India runs the densest military administration in the world, and where no foreign journalists are allowed to go, the government has allowed itself to freely shut down virtually all speech—online and otherwise—and freely incarcerate local journalists.

In that beautiful valley covered with graveyards, the valley from which no news comes, the people say, “In Kashmir the dead are alive, and the living are only dead people pretending.” They often refer to India’s democracy as “demon-crazy.”

There is freedom in speech and deed. Plenty of it. Mainstream TV anchors can freely lie about, demonize and dehumanize minorities in ways that lead to actual physical harm or incarceration.

In 2019, weeks after Modi and his party won a second term, the State of Jammu and Kashmir was unilaterally stripped of its statehood and the semi-autonomous status guaranteed to it by the Indian Constitution. Soon after that Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This new Act manifestly discriminates against Muslims. Under it, people, mostly Muslims, now fear losing their citizenship.

The CAA will complement the process of creating a National Register of Citizens (NRC). To be included in the National Register of Citizens people are expected to produce a set of state approved “legacy documents”—a process not dissimilar to what the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany required of German people. Already two million people in the State of Assam have been struck from the National Register of Citizens and stand to lose all their rights. Huge detention centers are being constructed, with the hard labor often done by future inmates—those who have been designated “declared foreigners” or “doubtful voters.”

Our new India is an India of costume and spectacle. Picture a cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It’s called the Narendra Modi Stadium and has a seating capacity of 132,000. In January 2020 it was packed to capacity for the Namastey Trump rally when Modi felicitated then U.S. President Donald Trump. Standing up and waving to the crowd, in the city where during the 2002 pogrom Muslims had been slaughtered in broad daylight and tens of thousands driven from their homes, and where Muslims still live in ghettos, Trump praised India for being tolerant and diverse. Modi called down a round of applause.

A day later Trump arrived in Delhi. His arrival in the capital coincided with yet another massacre. A tiny one this time, a mini-massacre by Gujarat’s standards. In a working-class neighborhood only kilometers away from Trump’s fine hotel and not far from where I live. Hindu vigilantes, once again turned on Muslims. Once again the police stood by. The provocation was that the area had seen protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. Fifty-three people, mostly Muslim, were killed. Hundreds of businesses, homes and mosques were burnt. Trump said nothing.

Burned into some of our minds from those terrible days is a different kind of spectacle: a young Muslim man is lying grievously injured, close to death, on a street in India’s capital city. He is being prodded and beaten and forced by policemen to sing the Indian national anthem. He died a few days later. His name was Faizan. He was 23 years old. No action has been taken against those policemen.

None of this should matter much to the provosts of the democratic world. Actually none of it does. Because there is after all business to attend to. Because India is currently the West’s bulwark against a rising China (or so it hopes), and because in the free market you can trade a little mass-rape and lynching or a spot of ethnic cleansing or some serious financial corruption for a generous purchase order for fighter jets or commercial aircraft. Or crude oil purchased from Russia, refined, stripped of the stigma of US sanctions and sold to Europe and, yes, or so our newspapers report, to the United States, too. Everybody’s happy. And why not?

For Ukrainians, Ukraine is their country. For Russia, it’s a colony, and for Western Europe and the U.S., it’s a frontier. (Like Vietnam was. Like Afghanistan was.) But for Modi, it’s merely yet another stage on which to perform. This time to play the role of statesman-peacemaker and offer homilies such as “This is not the time for war.”

Inside what is increasingly feeling like a cult, there is sophisticated jurisdiction. But there is no equality before law. Laws are applied selectively depending on caste, religion, gender and class. For example, a Muslim cannot say what Hindus can. A Kashmiri cannot say what everybody else can. It makes solidarity, speaking up for one another, more important than ever. But that, too, has become a perilous activity, and this is what I mean by the title of my lecture—Approaching Gridlock.

Unfortunately, at just such a moment, the list of things that cannot be said and words that must not be uttered is lengthening by the minute. Time was when governments and mainstream media houses controlled the platforms that controlled the narrative. In the west that would, for the most part, be white folks. In India, brahmin folks. And then of course there are fatwa folks for whom censorship and assassination mean the same thing.

But today censorship has turned into a battle of all against all. The fine art of taking offense has become a global industry. The question is how does one negotiate this hydra-headed, multi-limbed, hawkeyed, forever-awake, ever-vigilant, heresy-hunting machine? Is it even possible, or is it a tide that must ebb before we can even discuss it?

In India, like in other countries, the weaponization of identity as a form of resistance has become the dominant response to the weaponization of identity as a form of oppression. Those who have historically been oppressed, enslaved, colonized, stereotyped, erased, unheard and unseen precisely because of our identities—our race, caste, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference—are now defiantly doubling down on those very identities to face off against that oppression.

Laws are applied selectively depending on caste, religion, gender and class. For example, a Muslim cannot say what Hindus can. A Kashmiri cannot say what everybody else can.

It is a powerful, explosive moment in history in which, enabled by social media, wild, incandescent anger is battering down old ideas, old patterns of behavior, entitled assumptions that have never been questioned, loaded words, and language that is coded with prejudice and bigotry. The intensity and suddenness of it has shocked a complacent world into re-thinking, re-imagining and trying to find a better way of doing and saying things. Ironically, almost uncannily, this phenomenon, this fine-tuning, seems to be moving in step with our lurch into fascism.

This explosion has profound, revolutionary aspects to it, as well as absurd and destructive ones. It’s easy to swoop down on its more extreme aspects and use these to tar and dismiss the whole debate. (For example: should women now be called ‘people who menstruate’? Should an art professor in the U.S. teaching the rich diversity of Islam be summarily sacked for showing her students a 14th-century painting of Prophet Mohammed after announcing that she was going to do so and excusing from her class all students who might be offended or upset by it? Should there be an established, immutable hierarchy of historical suffering that everybody must accept?)

That is the fuel which the far-right uses to consolidate itself. But to buckle under it, fearfully and unquestioningly as many who think of themselves as liberal and left-wing do, is to disrespect this transformation, too. Because in the politics of identity there is all too often an important pivot, a hinge, which when it turns upon itself begins to reinforce as well as replicate the very thing it wishes to resist. That happens when identity is disaggregated and atomized into micro-categories.

Even these micro-identities then develop a power hierarchy and a micro-elite, usually located in big cities, big universities, with social media capital, which inevitably mimics the same kind of exclusion, erasure and hierarchy that is being challenged in the first place.

If we lock ourselves into the prison cells of the very labels and identities that we have been given by those who have always had power over us, we can at best stage a prison revolt. Not a revolution. And the prison guards will appear soon enough to restore order. In fact, they’re already on their way. When we buy into a culture of proscription and censorship, eventually it is always the Right, and usually the status quo, that benefits disproportionately.

Sealing ourselves into communities, religious and caste groups, ethnicities and genders, reducing and flattening our identities and pressing them into silos precludes solidarity. Ironically, that was and is the ultimate goal of the Hindu caste system in India. Divide a people into a hierarchy of unbreachable compartments, and no one community will be able to feel the pain of another, because they are in constant conflict.

It works like a self-operating, intricate administrative/surveillance machine in which society administers/surveils itself, and in the process ensures that the overarching structures of oppression remain in place. Everyone except those at the very top and the very bottom—and these categories are minutely graded, too—is oppressed by someone and has someone to be oppressed by.

Once this maze of tripwires has been laid, almost nobody can pass the test of purity and correctness. Certainly, almost nothing that was once thought of as good or great literature. Not Shakespeare, for sure. Not Tolstoy. Leave aside his Russian imperialism, imagine presuming he could understand the mind of a woman called Anna Karenina. Not Dostoevsky, who only refers to older women as “crones.” By his standards I’d qualify as a crone for sure. But I’d still like people to read him.

Or, if you like, try reading the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. I can guarantee you that you’ll be appalled on every count; race, sex, caste, class. Does that mean he should be banned? Or re-written? Even Jane Austen wouldn’t make the cut. It goes without saying that by these standards every sacred book of every religion would not pass muster.

Amidst the apparent noise in public discourse, we are swiftly approaching a sort of intellectual gridlock. Solidarity can never be pristine. It should be challenged, analyzed, argued about, calibrated. By precluding it, we reinforce the very thing we claim to be fighting against.

The question is how does one negotiate this hydra-headed, multi-limbed, hawkeyed, forever-awake, ever-vigilant, heresy-hunting machine?

What does all this do to literature? As a fiction writer few things perturb me more than the word “appropriation,” which is one of the rallying calls of the new censorship. In this context, appropriation, crudely put, is about predators, even contrite predators attempting to write, or represent, speak over, or actually tell the stories of their prey on their behalf. It’s pretty skanky, and a useful principle to keep in mind while critiquing something.

But it’s not a good reason to ban or censor things. Yes, the mic has been hogged. Yes, we’ve heard too much from one kind of people and too little from others. But the web of life is dense and intricate, its creatures and their deeds cannot be essentialized and so easily and unintelligently cataloged.

Coming specifically to fiction, there can be no fiction without appropriation. Because we fiction writers are predators too. If serial killers are merciless sociopaths, novelists are merciless appropriators. To construct our fictional worlds, we appropriate everything that crosses our path and we put it all in play. That is what makes great novels dangerous and revelatory things.

Speaking for myself, I have tried to learn my craft not only from politically irreproachable writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, but also from imperialists like Kipling, and from bigots, racists, troublemakers and rascals who write beautifully. Should they now be rewritten to march to the beat of some narrow manifesto?

The recent decision to re-edit the work of Roald Dahl—my God, who next? Nabokov? Shall Lolita vanish from our shelves? Or shall she be recast as an undercover pre-teen activist? Shall old masterpieces be repainted? Shorn of the male gaze? It’s so sad to even have to say all this. Where will it leave us? On a shore without footprints? In a world without history?

If literature is going to be immobilized by this web of a thousand snarling threads, it will turn into some sort of rigid, leaden manifesto. And sadly, those who are so enthusiastically involved in the policing, aren’t just petrifying others, they are petrifying themselves as well. They are laying landmines that they know they themselves will inevitably step on. In cagey, wary minds there can be no dancing. Only the heavy, cautious tread of this new language. Newspeak.

In any case, driving things underground won’t make them go away. If these debates could take place without the bullying and vindictiveness that accompany them, then most definitely, along with the usual mess of bigotry, racism and sexism there will be glorious new voices telling stories that have never been told before, putting much of the past to shame.

Having said this, it is never a bad idea to pay close attention to words. Because sometimes a word can signify a universe.

For example, when I first became a published novelist, on the occasions when I would speak outside India I would, more often than not, be introduced on stage as an “Indian Woman Writer.” (In India it would be “the first Indian woman to win the Booker Prize.”) Each time it happened I would wince inwardly and wonder at this way of labeling someone.

Was it necessary or was it a way of limiting and circumscribing them? After all, it was literature we were talking about, not a visa application. I winced because I was constantly being lectured, by privileged and entitled men, not just privately, but on the front pages of newspapers about how to write, what to write, what tone to take, what topics would be suitable for a (woman) writer like me. Children’s stories was the suggestion that came up most frequently. The fiction didn’t seem to bother them as much as the non-fiction, even if they agreed in principle with what I was saying.

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On one occasion I was hauled up by the Supreme Court of India for contempt of court for my writing on big dams. During the trial, their Lordships, the brother judges on the bench would refer to me as ‘that woman’ as they threw my essay around in exasperation. As if I wasn’t standing right there, in front of them. I’d refer to myself privately as the Hooker that won the Booker. When I refused to apologize to the Court, I was told that I wasn’t behaving like “a reasonable man” and sent to prison for a day.

Things have changed since then. Each of those words in that card-index introduction of me—Indian, Woman and Writer—is, these days, the subject heading of some anxious and difficult interrogation and almost irreconcilable conflict. Who is a woman? Or, indeed, who is a human? What is a country? Who is a citizen? And, in the era of Open AI and ChatGPT, who or what is a writer?

We know now, even if many won’t accept it, that the border between male and female is a fluid one and not what convention has assumed it to be. But what about the border between human being and machine, between art and coding, between artificial intelligence and human consciousness? Are those as hard-wired as we thought they were?

The era of ChatBots is here, and some are calling Artificial Intelligence the fourth industrial revolution. Will writers, journalists, artists and composers now be phased out in the same way that weavers, craftsmen, factory workers and old-world farmers have been? (Maybe like “hand-crafted” and “hand-woven” garments and artifacts, novels will return to being “hand-written” and sold in limited editions as works of art and not literature). Will literature be better produced by ChatGPT or Sydney or Bing.

The great linguist Noam Chomsky thinks not. If I understand him correctly, he holds that a machine learning program can produce faux-science or faux-art by processing an almost infinite volume of data at high speed, but it can never replace the complex abilities of human instinct.

There is a great deal of anxiety around what might happen if Open AI finds its way into the world without regulations and guardrails. As there should be.

In the digital era, are we heading for a new kind of state? The Electronic State, or what is being called a State in a Smartphone. An Avatar State, if you like.

When it comes to literature, my worry is less about whether Chatbots will replace writers. (Perhaps I’m a little too old and a little too vain for that. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t view literature as a “product.” The pain, the pleasure and the sheer insanity of the process is the only reason that I write.) My worry is that, given the amount of data and information that human writers—see, I said it, I said “human writers”—have to process these days, and given the maze of tripwires we have to negotiate to be error free and politically perfect, the danger is that writers may lose their instincts and turn into Chatbots. Maybe then there will be a transfer of souls. Then Chatbots will appear to be Real Souls and Real Souls will be Chatbots pretending.

In the midst of all this fluidity and porousness, the only borders that seem to be hardening are the borders between nation-states. Those continue to be hard-wired, patrolled. When they are breached by armies, we call it war. When they are breached by people, we call it a refugee crisis. When they are breached by the unregulated movement of capital, we call it the free market. The modern nation-state is right up there with God as an idea worth killing or dying for. But now, in the digital era, are we heading for a new kind of state? The Electronic State, or what is being called a State in a Smartphone. An Avatar State, if you like.

Funded by USAID and backed by Big Tech—Amazon, Apple, Google, Oracle—the Avatar State is almost upon us. In 2019, the Government of Ukraine launched DIIA, a digital identification app for smartphones. In addition to providing more than a hundred government services, DIIA can house passports, vaccine certificates and other ID. DIIA city is its extraterritorial financial capital—a sort of venture capital hub where citizens can register and conduct business.

After the Russian invasion began, DIIA, initially conceived as a bureaucratic tool to ensure “transparency and efficiency,” was, in the words of Samantha Power, Administrator of USAID, “re-purposed for war.” From all accounts DIIA has done a tremendous service to the brave people of Ukraine. It now has a 24/7 government news channel for citizens to update themselves on the war. Refugees can use it to register themselves, and file compensation claims. Citizens can reportedly use it to upload information on collaborators and photographs of Russian troop movement. A sort of real-time public intelligence and surveillance network operated by ordinary citizens.

The digital revolution in India is a perfect example of how the interests of big business and Hindu Supremacy coincide perfectly.

When the war began, Ukrainian citizens’ private data on DIIA was transferred for safekeeping onto Amazon’s military grade hard drives called AWS snowballs, the terrestrial equivalent of the Cloud, and transported out of Ukraine and uploaded to Cloud. In a war as devastating as the one Ukrainians are fighting and enduring, if a people are completely aligned behind their government, then having your State in a Smartphone surely has incredible advantages. But do those advantages accrue in peace time, too? Because as we know from Edward Snowden, surveillance is a two-way street. Our phones are our intimate enemies, they spy on us too.

In order to “protect the democratic world,” USAID plans to take DIIA or its equivalent to other states. Countries like Ecuador, Zambia, the Dominican Republic are at the head of the queue. The worry is that once an app like DIIA has been “re-purposed for war,” can it be “un-purposed” or “de-purposed” for peace? Can a weaponized citizenry be un-weaponized? Can privatized data be un-privatized?

India is quite far down this path, too. During Modi’s first term as Prime Minister, Reliance Industries, then India’s largest corporation, launched JIO, a free wireless data network that came bundled together with a dirt-cheap smartphone. Once it had successfully muscled the competition out of the market, it began to charge a small fee. JIO has turned India into the largest consumer of wireless data in the world—more than China and the U.S. put together.

By 2019 there were 300 million smartphone users. Along with all the undeniable benefits of being connected to the internet, these millions of people have become a ready-made audience for hateful, socially radioactive messaging and endless fake news that flows relentlessly into their phones through social media. It is here that you will see India unadorned.

It’s here that those calls for the genocide and mass rape of Muslims are amplified. Where videos of avenging Hindu warriors massacring Muslims, fake videos of Muslims murdering Hindus, and of Muslim fruit sellers secretly spitting on fruit to spread Covid (like Jews in Nazi Germany were accused of spreading typhus) are sent around to drive people into a frenzy of rage and hate. The Hindu Supremacists’ social media channels are to the mainstream media, what a vigilante militia is to a conventional army. Militias can do things that are illegal for a conventional army to do.

The digital revolution in India is a perfect example of how the interests of big business and Hindu Supremacy coincide perfectly. As Indian citizens are ushered into the digital arena in their millions, entire lives are lived online, education, medical care, businesses, banking, the distribution of food rations to the poor. Social media corporations have to be more and more attentive to the government that controls this mind-boggling market-share.

Because when that government is unhappy, as it often is, it can simply shut everything down. We await the draconian new 2023 Digital India Act which will give the government unthinkable powers over the internet. Already India imposes more internet shutdowns than any country in the world.

After passing a new citizenship law Country X manufactures millions of “refugees” out of its own citizenry. It can’t deport them, it doesn’t have the money to build prisons for all of them. But Country X won’t need a Gulag or concentration camps. It can just switch them off. 

In 2019 the seven million inhabitants of the Kashmir valley were put under a blanket telecommunication and internet siege that lasted for months. No phone calls, no texts, no messages, no OTPs, no internet. None. And nobody was around to drop a Starlink satellite for them.

Today as I speak, the state of Punjab, population 27 million, is enduring its fourth consecutive day of internet shut down because the police are hunting for a political fugitive and worry about him rallying support.

By 2026 India is projected to have one billion smartphone users. Imagine that volume of data in an India-bespoke DIIA app. Imagine all that data in the hands of private corporations. Or, on the other hand, imagine it in the hands of a fascist state and its indoctrinated, weaponized supporters.

For example, say after passing a new citizenship law Country X manufactures millions of “refugees” out of its own citizenry. It can’t deport them, it doesn’t have the money to build prisons for all of them. But Country X won’t need a Gulag or concentration camps. It can just switch them off. It can switch the State off in their Smartphones. It could then have a vast service population, virtually a subclass of labor without rights, without minimum wages, voting rights, healthcare or food rations.

They wouldn’t need to appear in the books. It would improve Country X’s statistical markers enormously. It could be quite an efficient and transparent operation. It could even look like a great democracy.

What would a State like that smell like? Or taste like? Something unrecognizable? Or something very recognizable?

Thank you for your patience. For now, let me leave you with these thoughts. What is a country? What is a State? What is a human? And who or what is a writer?

(This story was first published in

Arundhati Roy is the author of “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and “The God of Small Things,” which won the Booker Prize and has been translated into more than 40 languages. She also has published several books of nonfiction including “The End of Imagination, Capitalism: A Ghost Story and “The Doctor and the Saint.” She lives in New Delhi.

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  • Nice rant against India and Hindus. Now, what about Pakistan, Kashmiri Islamists, Afghanistan, Bangladesh…and Hindus in all these places? Has she forgotten them? Most people would praise the growth of cell phones, and satellite TV. But all Roy sees is negativity. That’s not how Indians see it.

    Very maudlin, self righteous, one sided, self indulgent tripe.

  • All doom and gloom, the sky is falling. Ridiculous. And she even has to bring in cell phones and their growth in India. Sheesh!

  • Democracy requires free speech and freedom from discrimination. Be careful to keep your minds open and learn to live and let live. Embracing far right or far left principles will only destroy free spirits and love for all humanity.

    • True, but at there is no real ‘far right’ in India. They are nationalists, nativists, Hindu consciousness advocates and purveyors. And even much of this is a response to years/decades of neglect, dismissiveness and denigration of Dharmic consciousness. This is in no way comparable to the far right in Europe and the US.

      Now, the far left, there is such a thing in India. These are the Naxalites and their supporters. They have indulged in unprovoked extreme violence. Including against people in whose name they purport to be acting in.

    • Susan Herr, are you lecturing India, or hinting that there is no free speech in India? You are wrong if you are. There are so many media outlets in India, on TV, newspapers, magazines, journals, radio and the internet, to make such a remark very silly. If you need to lecture, try it with China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan. Don’t drag India into this club of free speech suppressers.

  • What a rant from a disgruntled, megalomaniac, and frustrated individual. Ms. Roy has nothing to offer but bad mouth India and Hindus. Her hatred is not for Hindutva but for Hindus. She never had a single good thing to say about India. She lies when she says ” I speak to tell you about a country that, although flawed, was once so full of singular possibilities, one that offered a radically different understanding of the meaning of happiness, fulfillment, tolerance, diversity and sustainability than that of the western world. All that is being extinguished, spiritually stubbed out.”

    She does not love India, she loves Jihadists like Yasin Malik and Shah Gilani. She only speaks and writes prejudiced, jaundiced and hateful views about Hindus, and is popular only in some western leftist outlets. What a poisonous person.

  • What a refreshing, thought-provoking writeup! Reading it felt like an unexpected burst of fresh air while navigating the otherwise violently corrosive ideological space we are living in today…

  • Some influenced comments are calling it a rant but it is an excellent and true to facts write-up on where India is trending towards – a ghost democracy, or Modi’s autocracy! She is worthy of all the praise for being brave enough to stand up and speak in the face of a ruling goon government of BJP.

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