© 2023 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arundhati Roy: India Is Undergoing An 'Ideological Tectonic Shift'

Man Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy poses for photographers on September 8, 2009 ahead of the "International Literature Festival Berlin 2009.” (Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Man Booker Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy poses for photographers on September 8, 2009 ahead of the "International Literature Festival Berlin 2009.” (Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

India has a sizable Muslim minority. At 168 million people, it’s the second-largest Muslim population in the world. Since the Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi took power as prime minister last year, many say things are getting worse for ordinary Muslim citizens in India.

In recent weeks, hundreds of authors, filmmakers and academics have returned national awards to protest what author Salman Rushdie has called “thuggish violence” against Muslims condoned by the Modi government.

Writer Arundhati Roy is returning an award for best screenplay, which she was awarded in 1989. Roy recently wrote a piece for The Indian Express saying she’s “proud” to add her name and voice to the growing list of those standing up.

“I am very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now.”

Here & Now‘s Indira Lakshmanan speaks with Arundhati Roy about what’s happening in India, which Roy describes as an “ideological tectonic shift.”

Interview Highlights: Arundhati Roy

Why are you returning your National Award for Best Screenplay?

“Because there’s been a terrible situation building in India. It isn’t by any means new, but it’s just shifted into very high gear recently and that is because we have a government in power that has quite openly has, in the past, campaigned for India in some ways to be called a Hindu nation. And we are witnessing an ideological sort of tectonic shift where there’ve been lynchings, there’ve been killings, there’s been shooting of writers. Quite close to Delhi where I live, a Muslim man was lynched by a mob, suspected for eating beef, and then, you know, the prime minister said nothing.”

On the violence that has been occurring recently

“Well actually, this kind of communal killing – I would call it a pogrom – is a form of electioneering. And when the prime minister was actually campaigning in the general elections, Reuters asked him a question, which was whether he regretted, not whether he was responsible, but whether he regretted the daylight massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in his state when he was chief minister. And his reply was ‘Even if I was sitting in a car and it ran over a dog, I would regret it.’

Was he comparing dogs to Muslims?

“Well, yes. But what I’m talking about is a historical process that started, I mean before 1925, but in 1925, the organization to which the prime minister belongs – the RSS, which openly says that it wants India to be a Hindu nation – was created. Modi and many of the people in the judiciary and now being placed in academic positions in the university – all of them belong to this organization. We shouldn’t just think about the killings and lynchings, we should look at what is being put into place.”

What do you hope to accomplish with this movement?

“It’s not a movement. You know, in a way, it is and it isn’t in the sense that what has happened. I think, if you follow the elections in the state of Bihar where Modi was trounced, it was a humiliation for the BJP and all the people who worked on the ground did say that you know. The fact that scientists, academics, writers, filmmakers felt strongly enough to do this, really gave a message that there’s something very disturbing. And that was backed by people in the poorest state voting decisively against the BJP.”

Is this debate a good sign for the freedom of expression in India?

“No, of course it’s a very good sign, but, you know, let’s not forget that it started because someone was shot for what he wrote. [M. M. Kalburgi] was writing against a particular extremely right-wing group, and there were others too. And they just rang the bell, he opened the door, and they shot him. You know, but now, because of the result of the Bihar election, the atmosphere is definitely lightened, because what seemed like very dark forces closing in, have been pushed back a bit by this extraordinary election result.”

On her recent meeting with Edward Snowden

“I think that what he has revealed is important and that it would be a good move to get him back home and have a proper conversation about what he’s saying about surveillance and privacy, not just for the Americans, but for all of us who are being spied on all the time through our most favorite objects – our cellphones.”


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.