Arundhati Roy should have acted more responsibly. But, so should have we

Cover photo: Manish Swarup/AP Photo

If you happen to follow news outlets on social media, chances are you have already read the headlines about Arundhati Roy’s controversial comments about the Indian and Pakistani armies. Arundhati was heard saying in a 2-minute clip snipped from a lecture she delivered in 2011 that unlike the Indian army “the Pakistani military was never used against its own people”.

Naturally, there was a massive outrage from people in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, followed by a backlash to the outrage. As the controversy unfolds in real-time, it’s worth examining just what happened in the span of the last few days that put Arundhati Roy, a well respected social activist, in hot water with the press and the public.

The controversial speech

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

The 2-minute clip where she apparently made the statement was widely circulated on social media this week. She was heard claiming that since India’s birth, the country had been waging war on its own people and that Pakistan had never deployed its army against its people the way India had.

The repercussions were almost immediate. People wasted no time in pointing out the Pakistani army’s role in massacring over 3 million people in the then East Pakistan in 1971 and the sustained poverty and the plunder of the resource-rich Balochistan province.

She was branded a liar, hypocrite and pseudo-intellectual.

Some said her selective blindness to the bloody genocide through which Bangladesh emerged was appalling and that she was desperately in need of a history lesson. Many in the press tore into her supposed anti-Indian sentiments.

The issue lies with her ill-conceived idea to contrast the severity of the force used by the Indian and Pakistani armies on the people of their own country. In trying to illustrate the severity of the Indian state’s crimes against its own people, she unintentionally reduced the struggles of Bangladeshis who fought hard to obtain their freedom as well denigrated the continued oppression of the Baloch people as they are deprived the riches of their own land.

Read more: Kashmir, a paradise lost?

Unintended though it may have been, to many people who still grieve over the indelible trauma of the past (and for the Baloch, the present), she seemed like an apologist for the Pakistani army.

Roy’s humble apology

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

On Wednesday, Arundhati Roy said people unintentionally “say something thoughtless or stupid” at some point in their lives, adding that what she devoted to words in her writing was far more significant than what she “might say extempore in the course of a freewheeling talk”.

The author said further that her opinion on what Islamabad was doing in Balochistan and the “genocide that the Pakistan Army committed in Bangladesh has never been ambiguous” and were reflected in her writings. To support her claim, she referenced two examples of her literary works, one of them being the novel ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ published in 2017. In it, one of the main characters, an Indian Intelligence Officer, Biplab Dasgupta aka Garson Hobart, who has served in Kashmir, says:

“It is true we did—we do— some terrible things in Kashmir, but… I mean what the Pakistan army did in East Pakistan—now that was a clear case of genocide. Open and shut.

But are we asking the right questions?

Arundhati Roy probably should have acted more responsibly. But so should have we

At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, I would wager that Arundhati Roy never explicitly intended to malign Bangladeshis or the Baloch. Her comments lacked nuance and were disappointing given the standard to which we hold the wordsmith, but with that said and done, I do question whether they deserved such intense scrutiny at the cost of omitting what the rest of her 90-minute lecture was about from the discussion.

Read more: What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

The now infamous 2-minute clip of hers that went viral was extracted from a 90-minute lecture from 2011. Arundhati, who was reading out from her essay ‘Democracy’s Failing Light’ at a conference on Democracy and Dissent in China and India at the University of Westminster in the UK, talked about the way the Indian state became a colonizer immediately shaking off the shackles of colonialism itself. She named place after place that the Indian state has waged war on within its boundaries since its inception, from Kashmir and Telangana to Manipur and Mizoram to Goa, embarking on a campaign of suppression to consolidate its rule over the lands.

Anyone who watches the full video will understand that she is trying to make a point here about the bias of the international community in giving Pakistan its fair share of negative coverage for the brutality of its militarism, while simultaneously shying away from depicting India as anything but a bastion of democracy when many of its own people have been reduced to second class citizens.

In this context, her contention that India has ‘perpetually been at war’ with its own people does seem to make sense.

Furthermore, this 2-minute snippet miraculously resurfaced a few days after Arundhati Roy penned a searing opinion piece in the New York Times against PM Narendra Modi’s ambitions in Kashmir and India at large.

Arundhati minced no words saying, “Given my views on what is happening in Kashmir now, it is not surprising that Hindu Nationalists are rushing to generate outrage over this exciting new/old canard they have dug up about my supposed denial of the genocide in Bangladesh and the deeds of the Pakistan Army in Pakistan.”

The Yellow Press

With distrust in the media growing by the day, one must be ever vigilant of the content one comes across online. The yellow press relies on clickbaity headlines which draw us in to confer upon us details of the juiciest sort. The resulting outrage encourages us to share more and more, thus motivating these outlets to concoct headlines that are even more removed from reality.

Even reputable news outlets have their slip-ups, quoting people out of context and sometimes downright misquoting them. Only by admitting when one is mistaken and taking actual steps to correct said mistakes can these outlets regain the trust of their readers.

In this day and age, we must be conscious of both how we consume information and what information we put back out into the world. Let’s not let our outrage get the best of us.

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What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

It’s been almost eleven weeks since protest erupted in the streets of Chinese controlled Hong Kong. The protest that started over an extradition bill soon turned into a protest demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s top executive, Carrie Lam, among other demands. As you read this article, thousands of people are taking the streets in protest against their leader, a debated extradition bill and against ongoing police brutality on peaceful protesters.

To understand what’s happening in Hong Kong, we must go back to its founding roots as a special administrative region.

What’s the deal with China and Hong Kong?

What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842 after China handed over its ownership to Britain after the end of the first opium war. After almost a century and half of the British rule, Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997 and Hong Kong would become China’s special administrative territory under the “One country two systems” framework.  

Why is Hong Kong Special?

What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

One of the pros of 150 years of British rule is the Sino-British Joint Declaration. This treaty signed in 1985 allowed Hong Kong to retain its freedom of speech when its ownership was transferred back to China, something which Chinese nationals of the mainland don’t have the luxury of enjoying. The outcome? Thanks to this catch, residents of Hong Kong can exercise their democratic right of protestation and free speech without brutal government intervention.

How did the protest start?

What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

It all started with a murder. In February of 2018, a Hong Kong-based couple went to Taiwan on a weeklong vacation. A week later, the boyfriend, Chang, returned to Hong Kong and confessed to murdering his girlfriend. The Hong Kong government couldn’t prosecute him because the murder happened in Taiwan. And they couldn’t extradite him to Taiwan because Hong Kong does not have an extradition policy with Taiwan, a part of Chinese territory. That’s when Hong Kong lawmakers proposed an extradition bill that would allow the extradition of arrested individuals to Taiwan and other parts of Mainland China.

Hong Kong residents do not trust the Chinese legal system.

This proposal sparked a protest among the civilians against the bill. That is because Hong Kong residents do not trust the Chinese legal system. For the lack of democratic procedure, the Chinese legal system allows the government to prosecute a convict without trial and government fuelled abductions are not uncommon.

Is this the first protest?

What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know
The 2003 protests

It’s not. There have been major demonstrations in Hong Kong since 2003. In 2003, Hong Kongers took the street and protested against a bill that would allow punishment for those who spoke up against China.

In 2014, the people of Hong Kong Protested against China’s increasing influence over Hong Kong’s election. In 2016, the Chinese government even suppressed a small scale pro-independence movement.

But what sets the 2019 protests apart is the sheer size and demographics of the movement. The scale of the movement is unlike any of the past ones and although the forerunners are the youth, Hong Kong’s older generation and professionals like lawyers, doctors and politicians are also taking the street.

“I have friends… They don’t want their children to grow up in a just another Chinese city with no future for the next generation.”

60-year-old Lau, who holds a foreign passport.

Why is it so difficult for Hong Kong to be pro-democratic?

What is happening in Hong Kong? Answers you need to know

Hong Kong has a peculiar government structure. The top executive, an equivalent to our prime minister, is not elected by the people rather by a small committee and finally approved by China. The parliament, known as LegCo, is essentially divided into two segments, pro-democracy and pro-Chinese. And people get to vote for these seats.

But not all of them. Right of voting for about half of the seats are reserved for big corporations and industries. And the corporations, wanting to keep a good relationship with Beijing, never vote pro-democracy. Meaning, in every election since 1998, the majority people of Hong Kong voted for the pro-democracy legislature and yet the cabinet has stayed pro Chinese.

Where is all these heading to?

Remember when Hong Kong became the special administrative region in 1997? The special status came with an expiration date. Hong Kong will be fully integrated with Mainland China in 2047. That was the deal signed between Britain and China during handover. It would mean every right and freedom Hong Kongers enjoy as a separate region from China would be abolished and Chinese law would be applicable everywhere.

The problem is, China is not waiting for 2047.

Increasing influence and authority over Hong Kong has been the core of the disappointment for the residents for years. And the frustration is culminating in the latest protests.

The protestors are heading to train stations and airports to convey their messages to visitors and citizens from Mainland China. The protestors want increased democratic scopes and at the time of writing this article, updates of Police brutality and protests turning violent have been coming in.


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