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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Rubana Huq: breaking glass ceilings

Rubana Huq, the managing director of Mohammadi group, is the new president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). She is the first female in the history of Bangladesh to attain this position. Her panel secured a sliding victory at the biennial election.

Landslide victory

Among the 35 available posts for directors, Rubana Huq’s panel, Sammilata Forum, filled all the spots.

1492 out of 1956 voters had cast their votes in this election. Voters were from both Dhaka and Chittagong. The position is a two-year long tenure, resulting in relatively high turnout.

Her agenda

Huq addressed some of the major issues that the garments industry of Bangladesh faces in her victory speech. She stated “all the time people continue saying that Bangladesh is the country of cheap labor. Cheap is not good, but competition is good. We need to change this narrative of Bangladesh.”

Moreover, she understands that several small factories face the threat of being shut down. She emphasized on the need to stand beside them during such times. She plans on tackling such problems in her tenure. The voters resonated with her powerful vision for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s garments sector is often under scrutiny by the Western media, especially around issues about low wage and abuse. However, Huq adds perspective and highlights inaccuracies in these negative campaigns. She aims to fix these issues and improve the image where the reality is better than it is being portrayed. She hopes to encourage better practices in pricing, introduce more innovation and policies for sustainability.

Huq, an exemplary person

Apart from being a celebrated entrepreneur, she is also a prolific writer, a poet and a philanthropist. In 2013 and 2014, she was in BBC’s list of 100 outstanding women. Her accolades include wining the SAARC literary award in 2006. She has also launched a literary magazine called Monsoon letters along other Bangladeshi writers.

Rubana Huq has actively worked towards empowering women– advocating for women’s economic independence, voicing challenges regarding female garment workers rights. She hopes to bring her perspective and provide solutions to improve women’s conditions. Over 5000 women work in factories managed by Rubana Huq; and believes that these women are slowly changing their own narrative through their work. Always humble, she acknowledges that there is still a long way to go. Most of these women are still not truly emancipated in their own lives, but the work continues.

Striding forward in a male-dominated industry

More often than not, women have lived in the shadows of men. We can see glimmers of hope in moments like these. Bangladesh’s cultural norm and practices continue to limit the capabilities of our women-especially when it comes to advancing to positions of authority. Rubana Huq has often spoken at length about the challenges in being a woman and paving her way in this industry. Often, she has felt alone and powerless in her journey, but we are very fortunate that she managed to cross the hurdles that she encountered.

Women like her are gradually changing the narrative for working women in Bangladesh.

each and every woman in Bangladesh is fighting in some way or the other to move forward. As more women are in positions of power, attitudes both at home and the workplace will shift.

She is truly an inspiration for all of us. Here’s to more women being in positions of power and striving to improve women’s lives collectively. We look forward to a day where a woman attaining a leadership position in Bangladesh won’t be the reason behind headlines everywhere, but rather it would be the norm.