Kashmiri Muslim protesters during clashes with Indian police near the site of a gunfight were two militants were killed, by Faizan Ahmad sheikh/Shutterstock.com
India’s clampdown on the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir is entering its third month, and while the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has exerted tight control over the flow of information out of the region, a bleak picture has nonetheless emerged. Thousands have been imprisoned, including political leaders. Movement is tightly restricted. Phone lines have been cut off. Modi appears set on ending Jammu and Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status and bringing it fully under the control of New Delhi, a move that residents of the Muslim-majority region strongly reject. Arundhati Roy, India’s most famous novelist and a passionate voice for Kashmiri self-determination, joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss the Kashmir crisis and India’s troubling rightward tilt.
Arundhati Roy: It is a place where you have had people fighting for self-determination for 70 years. They’ve been saying it with their blood. I don’t think they could have been clearer.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
On today’s show we’re talking about the crisis in Kashmir, where millions of people are living effectively under siege right now, thanks to an Indian-government-imposed lockdown and communications blackout that has just entered its third month.
AR: Every single person who has a voice at all has been arrested. Anybody who dares to speak up is being picked up, anybody on the street.
MH: That’s my very special guest today. Joining me from her home in New Delhi, the acclaimed, award-winning, novelist, essayist, activist, environmentalist, antiwar campaigner Arundhati Roy.
I’ll ask her about the bromance between Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and U.S. president Donald Trump, about why the world doesn’t seem to give a damn about the horrific situation in Kashmir, and about how Kashmiris are trying not just to survive but to resist.
On August 5th, the government of India, under the prime ministership of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, launched a massive military clampdown in the long-disputed Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Tourists were ordered out, movement for locals was restricted, communications with the outside world — landlines, cellphones, the internet — was cut off.
There were curfews, checkpoints, night raids, attacks on peaceful protesters by Indian security forces. The detention without trial of up to 4,000 Kashmiris – including three former chief ministers of the state.
BBC Reporter: Separatist leaders have been moved out of Kashmir. Top politicians from the region remain under house arrest. The Indian government taking no chances, worried that the situation here could spiral into widespread unrest.
MH: Supporters of Prime Minister Modi’s far-right governing party, the BJP, cheered the move.
Modi supporter [on BBC]: Prime Minister Modi has done what no other politician could have done. True Indians will support his decision.
MH: While many residents of Jammu and Kashmir, especially Muslim residents, expressed shock and outrage.
Kashmiri [on BBC]: In every part of India people are celebrating. But they don’t know that our hearts are bleeding. We are crying. We are under siege.
MH: Kashmir, one of the most beautiful places on earth, has a unique and troubled history. Once ruled by Hindu princes it became India’s only Muslim majority state at independence in 1947, but the territory itself was violently and quickly divided from the get-go between India and Pakistan, and both sides have since accused the other of occupying Kashmir. In fact, these two nuclear-armed neighbors and sworn enemies have fought two major wars and one minor war over Kashmir.
Inside of Indian-administered Kashmir, a violent insurgency — itself a response to political corruption and disputed elections — has costs tens of thousands of lives since the late 1980s. The Indian government blames Pakistani-backed foreign fighters and “jihadists” for all the violence but Indian armed forces have themselves been accused of inflicting terror on the state from extrajudicial killings to torture to sexual violence to the blinding of protesters with pellets.
Newscaster: The pellets smashed into this boy’s face as he played street cricket in a village in Indian-administered Kashmir. He may lose the sight in his left eye.
MH: Even before this latest crackdown, Indian-administered Kashmir was one of the most militarized places on earth, with one Indian soldier for every 20 or so Kashmiri residents. That is what repression looks like.
In August, though, the Modi government crossed a new line. The clampdown imposed on Kashmir was part of a long-awaited Hindu nationalist plan to get rid of the state’s semi-autonomous status and bring it under the direct control of New Delhi.
Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted the region the right to its own Constitution and own laws, was revoked, overnight, by the Modi government, thanks to the Modi government’s majority in the national parliament, and without them getting any input, let alone consent, from Kashmiris.
Kashmiri [on BBC]: We have been completely betrayed. They put a gun to our heads and told us that a few people in the government have decided our fate.
MH: Yet, despite all this, the rest of the world has tended to ignore the plight of the Kashmiris. Western governments in particular have turned a blind eye to the rise of racism and yes, fascism in the world’s biggest democracy, because they want to stay close to Modi and make money out of a growing Indian economy.
Donald Trump, of course, is a great fan of both making money and embracing fellow authoritarian leaders. He even went to Houston the other week, to join Modi at a mass rally of right-wing Indian Americans:
Narendra Modi: He was a household name and very popular even before he went on to occupy the highest office in this great country — The President of the United States of America, Mr. Donald Trump.
Donald J. Trump: Prime Minister Modi is doing a truly exceptional job for India and for all of the Indian people… And I want you to know my administration is fighting for you each and every day… We are going to take care of our Indian American citizens before we take care of illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country.
MH: Trump, of course, is an expert on the Kashmir conflict. Here he is explaining it to reporters in the Oval Office.
DJT: It’s Kashmir and Kashmir is a very complicated place. You have the Hindus and the Muslims and I wouldn’t say they get along so great. And that’s what you have right now.
MH: You have the Hindus and the Muslims and I wouldn’t say they get along so great!
Wow. That’s truly profound. And here’s what the president said at the UN last week while meeting with Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan who has warned of the growing risk of a nuclear conflict in the region if the Kashmir crisis isn’t resolved soon. But don’t worry! Donald Trump’s here to help.
DJT: I think I’d be an extremely good arbitrator. I’ve done it before, believe it or not. And I’ve never failed as an arbitrator. I’ve been asked to arbitrate disputes, pretty big ones, from friends and I’ve done it in a good successful fashion.
MH: Yes, the president of the United States thinks resolving the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir is like fixing a dispute between two friends of his — assuming that is, that he has friends, which is a highly dubious proposition.
But, look, God help the Kashmiris if Trump ever does decide to try and be an arbitrator. That’s all they need right now. They already have Modi, who many have called India’s Trump, to deal with.
MH: My guest today is someone who has been writing about Kashmir and campaigning on behalf of Kashmiris for many years now.
Arundhati Roy happens to be both India’s most famous novelist, writer and activist, and also the country’s most fervent and outspoken critic of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist movement, the RSS. She’s received death threats from the far-right, and been accused of being “anti-national” and unpatriotic by India’s increasingly jingoistic and xenophobic media.
She joins me now from New Delhi. Arundhati Roy, thank you for joining me on Deconstructed.
AR: You’re welcome, Mehdi. Happy to be here.
MH: What is happening in Indian-administered Kashmir right now in the state, that was until very recently considered to be Jammu and Kashmir until had it status revoked? How bad is the situation on the ground as you understand it to be?
AR: Well, look, I haven’t been there since the clampdown. I don’t think I would be welcomed in there. But I have very close friends who are out actually right now. And the situation seems to be that there is obviously a complete communication, you know, clampdown.
So, in Kashmir, traditionally, normalcy has always been a military declaration. You know, it’s not the people that decide what is normal, it’s the establishment that decides. And so for them normal seems to be to keep seven million people under a complete communication blackout. And that is besides the terror, besides the reports of, you know, the thousands who are being arrested, who are being picked up, tortured, all of that.
MH: And the thousands who are being arrested and detained, just to be clear for an international audience who might not be aware of this. These people are not just “Pakistanis” or “foreign fighters.” They include leading Indian Kashmiri politicians, people who were even in government with the BJP with Narendra Modi until a few years ago, the former chief ministers of the state have been put under house arrest. That’s astonishing.
AR: Every single person who has a voice at all has been arrested. And that, as you say, includes all the former chief ministers, people who have been carrying India’s water for the last 70 years. Everybody is in jail. Anybody who has a voice is in jail. Anybody who dares to speak up is being picked up, anybody on the street, you know, and of course, internationally. The people who are negotiating and speaking whether it’s Imran Khan or Modi or Donald Trump, in a sense, you know, why are they negotiating the fate of seven million people who have been caged? I mean, how would it be if seven million people in New York were caged and everybody was deciding their fate and think, “Oh, it’s a good thing for them in the end, you know, they ought to be locked down for 50 days because they don’t know what is good for them?”
MH: People are literally saying this. Roger Cohen of the New York Times, liberal columnist, a liberal American paper, just wrote an op-ed recently saying this could be good for Kashmir in the long run.
AR: I read it. I read it. So appalling, so ill-informed and so dangerous, but you know, at least he’s an ill-informed American columnist, but you had, you know, what I call the goodbye India, “Howdy, Modi!” show where 59,000 people were chanting in favor of this.
[Crowd chanting at Modi rally in Houston]
You know, the preparations are being put into place for a kind of horror that people who are ill-informed or people who don’t have an understanding of the scale at which the dismantling of this country is happening, are all participating in it and that is so terribly disturbing.
MH: I want to come back to that in a moment and that is very disturbing, the big picture, just sticking with Kashmir for a moment, the two things that Kashmir is associated with on the international stage when people in the United States or the UK talk about or think about Kashmir, which is very rarely is terrorism, and nuclear weapons. And I just want to deal with both of those because we hear a lot about terrorism and militancy in the valley, of Muslim and “jihadist violence.” And of course, there is “jihadist violence.” There is terrorism of that form. No one is defending the killing of innocent civilians whether they’re innocent Hindus, innocent Muslims, whatever. But we don’t hear that much globally about what Indian security forces do in terms of violence, human rights abuses. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, Arundhati, this is one of the most militarized places on earth, if not the most militarized place on Earth.
AR: It is the most militarized place on earth. And perhaps right now there are more Indian troops, and have been more Indian security forces there since 1990, more than probably were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan by the U.S., you know, and that is a valley that has been locked down. If you follow, for example, there’s the Jammu and Kashmir civil service, JKCCS it’s called. There’s a report, a torture report, which is so chilling to read. I mean, what happened in Abu Ghraib, all these kinds of forms of torture, and variations of it have been commonly practiced there, you know. So, according to the Associated Press 70,000 people have been killed in this conflict. It’s a valley covered with graveyards. Every village has its own graveyard. The gravestones grew out of the ground like young children’s teeth there, you know.
It’s a place where you have had people fighting for self determination for 70 years. And that fight became militant because of the repression from 1990 onwards. India’s moral position on Kashmir has never, ever been a moral position. It is a kind of moral corrosion that has corroded all of us. And now, now the world is looking at it.
MH: But do you really think the world is looking at it? My worry is that the world isn’t really paying much attention. What I find so odd is given the nuclear issue, isn’t it odd how little attention or how little urgency is devoted to the issue of Kashmir on the international stage from the world’s superpowers, given that so many nuclear experts say that the most likely place for a devastating nuclear conflict is not the Korean Peninsula is not the Middle East but in Kashmir or between India and Pakistan over Kashmir?
AR: Well, yes, you’re right. I mean, the whole world isn’t looking at it. But it’s got more attention now than it has ever had before. You know, that’s what I meant. But, you see India and Pakistan last February became the first two nuclear powers to actually carry out airstrikes against each other. Militarily both are very unequal. In a conventional war, they would be very unequal enemies. So, that makes the possibility of nuclear war greater, you know. If they were both equally matched, you know, you can imagine the kind of conventional war taking place, but now, the humiliation of Pakistan, both in the Indian media, the moves that are being made internationally because obviously India has more economic clout, everybody wants to sell India things and weapons and do trade deals, Pakistan is being humiliated and that’s never a good thing in a situation like this. And Kashmiris — forget Pakistan for a minute, you know — Kashmiris who have been pushed to the wall since 1990 are now being caged and humiliated and spoken for and treated in ways where, I mean, I listen with so much sadness to the fact that again and again, you hear people saying, it’s better to die than to live like this, you know. Young men have shown that they are willing to die, you know, all this time, but now it’s on a different scale all together.
MH: And in terms of the bigger picture of the conflict in Kashmir going back to 1990, going back all the way to partition, how much responsibility for the crisis do you ascribe to Pakistan and to the Pakistani military and intelligence services? Because on the one hand, the Indian government, of course, wants to very conveniently say “This is all foreign interference, foreign sponsorship, foreign incitement.” But on the other hand, it clearly is the case that some of the most vicious and violent groups in that part of the world have been trained and armed and funded by the Pakistanis for decades. So how do you split responsibility when you look at the problem in Kashmir?
AR: Well, look, this business of arming and training whatever you want to call them, terrorists, freedom fighters, or militants, every country in this region has been involved with it. India has done it in Sri Lanka for example. India sent non-state actors into Bangladesh for what was essentially a just war, I mean, not a just war but a war which stopped a genocide which Pakistan was committing in Bangladesh.
MH: In 1971.
AR: Yeah, in 1971. I don’t think anyone not India, not Pakistan and nobody has a clear, clean moral position on this. No state does, you know. But how things work on the ground are quite different and you know how people can be demonized. If it wasn’t Pakistan, there would be some other way of demonizing this struggle because it’s Muslim people, you know. So people will be demonized in some way or the other.
And, you know, one of the things is that India has a very, very powerful and very, very bigoted media that is working 24/7 to demonize anything that the state wishes to demonize, you know. It could be an individual. It could be a struggle, it could be anything. It could be the poorest people in the world such as people fighting for their homes and lives in central India, you know.
MH: You’ve said that the media is complicit in the violence that we see in places like Kashmir. For people who don’t live in India, but who are used to, for example, the propaganda and jingoism that comes out of Fox News here in the U.S. on a nightly basis. How does the Indian media operate? How bad are they in comparison to say a Fox News?
AR: Well, multiply Fox News into 400 24/7 channels in every language you can think of, you know, and that’s what you have. And also don’t forget you have a population many of whom are still living in a kind of feudal time. Who have made a jump from semi-literacy to television, you know. So you know, the kind of fake news and the kind of nonsense that can be put out is just phenomenal.
MH: And there’s this tension isn’t there between the Indian government and the Indian media that wants to say that everyone who has ever picked up a weapon or gone near a weapon in Kashmir is a foreign-backed jihadist or a Pakistani asset and anyone who says otherwise is an apologist or a defender of that terrorism.
AR: Today’s gotten worse. I mean, I was just reading a statement by the army chief who basically said that anybody who says things are not normal in Kashmir is surviving by terrorism or you know, sort of invested in it in some way.
MH: It’s astonishing. There’s this denial from whether it’s in Northern Ireland with the British, whether it’s in Palestine with the Israelis, whether it’s in Syria with Assad or Iraq with the U.S. occupation or in Kashmir, this idea that people somehow wake up in the morning, “I just want to commit terrorist acts for no reason,” that people are born terrorists or it’s in their DNA, or it’s all the religion. There’s no, there’s a willful denial of any link with kind of political, social, economic conditions on the ground, with any kind of legitimate grievances. That’s not to defend any kind of violence, but to say it doesn’t come out of nowhere, does it?
AR: Yeah, but this is just a strategy on the part of the state and the media that subscribes to it and is part of it and feeds off it. You know, it’s not as if they believe it. They know very well that what they’re saying is untrue. But that is a part of the strategy.
MH: You’ve talked about the attacks and abuse that you’re subjected to for speaking out on Kashmir or against this BJP government across the board. You’ve talked about, “gangs of stormtroopers” who turn up at your public events call you anti-national, call you a traitor. Arundhati, in India today, someone like yourself, who’s as high profile as yourself, do you have to worry about your safety, for your life even? Because I know India has become a pretty dangerous place for rank and file journalists. And even for prominent writers who have called out the far-right there.
AR: I think right now, really the problem is for journalists and media people in Kashmir. You know, they are under such great threat. I mean, the only people who have some sort of latitude to write some sort of truth are journalists, local journalists who work for foreign wire services and so on, you know, who report for Reuters or AP or, you know, BBC or things like that. And they’re the ones who I really worry for, you know, seriously.
MH: Of course, and you say, obviously, you say you don’t speak for Kashmiris, but you have traveled to Kashmir, you speak to people there regularly. What do you think — And polling is very difficult in that part of the world, in that place, but what do you think the people there that actually want? Is it just greater autonomy to bring back Article 370, which was just revoked overnight? Is it to join with Pakistan? Is it to be independent? Is it a self determination?
AR: I don’t think that they could have been clearer. They’ve been saying it for 70 years. They’ve been saying it loudly. They’ve been saying it with their blood since 1990. Of course, it’s self determination. You know, of course, it’s self determination.
MH: To be an independent Kashmir?
AR: Yeah, the right to self determination to be independent, to be in charge of their own destiny, the stewards of their own land and their culture. Of course, it’s that and of course, it’s not an impossibility. Why should it be? You know —
MH: It’s not an impossibility. But of course, this government of all Indian governments, the Hindu nationalist government is the least likely to kind of even entertain the possibility of that. Talk to me about Hindu nationalism, what it stands for, and what it has in common with the kind of far right nationalism that we’re seeing across the west, whether it’s Trump’s America, Brexit Britain, France, Hungary, in Israel with Netanyahu, what are the similarities between what Modi’s doing there and what’s happening around the world?
AR: The similarities are, of course, the idea of racial supremacy and Aryan supremacy and things like that. Where India at this moment steals a march over all the other people that you’ve mentioned, while they have a lot of dealings with them is that they have an organization that has existed uninterrupted in a way since 1925, banned a few times.
MH: The RSS.
AR: The RSS. Recently they announced their plans to start an RSS school to train people to join the army. And they have a whole lot of Hindu nationalist groups and so, those groups can be pretty violent. They are not directly RSS, but they live under its shade in some ways, under its protection, if you like.
MH: And you’re right about India stealing a march on some of the other countries going through the same far right tendencies. I mean, people call Modi, Narendra Modi, India’s Donald Trump, which I hate, I loathe to be fair to Donald Trump. But to be fair to Donald Trump, he didn’t come to office with blood already on his hands as Narendra Modi did from his time in Gujarat, where he was Chief Minister during those anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002.
AR: And he doesn’t have this organization behind him, you know.
MH: Trump doesn’t.
AR: And the RSS has, you know, it has women’s organizations. It has schools. It was a shadow state, but now it is the state, if you know what I mean. You know, it has people everywhere. So what I wanted to say, and I think this is a very, very important thing for people to know, that abrogating section 370 was an RSS plan from long ago. They’ve always wanted to do this and it’s not nothing surprising in that sense, you know. They wanted to do it. They wanted to do the nuclear tests. They did it.
And now, you know, in the Eastern State of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, there had been a process called the National Register of Citizens, because Assam borders Bangladesh there was this thing that there are a lot of refugees from Bangladesh and we are not able to accommodate them all and so, there was this demand for the NRC and the BJP came in supporting it.
The home minister said, he called the Muslim infiltrators, termites and so on. When the process of the NRC happened today, you have something like 1.9 million people who are not on the list of citizens, let’s say.
AR: So, now the problem that the BJP faces is that many of them are not Muslims. In fact, the bulk of them are not Muslims. So they’ve started to say, “We want a citizenship amendment act, where non-Muslims will automatically be citizens but Muslims will not be.” Now they are building in Assam detention camps for these more than 1.9 million people. But they’re saying that we want to have the NRC in all the other states. You’re creating a situation in which you will have non-Hindus, as non-citizens. You will have tiered rights.
MH: Which is what the RSS has always wanted, tiered rights with Hindus at the top.
AR: Yes, and then, you’re creating a situation, which is just pre-the concentration camps.
MH: So this is my question to you when you raise the issue of Indian Muslims and what’s going on not just in Kashmir, but as you say, in Assam where they’re building detention camps, when you bring up the situation in the West, when you bring it up — I’m a Muslim of Indian origin. My parents are from India — Even when you bring it up with other Muslim communities in the West and try and explain to them what’s going on in India, a lot of people will say, “Come on, it can’t be that bad. India has 200 million Muslims. It’s nearly one sixth of the population. Even if the BJP wanted to even, if the RSS wanted to, they couldn’t carry out a genocide against the Muslims.” What do you say to them?
AR: I agree that they can’t carry out a genocide on that scale, but they can make a massive population of stateless people who will just fall prey to so much of the chaos that’s coming. I don’t lose much sleep over people in the West not understanding, you know, maybe because I discovered that people, you know, politics is not about other people’s compassion.
MH: If no one’s gonna do anything, that’s pretty depressing because who’s going to save those people who’ve been put in camps?
AR: No, so they have to save themselves. You know, they have to develop a kind of politics. We have to all think about it here.
MH: Are you hopeful about that, Arundhati? Because listening to this interview, it’s pretty depressing. You’re talking about the RSS with boots on the ground. Modi’s just been reelected. Maybe a preview of what’s going to happen in the U.S. next year with Trump, but where is the hope that this is going to happen?
AR: Okay, let me tell you the other side of the story. There are 10 states in India which have these special provisions. On Independence Day when Modi was boasting about how he abrogated Section 370. Many groups in the states in the northeast said we will not celebrate Indian independence because this is a federal country. You can’t just force us all into this. The whole Naga peace talks had to do with their own flag and their own constitution. You know, last week the Home Minister said Hindi, suggested that Hindi should become the national language. Immediately there were protests in the south. So the more they pull this together, the more it breaks, you know. We are in a lot of trouble. There is no doubt. All I’m saying is it’s not just going to go entirely their way.
MH: But you have hope?
AR: Well hope, I don’t know about hope. But I’m just saying that, you know, they can’t control even that valley of Kashmir with their 900,000 soldiers or 700,000 soldiers or whatever it is, you know. They don’t know what to do. They can’t lift their feet off the pedal. So this is a kind of stupidity, I mean, that’s why I said that rally was like Goodbye, India. Howdy, Modi. You know, because this way they are going to destroy this place.
MH: One last question: I know you said that you worked out long ago that you can’t rely on the compassion of others or people in the West or the international community. But a lot of people listening to this interview are not in India, and they may want to do something. They may think I didn’t know anything about this, or I did know about this and I want to help. What can people do, if anything? Is there anything people can do listening to this to help the plight of people in Kashmir?
AR: For one, they should read up. I mean, there’s so much written about Modi’s past, about where he comes from, about who he is, about the RSS, about its open admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. People can only do something if they understand, you know. Someone like Roger Cohen, who wrote that piece in The New York Times, it would be wonderful if he had the integrity to write another piece saying he was wrong, he was ill-informed, and he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.
MH: On that note, Arundhati, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time and please, I know you don’t want to talk about yourself, but do stay safe.
AR: Yes, okay, Mehdi.
MH: That was the novelist and activist, Arundhati Roy speaking to me from her home in New Dehli. And making the point that we need to give a damn about what’s going on in Kashmir. We need to inform ourselves. We need to educate ourselves. We need to understand what is going on and why it is so wrong. Millions of people there right now as you’re listening to this are living under siege. And it’s not about being pro-India or pro-Pakistan, it’s about being pro-Kashmiri, pro-the people who are suffering, pro-their human rights, pro-their dignity, pro-their freedom.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
See you next week.