It’s just a word. But when you are using it to describe your own possible future, it leaves the lips with a heaviness and a bitter taste, like bile.
Until a few years ago, ending up in an Indian prison because of my work or things I said seemed as unimaginable as my death — a grim but distant prospect. When I met with fellow journalists, we discussed stories we were working on or the latest political gossip.
But today the possibility of arrest and prosecution on fantastical charges lurks deep in my heart and in those of many Indian journalists, historians, writers, academics, intellectuals and others who openly criticize Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. Now when we meet, we talk about lawyers, potential charges and sentences, legal funds and making sure that our personal and financial affairs are in order.
Since Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, the Hindu nationalist mob has targeted one supposed enemy after another — Muslims, students, activists, opposition politicians, lower-caste Dalits, gay men and lesbians — tearing our incredibly diverse country apart in a myopic attempt to remake it into a bastion of Hindu supremacy.
Another line was crossed two weeks ago when the government announced charges against the writer Arundhati Roy. Ms. Roy, whose works include the novel “The God of Small Things” and the essay collection “My Seditious Heart,” is one of the greatest writers of our time. She has been a voice for truth, tolerance and sanity in India for decades. Her books and essays record the utter apathy of the post-independence ruling class as India descended into the chaos of Mr. Modi’s right-wing politics. Jailing Ms. Roy would be not unlike America imprisoning a writer of the moral stature of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin.
The charges against her represent a pivotal moment for India; If Ms. Roy is incarcerated, she will become the country’s highest-profile prisoner of conscience.
She would join a growing body of writers, activists and intellectuals.
Shortly after Ms. Roy was charged, 12 leading international human rights groups issued a joint statement accusing Indian authorities of abusing a counterterrorism law, financial regulations and other laws to “silence journalists, human rights defenders, activists and critics of the government.”
This has been going on for years. According to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, in the five years before Mr. Modi took power, the central government filed just 69 cases under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, an overly broad state security law that allows detention for extended periods without due process. Under Mr. Modi, the number of cases filed has jumped to 288 as of September 2022.
The charges against Ms. Roy are typically absurd. She is accused of provocative speech and promoting enmity between different groups merely for comments made in 2010 that questioned the Indian government’s claims to the disputed, restive region of Kashmir. But the real reason she is being targeted now — 13 years later — is surely because of her courageous criticism of the intolerance and violence unleashed under Mr. Modi. People like her are among India’s greatest assets because they stand for truth and decency, but they are being cast as enemies of the state. India is devouring its best and brightest.
It is worth noting that in September, before the charges were filed, Ms. Roy accepted the prestigious European Essay Prize for, as the prize jury put it, her use of “the essay as a form of combat, analyzing fascism and the way it is being structured.” It is not the first time that the word “fascism” has been used in the context of the Modi regime and its methods.
Among many others, the kinds of people facing unjust accusations in India include the Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, who documented atrocities by Indian forces and militants in the region and now faces multiple terrorism-related charges; and the student activist Umar Khalid, accused of inciting violence after he led peaceful protests against a discriminatory citizenship law introduced by Mr. Modi’s government. Then there were the 16 people, including activists, journalists, poets, a professor and an older priest, accused of crimes such as fomenting an uprising against Mr. Modi after some of them spoke out against his government’s repressive methods. The priest, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, contracted Covid while in custody and died in 2021.
Even before Mr. Modi, political violence was common in India, lower castes were doomed to live on society’s margins and women faced routine sexual violence. But while previous governments had the guile to at least pay lip service to the rule of law, officials in Mr. Modi’s party have openly encouraged mob violence. Last year, 11 men imprisoned in a high-profile gang-rape case were freed and welcomed with garlands by party officials.
It’s a modern version of the same old struggle between the powerful and those who dissent. But in the digital age, the powerful in India are aided by government-aligned media outlets, online smear campaigns and troll armies, whose lies are eroding truth and morality and fueling more violence. The dissenters, meanwhile, are armed with little more than the strength of their moral clarity.
By jailing or silencing journalists, writers and other critics, India not only chips away at its democratic credentials; it loses the kinds of minds that gave the culture its stunning art, rich literature and philosophy, ancient temples, chess and the Kamasutra.
India is being dumbed down, and children are growing up in a climate of lies, propaganda and misinformation. Science has become suspect, with the government this year reportedly removing basic concepts such as evolution and the periodic table from some school curriculums (although some officials have denied this). In a telling comment in 2018, Mr. Modi’s minister in charge of higher education said evolution was “scientifically wrong” because nobody “ever saw an ape turning into a human being.”
Writers like Ms. Roy bear witness to the times they live in. Even if the government imprisons her and every last person with an independent mind, it will not change the story of the Modi years. It just means that much of that story will be told through the eyes of prisoners of conscience.
History will remember those people as heroes. Their jailers will be condemned as tyrants.
Vidya Krishnan (@VidyaKrishnan) is an Indian journalist based in Goa who specializes in health issues. She is the author of “The Phantom Plague: How Tuberculosis Shaped History.”
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