As Novelist Arundhati Roy Faces Prosecution Under UAPA, What Lies Ahead?

Fourteen years after Arundhati Roy made a controversial statement about Kashmir, it has landed her and former professor Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain in trouble as Delhi Lt Governor VK Saxena sanctioned their prosecution under the anti-terror law UAPA.

Author-activist Arundhati Roy at at a solidarity meet at Press Club of India in New Delhi, October 4, 2023. Photo: SURESH K PANDEY

“While we're still arguing about whether there's life after death, can we add another question to the cart? Is there life after democracy? What sort of life will it be?”  

- Arundhati Roy, Democracy’s Failing Light, 2009

On October 21, 2010, one of India’s most celebrated novelists, Arundhati Roy, and Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, former professor at the Central University of Kashmir, addressed a conference organised under the banner of ‘Azadi-The Only Way’ at the Little Theatre Group (LTG) Auditorium on Copernicus Marg in New Delhi. During her speech, Roy had said, “Look, Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. However aggressively and however often you want to ask me that...”. Her statement had triggered a controversy and her home in Delhi was besieged by protesters, led by members of the BJP Mahila Morcha who shouted slogans demanding that she retract her statement or leave the country. An FIR was registered against Roy and Hussain for making ‘provocative speeches’ at the time.

The 62-year-old author-activist whose novel God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize, is no stranger to controversies over her outright criticism of authorities in power and suppression of free speech. But, fourteen years after the Kashmir statement, Roy and Hussain are set to be tried under the draconian anti-terror law – Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – for their speeches as Delhi Lt Governor VK Saxena on Friday sanctioned their prosecution.

The development comes after last October, when LG Saxena gave a go-ahead for the case to be taken to the courts under section 196 of CrPC for commission of offences punishable under different sections of the Indian Penal Code: 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief). LG Saxena also said that sedition charges were being considered against Roy and Hussain but were not filed given the Supreme Court’s May 2022 order on the validity of the colonial-era law.

Last year’s action against Roy and Hussain also came days after the Special Cell of Delhi Police raided the homes and offices of scores of journalists and other employees linked to news portal NewsClick, which was known for its critical ground reports. The organisation’s founder Prabir Purkayastha and HR head Amit Chakravarty were arrested, though Chakravarty later turned an approver in the case. Roy was among journalists and writers who had gathered in solidarity against Purkayastha’s arrest at a press club in Delhi. 

The UAPA is a terrorism prevention law which typically entails arrest with stringent bail conditions, and delays in investigation and filing charges often lead to prolonged incarceration. Those arrested under UAPA often endure imprisonment extending for months or even years due to the delay in the submission of charge sheets as well as reluctance often expressed by trial courts in granting bail.

The law has seen a spectacular rise in usage in the last few years. According to the latest ‘Crime in India’ report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the year 2022 alone marked a 24 per cent increase in UAPA cases compared to the previous year, 76 per cent of which were driven by political tensions in Manipur, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The growing arrests have raised concerns about an increasing intolerance for resistance in today’s India and a tendency towards repression of thoughts.

Many journalists, scholars and activists have been arrested under the law, many of whom still await release. Prominent names who continue to be jailed under UAPA include the likes of JNU student leaders Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam accused of the 2020 Delhi riots; human rights activists Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Hany Babu and Surendra Gadling who were accused in Bhima Koregaon violence. Notable activist Stan Swamy died in prison while charged with UAPA in the Elgar Parishad case. In 2022, prominent Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez was charged with allegations of financing terrorism under the anti-terrorism law.

Arundhati Roy has for years stood as a literary beacon against oppression through her books and speeches. In the nineties and early 2000s, Roy extensively wrote essays about capitalist development, something that evolved into larger political questions in her latter pieces. In her 2020 collection of essays titled Azadi, the Delhi-based author reflected on the meaning of freedom in a world of "growing authoritarianism". The essays include meditations on language, public as well as private, and on the role of fiction and alternative imaginations in current times. Among her other critically acclaimed books include The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, My Seditious Heart, The End of Imagination and The Doctor and the Saint. While much of the investigation in the case is yet to be completed, Roy’s prosecution has received Opposition ire and has been termed unconstitutional and undemocratic by critics.

Over the past decade, Roy has also emerged as one of the high-profile critics of the Modi government which just secured a historic third term. Speaking at the Swedish Academy on March 22, 2023, in a conference called Thought and Truth Under Pressure, Roy spoke about how India’s democracy was being “systematically disassembled” and the disappearance of a level-playing field fundamental to a fair election.

She said, “Remember what I say is not a call for help, because we in India know very well that no help will come. No help can come. I speak to tell you about a country that, although flawed, was once so full of singular possibilities, one that offered a radically different understanding of the meaning of happiness, fulfilment, tolerance, diversity and sustainability than that of the Western world. All that is being extinguished, spiritually stubbed out.”