Speaking at a seminar in Islamabad attended by both Indians and Pakistanis, the 41-year-old Booker Prize winner described the festering dispute between the two South Asian neighbours over Kashmir as political rhetoric.
The occasion? Official launch of The Daily Times of Pakistan. Among other Indians present -- Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express and N. Ram of The Hindu
"When we talk about the Indo-Pakistan or Kashmir problem, we are assuming they are problems and that people are searching for solutions," she said.
"I don't think this is the case. I think that for the governments of India and Pakistan, Kashmir is a not a problem, it's their perennial and spectacularly successful solution, ... it is the rabbit they pull out of the hat every time they face domestic problems..."It is not the only issue. It is only something that distracts attention from the real issues."
"My position on Kashmir is that I don't have one. I don't have inflexible policies, I'm not part of the state," Roy said adding "it's the people that really want -- and need -- to solve the problem."
"In this talk of war and pointing of nukes, what are we being distracted from?" she asked
Earlier, greeted with a standing ovation, she said her star billing overwhelmed her. She started off with the disclaimer: "I am not here to represent India."
In the forty-minute address, the social activist famous for her stand against globalisation and dams like
the Narmada spoke on fame, fortune and life on the Indian subcontinent.
"Things get so heavy," she said, "I sometimes feel we have to approach them some other way." Ms Roy spoke about growing up in the arcadia that is Kerala and "culturally speaking" making the long journey to Delhi.
"We are worthy of literature," she said, referring to the people of the subcontinent. Declaring herself
a citizen of the world, Ms Roy said she wore no flag in her heart or head. "Flags," she said, "shrink-wrap
one’s brain and are then used as a shroud."
Ms Roy said her work had prompted many in India to brand her a traitor and that she had been hauled over the coals for being passionate, "as if that’s a crime."
In 1997, when Ms Roy won the prestigious award for fiction, the Indian government, she says, "paraded me
out along with Miss Universe and the man who invented our nuclear bomb and is now our president."
The summer of 1998 changed everything for Ms Roy. The nuclear detonations at Pokhran and Chaghai happened while she was promoting her book in London. "Two women came up to me at the signing asking if I could speak with them," she said. "I told them I would as soon as I was done with the signings." She said she felt concerned because the women had been "a bit stiff". Two hours later she met the women and they asked Ms Roy if they could hug her.
She called India's development of nuclear weapons "the final act of betrayal of a ruling class that has failed its people ..The truth is, it's far easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million people," she said.
"This issue of social justice in both our countries is the fundamental issue, and as long as these
issues are not addressed, we
are going to be very, very weak tin pot countries."
"Literature is the opposite of the nuclear bomb," she declared. "We are people ... we should know each other’s stories, each other’s gaalis "
She also read excerpts from her essay The End of Imagination, written in response to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, and a smaller piece, The Bomb and I.
"The bomb is a challenge to god," she said. "And we should think about raising our voice because the bomb is not in our backyard, it is in us."
She said the governments of both countries have imperiled the lives of its citizens.
Ms Roy said social injustices had become entrenched and were hampering all progress. "We should be talking about and fighting for the rights of the people. For the guarantee of their freedoms as citizens and people."
She said she was "deeply suspicious" of nationalism especially since it was inevitably a cloak for
communalism. She said she was not "anti-national", but against nationalism.
"To be an anti-national suggests that you are against that nation and therefore pro some other nation," she said. "I am deeply suspicious of nationalism. I am terribly worried about flags. I see them as bits of cloth that shrink-wrap people's brains and then are used as a shroud to bury the willing dead."
Regretting the BJP-condoned pogrom in Gujarat earlier this year, Ms Roy said we should respect strength not power.
"I am not courageous," she said. "I am only trying to speak the truth." She said this was the role
of all art, to push the boundaries of the imagination and to challenge, provoke and stimulate.
"Democracy is not a monster," she said referring to earlier comments made by Shekhar Gupta. "I see it as a plant, a tree. Something that cannot be kept in a room and windows locked."
Ms Roy said the oldest democracy in the world (America) was imploding because of market fundamentalism and its war on terror ("Or the war that terrorises," she said) and the largest democracy (India) was imploding because of religious fundamentalism.
In a Reuters report she was she was quoted as saying that if she has a message for the people of both the countries, it is simple: "Don't listen to your governments."
"We are all members of an ancient civilisation, not a recent nation. We have so many things in common and there is absolutely no reason to point nuclear weapons at each other.
"Eventually we have to ally ourselves with each other and we have to blow a hole in this huge dam between us," she said.
"Bigots, fundamentalists on both sides can twist things to suit their own needs. I am terrified of that happening both in India and Pakistan... It is not about Muslims, Hindus. It's about fascism, majoritarianism, bigotry, these things."
"The governments raise the rhetoric whenever it suits them, and now they are sulking because people are taking their rhetoric seriously and saying: 'how can they think that we will probably have a war?"'