The prosecution of Arundhati Roy is business as usual for the Modi government – and bad news for freedom of expression in India

By Jamal Barnes

Earlier this month, Narendra Modi was elected India’s prime minister for the third consecutive time.

Despite being only the second Indian prime minister to win three elections in a row, the election saw Modi lose his parliamentary majority. After winning 303 seats in 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party dropped to 240 seats, forcing it to form a coalition with other political parties to govern.

This development has raised questions about how Modi will govern moving forward. Modi has developed a cult following through his Hindu nationalist agenda, but his key coalition partners do not share his extreme nationalist outlook.

Some commentators have suggested Modi will have to moderate his divisive rhetoric, which has been criticised for dehumanising religious minorities and government critics.

However, early signs suggest that Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party will continue pushing his brand of authoritarian populism, undermining human rights and freedom of expression in the process.

The prosecution of Arundhati Roy

Soon after Modi’s re-election, Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and Bharatiya Janata Party member Vinai Kumar Saxena confirmed that the prosecution of prominent Indian writer and political activist Arundhati Roy, first proposed in 2023, will proceed.

Roy is known internationally as the Booker Prize winning author of The God of Small Things. Along with human rights scholar Sheikh Showkat Hussain, she has been charged under anti-terrorism legislation.

The charges concern “provocative” speeches Roy and Hussain delivered at a conference in 2010. In her speech, Roy argued that Kashmir was not a part of India. This has led the government to charge Roy under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for promoting separatist causes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his swearing-in ceremony, New Delhi, June 9, 2024. Rajat Gupta/AAP

Violating rights at home and abroad

This prosecution – 14 years later – may seem unusual, but it is not an isolated incident. In the broader context of Modi’s rule, Roy’s prosecution represents business as usual.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Modi has pushed a Hindu ultra-nationalist ideology that does not tolerate dissent. Claiming Hinduism represents India’s “true” identity, Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party nationalists have targeted religious minorities and government critics, labelling them as threats to India.

People who have spoken out against Modi’s rule have been subjected to serious human rights abuses. Hate speech by members of the Indian government and its supporters against minorities is common. Police and nationalists have subjected minorities and government critics to violence and sexual assault with impunity. Protesters have had their houses bulldozed as punishment. News organisations have been raided.

Critics of Modi’s government are not safe overseas, either. The Indian government has been accused of transnational repression, where a government harasses and even kills opponents in other countries.

Journalists and human rights activists have had their Overseas Citizenship of India and their passports revoked. Online trolls have harassed overseas journalists.

In 2023, the Indian government faced allegations that it assassinated Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada and intended to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the United States after they spoke out against the Modi government.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has called for the US State Department to list India as a Country of Particular Concern. This would require the State Department to identify India as a country that has “engaged in severe violations of religious freedom”. Despite the recommendation, this has not yet been done.

Why prosecute now?

Prosecuting critics under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has become a common strategy. Adopted in the 1960s, and revised several times since, the act has been heavily criticised by human rights authorities, on the grounds that it is vague and undermines legal safeguards. It has become a key tool used to punish anyone who speaks out against the Indian government.

The decision to proceed with the prosecution of Roy and Hussain could be interpreted as a way for the Bharatiya Janata Party to show its continued relevance after losing so many parliamentary seats. According to Siddhartha Deb, prosecuting Roy is a means for Modi to show his “rabid attack dogs of Hindu nationalism” that his agenda will continue as usual.

Roy has been a critic of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist agenda since he took power. She has been targeted because she criticised a key element of this nationalist agenda: the claim that the Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir is part of India. She joins other journalists and activists who have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Kashmir is historically disputed territory. In 2019, Modi stripped Kashmir of autonomy status. This furthered the Bharatiya Janata Party’s goal of bringing the disputed region under Indian rule.

Prosecuting Roy reinforces these nationalist goals. It clamps down on any attempt, past or present, to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party’s narrative and its power to decide India’s identity.

The future of freedom of expression in India

The ongoing persecution of government critics in India poses a serious threat to freedom of expression – a fundamental human right under international law.

Clamping down on freedom of expression will inhibit the discussion of political topics, as people engage in self-censorship for fear of speaking out. It will harm India’s democratic institutions by stifling debate and making it harder to hold the powerful to account. Western countries should play a greater role in pressuring Modi to drop the charges against Roy, Hussain and other government critics.

It seems, however, that Western countries are more interested in supporting Modi than criticising him. When Modi visited Australia in 2023, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese did not publicly raise human rights concerns. He was more interested in securing a trade deal with India. Similar stories can be seen in other Western countries, such as the United States and France.

In Modi’s India, it seems, freedom of expression is only for approved views: you are either with his vision of India or against it. Despite losing his parliamentary majority, his authoritarian populist agenda is not over just yet.

(This article first published in The Conversation)

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I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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