Book review: Azadi, by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy tears into Narendra Modi and India’s BJP party, but her polemic lacks a coherent argument, writes Allan Massie
Arundhati Roy PIC: Money Sharma/AFP via Getty ImagesArundhati Roy PIC: Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images
Arundhati Roy PIC: Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images

Penguin Specials, as conceived by Penguin’s founder Allen Lane, were short, urgent books, or larger than usual pamphlets, about immediately topical questions. They were hard hitting and opinionated. One of the first Specials by Edgar Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News was entitled “Germany Puts the Clock Back.” Originally written soon after the Nazis came to power, it led to Mowrer’s expulsion from Germany. The Penguin Special edition (1937) had a new chapter added, covering the ever tighter Nazi grip on what had been civil society.

Arundhati Roy’s new style Penguin Special might seem to have the same urgency. Azadi means Freedom in Urdu and the sub-title reads “Freedom: Fascism: Fiction.” Roy is best known in Britain and the USA as a Booker Prize-winning novelist, but in her native India also as an activist and polemicist. Some of her targets are familiar to western readers: free market capitalism, the exploitation of natural resources and the degradation of the environment, the persecution of minorities, male violence directed at women. These are tunes we can all recognize, and, impassioned though she is, it is fair to say that she has nothing new or original to offer on these questions.

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Readers here may be more surprised by the ferocity of her criticism of India’s governing party, the BJP, and the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party is, she says, the political wing of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the high-caste Hindu movement founded in 1925. On Independence in 1947 India was declared to be a secular socialist republic, but the ideals of the Congress Party and Jawaharlal Nehru have been betrayed and cast aside. Roy does not hesitate to describe the RSS and the present government and prime minister as fascist. “India,” the RSS declares is “a Hindu nation; this is non- negotiable.” For its hundred and more million Muslims, the choice is “Pakistan or the graveyard.” Roy compares the BJP’s Citizen Amendment Act and its National Register of Citizens to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws which decreed who was, and who could not be, German. In its discrimination between racial and religious groups, and its rigid upholding of the caste system, the BJP makes India today look depressingly like apartheid South Africa. Meanwhile its ruthless imposition of martial law in the disputed province of Kashmir – a running sore ever since independence – recalls Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds. Roy remarks that “while many countries are dealing with a refugee crisis, the Indian Government is turning citizens into refugees.” Here, she says, is “a continent trying to shrink itself into a country. Not even a country, but a province. A primitive ethno-religious province.”

Her indignation is searing and indeed there seems to be little to be said for Modi, the BJP and the RSS. In their narrow and violent sectarianism, they represent a denial of the liberal principles on which the republic was founded.

Nevertheless, while previous Congress governments also sullied the original idea of India, comparisons with Nazi Germany still seem far-fetched – to a foreigner at least. There is a still a free press, often severely critical of Modi and, it would seem, still an independent judiciary and civil service inherited from the Raj. One might also observe that several of the pieces in Azadi are reprints of speeches given by Roy in India, and she speaks with an open contempt for the regime that was possible only for Germans who had managed to exile themselves from the Third Reich.

In truth, though one may respond with sympathy and agreement to Roy’s passionate indignation, this book, assembled from speeches and lectures delivered over a number of years, is more confusing than satisfying. Roy is a repetitive and often clumsy writer. She packs in material, with an excess of detail. It is hard to keep track of her arguments. She veers between reportage and discussion of her own life and her two novels. Indeed the publisher’s decision to recall the old Penguin Specials seems unwise, for the point about these books was usually their clear and cogent line. There is no line in Azadi, no coherent argument. I am sure that much that Roy tells us is horribly true. I just wish she had told it better.

Azadi, by Arundhati Roy, Penguin Special, 243pp, £6

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