“Arundhati: Pakistan never used army against its people,” declared a headline in The Gulf News earlier this week. Variations of that thought appeared in Pakistan’s The Nation, India’s Times Now News and the Sri Lanka Guardian, among other publications. Former Arundhati Roy fans immediately began to denounce the writer for making this purported statement – with the clamour especially loud in Bangladesh.
For most Bangladeshis, after all, the Liberation War of 1971 and the brutalities unleashed by the Pakistani army in the nine months that it lasted are etched in living memory as a constant source of trauma and pain. The fact that Pakistan blatantly refuses to officially recognise the crimes against humanity committed by its army in those nine months only rubs salt to the nation’s wounds. Therefore, any statement that could be construed as an attempt to diminish the suffering of the Bangladeshi Liberation struggle is understandably met with anger and resistance.
The Dhaka Tribune, for instance, wrote a scathing editorial attacking Roy, saying accusing her of making a “blatantly false statement that aligns perfectly with Pakistan’s own denials of its crimes”. It added: “This is a display of ignorance at best, and an attempt at whitewashing Pakistan’s history of violence at worst.” Many other outraged Bangladeshis shared the same sentiment on social media.
How could someone like Arundhati Roy, the voice of the voiceless, the unapologetic opponent of injustice in all its forms, possibly make such a statement?
Upon closer inspection, I realised that Roy had not only been quoted out of context by the Indian media but was also misquoted outright. Some Bangladeshi media outlets blindly followed suit, without bothering to verify her words for themselves.
The two-minute clip making the rounds on Twitter and referred to in these news reports has been extracted from a one-and-a-half hour lecture Roy gave in 2011 titled “Democracy and Dissent in India and China”. In the video, Roy says, “The state of Pakistan has not deployed the army against its own people in the way that the democratic Indian state has.” She does not say that Pakistan has never used the army against its own people, which is what many of the news sources misquote her as saying.
After realising its error, the Dhaka Tribune corrected its headline and report. Unfortunately, other news sources are yet to do the same.
Roy opens the 2011 lecture by reading out from her essay “Democracy’s Failing Light”, talking about the brutal ways in which the Indian army has been deployed to displace tribal people from their resource-rich lands to allow multinational corporations to extract precious minerals.
She goes on to say: “The Indian state, from the moment it became a sovereign nation, from the moment it shook off the shackles of colonialism, it became a colonial state. It has waged war since 1947 in Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Telengana, Punjab, Goa and Hyderabad.” She adds that India is a state which has “perpetually been at war” with its own people.
The misquotation can perhaps be explained by the fact that many newspaper relied on a tweet by Canadian journalist Tarek Fatah, which said that Roy had claimed that “Pakistan has never deployed its military against its own people” instead of verifying Roy’s statement themselves.
What is equally a cause for concern is to see how quickly readers jumped to conclusions about Roy’s presumed apologia for Pakistani militarism after reading just the news reports – even those who have apparently read and loved Roy’s work in the past and should know that she would have been unlikely to make such a statement.
As the recording of her lecture makes clear, Roy was making a subtle distinction about India deploying its army to implement neoliberal development projects at the cost of indigenous land rights and the ecological balance as compared to using it tosuppress secessionist movements (which is what the army is typically used for in most parts of the world, including Pakistan).
What she meant is that while both countries have used their armies against their own people, the way India has been using the armed forces since 1947 is quite distinct from the manner in which Pakistan has deployed its troops. After all, Pakistan is often referred to not as “a state that has a military” but a military that has a state.
There is a good reason Roy often makes offhand comparisons between India and Pakistan: while Pakistan gets negative coverage for being a militaristic state, India is portrayed as a bastion of magical economic growth and liberal democracy – with the international media often turning a blind eye to its brutalities.
Admittedly, someone of Roy’s stature could have (and perhaps, should have) worded this impromptu comparison in more a sensitive manner that adequately took into account Pakistani military’s own unique forms of brutalism. However, anyone familiar with Roy’s work in the slightest should know that she is not and has never been an apologist for Pakistani militancy (or any form of brute power. for that matter).
For instance, an extract from Chapter 7 of her recent book Ministry of Utmost Happiness quite clearly demonstrates her views on the matter, as a character, named BiplabDasgupta, an Indian Intelligence Officer, introspects, “..It’s true we did – we do – some terrible things in Kashmir, but …I mean what the Pakistan Army did in East Pakistan – now that was a clear case of genocide. Open and shut. When the Indian Army liberated Bangladesh, the good old Kashmiris called it – still call it – the ‘Fall of Dhaka’. They aren’t very good at other people’s pain. But then, who is? The Baloch, who are being buggered by Pakistan, don’t care about Kashmiris...”
Clinching evidence of her position is available in the 2011 lecture itself (29:30 onward), where Roy expressly mentions the “genocide in Bangladesh” when explaining the irony of geopolitical alliances in South Asian region through the example of Maoists,who are rebels themselves, but remain silent on revolutions that have occurred just across the border since they are not in line with China’s interests or that of its allies (such as Pakistan).
While Arundhati Roy has apologised for the “thoughtless” way in which she framed her comparison, I, as a Bangladeshi, would argue that she did not need to do so. Those who deliberately misquoted her should be the ones issuing the apologies.
Taqbir Huda is a socio-legal researcher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.