‘Things can’t go on like this’- author, activist Arundhati Roy writes to jailed friend prof Saibaba
Celebrated author Arundhati Roy in a moving letter to her friend, jailed Prof GN Saibaba opens her heart about lockdown, democracy and activists, students jailed because they disagreed with the govt
After the news of the reputed poet Varvara Rao’s failing health spread like wild fire, worries about many other jailed activists have started haunting again. One of many of these students, teachers, activists is Delhi University professor GN Saibaba. Celebrated Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy’s moving letter to GN Saibaba raises serious questions on the working of this ‘democratic’ regime which is ‘scared of its own writers and scholars.’
Here is the complete text of her letter:
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this is me, Arundhati writing to you and not Anjum. You wrote to her three years ago and she most certainly owes you a reply. But what can I say – her sense of time is entirely different from yours and mine, leave alone the speedy world of Whatsapp and Twitter. She thinks nothing of taking three years to reply to a letter (or not). Right now, she has locked herself in her room in the Jannat Guest House and spends all her time singing.
The remarkable thing is that after all these years she has started singing again. Just walking past her door listening to her makes me glad to be alive. Every time she sings Tum Bin Kaun Khabariya Mori Lait (Who Other Than You Asks Me How I Am?) it breaks my heart a little. And it makes me think of you. When she sings it, I’m sure that she too is thinking of you. So even if she doesn’t write back, you should know that she often sings to you. If you concentrate hard enough perhaps you will be able to hear her.
When I spoke of our sense of time it was wrong of me to have so easily said “yours and mine” – because surely serving a life sentence in the dreaded And a Cell makes your sense of time closer to Anjum’s than to mine. Or maybe it’s very different from hers too. I’ve always thought that the phrase “doing time” in the English language meant something far more profound than the slangy way in which its used. Anyway, sorry for my thoughtless remark. In her own way, Anjum is serving a life sentence too, in her graveyard – her life of “Butcher’s Luck”. But of course, she doesn’t live behind bars or have a human jailor. Her jailors are djinns and her memories of Zakir Mian.
I’m not asking how you are, because I know from Vasantha. I’ve seen the detailed medical report. It’s unthinkable that they will not grant you bail or even parole. In truth, not a day goes by when I don’t think about you. Are they still censoring your newspapers and withholding books? Do the fellow prisoners who help you with your daily routine stay in your cell, do they take shifts? Are they friendly? How is your wheelchair holding up? I know it was damaged when they arrested you –kidnapping you on your way home as though you were a dangerous criminal. (We can only be grateful that they didn’t Vikas Dubey you in “self-defence” and say that you grabbed their gun and sprinted away carrying your wheelchair under one arm. We should have a new literary genre don’t you think – Khaki Fiction. There’s enough material to hold an annual litfest. The prize money would be good and some of the more neutral judges from our neutral courts would do excellent service here too.)
I remember those days when you would visit me and the cab drivers across the street from my home would help carry you up the steps to my wheeIchair unfriendly flat. These days there’s a street dog on each of those steps. Chaddha Sahib (father), Banjarin (gypsy mother) and their puppies Leela and Seela. They were born during the Covid lockdown and seem to have decided to adopt me. But post the Covid lockdown our cab driver friends are all gone. There’s no work. The cabs are dusty and unwashed. Slowly taking root, growing branches and leaves. Small people have disappeared from the streets of big cities. Not all. But many. Millions.
I still have those tiny bottles of pickle you made me. I will wait for you to come out and share a meal with me before I open them. They are maturing nicely.
I meet your Vasantha and Manjira only occasionally, because the weight of our combined sadness makes those meetings hard. It’s not just sadness of course, it’s anger, helplessness and, on my part, a kind of shame too – shame that we have not been able to make enough people see how unjust your situation is – how immensely cruel it is to keep a man who is certified with a 90% disability in prison, convicted of having committed some ludicrous crime. Shame for not being able to do anything to speed up your appeal through the labyrinth of our judicial system which makes the process the punishment. I’m sure the Supreme Court will eventually acquit you. But by the time that happens, what a price you –and yours – will have paid.
As Covid-19 lays siege to prison after prison in India, including yours, they know, that given your condition, a life sentence could so easily become a death sentence.
So many others, including some of our common friends – students, lawyers, journalists, activists – with whom we have laughed, broken bread as well as bitterly argued, are now in prison. I don’t know if you have had news about VV (I’m talking of Varavara Rao – in case your jail censors think it’s a code for something). Putting that grand 81-year-old poet in jail is like putting a modern monument in jail. The news about his health is very worrying. After days of ill health that largely went ignored, he has tested Covid positive and has been admitted into hospital. His family who visited him says that he was lying alone and unattended on soiled sheets, that he is incoherent and unable to walk. Incoherent! VV! The man who thought nothing of addressing crowds of tens thousands, the man whose poems fired the imagination of millions in Andhra and Telengana, and all across India.
I fear for VV’s life, just as I fear for yours. Many of the others accused in the Bhima Koregaon case – “the Bhima Koregaon eleven” – are not very well and are extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 too. Vernon Gonsalves who looked after VV in prison must be at particularly grave risk. Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde were in the same prison too. But again and again the courts refuse bail. Then there’s Akhil Gogoi locked up in Gauhati who has tested positive.
What a small-hearted, cruel, intellectually fragile (or should we just go ahead and say fearsomely stupid) regime we are ruled by. How pathetic it is for the government of a country as vast as ours to be so scared of its own writers and scholars.
Just a few months ago it really seemed that things were going to change. Millions came out against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. Students especially. It was thrilling. There was music, poetry and love in the air. A rebellion at least at last – even if not a revolution. You would have loved it.
But it has all ended badly. The entirely peaceful anti-CAA protestors are now being blamed for the massacre of 53 people in Northeast Delhi in February. That it was a planned attack is obvious from the videos of armed gangs of vigilantes, often backed by the police, rioting, burning and murdering their way through those working class neighbourhoods. The tension had been building for a while, so local people were not unprepared, and fought back.
But of course, as always, the victims have been turned into perpetrators. Under cover of the Covid lockdown, hundreds of young men, mostly Muslim, including several students, have been arrested in Delhi as well as Uttar Pradesh. There are rumours that some of the young folks who have been picked up are being forced to implicate other senior activists against whom the police have no real evidence.
The fiction writers are busy with an elaborate new story. The narrative is that the Delhi massacre was a grand conspiracy to embarrass the government while President Trump was in Delhi. The dates the police have come up with suggest that those plans were laid even before Trump’s visit was finalised – that’s how deeply entrenched in the White House anti CAA activists must be! And what kind of conspiracy was it? Protestors killing themselves in order to give the government a bad name?
Everything is upside down. It’s a crime to be murdered. They’ll file a case against your corpse and summon your ghost to the police station. As I write, news comes in from Araria in Bihar of a woman who has filed a police complaint saying she was gangraped. She has been arrested along with the women activists who were with her.
Some of the disturbing things that are happening don’t always have to do with bloodshed, lynching, mass killing and mass incarceration. A few days ago, a group of people – thugs – in Allahabad forcibly spray painted a whole row of private houses saffron and then covered them with huge images of Hindu deities against the wishes of the owners. For some reason, this made my blood run cold.
Truly, I don’t know how much further along this road India has left to go.
When you come out of prison you will find yourself in an utterly changed world. Covid-19 and the hastily called and ill thought-out lockdown has been devastating. Not just for the poor, for the middle class too. Including the Hindutva Brigade. Can you imagine giving a nation of 1.38 billion people just four hours’ notice (from 8 pm to midnight) before announcing a nation-wide curfew-like lockdown that went on for months?
Literally everything had to stop in its tracks, people, goods, machines, markets, factories, schools, universities. Smoke in chimneys, trucks on the roads, guests at weddings, treatment in hospitals. With absolutely no notice. This huge country was shut off like a clockwork toy whose spoilt rich kid owner just pulled out the key. Why? Because he could.
Covid-19 has turned out to be a kind of X-Ray that made visible the massive institutionalised injustices – of caste, class, religion and gender – that plague our society. Thanks to the disastrously planned lockdown, the economy has nearly collapsed, although the virus has travelled and thrived. It’s feels as though we’re living through a frozen explosion. The shattered pieces of the world as we knew it are all suspended in the air… we still don’t know where they will land and the real extent of the damage.
Millions of workers stranded in cities with no shelter, no food, no money and no transport walked for hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles home to their villages. As they walked they were beaten and humiliated by the police. Something about that exodus reminded me of John Steinbecks’ The Grapes of Wrath… I recently re-read it. What a book.
The difference between what happened in that novel (which is about the great migration during the years of the Depression in the US) and here, is what appears to be an almost complete absence of anger among the people here in India. Yes, there has been the occasional angry outburst, but nothing that couldn’t be managed. It’s almost chilling how everybody accepts their lot. How obedient people are. It must be such a comfort to the ruling class (and caste) – this seemingly endless capacity of ‘the masses’ to suffer and obey. But is this quality – this ability to accept suffering a blessing or a curse? I think about this a lot.
While millions of working-class people embarked on their long march home, the TV channels and the mainstream media suddenly discovered the phenomenon of the “migrant worker”. Many corporate-sponsored crocodile tears were shed at their plight, as reporters thrust microphones into peoples’ faces as they walked: “Where are you going? How much money do you have? How many days will you walk?”
But you, like so many of the others who have been imprisoned, campaigned for years against the very machine that created this dispossession and this poverty, the machine that ravaged the environment and forced people to flee their villages. While all of you who spoke up for justice – many of those same TV channels, in some cases those very same journalists and commentators – celebrated that machine. They denounced you, stigmatised you, labelled you. And now, while they weep their crocodile tears and worry about the negative 9.5% growth predicted for India’s GDP – all of you are in jail.
Even through those tears the applause in the media for every move this government makes never dies down. Occasionally it swells into a standing ovation. The first novel I read during the lockdown was Stalingrad by Vassily Grossman. (Grossman was on the frontlines with the Red Army. His second book, Life and Fate displeased the Soviet government and the manuscript was “arrested” – as though it was a human being.) It’s an audaciously ambitious book, the kind of audacity that cannot be taught in creative writing classes.
Anyway, the reason I thought of it is because of an extraordinary description in it of a meeting between a senior Nazi Army officer who has been flown in to Berlin from the frontlines of the war in Russia. The war has already begun to go very wrong for Germany, and the officer is meant to brief Hitler about the ground reality. But when he comes face to face with him, he is so terrified and so thrilled to meet his master that his mind shuts down. It scrabbles around furiously for ways to please the Fuehrer, to tell him what he wants to hear.
That’s what’s going on in our country. Perfectly competent brains are frozen with fear and the desire to flatter. Our collective IQ is plummeting. Real news doesn’t stand a chance.
Meanwhile the pandemic rages on. It’s not a coincidence that the winners of the sweepstakes for the worst-affected nations in the world are those led by the three geniuses of the early twenty-first century. Modi, Trump and Bolsonaro. Their motto, in the now immortal words of the Delhi Chief Minister (who has begun to buzz around the Bharatiya Janata Party like a pollinating bee) is: Hum ab friends hai na?
Trump is very likely to be voted out of office in November. But in India there’s no help on the horizon. The Opposition is crumbling. Leaders are quiet, cowed down. Elected state governments are blown away like froth on a cup of coffee. Treachery and defections are the subject of gleefully reported daily news. MLAs continue to be herded together and locked up in holiday resorts to prevent them from being bribed and bought over. I think that those that are up for sale should be publicly auctioned to the highest bidder. What do you say? Of what use are they to anybody? Let them go. And let’s face up to the real thing: we are, in effect, a One-Party Democracy ruled by two men. I don’t think many even realise that that’s an oxymoron.
During the lockdown so many middle-class people complained that they felt like they were in prison. But you of all people know how far from the truth that it. Those people were at home with their families (although for many, particularly women, that ended in all sorts of violence). They were able to communicate with their loved ones, they could go on with their work. They had phones. They had the internet. Not like you. And not like the people in Kashmir who have been under a sort of rolling lockdown and internet siege since August 5 last year when Section 370 was abrogated and the state of Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status and its Statehood.
If the two-month Covid lockdown has been such a huge blow to the economy in India, think of Kashmiris who have had to endure a military lockdown along with an internet siege that has lasted for the most part of a year. Businesses are collapsing, doctors are hard pressed to treat their patients, students are unable to attend online classes. Also, thousands of Kashmiris were jailed before August 5 last year. It was pre-emptive – preventive detention. Now those prisons full of people who have committed no crime, are becoming Covid incubators. How about that?
The abrogation of Section 370 was an act of hubris. Instead of settling the matter “once and for all” which was the boast, it has unleashed a sort of rumbling earthquake in the whole region. Big plates are moving and realigning themselves. According to those in the know, the Chinese PLA has crossed the border, the LAC, at several points in Ladakh, and occupied strategic positions. War with China is a whole different ballgame from war with Pakistan. So, the usual chest-thumping is little nuanced –more like gentle patting than thumping. Talks are on. So far of course, India is winning. On Indian TV. But off TV, a new world order is making itself known.
This letter is getting longer than I intended it to be. Let me say goodbye for now. Have courage dear friend. And patience. This injustice will not go on forever. Those prison doors will open and you will come back to us. Things cannot go on like this. If they do, the speed at which we are coming undone will develop a momentum of its own. We won’t need to do a thing. If that happens, it will be an epic tragedy on an unimaginable scale. But from the ruins hopefully something kinder and more intelligent will rise.