India Journal: What If Arundhati Roy Won the Nobel Peace Prize?

"This year’s Nobel Peace Prize goes to Arundhati Roy for championing the cause of oppressed minorities in India, particularly Kashmiris and Maoists."

This may be a dream for some and a nightmare for others but how would Indians react to this scenario? After all, in recent years, to most observers, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has been making bold and politically charged statements in their choice of laureates. So it would not be an outlandish possibility if Ms. Roy were to win or at any rate be shortlisted in the near future.

Much has been said, mostly critical, of China’s reaction to the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. China has called him a "criminal" guilty of "inciting subversion of state power" and doing "everything possible to sabotage China’s development and stability." Many national leaders, much of the international media and political activists all over the world think of Mr. Xiaobo as a champion of human rights and democracy through non-violent protest and therefore fully deserving of this prize.

Optics are everything and all depends on your perspective. Outside India, Ms. Roy is a darling of social activists on the left but is decried and reviled by many in India for her provocative statements that appear to question what many consider sacrosanct Indian values. Most recently, at a convention of political activists on Kashmir, she stated that Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. And earlier this year, she made remarks that were widely construed as sympathetic to the Maoist insurgency.

The point of this comparison is not at all to suggest that Ms. Roy’s position in India is similar to Mr. Xiaobo’s position in China. The point is rather that one’s perspective matters. It’s very easy to cast China in the role of the villain because it’s both an authoritarian state and an illiberal one, to say nothing of a rising economic and military power, a combination which alarms many in the West and in India, too.

But it would be illogical to conclude that since India is a democracy that automatically makes us a liberal society. Take, for example, as reported by The Economist, customs officials offended by a map of Asia that doesn’t accord with the official Indian view of how Kashmir should be depicted, recently seized a consignment of copies of the Financial Times and The Economist, preventing their distribution. As a second recent example, a college lecturer was arrested in Kashmir on charges that he gave his students an exam containing questions attacking India’s crackdown on recent demonstrations.

The fact that democracy and liberalism are often at odds is a point made by Fareed Zakaria in his book "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad." The thrust of his argument is that democracy by itself is no guarantor of individual liberty. In fact, it can be the opposite, often throwing up authoritarian populists or extreme nationalists, as Mr. Zakaria suggests.

It’s striking that the reactions of many in the Indian political class to Ms. Roy’s comments on Kashmir had a flavor similar to Chinese official criticism of Mr. Xiaobo. Even the erstwhile liberal internationalist Shashi Tharoor said that she had gone too far to the left and "hinted" that her comments on Kashmir could be construed as seditious. Indeed, Ms. Roy faces the possibility of charges of sedition under a colonial-era law that is still on the books.

It’s not just the political elites but many people at large, as expressed for instance in social media, who found her comments offensive, some suggesting that she was instigating communal tensions that threaten Indian national identity and the integrity of the state. It doesn’t sound very different from the official Chinese reaction to Mr. Xiaobo, does it? Since political discourse is suppressed in China, it’s hard to gauge the public sympathy for him versus the government’s condemnation.

The hugely important difference between the two cases, of course, is that Ms. Roy is not languishing in prison or in a labor camp. Indian democracy, flawed though it may be, self-evidently is more liberal than Chinese authoritarianism could ever be. But it’s not black or white. Saying something outside the accepted range of political discourse may not automatically land you in jail in India, but the fear of facing a sedition charge under a vague and opaque law surely must have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

Back to the original question. In the hypothetical but not implausible event that Ms. Roy gets "that" phone call from Oslo, what will be the reaction in India? How would you react? Would you take it as a symbol of the triumph of our democracy or a black mark on Indian national identity? Would you feel proud or outraged? Share your thoughts.

-Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, based in Mumbai, is an economist writing on the political economy of India.
(Wall Street Journal)