A man we should be ‘obsessed with’: Arundhati Roy on K Balagopal

At the 13th Balagopal memorial meeting, the Booker prize winner said that many of the people she used to share the stage with in such events are now languishing in jail.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Oct 10, 2022 | 8:05 AM Updated Mar 03, 2023 | 5:04 PM

A Chandrasekhar, K Sudha, Kalpana Kannabiran, Jaha Ara, Mihir Desai. Arundhathi Roy, Clifton D’ Rozario, and S Thrirupathaiah at the 13th K Balagopal memorial meeting with ‘Court theerpulu samajika nyayam’, a book containing essays written by the iconic human rights activist

A packed hall with competition for seats and slogans hailing K Balagopal greeted us at the 13th memorial meeting for the iconic human rights activist held at Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad on Sunday, 9 October, in which writer Arundhati Roy and others spoke on combating Hindutva.

Senior advocate Mihir Desai of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) said he had interacted with Balagopal, read his works in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and other places, and admired him from a distance.

But he added that he “didn’t realise the kind of love Balagopal evokes even 13 years after his death till this meeting”.

Desai, who is representing many of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, quipped that his would have been a life well-lived if there were half as many people at his funeral.

‘When are you going to get our Varavara Rao back?’

K Sudha, general secretary, Andhra Pradesh, Human Rights Forum (HRF) — which Balagopal co-founded — while introducing Desai, asked the lawyer, “When are you going to get our Varavara Rao from Bombay back to Hyderabad?”

“I wish I knew the answer to the question. The only thing I can say is very soon. Not cosmic time, I am referring to normal time,” Desai replied.

Telugu poet-activist Varavara Rao, who was imprisoned in the Bhima Koregaon case in 2018, was granted regular bail by the Supreme Court in August 2022 on medical grounds on the condition that he does not leave Mumbai.

Earlier, writer Arundhathi Roy noted that many of the people she used to share the stage with in such meetings are now languishing in jail.

The RSS ideologues have openly embraced fascism while we are debating it, she said.

Mentioning the incident in which Muslim men who allegedly disrupted a garba event in Gujarat were publicly flogged by plainclothes policemen, the Booker prize winner said, “We don’t have any time to recover, we are flooded with things to be outraged about.”

Related: K Balagopal, polymath whose name has become a synonym for human rights

Arundhati remembers mother Mary Roy

At the beginning of her speech at the Balagopal memorial meeting, Arundhati Roy noted the love for the human rights activist among the audience and said, “If we should be obsessed with anybody, we should be obsessed with him.”

She added that it had been a very difficult month for her as she had just lost her mother Mary Roy.

“We had a very interesting relationship. I kept saying that we couldn’t be together in a room for too long as it was too dangerous, two nuclear powers,” she said.

“A lot of who I am and how I am have been because of her. … My entire life she was the obstacle race that I was negotiating. I structured myself around her, her cruelties and kindness, and now that she is gone, I am a little unsure of why I am structured in this way,” Roy added.

Related: A personal encounter with Mary Roy – over 30 years ago

Related: A fighter to the core who saved Syrian Christian women from discriminatory succession law

‘There is still hope’

Both Roy and Clifton D’ Rozario, Central Committee Member of CPI(ML) Liberation who spoke before her during the Balagopal memorial meeting, while noting that fascism had reached alarming proportions, touched on hope.

“Now watching election results is like watching a BMW racing a bullock cart, economically. The only thing is bullock carts and cycles can go to places that BMWs can’t. So that’s our hope,” said Roy.

Clifton mentioned visiting the home of a “very good activist” in a slum. While coming out, he noticed a map of Akhand Bharat outside the door of the activist and realised that the RSS had made inroads there.

If you sell the people a mythic past when they were once glorious, then you can take away their future and crush them, said Roy.

Arundhati Roy with others at the K Balagopal memorial meeting

(From Left) K Anuradha, Jaha Ara, M Apparao, Sarat Marpu, K Dinesh, Arundhati Roy, Ahmad Valli, Clifton D’ Rozario, Mihir Desai, and Mohammad Rahman with posters against the privatisation of the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant. Apparao, Sarat, Dinesh, Ahmad, and Rahman are from the steel plant and also part of HRF, Visakhapatnam (Ajay Tomar/South First)

Clifton noted how his organisation has helped women sanitation workers in Karnataka and said they were now questioning patriarchy, caste, and class oppression. “Now there is no chance of the RSS getting a hold among them,” he added.

“We are facing a fascist force. A single entity can’t fight them. We need unity, not just in elections,” Clifton told South First after his talk at the Balagopal memorial meeting.

“This is not an irresistible fascism. This is a fascism that can be thrown out hook, line, and sinker,” Clifton said and quoted the famous saying, “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.”

Modi, Gandhi, and two castes

Clifton highlighted “wage theft” when the national Covid lockdown was suddenly announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March 2020 and noted that lakhs of workers were robbed of their salaries for the month.

He criticised Modi for extolling wealth creators and said neoliberal policies came from this mindset. To laughter from the audience, Clifton mentioned the PM’s remarks that there will be “only two castes in this country: the first caste is the poor, and the second is of people who contribute whatever little to free the country from poverty”.

Roy noted that it was Mahatma Gandhi’s idea, not Modi’s.

Books, memorial meeting, and K Balagopal

Outside the venue of the memorial meeting, many books written by Balagopal and others were being sold.

A Telugu book ‘Court Theerpulu Samajika Nyayam’ (Social Justice in Court Verdicts) containing Balagopal’s thoughts on various judgments was released before the meeting started.

Book by K Balagopal at the 13th Memorial Meeting in Hyderabad

‘Court theerpulu samajika nyayam’, a Telugu book containing K Balagopal’s thoughts on court judgments (Prasanna RS/South First)

Speaking about the book by Balagopal, sociologist and lawyer Kalpana Kannabiran said that in one of the essays, the human rights activist wrote about the kidnap of Kannada film star Rajkumar and contrasted it with around 50 villagers charged under a draconian act at the same time.

“He speaks about judgments [in the book] in a very easy and simple language,” she added.

Clifton remembered a meeting on caste that he went to with Balagopal. The latter spread his bedsheets and started selling books. Those who hadn’t met him earlier thought he was a book vendor till the time Balagopal went inside to deliver his talk, Clifton said.

“Our love for Balagopal is why we turn up year after year,” Sudha from HRF noted.