Author and political activist Arundhati Roy on missing India's election — and being a lifelong agitator

The CBC's Nahlah Ayed speaks to author and political activist Arundhati Roy on the eve of India's election results.

'I would not be able to be the writer that I am if I didn't feel part of this place, part of the argument'

Arundhati Roy at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York, on May 12. (Beowulf Sheehan/PEN America)

UPDATE (May 23, 2019): Narendra Modi's party declared victory on Thursday after a massive, multi-week election. Click here to learn more.

"India is fighting for her soul."

Arundhati Roy spoke those words in New York City — during her speech at the PEN World Voices Festival — on the very day she could have been voting in India's mammoth general election

The author and political activist has long been an outspoken voice against Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. 

But Roy wasn't able to vote. Her appearance at the annual event celebrating international literature had been confirmed long before India's voting schedule — which took place over six weeks across the country — set May 12 as voting day in New Delhi. 

On Wednesday, during a sit-down interview at her home in the Indian capital, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed asked Roy what it was like not to be able to cast her ballot. 

Roy tells Nahlah Ayed that being an agitator doesn't disrupt her life — it is her life. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC News)

Arundhati Roy: I was sad about it although, realistically, I've been voting against these people for 20 years in my writing. I think that even that talk I gave — it was published everywhere — it's worth more than my standing in line and voting, you know? I think if I wasn't a writer and if I didn't know that my work was so widely read, I'd have felt really bad because that would have … my vote would have meant something huge to me. Now I know that, in a way, I did vote by giving that talk.

Nahlah Ayed: You've made some quite specific predictions about how this election might go … and I know you have been watching, or have watched, the exit polls. I'm just wondering how you square those two or if you can, whether you believe the exit polls at all?

Well, I don't believe them. I can't tell whether I'm just being delusional, stubborn, ridiculous, you know? But I simply can't believe them, I can't get myself to believe them. Because up to the time the exit polls came, even when Modi was giving his press conference, you could just see defeat on his face. So what is actually going on now is pretty mysterious in some ways to me. There's a lot of anxiety, I mean of course it's been coming for a while, a lot of anxiety over the capture of these voting machines and so on. I don't know, I think that they're going to lose still, I think they're going to lose. I mean no one's going to win, I don't think anybody's going to win. I think there's going to be a lot of negotiations … My instinct says that the exit polls are wrong but maybe I'm wrong, you know. Maybe one's so anxious that one just can't believe it.

How would you describe the status of the media here?

There is no possibility of real news. It's always weighted in somebody's favour. And right now, I mean, how they've behaved after the Pulwama attack … I don't know if anywhere in the world you would have so many 24-hour news channels just pouring out absolute viciousness and actually goading a country to war. A nuclear-armed country to war with another nuclear-armed country. I mean that's so irresponsible.

And the fake news is something that has been extremely troubling. I mean fake news has led to lynchings and so on here, we haven't spoken about the lynching. But the thing is …  this whole Hindutva project [Modi's "Hindu first" strategy], it's trying to carve out a political majority from a society that doesn't have a majority. Every Indian actually is a member of a minority in some way: caste, or ethnicity, or religion, or language. Everyone of us is actually a minority. So you try and make — to confect — a majority. And the inclusion — as well as the exclusion — results in a great deal of violence. You lynch one person, and an entire community goes into fear ....

The most terrifying thing about this election is that while people like me and individuals are talking about the lynchings, are talking about communalism, no political party has because everybody's frightened of losing the Hindu vote. So everybody is sort of tiptoeing around what is really sitting there and looking at you in absolute horror.

It's an incredibly conscious decision to, for lack of a better word, to disrupt your life, to be an agitator or someone who speaks up. Do you not get tired of it sometimes?

I'm not disrupting my life. This is my life. I would not be able to be the writer that I am if I didn't feel part of this place, part of the argument, part of what many of us are doing, you know? I would not be true to my writing self. So certainly it's not a disruption of my life — it is my life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Watch the full interview: 

Author Arundhati Roy speaks to Nahlah Ayed

4 years ago
Duration 10:09
Author and political activist Arundhati Roy tells Nahlah Ayed how it felt to not vote in India's election, what fake news has led to in her country, and whether it's tiring to be the one who always speaks up.


  • A previous version of this story quoted Roy as referring to communism in one of her answers, rather than the correct term, communalism.
    May 23, 2019 1:45 PM ET