Emergency and Dystopia
Darkness at noon
As we commemorate the suspension of democracy during the emergency in 1975, it is disturbing to note that today the police are on a spree to arrest and detain people and send them to jail as arbitrarily as then.
Police knock at the door of students, journalists and social activists; one can be charged for expressing one’s views on television, or posting comments on social media. An FIR that named four people, subsequently bailed for those offences, continues to swell adding more people to it, who cannot hope to get released for at least seven years, as sections under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act have been added to the original FIR later on.
A chief justice of the Supreme Court, accused of sexual harassment, becomes a lawmaker on his retirement. The attorney general calls journalists vultures while two prominent human rights activists are sent to jail because they are said to be linked with another case relating to a conspiracy to kill the prime minister – straight from the plot of the novel Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.
Is this the normal functioning of law in a society? Is it not worse than emergency, perhaps close to dystopia?
For one, the emergency was a short-term abuse of power that even the rulers of the time were certain would come to an end, but the present rulers consider themselves to be mandated for at least another three years – not withstanding the fact that they represent below eighteen percent of the Indian electorate.
Secondly, the emergency represented political repression, but the present is riddled with social aggression and economic depression as well.
Third, after the emergency the judiciary emerged as a strident watchdog of fundamental rights and freedoms, with litigation in the public interest becoming a norm; but lately it has let people down, failing to come to their rescue, uphold their rights, and at times, showing apparent hostility against human rights defenders.
Evidently it is not a normal state of affairs in a democracy – but how have we arrived at this scary state? Do we as people lack the reason and intellect to chafe at a controlled society? Or have we fallen prey to doublethink and self-destructive amnesia?
Perhaps the later is true, as signified in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell.
Doublespeak is a powerful weapon for changing thought of individual, effectively practised to steer social narratives for the objective of gaining and remaining in power. It just needs an enemy ‘other’ like the brotherhood in the novel, or urban naxals or Muslims in India today.
Orwell’s Oceania is a state where doublethink is the norm, which Orwell defined as ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them’.
For example, Gandhi is father of the nation, Nathuram Godse was a true Hindu and a Nationalist; Gandhiji was a great soul, Gandhi was a chatur bania (cunning businessman); Savarkar was a great patriot, he only apologised to the British for release as a tactical move.
As Orwell puts it, in Oceania, the ruling party’s ideology is a socialism that “rejects and vilifies every principle for which the socialist movement originally stood, and it does so in the name of socialism.”
By stigmatising Muslims, Hindutva proponents reject a foundational principle of Hinduism, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam meaning “the world is one family”, and do so in the name of Hinduism.
While at play doublethink becomes doublespeak, which Orwell describes as, “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed.”
For instance, the government denies the CAA is anti-Muslim and anti-human, but defends building more detention camps where Muslim families are not permitted to leave, even in case of a death in the family, and children are separated from their mothers.
In Oceania, the government manipulates statistics, stigmatises opposition and arouses hate. Recent media coverage of Shaheen Bagh comes close to how Emmanuel Goldstein, the opposition leader in the novel, is portrayed as a traitor and even dedicated a daily “two minutes’ hate” session, the same as some news channels devote prime time to targeted hatred, branding civil rights activists as “anti-national” before they can be attacked or imprisoned.
This is further buttressed with millions of volunteers, led by the IT wing of the ruling party, which like Orwell’s “ministry of truth” lace the social media news with hate propaganda to distort the reality, accomplishing the belief that “one who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
The police while filing FIRs against CAA protestors is relying on conjectures as in Oceania where Thinkpol (the thought police) on suspicion detect, torture and kill thought criminals, citizens whose intellectual, mental, and moral independence challenges the political orthodoxy of Ingsoc.
They spy on the people through ubiquitous two-way telescreens. The Indian government’s National Intelligence Grid and facial recognition system is capable of doing the same, not to mention the corporations and intelligence agencies from where our devices come.
So, when the police raid people’s houses, seizing cell phones and computers, they have already established guilt by thought and association as they know with whom the “seditious” have spoken and when. They invent and insert the ‘why’ part of it themselves.
In the country today, the ruling group seems to be demanding doublethink from people, and those who do not agree with or resist these directions are beaten, jailed or killed as per their position in society’s hierarchies.
In this nightmare, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbe may not be the last yet, as ever unfolding events demonstrate.
So where does this leave us as a nation today? What do we do and whom do we trust? What do the writers, intellectuals and artists of the country do? Think, resist, exhort and prevail, or capitulate to doublethink and lose their humanity?
These are interesting questions that each society answers for itself in its own way.
A version of this article was published in Outlook. Pushkar Raj is a Melbourne based researcher and author. Earlier, he taught in Delhi University and was national general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties