It is humanly impossible for even the most learned judge to have read every book referred to in their court. For a brief while this week, the judge conducting the trial of activist Vernon Gonsalves, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon incident of 2018, became an example of this. That was until the judge clarified that he is, in fact, aware of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his epical novel War and Peace.
His response when the Bhima Koregaon charge sheet was placed before his court proves he knew of the provenance and contents of War and Peace. The confusion, it now appears, arose because the charge sheet had mentioned another book with a similar title. That is how the judge had ended up asking Gonsalves’ lawyers why their client possessed a book about wars in “other countries.”
It is not the judge’s knowledge of great literature but his belief that books about wars in other countries should not be owned (or read) by Indians that is a bigger surprise. Of course, since that remark, many commentators have pointed out that Tolstoy’s writings supported peace and not war. Accordingly, Mahatma Gandhi’s long correspondence with the literary legend is being highlighted afresh.
That said, this is not the first time that judges have expressed a curious indifference to the value of the written word, whether fictional or literary. The question arises, how can we tell if this incident is an aberration or the tip of an iceberg of flimsy excuses to keep people behind bars.
Criminalising the mere possession of books or literature is not new. Even a children’s magazine has fallen prey to this old tried and tested tactic of the ruling establishment. The eminent lawyer AG Noorani, in a thought-provoking article, has shared details of the effect these kinds of overzealous trials have on dalits and Muslims. “Muzamil Jaleel exposed the patently ridiculous evidence on which Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) members were targeted in The Indian Express (September 25, 26 and 28, 2012). The ‘evidence’ could be just anything—a children’s magazine, Urdu poetry, a newspaper, just anything could land the person targeted by the police in jail. Iftikhar Gilani was put in prison and tortured for being in possession of literature that is freely available in the public domain.”
These events are criticised not just by Noorani but many others, each time these happen.
Consider again the Bhima Koregaon case and the manner in which those accused in it were arrested. Simultaneous nationwide raids on their houses and arrests had created a national uproar. One of those raided by the police was noted scholar K Satyanarayana, apparently because he happened to be the son-in-law of one of the accused in the same case, the poet Varavara Rao.
Satyanarayana is dean of the department of cultural studies and inter-disciplinary studies at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. He has many publications to his credit from India and abroad and yet was treated like a “terrorist”.
“They were picking all material that was printed in red or had mentions of dalits, caste or photos of Karl Marx,” Satyanarayana said at the time. “We draw conclusions after extensive reading, but they were asking why we read all these books.” His wife Pavana also said about the police’s behaviour: “They even said that if we read so many books we might be dangerous.”
Or, revisit this experience from more than a decade ago. Delhi-based book distributors Daanish Books, who used to organise book exhibitions of progressive literature around the country, faced the high-handedness of the police at their stall at in Deekshabhoomi, a site in Nagpur that the Buddhists consider sacred and also the place where Bhimrao Ambedkar, the first law minister and Dalit leader, converted to Buddhism.
“The police arrived with a random list of books that it perceived as ‘dangerous’. The books that were then confiscated make for interesting reading. These included the Marathi translation of Thoughts of Bhagat Singh, Ramdeen Ka Sapna by BD Sharma, Jati Vyavastha- Bhartiya Kranti Ki Khasiyat by Vaskar Nandy, Monarchy vs Democracy by Baburam Bhattarai, Nepali Samargaatha: Maowadi Janyuddha ka Aankhon Dekha Vivaran (Hindi translation of the eminent American Journalist Li Onesto’s celebrated book Dispatches from the People’s War in Nepal, translated by Anand Swarup Varma), Daliton par Badhati Jyadatiya aur Unka Krantikari Jawab, Chhapamar Yudhha by Che Guevara and books on Marxism and Leninism and people’s struggles.”
Only ceaseless pressure exerted by the international community on the state government of Maharashtra could stop the book distributor from facing severe trouble under draconian provisions of anti-terrorist laws of the time.
The law in such cases is explicit. Mere statements, or just possessing a book or compilation of literature does not automatically implicate the person in whose possession it is. Nor does it make the owner liable in any “militant” or “terrorist” act. As the Supreme Court has noted in 2016, while hearing the case of Binayak Sen: “No case of sedition is made out on the basis of materials in possession unless you show that he was actively helping or harbouring Maoists.”
Yet, reality seems to be at variance with this position even after it is explicitly stated and re-affirmed. The powers that be buy time to prolong detentions by presenting feeble charges that someone was in possession of “explosive” literature.
Every Establishment Dreads Books
Books are not compilations of printed material but carriers of ideas that can get people to start thinking about their circumstances. Perhaps the rulers have drawn the proper lesson from history.
Take the case of the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly, an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel that helped lay the “groundwork for the (American) Civil War”.
The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be gauged from the fact that it made it to the list of best-selling novels of the 19th century. It was the second most sold book of the century, after only the Bible. Its strength was how it illustrated the effect of slavery on families. That helped readers empathise with the enslaved characters in the book.
In the 1950s, the American poet-activist Langston Hughes called Uncle Tom’s Cabin a “moral battle cry for freedom”. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, had greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 by saying, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
In the late 18th century, the Parisian police also put writers and artists under surveillance along with criminals and political figures. The protectors of internal security of the day knew that the men of letters—Victor Hugo, Honore De Balzac and Charles Dickens—though they write fiction, kept a sharp focus on the hypocrisy of the aristocrats of their time.
How the French police went about surveillance is recorded in La Police des Ecrivains or Writers’ Police by Bruno Fuligni, published in 2006. An employee of the French Parliament, Fuligni uncovered archives of the Parisian police to detail how even the greatest writers (Paul Verlaine, Jules Valles, Victor Hugo) who were living in Paris at that time, were kept under surveillance.
The agenda for the surveillance was very specific. It was to protect the tottering regime of the day. In France, the powers that be feared fiction that highlights everyday issues of ordinary people. It was felt that they were adding to the growing turmoil in the country. They knew all too well that this fiction for the masses was turning out to be a critique with a sharp political edge. The writing was hitting the right target and becoming a catalyst for change.
History is witness that all the meticulous efforts of the police to curtail ideas prove futile. Events like the French Revolution still occurred, becoming beacons of hope for all thinking people. Once again, ideas are being criminalised and the independence of thought is being discouraged. Yet, as a dialogue in a recent Bollywood movie reminds us—‘apna time aayega’—our time will come. This could well be a slogan for hope in the future.
Subhash Gatade is an activist and scholar. Views are personal.