India 2020: Through Orwell's eyes

Updated: 28 September, 2020 07:28 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

George Orwell's 1934 novel, Burmese Days, narrates a sub-divisional magistrate's quest to paint his opponent, a doctor close to the British, as disloyal in the contest to enter the local European Club

Sushant Singh Rajput's former partner, Rhea Chakraborty at the NCB office. File pic
Sushant Singh Rajput's former partner, Rhea Chakraborty at the NCB office. File pic

Ajaz AshrafRead George Orwell's Burmese Days to fathom the Indian state's propensity under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to calumniate his opponents as seditious and portray Bollywood as the "citadel of drugs." Set in Kyauktada, a town in Burma, then a part of the British Indian Empire, the novel has U Po Kyin, a sub-divisional magistrate, compete with Dr Veraswami to enter the local European Club, which is to choose for the first time a native as its member. Kyin is enormously wealthy, but cannot match the doctor in prestige due to his proximity to the British. Kyin decides to sully his rival's image.

Accusing Dr Veraswami of corruption is pointless, Kyin tells his cabal, because the British expect the natives to take bribes. "Clearly, then, it must be disloyalty — nationalism, seditious propaganda," Kyin tells his factotum. "We must persuade the Europeans that the doctor holds disloyal, anti-British opinions." The factotum disagrees, saying it would be hard to prove Dr Veraswami's disloyalty to the British.

"Nonsense, nonsense," Kyin responds. "No European cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof. A few anonymous letters will work wonders. It is only a question of persisting; accuse, accuse, go on accusin..." Anonymous letters are written to British officials informing them of a rebellion brewing in Thongwa village, near Kyauktada, in which the doctor's role is hinted at.

Orwell's Burmese Days was published in 1934, yet it remains relevant to comprehend the psychology susceptible to suspicion. There are obvious differences between 1934 and 2020 — it is the government, not an individual, which is spearheading the campaign of calumny; it is the people, in whom sovereignty vests, who are to be persuaded that they are buffeted by seditious sentiments. Their anxiety endorses morally wrong action against the suspect.

"Accuse, accuse, go on accusing," this is what the state under Modi has been doing. From pooh-poohing the protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act, to demonising them as opponents of Hindus, to accusing them of triggering communal riots in Delhi to bring the nation into disrepute. In India 2020, the media, particularly the TV, serves the same function of fanning suspicion as anonymous letters in Burmese Days, as was done against the activists incarcerated in the Bhima Koregaon violence case.

Kyin's desire to enter the European Club has him construct a narrative based on innuendos. The Bharatiya Janata Party's quest to win the forthcoming Bihar Assembly elections has had the state-media-ruling party dress the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput as murder, then as a soul driven to desperation by his partner, Rhea Chakraborty, and then as a victim of Bollywood's drug culture. Rhea would get him marijuana that accentuated his bipolarity. She is to blame for his suicide, declared the media. The state agreed.

A lie cannot be believed without dressing it with the frills of reality. In Burmese Days, Kyin tells his wife, "I have accused Veraswami of raising a rebellion against the government. Well, I must have a rebellion to show." He discloses he has plotted and financed a rebellion in Thongwa village. "At that very moment when it is due to start, I shall pounce on the ringleaders and clap every one of them into jail," he declares, certain his display of loyalty to the British will enhance his prestige.
What about Dr Veraswami? With the anonymous letters already having seeded doubts about his loyalty, Kyin declares, "Of course we shall never prove that he is responsible for it; but what does that matter? All the Europeans will take it for granted that he is mixed up in it somehow. That is how their minds work."

That is also how the collective mind still works in India 2020. Whoever remembers busloads of men swooping down on Northeast Delhi, their faces concealed by handkerchiefs or helmets, their backpacks full of stones? Or that the police stood as bystanders as rioters lynched people? From yesterday's Marxist poster boy Umar Khalid to Khalid Saifi, from Gulfisha Fatima and Ishrat Jahan to Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, the charge sheets against them in the Delhi riots are designed to have us believe that they are "mixed up in it somehow."

Following the dictum of "accuse, accuse, go on accusing," yet another charge sheet filed last week takes a giant leap to allege that the Delhi riots were orchestrated to "uproot" the Modi government through violence. Prodding them on, the police claimed, was a slew of intellectuals and politicians such as Prof Apoorvanand, Kavita Krishnan and Salman Khurshid. In Mumbai, too, the state has exploited the working of the collective mind to suggest that actors such as Deepika Padukone are "mixed up in it [drug cartels] somehow."

Kyin tell his wife, "He (Dr Veraswami] will be ruined for life. And his fall is my rise. The blacker I can paint him, the more glorious my own conduct will appear." In India 2020, the state believes that the blacker it paints the innocent, the stronger Modi will become — so what if the innocent are destroyed! But then, as Burmese Days shows, life has one final twist none can control.

The writer is a senior journalist

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First Published: 28 September, 2020 06:20 IST

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