Living under undeclared emergency

Published: Aug 31, 2018, 07:31 IST | Rosalyn D'mello | Mumbai

Without our realising it, we have been surrendering, inadvertently, our basic rights as tax-paying citizens of a democratic republic

Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles in the film adaptation of The Trial, by Franz Kafka
Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles in the film adaptation of The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Rosalyn D'melloAs I lay in my bed in New Delhi yesterday morning, I found myself scrolling through my Instagram story feed on 'autopilot mode'. My eyes rested for a quick instant on a cartoon, but seconds before I could register its creator, the feed moved on and I'm not tech-savvy enough to know how to retrieve it, except from memory. There were two panels in a single frame; on the left was an image of a member of a lynch mob. On the right was the drawn figure of an activist.

The murderer on the left was scot-free and had been garlanded; a reference to a recent incident when a Harvard-educated minister, Jayant Sinha, offered sweets to and garlanded seven convicts sentenced to life by a Jharkhand court for lynching a man on suspicion of beef trading. Sinha had performed this grotesque, ceremonious gesture after the seven men had been granted bail. In the cartoon, the activist in the panel to the right had been imprisoned. It was a poignant, artful image, because within a span of just a few seconds it managed to communicate with great visual effectiveness how we are living in a dystopian time when the very idea of justice and humanity has been successfully inverted. The cartoon was clearly a response to the recent raids and arrest by the Pune police of human rights activists across six states in India.

I hate to admit this, but a few days before, when I was in highly animated conversation with close friends in Goa about the unenviable censorious climate in our country as well as in neighbouring Bangladesh, which, despite heavy international pressure, is still holding photojournalist Shahidul Alam captive for uttering obvious political truths, I had prophesised that the human rights situation had been getting progressively worse and would soon devolve into a Kafkaesque narrative where you wake up one morning to find you have been arrested on false grounds. This is how Franz Kafka's novel, The Trial, written between 1914 and 1915 and published in 1925 begins — "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested." From what I remember, Josef K. is never given a legitimate reason for his captivity. My friend wrote me off as being overly paranoid. "But it's happening," I told him. "I can feel it at my backdoor," I said, citing all the examples of recent murders of dissident journalists. My friend had been making the same mistake that many of us have been guilty of; imagining that we are living in a protective bubble that offers us immunity when instead the reality is that anyone whose ideology is not in sync with the mainstream right-wing narrative is equally vulnerable to the state's invasiveness.

The question that arises is an ostensibly simple one. How do we respond to this state of undeclared emergency, when our basic rights to freedom of religion and speech are being grossly violated? Do we cower down and restrain our voices or do we speak out and protest against these oppressions? What seems to escape many of us is that without our realising it, we have been surrendering, inadvertently and unintentionally, our basic rights as tax-paying citizens of a democratic republic. The biggest casualty already is our freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed to us by our constitution. Why? Because whether we accept it or not, all of us are beginning to engage in acts of self-censorship, which is the enemy of freedom and autocracy's biggest ally.

This has been possible because we are living in an era of great distractions, where we are all consumed by the mindlessness of capitalism. So many of us have distanced ourselves from the task of activism, the responsibility of every good citizen, because our lives are too entrenched with the business of clocking into work, offering our private data to enterprises that should have no business even demanding it (why should your local gym insist on an Aadhaar card in order to have you enrolled?), feeling the thrill of a regular salary and partying on weekends to seek momentary escape from the drudgery of it all. We are not woke enough to be aware of the atrocities that are being committed daily in our names by state. And the danger is that by the time we become conscious of our collective disempowerment, it will be too late.

If we do nothing, if we say nothing, if we pretend that none of what is happening affects us or has no immediate bearing on our lives, we are not just being delusional, we are registering our complicity. (What if the reason Josef K. was arrested was precisely because he had done nothing?) If we stay silent and accept the unspoken doctrine of self-censorship, then we will have deserved the fate that will befall us. We must not allow for state oppression to become normalised reality. Collective resistance is our only hope and remedy.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to

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