In what is arguably his most memorable and increasingly his most relevant novel worldwide, 1984, George Orwell coined the term “thoughtcrime”—it was a reference to social and political ideologies that were not in keeping with that of the ruling regime. Even before social media was imagined, intellectual activity of any kind—possession of certain books, love of particular music, a gathering of kindred souls, even voicing opinions—could be criminalised, not only in Oceania but in the real world. We have seen it happen in the USSR before it was Russia, in Iran after 1979, in China since the 1960s, and now countries which claim to be democracies have found ways to criminalise thought.
It has been more than five years since the landmark judgment of the Delhi High Court in the Priya Parameswaran Pillai case was pronounced. The court deemed that attaching oneself to a cause cannot be considered “anti-national”—a phrase which, along with “national interest”, the court pointed out was not to be found in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India. And yet, it has become quite common for activists to be accused of “defaming India” every time they try to bring international attention to human rights violations.
Environmental activist Disha Ravi was arrested on February 13, six days after the Prime Minister spoke of an “international conspiracy” at his election rallies, albeit without mentioning her by name. The police would repeat this phrase multiple times during her bail hearing, which took place ten days after her arrest. The only thing she has been proven to have done was edit a “toolkit” with ideas for hashtags and demonstrations in support of the ongoing farmers’ protest in Delhi.
The charges under which she was arrested were ripped apart by the additional sessions judge who heard her bail plea, Dharmender Rana, who referred to the evidence produced by the police as “scanty and sketchy”.
However, before his intervention, the 22-year-old had already spent more than a week in jail, alone and frightened and far from her hometown and family. Lawyer Rebecca Mammen John has alleged that Disha Ravi was remanded in police custody for five days in the absence of legal representation. She is not the only one to have been detained for a considerable period without trial.
The think tank Observer Research Foundation published a report in August 2015, stating that 67.6 per cent of India’s prisoners are under-trials. Union Minister of State for Home, G Kishan Reddy, confirmed that several thousand people are detained each year under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA)—5922 from 2016 to 2019, with only 132 convictions.
Among them are several activists from the Kabir Kala Manch, students and alumni of Jamia Millia Islamia University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, as well as journalists, academics, poets and tribal rights activists (including senior citizens). In their bail hearings, the courts have repeatedly taken jail authorities to task for denying the under-trials access to their lawyers and medical care. The police regularly insist the detainees are “influential” and would be able to tamper with evidence if released—although some of them are bedridden.
It is mandatory that charge sheets must be filed against detainees within 90 days, and yet many have been in prison for between six months and several years. Often, they are slapped with multiple cases, and while being granted bail in one at a time, continue to remain in jail over other alleged offences.
Things have come to such a pass that one must be careful even in speaking about what is going on in the country at the moment.
Justice Rana made a pronouncement that is reassuring to those who believe in democracy and freedom of speech, and damning to those who believe in thought control. He said:
“In my considered opinion, citizens are conscience keepers of the government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies.”
However, several laws have been passed over the last few decades that do allow the authorities to put people behind bars by invoking offences that will allow for detention without the sanction of the court until much later. The UAPA was first introduced in 1967, with amendments in 1986, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2019 making it progressively more stringent, and blurring the boundaries between sedition and freedom of expression.
Justice Rana said: “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments. Difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognised legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies. An aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy.”
He also dismissed the allegations that Disha had created a WhatsApp group and edited what he termed “an innocuous toolkit”, stating that these could not be offences, and that participation in peaceful protests could not be termed seditious activity.
While the contents of the First Information Report filed by the police have been derided by legal experts, it is alarming that someone could be held in custody for ten days under accusations that were brushed away by the judge. Any largescale protest could include the participation of some people who are associated with banned organisations. But does that imply everyone who is involved in organising the protest has personal ties with those banned outfits? And can being in touch with someone about a particular issue amount to conspiring on all matters with which that person is concerned?
If that is the case, we do live in an era of thoughtcrime.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com