George Orwell, how did you know?

From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE - FREEDOM IS SLAVERY - IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

George Orwell
George Orwell

Akanksha Biradar

Happy 121st Birthday to Eric Arthur Blair (born on 25 June 1903) an English novelist, poet, essayist, journalist, and critic with one of the most famous pen names ever, George Orwell.

Today seems like a good day to consider why Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 continues to be relevant, now more than ever, especially for us in India.

In this fiction inspired by the Cold War, the world is vaguely divided into three totalitarian states marred by constant war. In the Oceania bloc an all-seeing Party, headed by a ‘Big Brother’ dictates a grim uniform society where Winston, a low-level party member is employed to rewrite history to match the ever-changing official version of events.

Under the banner of the Party’s ideology— ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’—Winston propagates a new truth every day. Spun in a whirlwind of disinformation, the members of the states are trained from a young age to believe in post-truth politics.

Cut to India, circa 2024. Over the last decade, i.e., since the BJP came into power in 2014, the National Council of Education and Training (NCERT) has ‘updated’ (read: rewritten) school textbooks four times. These textbooks no longer mention the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, nor the Advani-led BJP’s Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya.

Instead, an account of political tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities over an unnamed ‘three-dome structure’ and ‘Shri Ram Janmabhoomi’ is narrated in two pages.

The latest edition does not mention the role of kar sevaks in demolishing the mosque or the communal violence in its wake. President’s rule in BJP-ruled states; the BJP’s expression of “regret over the happenings at Ayodhya” are also omitted.

Since 2019, the NCERT has revised 182 textbooks. A chapter on violent caste conflicts was dropped from Class 9 textbooks. The history of caste oppression, and the dangers of communal politics were no longer deemed worthy of class discussion.

‘Ignorance is strength’ might well bethe slogan that this organisation, with its avowed mission of working towards the ‘qualitative improvement in school education’, swears by.

‘You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.’

In 1984, the Party dictates how everyone in the state shall live, love (not encouraged), think and emote (also not encouraged). In Oceania, the institution of marriage serves only one purpose, the continuity of the human population.

Winston and his ex-wife Katharine separated because he cannot stand Katharine’'s orthodoxy toward the Party or her coldness toward him. However, he finds himself in a passionate (albeit anxiety-inducing) love affair with Julia. Every movement in Oceania is consequential— especially love affairs the Party cannot (will not) stand.

Now consider the BJP’s anti-conversion laws, which include interfaith marriage clauses, and seek to regulate religious conversions through ‘forcible or fraudulent means’, ‘allurement’ or ‘inducement’.

In practice, they militate against the citizens’ fundamental constitutional right to convert to a faith of their choice, and consensually marry whoever they wish to (as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). ‘Love jihad’ is the abominable term coined to accuse Muslim men of deceiving Hindu women through marriage and conversion to Islam.

(In 1984, Winston and Julia are soon caught and tortured into obedience by the regime.)

These are not the only rights the BJP has violated. In 2022, a dispute on school uniforms was reported in Karnataka, when Muslim students of a junior college who had been wearing hijab to classes as a matter, of course, were denied entry, apparently in violation of the college’s uniform policy.

1984 stands out from other dystopian novels because it induces palpable anxiety within its characters.

The poster captioned “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” is mentioned twice on the first page and elaborates on The Party and its notorious exploitation technology for surveillance. 1984 is a commentary on how scientific “development” eventually devolved society as privacy is either compromised via cameras, telescreens, and frisks or not granted at all.

Big Brother, that ominous omnipresence, cannot but remind us of the face we see everywhere, from COVID-19 vaccination certificates to the multitude of schemes launched by his government.

And while Big Brother watches all and knows everything, it is Orwell’s invisible Thought Police who are the most dangerous force, working invisibly and omnisciently at ‘vaporising’ all attempts at autonomy.

Sound familiar? Fourteen years after an FIR was filed against author Arundhati Roy and a former professor in Kashmir for allegedly making provocative statements at ‘Azadi: The Only Way’ (a conference organised under the banner of Azadi The Only Way' a conference held on 21 October 2010 in Delhi) Delhi Lt Governor V. K. Saxena accorded sanctions to prosecute under the stringent UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

In 2024, India ranks 159 out of 180 countries in the press freedom index. According to Reporters Without Borders, ‘The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy’.

1984 was published in 1949. Orwell began writing it in the spring of 1947, finishing it by November 1948, under grueling circumstances related to his galloping tubercular condition. 75 years ago, Orwell wrote 1984 while battling tuberculosis on the Isle of Jura in Scotland, aware that his condition was deteriorating. Upon finishing the manuscript, he went to a London hospital for treatment but died three months later at just 46 years old.

By the time he left the island of Jura, where a friend had lent him his home to write the book in, it was too late. George Orwell died in a London hospital on 21 January 1950. His masterpiece lives on, chillingly prescient, and too close to the bone of current reality for comfort.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines