It turns out it wasn’t Leo Tolstoy’s seminal work War and Peace that the Bombay High Court was referring to during the trial of human rights activist Vernon Gonsalves. It was War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists by Biswajit Roy, a collection of essays on political doublespeak and the Maoist problem. The Pune Police claim this to be “highly incriminating evidence” (among others) found at Gonsalves’ residence (he is under arrest for allegedly making provocative speeches and instigating caste violence). “The CD Rajya Daman Virodhi itself suggests it has something against the state. Why did you have this at home?” asked Justice Sarang Kotwal, according to a widely quoted PTI report. Meanwhile, because of a comedy of errors misreporting this story, one of the greatest love affairs in fiction from Russia that everyone has heard of but too few have read, was suddenly trending on Twitter.
It must be said that irrespective of which book the honourable judge was alluding to, it doesn’t change a thing. It’s a really long shot, trying to incriminate someone by finding a link between literature of any kind, and proving a crime was committed because of it. Our bookshelves represent our interests, our education, our past and our work. By the bizarre logic put forward by the Pune Police maybe I should be chucking my copy of Narconomics, a readable dissection of the drug trade, for fear somebody might think I’m considering a new career. However, the fact that so many people thought it’s entirely possible for the judiciary to deny someone bail because they own War and Peace, speaks volumes of how menacing they believe the reach of the Indian state is. And alas, more tragically, how little they know of Tolstoy.
The facts though, are chilling. Consider, ten law abiding citizens, among them a poet and a professor with no previous criminal records, are arrested citing the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) under the nebulous claim of participating in anti state activity. Over a year later, it’s still not clear what the charges against them are. While the Pune Police may be accusing Gonsalves of being influenced by Marxist literature, to an outsider, the situation is eerily reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Trial — where the protagonist is prosecuted by a remote authoritarian counsel and the nature of his crime not revealed either to him, or the reader.
In reality, the frivolous allegation against Gonsalves that has all of Twitter reacting in outrage follows an accepted practice in the business of law, where the gap between winning and losing a case is painstaking research. You have to hand it to the canny (if slightly desperate) lawyer who could twist an obscure and flimsy fact — a book on a shelf — and magically present it as evidence. The news is rife with examples of cases in court where both the defense and prosecution resort to clutching at straws to pad their cases. Just last week a woman filed for divorce saying her husband “fat shamed” her, causing mental stress and agony. Some years ago, AAP politician Somnath Bharti was accused by his estranged wife, of turning their pet Labrador against her. That dog was possibly the first in Indian history who unwittingly became a co-accused in a case of domestic violence.
The Pune Police’s shaky premise to keep Gonsalves behind bars is not entirely without precedence — there is enough evidence to suggest we can’t fully separate the work of our favourite artists from our motivations. After murdering John Lennon, Mark David Chapman sat by his side and began reading The Catcher in the Rye, that unforgettable ode to adolescent angst. Would Lennon be alive if The Catcher didn’t exist? There were a spate of similar suicides after the release of film The Deer Hunter that so beautifully captured the Russian roulette obsession of a disillusioned soldier. Who knows if Biswajit Roy’s War and Peace in Junglemahal had the transformative power to compel Gonsalves to an impassioned and illegal new perspective but any work that questions the current status quo, somewhere, opens one’s vision to new possibilities for living.