These Orwellian times

I can't help using the term Orwellian to the history of Kashmir and the pathetic recent attempts to "green" its vast and rich history often with embellishments, lies, obfuscation, and outright denial

"Orwellian" is an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past, including the "unperson"—a person whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practised by modern repressive governments. Often, this includes the circumstances depicted in his novels, particularly Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I can't help using the term Orwellian to the history of Kashmir and the pathetic recent attempts to "green" its vast and rich history often with embellishments, lies, obfuscation, and outright denial. What is interesting is the reverse 'Orwellian' technique applied to advocate a theocratic movement and the attempts to hide its Islamist agenda. There is a mirror/parallel movement in mainland India too to expunge certain glorious periods of secular history from the textbooks and to revive other former pro-colonial 'heroes' of yesteryears even though their roles in the past are dubious.

The most common sense of Orwellian is that of the all-controlling "Big Brother" state, used to negatively describe a situation in which a Big Brother authority figure – in concert with "thought police" – constantly monitors the population to detect betrayal via "improper" thoughts. Orwellian also describes oppressive political ideas and the use of euphemistic political language in public discourse to camouflage morally outrageous ideas and actions. In this latter sense, the term is often used as a means of attacking an opponent in a political debate, by branding his or her policies as Orwellian. When used like this in political rhetoric if it is not sincere, it is interesting to note as it can be a case of a hypocritical Orwellian strategist denouncing Orwellian strategies.

I come across this often while observing the two 'neighbouring' countries with their own brands of 'thought-police' and 'moral-police' be it the Islamists in Pakistan or the Hindutva brigade in India. The 'Big Brother' of religion, superstition, ignorance and general poverty plays the role of the perfect police-man of every thought, gesture, decision, activity, or expression that could be deemed subversive or anti-national depending on the government in power or the terror outfit dominating.

Christopher Hitchens in his Vanity Fair article of August 2012, The Importance of Being Orwell, wrote "...At various points in his essays—notably in “Why I Write” but also in his popular column “As I Please”—George Orwell gave us an account of what made him tick, as it were, and of what supplied the motive for his work. At different times he instanced what he called his “power of facing unpleasant facts”; his love for the natural world, “growing things,” and the annual replenishment of the seasons; and his desire to forward the cause of democratic socialism and oppose the menace of Fascism. Other strong impulses include his near-visceral feeling for the English language and his urge to defend it from the constant encroachments of propaganda and euphemism, and his reverence for objective truth, which he feared was being driven out of the world by the deliberate distortion and even obliteration of recent history."

Hitchens further records an observation of Orwell's - "It was from his time making wartime broadcasts to India for the BBC that Orwell began to concentrate on the idea of history and falsification. He could see events being mutated into propaganda before his very eyes, even in the information headquarters of an ostensible democracy. Thus, in the summer of 1942, when the British authorities resorted to massive force in order to put down demonstrations and riots in India, he noticed that the hitherto respectable name of Nehru—once the British favorite for the Indian leadership—had somehow become blacklisted: “Today the reference to Nehru was cut out from the announcement—N. being in prison and, therefore, having become Bad.” This is a slight but definite prefiguration of the scenes in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where certain political figures are suddenly deemed to be “unpersons” and where rapid changes of wartime allegiance necessitate the hectic re-writing of recent history.

The culture of censorship and denial also necessitated a coarsening of attitudes to language and truth; earlier in the same year he had written:

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends...."

We don't have to look far to see where this is happening today both sides of the border.

Arshia Malik

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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