AUTHOR: Raunaq Singh Bawa
(Student, Class 12, Bhavan Vidyalaya, Chandigarh)
“I was wondering what would break first: your spirit, or your body?”– Bane (The Dark Night Rises, 2012)
To facilitate a better understanding of the theme, certain clarifications are in order. What exactly entails an ‘Orwellian Reality’? Well, the term was coined by political commentators to describe dystopian realities characterised by tyrannical totalitarian governments, with nearly zero individual liberty ascribed to citizens, and near-total thought control and manipulation by the state. The word ‘Orwellian’ is used because such a reality was first imagined by the great author-political thinker, George Orwell, most notably in his novel 1984.
Now, a brief commentary about the status quo, the run-up to the status quo, and what may likely follow the status quo. One could likely argue that the conditions relevant to this theme began from 1917 onwards. For the purpose of this article, I shall divide the time from 1917 till present day into 5 periods:
- 1917-1945 (Post Russian Revolution to WWII)
- 1945-1991 (Cold War)
- 2001-2016 (War on terror to Right-Wing resurgence)
- 2016-present day (Right-wing resurgence)
Post the Russian Revolution is when the first preliminary elements of this Orwellian reality could faintly be seen as coming into being. Every stage hence represents an advancement towards this reality, with new Orwellian elements coming into play and the existing ones being strengthened.
October 1917, one of the most significant events in world history ever to occur. The existing monarchy in Russia is overthrown by the Bolsheviks led by V.I. Lenin, who then proceed to execute Tsar Nicholas II along with his family and loyalists. Immediately, a Communist regime is established in Russia, which in 1922 is christened the USSR (Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics), following a devastating and bloody civil war from which the Bolsheviks emerge triumphant.
The USSR was led by the Communist Party (formerly the Bolsheviks), which was at the time was the only legal political party in the country. The Party exercised near total control over all aspects of the country and its citizens’ lives. Dissent in any manner was not tolerated, compliance to the policies of the Party was mandatory, and basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom to practice any profession of one’s choosing, freedom of navigation etc. were denied to the citizens. The state’s internal security apparatus (like the NKVD) monitored the citizens, and exercised extraordinary powers of extrajudicial action.
Indeed, as is well known, the situation became at least ten times worse in 1924, when the [relatively] moderate Lenin died, giving way to Joseph Stalin, his successor as the leader of the Communist Party and the USSR.
Stalin is known for his excesses in governing the USSR. He was a power-hungry, brutal tyrant, who demanded absolute compliance to his authority. He went to great lengths to eradicate all potential competitors from the Party, most notably Trotsky, who was exiled and later assassinated at Stalin’s behest. Stalin went on to meticulously alter history, by even getting Trotsky obliterated from earlier photographs.
Stalin’s propaganda campaign was also extremely vast. Posters glorifying the Party and demonising the Western Capitalists and the Kulaks (rich farmers) were common. The NKVD indulged in a far-reaching campaign to eradicate these kulaks, who were chosen in an a highly arbitrary manner, with the word term itself lacking a clear definition. Farcical trials were also common, and of course, the famous Gulags (labour camps) were also set up by Stalin, wherein all dissenters were condemned to work themselves till death.
Here, we see the Orwellian elements of propaganda and absolute, brutal totalitarianism flourish. While restricted to Russia for the time being, we see their spread as time progresses further, most notably in 1933.
In 1933, a very similar process begins to take place after Adolf Hitler assumes power in Germany, with the Nazi Party becoming the only legal party in the country. Again, massive misinformation campaigns take place, this time propagating the Nazi ideology of the supremacy of the Aryan Race, demonising Jews, Communists, Slavic Peoples, the infirm, and homosexuals. The Nazi Party and Hitler are pedestalised and deified by the propaganda campaigns that ensue. Massive militarisation takes place in Germany, making its armed forces among the largest and most powerful in all of Europe, and perhaps, the world.
In Nazi Germany too, totalitarianism flourishes, with the Gestapo monitoring citizens’ every movement, and all suspected dissenters (along with the ‘undesirables’) being rounded up and shot/confined to concentration camps.
Following Germany’s withdrawal from the USSR and Eastern Europe, Stalin’s Red Army moved in to fill in the vacuum. The Red Army then proceeded to wipe out all opposition in the occupied nations, and began to establish Soviet-style communist regimes, to play the role of puppets in the hands of the leadership in Moscow. A similar form of repression and thought manipulation ensued in these nations, except that these took place whilst under occupation of a vast and powerful foreign military force. Thus, the ‘Iron Curtain’ came into being, separating the liberal democracies of Western Europe from the communistic satellite states in Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain was very much courtesy of the Communists, and it served as much as to keep the West out as to keep the occupied peoples in.
The Party yet again made elaborate arrangements for its propaganda campaigns in these nations, infiltrating all spheres of public and private life, seeking not only to glorify Communism, but also the USSR itself. No citizen could behave contrary to the wishes of his/her national leadership, and the national leadership could not behave contrary to the wishes of Stalin. The NKVD (later the KGB) played an essential part in organising disinformation, manipulation, abduction, and assassination campaigns.
The Party also was embroiled in an endless struggle with the USA and its CIA, who were tirelessly engaged in efforts to destabilise the Soviet regime. Radio Liberty is one of the most famous examples of the American attempts to counter the propaganda campaigns of the Soviets in Eastern Europe.
This status quo could very well have extended endlessly without end, because not unlike the Party depicted in Orwell’s 1984, the Communist Party was excessively effective in its control of the population.
Perhaps the only tangible reason for the end of this status quo was Mikhail Gorbachev. A man of conscience, the final leader of the USSR could clearly not tolerate the oppressive legacy left behind by Stalin. His attempts to liberalise Eastern Europe and the USSR’s economies and lifestyles led to the Communists’ downfall. The military withdrawal from Eastern Europe led to the rapid collapse of the Communist regimes installed there, while liberalisation policies like perestroika and glasnost in the USSR led to increased transparency, and the unveiling of unpleasant historic records that were previously well-concealed by the Party, most notably those of the Holodomor, the massive man-made famine of 1933, perpetuated by Stalin in Ukraine, leading to millions of deaths and intense suffering. All of these measures led to uprisings and protests against the Russian-dominated Soviet leadership in the other Soviet Republics, ultimately leading to their secession from the USSR. Thus, came the twilight of the Soviet Union and the Communist era.
This example clearly indicates the fact that the apparatus of an oppressive Orwellian state is not inherently weak, and may in fact be airtight, but can only be weakened at the discretion of its leaders themselves. As long as the leader’s conscience is capable of accepting such a status quo, the state may be as oppressive as s/he may desire.
9th September, 2001. A day of tragedy, permanently etched in the pages of history. Planes hijacked by al-Qaeda were crashed into the Twin Towers (New York) and the Pentagon (Washington D.C.), leading to more than 3,000 dead. A blatant act of terror, directly perpetrated on US soil. However, this day is not remembered only for the tragedy that occurred, but also for the radical changes it brought about.
9/11 marked a paradigm shift in US policy, and a change in US policy inevitably means change in the global geopolitical scenario. The War on Terror was initiated, and the US swiftly moved into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and root out all al-Qaeda presence there. US forces also entered Pakistan in its search for Osama bin Laden, and later in 2003, invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. The US had not launched a full-scale invasion of any country ever since the Vietnam War in 1961. 9/11 awoke the sleeping behemoth.
The US markedly changed its policy towards terrorist groups from one of ‘containment’ to one of ‘prevention’. It aimed to stop terrorists from mobilising and planning attack in the first place, through covert intelligence means, using the tools of the FBI, CIA, and NSA (National Security Agency). Here is when democracy begins to be bypassed and Orwellian elements are introduced.
These intelligence agencies were (and still are) given extraordinary powers of surveillance and active action, with almost zero transparency about their functioning. No doubt these agencies operated similarly during the Cold War, but increase in their powers post 9/11 and rapid technological advancements made them far more effective (and therefore worrying).
These agencies possess unimaginable surveillance capabilities, allegedly gaining access to ordinary citizens’ devices’ various inputs, such as cameras and microphones, thus attempting to monitor their movements, for ‘suspected terrorist activities’. The scale of this silent atrocity was first revealed by the famous CIA whistle-blower, Edward Snowden.
This monitoring of citizens is not unlike that which takes place in Orwell’s 1984, wherein the Party views its citizens through their homes’ television sets and concealed microphones, to root out all forms of secretive dissent against the Party and ‘Big Brother’.
There is also considerable lack of transparency in the extrajudicial and illegitimate detention of individuals (both US citizens and foreigners) by the CIA in ‘Black Sites’ stationed all around the globe, and in the treatment of these prisoners. The US military-run detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is particularly infamous in its (mis)treatment of inmates, usually ‘suspected’ terrorists, illegally detained with no due process of law, being denied a hearing in court, access to a lawyer, and communication with their families and authorities of their home countries.
Torture (euphemised as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’) in these detention centres is common, both physical and mental variations. Their religious beliefs are also deliberately abused, along with their bodies and minds. Sexual abuse is fairly commonplace. Human rights have no meaning there.
Such dismal lack of transparency, illegitimate privacy violation, illegal and indefinite detention, human rights violations etc are all reminiscent of Orwellian themes, and constitute a blatant thwarting of democracy.
The situation aggravates further from here onwards. In the previous phase, we saw the covert undermining of democracy. But now, this process becomes far more vast and shockingly overt. Why 2016 you’d ask? November 2016 to be precise, the day the people of the United States of America elected Donald J. Trump as their President.
Donald Trump. Where to begin? Conservative. White Supremacist. Alleged sexual offender. Elitist businessman. The man who believes climate change is a hoax. Severe opponent of arms control. Currently being investigated for abuse of power. Wants to wall off an entire national border. One could go on and on.
Objections may arise at this point. Who am I to suddenly classify this regime as Orwellian just because I disagree with its political ideas?
Well, simply because of the actions this man’s regressive ideals lead to. Curtailing of civil liberties for example. Many minorities such as Blacks, members of the LGBTQ community, Hispanics, Jews etc have faced discrimination under his regime.
Black students face discrimination in the public education system in numerous ways, while urban areas occupied by blacks tend to be underdeveloped and neglected by authorities. No action is taken against police personnel who shoot innocent black citizens. But one could argue that this state of affairs has been ongoing for centuries.
But what of the continual harassment of the Hispanics and immigrants? Deportation is not illegitimate. Illegitimate is the harassment of the immigrants by immigration authorities, their indefinite detention and the separation of young children from their parents. Illegitimate is the exceedingly toxic rhetoric being spewed against them, with them being labelled as criminals, when they were fleeing crime in the first place.
Also illegitimate is the so-called ‘religious freedom’ accorded to doctors in the country, wherein they may legally deny treatment to members of the LGBTQ community on these grounds. Further, we have Republican leaders who state on live television (read as: Fox News) that Jews and Muslims should be ‘exterminated’ from the Earth and so on, and these leaders are let off the hook.
What of Brett Kavanaugh? A Supreme Court judge nominated by Trump’s party, also an alleged sexual offender.
All these signs indicate towards a society in regression (at least for now). The political leadership is infested with powerful individuals who, either consciously or unconsciously, believe in the supremacy of White, American, Rich, Straight Males in society, and then go on to undermine the liberties of all others. Orwellian? Looks like it.
Now a look at India. Unfortunately, a trend has arisen here too. A trend of right-wing religious nationalism. Sure, in the international sphere, India has arisen to previously unforeseen heights of influence. But parallel to that, we see the resurgence of extremist thought, which sees little opposition from the state apparatus, with several sections of it also backing such ideas and actions.
Mob lynching has become an acute problem in Indian society today. These incidents are often unprovoked, and elicit only temporary outrage in our society and polity. These lead to an undesired alienation of the Muslim minority in the country, and reflect very poorly on our society. It is reminiscent of 1860s America, where the Ku Klux Klan would take to lynching Blacks, often on roads or highways. No modern civilised society should have such a status quo, and we ought to abide by our national morals of equality, secularism, and liberty.
Further, actions like the Beef Ban do little to help. This move was nothing but a blatant and direct utilitarian measure to placate a section of the majority, infringing on the basic right to choose for the rest of the population. The logic of such a measure remains in question.
The Centre has also attempted many other actions. Hindi imposition was a tried (but failed) one, eliciting severe backlash from the polity of Southern and North Eastern India. Another controversial move initiated by the centre was the RTI Amendment Act, allowing the Central government to alter the salaries of RTI officials. This move severely weakens the independence of RTI, thus undermining its effectiveness.
Furthermore, we see many leaders of the ruling party making objectionable comments, yet being let off the hook. Then, we see advocacy of groups like the RSS, whose conservative and majoritarian philosophies are alarming.
Another objectionable policy is of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. The NRC has far too many loopholes, and has great potential for targeted discrimination. Yet, despite its evident drawbacks, it receives wholehearted backing by the State.
Presently, a hearing is ongoing in the Supreme Court, where the Centre is seeking to acquire access to private chats on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. This constitutes a severe violation of privacy, and the fact that the government is even seeking authority for such a move is excessively worrying. National security cannot be used as a premise for such a massive breach of privacy.
This disbalance between the harmony of liberty and social order, becomes reminiscent yet again of an Orwellian reality.
A third, and final mention, is of Islamist extremism. Perhaps the greatest evil of our times, areas under their influence are, in their entirety, almost completely Orwellian. Arbitrary control by so-called authorities, twisted connotation of religious texts, frequent and unjustified violence, often against women and children, propaganda, brainwashing, privacy violation, absence of personal liberty, intolerance of dissent and so on, all exist in these regions.
While writing, Orwell may have drawn exaggerated versions of his own society, or perhaps felt rather prophetic. Whatever his intent may be, we need to study his dystopian realities, analyse their feasibility, and then draw conclusions of how a society should NOT be governed. Orwell described some red flags, and we can undoubtedly see them popping up today. We need to exercise our democratic powers while they still have significance to ensure we remain as far away from Orwellian reality as possible. Or else face the consequences. The people of North Korea would know.