Possessing literature is not a crime
On Wednesday, during the bail hearing of Vernon Gonsalves and other activists, the Bombay High Court asked Mr Gonsalves to explain why he had “objectionable material” in his house. Initial reports indicated that Justice Sarang Kotwal was referring to Mr Gonsalves’ copy of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece War and Peace — a classic which captures Russia during Napoleonic wars, and a CD titled Rajya Daman Virodhi (in protest against State oppression). “Nature of the books and CDs suggest you are a part of a banned organisation, why did you have these books at home?”, asked Justice Kotwal. He reportedly added, “Why would you keep a book about a war in another country at your home?” On Thursday, subsequent reports suggested that the judge was referring to War and Peace in Junglemahal. Expressing shock at earlier reports, the judge was quoted as saying he was familiar with the classic, and was not referring to any particular book.
Mr Gonsalves was arrested along with other activists by Pune Police last year, on the grounds that speeches by them at Elgar Parishad, a commemorative Dalit conclave, on December 31, 2017, led to subsequent violence in and around Bhima-Koregaon. They were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which has a wide remit, for their alleged links to Maoists. The “damning” evidence that the police have used to make the case against Mr Gonsalves, are books, CDs and other reading material found in his house.
Irrespective of which book was being referred to, both the police citing literature as evidence, and the court using that as a basis for any decision, is worrying. This highlights the fragile state of India’s civil liberties. From writers who fear book bans, the scanner is now on readers, with the goal of ascertaining the degree of their patriotism. Citizens in a democracy rely on the judiciary to uphold and protect their basic rights. This includes the right to own literature of all kinds, from the subversive and revolutionary to the conformist. The State cannot, and must not, decide what citizens read, and possessing literature, is no way, a crime. If that were so, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf has been a bestseller, and that should make the courts worry.