Open letter to Mumbai judge: Books as evidence is ridiculous

Dear Justice Sarang Kotwal,

First of all, I owe an apology to you. I was misled by a news-report that you questioned why Vernon Gonsalves, an academic accused of being an urban Naxal, kept the voluminous Russian Classic, Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, in his personal collection of books.

It shocked all those who had read or had intended to read the book, which is more philosophical than political. I am glad that you have done the right thing of clarifying that the “War and Peace” that you mentioned was another book, not Tolstoy’s.

Why most people felt outraged was because Tolstóy is considered a pacifist who abjured all kinds of violence. You must read his book titled “The Kingdom of God is Within You” which influenced Mahatma Gandhi so much that he named the farm he set up in South Africa after the great Russian writer. He obtained much of his ideas of non-violence from this book.

The book’s title is derived from a Biblical verse. In the book, Tolstoy speaks of the principle of non-violent resistance when confronted by violence, as taught by Jesus Christ.

When Christ says to turn the other cheek, Tolstoy asserts that He means to abolish violence, even the defensive one, and to give up revenge. Tolstoy rejects the interpretation of Roman and medieval scholars who attempted to limit its scope. “How can you kill people, when it is written in God’s commandment: ‘Thou shalt not murder’?”

Few books have inspired me as this non-fiction tome. It gave me a greater insight into the Bible than any other book I have ever read. It was banned in Russia and it had to be published in Germany, which was yet to be swayed by the ideas of the failed artist that Adolf Hitler was.

Let me make it clear, there is absolutely no justification for bad reporting. The reporter concerned should have himself felt outraged and checked whether you would have asked such a silly question.

Had he done so, he would not have filed the sensational report. I hope his editor would have given him just deserts.

Once a Gujarati newspaper, quoting an “official” reply given under the Right to Information Act, reported that thousands of crores of rupees from the national exchequer were spent on the treatment of UPA chief Sonia Gandhi.

True, she had to go to the US for treatment a few times like the late Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parikkar and Shri A.K. Antony. She did not go in a chartered flight. How could she have spent so much money? This simple logic should have occurred to the reporter but that did not prevent the then Gujarat Chief Minister and, now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi from making it a subject of his election campaign.

Now it transpires that the book you referred to in your obiter  dictum, a Latin phrase which means “by the way”, is a little-known Indian book. For starters, references that a judge makes while listening to an argument are generally called obiter dicta. A judgement may also contain obiter dicta which are not binding as they are only persuasive.

Actually, the book that you referred to is a collection of essays edited by Biswajit Roy and titled “War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists”. I was tempted to visit an online bookstore and I was happy to find it there.

This is how Amazon introduces the book: “This collection of essays by well-known activists and academics, including the mediators, examines the failed peace initiatives in the context of the government’s elitist ‘developmental’ policies, doublespeak of the parliamentary parties and Maoists’ follies.”

I would have loved to buy the 548-page book but for the price, Rs 1999. It has no cheap Kindle version, either. How can a journalist like me buy that book?

You may wonder why I write this letter, particularly when you have clarified that it was not about Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” that you made your judicial query. I find there is enough reason to write this epistle. The accused has clarified that he has 2,000 titles in his personal library and none of them was banned by the government. I cannot say the same about the books that I have in my collection.

I have Salman Rushdie’s unreadable “The Satanic Verses” and a book on Gandhi which the Gujarat Government had once banned. Besides, I have “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence which was also banned in India.

It could be sold in Britain only after Penguin Books won a case under the obscenity law. What irked the prudent was its theme that dealt with the physical (and emotional) relationship between a working class man and an upper class woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of the then-unprintable four-letter words.

I have also Maharshi Vatsyayana’s famous treatise, which is still frowned upon by the prudent, whether in the church or in academics.

In comparison, the accused in the case before you, Vernon Gonsalves, is saint-like, for he does not have even a single banned book in his possession. I do not know the charges against him, except that he is what the government calls, an “urban Naxal”. It is not at all proper for me to write about the merits of the case.

If Gonsalves committed any crime under the law, you have the power to give him the maximum punishment that the law dictates. What I object to is the practice of the police to cite books and articles in one’s possession as evidence of a person’s criminal mind.

I still remember the excitement with which I read “The Bolivian Diary” by Che Guevara when the Pathanamthitta Panchayat Library procured it in the late-sixties. I was one of the first, if not the first, to read it. The book was considered the Magna Carta of all those who approved of the Latin American style of overthrow of the oppressive but decadent forces clinging on to power.

As I read more and more, I realised eventually that the real Magna Carta was a chapter of the Indian Constitution which dealt with the Fundamental Rights of the people.

It is those fundamental rights which are being denied to persons by calling them “urban Naxals”. Yes, the police are well within their rights to search for incriminating evidence against any accused. But a book he kept in his personal library or an article he downloaded into his iPad or PC cannot be cited as evidence in a criminal case.

Have you ever heard about Iftikhar Geelani? He was a Kashmiri journalist based in New Delhi. He worked for the mainstream newspaper, DNA, published from your city. He was arrested and kept in Tihar Jail for several months before he was released by the Vajpayee government. The only “crime” he committed was marrying the daughter of the Kashmiri “separatist” leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

He was arrested soon after Afzal Guru was hanged to death. The police could not find any evidence against him. The only evidence they had were some articles and maps he downloaded from the Internet for his professional use. Of course, he was released after some months. Alas, no one was punished for the kind of harassment caused to his young wife and tiny tots.

Knowledge is now available at the fingertip. If I need to know how a crude bomb is put together, all I have to do is to consult Google Guru. He will tell me precisely how it can be made but if I start making one, I may end up with a severed hand or limb.

Practice, not theoretical knowledge, makes one perfect. However, the police have a different perception. You must have heard about S. Nambi Narayanan, a scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). He was arrested by the Kerala Police for allegedly passing on the cryogenic engine technology to Pakistan through a semi-literate Maldivian woman. It was a farcical case but he suffered for many decades till he was honourably acquitted by the Supreme Court recently.

What was the charge against him? That he passed on secrets of the cryogenic engine to Pakistan. If the judge concerned, before whom he was produced, had given him a patient hearing, he would have instantly dismissed the case. Do you know why?

It is not possible to pass on cryogenic engine technology through some drawings as the police claimed. In his autobiography, Narayanan explains that if 2,000 scientists and technologists get involved in the project with government support for a few years, they may be able to acquire the necessary technology.

To put it differently, you can’t dissemble an iPhone and make a duplicate of it. In that case, we would have made our own F-16! Yet, the scientist had to suffer for long.

It is easy for the police to conclude that if I have read dozens of detective novels, which are mostly about murders, whether on the Orient Express or in the Cathedral, I have a murderous inclination. The truth is that I can’t even slaughter a chicken, though I may relish it when it is roasted and served on the table.

The point is that possession of books is not a proof that one subscribes to what they contain. I have in my library the Bible, the Quran and the Ramayana sitting together and I have not heard any of them making a murmur of protest. Someone may see it as desecration but that is his problem, not mine.

I hope you know that in India, it is criminal to keep a counterfeit currency note in one’s purse or pocket. It is criminal even to keep a 500 or 1000 rupee-note demonetised by Narendra Modi.

Can you, as a judge, be sure that you will never keep a counterfeit currency note? According to the latest RBI report, there is a 121 per cent increase in the number of counterfeit Rs 500 currency notes. This being the case, you and I may end up having a fake note in our purse without our knowledge.

To return to the books, there are laws governing publication of books. Every publisher is expected to know the laws like the Copyright law and the obscenity law. If any book is published legally in the country, the general public is empowered to buy, read and even promote it.

If the government thinks that all academic discussions on Naxalism is unacceptable, it should immediately ban all such books. For that, it may have to appoint a large group of people whose job it would be to recommend to the government whether a published book is worthy of a ban. At least this will give jobs to some.

During the Emergency, the Mrs Gandhi regime sought to curb publication of all anti-government views and news. Hitler’s regime even burnt paintings which it considered as “degenerate art”. Till such time the government follows in their footsteps, let the people buy any book of their choice and read it and stock it.

Yesterday, I took part in a discussion on Section 370 of the Constitution at Kerala Club. I found the government action thoughtless and in wanton disregard of the commitment made to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Someone may say that I am an anti-national. My fellow speaker began his speech congratulating the government for the boldest decision it took in 70 years! Nobody found anything wrong in taking a contrarian stand by either of us. That is the essence of democracy — the ability to co-exist!

If powers are given to the state to check the fridge to see whether beef is kept there — Haryana is planning to strengthen its anti-cow slaughter law to include a provision like this in the existing law — and check the computer of a person to see what all he has read, a time will come when judges like you are asked to judge whether a person’s thinking was all right. Of course, there will be a thought police to assist you!

Yours etc


The author is a senior journalist and commentator. He has also headed Protichi Trust set up by Amartya Sen.

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