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Kafkaesque in Modern India

Sacaria Joseph Sacaria Joseph
12 Jul 2021

‘Kafkaesque’ is the only epithet that can possibly convey the subtext of the arrest of the Jharkhand-based Jesuit priest and social activist, Stan Swamy, by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the consistent denial of his appeal for bail, and his futile wait for a fair trial culminating in his unfortunate death in judicial custody.  

That which is characteristic, suggestive or reminiscent of the impenetrably dark, claustrophobic, nightmarish, oppressive, surrealistic and angst-ridden fictional world of the German-speaking Bohemian writer Franz Kafka is known as Kafkaesque. According to Frederick R Karl, one of the biographers of Kafka, “What’s Kafkaesque … is when you enter a surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behaviour, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world. You don’t give up, you don’t lie down and die. What you do is struggle against this with all of your equipment, with whatever you have. But of course you don’t stand a chance.” 

Think of a system, a judicial system for instance, which by means of its convoluted and preposterous discursive processes, subverts the very end -- dispensing of justice -- for which it is instituted. Imagine a judicial system getting increasingly and compulsively concerned about perpetuating itself by serving its own interests at the cost of depriving its dependents of human dignity, liberty and justice. A scenario such as this is a manifestation of Kafkaesque.

Kafka’s parable, Before the Law, which later featured in his novel, The Trial, tells the story of a nameless man who seeks access to a judicial system in vain. In spite of all the entreaties of the man, the gatekeeper standing at the mighty edifice of the judicial system not only denies him entry, but also challenges him to force his entry through the gate if he could. Even if the man does succeed in gaining entry through the door, there remains a series of other gates and an unrelenting and more formidable gate keeper at each gate behind the first one. 

Disheartened and helpless, the man keeps waiting at the gate hoping that one day he would be allowed to enter the edifice to seek justice. As he waits, years roll by, he grows old and frail, and dies at the gate waiting. This inaccessibility or inscrutability of a system which makes an individual perish like the protagonist in Kafka’s parable is characteristic of Kafkaesque.  

In The Trial, Kafka tells the story of Joseph K, a bank employee, who is arrested for an unspecified crime unexpectedly by the unidentified agents of an unidentified agency. Joseph K spends the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to find out what his supposed crime is and how he could prove his innocence through a fair trial. However, unfortunately, he never learns anything either about his crime or about his accuser. He is never made to undergo a trial. Within a year into his personal struggle to get justice from the ridiculously tangled and astoundingly irrational and absurd legal system, one day he is taken to an abandoned quarry and stabbed to death by two unidentified men. Joseph K has never been able to make sense of anything that happened to him ever since his arrest. This incomprehensibility shrouding the events of his life is an aspect of Kafkaesque. 

Claiming that Stan Swamy needed to be interrogated for his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregaon Case, the NIA arrested him from his residence in Ranchi and flew him to Mumbai on 9 October 2020. After producing him in the special NIA court in Mumbai on the same day, the NIA filed a chargesheet against him and seven others accusing them of engaging in Maoist activities across of the country. Subsequently, Stan Swamy was sent to judicial custody in Taloja Central Jail in Mumbai. 

Ironically enough, the NIA never sought Stan Swamy’s custody even for a single day to interrogate him. He would remain in the jail under judicial custody denied of bail as well as trial until shifted to Holy Family Hospital on 28 May 2021 where he would be diagnosed with Covid 19 and die on 5 June 2020. The sequence of these events looks like a chapter straight out of the fictional world of Kafka, especially, The Trial.   

Stan Swamy being accused of having committed a string of supposed crimes that he is unable to fathom and denied a chance to prove his innocence through a fair trial makes his experience typically Kafkaesque. Labelling him a Maoist for his work in defence of the rights, liberty, and dignity of the Adivasis in Jharkhand that the state itself has been depriving them of is part of this Kafkaesque narrative. During his interim bail hearing, what Stan Swamy told the judges in Bombay High Court is about his forced descend into this nightmarish Kafkaesque. He said, “When I came to Taloja [jail], whole systems of my body were very functional, but during these eight months there has been a steady regression of whatever my body functions were. Eight months ago, I would eat by myself, do some writing, walk, I could take bath by myself, but all these are disappearing one after another. So Taloja jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself. Someone has to feed me. In other words, I am requesting you to consider why and how this deterioration of myself happened.” 

The court denying this frail Parkinson-ridden eighty-four-year-old helpless and infirm Stan Swamy a sipper and a straw to drink water from a glass is Kafkaesque manifesting itself in the most gruesome face of a heartless judicial system that the civilised humanity has probably not known in recent times.  

If the guardians of law in a country hack into the computers of unsuspecting social activists and install a hidden software in their computers to plant forged and incriminating documents, and subsequently charge them with the supposed crime of possessing these documents, it is the invasion of the menace of Kafkaesque in private lives. Stan Swamy has constantly maintained that the supposed incriminating documents that the NIA claims to have discovered from his computer were deliberately and surreptitiously planted into his computer by someone without his knowledge. The proven cases of the social activists Rona Wilson’s and Surendra Gadling’s computers being compromised intentionally and stealthy with hidden software are confirmations of Kafkaesque masquerading as the supposed impartial hands of a fair and just judicial system.  

In line with the arguments of the NIA that since UAPA had been invoked against Stan Swamy, he could not be granted interim bail, the court denied him bail. On 22 March 2021, the court opined that the collective interest of the community outweighs Stan Swamy’s reasons for bail and that his old age and sickness would not favour him in the matter. The NIA ensured that this eighty-four-year-old infirm man with multiple ailments and comorbidities would continue to languish in jail and die. On 5 July 2021, the murderous intent of a heatless system prevailed over humanity proving that Kafkaesque has moved out of fiction into the lives individuals in contemporary India.   

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