The expanding horizon of thought policing
George Orwell's novel 1984, published in 1949, exemplifies the authoritarian idea of criminalising thoughts. Although the dystopian novel is science fiction, it is essentially a cautionary tale. The story takes place in the fictional totalitarian state of Oceania, where the ruling party led by Big Brother exerts total control over every aspect of the citizens' lives. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the government and later starts a rebellion against the tyrannical regime. Winston becomes disillusioned with the propaganda and conflict in society and begins to write his thoughts in a diary, although this is a forbidden act in the eyes of Big Brother. He meets a mysterious lady named Julia and the two begin a love affair, leading to Winston's further dissent against the government. He becomes involved with a subversive group and is eventually captured and tortured by the Thought Police until he fully surrenders to the government.
Throughout the novel, one core theme is the government's use of language as a tool of control and manipulation. The concept of "doublethink" and "Newspeak" are introduced, where citizens are made to accept contradictory ideas as truth and language is limited to prevent dissent. The novel is a political commentary on the dangers of totalitarianism and serves as a warning against the dangers of government surveillance and manipulation.
The themes of 1984 are relevant to this date, especially for government agencies dealing with surveillance, and misuse and manipulation of information. The novel rings alarm about the danger of absolute power in which the individual gives up their freedom for the illusion of security, and the consequences of that.
Now, the question is, how is George Orwell's 1984 relevant in Bangladesh? Since its independence, Bangladesh has hardly had a fair election under any party's rule. Almost all the past governments in the country have used force to some extent to stay in power. However, since 2014, a different type of governance has been functioning here. In 2011, the caretaker government system – a temporary, non-partisan government under which the parliamentary election would be held – was abolished and elections under a party government were ensured. In 2014, we had a general election where the ruling party's victory was confirmed even before the polling took place. In 2018, voting allegedly took place the night before election day. The opposition's right to protest and assemble has been severely curtailed, and we have noticed increasing surveillance and harassment of opposition leaders, including denial of bail. Some establishments of political opponents have been silently taken over, or occupied.
The government has powerful surveillance networks, having acquired Israeli intelligence technology and Chinese AI-driven big data processing software, according to media reports. Opposition political activists and journalists are routinely arrested under the Digital Security Act (DSA). Writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who was arrested under this law, died in prison. According to ARTICLE 19, about 40 percent of the cases filed under the DSA in 2021 were just because of criticism of the prime minister, other ministers and various levels of leaders in the government. In the four years since the law was enacted in 2018, 1,109 cases were filed against a total of 2,889 individuals, 38.74 percent or 1,119 of whom were detained, according to the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS). Identities of only 1,029 accused were available. The rate of detention is higher among students: 71 percent of the students charged under the DSA were detained.
Human rights organisations have a long record of disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have taken place in Bangladesh. There are two US sanctions against an elite law enforcement agency of the country. According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), between 2009 and June 2022, 623 people became victims of enforced disappearance in Bangladesh, while at least 2,658 people were victims of extrajudicial killing. Moreover, the government rewarded a number of police members who are accused of torturing political opponents and even students. In January, the home minister himself told the parliament that "modern technology like Open Source Intelligence Technology has been included in the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre to prevent anti-state and anti-government activities through monitoring social media." Initiatives have been taken to launch an "integrated lawful interception system," he said.
In 2023, a prominent publication house in the country was banned from participating in the Amar Ekushey Boi Mela for publishing three books. Being already under US sanctions, the regime wants to avoid records of hard censorship against books. Hence, they are imposing smart censorship. The ultimate purpose is to discourage criticism against the regime and its so-called development narratives. There are allegations of stopping newspaper advertisements against the agencies, submitting complaints to employers just for Facebook comments or critical writings. The government has reduced grants to various study centres too. Warning of cancelling passports have also been issued if expatriate citizens "spread misinformation against the state."
The chief justice himself suspended the High Court's verdict in favour of Adarsha Prokashoni. The country's highest court failed to take an unconditional position in favour of an author's rights and freedom of expression. There are more examples of using police and courts to criminalise thoughts and dissent. The draft of the new data protection law includes exemptions for state intelligence and law enforcement agencies, meaning that these agencies could violate privacy laws in a manner similar to Orwell's 1984.
We also see the government's use of language manipulation in Bangladesh. "Unstoppable development," "constitutional elections," "Digital Bangladesh," "Who is the alternative?," "Phutonto korai theke jolonto unun (Out of the frying pan, into the stove)" – these terms and phrases are used to dismiss demands for the restoration of democracy, good governance and freedom of anti-regime criticism. All the anti-people activities of the government are being justified using the narrative of "development."
George Orwell's 1984 is indeed becoming relevant in Bangladesh. Authoritarian governments have expanded the practice of thought policing, criminalising thoughts to ensure unaccountable power. This moral and cultural policing to criminalise intellectual work, research and creativity is an ominous sign for a country. Attempting to trade off a writer's freedom in the name of blocking the government's criticism is just a tool to ensure a crippled nation.
Faiz Ahmad Taiyeb is a Bangladeshi columnist and writer living in the Netherlands. Among other titles, he has authored 'Fourth Industrial Revolution and Bangladesh' and '50 Years of Bangladesh Economy.'