People are Not Numbers : Reading Kafka in India

On 7 December 2019, SA Bobde, the Chief Justice of India, remarked that justice should never be instant or take the form of revenge. He was referring to events from the day before, when the extra judicial killings of four men, accused of raping a 27-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad, sparked a nation-wide debate on the capability of the Indian justice system. The encounter drew attention to the already poor handling of the case by the Telangana police: On the night of the rape, the sister had reached out to the police station nearest to the crime scene, Shamshabad toll plaza. Despite being only ten minutes away, she was denied help because it did not fall under its jurisdiction. The argument over jurisdiction continued at the next station she was directed to, until her complaint was finally recorded over four hours later. By the time they went in search for the victim, it was her burnt body they found at an underpass near the toll.

On the same day that the accused in the Hyderabad case were shot, the country was also gripped by the death of a 23-year-old rape victim from Unnao, who succumbed to a cardiac arrest while suffering from 90% burns in Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital. The girl had been abducted the previous day by a group of men who beat her up, stabbed her, and set her on fire. She had been on her way to a court hearing to testify against her alleged rapists, who are also believed to be behind this attempt to kill her.

The girl and her family had already been subjected to harassment. Ever since the prime accused in the case was released on bail, he had been following the victim and threatening to kill her if she did not withdraw her complaint. Despite multiple complaints from the girl’s family, the police refused to act because of the political connections of the accused, one of whom was believed to be a son of the village Pradhan. “The accused mercilessly beat up the girl’s father in their house. A 10-year-old girl, her sister-in-law’s daughter, was also threatened. They said they would get her name de-registered from her school. In June, the accused also burnt the crops of the girl’s father. The family was tormented from all ends,” said the Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi to The Hindu.

This is not the only such case to emerge from Unnao in recent times. On 20 December 2019, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a former BJP MLA from the constituency, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape of a 17-year-old girl. The case, almost a year old then, was brought back to light after the victim attempted to burn herself outside the residence of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, alleging inaction against the accused. She was moved to this extreme by the arrest of her father four days ago, who alleged that he had been beaten up by Sengar’s supporters and his brother.

Within a week, the victim’s father succumbed to his injuries at the nearby district hospital. A few months later, the girl’s uncle was arrested in relation to a case that was eighteen years old (he had fired a gun during a panchayat election in Unnao). Over a year after the rape, on a rainy afternoon in July 2019, the victim, her aunts, and her lawyer were hit by a speeding truck. Not only had it been driving on the wrong side of the road, it also had black paint smeared over the number plates. The girl and her lawyer survived, although her relatives passed away.

In a pattern of abuse that is now common to multiple criminal cases in India, the victim – in some instances, abused by an official in a position of power, – is further traumatized. She and her family are humiliated and harassed, ostracized by those around them when they seek help. The psychological impact of the sexual abuse itself is made to take a backseat as multiple aspects of her life come undone because of the case that follows. The very systems meant to deliver justice are manipulated by those in power into a bureaucracy that causes multiple, life-altering difficulties in the individual’s life, such that it painfully chips away at the will to fight. After the truck accident, the Unnao victim’s sister told The Hindu that she believed there to be a conspiracy afoot to eliminate the family and any witnesses, so that “there is nobody left to run around for the case”.

The phenomena common to such abuse are sexual domination as an exploitation of power, and the subsequent descent of human life fuelled by a corrupt bureaucracy. Such corruption involves an inherently hierarchical system, where favours and connections with those in power are commonly accepted as the means to getting things done. Written rules continue to exist even when they don’t achieve, and often impede, their original purpose. The dysfunction is accepted as a natural consequence of any highly complicated organization, conveniently serving as a cover for the misuse of power. This kind of decentralised, faceless system is extremely desirable for those who intend to exploit their positions.

Amongst the most exemplar articulations of such a social system and its pernicious effects on human life is found in the works of Franz Kafka, whose literature has spawned a vast, varied body of interpretations. Jorges Luis Borges wrote that subordination and infinity were the two major themes underlying Kafka’s works, which vividly describe the repetitive anxiety and powerlessness felt by an individual struggling against a bizarre, questionable and indiscriminately unfair authority. Such situations find a profound, absurd form in Kafka’s works, where the very design of a state’s executive machinery casually ruin the protagonist’s life. His deep understanding of the disturbed mental state an individual is made to go through at the hands of such systems was formalized when the word “Kafkaesque” entered the English lexicon in 1939, used to refer to the quality of being “nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical”. The word has been used to describe everything from dealing with India’s labyrinthine visa process to the complexity of integrating Aadhar into every citizen’s basic administrative processes.

More recently, the term was also used by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former president of the Centre for Policy Research, to describe the horrific reality that would unfold in the event of a nation-wide implementation of the National Register of Citizens. The exercise to construct a database of Indian citizens has so far only been conducted in Assam, under the direction of the Supreme Court. When the final list of the NRC for Assam was published in August 2019, 1.9 million individuals had been left out and suddenly faced the prospect of statelessness.

This number is still lower than the 4 million individuals excluded by an earlier draft of the list, released in July 2018. A total of 33 million people from across the hills and valleys of Assam had participated in the four-year long, highly onerous paper-based verification process to prove their citizenship in the country, and that of their families’, and that it dated prior to 1971. In a state where 30 percent of the population is illiterate and lives below the poverty line, the sheer process of navigating the Indian bureaucratic machinery has wreaked havoc in the lives of millions, with people having to travel hundreds of kilometres to their hearings, spending large parts of their income and life savings on legal fees

Kafka is important to remember at this difficult time in the Indian polity, when the very institutions that citizens are supposed to rely on seem to have turned against them. The government’s assurance that no citizen will truly be rendered stateless until he exhausts the due judicial process can only be turned on its head with a thorough understanding of how the judicial process is itself a most ruthless form of punishment, imposed entirely by the state on its citizens. Kafka’s literature can explain this. His stories have the power to stretch human imagination and empathy; they provide a vicarious experience of the trauma of living under an authority that betrays it citizens.

Indeed, one interpretation of what is perhaps Kafka’s most well-known short story, The Metamorphosis¸ is that it anticipated the holocaust through the life of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find that he has become “a giant insect” (or “monstrous vermin”, in some translations). The protagonist’s overnight transformation into a bug and his subsequent alienation by all society, including his own family, has found parallels with the treatment of Jews in Hitler’s world. The holocaust was enabled by a German populace made oblivious to the plight of their fellow citizens, which started with their deliberate and systematic dehumanisation. The process involved referring to Jews as rats and vermin and depicting them as ugly, misshapen creatures in cartoons, films and editorials. The situation bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the current state of affairs in India, where the recent Citizenship Amendment Act has been compared to Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which explicitly recognized everyone but Jews as citizens. Amit Shah’s speeches at rallies, in which he has referred to Bangladeshi migrants as “termites” who should be thrown out, echoes the same language of dehumanization used by past authoritarian leaders in their prelude to genocides of entire populations.

In two of his novels, The Castle and The Trial, Kafka depicts the tendencies of a society where both institutionalised sexual abuse and a crushingly ineffective bureaucracy are commonplace. In the Castle, Kafka’s final novel written in 1922, the protagonist K. is summoned to an unnamed village in his professional capacity as a land surveyor. He arrives only to discover that an official mix-up years before had brought him there, even though the village no longer needed him. Hours turn into days and weeks without distinction as K. attempts to make connections with the villagers and castle officials in order to sort out his original appointment. His only link to the castle is his messenger, Barnabas, who always promises him progress. However, K. never manages to reach the castle, with the roads stretching on when he attempts to walk to it; he is “amazed at the length of the village, which seemed to have no end.”

As K. learns the story behind the messenger’s ostracized family, Kafka describes a form of institutionalized sexual harassment. At a celebration given by the castle fire brigade years before, for which Barnabas’ sisters had spent weeks in preparation, one of them, Amalia, had caught the attention of an influential castle official called Sortini. She received a letter from him the next morning, ‘couched in the vilest language’ and delivered by a messenger, in the fashion common for officials to fetch young women from the village.

Sortini had been gripped by the sight of Amalia and was distracted from his work; he ordered her to visit him – “See that you come, at once, or else -!” Amalia’s response had been to tear up the letter and throw it in the messenger’s face, which triggered the family’s downfall and social exclusion. Olga, her sister, says, “She couldn’t [be punished] in a regular suit at law, of course; and she wasn’t punished directly, but she was punished all right in other ways, she and the whole family.” It started with the bombardment of questions from all sides about the real story of the letter, from total strangers to friends and enemies. Her father’s business began to lose customers and the captain of the fire brigade came to inform him, amidst fits of laughter, that they no longer required his services. The family left their house to live in a small cottage, lugging their things on a handcart over several journeys, while villagers who saw them in the process would become silent and turn away. They made desperate attempts at rehabilitation into society, including the father’s ‘senseless petitions’ to the superintendent, the secretaries, and the clerks of the castle. With the trademark circularity of a bureaucracy, the officials were able to flip the incident around and ask him what it was that he even wanted: “What had been done to him? What did he want to be forgiven for? When and by whom had so much as a finger been raised against him in the Castle?” Before he could be forgiven, Amalia’s father had to prove his guilt.

As time passed, the father grew more senile. He planted himself outside the castle every day, hoping to catch officials in their carriages and pray for forgiveness. After he grew too weak to do this, Olga took up employment at the nearby village bar hoping to find the messenger Amalia had insulted and apologize to him. Although she never found him, she ended up forming unofficial connections with the castle and obtaining her brother a job as the land surveyor’s messenger. She says to K., “I learnt a great deal from the servants about the ways in which one can get into the Castle service without going through the difficult preliminaries of official appointment lasting sometimes for years.”

The story of Amalia from The Castle bears resemblance to more than just the two Unnao rape cases. In the Ruchika Girhotra case from 1990, a 14-year-old girl was molested by an IPS officer in Haryana. After her complaint, the girl, her family and her friends were systematically harassed by the police and the officer’s henchmen. Ruchika was expelled from her school, where she had studied since Class I, for non-payment of fees, without any notice for the same, as was normal procedure. Despite there being 135 similar cases of non-payment at the school, Ruchika was the only student expelled for this. One of the other cases involved the default of the accused IPS officer’s daughter, who studied in the same school.

Following her complaint, Ruchika’s father and her 10-year-old brother found themselves mired in multiple false cases of theft and civil defamation. The brother was illegally detained at the age of thirteen by the police, who tied his hands and legs up and beat him up in front of his sister. The IPS officer threatened Ruchika and her father with the same fate if they did not withdraw their complaint. Ruchika’s friend Aradhana, the sole witness in the case, had ten civil cases filed against her. Aradhana’s father was suspended on his job at the Haryana State Agriculture Marketing Board, after he found twenty complaints filed against him.

Through K.’s horrified reaction to Amalia’s story, Kafka voices the reality that has unfolded in several hierarchical, patriarchal systems today: “It’s Sortini that horrifies me, the possibility of such an abuse of power. The very thing that failed this time because it came naked and undisguised … might very well succeed completely on a thousand other occasions.” Indeed, Amalia’s sister Olga, admits that any other woman from the village would have gone, not wanting her family to befall the same fate. She explains Sortini’s behaviour as the natural outcome of the how different ‘the gentlemen’ feel when they rise from their desks, which allows many of them say ‘the most beastly things’. The officials are unused to society; when Sortini realized the great gulf between an official such as him and a village cobbler’s daughter, he decided to bridge it in his way. Olga says, “Of course, we’re all supposed to belong to the Castle … but we’ve had grim evidence that it’s not true when anything really important crops up.”

When K. first learns from the village superintendent that they have no need for a land surveyor, he protests, “Surely I haven’t made this endless journey just to be sent back again.” The superintendent explains, “In such a large governmental office as the Count’s, it may occasionally happen that one department ordains this, another that; neither knows of the other, and though the supreme control is absolutely efficient, … every now and then a trifling miscalculation arises.” As he expounds on the bureau’s rarest of mistakes – “for errors don’t happen, and even once in a while when an error does, as in our case, who can say finally that it’s an error?” – K. begins to realize the truth of his situation. “It only amuses me,” he says to the superintendent, “because it gives me an insight into the ludicrous bungling which in certain circumstances may decide the life of a human being.”

Shaid Uddin Ahmed, a defence lawyer for the Guwahati high court, is one of around thirty volunteers working with the CJP to prepare handouts on various legal topics, such as the correct wording to use in written depositions. He provides the example of how a man, who wrote in his deposition that he was of “Indian origin” and not an “Indian citizen”, was declared to be a foreigner. In another example, two of a group of four siblings were excluded from the list for having written their father’s name as “Hussein Ali”, while the others wrote “Hussein Ali Sheikh”.

Morjina Bibi, a resident of Assam’s Goalpara district, spent nine months in a detention centre after she was mistakenly arrested for being a doubtful citizen. She had been confused for a woman from another village called Merjina Begum. Bibi was woken up around midnight of 29 November 2016 by the knocks of two female police officers at her door: “Within a minute, several other policemen entered my house and asked me to go with them,” she told the news site Al Jazeera. She was sent to the Kokrajhar detention centre for being a “D” citizen, a concept introduced by India’s Election Commission in 1997 to strip the voting rights of those whose citizenship is “doubtful”. She said of her time in the detention centre, “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. The only thought that came to my mind was, ‘What did I do? Why did they put me in this hell?'”

Bibi’s case forms an eerie parallel with Kafka’s The Trial, which begins with “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.” In the opening scene, Joseph is ambushed in his own bedroom by three police warders, surrounded by the oblivious company of his landlady and his colleagues. The absurdity of this invasion of privacy underscores the extreme encroachment, with all his questions about why he is being arrested warded off as a form of arrogant wrangling. He is told to report directly to the court for his case.

The helplessness of having one’s life usurped by authorities is the focal point of all feeling in the novel. At the beginning of the Trial, Joseph is convinced he can fight his case, despite constant warnings about the pointlessness – even danger – of arguing his innocence with the court. As the months wear on with no change, his advocate tells him that nothing but personal connections with higher officials would influence the proceedings. He therefore attempts to befriend the court-painter Titorelli, who lives in an attic with a single, shut window. Forming a desolate metaphor for Joesph’s situation, in the stifling air of that boxed room, Titorelli offers him the only three routes any “accused man” has towards freedom – definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement.

Titorelli defines definite acquittal as it appears in the code of law – that the innocent shall be acquitted – but states that he has never encountered a single such case. He thus rules it out for Joseph, who, like the reader, has long accepted that the initial premise of the novel, Joseph’s innocence, simply does not matter.

Titorelli explains the other two options: “Ostensible acquittal demands intense concentration at long intervals, while postponement taxes your strength less but means a steady strain.” The former involves peddling an affidavit of innocence before many rounds of judges, so that it can be presented along with their signatures to the trial judge, who can safely grant the acquittal to please his friends. However, the accused is only ostensibly free, as the affidavit is added to the case dossier, which circulates the courts as per the official routine. Someday an attentive judge, seeing that the charge is still valid, could have the accused man arrested again. And thus, the case could forever go on, one ostensible acquittal followed by a second charge, followed by a second ostensible acquittal, followed by a third charge, and so on.

Postponement, on the other hand, is the act of preventing the case from ever progressing. It requires the accused to constantly yet superficially be in touch with the court, always displaying a level of activity with regards to the case, such as submitting to interrogations and providing evidence. While it requires the accused to sustain such lifelong formalities with the court, he is secured from the terrors of multiple sudden arrests.

By showing that both options involve infinite struggle, Kafka paints a chilling view of life for those who are involved in such legal cases. The BJP’s assurance that those whose names are not included on the NRC can appeal to multiple tribunals and courts is totally shallow in the light of the miserable lives they will be forced to anyway lead in the interim. Zikir Ali, a 44-year-old farm labourer who is one of the 1.9 million individuals left out of the final list, told Foreign Policy that he had not been able to sleep in the year since the process started. Two days before the list was to be published, he said, “.”

Kafka is powerful because he was able to astutely capture this kind of disruptive suffering. As the Trial’s Joseph succumbs to relentless pressure to respect the court over his belief in his own innocence, Kafka begins his depiction of a man struggling to hold on to a sense of himself. Joseph is swayed by the advice of those around him, who tell him that the only way to escape “the clutches” is to admit his guilt. “The thought of the case never left him now,” and he decides to write up a legal defence of “what he did”. No longer bothered that he does not even know what this is, he merely wants to do everything he can to end the case and be found innocent. “There were dark hours, of course … in which it seemed to you that only the cases predestined from the start to succeed came to a good end …. while every one of the others was doomed to fail in spite of all your running about, all your exertions. That was a frame of mind, of course, in which nothing at all seemed certain.”

Finding himself unable to concentrate at work, Joseph almost tells an important client that he is not in a fit state to attend to business. His colleague, on the other hand, seems always ready to take up work that he left over and skips no opportunity to point out how stressed Joseph seemed to be. Worried about his dire situation at the office, and frustrated by his advocate’s lack of progress, Joseph considers disposing of him and conducting his own defence. The mere thought of this overwhelms him: “It was not merely the drawing up of a plea; that might be managed on a few weeks’ furlough, though to ask for leave of absence just now would be decidedly risky; it was a matter of substantial action, whose duration it was impossible to foresee. What an obstacle had suddenly risen to block K.’s career!”

In April 2019, The Caravan reported on a case that involved all these hallmarks of a state sponsored descent into mental illness. A former Supreme Court employee had accused Ranjan Gogoi, the former CJI, of two instances of sexual harassment soon after he was appointed to India’s highest judicial office in October 2018.

In her affidavit, the former employee described the “consistent persecution” that she and her family suffered in the months that followed, “My work life changed dramatically overnight… my victimization and harassment began that led to my final dismissal.” Starting with three transfers between different departments in the Supreme Court, every part of the complainant’s life, personal and professional, was upended. Disciplinary proceedings were initiated against her when she sought to understand the reason behind her frequent transfers – for having “acted in a manner prejudicial to discipline” and for “insubordination, lack of devotion to duty and indiscipline”. The latter charge of misconduct was levied after she took a casual leave on a Saturday, a half-day, to attend a function at her child’s school.

The complainant suffered her first panic attack five minutes before her scheduled statement at the disciplinary proceedings, from where she was rushed to the hospital. Three days later, she was dismissed from her job. A week later, her husband and his brother were also suspended from their jobs. “During the next two months, I was in complete depression and would suffer from panic attacks,” the complainant wrote in her affidavit.

In the same manner as Joseph’s deepening doubt in the Trial, the Castle’s K. also begins to question everything around him, including “the whole official plot – for was it anything else, really?” On his first night in the village, K. is told by a man at the local inn that “the village belongs to the Castle”. People revere its position and its authority, even though it is always out of reach, intangible in the distance. When K. considers getting an audience with the director of the village, an official called Klamm, his landlady scoffs at the very idea. “Klamm doesn’t talk even to people from the village, never yet has he spoken a word himself to anyone in the village,” she says. Although one cannot even be sure of his appearance, she venerates him nonetheless, for “he is a gentleman from the Castle, and that in itself, without considering Klamm’s position there at all, means that he is of very high rank.”

In what can be seen as a reflection of the lack of trust one can really have in a country’s institutions, the Castle involves a series of revelations for K. that nothing is as it seems. His only reliable link to the castle, the messenger Barnabas, turns out to have little influence, so much so that even his outcast family doubts whether he really works for the castle: Although Barnabas is sometimes admitted into the castle bureaux, “are the bureaux part of the real Castle?” wonders Olga. The original title of the book, Das Schloss, translates to “the castle” or “the palace”, but the German word is a homonym that can also refer to a lock. The word Klammer in German also means “clip” or “fastener”; and Klamm is the face of the castle, whom the villagers have never seen, his identity always up for debate. In Czech, klam means delusion or deceit.

Although Kafka was never directly involved in such a legal case, he had an intimate understanding of bureaucracy through his own professional life. Born in 1883 in Prague, then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian kingdom of Bohemia, Kafka belonged to a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family. He studied for a doctorate in law from the German University of Prague, following which he interned in the civil courts for a year. He was named after the Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph, who laid great stock in bureaucratic duty. The Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Prague was established by this government, where Kafka worked for fourteen years until his retirement due to an aggravated tuberculosis.

The Institute held a precarious position in the empire, having to liaise with both workers and employers regarding accident insurance and premiums. Forever under pressure from industrialists to set policy favourable to them, it had to maintain a balance to not undermine the very reason it was created. Kafka writes in his diaries about sympathizing with the common workers, who he felt had every right to storm the building and demand their right, rather than come ‘cap in hand’ as they did to the Institute. He not only processed legal cases against companies that did not fulfil their obligations under the workers’ insurance legislation, but also worked to introduce accident prevention programs that would benefit the companies.

Some of Kafka’s real-life professional experiences are believed to have served as models for Titorelli’s two options for acquittal. In 1906, the Prague Administrative Courts stipulated that all work in the building industry, whether on-site or off-site activity, had to be insured without differentiation; this quite simplified the work of the Institute. However, in 1908, the same court reversed its rule and reinstated the previous, more chaotic circumstances while under political pressure from the building industry, forming an analogy for ostensible acquittal. Kafka also handled the case of a store-quarry owner called Josef Franz Renelt, who launched appeal after appeal over eleven years at various levels of government in order to avoid paying penalties. He got out of paying most of the premiums he owed and served as an example of postponement.

Both models are shockingly prevalent in today’s world. With the state having the power to summon citizens at any time to prove their citizenship and prolong the process at multiple levels, across various courts, an “ostensible acquittal” is what effectively ended the life of Ashraf Ali. The 88-year-old man from Assam swallowed poison after telling his family he was going to break his Ramadan fast, .

In the Trial, Joseph hears that everyone already believed him to be guilty based on a common superstition that the line of a man’s lips indicates whether he is innocent. His advocate’s maid servant explains to him, “I tell you, it’s a silly superstition and in most cases completely at variance with the facts, but if you live among these people it’s difficult to escape the prevailing opinion. You can’t imagine what a strong effect such superstitions have.”

On 15 December 2019, on the day that anti-CAA protests broke out at Jamia Milia University, Narendra Modi declared that those responsible for the violence “can be identified by their clothes”. Although his words were widely condemned for their veiled reference to the Muslim community, about ten days later, a video that went viral on social media showed a man in traditional Muslim attire – wearing white pyjamas and a skull cap – being singled out while he was crossing the road alone and pushed onto a bus with groups of protestors.

Although Kafka started writing The Trial in 1914, years before the rise of Nazism in Germany, he had perhaps lived through enough anti-Jewish sentiment to understand such “markers” developed by dominant populations to alienate a minority within society. As a German-speaking Jew living in Prague, where the struggle for Czech language rights was frequently turbulent and involved strong anti-German feeling, Kafka was part of a community that faced alienation from both nationalities. In 1920, when anti-Jewish riots broke out in Prague, Kafka wrote that he was “wallowing in anti-Semitic hate.” He compared the heroism of Jews staying on to “the heroism of cockroaches which cannot be exterminated even from the bathroom.”

In her 1944 essay called “The Jew as Pariah”, Hannah Arendt quotes K.’s landlady from the Castle, “You are not of the castle, you are not of the village, you are nothing at all.” Kafka’s work was banned in Nazi Germany and under the Soviet regime, who branded him “decadent and defeatist”. According to Jeri Vesely, a Kafka specialist at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, ”The question was whether the alienation Kafka chronicled was valid for socialism”. Kafka wrote about that which he knew, and his description of the anxiety of his characters, and the impact it had on their lives, came from his own experience of it. He had difficult relationship with his father and with his own identity, both of which deeply influenced his literature the Castle was originally written in first person, before the protagonist was christened with a biographical “K.” The lives of Kafka’s characters are tinged with the painful irony of meeting their end in their quest for justice. Many of them commit suicide, are thrown out as trash, or otherwise destroyed by others: in his gruesome short story called In the Penal Colony, Kafka devises an elaborate torture mechanism that is used to pierce criminals’ bodies and brand them with their crime, and then left to die.

Although he was highly regarded and regularly promoted at work until his retirement, Kafka hated his job, identifying as a writer but forever unsure of his abilities. Torn between these multiple worlds, Kafka left directions to his lifelong friend and biographer, Max Brod, that all his unpublished works be destroyed. Fortunately, Brod did not listen to him. Understanding this about Kafka is important while reading him, because although his works lent themselves to political interpretations, according to Vesely, “unhappily, a political issue was made out of Kafka.”

Protagonists in Kafka’s novels are presumed to be guilty first, and then made to fight for ever receding opportunities to prove their innocence. This is the modus operandi of the NRC and CAA processes, which first place the burden of citizenship on the individual, and then challenge them to increasingly cumbersome and expensive legal processes. Those not included on the list are given four months to appeal their citizenship to the Foreigner’s Tribunal, the inherent implication of the court’s name notwithstanding. According to Aminul Islam, general secretary of the All India United Democratic Front, it would take generations for all the cases to be finalized, given India’s judicial burden of 30 million backlogged cases.

It is further unclear what the government intends to do with those who, after all the exertion of meeting the requirements of the NRC, are still unable to prove their citizenship. The plan to build more detention centres in addition to the six across Assam currently, where people can be incarcerated indefinitely, is rife with problems: Research on the rate of suicides since the process of updation began in 2015 showed an increase after the draft list released in July 2018. Abdul Kalam Azad, one of the researchers tracking this, told the BBC, “I have been visiting people related to the victims. Those who took their lives were either declared ‘doubtful voters’ or dropped from the NRC. It is all very sad.” Prasenjit Biswas, another rights activist, called the register “a humanitarian disaster in the making, with tens of thousands of genuine citizens being turned stateless, defying all logic of natural justice.””

At a time like this, Kafka is imperative to inform ourselves of the experience of a life lived like this. His prescience has been evoked several times over the years, as elements of his stories have found parallels everywhere. During the Prague Spring in 1968, his works saw a resurgence after the ban because they mirrored the conditions under communism, capturing the emotional suffocation and paranoia of living under a faceless power. In 2011, the rape case of a Chinese official’s daughter by a mining magnate contained the all the ironic twists typical to a Kafkaesque, futile quest for justice.

Kafka helps us understand more of the world and its past. His contribution in describing such conditions lay not only in his accurate observations of society and power, but also in evoking the horror of his characters’ daily experience of it. In depicting their declining mental health as they struggle with such cases, and the concomitant total collapse of their lives, Kafka tells a moving, haunting story of what it feels like to have your life hijacked by authority.

Despite his work spanning only three incomplete novels and some dozen short stories, Kafka spawned innumerable interpretations. His observations could forever hold true, due in part to the deliberate ambiguity of his words: places go unnamed and the characters have little history. That there are parallels between the worlds he concocted over a hundred years ago, and the reality of life today, is a testament to W.H. Auden’s statement that “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.”


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Sanjana Ramachandran has studied engineering and business, and worked in software, content creation and marketing. She writes across forms about culture and society, and particularly enjoys exploiting the intersections between fields to unearth different ways of understanding the world. She has previously been published in The Caravan.

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