Taking the Jajabor’s Journey Forward: Remembering Bhupen Hazarika

Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti

Mourning people from across Assam assemble in miles and miles of roads leading up to Bhupen Hazarika’s funeral. He’s a restless jajabor/wanderer no more. Paeans after paeans are being sung now after the ‘great cultural hero’, the ‘greatest Assamese’, the believer in ‘the power of the nation’ (the ‘nation’ being ‘Akhand Bharat’ or ‘Brihottor Axom’, depending on whichever variety of nationalists sing). Bhupenda is dead. Assam is in despair.

Despair and tears are nothing new to be offered by the people of the region, daily humiliated by their exploited, displaced existence. These intricacies of social existence lie shining sharply or muffled in Hazarika’s songs and journey over the years. The music is everywhere, even at the funeral, where of the reported 100,000 people, more were singing than crying. There is arguably no one in Assam who has not known, loved, hated, listened and sung Hazarika, and whom he has not sung of. And this is much before mass media as we know today existed.

In this fractured land where ‘identity’ is supposed to be the reigning logic of existence, of unity or separation, Hazarika touched, sung and wove a rich and ambiguous cultural fabric. And because of it, we find ourselves confronting a troubled legacy, a serpentine history. Absolute ‘consistency’ is perhaps not a desirable quality and much more so with questions and figures of culture. But Bhupen Hazarika’s jajabor/nomadic inconsistency, and so perhaps the ups and downs of the journey of those whom he sang for and about, is historic. Riding on the energy of the communist-led peasant uprisings which lasted up to the mid 1950s in Assam, Hazarika’s radicalism borrowed directly from the ‘people’s singer’, the communist legacy of Comrade Bishnu Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Thus Hazarika would declare ‘kasi khonot aji bor suk’ (‘my sickle is too sharp today’). When the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) had its dynamic heyday, Bhupen Hazarika was its president. He was a socialist when South Asia was gripped by its promise. He sang of hearing its echoes, of the energy of the masses, of the red sun on his black hair, from the depths of the night- ‘mur gaon’ore xeema’re, paharor xipare, nixar siyortir protidhoni xunu’ (‘from the end of the horizon of my village, from across the hills, echoes come to me of the cry of the night’). He was then ‘prothom nohoi, dritiyo nohoi, tritiyo srenir jatri’ (‘not of the first, not of the second- we are travelers of the third class’). Celebrating the vitality of the working masses, he identified himself as a co-traveler chugging ‘towards the destination together’.

But as the peasant uprisings were contained, this radicalism which was in identification with the stirrings of the tiller-of-the-land turned into the jingoist one of the son-of-the-soil, and come the Indo-China war of 1962, Hazarika turned into a ‘patriotic’ nationalist. He would discover terror and bloodshed committed on the hapless (sic) Indian Army soldiers by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, and demand a strong defense against the ‘violent marauders’ along the Himalayas (‘aji kameng ximanta dekhilu, dekhi xotrur poxuttva sinilu’ (‘today I saw Kameng border, and recognized the enemy’s bestiality’). However, this hatred for the Chinese proved to be short-lived. For Hazarika, the jajabor/internationalist, who loved to talk of Gorky and his tales sitting at the tomb of Mark Twain’, it could have been hardly otherwise. Nonetheless, this contradictory pull between a rabid form of nationalism and the spirit of internationalism continued to haunt him his entire life.

Contradictions and ambiguities also followed his engagement with the six year long anti-immigrant Assam movement which started in 1979. On the one hand Hazarika would, supporting the mass character of the movement, also attest to its principal aim of the expulsion of peasant migrants from Bangladesh led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). And on the other, it was precisely during its heydays, when sentiments were sharpening against ‘migrants’ conflated with Muslims as a whole, that he composed and sang ‘Mohabahu Brahmaputra’ where he painted the long history of migration and assimilation of diverse people which built a composite culture in the region, singing ‘podda nodir dhumuhat pori, koto xotojon aahiley; luit’or duyu parote kotona atithik adoriley … kisu lobo lagey, kisu dibo lagey, jin jaboloi holey…Robindranatheo koley’ (‘caught on the storm of river Podda, hundreds came, and the banks of the Brahmaputra welcomed them as guests … take some, give some, to melt into each other…also said Rabindranath’). Though often interpreted as a liberal plea, this can be read as a warning of the danger of a sectarian politics of essentialising, of the aggressive upper-caste Assamese Hindu colour of the movement, which sought to violently erase this myriad history into extinction. His assertion that ‘we all have a history of migration and thus we (including the migrants from the erstwhile East-Bengal, now Bangladesh) must strive to live together’, baffled both the supporters as well as the opponents of the movement. Many within AASU began to suspect his support for the movement, as despite his apparent avowal that the Assamese people are in the danger of becoming homeless in their own land (the official AASU line), all he had to offer as a solution was a narrative of migration- hardly a satisfactory answer to the requirements of a sharp anti-immigrant tenor.

Then with the rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in the late 1980s-early 1990s, he sings of the countless blood-drenched sacrifices and the new meaning of the coming sunrise in the east (ULFA’s symbol is a rising sun). Ever enthusiastic of the potential of collective action and need for self-determination by the people, many would say, the sharpness of an anti-Indian state position and a critique of ‘Operation Bajrang’ brand of military domination, expected of a bard of a subjugated population was never there in him. A systemic critique would then be a muffled echo in his songs, as he would even turn the battle cries of the working class into abstract liberal appeals for humanity. Thus though the pathos of loss and ceaseless motion are captured Hazarika’s memorable voice in ‘bistirno parore’, his translation of the melancholy and anger of the worker with capitalist and racist exploitation in Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River becomes a mere petty bourgeois radical angst with the erosion of vague societal values in modern times.

With the ever more naked rightist turn in the political life of Assam’s middle classes in the late 1990s, Hazarika followed suit. With the formation of the NDA government (Asom Gana Parishad or AGP was part of the coalition) in 1998, his political journey came to its culmination with viewing the rabidly communal RSS as the authentic agent of social transformation. He even contested a Lok Sabha seat from Guwahati (which he fortunately lost) on a BJP ticket in 2004, with its cadres blaring his humanist plea ‘mahuhe manuhor babey, jodihe okonu nabhabey…bhabibo kunenu kuwa, xomonia’ (‘if man doesn’t think of man … who will?’) on their election vans. Under the pressure of RSS, he even tried to replace the word Axom with Bharat (as Axom is only to be subsumed within the larger Indian national discourse) in some of his old compositions, but these modifications never became popular. Hazarika’s use of rhetorical forms, like of the ‘virgin earth’ and ‘nation as the mother’ and thus someone to be protected, have been used by patriarchal chauvinists, and this tinge in his content had itself perhaps led to his ‘straying’ into the right wing fold who today find it easy to appropriate him as their own.

Similar turns can also be read in celebrated cultural figures like Bob Dylan who went from being the anthem singer of the radical 1960s generation in the United States to a controversial tryst with a particularly devout form of Christianity. His twists and turns apart, Hazarika did give creative expression to a whole range of feelings of the people of the region, hardly ever discovered by those who had officially avowed ‘art for the sake of society’. Establishing such a chord with people is hardly possible for the crass careerist, and Hazarika, to be sure, was not among them. His compositions blurred the lines between the classical and the folk, between ‘high culture’ and the popular. If he was skilled in composing highly sanskritised Assamese poetry, he was equally at ease in giving voice to the joyous melody of the elephant hunter from Xibaxagor who seduces the gabhoru of Gauripur with his rustic Bihu songs. He was perhaps also the first one to bring the qawwali genre into Assamese (‘samma thakile jarur jarur’). And his songs of love and longing are almost always permeated with a high bout of subversive eroticism, a taboo in the caste Hindu households of the Assamese Shreejuts (‘sikmik bijuli, kije tumar xongo priya’). Thus he declares, ‘xomajor niti niyom bhongatu notun niyom’ (‘breaking old rules is the rule of today’). Since the late 1990s (along with the rightist turn in his politics), Hazarika’s creativity was in rapid decline. He wrote very little in these years and though he composed a few songs for some Bollywood films, they were far inferior, in content and form, to his earlier compositions.

With Hazarika, the only ‘consistency’ then is of the love for wandering, a constant restless flux. A joyous yet troubled sense of celebration with the changing current and flows of the Brahmaputra being the womb and funeral of the numberless cultures melting into each other, led him also to the Podda, the Mississippi and the Volga. In ‘moi eti jajabor’, after the first two stanzas of such wanderings, he reflects on his peripatetic musings, saying ‘bohu jajabor lokhyo bihin, mur pise ase pon’ (‘many wanderers are directionless, but not me’) and in the next stanza goes on to specify why this is so. He pauses a while, saddened and wondering, at the immense inequality between ‘the rows of skyscrapers and the homeless in their shadows’. In his own jajaboria way he identifies the atrocities, loud or silent, stemming from the interstices of the world, and joining voice with the joyous songs of the people struggling against them, moves on again.

For some time now and at his death, when various varieties of nationalists are vying to uphold him as their hero, it would perhaps be more appropriate to read him at best as a signifier of changing times, wound up with the fortunes of various strata of the people of the region. He was never, as the nationalists would have us believe, a poster boy for ‘Akhand Bharat’ or ‘Brihottor Axom’, consistent with belief in the power of the nation. His belief in people and their creative collectivity at times borrowed from the liberal language and metaphors, and the chauvinist turn of his politics can probably be read in this, but a stress on isolated parochial history and/or pre-critical sense of superiority was never his agenda. Even while acquiescing at times with the linguistic Assamese nationalism of AASU which was based on closure, Hazarika nonetheless also continued singing in Bengali and Hindi as also in many other languages, ever in search for the continuities (a friend from Bangladesh just called yesterday to say that many in Bangladesh will probably only now know that he was an Assamese, and not a Bengali!). This also cannot be read (as the triumphant Indian nationalist would have it) as agreeing uncritically to the idea of a homogeneous ‘great Indian nation’. This search is a continuous one which goes beyond the nation. His repeated stress on the metaphor of the ‘river’ and of migration histories brings this out. The song of the young female worker in the tea plantation, who distinguishes herself from the mainstream caste Hindu culture, singing ‘Laxmi nohoi, mure naam saameli’(‘No, my name is not Laxmi; I am Saameli’), also brings this is a case in point where the pathos of the displaced journey of indentured labour and the conditions of bondage under which she worked is brought to life.

We look at this legacy of Hazarika today, when the ashes of countless revolts of the people of the region lie scattered over its plains and hills. As we enter a new phase of capitalist exploitation and uncertainty, the brutalized people search for new forms of organization and collectivity, its new voice. It mourns its singer at this hour, critically appraising him, seeking to wrench him free from the violence of the right wing nationalists, and sing anew the songs of the people. Just days before his death, Hazarika expressed a desire to be cremated near the tomb of his communist mentor, his dear Bistuda or Comrade Bishnu Rabha. Perhaps he wanted to return where he really belonged: to the theatre of creation rumbling in the hearth of the working people. We must fulfill this last wish of his while evaluating his life, taking his songs and journey forward. This year itself, two radical peoples’ theatre personalities, Badal Sircar and Gursharan Singh, who sung with and of the vitality and creativity of the working classes passed away. With Hazarika, even with his troubled legacy, we need to reclaim the voice which once spoke of and inspired the working masses, with whom he sought to melt, singing…

Xitore xemeka rati…
Bostro bihin kunu khetiyokor,
Bhagi pora pojatir tunh jui ekurat,
Umi umi joli thoka,
Raktim jen eti uttap hou

Xemeka xemeka rati…
Khadyo bihin kunu din majoor’or,
Prano’te lukai thoka xudha agoni’r,
Hotathe bhomoki utha prosondo jen, eti pratap hau

Kontho rudho kunu xu gayokor
Probhat anibo pora,
Othoso nuguwa, kunu somor gitor babey,
Moi jen eti sudha kontho hou

(On a wilting winter night, may I be,
in a clothless peasant’s broken hut,
of the slowly burning ember from the hay,
the red glowing warmth. .

Wilting winter night, and may I be,
from the fire of the empty-stomach of a daily labourer,
the suddenly erupting power,
burning bright …

Of a voiceless singer’s unsung war song,
which can wrench out the dawn,
may I be, the music …)

Remembering R S Rao and His Critical Marxist Tradition

Gilbert Sebastian

Prof. R S Rao (74), retired professor from Sambalpur University, a long time intellectual of radical politics in India passed away on 17 June 2011 in New Delhi. He had suffered a stroke and was in the ventilator for around twenty days. The inevitability of death takes away from us his lively and jovial company and the sharp intellect combined with unswerving commitment to the cause of the common people.

Remembering the critical Marxist tradition of R S Rao, we would like to argue herein that it would not be appropriate to portray him as an uncritical loyalist of Maoist politics in India. On the other hand, it would be more appropriate to view him as someone who upheld the critical tradition of questioning and debates within the movement, something which is not commonplace in the Communist movement in India today.

It was a rare combination that R S Rao was a teacher of quantitative economics who taught econometric techniques in the class room and was a theoretician of Marxist political economy outside the class room. Quite uncharacteristic of economists in general, he was an economist who used to speak a lot about people and people’s agency. He used to say, Stalin hardly spoke about people but about material goods. He had a strong historical sense and was optimistic to the core. He believed that systematic application of methodology, as while doing a Ph.D., hampered creativity. He himself never did a Ph.D. He was not overwhelmed by scholarly papers in national and international journals. Rather he attached greater value to articles in activist publications because ‘they have a sense of purpose’, as he put it. He seldom contributed to the mainstream press.

Prof. Rao used to say that in order to understand, we need to focus not on the aspect of light but on the aspect of shade. In life too, he had moved from the light of the Gokhale Institute in Pune to the shade of Sambalpur university located in a backward region. During the hype of developmentalism in the early Nehruvian period, when there were many who praised the building of big dams, he focused on the shady aspects of displacement and misery caused by the Hirakud dam project which he considered as a symbol of exploitation. He had said that even in the ‘modern temples’, those who built them have no entry. Prof. Rao was steadfast in his commitment to the cause of the people until his last days. It may be recalled that he was one of the mediators in the case of the abduction of Collector, Vineel Krishna by Maoists in February 2011.

Although my personal encounters with him were limited to those in late 1990s, they were memorable and intellectually enriching. I would miss Prof. R S Rao, especially since I could not meet him for so many years now. As it is said, Prof. Rao had an ability to leave a strong impression on some people even in one meeting or two. About his person, I remember not only his personal habit of continuous smoking but also his non-hierarchical attitude and the hearty laugh he had, showing his toothless gum. He had a Socratic quality of intellectually guiding the youth through sharp and timely questions. This was very important about his personality since it is said that he still operated mainly within the oral tradition since his writings are few and far between.

His first collection of essays, Towards Understanding Semi-Feudal, Semi-Colonial Society was published in 1995 with a famous essay, ‘In Search of the Capitalist Farmer’. He has also co-edited with Venugopal Rao a collection on 50 years of the History and Development in Andhra Pradesh. Of late, five books and some essays by him have been published in Telugu. In his socio-economic analysis, he had an ingenious way of drawing insights from Telugu literature.

In March and April 1998, he had taken a few parallel classes for some interested students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. His analysis of Marxian dialectics and his observations on how the semi-colonial relations related to the semi-feudal ones in the Indian context were insightful. It still resounds in my memory how he summarised Marxian dialectics in three terms: totality, contradiction, change or movement in time.

During those days, once he chanced to find me with a book of P J James (1995), Non-Governmental Voluntary Organizations: The True Mission. He asked me to review this book for him. So I wrote a review of this book. The main idea of the book was that NGOs were serving the cause of imperialism by diverting people away from the path of class struggle. R S Rao guided me by posing mainly one question: ‘In what specific way(s) do the NGOs turn diversionary?’ He guided me into thinking that they turn diversionary by having no sense of primacy among social contradictions. For example, they would not address the land question but would rather address social contradictions as related to caste, community and gender i.e., those relating to social liberation movements, not directly counterpoised against the State but against one or the other dominant section in society. He had approved my book review, saying it required only some editorial corrections. But unexpectedly, I had to get into a heated argument with a prominent mass leader of the Maoist movement, specifically on the political line of this review. He was very angry and became very personal in his criticism because he felt that I was being too generous towards the NGOs in spite of recognising the neo-colonial agenda many of them were promoting. After this argument, I lost my confidence and did not send the article for publication anywhere. But I could not help wondering how much divergence of views can be there within the same political movement, among those with the same ideological persuasion.

Probably, Tariq Ali was right in pointing out in a recent book review in New Left Review (2010, Nov.-Dec.) that it was something tragic that happened to Communist Parties across the world that they became established mass-based parties in the 1930s and ‘40s during the high tide of Stalinism. The organisational methods they adopted, influenced as they were by Stalinism, stifled dissent and suppressed debate. Probably, this explains how the Communist movements the world over moved away from the early Bolshevik tradition of vibrant debates within the party and in the Indian case, from the vibrant intellectual tradition that characterised Bhagat Singh and his comrades.

It is worth recalling an exchange of views in late 1990s between Prof. Rao and a trade union activist working in the industrial areas in and around Delhi. This comrade-activist had left CPI-ML (Red Flag) in Kerala and joined the stream of Andhra Naxalites. He had left the Red Flag group specifically on the question of this group giving up the policy of armed struggle. Prof. Rao asked him what were the differences which led him to leave Red Flag. He listened to him very carefully and at the end of it, he asked quite emphatically, ‘Is your line a political line or a military line?’ Probably, what he meant was that the political line needs to have primacy over the military line. This is a question worth repeating over and over again today in the context of a neo-liberal State on the one hand, hell-bent on wiping out the Maoists, who are branded as ‘the greatest internal security threat’ and the Maoists on the other, confining their resistance mainly to the military realm rather than on primarily engaging in mass mobilisation around their political line, focusing on the question of people-oriented development. Maoists could be better off if they had primary focus on the political line involving mass movement wherever possible since the State has much less legitimacy in this respect although it is immensely more powerful militarily.

It is ironical that one has to speak about bureaucracy within the Maoist movement because it is a far cry from the Mao’s own ideas of party as a contradiction and party developing through contradictions. But whenever I did talk to Prof. Rao about the problem of bureaucracy within the movement, he was kind enough to tell me not to get discouraged since there are many sincere persons in the movement who are quite self-critical about the movement. He pointed out how (late) Shyam, one of the Central Committee members of CPI-ML (People’s War) was such an honest person who during the peace talks, was willing to accept criticisms about mistakes committed by the movement.

It is not to be missed out that from within the stream of radical politics, Prof. Rao had also come under criticism for not focusing sufficiently on the ‘semi-colonial’ which was gaining increasing ascendency over the ‘semi-feudal’ under ‘liberalisation’. But he seemed to have been more concerned about how one is related to the other. It was not easy to brush aside his argument about a process of ‘re-feudalisation’ in culture and institutions, including the State with the increasing incursions of capital. We could also justify his position from an entirely different angle: Even if the ‘semi-colonial’ or imperialism is considered as the principal contradiction, the struggle for fixed productive assets/natural resources – land, forest and water resources – could constitute the principal task of social transformation in a crisis-ridden and highly unpredictable world order of today.

There would have been times when the movement imposed blinders upon his process of thinking even as it must have enabled him other ways. Although there are those both within and outside the Maoist movement who would like to appropriate Prof. Rao as an uncritical loyalist of the movement, I would like to remember him as someone who belonged to the stream of critical thinking within the movement – an early Bolshevik legacy in the international communist movement and also a legacy left behind by Bhagat Singh in India.

These reminiscences are based on the author’s experience of having worked in the mass front of the Maoist movement. It has also drawn on some of the ideas of G. Haragopal, Vara Vara Rao, Venugopal Rao, Dandapani Mohanty and Rona Wilson during the condolence meeting at JNU, New Delhi on 18 June 2011. The author can be contacted at: gilbertseb@gmail.com

A Fabulist among Communists: José Saramago

Manash Bhattacharjee

The death of José Saramago (1922-2010) doesn’t escape its sombre irony. It is a final punctuation mark in the life of a writer who wrote unpunctuated, seamless sentences. The man who designated the writer as an apprentice and his characters as masters, was ultimately forced to quit his training at the ripe age of eighty-seven. Nevertheless, in tune with his working class roots, Saramago kept his tryst with productivity as diligently as his respiratory illness worked against him.

In his meditative, 1998 Nobel Prize speech, Saramago began by paying tribute to his illiterate grandfather, Jerónimo Meirinho, calling him the wisest man he ever knew. Why was the grandfather so wise? Because he could tell stories endlessly, recounting, what Saramago called, “an untiring rumour of memories”.

This early exposure to oral storytelling helped Saramago incorporate its skills in his writing. He urged the reader to “hear” his novels by reading them aloud, rather than silently. His prose demanded the recognition of the oral as much as the written techniques of language. Saramago himself used the term “written orality” to signify the language he deployed. It opens up an interesting horizon in our understanding of writing’s aural character, apart from the visual. It also grants a twofold meaning to the narrator: as a voice and as a signature.

This must have immediate repercussions on Roland Barthes’ contentions regarding the death of the author.

Unlike what Barthes pointed out, in Saramago’s writing, the “hand” is not “cut off from any voice”. Saramago makes hand and voice work together, where the voice feeds the hand, the way hearing precedes (hence, dictates) writing. The author (in) Saramago thus exists between two disparate credentials, that of the writer and of the oral narrator. The dissemination of language occurs through this process of reciprocal translation between voice and hand, body and mind, memory and invention.

The other contention of Barthes, about the difference between reader and writer, gets blurred as Saramago’s writing itself emerges as a kind of reading. Saramago is infamous for committing mischief with religious and historical narratives. A task he owes to both, a reading and a counter-reading of canonical texts to produce new, critical versions by a reader. The author (in) Saramago is a reader beyond recognition.

For example, in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Saramago reads between the lines of history and legend, to produce a counter tale. Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, tampers with a vital fact about the Christian re-conquest of Lisbon, by making the Crusaders refuse to help the Portuguese king, hence by default siding with the Moors. Such a move mocks and disturbs Portugal’s nationalist imaginary.

Saramago also spoke of inviting the reader (speculatively, including himself) to “accept a pact”, where he would transform an “absurd idea” into a “logical” stream of thought. He called this “the possibility of the impossible”.

This is particularly evident in novels like Blindness, Seeing and Death with Interruptions, where improbable events take place in a believable language. The events serve as an allegorical device by Saramago to bring to focus his deepest concerns about the human world. The language is believable because Saramago’s plots exaggerate on the oldest anxieties of human beings. He reworks old questions in the light of contemporary concerns, where the bizarre clashes against the everyday. This rupture between the bizarre and the everyday is the key secret of Saramago’s power to both enthral and disturb his audience. Whenever Saramago delves into the theme of political decadence, as he does in Seeing, he traps the reader at the psychological level, but keeps him marvelling at the ingenuity of the plot. The question of plot in Saramago works in an insidious manner: to highlight a particular crisis in the world which the writer finds to be going out of hand, and therefore in need of a radical sub-version of vision. It is a critical subversion of reality, where uncanny events emerge from the heart of the mundane. There is a constant tendency in Saramago to fuse the surreal with the pragmatic. Born to landless peasants, and brought up in a working class neighbourhood, the writer was vigilant about the contradictions of life.

Saramago spent his formative years under Salazar’s fascist dictatorship. This had a deep impact on his working class sensibilities. Saramago became a card carrying member of the Communist Party of Portugal from 1969, when the party was illegal. His relationship with the movement was, however, always critical.

In the 1980s, Saramago sided with the reformist rebellion within the party. Except him, everyone else was expelled. Fidel Castro was a friend who invited him many times to Cuba. Yet in 2003, despite and because of his love for Cuba, Saramago disowned Castro by saying, he “has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams”. In 2004, during his visit to Columbia, Saramago designated the two rebel guerrilla groups in that country as “armed gangs”.

There have been polemical attacks by communist intellectuals against Saramago on these issues. It includes sociologist James Petras’ open letter to Saramago regarding the comments on the Columbian guerrilla in the American newsletter Counterpunch, where he accused the writer of “bizarre historical amnesia”.

What is, however, missing in these attacks is the old question post-Stalinist, communist politics needs to ask itself: How does the movement and the party understand the relationship between writers and politics?

For Saramago, like Garcia Marquez, being a writer and being part of politics sometimes uncomfortably came to mean torn loyalties. This rupture of loyalty however doesn’t take place under any relativistic prism. It is not a rupture with the political but rather a rupture within the political. It works as an event which always reaffirms the presence of ethics in politics. Am alert writer, free from the burdens of bourgeois/religious morality, may not fail to distinguish and question the difference between politics as such, and what happens in the name of politics. In other words, the writer would question the representative form of politics and probe the justifications of its excesses. Such an intervention, in cases like Saramago’s, steers clear from any individualised conception of both society and politics.

Despite the de-individualised form of such a writer’s identity, involved in the larger dream of historical transformation, clashes can occur with the vagaries of political expediency and its justificatory, ideological logic. Saramago called himself a “hormonal communist” and yet added, he wouldn’t “make excuses for what communist regimes have done”.

This is a post-Sartrean distinction where a writer refuses to follow any diktat which seeks to undermine criticism in the name of ideological commitment. The angst of good faith is privileged over the paranoia of bad faith. To the disgrace of political regimes, such writers have been violently punished by disciplining bosses in the shadow of ideological excuses. Saramago was fortunate to escape, unlike others, in this regard.

Both literary temperament and politics work within certain constraints. The rationalist logic of politics cannot forcibly restrain the intense logic of literary imagination. Imagination is political, but on its own grounds. This issue not only begs a re-reading of the Frankfurt School and other intellectuals, but more importantly a re-reading of the (auto)biographies of poets and writers who were convicted under communist regimes.

What Saramago owed to communist ideas is best exemplified in his novels. A modern fabulist, he set the mythical vis-à-vis the historical, and the moral vis-à-vis the political. The materiality of Saramago’s imagination never failed to assert its concern of how class divisions work in historical contexts.

In Balthazar and Blimunda, Saramago used the baroque style to capture the violent contrasts between the royalty and the Church on the one hand and the common people on the other. His description of elaborate grandeur surrounding royal and religious formalities gets constantly tampered by his sense of bitter irony and irreverence. The story pays homage to the courage of marginal but talented heroes and heretics who don’t give up the audacity to dream and love in the midst of an impending auto-da-fé.

In novels like The History and All the Names, Saramago also showed his keenness towards certain minor figures like the proofreader and the clerk. These figures, alluding to Saramago’s own journey through these crafts and positions, gain extraordinary prominence due to their idiosyncratic insights into history and society.

Once when asked to specify his identity, Saramago said: “First of all I’m Portuguese, then Iberian, and then, if I feel like it, I’m European.” To prefer linguistic and geographical specificities about oneself over an occidental frame of reference shows how Saramago understood political contexts without taking the rhetoric of grand, cultural narratives too seriously. His understanding of communist politics can also be read through this register.

In 2002, Saramago enraged Jews by comparing Israel’s barbarities with the Holocaust. Saramago’s interest in the Middle East and his siding with the Palestinians is an illuminating shift from a writer who was whimsical about his European identity.

In his last published book of essays, The Notebook, Saramago severely criticised the new global economic order. He called George Bush “the high priest of all liars” and severely took the United States to task.

In a world besieged by neo-liberal fascism, the populist decadence of democracy and the calculated murdering of the poor and the other, Saramago’s voice is a warning from the future. It is very different from the way Hollywood imagines the future in the form of re-colonising, scientific fantasies. Saramago tried to persistently tell us, the future is disappearing before our eyes.

The writer is a poet and a political theorist, living in New Delhi. This article is a slightly improved version of the one by the same title as it appeared in the Literary Review section of The Hindu, 4th July, 2010.

In memory of Pyla Vasudeva Rao, a leader of the Srikakulam Armed Struggle

Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS)
Delhi Committee

A memorial meeting for Com. Pyla Vasudeva Rao
Date: April 20 2010 (Tuesday), Time: 5:30 PM o
Venue: Gandhi Peace Foundation, Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg (near ITO)

Veteran communist revolutionary of India and one of the foremost leaders of the glorious Srikakulam Armed Struggle Pyla Vasudeva Rao breathed his last at 10:00 AM on April 11, 2010 after fighting cancer. He was 78 years old at the time of his death; of these he had party life of 58 years of which the last 42 years were spent in underground.

Born in 1932 in Rittapadu village of Srikakulam dist, Com. Pyla joined the united Communist Party in 1953 when a party unit was formed in his village. Taking up a teacher’s job on the Party’s instruction, many of his students joined the revolutionary communist movement. He became a professional revolutionary in 1962 and also a member of the district committee of the party.

In response to the clarion call of the Great Naxalbari Peasant Armed Struggle, the Srikakulam Girijan Armed Peasant Struggle started on 25thNovember 1968 and on the decision of the party, Com. PV went underground. As a member of the Srikakulam leadership, Com. Pyla became part of the CPI(ML). He participated in the 1970 CPI(ML) Party Congress (first after Naxalbari). In Srikakulam movement he worked alongside Comrades Panchadi Krishnamurthy, Vempatapu Satyam, Adibhatta Kailasam, Subbarao Panigrahi and others.

Between 1969-70 many important leaders of Srikakulam leaders were martyred and the movement suffered huge losses and setbacks. CPI(ML) PC was reorganized of which Com. Pyla became the secretary. Opposing the line of individual annihilation, Com. Pyla resigned as PC secretary and joined with other Srikakulam comrades to revive CC led by S.N. Singh. Since then he was a member of the Central Committee of the Party. In 1974, APRCP led by Com. CP Reddy merged with the CPI(ML) led by Com. SN Singh and Srikakulam movement became part of the state movement. Com. Pyla was elected state committee secretary in 1976 when Com. P. Ramanarasaiah was killed in a fake encounter.

He was re-elected to the CC in the 1980 Special Congress. For long the Party in AP was identified with his name.

Com. Pyla consistently practiced and supported the revolutionary mass line and struggled against rightism and revisionism. He was an ardent votary of an armed agrarian revolution and of building areas of sustained resistance. His death comes at the time when the peasants of India are rising in many parts against the decadent rule of the ruling classes, against landlord oppression and forcible displacement. Srikakulam Armed Struggle continues to inspire the revolutionaries and struggling people of the country. Srikakulam Armed Struggle which reached the highest point in terms of resistance and people’s participation among all the struggles inspired by Naxalbari continues to serve as a beacon light for the present revolutionary movement. Com. Pyla as one of the leaders of that movement continues to live in the memory of the revolutionaries and the struggling people of the country.

Kanu Sanyal: A Long March Ends

 Gautam Sen

It was a heroic emergence. It is a tragic departure. In the middle there lay a long tortuous path to traverse.

Kanu Sanyal was both an architect and a product of the Spring Thunder of Naxalbari upsurge in 1967. An eruption that spread the call of armed uprising and seizure of state power. Its culmination notwithstanding, it played a historic role as a rebellion against the “parliamentary path of revolution” purveyed by the traditional communist current in Indian politics.

Kanu Sanyal and his close comrade-in-arm, Jangal Santhal, turned into revolutionary icons both for the youth and the peasantry of this country. Kanu Sanyal, along with some of his comrades, visited China secretly and met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and exchanged views over the prospects of Indian revolution. It was Sanyal who acquainted the world with the “contribution of Charu Mazumdar” in the Naxal uprising and the communist “fight against revisionism”.

He also became one of the enthusiastic leaders who championed what nowadays is famous as the CM line, and tried to establish the “revolutionary authority of Charu Mazumdar”. (Ref: ‘Be cautious of those who want to dismantle the revolutionary authority of Charu Mazumdar’.) The privilege to announce the formation of a new party – the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – conferred on Kanu Sanyal on May 1, 1969, served to underscore his electrifying charisma and the revolutionary esteem he was held in those days.

On the fundamental question, ‘What road is to be followed by the Indian revolution?’, his analysis then was: “The Indian revolution must take the road of relying on the peasants, establishing base areas in the countryside, persisting in protracted armed struggle and using the countryside to encircle and finally capture the cities. This is Mao Tse-tung’s road, the road that has led the Chinese revolution to victory, and the only road to victory for the revolutions of all oppressed nations and peoples.” He pointed out, “The specific nature of the Indian revolution, like that of the Chinese revolution, is armed revolution fighting against armed counter-revolution; armed struggle is the only correct road for the Indian revolution; there is no other road whatsoever.” He further believed “the spark in Darjeeling will start a prairie fire and will certainly set the vast expanses of India ablaze.” (Ref: ‘Report of the Terai Movement’, published at the end of 1968.)

Towards the end of 1972, Kanu Sanyal started questioning the CM line. Subsequently, one of the main founders of the CPI(ML) publicly declared that not only was the formation of a new party a great blunder, it was the product of a handful of conspirators who moved away from the lessons of Naxalbari movement, which he still believed to be a milestone. In April 1973, he wrote ‘More on Naxalbari’ where he categorically challenged the claim that the Naxalbari uprising was the product of the application of CM’s theory, especially his ‘The Eight Documents’, which was circulated among the members of Darjeeling district committee of the CPI(M) long before the uprising. In none of these declarations, statements or writings, was there a serious critical self-evaluation, though Sanyal admitted a Himalayan blunder had been committed.

Being consistent with his evaluation about the formation of the CPI(ML), he refused, unlike other ML fractions, to tag the post-split network he led as CPI(ML) with this or that nomenclature within parenthesis. However, after subsequent splits and mergers he finally agreed in 2005 to be the general secretary of the party that was named CPI (ML) without any further appelation.

He criticised the CM line, especially the line of “annihilation of class enemy”; he revised and redrafted a number of tactical lines; but he could not go beyond the general orientation projected in the Terai Report and adopted by the undivided CPI(ML). As a consequence, he imprisoned himself within the narrow and blind confines of endless permutation-combination of grouping and regrouping of the ‘communist revolutionaries’. He admitted the Himalayan blunder, but could not stretch his capabilities enough to take the rectification drive to the desired level. When thousand inner-party struggles within the ‘communist revolutionaries’ continued to produce only further disillusionment, demoralisation and fragmentation, a personality of the stature of  Kanu Sanyal could have been in the forefront of a mission to impart communist inquisitiveness and genuine search for an alternative path of class struggle. A path that would inspire the masses to fight and change.

Dream shattered, mission unaccomplished, he, however, never stopped his journey to organise and reorganise the toiling masses. It is, indeed, a matter of great regret that though he took earnest initiative to organise different sections of the workers, especially the tea garden workers, he neither gave due importance to the historical potential of the working class in changing the world and society, nor let his revolutionary energy flow towards the self-emancipation of the working class, either in his theorisation or his practice.

Kanu Sanyal is dead. Long Live his solitary and collective drive towards communism!

Hari Sharma (1934-2010)

Chin Banerjee, Harinder Mahil, Raj Chouhan, Daya Varma, Vinod Mubayi, Charan Gill

It is with deepest sorrow that we announce the death of our friend and comrade, Hari Prakash Sharma, on March 16 following a prolonged battle with cancer. Hari took his last breath in his home of 42 years at Burnaby (a suburb of Vancouver), British Columbia, surrounded by his comrades Harinder Mahil, Raj Chouhan, and Chin Banerjee. All of them had come together in 1976 to form the Vancouver Chapter of the Indian People’s Association in North America (IPANA), which had been founded by Hari and many others at a meeting in Montreal in 1975.

Hari was born on November 9, 1934 at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh though his family came from Haryana. His father was a railway employee, so he moved from one place to another wherever his father was posted. Hari received his BA from Agra University and his Master’s in Social Work from Delhi University. The insight into the social life of India Hari got from his travels by train enabled by his father’s employment in the railways and his extensive travels by foot through the villages of India stimulated Hari to start writing short stories in Hindi. Hari is regarded as one of the finest writers of short stories in Hindi and many people had urged him to resume his writing in Hindi. One of his stories was adapted as a play and staged in New Delhi.

Hari moved to the US in 1963 for further education and did his Master in Social Work from the Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, in 1964 and Ph.D. in sociology from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY in 1968. He taught briefly at UCLA before accepting a position at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia in 1968, where he stayed till his retirement in 1999. He was honored by the University as Professor Emeritus.

Hari, like many enlightened academics of the 1960’s plunged in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the US and Canada. This is also the period when he espoused Marxism, which ideology he held dearly and steadfastly until his death.

As a member of the Faculty of Simon Fraser University he became a champion of the academic rights of colleagues who were faced with the threat of dismissal for their support of the student-led movement for democratizing the university. He became an associate and friend of another Marxist Kathleen Gough, who was suspended for her political activities. Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma co-edited the 469-page book, Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia, which was published in 1973 by the Monthly Review Press, New York. The book was sought by political activists of that time and many people know of Hari as an eminent leftist scholar because of that book.

The 1960’s were a period of international revolutionary upheaval. The Naxalbari peasant uprising happened in the spring of 1967. Hari was greatly inspired by it. He went to India and visited Naxalbari area. It is then he got committed to the path opened by Naxalbari and retained his faith in its ultimate success until his last days, while many of his comrades had simply written off Naxalbari as a thing of the past. Hari developed contact with peasant revolutionaries and maintained a living contact till his last days.

While associating with the Naxalbari movement in India, Hari carried on anti-imperialist work in Vancouver through the weekly paper, Georgia Straight, published by the Georgia Straight Collective, of which he was a founding member. In 1973 Hari went to the Amnesty International in London and the Commission of Jurists in Geneva and sent a written representation to the UN Human Rights Commission to publicize the condition of more than thirty-thousand political prisoners in Indian jails.

In 1974 he and his comrade Gautam Appa of the London School of Economics organized a petition of international scholars to protest the treatment of political prisoners in India, which he handed to the Indian Consulate in Vancouver, BC on August 15 of the same year.

In 1975 Hari enthusiastically accepted an invitation from his friends in Montreal. He along with many others founded the Indian People’s Association in North America (IPANA) on June 25, 1975, exactly on the same day on which Indira Gandhi declared the State of Emergency in India. Hari’s tireless work against dictatorship in India and in defense of political prisoners and oppressed peoples, and his energetic organization of progressive people across North America in the struggle against Imperialism and for social justice, led to the revocation of his passport by the Indira Gandhi government in 1976.

Having engaged in various anti-racist struggles in the 1970s, IPANA in Vancouver, under Hari’s leadership became a primary force in the formation of the British Columbia Organization to Fight Racism (BCOFR: 1980), which proved to be an extremely effective instrument against the tide of racism in the province at the time. Hari and IPANA also played a leading role in the formation of the Canadian Farmworkers’ Union (CFU: 1980), which for the first time took up the cause of farm workers who had been historically excluded from protection under the labour laws and any protective regulation.

From the 1980s Hari’s work also began to focus on the condition of minorities in India, which came to a crisis with the attack on the Golden Temple and the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Hari stood firm in his defense of the human rights of Sikhs and, increasingly of Muslims who became the primary targets of the rising Hindutva forces gathered under the banner of the Bhartiya Janata Party. He organized a parallel conference on the centralization of state power and the threat to minorities in India to coincide with the Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver in 1987.

In 1989 Hari brought large sections of the South Asian community together to form the Komagata Maru Historical Society to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Komagata Maru incident, in which Indian immigrants traveling to Canada on a chartered ship were turned away from the shores of Vancouver by the racist policies of the Canadian Government. As a result of the society’s work a commemorative plaque was installed in Vancouver. In 2004, during a screening of the documentary film on this incident by Ali Kazimi, Continuous Journey, the Mayor of Vancouver presented a scroll to Hari dedicating the week to the memory of Komagata Maru.

Following the attack on Babri Masjid in December 1992 Hari became the prime mover in the formation of a North American organization dedicated to the defense of minority rights in India called, Non-resident Indians for Secularism and Democracy (NRISAD). This organization brought together Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians of origin in South Asia through educational and cultural activities. It had its most significant moment in Vancouver in 1997, when it celebrated the 50th anniversary of the independence of India from colonial rule by bringing together people from the entire spectrum of the South Asian community to focus on how much remained to be done on the subcontinent and the urgent need for peace between Pakistan and India.

Recognizing the need to build a North American front against the growing menace of Hindutva fascism in India, Hari travelled to Montreal in September 1999 to join the founding of International South Asia Forum (INSAF). He became is first President and organized the Second Conference in Vancouver from Augst10-12, 2001.

Hari’s leadership again led to the development of NRISAD into South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD) in Vancouver to embrace the necessity of going beyond a focus on India to the entire South Asian region in the quest of peace and democracy based on secularism, human rights and social justice. SANSAD has pursued these goals vigorously, condemning the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 (for which he was denied a visa to go to India), championing the human rights of Kashmiris, promoting peace between Pakistan and India, supporting the rights of women in Pakistan, condemning violence against journalists and academics in Bangladesh, supporting the movement for democracy and social justice in Nepal, and defending the human rights of Tamils under the attack of the Sri Lankan state.

Besides being an able political organizer and a gifted writer of short stories, Hari was also a talented photographer. He photographed the common people of India, their lives and struggles. His photographs hang in many homes and have been displayed in many exhibitions. He proved himself to be an excellent director of political drama.

Political ideals remain steadfast. However, there has, naturally been, divergence of opinion on the strategy and tactics of achieving these ideals. During the course of long political activity of more than 50 years, Hari made many friends and comrades. It is natural that among these comrades there also arose disagreements on many issues. Nevertheless, Hari remained a comrade or a friend of all of them and they all are deeply saddened by his passing away.

Hari leaves behind him a legacy of activism in the service of the oppressed. He is an inspiration to engagement in the struggle for a better world, to a never-flagging effort to create a world without exploitation, without imperialist domination, without religious, caste, ethnic or gender oppression, a world that Marx envisioned as human destiny.

A Memorial Service for Hari will be held at Riverside Funeral Home and Crematorium, 7410- Hopcott Road, Delta, B.C. (Ph. 604-940-1313) , at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 21, 2010.

On Howard Zinn

Cyrus Bina, Distinguished Research Professor
University of Minnesota

We have lost a towering figure of remarkable quality during the age of intellectual decline and moral timidity in Americana. This is the time of destructive creation in (and by) Wall Street, which has now been piggybacked on Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” an apt description of bread-and-butter and winner-take-all modus operandi of business throughout America and elsewhere. This is an era that our government has invaded the two major Muslim countries based upon a little more than out-of thin-air reasoning, and decidedly created a two-front war that has not only dilapidated us to the core morally but, if history is of any consolation, will haunt us not unlike the ghost of Hamlet’s father all the way to the end of the twenty-first century. We have entered into the era of transnationalization of capital and capitalism, which is synonymous with the end of the Pax Americana and American hegemony and which had sunk us since the 1980s in the ocean of hegemony-smashing globalization; yet our sanguine government acts like a newly minted hegemon of the yesteryears, and then when hardly any nation (particularly those which were the subject of past US coups) does give a hoot, it mindlessly plan to dominate, even invade, it by extra-judicial and colonial means. The excruciating lessons of Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate, labor strife, rampant racism and racial segregation, immigration and immigrant bashing, racial and political profiling, blanket surveillance of citizenry, government secrecy, not to mention, tempering with tenure and academic rights appear to have lost on those who sit at positions of power in this country. It is in midst of these unlearned lessons and unheeded mistakes that Howard Zinn’s loss is felt so glaringly today. Howard Zinn wore a couple of dozen hats in dealing with all these crucial matters in his long life and colorful career, which placed him among a handful of most daring and effective public intellectuals in the twentieth century. He was a renaissance man, in his thought and in his deeds. He will be remembered as an illuminating towering candle in the altar of humanity that burnt fully to the very last droplet, before it faded away. The world is dimmer now and I miss him already.

Remembering Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010)

Saswat Pattanayak

“To be neutral is to collaborate with whatever is going on, and I as a teacher do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world today.” (Howard Zinn)

In the grossly unequal world that we inhabit, it is always tempting to remain apolitical, especially if one is an academician materially benefiting from the status quo system of education. It is only logical to separate classroom instructions from political activisms, since teachers are desired by the system to enhance employability of students within the social framework, not to agitate their conscience to challenge the social order. In a world of established, codified and professional knowledge, it is required on part of historians to promulgate official narrations of national heroes and victorious wars; not overthrow ruling class histories to replace them with versions of the oppressed subjects.

Howard Zinn’s aspirations to become a teacher were also founded with similar convictions. But unlike most people in his times, he was fundamentally a radical thinker. When he heard Woody Guthrie’s song on Ludlow Massacre, he wondered why he never read about it in history books. He questioned the omission of labor struggles in historical manuscripts. When for the first time he joined a mass demonstration at the age of 17 to strengthen the Communist Party of the United States of America on Times Square, he questioned the claimed neutrality of barbaric police and brutal government orders. Unlike most people of our times, he decided he must choose a side, and he chose his side early on. A side of the toiling masses, and mine workers, of protesting students and peaceniks, of marginalized sections and conscientious objectors. A side, which he never left, not even in his death. For the world of the oppressed, Zinn shall always remain alive as the working class professor who dedicated his life in challenging the system of education by getting the world to enter the university and letting the university enter into the world.

University was not to be merely wasted in academic pursuits. As a white professor in Atlanta-based predominantly black Spelman College, Zinn organized students around issues of desegregation and racial justice in manners which led FBI to enlist him. Bringing to national attention the remarkable acts of resistance orchestrated by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he redefined nonviolence: “Non-violence does not mean acceptance, it means resistance. Not waiting, but acting. It is not at all passive; it involves strikes, boycotts, non cooperation, mass demonstration, and sabotage.” Zinn’s involvement in black liberation struggles cost him his job, led to his arrest and raised questions on his acceptance as a historian. His Vietnam coverage as a journalist to uncover the Operation County Fair – the systematic killings of Vietnamese men and torture of women and children – added to his disrepute for the administrations. For the free American society, he had unbridled rage: “We grow up in a controlled society. When one person kills another person, that is murder. When a government kills a hundred thousand persons, is that patriotism?”

Subjective Historian

When he finally authored A People’s History of the United States, it was boycotted by American Historical Review – the foremost American academic history journal. Zinn was accused of taking sides of the indigenous, in his authoritative and foremost assessment of Columbus as an anti-hero. He silenced the objectivists: “There is no such thing as impartial history. The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lie. It is omission or de-emphasis of important data. The definition of important of course depends on one’s values.” One’s values often metamorphose with changing times. But Howard Zinn’s never did. He remained a radical throughout, his capacity for moral outrage remaining unparalleled.

He wrote, for instance, “There is no objective way to deal with the Ludlow Massacre. There is the subjective (biased, opinionated) decision to omit it from history, based on a value system which doesn’t consider it important enough. That value system may include a fundamental belief in the beneficence of the American industrial system. Or it may just involve a complacency about class struggle and the intrusion of government on the side of corporations. In any case, it is a certain set of values which dictates the ignoring of that event. It is also a subjective decision to tell the story of the Ludlow Massacre in some detail. My decision was based on my belief that it is important for people to know the extent of class conflict in our history, to know something about how hard working people had to struggle to change their conditions, and to understand the role of the government and the mainstream press in the class struggles of our past.”

Discovery of Columbus

If the world was certain about one American knowledge, it was the discovery of the continent. Columbus had discovered America, until Howard Zinn discovered Columbus through the latter’s diaries. Zinn contended that a people cannot be discovered by their class enemies. They can only be brutally murdered, captured and subjugated. With thoroughly fundamental researches, Zinn proceeded to conclude on Columbus and the foundation of America which was hitherto unknown. “What did Columbus want? In the first two weeks of journal entries, there is one word that recurs seventy-five times: GOLD,” the historian revealed. Zinn’s infusion of people’s history in America inspired similar Marxist interpretations of indigenous histories throughout the globe. In popularizing the possibility of telling history from the lens of the oppressed, Zinn virtually legitimized the subject as a progressive weapon.

Pacifism as a Necessity

Zinn did not oppose wars because doing so was in fashion. In fact, his kind of opposition has never been in fashion. He has been a steadfast pacifist who saw no merit in wars. There was no such thing as a good war in our times, he would conclude after using chemical weapons during the Second World War as a fighter pilot. His was an imagination that has not been fully expanded so far, but its merits are experienced daily as the American power continues its “just wars” on the “axis of evil”. Suffice it to say, if history is a great lesson, Zinn’s pacifist stances are certainly among the greatest ones.
Zinn wrote in his Just and Unjust Wars: “What war does, even if it starts with an injustice, is multiply the injustice. If it starts on the basis of violence, it multiplies the violence. If it starts on the basis of defending yourself against brutality, then you end up becoming a brute.”

Disobedience to Law

Ruling class always uses ‘national security’ as the potent excuse to suppress mass rebellion. Zinn instigated students and young people to question such tactics, especially during the times of wars. In his essay, Second Thoughts on the First Amendment, Zinn wrote: “The First Amendment has always been shoved aside in times of war or near war. 1798 was near war, 1917 was war. In 1940 when the Smith Act was passed the country was near war. In those trials against the Communist and Socialist Workers Party the courtroom was full with stuff the prosecution had brought in. What had they brought in? Guns, bombs, dynamite fuses? No, they brought in the works of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Stalin. That’s like a bomb. So people went to jail. For national security.”

Throughout his academic and journalistic career, Zinn maintained that progress of the society depended not on the premise of abiding the law of the land, or to uphold “national security”, but through demonstration of mass disobedience towards unjust laws. He would enlighten students and readers on how Supreme Court never changed the course of American freedom path. No well-meaning jury ever changed any law for the better. People on the streets have always forced the judiciary system to reform itself. Even to the last days, he wrote how President Obama was incapable of bringing fundamental changes, unless mass participations against his power status quo forces him to radically different directions. Zinn’s capacity to comprehend potentials within the masses as opposed to within the leaders is what distinguished him from many progressive thinkers.

Progressive Storyteller

One remarkable aspect of Howard Zinn was his lack of professionalism. Zinn, despite belonging to the world of academics, was an anti-academician. He never waited for academic peer reviews or approvals by purist committees. He was not a historian with any astute sense of proportion or dignified scholastic languages. He was never one to claim for fame or stick to major publications glorifying inaccessible texts. About his greatest work, A People’s History, he once said, “I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s industrial progress from the standpoint not of Rockefeller and Carnegie and Vanderbilt, but of the people who worked in their mines, their oil fields, who lost their limbs or their lives building the railroads. I wanted to tell the story of wars, not from the standpoint of generals and presidents, not from the standpoints of those military heroes whose statues you see all over this country, but through the eyes of the G.I.’s, or through the eyes of “the enemy.” Yes, why not look at the Mexican War, that great military triumph of the United States, from the viewpoint of the Mexicans?”

If Zinn wrote, he did so in order to reach out to the masses that had no inkling of theoretical underpinnings or paradoxical paradigms. Zinn wrote in order to tell the lesser told stories. He wrote biographies of unknown strugglers of the past. He made accessible the speeches of the striking miners. He edited books that were entirely collections of radical writings. As though an enthusiast, a sucker for historical trivia, Zinn became the greatest medium for radical messages for people of all ages and walks of life.

Reclaiming Marx

Zinn was never afraid of being labeled a Marxist in the world of hypocritical academia, but he wondered if Marx would have been pleased with such an epithet reserved for a genuine activist. Many of his contemporaries immensely borrowed from the works of Marx and Lenin, but steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Zinn brought Marx alive within historical realm, not just through the framework with which he studied history, but also by penning down Marx in Soho. Not just was it a satirical take on the current pseudo-Marxists, it was also a grave reminder on how Marx was possibly the most relevant text in contemporary times.

Class analysis formed the core of every historical research Zinn conducted. He had an impeccable ability to discern illusions. Zinn vehemently opposed the capitalistic propaganda around freedom of speech as a moral injunction to gain respectability in contemporary world order. He turned the question on its head for American freedom: “Freedom of speech is not just a quality. It’s a quantity. It’s not a matter of do you have free speech, like in America we have free speech. Just like, in America we have money. How much do you have? How much freedom of speech do you have? Do you have as much freedom of speech as Exxon?”

Critical questions alone have guided the world to progressive historical interpretations. Employing radical perspectives, Howard Zinn has not only left behind issues that have legacies of progressivism, but also equally powerful tools for future reinventions of the current world. “We the people” are stricken by the grief of his passage, but enriched by his enduring imaginings.

Reminiscing the Political Legacy of Balagopal

Gilbert Sebastian

This condolence note for K. Balagopal, the eminent human rights activist expired at 57 from a cardiac arrest on 8 October 2009, is motivated by the feeling that the political man in Balagopal is often given a short shrift.

As with Marx, Balagopal had also undergone an epistemological break in 1993. So we had two Balagopals: Early Balagopal, the Marxist-Leninist who was an advocate of ‘new democratic revolution’ and late Balagopal who turned a “liberal humanist”. I knew only the late Balagopal since 1994, politically, not personally.

Early Balagopal was influenced by the students involved in radical politics at Kakatiya University, Warangal in 1980s while he was a teacher of Mathematics there. So he used to admit that his students themselves were his teachers. Apparently, he came to be attracted to theoretical Marxism through an uncommon route i.e., through D.D.Kosambi’s critique of the Bhagavad Gita.

What was the social context of the shift in the ideological horizon of an intellectual like Balagopal? The romantic, idealistic phase of the Naxalite movement was largely over. The Naxalite/Maoist movement was now an emergent State in the making and as all States do, it ‘arrogates to itself the legitimate monopoly of violence in society’, as Leon Trotsky, the Marxist had conceptualised and Max Weber, the liberal had agreed with him. The mass base of the movement changed as revolutionary ideas percolated down to the lowest classes, and those hailing from educated urban middle class sections and intelligentsia were unable to cope with heightened levels of State repression. It is rightly said that at every significant stage of a political movement, there are bound to be certain prominent drop-outs.

Balagopal pressed for the independence of the line of human rights movements. He argued that civil liberties movements should have autonomy from the militant peoples movements.

In 2000, during a public talk by him in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he had toed the line of identity politics by a multiplicity of non-class social groups. But he was open to criticisms from the floor, including the one from me that the issue of primacy among social contradictions and the notion of totality were completely sidelined in this perspective. Later on, we came to hear that he mellowed down his position by becoming an ardent critic of the lack of autonomy from the revolutionary Party of the mass organisations, such as of women’s organisations, anti-caste mass fronts, students’ fronts, etc.

Around 1999-2000, we came to access Balagopal’s Telugu writing on the dark facets (cheekadi konaalu) of the Naxalite movement i.e. on dundudukku (dadaagiri/excesses) by the Naxalite movement, allegedly against the very social base they represent. The expression, ‘cheekadi konaalu‘ was much resented by the activists in the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh. This writing was translated to me and another activist by my co-activist with Democratic Students Union (DSU) in JNU. Subsequently, the translator himself gave me in Telugu the Party publication refuting all these charges one by one and he admitted that these charges have been somewhat convincingly answered. The late Balagopal tended to view the violence by the neo-liberal State and that by the resistance movements (such as the killing of ‘informers’) on the same plane. In any case, issues related to the universal danger of bureaucratisation of people’s movements have been brought to the fore by Balagopal. It is known, how the Communist Parties in erstwhile Soviet Union and China which were supposed to be the vanguard of people’s struggles turned against their own social base and became anti-people in course of time. Notably, Balagopal spoke about a Communist Party which had not yet come to State power.

In 1993, the shift in perspective envisaged by Balagopal for the civil and democratic rights movement followed from his description of the dark facets of the Naxalite movement. He argued that playing a mediatory role between the State and the militant rights-based movements, the “human rights” movement should try to expand the democratic space in society. He does not envisage a systemic change. Whereas the character of the system is determined by the coalition of classes that wield and exercise power, Balagopal’s perspective does not seek to dislodge the coalition of classes in power nor does it visualise an overhauling of the system in its totality.

He had repeated his central thesis even in his talk at India Islamic Centre in New Delhi on 4 August 2009, i.e. in the meeting with the key slogan, “Stop Militarization of Democratic Space”: Militant movements from the Maoist/Naxalite movement to the nationality movements of Kashmir and the North-east of India kill mostly those who belong to their own social base. Further, he made a sharp – rather mathematical – distinction between Maoist movement as a movement representing the aspirations of deprived sections of people on the one hand with Maoist movement as a movement fighting for State power, on the other. He supported the former and disowned the latter. He was, however, consistent in defending revolutionary and nationality movements in our country against their containment through a purely militaristic approach, as he did during this meeting as well. The Human Rights Forum which he established after splitting off with Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) was consistent in upholding the rights of the human person from Telengana and Chhattisgarh to Kashmir and the north-east of our country.

On the corridors of India Islamic Centre in New Delhi on 4th August, when I asked him if the overall level of violence does not come down when there is a rights-based political movement (as argued by Prof. Haragopal and others). He asked me to clarify and I said that when there is no such political movement, there is, often a lot of violence by mafia elements, a lot of social violence against those at the lowest rungs of the social ladder like Dalits, Adivasis, etc.  He said, it is very questionable and shot back, ‘What happens, when the movement withdraws from a region?’ I tried arguing with him that this may be considered only as the specific situation in Telangana today. He gave me a prejudiced look and was not willing to discuss it further. He went away saying, ‘Not now; may be some other time.’ Unfortunately, I cannot now look forward to having the pleasure of a lively discussion with him anymore.  

After the same meeting on 4th August, I also overheard him saying that high-flying intellectuals do not often have the necessary touch with the ground reality; their views are often generated through google searches. As a human rights activist, he always made it a point that his analysis and his opinions were well-grounded on the concrete situations of the day. His write-ups in the Economic and Political Weekly should be evidence enough to this.

An incident in early 1996 at JNU may be recalled where a public meeting on Kashmir with respectable speakers like the late V M Tarkunde was blocked by a frontal organization of ABVP and there was serious tension on the campus. In the night, there was a talk by Balagopal at ganga dhaba. He said that the nation is not just the map; it is primarily its people. He gave graphic descriptions of the human rights violations indulged in by Indian security forces in Kashmir. ABVP was put completely on the defensive and some of them who were howling him down during the whole of his talk, were chased away by students after a provocative speech by the next speaker, late Chandrasekhar Prasad, the then JNU Students Union President.

To illustrate the high intellectual calibre of Balagopal as a pro-people intellectual, we paraphrase something from his writing on the cultural basis of the Hindutva movement in our country:

At the cultural level, there are myriad resentments in a society like India. Someone may enjoy privileges in some respect or the other, however lowly he/she may be in relation to the totality of the system. This becomes the basis for harbouring “a little enemy of equality” in each of us. In the absence of a thoughtful political response from the democratic forces, these resentments/frustrations could create a popular base for Hindutva fascism in our country.  The “core world-view” of Hindutva has “a pre-ordained structure of differential status and privileges” and the concept of dharma (meaning literally, duty) consists of “living by the rules that govern that location”. So Hindutva becomes attractive to all those who are sick and tired of the claims of the underprivileged for equity and justice

(K. Balagopal 1993: “Why did December 6, 1992 Happen?” in Communalism: Towards a Democratic Perspective, All India Peoples Resistance Forum, New Delhi, December, pp. 24-25).

We do believe that it is in the best interests of radical transformation and the people of our country that there is a dialectical appropriation/rejection of the political line of Balagopal rather than letting this line pass away with him. The mainstream media has joined the State in India in a conspiracy of silence on the loss of this highly regarded public intellectual. Indeed, his demise is an untimely loss in the days of State-sponsored counter-insurgency operations like Salwa Judum and when the neo-liberal State in India, presided over by the likes of Chidambaram, is increasingly pursuing a militaristic line of containment of the Maoist movement and any other democratic dissent, wherever an opportunity arises. May we join the peripheral voices that pay homage to Balagopal who has earned our respect by espousing the genuine democratic aspirations of the people in our country.

Dr. Gilbert Sebastian is an Associate Fellow at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi. He can be contacted at: gilbertseb@gmail.com.

Habib Tanvir is dead

Bhopal, Jun 8 (PTI) Noted playwright and theatre director Habib Tanvir died at a hospital here today after a brief illness. He was 85.

The theatre legend was admitted to the National Hospital here three weeks back after he complained of breathing problems and was put on a ventilator, family sources said.

His daughter Nageen was at his bedside when the end came.

Born on September 1, 1923 at Raipur, Habib began his career as a journalist and went on to become a highly renowned playwright.

Known for his plays like Agra Bazar and Charandas Chor, Tanvir founded the Naya theatre company here in 1959. He also scripted many films and acted in a few of them.

He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969 and Padma Shri in 1983. (Courtesy: PTI)