‘The popular must redistribute the classic’: An interview with Prasanta Chakravarty

Paramita Ghosh talks to Prasanta Chakravarty, who teaches in the Department of English, University of Delhi, on the current state and dynamic of the Indian publishing industry, contemporary fiction and the culture of reading.

Paramita Ghosh (PG): Your project Humanities Underground is an attempt to rescue the Humanities from the skill-oriented courses that university education is slowly turning into. One would have thought this is more rampant in professional courses like management and so forth. But we see publishing, which is supposed to promote literature, is also going the same way with the birth of categories like chick-lit, books to be read in the metro, page-turners to be gobbled at the airport-lounge. How does one explain this attack or shift in emphasis in the arts/humanities/publishing?

Prasanta Chakravarty (PC): First of all, Humanities Underground is a collective umbrella and much will depend on the enthusiasm of a large number of people who are in their own little ways being affected by this onslaught on the varied and nuanced world. It is also about nurturing a critical, oppositional edge that humanities provide. But we are not trying to rescue anything. No one can and should get in that kind of a saviour mode. It is an online forum for sharing ideas at this point, a venture to see whether there is enough interest in facing the variegated and uncertain world that we live in. The initial signs are quite encouraging. We are receiving a collective surge of questions and commentaries and from different parts of the country and the world too. Debates are happening. Our aim is modest at this stage: to create a space where interested people can share ideas and imagination and work out strategies in order to take on the rapid watering down of reading habits and writing styles, without being self-congratulatory.

The shift you are referring to is interesting. Now I think this dichotomy between classical and popular is often fallacious. The idea of taste is often constructed. In that sense the emergence of the genre of novel itself in the 19th century was a popular venture, or the genre of ‘essay’, which started even earlier as a modest attempt to reflect and ruminate, is now solidly mainstream. So, in that sense this rush for chick-lit or graphic novels show an interesting shift and may become important markers of our times. But the point is about homogenisation. Young and old are often looking to merge in with the available, with the herd rather than look for possibilities. There indeed are publishers, often in regional literatures, who are still taking chances with the subtleties and criticality that literature, art and performance provide us. We have a generation of students who are not even bilingual though they routinely learn French or Sanskrit as a second language in school. What is this strange phenomenon? In Delhi University we are noticing with intrigue that some of our best students who receive astronomical grades in schools and colleges often cannot even write correct English, and notions of style have disappeared from the canvas all together. Humor, for instance, as an art, is a rare commodity. Something strange is happening which Humanities Underground is trying to fathom and explore.

PG: Writing and being a writer is such a glamorous profession these days. Why does everyone want to be a writer? Has the increase in number of publishing houses, the volume of publishing, the appearance of so many literary ‘forms’ contributed to the sense that everyone has a story to tell, everybody can tell stories? Why has this particular approach to ‘form’ become so important in literature now?

PC: There is this democratisation of writing in New India, which is great. This is not unlike the phenomenon that now our best cricketers and popular singers are coming from every region of the nation. Quizzards need not gruel in a Siddhartha Basu type format; KBC will and have replaced that kind of prime-time investment in the esoteric and variegated sense of trivia sharing. Literature likewise has become more user-friendly and accessible: from the potential authors’ standpoint as well as from the reader’s perspective. But this logic of massification, instead of democratisation and freeing literature from its shackles, is actually narrowing down possibilities. Shelf life has diminished and that is fine by the author and the publisher as long as they can fill it up with the next miraculous uproar. In actuality, forms are always changing, they evolve. The logic of this kind of assembly line plays safe and is often brilliantly finessed to homogenise forms. The argument is always democratic and making a quick buck for everyone, which is a formidable one to surpass. This is what we are witnessing in non-vernacular writing at this point. How many of us routinely read poetry or plays? The glamorous always stood out and reserved a maverick space at one point. That idea is being overturned by playing onto the logic of reaching out and by hammering accessibility.

PG: Do you see this phenomenon as a lack? Does it have to do with our culture of reading, which is changing or is India really turning into a nation of writers?

PC: Again, this is not a story of crisis. I would see it as a shift in sensibility as we, as a nation, accommodate to a more conservative and individualised time. I believe Indians still read a lot and a variety of things too. It is a truism that we are an extremely conscious people, politically and aesthetically. Good or hard-hitting artistic production will be appreciated at the end of the day. But that is not coming into focus because people who matter are actively interested in suppressing these factors. Some of our best minds are thus missing on the variety and depth and criticality that even contemporary literature provides. The popular always helps to redistribute the classic. The habit of being in touch with the enduring also means you are in touch with pulse of the everyday life. One is not opposed to the other.

PG: Has the thin dividing line between popular/commercial and ‘high’ fiction confused Indians? A couple of decades ago, for example, a James Hadley Chase pulp story and a Graham Greene novel would not have the same production value, imprint and publishing hype—as they now do if we draw equivalences in current writings. Chick-lit space is eating into, say the shelf space that could accommodate the likes of Amitav Ghosh or Rohinton Mistry. We are producing more of the Chetan Bhagats than Vikram Seths.

PC: Yes, it has perhaps. The confusion, as you call it, is deliberate and well worked out, as I said, but we cannot afford to be judgemental on the buyer and clamp down with the Seths and the Ghoshs of the world onto him. That will be an enormous exercise in misplaced condescension. And besides we all grew up on Hadley Chase and the likes! But we also read voraciously—all kinds of other stuff. That is the more difficult but sure-shot way of tackling the blundering homogeneity that we see in the marquee these days. The idea of choice is quite narrow, if seen closely. All conscious Indians must push each other to carry on with the habit of greedy reading. Old book stores and the newest one on the street are equally important institutions. Variety fosters thinking, and thinking, in turn, breeds criticality and opposition to our herd-instincts.

PG: If one is to push a bit further, one notices two kinds of writers that are getting rejected—those who obviously can’t write, but also those who can ( I am thinking of radical/avant-garde) have little scope to be noticed. I guess I am making this claim because I find it really hard to believe that in 25-30 years of mainstream English language and fiction publishing we have few exemplary writers, and even those whom we can’t really claim as ours often. Why do you think ‘serious literature’ is no longer coming out of our publishing houses? Is the logic that no one is interested in more reflective stuff valid? What do your students in Delhi University, for example, read outside of their course work?

PC: Yes, it is selective usage of the radical that the market prefers. Some writers are pegged as radical and hence their saleability. But I do not see much of avant garde writing in the modernist sense of the term in English langauge writing from India at least. Avant garde does not necessarily mean radical or let us say, such a kind of radicalism is much more bohemian (not busy and straightforwardly progressive) and experimental in form and style. I mean, G.V. Desani’s All about H. Hatter was truly avant garde. Not very often now in fiction we see that kind of devil-may-care approach, at least. You still see that, but in vernacular writings. Serious literature does come out of certain English press too but the problem is reverse: they are but too self-consciously serious. People who subscribe to them, missionaries of sorts, are likely to create a false dichotomy of the classic and the popular and wallow in their cocooned world.

True, many of my students do think in terms of course work but a large section of them in fact indulge in all kinds of readings too: from philosophy to history to various forms of contemporary literature. Writings from Latin America, parts of Asia and Africa are extremely popular with many of my students, which I see as a continuity of sorts with the earlier generation. There is a fair investment in Urdu and Hindi, which is wonderful. Some of them invest in translated works. Many participate in a variety of literary and analytical activities on the internet. But as I said, reading habits often need some kind of jumpstart from time to time; the milieu has to be fostered. That could be done possibly by sharing and exchanging ideas, by deepening debates.

PG: There has been a similar publishing culture in the West—similar turbulence and shifts, one would think. But why is it that in India there is no space or culture for promotion of independent, parallel publishing like, say, Zubaan and Katha? The US does, for instance, have a publishing house like poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, does it not?

PC: I am not an expert on publishing but there may be a variety of reasons. One, as always, it is really difficult to survive in India on a small publishing space even if you are idealistically motivated. In Kolkata, in the past few years, a wonderful independent publishing house has emerged: Gangchil. But they do not even have a temporary space to work on and distribution is a perennial headache. This is a pretty standard story all around the nation. City Lights has evolved over a period of time. It could have sputtered but for the brilliant editorial and marketing intervention of Nancy Peters in 1971. The point is independent publishing too must innovate and professionalise within its ideal and radical space. In India sometimes independent publishers have tried to come under a common umbrella for distribution and so forth. For instance, The Independent Publishers’ Group (IPG) is a partnership of 10 small/medium publishers and publisher-distributors based in Delhi that started a few years ago. Daanish, LeftWord, Samskriti, Social Science Press, The Book Review Literary Trust, The Little Magazine, Three Essays Collective, Tulika, Women Unlimited, Zubaan and Kali for Women comprise the IPG.

Often more upcoming mainstream houses like Yoda, Navayana or Seagull are also publishing interesting and tantalising stuff. Or sometimes motivated zeal make things happen, where financial worries could be handled in other ways: as the Writers Workshop experiment has successfully depicted.

The other side is readership. It is often difficult to build up a loyal and solid base of readers who would be interested in the forms of writings that independent press have often traditionally supported: poetry, pamphlets, non-fiction, plays and so forth. It takes time and energy for such a long haul. The investment is thankless. It is really a culture around the variegated that I return to, which one tries to develop and inculcate. Oppositional and critical publishing houses are fewer, as you say, but that space is more alive in the vernacular. It is possible to conceive such locales in the English speaking world too. I am hopeful.

An interview with Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson was in Delhi recently to deliver a lecture on his latest work. He “is one of the first and original theorists of nations and nationalisms. His pathbreaking work ‘Imagined Communities’ is an exploration of how various peoples have at a certain juncture in history imagined themselves into nations. An anthropological explorer of various national-liberation movements in East and Southeast Asia, Prof Anderson sees the rise of nationalism as being closely connected with the growth of printed books and with the technical development of print as a whole”. Paramita Ghosh interviewed Anderson for Hindustan Times. FOR THE FULL TEXT

Q: As a man of the Left, what is the future of Marxism in south Asia and in India?

A: Communism has taken a beating in the last 20 years. But it won’t go away if underlying problems in society don’t go away. There has to be new ways to revive it. However, one framework which Marx never anticipated was how the atomic tests would destroy civilisation. The limits of resources are not there in Marxist vocabulary, it comes from Thomas Robert Malthus and it has to be grappled with.

India has three kinds of Communisms. The established left, the CPI M-L and the new Naxalites who are no longer led by college students. They go to the bottom of society.

Q: One of our living realities is the competition between Indian and China amid the babble of economic cooperation. How can Third World solidarity be revived?

A: What solidarity can there be to speak of? There was never a leftist government in India. The Cold War put China on one side and India played a role in between…. Both are rapidly expansionist, they are bound to get in each other’s hair. But it is in everyone’s interest to reduce the power of America.

China wants a ring of friendly countries around it, but it won’t occupy them. It’s not clear what China wants in Africa. I don’t know whether they intend to stay. If the Chinese start moving there, then it might get interesting.

There is, I think, however, a growing acceptance that war will not get you more territory. What threatens nation-states are not external states, but internal collapse. It has happened in Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia. It may happen in India. States can’t get any bigger, but they can get smaller.

A Review of “Waiting for Renée”

Paresh Chandra

Paramita Ghosh, Waiting for RenéeWriters Workshop, Kolkata, 2008, ISBN:978-81-8157-770-2, pp. 70, Price (HB) Rs 150. Contact: renee.miss@gmail.comTwo usual questions asked about a piece of writing: 1) Is it fun? (This often translates into: does it take effort? If it does then it is not fun.) and 2) Does it give a good representation of reality? As a critic, I can afford to snobbishly disregard the first and the second I will try to rescue since it is after all, a result of years of reading of books that ‘reflect life’ and is closer to the canon. In fact there is still nothing wrong with demanding a piece of writing to be a ‘representation of reality’, if we only complicate our understanding of the phrase. ‘Representation of reality’ does not imply verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is one avatar that this phrase took and its age to my mind seems gone. If truth be told some of my favourite writers never tried to achieve this effect in their writing. Descriptions became outdated since Dostoyevsky (even though naturalism had just emerged). If you are looking for easy fun, find another book. Reality is there, not much verisimilitude.

The introduction that the writer wrote for this collection suggests that “The Story of Renée” captures the tussle between a Reneewoman and a man about the telling of stories and ‘construction of narratives’.  Maybe she wants the reader to believe that. In a sense it is true, but I don’t know if she has done the story much good by writing that. It is not just that. Yes, there is the woman and there is the man, and the woman seems imaginative and (pardon me for using such passé terms) spontaneous and the man is all about the facts and there is tussle. Some may find it strange that the names that come up in the tussle are all French – Sartre, Simone, Napoleon (Renée?) – even though as the author points out in the introduction it is about India. Keeping in mind all the hullabaloo surrounding the discourse of ‘Indian Writing in English’, the author seems to be living on a knife’s edge, using such references and yet trying, it appears to pay her way out of strife, bribing her Indian readers with that introduction of hers.

Remember Freud’s dream book? Remember what he said about dream content and latent thought? What you think you see is not the real thing, though you see the real thing as well. The tussle is what you think you see, but it is not the real thing. The real thing is something else, which you also see. To me it seems the more important idea is the seemingly marginalized (repressed?) one. In a subtle way, does the story suggest that Sartre and Simone are Indian? If feminism can be Indian, and if an Indian woman can write about a tussle between a woman and a man, then aren’t they Indian? Is the only way of writing available to the Indian writer (writing in English) one that ignores these experiences that are definitive of her/his aesthetics and reality in favour of descriptions of some ‘Indian reality’ that would get her/him the Booker Prize? Maybe not, says the story. ‘You tell me’, also says the story. The woman in the story, who ‘sang a French chanson’ dreams of writing a European story and the Indian reader might laugh at her inauthenticity but the story has already been written and the reader without knowing has been roped in, into the bargain.

The story tries to negotiate the situation of the Indian writer writing in English, the guilt of being privileged and writing for the privileged, and the anxiety of representing also the one who is not privileged. As ‘post-colonial’ subjects, we like to think of ourselves as special. But in point of fact this problem is universal, in this case more pronounced maybe. The experience of art in a class society is inevitably one of leisure and class privilege. To somehow negotiate this anxiety, this ‘guilt of art’ is the attempt of every artist. The most that a piece of art can do is accept this guilt and bring it out in its relation with the social. If it doesn’t do that the repressed will return in uncomfortable ways and if it does that, the situation remains uncomfortable all the same.

The ‘presenting a slice of life’ approach does not seem to be working for many of these writers; the pressure of negotiating a landscape of which they aren’t a part, always proves overpowering and instead of ‘breaking the landscape’, they often end up ‘exoticising’ it, or reducing it to stereotypes (the two are pretty much the same thing). Ghosh, it appears, tries to do something different. Something, possibly not completely original, but then imitation in art as Vargas Llosa says somewhere, is not a moral but an artistic problem and Ghosh seems enough of an artist to personalize this ‘plagiarism’. In ‘The Kites’ for instance, she is able to handle the antinomy of social discontent pretty well through the boy who wants to destroy the houses so that he can make a long board to iron more clothes only to realize that with the houses gone there would be no more clothes to iron. Some snapshots in this story might actually be a part of her lived experience, for instances that of presswallas having to hurry up and down the stairs to collect clothes in ones and twos. The story is indeed an urban one and is able to encompass nicely the experience of the writer as well as the characters. But she wisely decides not to offer a last word, or at least not an easy one. The enigmatic last paragraph is where the answer to whatever question the reader might ask lies, but it has to be found; it does not give itself up as Adiga’s false ones do.

Ghosh remoulds and brings to life seemingly dated motifs by adding strange perspectives. One cannot be sure if the woman in red is sad or if it’s right to think that she’s. The imaginary stenographer takes her notes, deferring judgement. To express the strangeness of everyday situations, words themselves become strange in their relation to each other. In an uneasy situation of a domestic battle, time becomes ‘uncertain’.  Short sentences become narratives and the longer ones mere frames.

‘The time is uncertain. The lamp posts are so tall that this evening who knows if a bulb or a star will hang itself.’ (23)

Everydayness slips into the metaphysical through the word ‘uncertain’. Drab reality lit by strange but smooth writing presents a similar chiasmatic structure, possible only in the in-between state where matter and anti-matter coexist and nothing is quite final—there is a promise of stability but the promise exists because it was not kept.  In openly choosing typical urban images, the text seems to accept that it has come late in the day, but this acceptance does not imply that it has nothing to add. Difference in form is often a sign of fundamental change, though I wouldn’t throw in all my money yet; I would wait and watch.

The feeling of being in limbo that she preserves, well most of the time, does fade a little on occasions when I think she becomes uncharacteristically eager to cut the Gordian knot. ‘A writer trying to find words’ has been done before, but that has been the fate of most things. And each writer finds words differently and each could be put into a story. In any case, till a point the story seemed to be going in one direction and then it changed route. Maybe the author chose a male persona to distance herself or to give an appearance of distance, but another likely reason seems to be good old verisimilitude—maybe somewhere in the back of her mind, Ghosh thought it would be more believable if a guy gets the call to revolution. I say that because I find this part of the story somewhat bewildering and I can’t imagine why this episode, if it had to be there, had to be there in this fashion unless she wants to give us a taste of ‘bitter’ reality. The revolutionary as a windbag with a beard is a stock image now and in such circumstances when faced with the unsure, dreamy artist seems more of an ass. It seems that this one time in her desire to present the sad face of reality, she gives in to the old way and instead of giving us a type gives us a stereotype. Her style in this part loses its characteristic ease and allows out of place sarcasm to creep in. (‘While my friend fills in the picture, I learn that I am a hidden radical.’) The change in style makes me unsure of whether I should give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that these feelings are not recommended or valued, though if her intention in choosing a male character was distance, this is possible as well.

The thing about anticipation is that it allows you to keep one foot into what you are waiting for without allowing the complacency of ownership. It keeps you on your toes and never allows you to become comfortable. It tells you that it is not the perfect world. You should not become complacent because there is unhappiness, inequality, injustice (class?). You are insignificant and you cannot afford to become complacent. You can change things but you haven’t yet. You can create meaning but you haven’t yet. You think you can do these things but you can’t be sure. A work that does not preserve or recreate this uncertainty has no siblings in the realm of philosophy and is by extension not art. At the very least, Waiting for Renée tries to be art.

I think the volume is pretty. The binding could be better though. ‘A Credo by P. Lal’, on the last page in spite of the wry tone makes me feel good about possessing a ‘limited edition’ object.

Chhattisgarh and the danger of dissent

Paramita Ghosh

If Ajay TG had been smart enough to know where to point his camera, his films might have been showing in Osian today. As it stands, he is in Durg jail, 40 km from Bhilai, where his uncle would sell tea and his father would sell chickens near the steel plant. He started making films 7-8 years ago, photographing, as he says, in a statement, “daily life, festivals and rituals of Durg and particularly my own neighborhood, an old village now surrounded by urban growth.” He would also make posters of poems and put them up in banks and other public places “to reach a wider public than that reached by poetry books.”

In Chhattisgarh, these are acts of terrorism.

This week, www.releaseajaytg.in, a website, was set up by a committee for his release. Playwright Habib Tanvir, activist Aruna Roy, professor Dr Kamal Chenoy, director ActionAid India, Harsh Mander, law expert Usha Ramanathan, journalist Siddharth Vardharajan, among others, are its members. Renowned film-maker Mrinal Sen who signed the petition condemning Ajay’s arrest, says: “I wish I was 30 years younger, so that I could have physically joined you all in this campaign.” “Chhattisgarh was always a peaceful place and it is a great shame that artists, film makers and journalists are being targeted in this state,” said Tanvir. “The voice of a creative person is being silenced again.”

There is a reason why Ajay TG’s story started moving in this direction.

His camera angles, to start with, were wrong. British photographer Margeret Dickinson who taught him the use of the camera, notes that, “even as a student, Ajay instinctively tended to opt for a non-authoritarian point of view when developing a film”. For example, when he made a short on malaria prevention, the story Ajay told was not from the point of view of a health campaigner but from that of village children confronted with a friend’s illness. This is a man who joins campaigns against child labour and has strong views on violence.

Ajay joined the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Bhilai, a leading civil rights organisation, as a voluntary member. Dr Binayak Sen, is its general secretary. Ajay starts making films on human-interest stories: on old-age homes, health, the politics of power in two adivasi melas. He also makes a film on Binayak Sen.

Are these crimes?

National Award winning cinematographer Rajan Palit asks whether the decision to investigate state terrorism creatively is enough to be branded a Maoist. “For the last 20 years, even civil society efforts in Chhattisgarh to protect land, water, culture and livelihood have been attacked,” agrees film-maker maker Amar Kanwar, who put together the committee for the film-maker’s release. “The message the police is sending out is — if you see something wrong with the system, do not make films about it. They are making sure, what people see, are not told.”

The objective of Ajay TG’s arrest is not Ajay TG. It is to tell everybody else that if you film and if you write, this is what will happen to you. It is to tell the local journalist, the local film-maker and the local poet to look elsewhere and clear out of the way.


(This report was filed in Hindustan Times, 20th July. After 93 days in jail, film-maker Ajay TG who was released from Durg jail late Tuesday (August 5) evening, begins a life outside it – under constant watch.)

Can Partition be Undone? – An Interview with Lal Khan

 Paramita Ghosh

Lal Khan’s Crisis in the Indian Subcontinent – Partition… Can it be undone? is provocative not only because it questions the official narrations of the modern history of the Indian subcontinent by analyzing new facts with theoretical tools embedded in Marxism, but mainly because of its activistic programmatic sharpness that backs the revolutionary transformatory politics in the region. It asserts that only a voluntary socialist federation of the subcontinental societies can guarantee peace and prosperity in the region. The following interview with Lal Khan (LK) by Paramita Ghosh (PG) brings out some of the important issues dealt in the book, along with Khan’s perspective on the political situation and transformation in the subcontinent . It was originally published in an abridged form in The Hindustan Times on October 21, 2007.

PG: You have taken on the holy cows, the big boys of the Indian subcontinent – Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Sheikh Abdullah… Who according to you, did his people most harm to the people’s movements? Which, or whose actions, most influenced the way the class picture of the subcontinent looks today?

LK: I don’t think that all these leaders can be evaluated on equal terms and their roles be subjected to same degree of critical analysis. But the role played by the political representatives of the local elite was clear enough in the freedom struggle. Even the serious mouthpieces of British Imperialism conceded the clear class divide and conflicting interests in the movement of National Liberation in India. I quote from the editorial of the London Times of January 29, 1928. It said, “There is no real connection between those two unrests, labour and congress opposition, but their very existence and co-existence, explains and fully justifies the attention, which Lord Irwin gave to labour problems”. I also want to assert that these politicians could only play this role because the leadership of the CPI in reality abdicated the struggle of independence by collaborating with the British under the instructions from Stalin’s Moscow where the bureaucracy was carrying out its foreign policy for the national interests of “Russia” rather than following the Marxist-Leninist path of proletarian internationalism.

I think all of these ‘leaders’ influenced the post-colonial politics in different ways and to different degrees. Again the reason has been the lack of a clear alternative for irreconcilable class struggle.

PG: Your attitude to Gandhi is really interesting and it of course overturns the popular perception about him. On the one hand, there is of course his formidable reputation as the saviour of minorities, as he did at Noakhali 1947. On the other hand, as your book shows, in 1922 when Hindu soldiers from the Garhwal rifles refused to fire on an anti-imperialist demo by Muslims, Gandhi opposed this act of violence. Is there a contradiction between the two?

LK: The ideological foundations of Gandhi’s policies were confined within the parameters of semi-feudal, semi-capitalist social economic relations. Hence all his political actions flowed from this thought. All the confusion and divinity aside, the reality is that India won Independence through a compromise and 2.7 million innocent souls were lost in this bloodshed. Sixty years later, India and Pakistan are the bastions of most disgusting destitution and poverty in the world.

PG: You seem to suggest that Gandhiji’s protection of Muslims was actually an extension of a kind of state support to one’s subjects.

LK: The liberation movement would not have stopped at the ‘stage’ of national liberation and could have moved on to social and economic emancipation through a socialist revolution. It was cut across by the religious frenzy to restrain it within the clutches of capitalism and the system of continual imperialist exploitation. Gandhi wanted a peaceful derailment of the class struggle, which is a utopia. He might have had an honest sentiment to protect the Muslims but once the forces of reaction and communal hatred were unleashed even Gandhi failed to restrain them.

PG: Leon Trotsky believed that the Indian bourgeois could never lead a revolutionary struggle and went on to call Gandhi an artificial leader and false prophet. Would you say the same of Jinnah? You mention an oyster dinner at the Waldorf hotel in 1933 when he laughed at the idea of Pakistan calling it impractical.

LK: All leaders were subjected to change through the dynamics of the movement and dictates of the vested interests of the class they represented. Jinnah was vulnerable to that too. This shows the evolution of Jinnah from Woldorf hotel in 1933 to Karachi assembly in 1947. There were innumerable zigzags in that journey. Although Trotsky didn’t analyze him individually but from the point of view of his theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky’s analysis of Jinnah would not have been any different from his analysis of Gandhi.

PG: Would you attribute the shaky structure of democracy in Pakistan to the class biases of its founding father?

LK: The shaky structure of democracy in Pakistan is mainly due to the belated and corrupt character of its nascent bourgeoisie. In sixty years the Pakistani ruling classes could not accomplish a single task of the democraticbourgeois revolution and cannot do that in a thousand years. Parliamentary or bourgeois democracy was one of those fundamental tasks. I may add that even the Indian ruling class has not been able to complete any of these tasks.

PG: Bhagat Singh was of course one of the most progressive and thinking radicals of the liberation movement. But what is it about him that the Left, the Right and the Centre rush to adopt him as their own?

LK: Bhagat Singh was no doubt an icon of the struggle against British imperialism. He developed his political policies and ideology when he had a chance to read works of Lenin and Marxism while in prison. He was still forging his political position when he was hanged. Hence when his position of “inqilaab’ is put, its ideological and theoretical foundations are relatively shallow and not entrenched in scientific Marxism. Hence it is easier for the left, the right and the centre to rush to adopt him as their own. Thus it is vital that unless the youth who are inspired by Bhagat Singh are developed into Marxist cadres, mere slogan mongering of ‘Revolution’ could lead them in any direction. They can even blunder into certain reactionary movements displaying a revolutionary rhetoric. It is the tragedy of cultural primitiveness that the role of the individual in political movements is exaggerated. Icons are mystified and even worshipped. This devastates the role of a collective leadership in a revolutionary struggle and undermines the importance of scientific theory and practice.

PG: Pakistan has mostly been under military rule. It has had democratically elected governments only thrice in 60 years. What is the reason that Marxism has never been an option, not even as an experiment?

LK: In 1968-69 there was a revolution in Pakistan. From Chittagong to Peshawar, there was only one slogan in the air – Revolution! Revolution! Socialist Revolution! Workers occupied factories, the peasants besieged the landed estates and the youth were on the streets, refused to pay fairs in trains and buses. The prevalent property relations were being challenged by the revolution. From November 6, 1968 to March 29, 1969 there were at least 7 occasions when the capitalist system and state could have been overthrown through a revolutionary insurrection. Unfortunately due to the lack of a Bolshevik party this historical opportunity was missed. The Pakistan Peoples Party was a product of this revolution, as its founding documents clearly stated:

“The ultimate objective of the party’s policy is the attainment of a classless society which is only possible through Socialist Revolution in our times.”

Z. A. Bhutto recognized that the character of the (1968-69) movement was socialist and not national democratic. That is why he became a legend of the masses for three generations. But he had no organised Bolshevik party or a strategy to carry this revolution through to its victorious end.

The so-called democratic regimes in Pakistan were only inducted by the ruling state either to diffuse a rising revolutionary upsurge or as a preemptive measure to deviate and confine the raging movements against military dictatorships within capitalist structures. In any case the basic fault lines in Pakistan are not between democracy and military or extremism and moderation. The fundamental contradiction is of class interests and no stability can come without the resolution of this contradiction.

PG: Please tell us about your introduction to the Left ideology. Who were your mentors, your peers?  You were born ten years after Independence. In the 1970s you were a student leader resisting the despotic Zia regime. Was Marxism a natural progression of a politics of student activism?

LK: The first time I got to study Marxism was in 1976 when I was incarcerated in Multan Central Jail after a clash with Islamic fundamentalists; we were tortured by the state. In the prison library there were some works of Marx and Lenin lying in a corner. They were left there by some communist prisoners during the 1940s. After I was ordered to be shot at sight by the Zia dictatorship on June 10 1980, I had to flee to exile in Amsterdam. In Europe I had the opportunity to meet and discuss with comrade Ted Grant, who was my friend mentor and teacher. I think that after Trotsky’s assassination, Ted single-handedly held high the red flag of revolutionary Marxism. His contribution in Marxist theory is enormous. For more than sixty years he resolutely worked to deepen and enhance perspectives and strategy to lay the foundations of a new and genuine Marxist international.

PG: When did you become Lal Khan?  Why did you choose this name?

LK: Lal Khan was the name of a sergeant in the British Indian army. He was my uncle and had been a prisoner of the Bolsheviks in 1919 when 21 imperialist armies attacked the nascent Soviet state. As a child I used to listen his stories of how the Bolsheviks had treated the Indian military prisoners. Sometimes in dearth of food supplies the Bolshevik captors used to remain hungry themselves but fed their Indian prisoners. I was so amused and impressed that when in 1981 I had to choose a pen name under the vicious Zia dictatorship I opted for that name. It also means Red. As I have been writing under this name for more than 26 years it would have been useless to change the name which was recognized by workers and youth and linked with an ideological tendency.

PG: Under whose regime was/is it most difficult to conduct Left politics? How irresponsive were Zulfiqar Bhutto, Zia, Sharif, Benazir to people’s movements?

LK: There is no situation in a capitalist milieu that is easy and viable to build the forces of revolutionary Marxism. Similarly there can be no objective conditions so bad in which Bolshevik party cadres can’t develop the art of expanding the organization and building the revolutionary forces.

However the wrath and indignation of the masses against the brutalities of the Zia dictatorship was helpful in gaining recruits. But when Benazir Bhutto came to power, the way she disillusioned the movement and dashed the hopes of the masses, the political apathy and a certain demoralization that had set in made our work somewhat more difficult.

PG: What will happen to Kashmir?

LK: The ruling classes of India and Pakistan have used and abused the Kashmir issue for sixty years. Now they can’t go to all-out war nor can they sustain peace. Their systems don’t allow them much room. The masses of Kashmir have been brutalised and subjected to misery by these subcontinental elites. The Americans want a continual sale of their weapons of mass destruction at the expense of the sweat, tears and blood of the subcontinental masses. Without the overthrow of these capitalist regimes, Kashmir issue cannot be solved. Unless the subcontinent gets independence from imperialist slavery, how can Kashmir gain freedom?

Nationalism and fundamentalism are on decline in Kashmir, the youth and workers are moving more on to the lines of class struggle. This has to be linked to the class movements in India and Pakistan. A voluntary socialist federation of the Indian subcontinent would be the only guarantee for a genuine freedom and emancipation of the Kashmiri oppressed.

PG: In Pakistan, on the one hand, there is the military which somehow has, in a way, been an upholder of liberal will and democratic parties like the PPP are corrupt and thoroughly discredited. On the other hand, there are the religious rightist forces. What will Pakistan choose now?

LK: The liberals and fundamentalists are both entrenched in this decaying capitalist economy. Imperialism and religious obscurantism are two sides of the same coin. As soon as a revolutionary movement of the toiling masses emerges, the so-called liberaldemocratic and religious rightist forces have always and again will join hands to crush any challenge to this exploitive system. The perspective of a mass movement is rejected by mainstream intellectuals in Pakistan. There is always a doom and gloom scenario preached by these apologists of Capital in the media. But a social revolution is the only way-out for the salvation of the people. I am convinced that working masses shall tread upon this path sooner rather than later. The events of 1968-69 are too glaring a tradition to ignore.

PG: How supportive are the Indian left of leftist struggles in its neighbourhood in Pakistan? What do you think of its position on the nuclear deal, which many feel, is just an anti-American statement?

LK: There cannot be two separate revolutions in India and Pakistan. Five thousand years of common history, culture and society is too strong to be cleavaged by this partition. However the left forces can learn from experiences of each other. Especially the ideological mistakes made have to be rectified and lessons learnt from. Obviously the opposition to the nuclear deal is positive. But from a Marxist point of view it is not the most important of issue in the present situation. The way market economy is ravaging India and throwing the vast majority of population into the abyss of misery, poverty, disease and deprivation is horrendous. I think that after sixty years of the traumatic experiences the left should at least try to understand that the basic character of the Indian revolution is not national democratic but socialist. Unless they change course the Indian proletariat will force them onto a revolutionary path. The vote of the masses to left parties in the 2004 elections was for a revolutionary change rather than to maintain the existing order. Next time they will vote with their feet. If these leaders still cling on to the redundant theory of two stages they shall perish in the rising tide of a workers upsurge. A fresh revolutionary Marxist leadership shall emerge to make socialist victory a reality in the impending class war-about to explode.

Lal Khan is a prominent Marxist activist from Pakistan. He is the editor of the Asian Marxist Review.