Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

200 Killings a Month

A brief extract from Debashis Bhattacharya’s Shottorer Dinguli ("The Days of the Seventies") translated by me.

During the months of March, April, May and June of 1971, killings were the order of the day. However, it was in south Bengal, and especially in Calcutta and the neighbouring districts where most of this occurred. At that time there were about 200 killings a month. Of these 200, the police committed 130 murders. All naxalites used to be killed. 50 killings were by the naxalites. Of these, 20 were policemen, 20 were police informers, and 10 were CPI(M) workers. The CPI(M) killed 20 a month. Of these 20 murders, 15 were naxalites, and 5 belonged to the CPI. In some cases the principal Congress-man of a neighbourhood was also killed.

Things came to this pass as a result of launching “action” in the cities, following Charu Mazumdar’s dictum, and the spread of “red terror”. Charu-babu used to say that one was not a communist until and unless one’s hands were coloured with the class enemy’s blood. He said, don’t be afraid to sacrifice yourself! The Congress’ goon squad had not yet entered the field. Congress leaders smiled wryly observing the situation in early 1971.

Going through a report of the state home department, one finds that in 1968 there were 9 political murders in West Bengal. In 1969 there were 109. Between 1 January and 31 December of 1970 there were 435. During the four months between 1 January and 30 April of 1971, there were 401. Killings by the police and killings of policemen were not included in these figures. Only killings by and of political party workers had been counted. During the 365 days of 1970, all told, 1247 people were killed in Calcutta. And 1067 people had been killed in the districts.

Between the end of March 1970 and the end of March 1971, there were 142 incidents in the state of seizing of guns and revolvers by naxalites. But between 1 April and 15 May of 1971, within these 45 days, there were 146 incidents. During this period, guns and rifles used to be snatched everyday in Birbhum district. The guns of bank guards were snatched. In April 1971, a squad of naxalites threw chilli powder in the eyes of a Nepali durwan guarding a wealthy person’s house in Alipore in Calcutta, and snatched away the khukri on his waist.

Between March and December of 1970, about eight and a half thousand naxalites were arrested in the state. Of this number, only one person was sentenced by the court. Refusing legal redress, bail, and the various facilities due to prisoners that had been earned after many battles, the naxalites converted the prisons too into arenas of struggle. In the CPI(ML) party’s almost-monthly mini-paper, Deshabrati, writing under the pseudonym, Sasanka, the state committee’s secretary, Saroj Dutta, wrote: The revolutionary prisoners have declared their loathing for the prison walls.

On 14 May 1971, "action" was launched in Dum Dum Jail, and 45 naxalite prisoners escaped. Later, prison officials and police jointly beat and killed 32 naxalite prisoners. More than 90 persons were injured. And on 15 May 1971, 5 naxalite prisoners were killed in Howrah. What was the key to the success of the escape attempt? A comrade wrote a letter to Charu Mazumdar after his escape. He wrote: It’s only because I had learnt to hate and annihilate the centrists that I was able to escape. If the prisoners in all the jails read CM’s tract on centrism, and then try to escape, they will surely be successful.

Today, many of those who broke out of Dum Dum Jail that day get irritated at the very mention of the word ‘politics’.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Gender inequity in West Bengal

by Supriya Chaudhuri
from The Telegraph

The Second Sex: Certain things could remain unchanged in Bengal

West Bengal today has a woman chief minister, and Presidency University a woman vice-chancellor. One would not think so, however, going by the composition of the newly-constituted advisory committee for higher education, or by the media debates on the future of the new university. These are exclusively populated by men, indeed by high-caste Hindu men, if their names are any guide. While one could argue that this dominance is simply accidental, at an early stage of planning, or — more alarmingly — that it reflects the superior achievements of high-caste Hindu men in all spheres relating to education and administration, I would suggest that both arguments are untenable. The preponderance of men in these bodies is not accidental, but it is also not a measure of their real distinction. Rather, it indicates a social bias that has persisted so insidiously and universally that we are deluded into believing that it does not exist.

The Bengali middle class prides itself on its liberal and enlightened attitudes towards women’s education and their entry into professions. Certainly, there is a history of early activism in these matters, necessitated by its converse in cruelty and oppression. Before and after Independence, women played active roles in school and college education, in politics, in social work, and in some professions such as nursing and medicine. The children of the urban elite today believe that most doors are open to them, irrespective of gender. School and university examination results confirm that girls are doing well, and middle class families encourage their daughters to aim as high as their sons. Women are visible in most social spheres, especially in education and in the medical profession, but also in the corporate world. Some hold important administrative posts. This phenomenon leads many to claim, quite sincerely, that there is no gender bias against women in Bengal, that they are involved in all stages and spheres of public life, and that they are free to participate in public policy-making. In fact, this is very far from the case.

All available evidence shows that West Bengal is ranked appallingly low in terms of human development and gender disparity indices, and that women’s economic participation and their access to education and health services are meagre to say the least. The West Bengal Human Development Report, 2004, and later studies, indicate “a major undercurrent of gender discrimination” reflected in reduced economic agency and poor recognition of women’s unpaid work, a female literacy rate just above the national average but far below that in Kerala, Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, and high rates of underage marriage, school dropout, poverty and domestic violence. Eighty-four out of a hundred girls do not complete their secondary education; 50 per cent of girls receive less food than their brothers; and the state ranks 19th in India in respect of married women with iron-deficiency anaemia. Unsurprisingly, its HDI scores placed it 22nd, and its GDI scores 24th, out of 35 states and Union territories in 2006. It is unlikely that there has been substantial improvement in the past five years.

What is baffling about this reality, however, is the persistent failure of the educated middle class to recognize it. Whatever the statistics regularly publicized by development agencies, whatever the evidence of female illiteracy, impoverishment, ill health and ill-treatment by which it is surrounded, this class would prefer to think itself representative of a community striving for gender equity and social justice. If there are failures and inadequacies in our record they are, so we would prefer to believe, caused by economic underdevelopment and inherited imbalances: they do not reflect a general attitude. A long period of leftist rule has produced, if nothing else, some complacency about the state’s secular credentials and its recognition of women and minorities. Yet if one looks at the actual facts, there is very little reason for self-congratulation — apart from one notable statistic, the decline in communal violence over the past 30 years.

The Right to Education Act is probably the most important single piece of legislation India has effected since Independence. It is particularly relevant for a state like West Bengal, where in 2004 there were only 59 primary schools for each lakh of population, many without a schoolroom and with teachers who remain absent most of the year. The introduction of the district primary education programme in 1997 and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in 2000 improved the situation to some extent, especially through the provision of Shishu Shiksha Kendras and anganwadi schools. But we are still very far from a teacher-student ratio of 1:40, a school within one kilometre of every habitation, and universal elementary schooling. The dispiriting reality is one of absent-teacher or one-teacher schools without classrooms or toilets, and of school buildings converted to grain-sheds or used for other purposes. Very few rural schools are able to implement the cooked mid-day meal scheme, although it shows immediate results in bringing children, especially girls, to school. Over 40,000 teachers’ posts remain unfilled in primary schools across the state, a situation exacerbated by the Primary Teachers’ Training Institute deadlock. The new government has announced that it will fill 46,000 vacancies, reserving 10 per cent of posts for PTTI candidates, but no one can say how this promise will be fulfilled. There is no clarity as to how the general provisions of the RTE Act, including the reservation of 25 per cent of seats in private schools for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, might be implemented. Despite NGO activism, half of Calcutta’s children do not go to school.

Within this dismal scene, girls are more likely than boys not to complete their schooling and to drop out in middle school. Poor recognition of the worth of education for girls, the pressures of household work and underage marriage are obviously responsible for this, but so too are systemic defects such as the absence of girls’ toilets and lack of protection for girls in and outside the school. Despite this, for the first time this year there were more girls than boys appearing for the Madhyamik and Madrasah examinations, though considerably fewer at the higher secondary level. But this fact, combined with stray evidence of individual women seeking education (such as the case of Asiya Bibi reported on June 13, 2011) and girls resisting forced marriages, should not lead us to conclude that all is well with the education of girls in this state. Female illiteracy continues to be high, with some districts such as rural Purulia performing far more poorly than others, with correspondingly low figures for school enrolment and attendance.

But education is viewed as a lifeline by girls themselves, and where the opportunity is provided, there is a high degree of commitment to learning and acquiring the means of livelihood. Women figure at all levels within the formal and non-formal education system, as learners and as teachers, often working for low wages in non-unionized and ‘non-official’ posts as temporary or contracted staff in schools. There are large numbers in colleges and universities, especially in the less valued humanities departments, while the science and engineering faculties are dominated by men. Without women’s work, it would have been impossible to sustain the state education system or the network of private schools: nor, for that matter, the healthcare systems, state and private. Their presence creates the illusion that women are free to choose professions and are involved in decision-making in at least two critical areas, education and healthcare.

This is regrettably not the case. While some individual women hold high administrative posts, Bengal is in fact run by a largely male bureaucracy and political class which appears to think that the struggle for women’s rights is over and that no further concessions need to be made to inclusive action. I use the word “concession” advisedly. A recent report on school textbook content in Bengal notes that apart from the token inclusion of Rokeya Hussain and Mahasweta Devi, no other woman writer is featured, women’s work continues to be relegated to the household, the student-addressee appears to be Hindu, male, able-bodied and urban, and girls are represented as caring for younger siblings while boys take part in sport and study science or medicine. Most women who pursue professions speak of a constant, unacknowledged denial of the practical difficulties they face in the public sphere. There was no toilet for women teachers at Presidency College before and during the ten years I taught there: our representations to the college and education department authorities went unheard. Many women doctors speak of impossible physical conditions in hospitals and no security when they are on call at night. Development funds are largely controlled by a male bureaucracy.

Given the magnitude of our economic and social problems, it is easy for Bengal’s ruling class to forget these imbalances, regard the struggles of women, minorities and subaltern groups as past, and concentrate on the road-map for the future. The media has played their part in producing the impression that Presidency University is vital to this future, though its contribution will be infinitesimal given the huge tasks thrown up by the RTE Act. The committee to advise on higher education has a wider remit. It is symptomatic that not even a token woman or member of a minority community has been included in that committee, just as none has been named as part of the mentor group for Presidency University. Media debates on this institution appear to draw on an old boys’ club. There was something faintly comic in the televised spectacle of ten men lined up on a stage by the college’s alumni association to advise a single woman vice-chancellor, who, from her own speech, appeared fully capable of taking her own counsel. Despite a change of regime, nothing will change in Bengal unless we wake up from the complacent dream that all is well with us in respect of gender and social justice. Very little is.

Friday, May 27, 2011

This land is not yours to give

It was a happy day for the citizens of Calcutta yesterday, when the Supreme Court quashed the land allotment made by the recently ousted Left Front govt of West Bengal to former cricketer, Saurav Ganguly. The cricketer had been granted a sizeable chunk of prime land in Salt Lake to start a private school, with all norms being given a go by, thanks to his friend, Asok Bhattacharya, the former urban development minister. The Supreme Court rebuked the Left Front government for adopting “questionable means” to provide the plot and “failing to discharge its constitutional role”.

Read the report here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Neglected Indians & Public Policy in India

by Amartya Sen

A fuller understanding of the real conditions of the mass of neglected Indians and what can be done to improve their lives through public policy should be a central issue in the politics of India.

The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite the evident excitement that this subject seems to cause in India and abroad, it is surely rather silly to be obsessed about India’s overtaking China in the rate of growth of GNP, while not comparing India with China in other respects, like education, basic health, or life expectancy. Economic growth can, of course, be enormously helpful in advancing living standards and in battling poverty. But there is little cause for taking the growth of GNP to be an end in itself, rather than seeing it as an important means for achieving things we value.

It could, however, be asked why this distinction should make much difference, since economic growth does enhance our ability to improve living standards. The central point to appreciate here is that while economic growth is important for enhancing living conditions, its reach and impact depend greatly on what we do with the increased income. The relation between economic growth and the advancement of living standards depends on many factors, including economic and social inequality and, no less importantly, on what the government does with the public revenue that is generated by economic growth.

Some statistics about China and India, drawn mainly from the World Bank and the United Nations, are relevant here. Life expectancy at birth in China is 73.5 years; in India it is 64.4 years. The infant mortality rate is fifty per thousand in India, compared with just seventeen in China; the mortality rate for children under five is sixty-six per thousand for Indians and nineteen for the Chinese; and the maternal mortality rate is 230 per 100,000 live births in India and thirty-eight in China. The mean years of schooling in India were estimated to be 4.4 years, compared with 7.5 years in China. China’s adult literacy rate is 94 percent, compared with India’s 74 percent according to the preliminary tables of the 2011 census.

As a result of India’s effort to improve the schooling of girls, its literacy rate for women between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four has clearly risen; but that rate is still not much above 80 percent, whereas in China it is 99 percent. One of the serious failures of India is that a very substantial proportion of Indian children are, to varying degrees, undernourished (depending on the criteria used, the proportion can come close to half of all children), compared with a very small proportion in China. Only 66 percent of Indian children are immunized with triple vaccine (diphtheria/ pertussis/tetanus), as opposed to 97 percent in China.

Comparing India with China according to such standards can be more useful for policy discussions in India than confining the comparison to GNP growth rates only. Those who are fearful that India’s growth performance would suffer if it paid more attention to “social objectives” such as education and health care should seriously consider that notwithstanding these “social” activities and achievements, China’s rate of GNP growth is still clearly higher than India’s.


Higher GNP has certainly helped China to reduce various indicators of poverty and deprivation, and to expand different features of the quality of life. There is every reason to want to encourage sustainable economic growth in India in order to improve living standards today and in the future (including taking care of the environment in which we live). Sustainable economic growth is a very good thing in a way that “growth mania” is not.

GNP per capita is, however, not invariably a good predictor of valuable features of our lives, for those features depend also on other things that we do — or fail to do. Compare India with Bangladesh. In income, India has a huge lead over Bangladesh, with a GNP per capita of $1,170, compared with $590 in Bangladesh, in comparable units of purchasing power. This difference has expanded rapidly because of India’s faster rate of recent economic growth, and that, of course, is a point in India’s favour. India’s substantially higher rank than Bangladesh in the UN Human Development Index (HDI) is largely due to this particular achievement. But we must ask how well India’s income advantage is reflected in other things that also matter. I fear the answer is: not well at all.

Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 66.9 years compared with India’s 64.4. The proportion of underweight children in Bangladesh (41.3 percent) is lower than in India (43.5), and its fertility rate (2.3) is also lower than India’s (2.7). Mean years of schooling amount to 4.8 years in Bangladesh compared with India’s 4.4 years. While India is ahead of Bangladesh in the male literacy rate for the age group between fifteen and twenty-four, the female rate in Bangladesh is higher than in India. Interestingly, the female literacy rate among young Bangladeshis is actually higher than the male rate, whereas young women still have substantially lower rates than young males in India. There is much evidence to suggest that Bangladesh’s current progress has a great deal to do with the role that liberated Bangladeshi women are beginning to play in the country.

What about health? The mortality rate of children under five is sixty-six per thousand in India compared with fifty-two in Bangladesh. In infant mortality, Bangladesh has a similar advantage: it is fifty per thousand in India and forty-one in Bangladesh. While 94 percent of Bangladeshi children are immunized with DPT vaccine, only 66 percent of Indian children are. In each of these respects, Bangladesh does better than India, despite having only half of India’s per capita income.

Of course, Bangladesh’s living conditions will benefit greatly from higher economic growth, particularly if the country uses it as a means of doing good things, rather than treating economic growth and high per capita income as ends in themselves. It is to the huge credit of Bangladesh that despite the adversity of low income it has been able to do so much so quickly; the imaginative activism of Bangladeshi NGOs (such as the Grameen Bank, the pioneering microcredit institution, and BRAC, a large-scale initiative aimed at removing poverty) as well as the committed public policies of the government have both contributed to the results. But higher income, including larger public resources, will obviously enhance Bangladesh’s ability to achieve better lives for its people.


One of the positive things about economic growth is that it generates public resources that the government can devote to its priorities. In fact, public resources very often grow faster than the GNP. The gross tax revenue, for example, of the government of India (corrected for price rise) is now more than four times what it was just twenty years ago, in 1990-1991. This is a substantially bigger jump than the price-corrected GNP.

Expenditure on what is somewhat misleadingly called the “social sector”— health, education, nutrition, etc. — has certainly gone up in India. And yet India is still well behind China in many of these fields. For example, government expenditure on health care in China is nearly five times that in India. China does, of course, have a larger population and a higher per capita income than India, but even in relative terms, while the Chinese government spends nearly 2 percent of GDP (1.9 percent) on health care, the proportion is only a little above one percent (1.1 percent) in India.

One result of the relatively low allocation of funds to public health care in India is that large numbers of poor people across the country rely on private doctors, many of whom have little medical training. Since health is also a typical example of “asymmetric information,” in which the patients may know very little about what the doctors (or “supposed doctors”) are giving them, even the possibility of fraud and deceit is very large. In a study conducted by the Pratichi Trust — a public interest trust I set up in 1999 — we found cases in which the ignorance of poor patients about their condition was exploited so as to make them pay for treatment they didn’t get. This is the result not only of shameful exploitation, but ultimately of the sheer unavailability of public health care in many parts of India. The benefit that we can expect to get from economic growth depends very much on how the public revenue generated by economic growth is expended.


When we consider the impact of economic growth on people’s lives, comparisons favour China over India. However, there are many fields in which a comparison between China and India is not related to economic growth in any obvious way. Most Indians are strongly appreciative of the democratic structure of the country, including its many political parties, systematic free elections, uncensored media, free speech, and the independent standing of the judiciary, among other characteristics of a lively democracy. Those Indians who are critical of serious flaws in these arrangements (and I am certainly one of them) can also take account of what India has already achieved in sustaining democracy, in contrast to many other countries, including China.

Not only is access to the Internet and world opinion uncensored and unrestricted in India, a multitude of media present widely different points of view, often very critical of the government in office. India has a larger circulation of newspapers each day than any other country in the world. And the newspapers reflect contrasting political perspectives. Economic growth has helped — and this has certainly been a substantial gain — to expand the availability of radios and televisions across the country, including in rural areas, which very often are shared among many users. There are at least 360 independent television stations (and many are being established right now, judging from the licences already issued) and their broadcasts reflect a remarkable variety of points of view. More than two hundred of these TV stations concentrate substantially or mainly on news, many of them around the clock. There is a sharp contrast here with the monolithic system of newscasting permitted by the state in China, with little variation of political perspectives on different channels.

Freedom of expression has its own value as a potentially important instrument for democratic politics, but also as something that people enjoy and treasure. Even the poorest parts of the population want to participate in social and political life, and in India they can do so. There is a contrast as well in the use of trial and punishment, including capital punishment. China often executes more people in a week than India has executed since independence in 1947. If our focus is on a comprehensive comparison of the quality of life in India and China, we have to look well beyond the traditional social indicators, and many of these comparisons are not to China’s advantage.

Could it be that India’s democratic system is somehow a barrier to using the benefits of economic growth in order to enhance health, education, and other social conditions? Clearly not, as I shall presently discuss. It is worth recalling that when India had a very low rate of economic growth, as was the case until the 1980s, a common argument was that democracy was hostile to fast economic growth. It was hard to convince those opposed to democracy that fast economic growth depends on an economic climate congenial to development rather than on fierce political control, and that a political system that protects democratic rights need not impede economic growth. That debate has now ended, not least because of the high economic growth rates of democratic India. We can now ask: How should we assess the alleged conflict between democracy and the use of the fruits of economic growth for social advancement?


What a democratic system achieves depends greatly on which social conditions become political issues. Some conditions become politically important issues quickly, such as the calamity of a famine (thus famines tend not to occur at all when there is a functioning democracy), while other problems — less spectacular and less immediate — provide a much harder challenge. It is much more difficult to use democratic politics to remedy undernourishment that is not extreme, or persistent gender inequality, or the absence of regular medical care for all. Success or failure here depends on the range and vigour of democratic practice. In recent years Indian democracy has made considerable progress in dealing with some of these conditions, such as gender inequality, lack of schools, and widespread undernourishment. Public protests, court decisions, and the use of the recently passed “Right to Information” Act have had telling effects. But India still has a long way to go in remedying these conditions.

In China, by contrast, the process of decision-making depends largely on decisions made by the top Party leaders, with relatively little democratic pressure from below. The Chinese leaders, despite their scepticism about the values of multiparty democracy and personal and political liberty, are strongly committed to eliminating poverty, undernourishment, illiteracy, and lack of health care; and this has greatly helped in China’s advancement. There is, however, a serious fragility in any authoritarian system of governance, since there is little recourse or remedy when the government leaders alter their goals or suppress their failures.

The reality of that danger revealed itself in a catastrophic form in the Chinese famine of 1959-1962, which killed more than 30 million people, when there was no public pressure against the regime’s policies, as would have arisen in a functioning democracy. Mistakes in policy continued for three years while tens of millions died. To take another example, the economic reforms of 1979 greatly improved the working and efficiency of Chinese agriculture and industry; but the Chinese government also eliminated, at the same time, the entitlement of all to public medical care (which was often administered through the communes). Most people were then required to buy their own health insurance, drastically reducing the proportion of the population with guaranteed health care.

In a functioning democracy an established right to social assistance could not have been so easily — and so swiftly — dropped. The change sharply reduced the progress of longevity in China. Its large lead over India in life expectancy dwindled during the following two decades — falling from a fourteen-year lead to one of just seven years.

The Chinese authorities, however, eventually realized what had been lost, and from 2004 they rapidly started reintroducing the right to medical care. China now has a considerably higher proportion of people with guaranteed health care than does India. The gap in life expectancy in China’s favour has been rising again, and it is now around nine years; and the degree of coverage is clearly central to the difference.Whether India’s democratic political system can effectively remedy neglected public services such as health care is one of the most urgent questions facing the country.


For a minority of the Indian population — but still very large in actual numbers — economic growth alone has been very advantageous, since they are already comparatively privileged and need no social assistance to benefit from economic growth. The limited prosperity of recent years has helped to support a remarkable variety of lifestyles as well as globally acclaimed developments of Indian literature, music, cinema, theatre, painting, and the culinary arts, among other cultural activities.

Yet an exaggerated concentration on the lives of the relatively prosperous, exacerbated by the Indian media, gives an unrealistically rosy picture of the lives of Indians in general. Since the fortunate group includes not only business leaders and the professional classes but also many of the country’s intellectuals, the story of unusual national advancement is widely and persistently heard. More worryingly, relatively privileged Indians can easily fall for the temptation to focus just on economic growth as a grand social benefactor for all.

Some critics of the huge social inequalities in India find something callous and uncouth in the self- centred lives and inward-looking preoccupations of a relatively prosperous minority. My primary concern, however, is that the illusions generated by those distorted perceptions of prosperity may prevent India from bringing social deprivations into political focus, which is essential for achieving what needs to be done for Indians at large through its democratic system. A fuller understanding of the real conditions of the mass of neglected Indians and what can be done to improve their lives through public policy should be a central issue in the politics of India.

This is exactly where the exclusive concentration on the rate of GNP growth has the most damaging effect. Economic growth can make a very large contribution to improving people’s lives; but single-minded emphasis on growth has limitations that need to be clearly understood.

Courtesy of The New York Review of Books.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The unimaginable recrudescence of Bengal

13 May 2011 shall go down in the history of Bengal and of Bengali people as "freedom day". As a university student, when my baptism in becoming Bengali began, I learnt about the date, 21st February, ekushe februari, that lies at the heart of Bengali identity. 13 May is for me as significant.

The con-munists have finally been ousted.

See images of Calcutta on 13 May 2011 here.

There was a time, just a little while ago, when not a leaf in Bengal stirred but with the party's say-so, when freedom of speech, of thought, of action, was forgotten ...

I have no doubt whatsoever that things can only get better. But most importantly, I hope the main lesson has been learnt, that things can become better only if everyone, each and every person, tries to be better, and do better. And thus break the inertia, of thought, speech and action which has trapped Bengal in a miasma of stagnation. If that happens, then the new government will be enabled to begin in some substantive fashion the enormous task of rebuilding from shambles. However, if people look to the new government to wave some kind of magic wand and create some magical transformation - then, despite the best intentions and efforts of the government, stagnation and rot shall continue.

It is possible now for people's own thinking and efforts to bear fruit, provided these are rooted in working with the people. Now is the time to give oneself to the public cause, through constructive action. I am sure we are going to see a blooming of voluntary grassroots action now with the exit of the cowardly dogs, the CPI(M), who clamped down on all voluntary action simply because they were petrified lest anyone see and know for themselves the real truth behind their deceitful claim of being "pro-people". They wanted to be gate-keepers, and thus be unimpeded in sucking the blood of the people.

The people of Bengal can be proud once again. We have a leader who is a genuine mass leader, who has battled almost single-handedly against and withstood every kind of assault and attack and adversity, to finally prevail over her enemies and emerge gloriously victorious. It is a victory for democracy, it is a victory of people power. Bengal has once again shown the way for India - in showing the importance and power of democracy. Since we got it cheap we take it for granted.

But the real work of Mamata begins only now. That may make her struggle over two decades seem tame. But if she applies herself to the challenge with the same unflinching, fierce tenacity of which she has become a veritable iconic symbol, then positive change is inevitable.

I wish her Godspeed and Godstrength.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The alternative

Poster at Nandigram protest meeting in Calcutta, 2007. Slogan:
From Singur to Nandigram, Resistance's new naam (name).

The people's struggles in West Bengal over the last decade and more have brought to centre-stage the issue of land. City-folk, intellectuals, professionals, people who empathise with the peasants - are quick to point out that the old must give way to the new, that the spread of urbanisation is inevitable and irreversible, that a village cannot hold out against the advancing city, that industry is necessary and so on. And that, therefore, in a region of significant population density and relative land scarcity, it has to be agricultural land that is given up. They emphasise the issue of proper compensation and rehabilitation.

We are living in a time of great scams. Historically too, there have been some great conspiracies. And always, the poor and powerless have borne the brunt of these, and been simply forgotten. The bulk of the people in entire regions of the country have been living out, and continue to do so, direly, the ramifications of the planned consignment of their places to backwardness and zones of exploitation and extraction. Entire peoples and communities, cultures and languages, live out the consequences of the planned expropriation of a place by "enlightened" people from outside, and the conversion of the indigenous people into serfs, in a mutually beneficial plot between them and the state (colonial, Indian).

Although the mega-scam / conspiracy of forced land acquisition in Rajarhat by the CPI(M) mafia preceded Singur and Nandigram, and was held up as a "model" of consensus-based land acquisition, Rajarhat is now set to explode in the face of the arch-villain, Gautam Deb. In the documentary film on Rajarhat, "Their City on Our Land", an elderly farmer says, "we are not poor, we are rich, we have land, they have nothing, only money, but they don't have land. They buy our land with money, and become rich and we become poor." And just as the historic election in West Bengal comes to a close, the election in which the land question was perhaps the key issue driving the desire for change, in the very centre of the country, another explosion of the land question is taking place.

The city folk who empathise with the peasants but think land acquisition is unavoidable, a necessary sacrifice for collective advance - they must realise that democracy is not just about what they think it is about. Democracy in India implies an unflinching adherence to some basic parameters, that are being set by people's struggles in this land of historical injustice and inequity. The struggles are democracy in action, and the parameters set by them are directions for public policy and governance. Knee-jerk resort to assertions that "there is no alternative", "dams are vital", "urbanisation is inevitable", "land must be acquired" and so on is only part of the unquestioned continuation of status quo, regarding what "development" means and entails. It only shows what "power" is, and where it lies, who has it, and who does not. So, really, it is very clear that the empathic, development-oriented city-folk are with someone and against someone else.

But time is running out. The people of this country are not going to go on and on accepting that status quo, which is entirely one-sided: some sit in comfort while some suffer the earth sinking beneath their feet. The peasant whose land is being seized today, is not the peasant of an earlier age, who gave way to capitalist industry. He and she are here today, together with us, and contemporaneous with global capitalism. And fighting against it, unlike anyone else. Fighting for survival.

What is the alternative? That is what the city-folk ask. As if, over and above all the comfort and privilege they have enjoyed, they are now also privileged to have this formulated by the (powerless) people and handed over to them, to examine with cynical arrogance. What about them? What is their role? What can they do? Have they tried to immerse themselves in this concern, taking full responsibility? Instead of the sneering, despising disdain reserved for the poor and powerless. You better think fast, and think soundly, for your balls are otherwise going to be excised by the peasant's tangi.

If there is to be a market economy, that must be guided by people's interests. The lives of people cannot be dictated by unbridled market forces.

The poor are ingenious and enterprising, they must be in order to survive. In central Kolkata, slum dwellers hang around the spaces where the cars of early morning shoppers in New Market are parked. As soon as the babu goes off, someone will swiftly duck behind the car and crouch and empty his bowels, and thus get ready for another day of labour to sustain the fragrant city. That same ingenuity and razor-edge, do-or-die intensity must be brought to the engagement with the subject of "alternative" - by those who today only ask the question.

Against the "irreversible", "immutable" sway of global economy, the poor and powerless in Bengal, the ever rebellious land, have screamed out: you shall not take our land! The unstoppable advance of the jack-boot of economic forces, that goliath, may finally have come up against a little David in the Bengal peasant.

Which side are you on? Will you finally start working with the people and for the people, to fabricate an alternative, to produce a genuine local crop?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Their City on Our Land


"Amader Jomite Oder Nogori" [Their City on Our Land]

A documentary film on the issue of urbanization and dispossession
of land in the Rajarhat-New Town area

Director: Promod Gupta

Date:Friday, 6th May, 2011

Time: 3 PM


Seminar Room,
KOLKATA 700094

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Golden smiles

Candidates woo voters with innovative schemes in Tamil Nadu

From our Desi Times correspondent: special update 11 April 2011

Everyone is all too familiar with the methods used to seek votes in Tamil Nadu. The technique of 500-note-for-vote is already an old one. Free TVs, bicycles for school students, rice at one rupee a kilo, aand free and expensive medical insurance are some of the ongoing methods, used by both parties. The ruling party may begin a “scheme” and the opposition would do a take on that and implement “scheme plus”. In areas where the gifts are distributed at the door-step at pre-dawn hours, a power cut during those hours is a part of the tactic, ensuring that nobody knows who came and who accepted.

Since yesterday a new scheme called the Golden Smile has made an appearance. Voters are promised a gold-capped tooth – the tooth should be positioned between the pre-molar and the incisor to be seen when smiling – if they align with the party. Apparently both parties are keen to oblige the voters so we can rest assured there will be many smiles through these electoral days. One actually looks forward to all these golden smiles as one has become a little weary of the grimness after the scams.

To ensure that all these gold teeth are in place in all the mouths, several dentists have been hired. Through reliable sources it has been confirmed that about 500 NRI dentists, based in the USA and the UK, who are party patriots, have agreed to come and contribute their services for their party. State dentists, both private and those working for the government, may be hired at up to Rs 2,500 per cap which makes each tooth worth about Rs 5,000.

Since the announcement of this Golden Smile scheme less than 24 hours ago, a total of 107,433 people have already registered and the number is likely to grow at a fast clip. Tooth caps will be fitted in party centres in almost all the major cities in Tamil Nadu, including the hill stations of Ooty, Yercadu and Kodaikanal. It is estimated that these smiles will eventually cost the tax payer a sum of Rs 1.53 lakh crores; party insiders let it be known that the bosses wanted to keep costs less than what was incurred by the 2G scam.

All these potential smiles will bring many reporters and journalists to Tamil Nadu during this week. A few foreign correspondents, including those from the German Der Spiegel and the Dutch Volkskrant are also expected to cover the Tamil elections. The tourism industry which in Tamil Nadu won laurels for the maximum tourists in 2010 – beating God’s own country Kerala by a substantial margin – has been asked to gear up for the event.

The common man in Tamil Nadu, used by now to a life of free-dumb, is happy. A quick calculation has revealed that the resale value of the gold tooth, post elections, would be Rs 1200. That’s equivalent to about 20 quarter bottles of the local brandy sold at TASMAC. More reasons to smile as the money gets recycled!

Monday, June 21, 2010

India erupts

For some years now, I have been concerned about the situation in India, and the possibility of the eruption of blind, destructive violence against the system and all its vested interests.

We have Maoist insurgency in various parts of the country, which the prime minister of India had described as independent India's most serious security threat. But the Maoist insurgency had not yet been expressed in destructive violence against the system at large. The so-called Jehadi violence in India has been of the latter character. Maoist violence had not yet become like Jihadi violence. Maoist action had also become enmeshed in mafia operations, the latter being a general feature of India.

But some recent incidents have thrown up the question of whether Maoist insurgency has now turned into blind violence. A passenger train was derailed in West Bengal, allegedly by the Maoists, and a goods train came and rammed the derailed train coaches, resulting in a massive loss of life. In another incident, an entire bus was blown up in Chhattisgarh, because some of the passengers were security personnel. Here too, a large number of civilians died. Hence, I have been preoccupied with this question, of whether the violence of poverty, disparity and exclusion is finally going to cause a volcanic eruption of destructive violence against everything.

From what I see around me, living in Calcutta, it seems we are living under the shadow of looming violence. A civil war, where the have-nots finally turn against the haves. Once something like that erupts, we are in for successive rounds of ever more ferocious blood-letting. No good will come of all that, and India's future as a pluralist democracy would be under severe risk. Life in India would become like what life is like now for people in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the question is, can the necessary changes that must take place in India, which have NOT taken place in the 63 years since India's independence - can such change happen, before the destructive violence erupts? Things like education, healthcare, housing, drinking water, sanitation, public transport. Equal opportunity for all irrespective of their socio-economic circumstances.

I do not see that on the horizon, quite the reverse actually. Neither the govt, nor the private business sector has any such inclusive vision. The civil society is weak and fractured, and divided by caste and religion. It has no influence in public policy. I do not see the possibility of civil disobedience, of a non-violent uprising by the country's educated section, the middle-class and the intelligentsia, to compell the state to act in favour of the poor and marginalised, and to put in place in the system the means for a basic level of equity.

Those of us who have a vision of a more equitable and truly democratic India, and know that only a non-violent social revolution can realise that, and that this means an inner awakening in every individual - we shall do and keep doing whatever we can towards that goal, whatever the odds. We have no other alternative, in the sense that this is the only thing we are able to do. Like ants.

Rahul has written a fitting "song of the ant".

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


London World Naked Bike Ride event, in London,
on 12 June 2010. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

D: This is really lovely!

R: India te-o erom jodi hoto - taley activism e onek lok ashto!

D: Shudhu cheshta korar dorkar - lok aashbe. kintu amader 'activist-neta' praani eto bheetu ki shob kothay boley "lok toiri noy", jokhon ki sotyo kotha to ei ki ora neejerai toiri noy...

R: Kichu ta hochhey o, recently, Bombay te ekta cycle rally holo, young people der, shobai super-hero costume porey cycle korchhilo. Mojaar ghotona, with a message. Amaar ek chaatri, o passionate "active transport" and cycle-related public policy niye lorey jachhey, and besh kichu accomplish korey jachhey. Ekebare "non-political" meye ta, tobu o...

Neta-netri ... joto kom bola jaay, toto bhaalo!

D: Kolkatar ghotonar opor jodi kono report achhe to pathiye dao. Kaaje aashbe. Ekhaneo lokera cycle rally korechhe. BRT niye lorai cholechhe.

R: Kolkatay cyclists der obosthya ekhon bhishon jotil. Onek jaygay cycling banned, dhorey niye jaay. Ami kono din gaari chaalai ni, onek bochor cycle e ghora-phera kortam. Ekhon sheyta korte partam na, raastay jayga nei, gaari eto beshi, jiboner risk prochur. Dekhi, didimoni-ra ashaar por, ebong ekhon thekei, notun mayor ke diye, ki kora jaay.

Monday, June 14, 2010

This India is not incredible

Bhopal news leakage disaster

by Rajinder Puri

The Statesman

In Bhopal, leaking gas killed people. From Bhopal, leaking news is killing reputations. Arjun Singh ordered the release of Warren Anderson after earlier arresting him. Why did he do that? He is under a cloud. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked his ministers to consider the Dow Chemical proposal to waive its financial liability in lieu of helping obtain foreign investment in India. He is under a cloud. Chief Justice Ahmedi who reduced the criminal liability in the Bhopal case later headed the hospital trust set up by the accused. This was gross violation of judicial propriety. He is under a cloud. Chidambaram and Kamal Nath lobbied for Dow Chemical with the government to write off the compensation for Bhopal victims due from it in return for promised foreign investment. Both are under a cloud – but enough! There is little point in mentioning names. Why pick on a few individuals? The entire political class is under a cloud.

However Rajiv Gandhi is not under a cloud. No Congress leader dares to name him. Rajiv was Prime Minister when Anderson was released in Bhopal. He was Prime Minister when Anderson was allowed to fly from Delhi to the USA. He was in Bhopal with Arjun Singh on the very day and at the very time when the latter reversed his earlier decision of arresting Anderson to order his release and fly him to Delhi in a State aircraft.

Rajiv Gandhi alone could have been responsible for the release of Anderson. The PM’s principal secretary PC Alexander has confirmed that the Cabinet meeting convened soon after the Bhopal gas tragedy did not refer to Anderson’s release. Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said: “I categorically deny involvement of the then central government.” She is right. Anderson’s release was not ordered by the Central government. It was ordered personally by Rajiv Gandhi who sat next to chief minister Arjun Singh in Bhopal when the latter addressed the press confirming Anderson’s arrest.

Rajiv Gandhi must bear ultimate responsibility for allowing the government’s claim for settlement of US$ 3.3 billion from Union Carbide to be whittled down to a paltry US$ 470 million that was eventually paid. The Supreme Court directed the final settlement of all litigation in the amount of US$ 470 million to be paid by 31 March, 1989. Both the Indian government and Union Carbide accepted the court's direction for payment of US$ 470 million. In May, 1989 the SC offered its rationale for the settlement. It stated that the compensation was higher than ordinarily payable under Indian law.

Did the honourable Judges pay any attention to international law? In the same year 1989 Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in the waters near Alaska. Exxon had to shell out US$ 5 billion for a disaster in which no human lives were lost! Given our recent history it is legitimate to ask: was any amount in the huge gap between 3.3 billion US$ claimed by the government, and 470 million US$ received by it, pocketed by any politician? And let us not be surprised by the SC settlement. After all, the Supreme Court just months earlier overcame its doubts to sentence innocent Kehar Singh to death in the Indira Gandhi assassination case.

Let us not miss the wood for the trees. This issue is not about Rajiv Gandhi or the Congress. All our past political icons deserve scrutiny by scanner. The issue is no longer about the Bhopal gas disaster. The victims are no longer the 500,000 disabled or the 20,000 dead of Bhopal. The issue is the independence of India. The victims are the one billion plus citizens of India. They do not need compensation. They need revolution. They need liberation from the corrupt, venal ruling class that enriched itself by bartering the nation’s independence and self respect during the past six decades.

Yes, six decades! The time has come to recall all the disgraceful betrayals of the national interest since 1947 by those who have ruled us. The time has come to revisit history. The exposures of the Bhopal gas disaster present a defining moment. If India seeks remedy for its decadence and decline the diagnosis must be based upon truth. There is a generation of Indians ignorant of our history. It will need to acquaint itself with the truth. It is available for all those who seek it. If India’s new generation wants a future it will have to fight for it. It will have to fight for the future of the nation. Who knows, it may surprise history by doing just that.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Fire in Calcutta

(AP Photo)

Su: From the frying pan to the fire??? Let's just hope it can't get much worse!!!

Ba: What are you talking about?

Su: Our 'state' of being :-)

Ra: With due respect, such notions need to be criticaly examined. For instance, why it was "alright" to have the people who were there so far, and what was so spectacularly superior in them? Second, as I learnt, much to my discomfiture, sitting in Calcutta (or elsewhere in India) one cannot have the remotest dea of what things are like in rural West Bengal, in particular the real face of the grassroots support, participation, membership and leadership of the TMC. Citizens can be justifiably proud of this.

Su: Of course, I can only see it for myself. The goons who live next door from where I live; all of whom have 'grassroot' membership! Who build a huge house and a garage in someone else's land and get away with it ... no amount of complaints to the police and the municipal authorities gets us anything!

I am a selfish common man, bothered about us in 'Calcutta'

And please don't get me wrong. It was not alright to have the people who were there so far, which doesn't mean the 'paribartan' that has come is a welcome change either!

Ra: The party's face in Calcutta may be as you say, and I do not doubt that, that's also what I can see, but it was a revelation to me that this in no way defines the party. So I am hopeful that the process of change that's taking place in the party will bode well for the future. But there is a huge gulf between Calcutta and the rest of the state; Calcutta is a mess, in a rut, ungovernable, thanks to the political culture established by the other, and simply mirrorred by all else. Being in the districts is distinctly cheering compared to living in Calcutta. And finally, whether one likes to hear this or not, Calcutta is a parasite, its doomed, its nice folk are likely to be done to death by bloodthirsty mobs.

Su: I hear a little justification there! As I said, I am a common man, and only bothered about the 'state' of our being! Which is Calcutta ... and I can only speak from my experience.

And if the change is a mirror of the already established political culture (I quote you here) then may be it's not a 'poribartan' after all. Its only a change of face!

(AP Photo)

Ru: Sometimes getting into the fire is better than stewing in the frying pan. I'm hoping this is one such time.

Su: We all are hoping for the same Ru. Don't forget I have suffered the worst of the left! I went to a Bengali medium school when English was taken away from the course!

I also happen to spend a little more time here. So ... let's hope the fire would make us all become purified!

Ra: Good metaphor, of purifying fire, agni pariksha, agni path etc etc. Everyone who has lived in Bengal in the last 40 years has had to live in fire. Su, no justifucation at all. There are no two ways, there is only one right way. But there are millions of dualities and conflicts in our apartheid, disparity-ridden society. Looking only at Calcutta - yes, those living here can only see what's there around them. But which Calcutta? Babu/bibi Calcutta? Jhupdi-bashi Calcutta? Muslim Calcutta? Dalit Calcutta? ...

CPM solidified lumpen raj in the state, done intentionally as a ruling strategy. Lumpen-ism is a feature of the city, like its air pollution, which affects all. Even the sushil "bhaw-dro" babu somaj has become highly lumpen in its make-up (just observe the civic sense of smart young things zipping around in their a/c cars on Calcutta's roads). The challenge is to oust the lumpenism. Even at this moment, there are more CPM lumpens in Calcutta then there are TMC lumpens. And the former are earning hundreds of crores for their lumpen party everyday.

I hope we can have a discussion, in which I can fill you in with a crash course in sociology/politics, while taking in your refined aesthetic sensibility, and come to a shared understanding and vision. More fundamentally, there is a profound sociological / political phenomenon happening in Bengal right now, for now connected with the TMC, but its something larger than that or any party. That will never be caught by the bhaw-bhaws or the wonderful, smert media. Once you discern that, you will also inevitably be filled with gentle hope.

Khoma korun didimoni, aar bhaat bokbo na, promise.

Uj: Su, I think Calcutta/Bengal woes have bottomed out in the last 3 decades. There is not much else that can go wrong. So in a situation like this, probably the worst we will see is the same ole ... let's pray for the best :-)

Vi: I could not resist ... The present communist government is getting it's just desserts. I hope the party of Lakshman Seth, Rabin Deb, Binoy Konar, Subhas Chakraborty and the bunch of the most organised violent and intolerant goons who ruled and laid waste an entire state is consigned to the funeral pyre, agni cheeta if you like. Good riddance, or should we actually keep your fingers crossed till the vampires are actually put back in their coffins.

Photo: William Vandivert, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Calcutta, Tilottama

"Kolkata ek din kollolini tilottoma hawbe."

Jibananda Das

Calcutta shall one day be a swaying Tilottama.

Tilottama: the sum total of every iota of all the beautiful elements on earth, pieced together to every last bit. The line is from Jibanananda Das' poem "Suchetana", written in the late 1930s. The poet says that all the bloodshed and warfare and material advancement are not the last thing, and expresses hope for a transformation towards eternal truths .

Friday, April 09, 2010

Roots of Muslim backwardness

by Sk Sadar Nayeem

The Statesman, 9 April 2010

The socio economic backwardness of the Muslim community in India was underlined by the Justice Sachar Committee report. Then came the Ranganathan Mishra Commission report which recommended 10 per cent job reservation for Muslims because the community occupied the lowest rung in the human development index. Now, on the heels of these two reports, the National Council for Applied Economic Research has come out with data about the economic status of Muslims in the country that makes dismal reading. The NCAER report says that one-third of Muslims in India survive on less than Rs 550 a month. In other words, three out of 10 of them lived below the poverty line in 2004-05. Even among the poor, urban Muslims were slightly better off compared to Muslims living in the villages who survived on Rs 338 a month during the year under review.

The three reports obviously belied the allegation of certain political parties and groups that Muslims are being appeased. It is, however, true, that 63 years after Independence, Muslims were being used merely as a vote bank by all the political parties and no worthwhile administrative action to improve their socio-economic condition was taken by any government.

The important thing is that if the condition of Muslims is to be improved, the masses themselves must be awakened. Behind their backwardness lies some historical reasons, besides government apathy. Muslims did not occupy an important position in the 19th century because modernisation resulted in the growth of a middle class that was monopolised by Hindus who succeeded because of their wealth and their positive attitude to education. The change in the language (from Persian of the Muslim era to English of the British period) of administration was also an important factor.

The beginning of the 19th century saw the British East India Company firmly entrenched in eastern India. Soon the British started introducing laws to govern the region. One such law was “Permanent Settlement”. After the introduction of this law, the former land revenue collectors of the Mughal Empire were transformed into the landholders with permanent tenure with the government. With this emerged a new class called zamindars. These feudal lords became allies of the new English rule obviously because this new class of vested interests was primarily created by the British for their political convenience. At the same time, the English merchants began to trade through Indian intermediaries which helped in the rise of a rich Indian trading class. Their business transactions brought this class in close contact with the English and their world view.

Further, the base of the bourgeois class began to broaden when the spread of British rule made it necessary for Indians, who had even meagre knowledge of English, to be appointed to the services. As a result, the educated middle class grew rapidly in number. But this middle class was monopolised by Hindus. Muslims, who had lost land and position disproportionately, did not occupy any important role during the period whereas the English-educated Hindu middle class, especially in Bengal, called “bhadralok”, provided the necessary leadership to the Hindu community.

On the other hand, the ashraf or respectable people (mansabdars and jaigirdars during the Mughal period) among the Muslims were on the decline. They were adversely affected from 1830 when Permanent Settlement and resumption proceedings came into force and Persian was replaced by English as the official language. the ashraf response to the change was not positive. They thought that it was enough for them to learn Arabic and Persian through which they could study the Koran and get the religious education like what they had been doing during Mughal rule. Thus, they failed to recover from the stupor, thereby lagging behind Hindus who, by then, had adopted an English education with zeal through which the modernisation of their society began. As a result, Muslims did not get employment in government offices. After the death or dismissal of old Muslim incumbents, their places were in all cases filled by Hindus. Opportunities in government services apart, ashrafs also lost both social prestige and economic opportunities by ignoring Western education. This left no Muslims in higher places.

It is true that “Indian Muslims became a minority when they began to be afraid” and some writers traced this “to the time when the Muslim elite in India began to be apprehensive about its future after the failure of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 which meant the final eclipse of Muslim political power”. This fear was not unjustified but that was not the reason for the “final eclipse of Muslim political power”. An important element in the revolt of 1857 was Hindu-Muslim unity. The events of 1857 revealed that the people and politics of India were not basically communal.

After 1857, the British tried to maintain their hold over the country by setting into motion the divisive forces of communalism and began to ally themselves with the most backward, obscurantist, religious and social forces. Therefore, the failure of the Sepoy Mutiny did not make Muslims apprehensive because it meant the final eclipse of Muslim political power. The fact is that there was no such political power in India called “Muslim power”. It was “Muslim” only in the sense that the ruler happened to be Muslim. The large Muslim populace had nothing to do with it. After 1857, the communal violence had scared Indian Muslims since they had been simply looking for personal security in a country where they were numerically in a minority.

India was divided in 1947. The creation of Pakistan was the result of a fear psychosis of losing Muslim identity in India with an 80 per cent Hindu population. This fear was generated by the British and, later, by a section of the Muslim elite in India. After partition, political leaders never allowed the community to think of their socio-economic problems and backwardness in education. The net result was that being 14 per cent of the Indian population, Muslims did not constitute even one per cent in civil services and the community’s per capita income remained five per cent below the national average. The only problem being highlighted was that of Muslim security. But without the root of communal divide being eradicated, Muslims were given hollow promises of their lives and property being safeguarded in order to make sure of their votes.

Despite the earnest efforts of Indian Muslims to look for that elusive political protector who would deliver them from communal violence, riots broke the back of the community in independent India. Naturally, the ghetto became common. Neither any government nor any political party nor the Muslim leadership did anything to help the community adapt to the socio-economic demands of the age. In fact, Muslims were not in a position after partition to evolve a new social leadership to both contribute to and benefit from a sustained socio-economic development. As a result, Muslims are largely illiterate and mired in grinding poverty. Modern education, trade and industry has not made much headway among Muslims. Muslim job seekers are being subjected to unfortunate discrimination both in the public and private sector. Such discriminations created a shortage, especially after partition, of a modern intelligentsia, modern middle classes and modern bourgeoisie — in short, of modern civilisation among Indian Muslims.

Under the circumstances, it is imperative for the government to come out with a comprehensive plan to improve the condition of Muslims. But it is equally necessary for Muslims themselves to come out of the quagmire and achieve their own empowerment. Like Urdu poet Iqbal says, “Allah does not change the condition of the people unless they strive to change themselves”.

Image: AFP

Friday, January 22, 2010

Jyoti Basu's Bengal

Kanchan Gupta has written about Jyoti Basu.

While his piece helps to put in perspective the pathetic outpouring of praise in the mainstream media, the comment leaves one with a feeling of the main things remaining unsaid.

Bengal's present plight owes significantly to JB, but the story begins much earlier. The CPM in West Bengal is but one aspect of Bengal society and politics, it is a natural expression of the immense cleavages and distortions characterising the society.

Calcutta and Bengal's economy, in 1947, was overwhelmingly an obsolete colonial edifice. While those nurtured and groomed by this colonial city and its institutions - like JB himself - went on to do well for themselves, there was no thought for the public domain, and in particular industry and manufacturing. That called for a massive renewal, and when the soil's brightest and best were most needed they were nowhere to be found. But that was only to be expected in the barna bibhakto samaj that is Bengal.

The 60s and especially the mid- and late-60s were a bad time for India as a whole. It was a huge signal for change and renewal. Our much-lauded green revolution is an example of a mission that was prioritised by the Indian state, and completed. But West Bengal simply had to suffer the "structural adjustment', of being rendered redundant and irrelevant. And by that juncture, the mid-60s, the fragile and tenuous (formal) political environment in the state had also collapsed to yield outcomes such as the UF govts. The iron fist of the Indian state asserting itself - was seen in the SS Ray period. But with the massive anti-Congress sentiment in the state (and the manufacture of electoral outcomes by the CPM, despite the fact that the state has, even since 1977, had a Congress vote share which is only a little less than the Left votes), Indira-is-India could not reclaim Bengal. And the state has had to be embroiled in its own contradictions and discontents.

JB's record is a classic example of TINA, there was no alternative. What this means is the utter bankruptcy of the Bengali bhadralok society, its erstwhile education and institutions and its political ideologies and formations, in conceiving and rendering a socio-economic order other than the inherited one. A bhadralok society that lives off the subaltern folk who comprise the common people of the land. All that one instead saw was an endless cycle of negativism, self-destructiveness, violence and breakdown, demolition of all that was. JB presided over an order which was simply like gaseous vapours emanating from a dung heap, or maggots in a carcass. And he ensured that the party would reign supreme in that dungheap order.

Bengal today is not anything, it is only a non-thing, it is the negation of the British order that was salubrious for the bhadralok and viscerally hated by everyone left out of the circle of privilege.

Everyone likes to partake of the benefits of a place or a situation, but a few must build, conserve and renew. In Bengal, everyone fled when things got difficult. Or huffed and puffed, in parodies of revolution.

It was not labour militancy which scared off capital and led to capital flight; rather, labour militancy itself was the knee-jerk reaction of the (babu-led) trade unions' leadership in a situation of all-round industrial collapse owing to technological and economic obsolescence. Of course, the insanities of the late 60s - early 70s also led to capital and human flight. But it is also important to note that the lion's share of industrial disputes was claimed by lock-outs. That is a telling indicator of the the real power balance in society as far as the proletariat was concerned.

The CPM's tenure in the state has been accompanied by the transformation of the economy into a non-industrial one, the decimation of the industrial proletariat and the growth of a lumpen proletariat. The contribution of SS Ray to the creation of the culture of a politically patronised lumpen army, cannot be forgotten.

JB's bile against the class / community he himself belonged to - but disavowed in his public life - led him to destroy everything held sacred by them. He only mirrored the hatreds organic to the parasitically ruled society. And securely installed was a party ruling the roost over the debris of all that was. The common folk of the land benefited to an extent that the apartheid bhadralok order, in its natural / inherent tendency, would never have enabled. They were psychologically empowered by the party, but otherwise entirely feeble and dependent on the party for survival. But in the main, the CPM order was about keeping people poor and backward, whipping up class hatreds so that a dog-eat-dog environment prevailed, in which it could consistently emerge victorious (in the polls). And the party could be the sole arbiter of everything.

Given what the CPM was, and in a sense what left-ism had been reduced to in the state, that was all that could be expected.

The result of western communist / left ideology in a backward, caste-divided society ruled by Bengali bhadralok.

Nandigram represented the violent revolt of the masses against party rule.

JB epitomised all the contradictions, ironies and irrationalities of Bengal. The unsmiling, emotionless mask that he seemed to wear was actually quite real. He was simply a "virtual' entity, not human, just an abstract compound of all the negatives of Bengal. His personal life and tastes were very far removed from the party he was a major part of. It is actually quite amazing that a man could so completely efface his human-ness all day long, for so many years. He gave himself up fully and completely to and for the party, he made the party his all, and in return the party made him the supreme leader. And he ensured the party reigned supreme. A person completely empty, a polished mirror of the society and the party. And after he left office, he disappeared from public view, leaving the CPM to manage its fiefdom. But we see now that this fiefdom is nearing its demise.

So it is the CPM that should be grateful to Basu.

Bengal never got a Deng, or technocrats. The contradictions and discontents within Bengal society were too powerful for that.

But yes, one cannot fail to recognise Basu's consistent and steadfast abhorrence of communalism. A communal mindset is actually at the core of Bengali bhadralok society, and Basu represents the disavowal of that too. Such a disavowal is also very much a part of the soil of Bengal. But the party he was a part of could not hold on to that for very long. Party membership was no longer an ideological thing, it was simply a means for opportunism,

Hence Basu's rule was a period of absence of communal riots. He ensured that communal disturbances were stamped out at once. As a pre-independence CPI man, he knew all about communal riots. But just as the absence of communal bigotry, a negative, was not accompanied by anything positive at its core, Bengal's record of being free of communal riots was also a record of all-round marginalisation of the Muslim community. And that too was only an indicator of the deeply entrenched communal mindset in the society and its institutionalisation. Basu could not do anything about that. Basu also made the mistake of failing to recognise the rise of Hindutva in the latter part of the 80s, and so he tried to make amends by being the most ardent national champion of so-called "secular" politics, from the latter part of the 90s. That ensured that the BJP was held at bay.

So besides the CPM and the formal Left, it is the Congress at the centre that should be most grateful to Basu.

"West Bengal, with its huge pool of talent, could have led India from the front" ... No. That required leadership, and above all, self-leadership (swaraj), something sorely lacking in the gene pool of the sick bhadralok society. So though independence and freedom was achieved by driving out the British (and then the bhadralok), though swa-desh, self-rule was achieved, real freedom, swa-raj, is still an elusive dream.

Image: Maggots in a carcass, courtesy Bear Blog and Carcass Cam.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Shan sines again in Bengal

It took 32 years for the ghost of Siddhartha Shankar Roy to be buried, and for the self-destructive negativism underlying much of life in Bengal to be set aside. Bengal has rejoined the national mainstream. It has been part of a national wave, and played a significant part in enabling the formation of a stable federal govt committed to good governance, economic growth and social inclusion. Bengal had played a significant role in India's anti-colonial and freedom movement. Now, through its electoral behaviour, it has once again found its place under the Indian sun. The people of Bengal have to give flesh and bones to that promise and potential.

It is unlikely that any future govt will last for 30 years - or for that matter, whether "Bengal" as we know it today, will have any meaning in 30 years time, given the pace at which changes and transformations are taking place in the world. Any new dispensation in Bengal has only a short time within which it can carry out the work of repairing, rebuilding and renewing Bengal. It is not a question of pragmatism, or expediency or opportunism. Of erstwhile CPM-supported auto, bus-transport and union mafias, and real estate dons now doing business as usual with new rulers. It is a question of overturning and transforming the way life is lived in Bengal, of how people breathe, and what they are.

Bengal needs vision, inspiration and example; people need counselling and instruction and encouragement; and chastening and chiding and punishment and reward. In short, Bengal needs leadership. Bengalis are habitually averse to all these things. But the same Bengalis can do as much and more when they are inspired, and believe and trust. Netaji is long gone, and is not about to return. Even Prabhakaran, the mass murderer, who claimed Netaji's inspiration, is now dead. The people of Bengal have to find leadership within themselves, individually and collectively. Yes, Bengal needs a new Swaraj party.

With that, no one or nothing can stop Bengal from realising its place of destiny in this planet. A beautiful land, a peaceful and prosperous place, of gifted and quirky people, a different place, which is also a beacon for others.

Painting: The Sun Makers Free Your Mind, by Eric Singleton.

This lady does not vanish

I had the following discussion with a friend, let us call him D.

D: This was a good result. They, i.e. CPI(M), have got their comeuppance at last. I can only hope the lessons will be well-learnt because if this is repeated 2 years later, in West Bengal we will go from frying pan to fire. But indications are that the college ideologues in Delhi are unwilling to learn anything. On the other hand, will the victorious lady learn anything now? Both sides need merciless whipping.

Me: I am not cynical and anxious about life in Bengal after the lady comes to office. Things cannot get any worse, they can only get better. And the people of Bengal, once awakened, cannot be taken for granted. And being able to fight against state power, on and on, for almost 20 years now, despite all the abuse, reviling, vilification, pillorying and beating, and finally vanquish the oppressor, does surely indicate some capability. If that capability, that sense of challenge, that fighting spirit, is focused on good governance, then surely some good will come out of that.

D: I'm not sure about the lady coming to office here and indeed things can get much much worse. The people of Bengal lack stamina anyway. Can't expect any deliverance as it's difficult to say which is the greater evil. In any case, as a bad Bong I have never been a political animal and have limited interest in social issues. Not keen on spoiling the party but am certainly cynical about our state, though feeling optimistic about Bharat at his point.

Me: There is no such thing as Bharat, every place in Bharat is another place like Bengal or Kolkata or whichever village. Bengalis have stamina - to be so badly raped repeatedly for 32 years and more and survive, and though they are down, they are definitely not out. The Bengali cannot be wiped out or effaced. His sense of self is indestructible. And indestructible is his desire to find joy and self-satisfaction, even amidst the most hellish circumstances and deprivation.

D: I meant sarkar. Getting raped for 32 years doesn't indicate stamina but such a populous community can't be wiped out unless there is a deadly fish flu! Effacement has occurred over the years but hubris is indestructible. You are right about the joy and satisfaction and above all, humour. Also, talent is still there aplenty.

Deliverance will come if we can throw out governments every 5 years. If the lady manages to come, with the penchant for shooting herself in the foot, she isn't capable of staying put like the Left, thankfully! Nor should any future Left be allowed to stay for long again. There may be some danger of Gujarat getting stuck with Modi and BJP.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Left out

After 32 years, the wheel has finally turned for the CPI(M). The results of the parliamentary elections are a resounding slap in the face of the party, which has been routed in Calcutta and across much of West Bengal. Those living outside West Bengal cannot imagine how unimaginable this is. One cannot help smiling!

The dark, dark night of CPI(M) rule has finally begun to come to an end. But so much damage has been done! Can it ever be rectified? Where would one begin?

Elections for the Calcutta Municipal Corporation in 2010, and for the state assembly in 2011. The CPI(M) can only sit and watch its own annihilation. Notwithstanding the hogwash of its gerontocrat apologists about making amends, the party is in an unstoppable self-destruct mode now, and I have no doubt that we are going to see some more spectacular performances by the party that is now nothing other than a mafia, gorged on the blood of the people.

Many people still think of the CPI(M) as "the Left". Left toe! A new politics is waiting to be born, something other than parties, of grassroots movements, of deepening democracy. The sooner people bury the CPI(M) - in their minds - the sooner such alternatives can emerge.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Latin America Rising

Inauguration Day in Chile
represented people taking back
power, especially women. A Chilean
woman watches the ceremony wearing
a replica of the presidential sash.
Photo by Patricio Valenzuela Hohmann

As part of a writing assignment on urban protests in Calcutta over the last two decades, I had interviewed activist Gautam Sen a few months ago, to document his engagement with the protests against squatter evictions in Calcutta. At the end of his account, Gautam-da said, "The days of party-ist culture are over. Mass movements today cannot have anything to do with political parties. There has to be an alternative politics, of grassroots organisations and mass movements. We have to learn from Latin America. There has to be control from below." At this juncture, in the context of the people's movement in Lalgarh, in the state of West Bengal in India, the reference to Latin America is most apt.

I recall, almost a quarter of a century ago, around the time I entered public activism, squatter movements in Latin America were mentioned, and we had read the writings of Manuel Castells and others on the subject.

I reproduce below an article that appeared in Yes! magazine in 2007.

Democracy Rising

by Nadia Martinez

Grassroots movements change the face of power

As the people of Latin America build democracies from the bottom up, the symbols of power are changing. What used to be emblems of poverty and oppression—indigenous clothing and speech, the labels “campesino” and “landless worker”—are increasingly the symbols of new power. As people-powered movements drive the region toward social justice and equality, these symbols speak, not of elite authority limited to a few, but of power broadly shared.

The symbolism was especially rich last year in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when the new minister of justice made her entrance at an international activists' summit. Casimira Rodríguez, a former domestic worker, wore the thick, black braids and pollera, a long, multilayered skirt, of an Aymara indigenous woman. As she made her way through the throng, Rodríguez further distinguished herself from a typical law-enforcement chief by passing out handfuls of coca leaves.

Throughout the region, marginalized people are rising up, challenging the system that has kept them poor, and pursuing a new course. In country after country, people are selecting leaders who strongly reject the Washington-led “neoliberal” policies of restricted government spending on social programs, privatization of public services such as education and water, and opening up borders to foreign corporations.

Of course, there are exceptions, most notably Mexico, where conservative Felipe Calderón claimed power after a bruising battle over disputed election results. But the growing backlash has driven old-guard presidents out of power in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Bolivia. And, while there are sharp differences among the new leaders, there is no question that what put all of them in power was a growing outcry against economic injustice. Over 40 percent of the region still lives in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor is the widest in the world.

No longer willing to accept perpetual poverty, Latin America's poor are redefining their societies and, in the process, redefining democracy. They are organizing large segments of society into strong, dynamic social movements with enough power to drive national politics. The challenge, of course, is to hold their new leaders accountable, to maintain the strength of the grassroots democratic power, and to go beyond symbolism to make real change.

Bolivia's Indigenous President

In Bolivia, where indigenous people are the majority, there are already some concrete signs of progress. Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president, took office in 2006 with the strongest mandate of any Bolivian leader. Catapulted onto the national political stage by his struggles as a union leader defending the rights of coca growers, Morales came to power on the heels of massive popular uprisings that ousted three presidents in as many years.

Despite sitting on the region's second largest natural gas reserves, Bolivia is South America's poorest country. In tandem with a wave of privatizations that swept Latin America in the 1990s, the oil and gas industry in Bolivia was opened for business to foreign oil companies, which garnered 82 percent of the profits, while leaving a scant 18 percent for Bolivia's coffers. Shortly after taking office, the Morales government set out to rewrite contracts with private companies. Negotiators increased the country's share of the profits to 50-80 percent by renegotiating contracts with 10 different companies, which will yield billions in additional revenue for the government to sustain its new social agenda.

Spurred by his experience as a coca grower, Morales has introduced new policies that challenge the U.S. approach to the “drug war.” Coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, has special ancestral significance for Bolivia's indigenous people and in its raw form is widely used to treat maladies such as stomach upset, altitude sickness, and stress, in addition to being a part of many Bolivians' daily routine. Under pressure from the U.S. government, previous Bolivian administrations tried coca eradication. Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia, says that “local farmers who planted coca as a means of subsistence would often face violent confrontations with the military and security forces who were mandated to destroy their crops, which in essence devastated their only means of livelihood.”

The Morales government has developed a farmer-friendly program that allows small farmers to grow small amounts of coca for domestic consumption, while also implementing a zero-cocaine policy that includes interdiction and anti-money laundering efforts to prevent drug trafficking.

In Brazil, a Metalworker is President

The political shift in Brazil is also steeped in powerful symbolism. When Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a metalworker with an elementary education, rode a wave of popular support to the presidency in 2002, it inspired working-class people around the world. He was re-elected with a comfortable 60 percent of the vote in October 2006. Although his first term was tainted by corruption scandals and accusations from many on Brazil's left that he acquiesced too much to the demands by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for strict fiscal policies, he fulfilled some of his campaign pledges to the poor who form his political base.

According to the Center for Economic Policy Research, some 11 million families have benefited from the “bolsa família”—a monthly cash payment made to poor families in exchange for ensuring that their children stay in school. Signaling more pro-poor policies to come, one of the first acts of Lula's second term was announcing an 8.6 percent rise in the minimum wage.

Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution

President Hugo Chávez is best known in the United States for his overblown rhetoric against President Bush. But in Latin America, the Venezuelan president is fond of conjuring up the symbolism of Simón Bolívar, the “liberator” of South America from Spanish rule, who dreamed of uniting the region in a strong bloc. And while it has garnered little attention here, Chávez has used oil windfalls to advance Bolívar's dream. Venezuela has purchased big chunks of Argentina and Ecuador's debts to the IMF, for example, and sold discounted oil to several of its neighbors and even to poor communities in the United States. And Venezuela has signed trade pacts with several countries that include novel bartering arrangements, such as agricultural products in exchange for doctors and other technical personnel. Chávez has devised a regional trade plan to counter the Bush-favored Free Trade Area of the Americas. The Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America (ALBA, for its Spanish acronym) aims to benefit the poor and the environment, and to advance trade among countries within the region.

In January, Venezuela and Argentina took another step towards breaking the region's dependence on such neoliberal institutions as the World Bank, IMF, and Inter-American Development Bank, which have conditioned lending on “free market” policy reforms and harsh austerity measures. They pledged more than $1 billion to jump-start a new “Bank of the South.” Bolivia and Ecuador have since signed on.

Within Venezuela, Chávez has made impressive progress in boosting literacy levels and providing health and other services to the poor. He has teamed up with Cuba in cosponsoring a program called Operation Miracle to provide free eye surgery to poor residents from Venezuela, Panama, Jamaica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and a growing list of other countries. The Venezuelan government is also investing heavily in creating a model of local economic development through cooperatives.

On the other hand, Chávez's fossil-fuel-based development plans—including a proposed gas pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina—are hardly visionary. As currently planned, the 5,000-mile pipeline will traverse areas of extreme ecological and cultural sensitivity. Several possible routes are being evaluated, but all run through the Amazon. Environmental and indigenous rights groups throughout Latin America have voiced opposition to the behemoth project, and have asked the Venezuelan government to halt all plans until they can be publicly debated.

Social Movements Redefine Democracy

Some of the most hopeful democratic advances in Latin America are not the result of official policies, but of social movements harnessing their own power. The thousands of poor peasants who make up the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil have claimed the right to settle on and farm close to 7 million hectares, or 43,000 square miles, of unused land—a territory a little larger than the state of Ohio. For millions of people who are largely outside of the mainstream economic system, access to land is of paramount importance, as they depend on it for subsistence.

Miguel Carter, of the Oxford-based Centre for Brazilian Studies, explains that groups like the MST contribute to the democratic process in important ways. “By improving the material conditions and cultural resources of its members” he says, “the landless movement has fortified the social foundations for democracy in Brazil.”

Indigenous movements, too, have gained ground. In the Amazonian region of Ecuador, after witnessing multinational oil companies for decades cut through the jungles of their ancestral lands in search of petroleum, indigenous women put their bodies on the line against the armed soldiers sent to escort oil workers. Known for fierce resistance to oil exploitation on their lands, the remote community of Sarayacu has so far succeeded in keeping the oil companies out.

Throughout Latin America, scores of indigenous peoples have demonstrated that marginalized populations can organize and mobilize effectively enough to topple governments—as they have done in Ecuador and Bolivia—despite their lack of material resources and political power.

A new characteristic of Latin American politics is greater collaboration among countries with the goal of breaking dependence on the North. In the past, countries were largely in competition for U.S. markets and development aid. Now they increasingly focus on complementing the strengths and weaknesses of one another, and seeking common solutions to their shared problems.

One example is the newly formed South American Community of Nations (CSN, in Spanish), an attempt by the 12 countries of South America to create an “area that is integrated politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and in infrastructure.” Because the initiative is new, it is unclear whether it will simply become a trading bloc that improves the region's competitive position in international markets, as is the case with the Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Alternatively, it could establish minimum social and environmental standards and the infrastructure not only to link to international markets but also to trade within Latin America.

Similarly, in a radical departure from a traditional market-based approach, the Morales government has developed a “People's Trade Agreement,” an innovative economic alternative based on principles of fair trade, labor, and environmental protections, and active state intervention in the economy to promote development.

Although still in an embryonic stage, “it is unique,” says Jason Tockman of the Bolivia Solidarity Network. “It has both a strong resonance with the alternative visions for social, economic and political integration proposed by the region's social movements, and the weight of state authority.”

The response to President Bush's visit to five Latin American countries in March is yet another sign that Latin Americans are choosing their own path, independent of the United States and its political and economic interests. Along Bush's route, thousands of people in the streets carrying colorful signs and “Bush Out” banners sent a clear message: people's movements are alive and well in Latin America, and they aren't falling for the White House's attempt to repackage the same unpopular U.S. policies under the guise of poverty alleviation.

At the same time, Chávez was able to gather and rouse into a fervor an estimated 40,000 people at an anti-Bush rally in Argentina, where he announced that Bush was a “political cadaver”—alluding to the president's increased irrelevance in Latin America.

After two centuries of the United States treating Latin America as if it were its backyard, organized popular movements across Latin America are changing the dynamics of the hemisphere. By electing more popular governments in eight countries and by organizing tens of millions of people, they have put up strong resistance to the U.S. agenda of corporate-led globalization, and they have created real alternatives on the ground. These efforts, combined with the Venezuela-led effort for alternative regional integration, not only provide the strongest counter-weight to the U.S. agenda anywhere in the world, but also offer multiple paths towards a better future for millions of people in the Americas.

Nadia Martinez was born and raised in Panama. She co-directs the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Her focus is on Latin America, where she works with environmental, development, human rights, and indigenous organizations.