Thursday, 6 October 2016

Where Praise is Due

In some of my Facebook posts in the last few months, I have often criticised a section of elite left intellectuals, especially in Delhi, for a variety of infirmities, moral, political, intellectual. The intention was not at all to engage in a meaningless and self-referential blame-game, but to highlight a problematic social phenomenon in the face of great urgency as democratic institutions collapse. I hope I find the opportunity to develop this thought in the future with slightly more 'theoretical' tools.

However, a critic of one section of the intellectual left should also acknowledge commendable work by other sections, including in Delhi. There have been wonderful examples of the academic left standing by the suffering people, joining in struggles, developing powerful discourses, and widening the cause. I post below an excerpt from my book on Maoists detailing some of those cases. 

The occasion for revisiting this history is the book launch of what promises to be an engaging work on the horrible conflict in Bastar involving millions of adivasis. The book is written by Prof. Nandini Sundar who has devoted a larger part of her academic and activist career to intervene in the conflict. Apart from leading a range of fact-finding committees, Sundar was instrumental, along with Prof. Ramchandra Guha, for the sustained legal fight to disband the sinister Salwa Judum vigilantism organised by the Chattisgarh state.

Excerpts from Maoists in India: Tribals under Siege, 
Pluto Press London; Amaryllis, India, 2012.

We need only recall the fate of intellectuals in Chile, Indonesia, and in erstwhile East Pakistan. Intellectuals in India are still some stretch away from that stage, but current attacks on free expression, harassment of writers, artists and journalists, and curtailment of autonomy and size of the university system are pointers of things to come if intellectuals do not intervene. It is upto intellectuals then to decide how best they face these conflicting currents of history in the intervening time.

The least intellectuals can do, once they have unmasked the propaganda of the State, is to tell the powers that the truth is out. Once the truth is uncovered and laid before the people, someone somewhere will pick up the thread and proceed to develop more sustainable forms of resistance. If intellectuals still have energy and courage, they can use their relative insularity from repression to help raise a protective wall around this resistance so that it can grow inside. So the moral is to protect resistance to protect truth.

In one of the more positive developments in an otherwise grim period, various groups of intellectuals in India have in fact taken up the task of protecting and expanding residual democratic spaces with forms of learned activism. I can briefly touch upon only a few of them to give a flavour of the uplifting phenomenon; also, I can only describe cases I am somewhat familiar with.

As mentioned repeatedly throughout this work, the principal agents of intellectual resistance are the courageous democratic and civil rights forums such as PUDR, PUCL, APDR, and others that mostly consist of college and university teachers, intellectual activists, rights lawyers, and writers. These organisations have meticulously documented and published innumerable cases of injustice and denial of rights to the poor and the marginalised, atrocious actions of State agencies such as the police, and lack of adequate concern shown by responsible ministries and national and regional human rights commissions.

To mention some specific cases, APDR in West Bengal, in association with other democratic bodies and individuals, took up the case of Kaushik Ganguly, a young lecturer of chemistry in University of Calcutta, who was arrested and tortured by the police of the Left Front regime in 2002. Ganguly was picked up because of his alleged Maoist affiliations; incidentally, the Maoist party was not banned in West Bengal at that point. Careful documentation that refuted the charges of the police, massive demonstrations, and a range of petitions organised by rights groups compelled the government to release Ganguly after a few months. There are many such cases across the country. One of the most notable was the imprisonment of Dr. Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh, as noted. An international campaign organised by rights groups, especially those based in Delhi and Chhattisgarh, finally managed to secure his release after a legal battle for two years.

Turning to more direct interventions in the State’s “war on terror” mentioned earlier, a group of intellectuals comprising of prominent writers, lawyers, and professors formed a committee to defend S. A. R. Gilani, a lecturer of Arabic in Delhi University who was falsely arrested by Delhi police as an accomplice in the attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December, 2001. Soon, teachers of Delhi University also formed another defence committee for Gilani. It is important to note that these civil rights campaigns were launched during a period in which the mainstream media had so saturated the public mind with hysteric—and patently false—coverage that the country was virtually baying for Gilani’s blood.

After Gilani was acquitted of all charges by Delhi High Court, attention of intellectuals shifted to two other accused, both hapless traders from Kashmir: Mohammad Afzal and Shaukat Hussain. This time an even more high-profile committee of intellectuals was formed not only to defend the accused but also to demand a full parliamentary inquiry into the whole episode. The campaign originated when the Supreme Court of India started hearing the appeals and it continued even after the Court awarded capital punishment to Mohammad Afzal while drastically reducing the sentence given earlier to Shaukat Hussain. It is worth mentioning that Professor Noam Chomsky supported these campaigns throughout, even if much of the mainstream Left in India, with admirable exceptions, stayed away for statist reasons and for fear of losing hindu votes. In 2004, the parliamentary Left, along with every other parliamentary party, supported the adoption of the draconian UAPA which formally replaced the even more draconian POTA.

As documented in various publications, a range of intellectuals boldly defied the possibility of contempt of court to challenge the most powerful institutions of the State, including its home ministry and the Supreme Court, to save the life of a Kashmiri muslim. Afzal’s only “crime” was that he was trying to escape the horrors of Kashmir to begin a new chapter in Delhi with his young family. Mohammad Afzal continues to be in death row, but the fact that he is still alive six years after the Supreme Court confirmed his death sentence, and despite regular campaigns by Sangh Parivar for his blood, might have something to do with the international outrage raised by the intellectual campaign to the point that the European Parliament intervened to save his life.

The protest “war on terror” was taken up yet again by a small but determined group of teachers from Delhi’s Jamia Milia University, Jamia Teacher’s Solidarity Association (JTSA), to expose the barbarism of Delhi police as they killed two young muslim students for their alleged involvement in serial blasts across the country. The spirit and determination of JTSA soon captured the imagination of scores of other intellectuals and activists across the country, joined by a significant section of muslim population in Delhi. By meticulous campaign and investigation, including high quality legal work, the group was able to obtain the postmortem report from the police through National Human Rights Commission. The report proved conclusively that the students were shot down from point-blank range while they were kneeling on the floor.

In some cases, intellectual campaigns joined hands in solidarity with grassroots people’s movements. The widespread and sustained movement to save the lives and land of adivasis from the Sardar Sarovar Dam project on the river Narmada is a classic example. Under the auspices of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) led by Medha Patkar, hundreds of intellectual activists joined adivasis stranded in the river-basin to launch a sustained movement to restrict the extent of the dam and for meaningful rehabilitation of the displaced people. The decades-old movement continues today. The movement generated such energy and mass participation that the World Bank fled from the scene. It required sustained attacks by the State and a series of regressive proclamations by the Supreme Court of India for the project to increase the height of the dam. Some frustrated radicals in the country believe that the Narmada movement was thereby “defeated.” On the contrary, even if the movement achieved limited success locally, it brought environment and adivasi issues to the center of people’s struggle and changed the character of people’s movement in the country. For example, the Narmada movement gave rise to an impressive umbrella organisation of scores of movements: NAPM, National Alliance of People’s Movements.

More recently, intellectuals from Kolkata, joined later by writers and activists from across the country, stood in solidarity with peasant uprisings in Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh in West Bengal as the Left Front regime attempted to acquire fertile agricultural land by force to pave the way for big business. The sustained intellectual campaign was one of the catalysts for turn of events that ultimately removed the Left-regime from power in recent elections. Similarly, radical intellectuals in Andhra played a significant role in the massive defeat of right-wing TDP government in 2004.

The ability to investigate the issues with intellectual diligence and honesty to expose the falsity propagated by ruling dispensations is a central aspect of the moral value and political success of these intellectual campaigns. The campaigns arose from a direct and sustained understanding of people’s plights and their inability to voice them. The widespread harassment of muslims in the name of “war on terror” led to mass suffering of poor muslim communities, but they were obviously not in a position to articulate their anger against an aggressive majoritarian rule. The intellectual campaigns not only brought out the truth, it sought to give protection to these communities by voicing their despair. In that sense, the campaign for Afzal was in solidarity with the people in Kashmir; the campaign by JTSA is in solidarity with muslim populations in Jamianagar in Delhi and Azamgarh in the province of Uttar Pradesh; the Narmada campaign is in solidarity with adivasis, and so on. These campaigns have value because they stood with the people on the ground of truth. Intellectual campaigns degenerate into propaganda when these cardinal principles are disregarded.

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