Sunday, September 13, 2015

The JNU election : A Wake Up Call but Will the Left Pay Heed?

The JNU students union elections, hard on the heels of the Delhi University  Students’ Union election, have considerable significance. Unfortunately, it is rather different from how much of the Indian left has been reading these elections. For ages, the JNU elections and the JNU students’ union has been a stamping ground and a promoting ground for the major left parties at the all India level, just as, at a smaller scale, Presidency College and Jadavpur University have been so, for left and far left alike, in West Bengal.
As a result, sectarian existence, targeting opponent left organisations, all these have been very important elements of JNU student politics.  So we saw four left student organisations contesting the JNUSU elections – the AISF (CPI), SFI (CPI-M), AISA (CPI_ML Liberation) and the DSF (breakaway from SFI). Ask any of them and they will tell you that the BJP is fascist. Look at their parent parties and you will find that for parliamentary/assembly elections they are in alliances somewhere or the other (the DSF does not, strictly speaking, have a parent body so I omit it in this and similar comments).
But getting JNU is a matter of prestige nowadays. So it is better to risk, evidently, losing some seats to the BJP/ABVP, than losing them due to seat sharing. And that is precisely what happened. The AISF got two of the four office bearers, the AISA got one, and the ABVP got one.

If there is a real need for united front, it has to be from these levels. A so called UF that looks only at Bihar Assembly polls is a mostly futile one. The left has to recognise the massive threat that has already emerged and build real united front struggles.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Speech in Solidarity with the People of Gaza --21st July 2014

[I spoke for the first time in my life in a meeting organized by the SFI. I had gone to listen, not to speak. Because it was a protest over Gaza. But some of the students requested me to speak. So I did. Below is an edited version of what I said.]
This was posted on Facebook a few days after the speech was delivered. Reposting it here. 
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I had not come at all prepared, so I may be less than fully coherent. I want you to excuse me if that happens. 

My first and crucial point is, such protests need to recognise that we live in a different world than the one I inhabited when I was a student in this very University. In those days the left was stronger, anti-imperialism and anti-racism were stronger. Today, the Right is stronger by far. As a result, its ideology has reached out to vaster masses and confused them. When we protest over Palestine, as I have been doing, we must pay heed to this reality and respond to false issues and non issues that they raise, because not everyone spouting those arguments is a diehard Hindu communalist, Zionist, or imperialist agent. Rather, a great many are reeling as a result of the huge rightwing ideological offensive.

A standard argument is so called humanist pacifism. We are attacked, and told that all violence is violence, so why are we not condemning Hamas and its violence. This calls for a response at several levels. First, it is untrue that Hamas has started the violence. I am not talking like children, about who hit first. I am saying this for a deeper reason. As long as you cannot prove, in a court of law, who killed the three Israeli youth, it is fraudulent to blame Hamas. It is being done simply because Hamas and Fatah were about to come to an agreement, and Israel wanted to block that. 

Second, there is a clear difference between Israeli violence and anything any Palestinian is doing. Israel has adopted a policy that is called collective punishment. This is a policy we know too well. After the revolt of 1857, the British killed youth by the entire village in Awadh and other areas, not because they were convicted of anything, but because they were young people of target regions. For Israel, the most important parallel does not come from India though. It is a shameful and tragic thing, that those who say they are Jews, are adopting the policy adopted by Hitler. In retaliation for the killing of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis carried out collective punishments in Czechoslovakia. One village wiped out was Lidice. On 10 June 1942, all 173 men over 15 years of age from the village were executed. A further 11 men were killed a few days later. 184 women and 88 children were deported to concentration camps. At the end of the war, only 17 of the children and 153 women returned alive.

Third, to reduce the debate to yesterday, to forget at least the whole post 1948 situation, is criminal. Israel was created through a UN intervention. But why? If it is because Jews needed a homeland, why here? The only claim the Jews had to Israel was that it is their biblical homeland, and supposedly one that God (Yahweh or the Tetragrammaton) had promised to Moses. As a firm atheist, I accept this no more than I accept any fable of promises made by Vishnu or others in the Hindu pantheon, or the promises of Allah. 

The historical record says Jews were thrown out of this area by the Romans, not the Arabs. The first significant Jewish resistance was stamped out with ferocious brutality in 66-73 CE. Simon Bar Kokhba’s rebellion was also defeated. As a result, Roman violence was considerable. This only increased when the Roman emperors became Christian. It was only after the conquest of the regions where the Jews lived by the Arabs that things changed for the better. When the Christians in the middle ages wanted to conquer the “Holy Lands’, that was not for the benefit of the Jews, but of Christians. Jews were mercilessly treated by them.

From the First Century CE, Jews had been driven out in large numbers from Israel, and till 1948, the bulk of Jews lived outside their so-called homeland. 
Jews had been systematically repressed in Christian Europe. The nature of repression changed. In the middle ages it was based on religion. Modern racism, where a descendant of a Jew was considered a Jew even if the person was not a practicing Jew, has links with the past, but is distinct. If you want to check who was more hostile to Jews in the middle ages/ early modern times, remember, Jews lived under Moorish protection in Spain. After the reconquista, 200,000 Jews were thrown out of Spain, and 50,000 or more forced to become Christians. A few years later, Torquemada would torture and murder some 2000 of them for real or assumed crypto-Judaism. The climax came with Hitler and the Nazis, who killed six million Jews during the Shoah. Partly to put an end to the guilt feelings of Europeans, partly to keep West Asia under control by installing a colonial-settler state, imperialists agreed to the Zionist demand for creating a Jewish state of Israel. While it is supposed to be a democratic state, in fact it is a religious state where Jews have priority, proved above all by the so-called Law of Return, by which anyone who is a Jew or is married to a Jew has the right to return (ha) to Israel.

Even the 1947 UN proposal called for handing over 55% of the land to the Jews (bad enough as at that time they owned only 7%). But by the end of one round of wars by Zionist armed forces, they captured 77%, and eliminated at least 418 Arab villages. After the 1967 war, most of Palestine was controlled by them and even more Palestinians were refugees.
So if, after moderate agitations failed, the Palestinians did become violent occasionally, it cannot be compared at all with the systematic Zionist violence on the Palestinians.

I will not speak at much greater length. But I want you to think about a few other issues raised. Where were you when the Boko Haram was killing people? Where were you when Bangladeshi Hindus were being tortured and driven out? Where were you over the ISIS? these questions keep coming. We need to understand that these are red herrings, but explain it carefully. Some of us have protested. For example, when under Khaleda Zia Hindus were persecuted, it was raised in the Indian Parliament not by a BJP leader, but by CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta. The real issue is, why are these questions being asked NOW? Because, this is an attempt to attack the mobilizations over Israel’s attacks on Gaza. I have no objection to someone organising a protest over Syria, for example, or Bangladesh and ill treatment of Hindus by Zia. But I will look at the nature and slogans of the protest. Even over Israel-Arab conflict I will look at the language of protest. I will not oppose and condemn all Jews, but only Zionism and the Zionist state. I am anti-Zionist, not anti-Jew.

Finally, I want to stress – we often belong to organisations and I see no objections to that. I am myself a member of a political organisation and those who know my politics will know it is far distant from the politics of those who have arranged today’s meeting. I came because of the issue, not the banner. So I appeal to students – if there is a possibility of similar positions, keep your banners separate, but mobilise forces jointly. The people of Gaza need such united protests. And in India, where pro-Israel forces are welcomed and pro-Palestine demonstrations are brutally attacked by the police, united, mass shows of resistance are essential.

Thank you

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rant for an Alternative Press

One of the major ways in which the politics of India has shifted is the total restructuring of the mainstream media. This is what makes serious alternative media so urgently necessary. And by that, I do not mean just a series of websites and blogs and facebook groups. I am quite aware of the value of these, and have often quarreled with friends who reject these. But their rejection, erroneous though it is, has some real basis. Websites and blogs and Facebook groups are mostly in English. Even when they are in the Indian bhashas, they are available only if you have enough time to sit in front of a computer, enough money to have a computer and internet or at least access regularly to net connected computers, and so forth. That is why an alternative media also, and above all, means serious journals and newspapers. Not that such have not been attempted. In Bangla, I can think of efforts like Manthan etc in recent times. But the fragmentation of the radical left, the zero sum game most of them play, trying to prise away a handful of cadres  from each other – A to B – B to C, C to X, X to Q, and Q to A, means there cannot be any united effort at supporting an alternative media. What does it mean? It means that issues that are important for the lives of ordinary toiling people are not reported, or are reported in such a terrible manner that the real points are neither brought out nor discussed at length. Think of the Bangla and the English media for the past days. The Bangla media was poring over the diary of a man who is allegedly mentally unsound. Does being mentally unsound result in a total loss of privacy? Did anyone remark on the fact that while the police can look at his diary it is not the right of every cut and paste pseudo-analyst to read it and write pseudo-learned commentaries? If mental problems had to be really seriously taken up, people should have been informed about the conditions of mental hospitals, the issues of post-recovery rehabilitation, the fact that families are often reluctant to take those people back and the social reasons for that. All that of course does not make for salivating reading material, and can therefore be left out, or at best a small space can be given for one article after a dozen to a score providing gory details.

This note was sparked off by an article in The Telegraph. It is by Ruchir Joshi, not the worst of The Telegraph’s commentators. He is not as insufferable (and as  anti-communist, for that matter), as Ramachandra Guha. But his long essay today, 30th June, caught my eye. It is a polite grumble about how backward Calcutta is still, compared to New Delhi and Mumbai. And what exactly is the yardstick by which such backwardness is measured? The fact that middle class people who are not too poor, not too rich, cannot afford 5 Star places, do not have decent open air bars where men and women can jointly sit down for a few drinks and some convivial talk. I am not anti drinking. I have no objection to men and women sitting and drinking together. But my point is, Mr. Joshi thought this was an important issue on which to hang an entire article, and so did the editor of The Telegraph, so that the article saw the light of day.  

There are plenty of other reasons why one may have problems with Kolkata/Calcutta. But most of them do not affect the English educated middle class so tragically. Outstation friends, especially from Delhi and Mumbai, have expectations, and we cannot take them out to a decent pub which is within our means.  Oh Gods.  Greatest tragedy since the partition, possibly. Meanwhile there is another piece of news, not to be found in newspapers.
In the public imagination, caste and caste oppression is to be found only in rurasl settings, with nasty khap panchayats and the like. In cities we are all human beings. In fact, for the English educated middle class, caste means undue favour to Dalits and adivasis. “Poor but meritorious” Brahmin boys (always boys) suffer, while underqualified “sonar chands” and “sonar tukros” (derogatory way of referring to SC and ST) get plum jobs. This ignores the two and a half thousand year long quota privileging a handful of members of the elite, and says in effect, forget the 2500 years. Tell me why in 70 years the SC/STs have not become equal. It is argued that scrapping reservations is essential for progress.

Meanwhile, in this progressive West Bengal, in this progressive Kolkata, there are other problems than the lack of middle class watering holes open to men and women.  The latest ward level census data shows that caste rules in the most populous cities of India. Among them, Kolkata, the site of bhadralok progressivism, comes out on top. Out of a total 141 wards, SC/STs, who make up about 5.6% of the city population, dominate 12 wards, where live over 40% of them. In terms of such a basic thing as access to in-house water, these wards are far worse off than the rest. 43% of households of these wards go without water supply in their homes, compared to 27% overall in the city. 
But here is an eminent Liberal Intellectual (capitalised since I see liberals standing up whenever he is mentioned), Andre Beteille, once again (inevitably?) in The Telegraph, some years back, debunking the caste-based census. What he wrote was: "The decision to include caste as a part of the census of 2011 will be viewed as a turning point by future students of society and politics in India....Some social scientists have tried to make a virtue of a necessity and argued that the more data we have the better it will be for research. This is a shallow argument that ignores the political uses to which census data are put everywhere. ...Nobody can deny the reality of caste divisions or the consciousness of those divisions in contemporary Indian society. The reality and the consciousness are both present and reinforce each other. That is not the question before us today. The question is whether we should act so as to weaken or to reinforce the role of caste in public life." 

In other words, Beteille was arguing, that using caste as a marker when collecting census data increases casteism. It is also worth noting that Beteille was one of the eminent Liberals who turned into ardent supporters of the fascists. (see 

Casteism is thus not increased by upper castes continuing to dominate social structures and processes, but only by lower castes putting their opposition on public spaces. But the starting point, to which I want to return, was the absence of alternative media. I have not seen Beteille apologising (and did not expect it). But I have not seen any of the intellectuals who write for The Telegraph (excluding Dr. Ashok Mitra, who writes sense) take up this or any other matter relating to toiling people. Why should they? The Telegraph is the ruling class and its immediate servants in conversation with each other. Unless there is a monster Dalit-OBC united rising, why should they worry about the insanitary ways in which dalits live in Kolkata? Why should they worry about working class, when they are only bothered about citizens? So, when the Asongothito Kshetro Sangrami Sramik Mancha organised a three day dharna in 2011 in Kolkata, demanding such mundane things as minimum wages, all The Telegraph had to report was how “citizens” had faced difficulties. The starving toilers are modern slaves after all, not citizens. So Mr. Joshi will rue the paucity of decent pubs. Beteille will explain off and on that it is the Dalit politician who is responsible for the increase in casteism in India. And this is why, a burning need is a leftist newspaper in every province, in at least one major bhasha spoken in the province, from an alternative viewpoint, that is, the viewpoint of the working masses. And the experience of, inter alia, Ganashakti, shows that it has to be an independent newspaper, not one tied to a Stalinist party.