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 https://www.facebook.com/notes/kunal-chattopadhyay/the-defection-of-the-liberals-to-fascism/10152320392485202?pnref=lhc). 

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. 

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