Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Nation and Nationalism
Recalling the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy (George Fernandes A Nationalist or Anti National?
Never in the recent past – in the history of independent India – has one seen so much breast beating on being a nationalist; and similarly such accusations against many of being anti-nationals for shouting slogans, invoking Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. And if only the Honourable judges of the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the then Chief Justice, Justice B.P.Sinha (along with Justices S.K. Das, A.K. Sarkar, N.Rajagopalan Ayyangar and R. Mudholkar) had foreseen, they may have said, by the way (obiter dictum), that this section in the colonial code be deleted forthwith. A reading of the judgment in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, delivered on January 20, 1962 (AIR-SC-1962-955) cannot but lead one to this.
Neither the Congress party nor the Janata cared to do that. And every regime, since then, has invoked this Section of the law and the recent instance of arresting Kanhaiya Kumar from JNU and some others along with him is only another instance of the consequence of a certain inaction since January 1962. And this argument will be won if only one tries to look further as to whether those accused all these years were at all sent up to prison, while the due process of law was in motion and thereafter as to how many were left free after being held in jail for long terms (after a while in police custody and forced to say what the men in khaki wanted them to say while in custody); and in many instances they were rendered wrecks in the mental and physical sense.
Well. There have been exceptions too when people were not reduced to wrecks. One such, even if not under this illegitimate law (as Gandhi described it while charged in the court of Judge Broomfield in 1923), when Section 121 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (a far more stringent law compared to the sedition law) was invoked against 25 persons; the gang of 25 belonged to diverse sections of the society and age groups. It included political party leaders, students, a Gandhian, mill workers and even a prominent industrialist. In the middle of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s police held them all guilty of attempting to wage war against the state and if the `law was allowed to take its course’ all those would have been sentenced to death, which indeed is the maximum punishment for a crime. Section 124 A warrants, at the most, jail for life!
The charge-sheet filed before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate court in Delhi contained detailed accounts of how the accused (who were brought to the court on February 10, 1977 bound in chains as slaves were taken around in ancient times) had collected 836 nitroglycerine sticks (for use in making bombs) and even attempted to smuggle 500 low power radio transmitters into India to disrupt the All India Radio signals. The first accused in the case spoke eloquently about why he did all that he was accused of for the sake of the nation and to save it from the un-democracy. The lawyer goons, however, did not attempt to lynch him as they tried to do with Kanhaiya. Hired hoodlums did not walk around the capital shouting vande mataram and asking for the shooting down of those accused.
It did not take too long before the accused were left free and the charges dropped, within days after the people of India gave their verdict in March the same year. The first accused in that case, George Fernandes, would become a member of the Union Cabinet and even the Raksha Mantri of the Government of India headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP, the party to which Narendra Modi too belongs to! Or Viren Shah, then a member of the Board of Directors of a pretty big steel manufacturing Company and a co-accused in the case would become a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha and Governor later on! Or Prabhudas Patwari, a Gandhian (68 years old when he was accused of waging war against the state) would occupy the Raj Bhawan in Madras for five years! Or C.G.K.Reddy, who had fought for the nation’s independence as part of the INA (using his skills as a radio engineer and about to be sent to the gallows if only the colonial rulers were packed off on August 15, 1947) and had joined Fernandes in 1975 to defend the freedom and was eleventh accused in the case would breath freedom again and head the National Productivity Council!
It is relevant to recall the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy case in the times we live in for two reasons. One that the nation, in fact, did not crumble because of their acts (as held by the state then and as presented by the police); instead, the nation emerged stronger because of their act. The Emergency taught the nation of the need for eternal vigilance and that the nation shall not be restricted in its definition to what the rulers, even if they were elected at some stage, considered what was good for the people. It was no wonder. The Constitution, which after all was the culmination of the national spirit that sent the colonial rulers packing did not leave all the powers with the elected representatives. The fact that the Fundamental Rights, including the Right to Free Speech were placed on a pedestal was indeed in response to the experience with the Third Reich and the disaster such untrammeled powers to define nation and nationalism was left to the Fuhrer.
The second aspect is that the way in which one section of the people (only 25 in the Baroda Dynamite case) were held as threat to the nation, built on the foundation of a massive struggle by the people and their sacrifice, was not just unfounded but even an insult to its inherent strength. To hold that students in a university will have to agree with the `elected’ government does militate against the very foundations of our wonderful constitution and is, in that sense, un-Constitutional.
And those who have gone berserk, only because they all have been assured that they will not be `dealt’ with under the law to beat up media-persons and students and using expletives against the teachers in JNU and elsewhere, are guilty of treating our nation as weak and incapable of taking dissent. Chanting Vande Mataram was indeed an act of dissent and brave men and women did that knowing they would be sent to jail for that. But then, it does not make one a nationalist to shout that in times we live in. And the nation and nationalism today will have to be seen in another context and not be reduced to a police-state sponsored act!
The point is that the nation and our nationalism is not as fragile as it is made out that a few slogan shouters can bring it down. If it was so, we would have crumbled long ago. It did not happen and will not happen only if we as a nation agree to disagree; in other words learn to put up with dissent.
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
Freedom and Contingency
Chennai flooded; as I read TV channels running scrolls of this, I could not but recall my friends back home. Satish and his family, with whom I had breakfast just a couple of weeks ago was among those who cared a lot to keep his home `clean’. Their’s was a second-floor flat (as mine there) and I was too sure that they were safe. And their little daughter, with whom I spent the little while I was there last on transit was even otherwise `bored’ staying indoors and not being able to go to school. Life in Chennai was disrupted, due to heavy rains, for a while even before I passed through the city and schools were declared closed then. I just thought I might ask her how she felt with more rains and more holidays. Alas! They were `not reachable’.
All their mobile phones (four of them) had run out of power and with the power lines switched off (to prevent electrocution), they were out of reach. The same story about Sankar, another of my neighbor and Menon, my wonderful friend. I had held Thoma Friedman’s The World if Flat (one of the celebrated books of the mid-1990s) with some contempt even otherwise. But now I had an argument that would work with Satish, Sankar and Menon; all of whom were among those who celebrated the ICT revolution (even while none of them had read up Friedman) and try telling me that things have changed. It’s freedom now at long last, they felt and proclaimed.
Well. I managed to speak with Satish finally on Saturday. The rains had disrupted life, this time, since Monday. And Satish declared that he got to realize what can happen to one’s life even after all the freedom had come. His mother was in hospital in the couple of days before the last round of rains had begun and he had just about managed to reach home on Monday evening; only to spend the next few days, indoors, with his wife and daughter, having to stay without news of his ailing mother. Just as the Menons and Sankars, the Satishs too had to eat frugally and go without milk and vegetables. Even when they had all the money to buy these and drinking water that they were buying for long.
Frugal meals and life without vegetables and milk is indeed a way of life to many in Chennai. And their system had got immune to contaminated water they had been having for long in their lives because they could not afford buying so much water to drink! The rains, to this kind of people, who are not our kind of people, meant loss of livelihood for days on end and to depend on food-packets that came as relief. But then, they did not consider themselves `free’ in the way the Satishs, the Sankars and the Menons thought. The ICT revolution had made their lives different. They spent some of their money on mobile recharges (available in such small denominations as Rs. 10 too) and sometimes cut down on their already small budget for food. Those people had not cared as much as my friend Satish did on keeping their house `clean’ and pouring harpic into the flush tanks in their washrooms. `Freedom’ had evaded them for long.
But then, the deluge had made Satish feel that he too was not free. Freedom, as it had come to be defined in our Constitutional sense included the right to know and this right as essential to the right to express. In other words, my friends had thought that they now were bestowed with the right to know and the right to get others know, thanks to the mobile phones, the DTH transmission that brought them news of the quake in Nepal and Sikkim (when they thought of me and managed to be informed that we were `fine’ because mobile links were not disrupted then for too long) or about The Taj under attack; or even about the fall of the WTC and the revenge on Osama bin Laden subsequently. But now, their flat screen TV hooked on to the Dish that `connected’ them to the rest of the world was just an object on the wall. No picture on that.
They were `disconnected’ even from their friends within the locality and there was no way Satish could know, for a few days, about his ailing mother in the same city. `We now know what life is all about…. Everything can change in a moment.’ Well. I was reminded of one of the influential philosophers of the last century: Jean Paul Sartre, in his conversation with Simone de Beauvoir, explains how his own idea of freedom as merely an abstract notion changed with his increasing contact with the people. ``I came to understand’’ says Satre, ``that freedom met with obstacles, and it was then that contingency appeared to me as being opposed to freedom. …’’ This indeed took Sartre to where he established his own self as a trenchant critique of the status quo.
Well. The Satishs, Sankars and the Menons will soon get back their `freedom’ and will eat vegetables and drink milk also with honey. Meanwhile, the large number of those who produce goods and wealth thereon will soon begin to earn their livelihood; the food-packets and water sachets, after all will stop before long and they will slide from one kind of unfreedom to another. And our TV channels will soon declare life as normal and celebrate the resilience. It means milk, honey and vegetables for some and a frugal diet for the many. Freedom and Contingency as Sartre would help us explain!
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
An Open Letter to Rahul Gandhi
Dear Shri Rahul,
You have, in the past few weeks, been hopping across places sharing the distress with the farmers and showing concerns on their suicides. It is, indeed, important for those in public life to reach out to the people and especially when you are in the opposition. Let me make it clear, at the outset, that I am not yet among those who have turned cynical to all such political activities.
On the contrary, I still believe that changes are not only inevitable but are possible in the lives of individuals and more so in those in public life. In other words, like it happened in the life of Jawaharlal Nehru, your great grand-father whose life from a rich kid with a law degree whose father had a flourishing legal practice was transformed into one who dared incarceration in the cause of independence. He could have inherited his father’s briefs and even flourished as a lawyer; but he refused to do that and if I am right, wore the black gown only once and that was to defend the INA soldiers charged by the British legal regime of treason.
It is, hence, that I thought of conveying a few things to you with regard to the crisis in the farm sector and hoping to see you transform and in the course of such a transformation help bring about a change in the lives of those who feed us even in this age where everything is sought to be done in the virtual world.
The point I want to make here is that it is not the first time in history that the farmers have faced a crisis of the kind they are facing now. The peasant in our own history (as well as in the history of all societies) had been exploited and this is a fact ever since agriculture was transformed from being an activity for subsistence into an activity for trade. In other words, the coming of the market and trade exposed the sector to externalities and the earliest crisis in that context led to Ricardo describing as the Primary Accumulation of Capital. Karl Marx joined issues with Ricardo and compared this with the `original sin’ as in the biblical tradition. The so called Primitive Accumulation of Capital, is a chapter in Capital Volume 1 and unveils the violence and the sinful way in which the peasantry was dispossessed during the Enclosure Movement in England.
This approach to land as property and commodity was at the base of the colonial governments policy over land and agriculture in India. The peasantry was forced into cultivating crops such as Indigo and Cotton, whenever the textile industry in Manchester and Lancashire wanted that and they were forced to sell their produce cheap or sometimes dump it according to the vagaries of the metropolis. The peasants were forced into debts in the course of this (what historians call the commercialization of agriculture) and when they were forced to dump their produce, they landed in a debt crisis.
It should be easy to comprehend that the crisis in the farm sector we are now witnessing has a lot in common with that the great grand-fathers of the present generation of farmers are facing today. If it was colonial some two hundred years ago (when the Deccan peasant was lured into shifting to cotton because the American Civil War had disrupted supply of raw cotton bales to the European textile industry) the neo-colonial context has led to the same consequence even while the cause may be the shift to GM seeds and crop failure for reasons that we may not get into here.
But then, there is indeed a substantive difference in the manner in which the great grand-fathers of present day farmers responded. In the Deccan, they rose in revolt, setting fire to the buildings where the titles to their lend (that were pledged by them when they took loans from money lenders) were preserved and the money lenders were attacked. In North Bengal, around the same time, the farmers who were forced into indigo cultivation and left at the mercy of the planters revolted too. They set fire to the factories and attacked the planters. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, whose Vande Mataram turned into a battle cry, captured the insurgency that had rocked the tracts of Bengal in the wake of a famine and the challenge these posed to the colonial administration. Such examples from our history, are many and let me leave it here as such.
It was this tradition of insurgency that Mahatma Gandhi could invoke and put to use in Champaran, where the impoverished peasants stirred into revolt. Champaran and Kheda were the template on which the mighty struggle against colonialism was conducted subsequently. The lessons learnt from this laboratory – let me insist that it includes the glorious tradition of the Deccan Riots, the Indigo Riots and such insurgencies across the country culminating in Champaran and Kheda in 1917-18) that went into the making of your great grand-father’s transformation into a leader of the masses.
His contribution to the making of the Karachi resolution in 1931, when the peasants and other such sections of our people were brought into the core agenda of the Indian National Congress, led him to push the movement to draft the Congress’ Agrarian Programme in the 1930s. All these, you may note, influenced the making of what is known among historians as the Nehru-Mahalanobis model and the post-independence economic policies. You will have to concede now that your own Prime Ministers acted against this principle and exposed the farmer, once again, to similar pressures as did the colonial regime. The Neo-liberal policies that you and your party were pushing since 1991 are behind the current crisis.
It may be argued that you were not involved, directly, in pushing such policies through. Those were times when you were in school and then in college before entering public life. It is also possible for you to transform yourself, at least now, when you can not only afford to but also will have to. In that event, it is imperative for you to embolden yourself to admit that your perspective then was based on incorrect reading of the situation. Your great grand-father did that when he realized his idea of India while writing his autobiography (in 1934) had changed significantly between 1935 and 1937, thanks to his exposure travelling into the villages across the country campaigning for the Indian National Congress in the provincial elections during that period. IIn other words, you may spend some time reading all that your great grand-father wrote by way of letters to his daughter, i.e. your grand-mother. Incidentally, your mother enjoys the copyright for these publications now!
This will help you to evolve into a leader and in the process the make a difference in the lives of the farmers. In doing so, you will have to remind yourself that it is no use to present yourself as their savior. Neither did your great grand-father try doing that and more importantly his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi resisted that temptation and even detested that idea. `Real Swaraj’ he stressed, `will come not by acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the 'capacity' by all to resist authority, when abused’.
You may consider reminding the farmers, whenever you decide to visit them, that they are the proud inheritors of the legacy of the insurgencies in the Deccan, in Bengal and elsewhere and that such acts by their own grand-parents had not only liberated them in their own times but also the nation on August 15, 1947. You may remind them that they may have died too. But then, they did not kill themselves but were killed while fighting their oppressors.
I am marking a copy of this letter to Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the reason that many of these that have been raised are also relevant for his party too.
Cc: Mr.Sitaram Yechury,
General Secretary, CPI(M)
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Emergency: 40 years
The 19 months since Indira Gandhi’s proclamation of the Emergency (it was her decision though proclaimed by Fakruddin Ali Ahmed as required by the Constitution) late in the night on June 25, 1975, were perhaps the darkest phase of our young democracy. It should, however, be added that the few weeks, between January 18, 1977, when she announced her decision to hold elections, and March 20, 1977 when the election results began trickling in, confirmed that the people of India cared for political democracy most. The summary defeat of the Congress party, when Indira and her son Sanjay too were defeated was beyond anyone’s expectation. And this forced Indira to hold a cabinet meet on March 21, 1977 to recommend withdrawal of the Emergency.
A lot has happened since then and the Constitution amendments have rendered it impossible for any regime to repeat what Indira Gandhi could do on June 25, 1975. Article 352 now makes it imperative for a written resolution by the Cabinet before the President proclaims Emergency; and `Internal Disturbance’ has since been replaced with `armed rebellion’ as condition precedent for such a declaration. Article 359 has been amended to ensure that the Right to legal remedy (under Article 32 and 226) shall not be suspended insofar as the freedoms guaranteed under Article 20 and 21 are concerned. In other words, the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which was denied by the infamous decision by the majority in the ADM Jabalpur vs S.K.Shukla (when Justice H.R.Khanna was the lone dissenter) during the Emergency, shall now hold good even during an Emergency.
In short, the democratic edifice stands stronger today insofar as political rights are concerned and this indeed was the outcome of the mandate of March 1977 and the Constitution (44th Amendment) Act, 1979. The Janata regime, that learnt its lessons from the 19 months of Emergency, ensured this much.
However, the Emergency was not merely about tampering with the Constitution and indiscriminate arrests and denial of political democracy. The 19 months also witnessed the might of the Indian state against its people, especially the poor. The Turkman Gate action, for instance, was about throwing out the poor, forced t live in urban slums, to ensure that the city was cleansed of dirt and squalor. Such forced evictions were carried out during the Emergency elsewhere too and such poor people voted against Indira and her party, in March 1977, to redeem democracy in India.
In the four decades since the intervening night of June 25/26, 1075 and many changes in the regime in New Delhi and in the States, we do find slum dwellers evicted with impunity. And the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Olga Tellis case (AIR-1986-SC-180), has since been rendered meaningless by successive regimes and even the judiciary. The violence unleashed on people to ensure their displacement is indeed a matter of fact detail of our own times. Emma Tarlo, in her 2003 book (Emma Tarlo, Unsettling Memories: Narratives of India’s Emergency, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003) reminds us of this part of the Emergency and yet we have not cared to learn; and it may not be an exaggeration to hold that this dark aspect of the Emergency lingers, with approval from politicos across the spectrum (and not just the Indira dynasty) to this day.
For a generation that was born after the dark age, is indeed, oblivious of this and is even one that approves that. We may not have had another Emergency, thanks to the changes in the Constitution. But then, one of its dark faces persist without such official curtailment of the Fundamental Rights; It happened in New Delhi in the early 1980s (while preparing for the Asian Games) and as recently for making Delhi look good for the Common Wealth Games. It has been happening in the Narmada valley for over two decades now; in almost all our cities where farmers are dispossessed of their land for building houses and fantasy parks; and in the forests where adivasis are forced out of their forests to facilitate handing over the mines and the minerals to exploitation. And in all these instances, we hear the rulers declaring any resistance to such atrocities as `anti—national and even as the largest threat to the nation.
This is reminiscent of Indira’s declaration that those who opposed her were enemies of the nation and that the Emergency was needed to defend the nation! It is here that we will also have to take stock of the media in our times, 40 years after the Emergency. True that the media, as it is now, cannot be dealt with the same way as the Indira Gandhi regime could during the Emergency. Technology today has ensured this. 24 X 7 TV now brings developments to the drawing rooms and the possibility of beaming visuals from anywhere in the world to anywhere in India will ensure that such largescale arrests (over a lakh men and women detained across the country without specific charges and held under Preventive Detention Laws) cannot be kept away from the people as could the regime do in 1975-77. Similarly, the internet media has shown that such measures will not work.
Contrast this with the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy case: George Fernandes and his comrades, then, had to attempt smuggling of 500 Low Power Transmitters that they intended to locate in various parts of the country and intervene into the AIR sound waves in a synchronized manner to transmit sound waves with messages against the Emergency! They were caught before doing that and sent up for trial. One does not have to do all that in the event of another Emergency thanks to the advances in satellite broadcast! But then, it is mere wishful thinking given the corporate influence over the media and the nexus with the liberalized Indian state as such.
The fact that the media today is so much under corporate control is a fact that raises the spectre of propaganda control in a different way than we saw some 40 years ago. And the fact that the concerns of evictions and mass displacement of the people or the life in the slums are no longer the concerns of our mainstream media is something that conveys that we may no need an emergency to achieve what the Sanjay-Jagmohan-Maneka kinds did during the Emergency. And the Emergency will have to be remembered not only because it curtailed political freedom but for the fact that such attacks on political freedom also meant denial of social and economic freedom.
Some recent experience, with the present regime, and the use of the media, apparently free from state control, is worth discussion in this context. The fact that the media took the nation for a ride celebrating the public spectacle of yoga on June 21, 2015 is a case in point. Public institutions, including universities and schools, were goaded to observe the International Yoga Day (not very different from such other days as Valentines Day or the Mothers Day, etc.,) with the media playing it up should remind us of one of the Emergency’s horror stories: The Compulsory Sterilisation programme when hundreds of thousands of young men and women were herded into camps by the cheer leaders of the Emergency regime.
The point is that it cannot be denied that even four decades after the Emergency, there is no institutional mechanism to resist such designs by a regime to impose a certain idea upon the people; if the compulsory sterilization programme thus pushed during the Emergency was bad, the manner in which the people are told about the virtues of yoga (let it be clarified that this writer has no issues against yoga and has practiced it at various points of time) and forced institutions across the country to organize events on one day where its members are goaded to fall in line is indeed undemocratic. That the media industry earned substantial amounts of money by carrying advertisements of this and even turned the event at the India Gate into a spectacle is certainly something that reminds one of the Emergency.
Here are links to my books where I have discussed the Emergency in detaile: