Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Here is a brilliant write up on free speech and resistance in the US of 1930s... so relevant to our own times here....


 The Bridgeport Herald Wages an Important Free Speech Fight
                                                                                                                                          by Andy Piascik
 
Rarely has an American play met with the kind of government opposition that Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty faced in 1935. Mayors and police departments forbade the staging of the play in a number of cities and stopped performances mid-play in others. Audience and cast members were arrested for protesting police actions. Locally, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald rallied to the cause of the play after it was banned in New Haven and thus played an important and honorable role in defending free speech.

Clifford Odets was 28 years old and a member of the left-wing, New York-based Group Theatre ensemble when he wrote Waiting for Lefty. (1) It was the first of his plays to be staged when it opened in a Group production at the Civic Repertory Theater on West 14th Street in Manhattan on January 5, 1935. (2) Among those in the cast were Odets, Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb. (3)

Waiting for Lefty is often described as a play about a strike of New York taxicab drivers. While it is that, it’s more a penetrating look at the lives of a group of people who happen to be cab drivers as they cope with poverty and related personal, family and relationship problems at the low point of the Great Depression. The cabbies do discuss going on strike, and they also struggle with the risks involved, one of which is the fact that their union is controlled by racketeers violently opposed to any kind of independent labor action.

The drama in Waiting for Lefty was straight out of the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and thus resonated with audiences. In the months leading up to the play’s opening, there had been general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo. Workers were organizing in great numbers and left-wing parties and organizations were stronger than in many years.

Waiting for Lefty’s run at the Civic was such a rousing success that it moved to Broadway in June, 1935. Because of great demand and in keeping with their philosophy of making plays easily accessible to the poor and working classes, Odets and the Group took the unusual step of approving productions throughout the country before the play’s Broadway premiere. In no time, labor unions and cultural organizations began staging Waiting for Lefty in dozens of cities and towns. Among them was a production by the New Haven John Reed Club’s Unity Players at Yale University’s University Theatre. (4)       

In at least six cities including Philadelphia, Boston and Newark, city officials either shut productions down after performances had begun or forced cancellation of performances before they could be staged. In Newark, the play was stopped in mid-performance and a number of audience members who protested were arrested. The stated reason in some cases was that the play was “Communist propaganda” and “un-American.” In Boston, profanity -- use of the word “God-damn” was specifically cited – was the pretext.

The production in New Haven, meanwhile, won the George Pierce Baker Cup for first prize in the Yale’s annual Drama Tournament on April 11th. In response to the wildly enthusiastic reception, the Unity Players booked space at Commercial High School for additional performances. Several days before the first scheduled show, however, the New Haven Board of Education rescinded the agreement and Police Chief Philip Smith declared that the play was not to be performed anywhere in the city on the grounds that it was “blasphemous and indecent.” He added that anyone attempting to do so would be arrested.

The Unity Players brought together the American Civil Liberties Union, community organizations, and students and faculty from Yale, among others, and formed the New Haven Anti-Censoring Committee. They held rallies and meetings demanding that the city allow the play to be staged but Smith did not budge. Then the Bridgeport Sunday Herald got involved.

Founded in 1805 and located at 200 Lafayette Boulevard, the Herald’s motto was “No Fear, No Favor – The People’s Paper.” The paper first reported on the controversy in New Haven on the front page of its April 14th edition. In that same issue, it ran a glowing review across three pages of the New York production of Waiting for Lefty by Leonardo Da Bence. In the April 21st edition, in response to the continuing ban in New Haven, the Herald’s editors printed the play in its entirety. Also included was a lengthy introduction that included criticisms of Chief Smith and that concluded that the Herald’s intention was to give “its readers an opportunity to judge for themselves.”

Though based in Bridgeport, the Herald had influence well beyond the city. It published editions and special sections for areas throughout the state including a New Haven edition that was available on newsstands in that city. (5) Among its criticisms of New Haven officials, the Herald noted that the city had granted space to an avowedly fascist organization for a meeting at a public school simultaneous to the banning of Waiting for Lefty.

In its edition of May 5th, the Herald reported the results of a poll of readers in which it stated that respondents in favor of the staging of Waiting for Lefty in New Haven outnumbered those who supported the ban by 10 to 1. The Herald regularly featured a Letters to the Editor section that often extended over several pages and one letter from Allen Touometoftosky began as follows: “Long live the militant, truthful Bridgeport HERALD! Long live ‘Waiting for Lefty!’” 

With the groundswell of protest growing, Chief Smith and the City of New Haven finally relented. The Unity Players were allowed to reserve the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street several blocks from Yale and performances of Waiting for Lefty began there on the evening of May 9th. The play was received much as it was around the country by enthusiastic full houses, without incident or further police interference. (6)

While Waiting for Lefty has never been revived on Broadway, it remains popular in local theaters and union halls. It has played many times in Connecticut over the last 72 years including a production by The Connecticut Repertory Theater that ran earlier this year in Storrs. When the play was most recently done in New Haven in 2012 by the New Haven Theater Company, some newspaper commentary recalled the controversy of 1935. (7)   

The Bridgeport Herald, meanwhile, published until 1974. It is remembered with a degree of fondness by older Bridgeporters and was the subject as recently as 2015 of a panel at the Fairfield Museum and History Center. (8) It should also be remembered for the important role it played in a free speech fight 82 years ago.

                                                                  Thanks to Danielle Reay of Yale University for research assistance

1.Clifford Odets (1906-63) was best-known for his plays Awake and Sing (1935) and Golden Boy (1937), in addition to Waiting for Lefty. He also wrote a number of Hollywood screenplays, most notably None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The lead character in the Coen brothers’ 1991 movie Barton Fink was inspired in part by Odets.

2. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 (1990) by Wendy Smith is the best account of the story of the Group Theatre. The Group also had deep Connecticut ties; see, for example, my article The Hills of Connecticut: Where Theatre and Life Became One posted, among other places at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/01/the-hills-of-connecticut-where-theatre-and-life-became-one/

3.Among the Group’s members were actors Phoebe Brand (1907-2004) and Morris Carnovsky (1897-1992), who married and lived for many years in Easton. Though neither appeared in Waiting for Lefty, both had distinguished theater and film careers interrupted by many years of being blacklisted because of their political affiliations. Carnovsky in particular was a long-time fixture on Broadway and at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.  

4.The John Reed Clubs were named after the American journalist and revolutionary John Reed (1887-1920) best known for his eyewitness account from Russia in 1917 Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed is the subject of the 1981 movie Reds.

5.Because of the involvement of the Bridgeport-based Herald in advocating for the showing of Waiting for Lefty, some accounts mistakenly refer to the controversy as having occurred in Bridgeport rather than New Haven.

6.Also featured during Waiting for Lefty’s run at the Little Theatre were modern dance performances by Miriam Blecher (1912-79) and Jane Dudley (1912-2001). Dudley in particular was a trailblazer of modern dance who featured themes of social protest in her work. She was for many years a leading force in the New Dance Group and a teacher at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.


The controversy surrounding Waiting for Lefty is covered in a number of books including Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (2009) by John Houchin; Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas (2004) by Dawn B. Sova; and Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (2002) edited by Derek Jones.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose novel In Motion was recently published by Sunshine Publishing (www.sunshinepublishing.org). He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

Friday, January 20, 2017


V.Krishna Ananth (Inventing Traditions and Orchestrating ‘Protests’)

 

                The mobilisation in the streets now witnessed in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu demanding that the Supreme Court’s interim order against conduct of jallikattu is anything but ‘protest’. The ‘crowds’ are orchestrated by the ‘leaders’ (some of them pulling strings from behind the scenes) is happening when the agrarian crisis is claiming lives across the state. That the regime in Tamil Nadu is behind this orchestration is something that needs very little evidence. And in the event, the record of the state administration in dealing with protest demonstrations against its indifference to the farm crisis, where protesters are detained in a routine fashion while letting disruptions in arterial roads in the state capital is proof that the demonstrations are not spontaneous in any sense.

                One is reminded of the manner in which elected representatives and public servants let people immolate themselves after the then Chief Minister, late J.Jayalalithaa, was sent to jail some months ago. This is also no different from the pogroms that were allowed by the police in Delhi and other towns in October-November 1984 or across Gujarat in February-March 2002. The point is that such vulgar display of arrogance and murderous streak by mobs are inimical to democracy and history is replete with experience where the rulers plan and orchestrate such expressions where it suits them.

                The street shows across Tamil Nadu now are also inimical to democracy for another reason; that this is done in defence of tradition and culture. The business of jallikattu, which is known to have its sponsors from among the thevar community (to which the Chief Minister O.Panneerselvam and the ruling AIADMK general secretary V.K.Sasikala belong to), is not too different from the vulgar games that were played in the amphitheater in ancient Rome. It used to be where well-bred slaves were thrown into the arena to fight with each other and the victor was ordered by the nobles to kill the one whom he overpowered in the fight; legend has it that Spartacus was not killed by his fellow slave who was then killed by the nobles in the arena. The episode is symbolic of the earliest of the revolts against slavery and Spartacus the earliest rebel.

                The Roman ‘tradition’ where slaves were denied of human rights is indeed what makes historians challenge the notion that Rome was a Republic. The French Revolution of 1789 and its call for liberty, equality and fraternity, that led the path to modernity was not condemned by sensible men and women of having been against tradition. Indeed, it made the world a better place where people challenged such brutalities peddled in the name of tradition as inhuman and barbaric. This indeed is what ought to be done with jallikattu as well. Instead, those who owe their allegiance to the Constitution (particularly the leaders of the various political parties, both elected and the losers in the various elections) are now engaged in inventing traditions rather than interrogating them.

                Condoning such acts amounts to the same as such perversion as celebrating sati (that barbarous practice of throwing the widow into the funeral pyre of her dead husband) or infant marriage or  untouchability in the name of tradition.

                Meanwhile, the point at issue here is not merely about animal rights, which for some reason is that being articulated in the discourse now. Jallikattu involves the rights of human beings, sometimes well-bred by the elite in our times to fight and tame the bulls and in that sense as it was done by the nobles in the Roman amphitheaters. Ernest Hemmingway brings this out in his passionate narrative of the bull fight ‘tradition’ in Spain in his ‘Death in the Afternoon’ where matadors and bulls are bred to die and make others happy! It is time that the vulgarity in the name of protest in Chennai and elsewhere is brought to an end and the Constitutional scheme is preserved. And if the State Government drags its feet here, Article 356 of the Constitution is indeed meant to be invoked in such occasions and contexts.

(EOM)     

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Politics in Tamil Nadu post Jayalalithaa 

 

                The demise of J.Jayalalithaa in December 5, 2016, could usher in a radical transformation of the political course in Tamil Nadu. The decimation of sorts that the Congress party suffered since it lost power to the DMK in 1967 seemed to have been reversed since 1977 when M.G.Ramachandran took away a chunk from the DMK with him and wrested power in the elections to the state assembly in March that year. That was the first ever elections for his fledgling ADMK and the party won 130 of the 200 seats it contested. The DMK was left with only 48 seats and the Congress won 27 seats. The Janata Party, whose juggernaut did not work in the Southern states, then won only 10 of the 233 seats it contested from.  The point is that the Congress, even after winning 27 of the 198 seats it contested, seemed to be fading out from Tamil Nadu.

                Things, however, changed soon. The DMK, without any compunction (M.Karunanidhi’s government was dismissed by Indira Gandhi in January 1976 and many DMK leaders were jailed under MISA since then), struck an alliance with the Congress(I) in January 1980 elections to the Lok Sabha and MGR’s ADMK, in alliance now with the rump Janata Party was routed. The ADMK, still ruling Tamil Nadu, was left with just two MPs and the Janata won none. He did dump the Janata, now in shambles even in the Northern states and stuck with the left parties to salvage his ADMK when elections were held to the state assembly in June the same year. He retained power even after the DMK-Congress combine remained intact and reversed the trend that seemed to emerge just a few months ago. The ADMK won 129 seats in the 234 strong House while the DMK’s strength came down from 48 to 37 and this despite its alliance with Indira Gandhi’s Congress.

                Although MGR dabbled with the anti-Congress consolidation that was emerging again in the early 1980s with non-Congress Chief Ministers holding conclaves and raising issues regarding fiscal federalism, he was astute enough to not leave the DMK-Congress alliance intact. It was then that he found a role for his former colleague in cinema, J.Jayalalithaa, who had joined his party in 1982. She was sent to the Rajya Sabha and she seemed to have carried out her brief far too well. The Congress(I), in which Rajiv Gandhi had begun playing an important role, was persuaded by the ADMK’s propaganda secretary (a post that was created for Jayalalithaa) to dump Karunanidhi’s party and team up with the ADMK. It was sometimes then that MGR rechristened his party as the All India ADMK. The supremo fell ill even before elections were announced in 1984 but his own illness and the demise of Indira Gandhi and the televised mourning and funeral ensured that the AIADMK-Congress(I) combine swept the polls in Tamil Nadu. Elections to the Lok Sabha and state assembly were held simultaneously then and the AIADMK won 132 of the 155 seats it contested while the Congress(I) won 61 of the 73 seats it contested. The DMK was left with the CPI and CPM as allies and together they won only 31 seats in the 234 strong House.  

                This background, indeed, then shows that the Congress remained relevant in Tamil Nadu and was even in a position to tilt the balance between the DMK and the AIADMK. It is also significant that the AIADMK, under MGR, managed two things: One to retain and consolidate its core support among the poor across the state and the noon-meal scheme that MGR introduced, improvising upon an idea that K.Kamaraj had experimented with when he was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu between 1954 and 1963. And two to keep the Congress party on his side. This worked in MGR’s own time and even after when Jayalalithaa took over the party, established herself as MGR’s legatee among the people against similar claims by the late Chief Minister’s wife, Janaki  Ramachandran. The two ADMKs, as the party split, were defeated by Karunanidhi’s DMK in the 1989 elections to the state assembly. The DMK also tied up with the anti-Congress National Front headed by V.P.Singh and the AIADMK appeared a party that was over.

                But this was when politics in the state was undergoing another churning; the social mosaic that helped the DMK establish itself – the vanniar community – in the Northern Tamil Nadu ever since 1957 and was held on by the party even after the advent and growth of the ADMK. It changed since the late 1980s when the vanniar community was mobilized by Dr. S.Ramadoss and a violent agitation demanding the Most Backward Classes status to them swept the region when the DMK was in power from 1989. Karunanidhi’s gamble to stoke tamil identity sentiments around the anti-Tamil pogrom in neighbouring Sri Lanka did not work; though MGR too had taken up this cause and associated himself with the LTTE in the early 1980s, the DMK was seen as aiding the militants in Tamil Nadu, at least after 1989 and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, while elections were on, on May 21, 1991, left the DMK running for cover. The AIADMK, now under Jayalalithaa along with the Congress(I) swept the polls; both to the Lok Sabha and the state assembly held simultaneously in May-June 1991. The DMK won just a couple of seats in the assembly and none in the Lok Sabha.

                Jayalalithaa now was unstoppable; she even managed to prevail upon the Congress party against impeaching Justice V.Ramasami for his excesses as Judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court involving financial impropriety. It is appropriate to note that the judge to be impeached happened to belong to the thevar community, as also does Sasikala, who had then become Jayalalithaa’s aide. Her kin, V.N.Sudhakaran was now decalared Jayalalithaa’s foster son and his big fat wedding showed he in poor light. She erred on this and many other instances of brazen show of power and authority but her party was, without doubt, under her command. The problem, however, was that the Congress leaders in Tamil Nadu revolted against the high command (well; P.V.Narasimha Rao could hold his party under his thumb only for a while and ceased to be a commander after Sonia Gandhi blessed a revolt against him) when the Congress decided to go along with the AIADMK. And the DMK patriarch lost no time striking an alliance with the Tamil Manila Congress to sweep the elections. The point is that the Congress, an ally of the AIADMK since 1984 was now with the DMK. Notwithstanding the PMK, that Dr. Ramadoss had floated, eating into the DMK’s traditional base, the DMK could wrest power in 1996.

                Jayalalithaa, now picked up the ropes and bounced back in 1998 cobbling up an alliance with such parties as the PMK, the MDMK (that had split away from the DMK in 1994) and most importantly the BJP, which at the national level had now managed to supplant the Congress(I). The alliance won as many as 35 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats from Tamil Nadu; the AIADMK won 18 and the BJP, for the first time, opened its account in Tamil Nadu winning 3 seats. Far more important was that Jayalalithaa emerged a powerful player in New Delhi with her 18 MPs crucial for the BJP-led government. Her command like hold on her MPs was proved when they cringed before her in full public glare (even while they held ministerial offices in the Union Cabinet and she was only out of jail on bail facing charges of corruption in Tamil Nadu) and the Parliamentary Party simply bowed before her when asked to withdraw support to the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in April 1999.

                She switched to the Congress(I) again in September the same year and managed to retain 10 Lok Sabha seats in the general elections. She also helped the Congress(I) win two seats and the CPI(M) win one.  Most of these happened to be from Southern Tamil Nadu where the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa had consolidated itself among the dominant thevar community. Jayalalithaa, meanwhile, worked on getting the PMK back to her fold and this she managed in time for the 2001 state assembly elections. She also managed to get the Tamil Manila Congress, whose birth itself was to oppose her in 1996, and thus returned to power in May 2001. The alliance with PMK, particularly, held her in good stead; and more importantly weakened the DMK in the northern districts, its traditional stronghold. 132 seats out of the 141 the party contested and Jayalalithaa was back as Chief Minister. She ensured that ministers in her cabinet were left insecure and were sent out when she wished. None dared to ask her why.  She dumped her pre-poll allies and picked up new ones in 2011 (it was the DMDK this time) to win another election and dump them soon after.

                It was her ability to do all these and carry her partymen wherever she decided to go that left the DMK scourging for partners and stay afloat. She mastered the art of talking directly to the people (well she did that hardly and let her larger than life posters to connect with the people). He rewarded policemen even while they were seen as guilty of violating human rights in the search for Veerapan, the brigand who was hunted down in the forests. Strictures against the police force by as mighty an agency as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) did not hold her back and she held a state function to reward them with land and out-of-turn promotions. She conveyed to the budgeoning middle classes in Tamil Nadu that the state needed such a force and she also expanded the scope of welfare measures to keep the poor and the lower middle classes contended. She kept her party under her feet and ensured that ministers and MLAs orchestrated mass support day after day.

                This long background will help see the shape of political developments in the immediate aftermath of her demise and what holds for the party she had commanded all the while.    

                Announcement of Jayalalithaa’s demise, late in the night on December  5, 2016, seemed to have followed some discussion and consultations among the party’s ‘leaders’ and Ms. Sasikala Natarajan apart from the BJP’s M.Venkaiah Naidu. The anointment of O.Panneerselvam as Chief Minister seemed natural; he had, after all, been the one she chose to hold office on occasions when she had to. First when her party won the majority in the state assembly elections in May 2001 (in which her own nomination was rejected on grounds of her conviction in a charge of corruption) and the Supreme Court subsequently held against her claims to the Chief Minister’s office in September that year, Panneerselvam was anointed Chief Minister. He promptly resigned the day his ‘amma’ qualified for office after the Supreme Court held her ‘innocent’ of the charges. He was thus Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu between September 21, 2001 and March 1, 2002.  He returned as Chief Minister, once again, on September 29, 2014 after ‘amma’ was convicted by the Karnataka High Court on charges of holding assets disproportionate to her known sources of income. As it happened, a Division Bench of the same High Court quashed the earlier order on May 11, 2015. ‘Amma’ Jayalalithaa waited until the eleventh day after her acquittal and Panneerselvam put in his papers on May 22, 2015, vacating the throne once again.

                It could have been that all those who confabulated at the Appolo Hospital during the couple of hours before Jayalalithaa’s demise was announced were unsure of their own prowess and decided to invoke what could have been amma’s will in the event. Well. As things have been unraveling since Panneerselvam seems to have some more credentials too  than having been the rarest among the AIADMK ‘leaders’ on whom the party supremo had complete faith. That his anointment now had taken shape in a gathering including Sasikala suggests he was the aide’s nominee even on earlier occasions and Jayalalithaa seemed to execute what her aide wanted. None in the party protested then; not even in whispers. But with ‘amma’ gone and Sasikala now out in the open, there are some in the party who seem to have gathered against Panneerselvam. And the daggers are likely to be out when the party, after the ritual of mourning, meets to ‘elect’ its general secretary.

                The AIADMK has 136 MLAs in the state assembly. 117 is what it needs to command majority in the House and there was no way that the party would have lost power in normal times, I.e. when Jayalalithaa was around. The additional numbers – 19 MLAs – was more than what the AIADMK needed to complete its five year term. All these, now, seem to be past. And Panneerselvam will need a lot of blessings, not only from Sasikala but also from the ruling BJP in the Centre to keep his flock together and fore-close the possibility of M.K.Stalin, leader of the 88 member strong DMK-legislature party (along with the 8 Congress MLAs) staking claims for the Chief Minister’s job in the event of a revolt in the AIADMK legislature party against Panneerselvam. While the Chief Minister’s proximity with Sasikala, thanks to caste they both belong to, may have been his strength in the night on December 5, 2016, the same may cause his fall in the event.

The thevars, after all, are not the only dominant intermediate caste in Tamil Nadu and the AIADMK has a substantial following among the Kongu Gounder community, dominant in the Western parts of the state; it was from this region that the AIADMK gathered mass since its inception in the 1970s and many of those are still around in the party to contest Panneerselvam’s claim. While a rebellion of this kind will depend on how deep Sasikala has entrenched herself by way of posting officers of the police and civil administration loyal to her across the state and how much the potential rebels are vulnerable (in other words as to how well would they be able to keep skeletons from tumbling out of the cupboard), the fact is that the AIADMK will no longer have a leader who can relate as ‘amma’ did with the people of Tamil Nadu. It is also unlikely that none in the party, including Sasikala, can aspire to be perceived by the people as MGR’s legatee as they perceived Jayalalithaa.

The point is that the AIADMK cannot be the same as it was under Jayalalithaa. And it is unlikely that it will remain as ‘disciplined’ as it was until December 5, 2016. And given the fragmentation of the polity and the various caste groups now having thrown up parties seeking to represent their own sectarian interests, as Jayalalithaa is no longer the present and is past, the space hitherto occupied by the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu could now be up for grabs. From what it looks like, Sasikala could end up offering the space to the BJP and that could happen only if Amit Shah’s party manages to survive the adverse effects of the November 8, 2016 announcement on currency notes by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Tamil Nadu, after all, is a state where money circulation has remained high and pervasive. It is another matter that Sasikala can manage to keep Panneerselvam as Chief Minister if she wants it that way and gets help for this from the Union Government the way governments were made and unmade in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh in recent months.

 (EOM)

Friday, May 27, 2016

 History is not about the ‘greats’ any longer

 
            A letter from V.K.Singh, Junior Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs asking that Akbar Road be renamed as Maharana Pratap has now turned into a public debate. While it is one thing to debate on the role of kings and queens in history and whether at all such memory should be ensured by way of naming streets and roads in our towns, there is indeed a larger issue involved in these and it is one that involves the understanding of the discipline called history.

            And even before elaborating on this, it is appropriate to place on record that Minister Singh’s concerns have nothing to do with any serious reading of the history of the Battle of Haldighati or the guerrilla attacks that Maharana Pratap carried out against the Moghul chieftains anointed by Akbar after he defeated the Mewar ruler in 1576. And even if Minister Singh had studied some of these during his training at the military academy, his concerns could not have been that of a historian. He would have been taught the tact of guerrilla warfare in the academy only to deal with the enemy and not to valourise them. Let me not quarrel with such pedagogy for it is, perhaps, justified as long as it is done in order to train the officers of our armed forces.

            But then, as minister in the constitutional scheme, Singh should realize that he is no longer a soldier and that the armed forces are under the command of a civilian in our scheme now. That we are not a military state and that we, as a nation, had consciously opted for a constitutional democracy against having a general at the helm of our polity (even if the general happens to be a good person) is a fact that Singh had accepted when he took oath as a minister in May 2014. And that is why it makes sense to expect him to behave a civilian and thus respect history and events to be studied the way a historian would do.   

            It is true that history, as a subject, was taught as merely a narrative involving kings (and queens occasionally). Such narratives, based on accounts handed over by chroniclers, obviously accorded the victors with honorific suffixes. The chroniclers, after all, were courtiers who lived and prospered singing hosannas to the victors and hence it was quite natural that some kings were described the ‘great’: It is not only about Akbar but Alexander too was described in our school books as the ‘great’. However, one has not come across a worthy French historian using such an honorific suffix to Louis XIV (even while he is credited of holding ‘I am the state’) or to Napolean Bonaparte who took France out of the dark ages of the Jacobin terror; nor has any English historian sought to honour Admiral Wilson as the ‘great’.

            The point is that the age of revolution in Western Europe, during which kings and nobles were ousted, also known to have marked the birth of the enlightenment era in history led to a departure in the way history as a discipline came to be seen. Rather than being reduced to a chronicle of events or simple narratives, history began to be seen as studying the past. To paraphrase E.H.Carr, an author whose work is textbook for students of history in any university worth its name, that history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and her/his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past. The point to be emphasized here is that history is about studying the past and not just reading or learning names and dates by rote.

            And by studying the past, where the historian and her/his facts are necessary to one another (once again from Carr), the discipline assumed a new meaning with the focus shifting from personalities to processes. More precisely, the Moghul era, as much as the period before that in Indian History came to be probed for such aspects as the social life, the economic structure, the process of surplus generation and thus locating the contradictions within that forced the rise and fall of not only different empires but also systemic changes. The lead in this regard came from Enlightenment historians and was picked up in India by the Marxists.

            Now, Minister Singh and his new found follower, N.C.Shaina (whose comparison between Akbar and Hitler revealed a certain disdain for history and its rigours) may jump around and declare their disdain to Marx and Marxist historiography. But then, this indeed is the critical point. Attributing ‘greatness’ to a ruler, whether Akbar or Maharana Pratap in this context, is indeed a prism through which history is sought to be studied by those who will then end up either celebrating one or the other king; the trouble is that this method will lead the historian to either condemn one or the other and ignore the fact that there existed people, the ordinary people who were held far away from the courts and the palaces to produce the surplus that went into the making of these empires and the comforts that the kings and their courtiers lived in.

            And such a history will then condemn the rebels, primitive or organized, as bandits or troublemakers. Just as the colonial administrators and their chroniclers described the rebellion of 1857 as a mutiny triggered by rumours of beef or pig meat being used to grease the cartridges of the enfield rifles! The problem is that this method of reading the past only through the regimes and the rulers and their goodness (or badness) helps shroud the people, particularly the oppressed, in a society into the oblivion. That the Bhils, among whom Maharana Pratap lived after escaping the Moghul army in Haldighati rose in rebellion subsequently and contributed in their own way to the making of modern India is what makes history a weapon in the making of democracy. Honorific suffixes to either Akbar or Maharana Pratap (or to stretch the argument of ridicule to its extreme to both) are only attempts to reverse the significant advances in the discipline of history and take it back to a mere chronicle of dates, personalities and events.

            And when history is taken back to its pre-enlightenment stage, the dangers are two-fold. One is that it will make the subject too boring and useless that children will not only hate it but will also find it useless; how does one with mere information on what happened when and nothing more become useful to society? This apart, the bigger threat is when such stress on kings and queens and one being ‘great’ and another’s claims to that being contested will take us back to those times from where human civilization has advanced. It is time we put a stop to this distortion of history.

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.