Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami, a review

Vijay Prashad, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today

New Press, 2012

That south Asians in the US face Islamophobia and racism was made clear on August 5th of this year when Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist who was being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, entered a Gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI and killed 7 people, most of them Sikhs.  While the media went into overdrive trying to convince everyone that this was a “mistake,” that the real targets were Muslims and not Sikhs, as if this was supposed to be some consolation to anyone, it was quite clear that the problem was in fact the long and persistent demonization of Islam and the omnipresent xenophobia to which all immigrants are subject.

Sikhs were attacked not because Page mistook them for Muslims, but because Muslims, in general, are seen as a fifth column in the US.  As a result, anyone who happens to look like them becomes necessarily a casualty of the racism that has been mobilized against Muslims in general.  Even though the media attempted to portray this as the consequence of individual ignorance or misrecognition, the events of Oak Creek are better understood as the result of widespread propaganda which cautions fear by arguing that all Muslims are possible terrorists.

But Sikhs in the US are victims of Islamophobia in different ways than are Muslims, and that was at least part of the reason that the massacre at Oak Creek happened.  So desperate are non-Muslim immigrants to prove their American loyalty that they repeat the humiliating refrain over and over again—“But we are not Muslims!”—in the hopes that this will relieve some of the pressures that they face.  South Asians become mascots of Team Docile Immigrant and then are pitted against Arabs and Muslims (even though many South Asians are Muslims) in the never-ending process of racializing “terrorism.”

The production of “good” or “model” minorities in the United States has always been connected to a process of isolating the “bad” or “criminal” races.  If from the 1970s to the 1990s South Asians were seen as the ideal immigrant population (hardworking, law-abiding, upwardly mobile), it was because that depiction of them was convenient as a stick with which to beat African Americans and Latinos in the US.  Today, it is convenient for the Global War on Terror.

One more thing went unnoticed, though.  Unlike Muslims and Arabs who are subject to intense scrutiny by law enforcement and are asked to make themselves available to intelligence agencies all the time, Sikhs have not been subject to state surveillance.  Law enforcement agencies have undergone countless hours of training in learning how to deal with Muslims and the issues that surround Muslim communities (not all of this learning has been salutary, one has to add), but this has not extended to learning about or reaching out to the myriad other communities that are affected by the twin problems of Islamophobia and anti-terrorism.

One of the strange consequences of this is that while most mosques have video and security equipment installed outside and have direct lines to law enforcement agencies, most Gurudwaras do not.  In some ways, then, the attacks on Gurudwaras and Sikhs are not mistakes: they happen because Sikhs are vulnerable and visible in ways that most Muslims have learned not to be.  One needs to add, though, that countless mosques are routinely attacked and vandalized with almost no media attention; the singular and exceptional focus on Oak Creek is one more indication of how much Islamophobia is tolerated in the US.

But understanding the complex and contradictory ways that many south Asians have both suffered from and been cheerleaders for Islamophobia requires having a historical understanding of the divide-and-rule racial politics of American society.  This is the task that Vijay Prashad sets out in his new book, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, a survey of many of the important trends and issues facing South Asians in the US since 9/11.  In it, Prashad elegantly captures the contradictory pressures on South Asian Americans as they navigate the crucible of domestic racial politics, India-US political and economic relations, and internal divisions with the South Asian American communities in the US.

This book picks up where Prashad’s previous book, The Karma of Brown Folks, left off.  In that book, Prashad demonstrated, in part, how many South Asians were recruited in the United States to participate in the discourses of anti-black racism in exchange for ethnic inclusion into larger public spaces.  At the same time, Prashad showed, smaller groups of South Asians became involved in important community organizing campaigns in the US and developed as important leaders in anti-racist and international solidarity work.  A deep sensitivity to the push-pull forces that affect South Asian immigrants as well as an understanding of transnational movements of peoples into and out of the Indian subcontinent marked some of the best features of the earlier book.

But the new project is best understood as one of comparative racial formations in the US.  He argues, “In my own earlier work I argued that the fear factor of ‘blacks’ created the conditions for the construction of the Indian American as the model minority, whereas I will now argue that this is insufficient.  It is the terror factor of the ‘Muslim’ alongside antiblack racism that provides the political space for Jewish Americans and Hindu Americans to mitigate their cultural differences from the mainstream, but crucially to put themselves forwards as those who, because of their experience with terrorism, become the vanguard of the new, antiterrorist Battleship America.”

That integration of Indian (Hindu) American identity with antiterrorist politics has taken a number of different but parallel tracks in the US.  The first is the creation of the “India Lobby,” which explicitly argues for the interests of Indian capitalism within the halls of American power.  Two simultaneous processes helped to grow the India lobby and the India caucus within the American Congress.  The new opportunities opened by India’s economic liberalization beginning in 1991 meant that India was seeking new partnerships with the US and American capitalists were looking for ways to penetrate Indian markets.  The resulting convergence of interests paved the way for the lifting of sanctions on India and for closer military collaboration.

The second is the construction of a South Asian (more precisely, Hindu and Indian) identity as victims of terrorism, and so like the Israelis and the Sri Lankans, natural allies in the Global War on Terror.  Military connections and arms trades between India and Israel were already extensive when Indian Americans also launched the US-India Political Action Committee (explicitly modeled on AIPAC).  But the myth of “American-Israeli-Indian” victimhood was predicated on another myth of a singular “Islamic” enemy launching terrorist attacks on all three nations.  Despite the fact that the groups and organizations that each nation is organizing against are all different, this mythology has been convenient at creating the impression of a global jihad launched by a monolithic Islam.  It has also meant that India has not had to answer in the US for its ongoing occupation and brutalization of the people of Kashmir.

The third has been the transformation into celebrities of certain right-wing Indians who have risen to important political posts.  The likes of Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Sonal Shah, and Dinesh D’Souza have all been lionized in the Indian American press as signs of Indian American accomplishment without ever interrogating the political content of their vision.  At the same time, the fact that the majority of South Asian Americans are a part of the Democratic Party and usually left-of-center gets overlooked in the ways that certain Indians have been used to advance a neoliberal agenda in the US.

The most nefarious aspect of all of these processes has been the mainstreaming of a right-wing Hindu chauvinist ideology (called Hindutva), which has both been used against Muslims in the subcontinent as well as against linguistic, ethnic, and caste-based minorities.  In the US, the Sangh Parivar, the coalition of the Hindu right in India, uses American multiculturalism to its advantage to advance a particularly narrow understanding of Hinduism, one which whitewashes its long legacy of sexism and caste chauvinism, in particular.  This process, what Prashad calls “Yankee Hindutva,” has allowed for the growth of right-wing organizations in the US in exchange for Indian cover for American aggression abroad.

Prashad’s book is an important contribution to the understanding of how race and ethnicity are always tied up in a larger understanding of the historical flows of capital across national boundaries and the devastating effects of imperialism on people all over the world.  If there is one place that the book falls a little short it is in its call for an ethics of compassion, modeled around Gandhi in the concluding chapter, rather than fleshing out a politics of solidarity modeled around internationalism in the working class.  Indians have, as Prashad shows, participated in spectacular movements of international solidarity, and the growth of these tendencies inside the working class in the subcontinent and in the US will play no small part in challenging the American imperium.  By drawing our attention to the politics of race and ethnicity in the US, though, Prashad’s book serves an important function by highlighting just how deeply connected the fights against racism and imperialism are.

Review: Kashmir: The Case for Freedom (Tariq Ali, et al)

In the summer of 2010, protests erupted throughout Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim part of what India claims to be its northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmiris have always asserted their independence from India).  Throngs of young men and women defiantly hurled rocks at Indian security forces and set tires on fire to prevent armored vehicles from entering into neighborhoods.  Their chants were bold—“Go, India, Go!” and “Azadi (Independence) for Kashmir” and “Quit Kashmir” (the last being a reference to the slogan of the Indian movement against British colonialism: Quit India).  The rare media outfits that did cover the protests began calling the movement, the Kashmiri Intifada, drawing explicit comparison to the other longstanding occupation in Palestine.  For fear of having international opinion turned against it, the Indian government quickly clamped down on all media coverage of the resistance in Kashmir and opened its playbook to its favorite page: the rock-throwers in Kashmir were quickly dubbed Islamic terrorists.

At the same time, the repression in Kashmir against the population was brutal.  Protests were met with shootings, lathi (baton) charges, the firing of tear gas, curfews, mass arrests, shootings, disappearances, and torture.  The viciousness of the crackdown has its basis in the suspension of any legal oversight or consequence for the Indian security apparatus; since 1990, Kashmir has come under the purview of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which allows, among other things, any soldier or officer to fire upon any group of five or more people or anyone suspected of having a weapon, arrest anyone without a warrant and conduct home invasions. It also gives military personnel full immunity from prosecution for their actions.  Additionally, Kashmir is also one of the most heavily policed and militarized places in the world, with estimates of Indian security forces in the region at well over 700,000 (the Government of India refuses to release official numbers).  It bears underlining that the population of Kashmir is approximately 5.5 million, which means that there is one security personnel for every eight Kashmiris, a ratio which beggars Mubarak’s Egypt.  The carte blanche given to the police and military and the constant rhetoric of Islamic insurgency have proven to be a deadly and humiliating mix for ordinary Kashmiri civilians.  In one shocking video that was uploaded to youtube, Indian soldiers were seen parading young Kashmiri men naked through their village en route to a military camp.

Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, with contributions by Tariq Ali, Hilal Bhatt, Angana Chatterji, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy and selections of poems by the 16th-century Kashmiri poet, Habbah Khatun, comes at an important time, as new political and economic realities put the resistance of the Kashmiri people back on the map of global protest.  The book is essentially a handbook for human rights activists across the world, who have seen the protest movement in Kashmir grow but who have been left confused by the obfuscations which pass for journalism and the lies which are official politics in India, Pakistan, and the United States.  The overwhelming conclusion that any reader can come to after reading the book is the simple and straightforward one that Arundhati Roy arrives at: “Does any government have the right to take away people’s liberty with military force?  India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much—if not more—than Kashmir needs azadi from India.”

Kashmir has long tradition of religious syncretism, cultural innovation, and political resistance, but an equally long legacy of feudal, colonial, and now sub-imperial conquest.  The crux of the contemporary problem stems from the opportunistic way that the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent was carried out and the vicious way that those terms are enforced on the population.  When British rule was established in Kashmir in 1846, Kashmir (recently conquered by the Sikh invader Ranjit Singh in 1819) was sold off to Dogra royalty (the Hindu rulers of neighboring Jammu) for 7.5 million rupees, 6 pairs of shawl goats, and 3 shawls (under the absurd Treaty of Amritsar).  Dogra rule was economically ruinous for the population who were reduced to a condition of absurd poverty; the few young people who could, escaped to other places in India, where they were radicalized and returned to raise slogans of freedom, justice, and land reform.  Before the partition of India, the dominant politics of the movement for Kashmiri independence, led by Sheikh Abdullah, were a heady mix of socialism and nationalism, not political Islam as is often claimed by more contemporary analysts.

When the British left India, the 565 prince states which had maintained a degree of political autonomy through treaties with the British were given the choice of acceding either to India or Pakistan or remaining independent.  Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, still hadn’t decided; leaders of the Muslim League were attempting to woo him to Pakistan, while his Hindu sympathies seemed to incline him in favor of India.  Leaders in Pakistan decided not to wait and planned an invasion.  Hari Singh, worried about being deposed militarily, quickly negotiated an accession to India in exchange for military support.  But under the terms of the agreement, Kashmir was to be allowed a referendum to determine the will of the people on the question of accession.  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, despite publicly proclaiming his support for the plebiscite (as Arundhati Roy’s excellent collection of excerpts of his speeches shows), ultimately reneged on his promise.  The Indian army was able to repel the Pakistani invaders only up to a point; the current Line of Control which divides Kashmir more or less marks the results of that confrontation.  Since then, Kashmir has become a pawn in the cynical and deadly game between India and Pakistan.  India uses Kashmir to claim that it is a democratic society (but does so by rigging elections, importing pliable Hindu rulers, imprisoning elected leaders, brutally oppressing the population), while Pakistan claims that it is interested in Kashmiri independence (despite having flooded the Valley with guns and an intolerant variant of Islam and denying independence to its other occupied territory, Balochistan).

The book makes two important contributions to our understanding of what has happened in Kashmir since that point.  The first has to do with the form of the resistance, which has shifted over the years from secular nationalism to Islamist politics and back again.  The period between the 1940s and the early 1980s was dominated by the secular, nationalist forces in Kashmir organized under Sheikh Abdullah who initially sought some kind of compromise with the Indian state for greater autonomy within a larger federation.  When even democratic dialogue broke down and India reneged on promises, a few groups (like the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front) broke away from the dominant nationalist coalition and began waging a guerrilla struggle.  At the same time, Pakistan flush with arms and militants it was recruiting and training for the American-sponsored resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, began both recruiting Kashmir youth to jihadi outfits and began to send Islamist groups into Kashmir as well as providing weapons and training to secular groups as well (though they eventually stopped backing these groups all together).  The devastating effects of that policy on ordinary Kashmiris are documented in Hilal Bhatt’s personal essay in the collection.  But by the late 1990s, Islamist organizations had exhausted whatever appeal they may have had as their social policies came into conflict with Kashmiri ideologies and their inability to produce a military solution meant that ordinary Kashmiris were the ones suffering for the barbaric Indian crackdown that followed those terrorist activities.  The last decade of resistance has been characterized by secular, democratic opposition to the policies of the Indian state, a reality which goes against all of the mainstream propaganda that Kashmir is another front in the war on terror.

The second has to do with the staggering scale of violence that the Indian state perpetrates against the Kashmiri population (the condition of the Pakistani administered section while poor, is not nearly as bloody).  As Angana Chatterji puts it, “Kashmir is a landscape of internment, where resistance is deemed ‘insurgent’ by state institutions.”  [Chatterji and her husband, Richard Shapiro, have been targeted by the Indian government for their views on Kashmir and were both recently fired from their jobs at the California Institute of Integral Studies, in part, for their outspoken political advocacy.]  Part of the reason that Kashmir is so brutally repressed is because the Indian state is now governed by an ideology which requires the fiction of a massive security threat in order to justify exorbitant expenditures on its military and police forces.  This fiction is propped up, as Chatterji argues, by an ideology which amalgamates Hindu chauvinism, neoliberalism, and authoritarian statecraft.  The result has been the wholesale criminalization of even the mildest form of public protest.  Most recently, the police filed sedition charges against Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education for showing a man in blue carrying a stick under the Urdu letter “zoi” for “zaalim” (oppressor).  The police have charged everyone affiliated with the book with criminal conspiracy, defamation, and provocation with the intent to breach peace, since the innocuous depiction was assumed to be a police officer.  In another instance, an English professor, Noor Mohammad Bhat, was thrown in jail for administering a “provocative” examination assignment.

Despite making the case for an independent Kashmir and offering a brilliant indictment of the Indian government’s claim to being the largest democracy on the planet, the book falls short on one important point, namely in pointing out a strategy by which that independence can come about if armed struggle, mass protest, and even political compromise have all failed in turn.  The unfortunate reality in Kashmir is that it is extremely similar to Palestine, where the indigenous populations lack the necessary social force to repel the violence of occupation forces and then are forced into taking part in the opportunistic diplomacy of larger states around them.  But like Palestine, the Kashmiris have allies in both Pakistan and India who have no interest in the occupation of Kashmir, in fact whose lives would immediately be improved if both Pakistan and India were to stop spending Himalayan sums on security personnel and instead spend money on eradicating poverty.  The Indian and Pakistani working classes have common enemies—their own states—and the end to the occupation in Kashmir will only be the result of their unified struggle.  This though is only the slightest of criticisms; the spirit if not the explicit argument of the Arab Spring runs throughout this entire book.

[Special thanks to Huma Dar for suggestions and edits.]

The politics of general strikes in India

General Strike in India 

On February 28th, India’s major trade union federations declared a general strike, with early estimates of workers participating in the one-day industrial action in the tens of millions, making it the largest strike in India since the nation’s independence in 1947.  This is the first time that the trade union federations (which are all affiliated to one or another political party) have come together to protest against “neoliberal economic and labor policies” pursued by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party) government; the action was also supported by more than 5000 independent unions.

This reveals two important things about India that are usually forgotten by the western media.  First, that India is not merely a seething mass of desperation composed of peasants and the abject poor; it has a massive working class with some real organizations that are capable of bringing out their own forces.  And second, that the economic realities of neoliberal growth do not go unchallenged indefinitely.  Even in the places where the vice grip on workers has been tightened to extreme levels, people still find a way to fight back.

Among the demands that the unions made were the establishment of a national minimum wage, the ending of temporary employment (what are called “contract laborers” in India) in favor of permanent jobs, more effort to curb runaway inflation (hovering at around 7.5%), guaranteed pensions, and an end to the privatization of publicly owned companies.

The banking and insurance sectors were hit the worst by the strike, but other workers including dockworkers, postal workers, and transportation workers were heavily hit.  The coordination of a national strike of this scale marks the beginning of a new stage in the confrontation between labor and capital in India, as the benefits of India’s boom have produced a sclerotic economy, with benefits accruing to the few at the top.

Despite threats from the central government and a last minute offer to negotiate, the strike proceeded and brought out millions.  In places like Kerala, the state government threatened workers with a “dies non” order (no work-no pay), while in other places like Delhi, the government attempted to enforce the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to force workers in industries like power generation back to work.  In West Bengal, cadres of Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) also attacked and injured strikers.

Slumdogs, Millionaires, and Manmohanomics

For the past decade, India has been the darling of the economic pundits globally, with massive growth rates and a burgeoning middle-class whose consumptive powers have fuelled the national mythology of “India Shining.”  According to current estimates, the Indian economy grew at around 7% last year and is projected to grow again at a similar rate in 2012.

At the same time, the benefits of that growth have been massively skewed.  As Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, demonstrates, the growth of the Indian economy has happened at the same time as the growth of its underclass.  Mumbai, the symbol of India’s new economic power and famous for its massive film industry, is now commonly referred to as “Slumbai”; more people live in slums in Mumbai than not, where they work in the hyperexploitative informal economy (if they work at all).

Agricultural reforms implemented in the past twenty years have immiserated people in the countryside.  Last year alone there were more than 15,000 farmer suicides as a result of indebtedness and bad harvests.  Desperate farmers then migrate to the larger cities and towns where they form the massive reserve army of the unemployed which drives down wages.

At its core, the national strike is a response to these conditions and the pinch that workers are feeling throughout the country.  Last year there were some spectacular job actions at places like Maruti-Sazuki in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, where workers fought a pitched battle for wages, and occupied the factory for almost two weeks.

At the same time, the official line of the Congress Party-led Government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that neoliberal economic policies are going to continue.  At the heart of the fight with the unions is the controversial Pension Bill in Parliament currently, which would tie the pensions to market-driven financial instruments and put employee retirements in jeopardy.

But also at issue are Singh’s plans to sell off major state holdings in order to finance repayments on international loans and budget deficits.  Singh did, after all, cut his teeth as the economic architect of India’s neoliberal reforms which began to be implemented when he was the Finance Minister under PV Narasimha Rao.

It is the twin pressures that workers in India feel, both from the immiseration into which they are sinking from below (from inflation and from a growing underclass which they are trying desperately to unionize) and from above (in the form of neoliberalism and attacks on union rights) which has produced the conditions for greater militancy in India.

The Official Trade Unions

There are two reasons though that this confrontation between labor and capital in India will not be decisive, which are also the reasons that the unions have only put forward a tentative one-day strike with a rather long and vague list of demands.  First, the official trade unions are all connected to various political parties, and these massive days of protest are usually connected to political gamesmanship that the parties play against one another.

The unions at the head of the strike were dominated by the official left in India, which is still dominated by Stalinist and Maoist political organizations.  So in India there is the All-India Federation of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML-Janashakti), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML), All India United Trade Union Center run by the Socialist Unity Center, the All India Trade Union Congress (run by the CP), Center of Indian Trade Unions (CPIM), United Trade Union Congress (run by the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

Now since many of these parties are no longer revolutionary parties in the long run, they tend to play a dampening rather than developing role on class struggle.  Which is not to say that workers don’t fight back, they do, but that their fights are limited from the top.  In 2006, there was an attempt to form a federation of Independent Trade Unions called the New Trade Union Initiative, which holds out some of the best possibilities for an independent trade union movement in India.  Many of their unions also participated in this one-day action.

Second, there are also reactionary trade unions like the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sabha [this was corrected thanks to a comment below -NRI] run by the right-wing BJP and the Bhartiya Kamgar Sena, run by the ultra-right Shiv Sena which brought out their members.  Both of these unions also participated in the strike, largely because the leftist unions kept the slogans vague enough that the right-wing could use the one-day strike as cover for the purported populist politics.

Part of the reason that the right and the left were able to come together (as they have in the past, as under the Janata Party government in the 1970s) is because they are both now in the opposition to the Congress Party’s UPA coalition which runs the central government.  In fact, despite agreeing early on to support the strike, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (run by the Congress Party) withdrew, after the party leadership put substantial pressure on it.  “The strike is politically motivated and illegal.  We will oppose it on Tuesday,” said Ashok Chaudhary, the national president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

But this alliance can only be temporary and opportunistic, as the BJP and Shiv Sena are both pursuing neoliberal policies (in Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively, where both of them play much larger regional roles).  It also sets forward a danger, since the right wing has not been shy about stoking up ethnic and communal hatred in times of economic contraction.

Communist Party and West Bengal

Part of the reason that the strike took place in as spectacular a way as it did was because of the routing the official left received at the polls in the last elections.  While they were in power in places like Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, they were able to play a dampening role on industrial actions.  Once they were removed from office, they have found it possible to release the discontent that their members face, in order to embarrass the current government, but only up to a point. Too much worker militancy threatens their own ability to contain mass anger, which is the only real thing that they have to offer in exchange for capital investments in their economically impoverished states.

It was also in those places where the strike was strongest and was able to do more than simply industrial work-stoppages but actually stop much traffic and business throughout major cities.  In other places throughout the country (Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka) the effects of the strike were not as strongly felt.

But the most significant showdown in the strike was clearly in West Bengal, where Mamata Bannerjee attempted to flex against her muscle against what she called “the politics of bandhs” (shutdowns of cities).  Having recently beaten the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the polls, Bannerjee is now in the position of having to do the bidding of large capital, despite having organized strikes and bandhs herself in the past.

In Kolkata, the police were out in droves attempting to get people back to work, while Bannerjee’s TMC sent many of its members to break up rallies and pickets throughout the city.  Bannerjee came to power on the basis of a negative referendum on the CPM, when it tried to raze entire villages in order to make way for a manufacturing campus in the countryside for industrial giants like Tata Motors.  Bannerjee’s opportunistic about-face (now doing the work of the same capitalists that she claimed to oppose) will only expose her to greater challenges.

What the general strike reveals is the simultaneity of ordinary working class anger at the economic and political system in India as well as the inability of the major left groups to deliver anything but symbolic and token changes in their lives.  The general strike revealed that the working class in India is quite large and has the muscle to topple capitalism, but it will require new forms of political and union organization than the ones that are currently on offer.

Maruti Suzuki strike over

Maruti Suzuki and workers reach agreement

 

(article by Kristyne Peter)

7000 Suzuki workers return to work after an intense and violent 14-day struggle that ends at the country’s largest car maker.

INDIA: Amid mounting international pressure, a tripartite agreement was reached today between Maruti Suzuki management, workers, and senior officials of the Haryana government ending an intense 14-day struggle that brought the Suzuki production to a crawl and revealed an unprecedented show of worker strength and solidarity.

Workers at Maruti Suzuki went on strike on October 7 after the company broke a September 30 agreement to recognize the union, honour basic labour rights, and reinstate contract workers who had gone on strike in solidarity with permanent workers during a previous struggle. Workers at Suzuki Powertrain India and Suzuki Motorcycle India immediately laid down tools in support of their colleagues at Maruti Suzuki resulting in a total of 7000 workers taking action.

The conflict and the anti-union behaviour of the local Maruti Suzuki management created an international uproar, involving unions all over the whole world, notably in Japan, where the IMF-JC and JAW were in contact with the international Suzuki management. In India, all major Indian national trade unions condemned Maruti Suzuki’s’ behaviour, calling it “vengeful”, and a Labourstart campaign delivered more than 4200 letters to local management in less than 24 hours, calling on the company to respect fundamental labour rights.

Details of the agreement, which was reached between Maruti and Suzuki managements, workers and unions of the three plants, and in the presence of government officials, includes:

  • No pending disciplinary proceedings at Suzuki Motorcycles. All disciplinary proceedings pending against workers were dropped;
  • At Suzuki Powertrain, disciplinary proceedings against three workers will continue;
  • 1,200 contract workers will be reinstated but disciplinary proceedings against 33 workers will continue at Maruti Suzuki. Transport services will resume.

Shiv Kumar, General Secretary of the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union (MSEU) thanked the IMF, IMF-JC, JAW and Labourstart for their solidarity extended to the striking workers throughout their struggle. ” I want to express our sincere appreciation for making our strike known across the globe. The timely support and solidarity boosted workers’ morale, strengthened their resolve to fight and gave them the feeling that they are not alone, that workers across the world are with them. This assurance was a big motivating factor.”

The Meaning of India-Bangladesh Border-fence

Guest post by Nazmul Sultan

    Indian prime minister Manomohan Singh’s recent visit to Bangladesh has triggered myriad speculations concerning the meaning of intensified geopolitical alliance between India and Bangladesh in South Asian region. Given the temporality of parliamentary politics that is hegemonic in national-political space of this region, the visit is also destined to influence the electoral zigzags of coming days. What is more, the sudden move of West Bengal’s populist chief minister Mamata Banerjee, which halted the much-awaited agreement on the water-sharing of the Teesta river, added essential twist in the diplomatic drama that continued for few days. In the process – thanks to the withering away of terms such as `imperialism’ from the hegemonic space of politics—the embedded conditions of these mutual `negotiations’ have become obliterated. This brief intervention, on the contrary, will seek to arrest the generality of internal relations between two hegemonically uneven states . In so doing, we will concentrate on the political meanings of the border-fence that India built throughout the last decade encircling entire Bangladesh. [For a detailed study of Bengal Border, see, Willhem Van Schendel, The Bengal Border Land: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia (London, 2005).] Being coalesced with the logic of contemporary global order, this border fence, more than any other element, registers the changing horizon of imperialist exigencies in the level of inter-nation relations. 

1.

    Although the generality of capitalism has fundamentally reshaped our very conception of territoriality and sovereignty, the practice of setting up fence around particular politico-economic sites predates the advent of global capitalism. Aristotle, in his ‘politics’, argued against the conviction that walls around cities are a sign of military weakness and advocated for strongest walls around the city: “To have no walls would be as foolish as to choose a site for a town in an exposed country and to level the heights; or, as if an individual were to leave his house unwalled, lest the inmates should become cowards.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293] The backdrop of Aristotle’s argument contains the genealogical dimension of the fence. That is, the political significance of fence had been formed in and through the dynamic of pre-capitalist world whereby territorial expansions was an instance of surplus extraction through force. However, this general logic of territoriality intertwined inextricably with the relational self-positing of a city-state. Thus, the presence of fence appeared to Plato as a contradictory feature with the military pride of a city. Aristotle, despite his opposition to Plato’s proposal, had not only understood border-fence as a military-strategic object, but also as a distinguishing symbol of the community from others . Hence, he proposed for decorating the border walls, apart from making them effective: “..not only should cities have walls, but care should be taken to make them ornamental, as well as useful for warlike purposes and adapted to resist modern inventions….for when men are well prepared no enemy even thinks of attacking them.” [Aristotle, Selected writings of Aristotle (New York, 2001 ), P. 1293]

    This apparent universality of fence as a signifier of particular political community, however, refounded itself corresponding with the primacy of global capitalism, which is particularly contextual for our investigation into the meaning of Indo-Bangla border fence. The generalizing logic of capital which continually projects to overcome the spatial disjunctions (or as Marx put it, Capital seeks to annihilate space by time), simultaneously requires the particularization of its spaces of movement (as Deleuze put it: “capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization”). The movement of capital, which disregards the singularities of spatial units, in another turn, re-enacts the mechanism that heterogenizes its objects, since the continual reproduction of heterogeneity conditions for the onslaught of ‘real’ homogenizing operation. Border fence, to that extent, is a symptomatic manifestation of the internality of global capitalism. The location of border-fence in contemporary system, nevertheless, is the political sphere whereby it reflexively corresponds with the requirement of capital’s movement. Fence posits itself capitalizing its ‘trans-historical’ meaning, which implies certain collective signification for the demarcated communities. Border-fence always-already presupposes the heterogeneous presence of diverging politico-economic as well as cultural sites, as the reproduction of its own validity would have become uncertain if it fails to account for the real abstraction that it implies. Border-fence thus signifies the seclusion of a community in its relational instance i.e., seclusion as nation, ethnic group, religious group and so on. What is most significant in the contemporary resurgence of border fence is its globalized significance rather than bilateral specificity that was common to the history of perimeter fences. In other words, the validity of the fence is essentially justified by putting forward trans-national issues such as restriction of Islamic militancy, illegal workers, left-wing radicals etc.

2.

    In a recent intervention in the aftermath of Arab spring, Kees Van Der Pijl, suggestively remarked that the study of imperial domination should not be reduced into an isolated exposition of capital’s movement, rather it is “equally urgent to analyse the structures of imperialism in terms of modes of foreign relations.” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America's Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.] He goes on to explicate the essential linkage of the internal structure of subordinated nations with the functioning of imperial orders. Similarly, the apparently externalized positing of certain nations in the topography of `war on terror’ interacts with the internal organization of the nations. The diachronic impact of such supra-national politics ultimately intertwines with the structural reorganization of society. 

    The meaning of the border-fence, in the lexicon of national-political, remains confined within the abstract exercise of sovereignty and suchlike fetishes, while the totality of border-fence’s operation – due to the specificity of its appearance as a political signifier of the horizontal moment of national life – inflicts even the micro aspects of the particular political-economic site. The Border-fence, needless to say, is not the only active agent in the process. The reflexivity of the fence is essentially conditioned by the immanence of ‘nation’ as an over-arching category in post-colonial political spaces . Hence, border-fence becomes the emblematic appearance of the ‘exclusion’ from the civilized world. To put in another way, the over-arching expansion of fence is precisely conditioned by the constituted fear of contemporary developmental liberalism: the fear of being unrecognized as “moderate developmental state.”

     In the post 9/11 re-articulation of geopolitics, territorial exclusion becomes a crucial strategy to impose the label of heterogeneity on certain nations vis-a-vis homogeneous or normal nations. The physical blocking of hitherto loose borders, however, is only the semblance of this process; the cruciality of conspicuous territorial separation is vital insofar it signifies exclusion as heterogeneity, since this process of exclusion inversely works through the concomitant internal dichotomization of the supposedly heterogeneous nation i.e., the nation which is ‘unnegotiable’ in terms of perceived homogeneity. That is to say, the national devaluation or the “national shame” of being heterogenized provokes the internally hegemonic institutions (e.g. state, civil society, NGO, Media etc), which are affected by their supra-national ‘heterogeneity’, to attack the internal others who are responsible for nation’s not being ‘normal.’ That means geopolitical deployment of the exclusion as ‘abnormal’ fuses with the heterogeneous nations’ homogeneity-seeking forces (who, in the determinate instance, always align themselves with the hegemonic logic of neoliberal capitalism) to doubly invigorate the internal repression of the subversive elements (which, however, are not necessarily opposed to the logic of capital). Simultaneously, that double pressure processually leads nationally representative institutions to find the way of “being normalized” in uneven dialogue or transactions with ‘normal’ nations . This leads us to the revealing moment, when the cool-headed Economic Adviser of Sheikh Hasina, Mashiur Rahman, suddenly overrides the policy of putting the economic gain as the reason behind allowing India to use Bangladesh as a transit-route. Being a rupture in the continuity of otherwise consistent narrative, this statement revealed the deep-seated complexity hidden beneath the rhetoric of economic gain : “Had our country been an uncivilized one or our leaders been illiterate then we could have asked for the fees [the proposed duties on Indian goods to be transited through Bangladesh], but that’s not the case.” The functionality of national-political, given the over-arching urge to be “normalized”, gathers it force around the ghosts of heterogeneity that is not coeval with standard of ‘secular-civilized nations.’ Since this witch-hunting by state is inextricably related with governance as well as reproduction of the state apparatuses, the process of locating ‘evil’ often subverts the territory of a particular group owing to the essentially indeterminate logic for identifying subversives. Therefore, the process for the determination of the Islamist militancy(i.e. responsible for exclusion) effaces the demarcating lines between various ideo-political groups , and re-emerges through the registers which are not coeval with the logic of domination: thus, a veteran leader of RMG workers’ movement has been accused of having rapport with Islamist groups, since she chatted with a fellow prisoner in the prison van, who incidentally belongs to a far-right Islamist group. Nevertheless, this `Aesopian’ evidence was enough to file an allegation against her given that workers, not unlike Islamists, contribute to the ruining of sacred national image abroad through protests, vandalism and so on.

3.

    “What has changed in the time between Reagan’s ‘empire of evil’ and Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ is not the intensity of the evil but the juridical status of the subjects that are supposed to embody the ‘evil’ .However destructive the military capabilities on the both sides of the Cold War antagonism were, the ‘willingness’ to respect each other as subjects of international law was never seriously questioned during the Cold War period” [Friedrich Balke, “Restating Sovereignty: On America's Regaining The Old Sense of Sovereignty,”  Parrhesia, 2/3 (2007): 12-21.]

    The indeterminate positing of enemy (i.e., the non-negotiable), so to speak, is precisely the rupture heralded by post 9/11 rearticulation of global politics. Just as we have seen the dislocation of enemy/heterogeneity in the internal organization of a given politco-economic site amounts to a breaking through of traditionally static identification of subversive-element in a particular group, so the inter-national appearance of a nation – from the vantage point of hegemonic projections – is an equally indeterminate constellation of good and evil, as though the concern of national security, like Schmitt’s X-ray flashes, exposes the potential explosiveness of `incarcerated’ people at the very moment they disregard the distributed place. The border between India and Bangladesh is an exemplary instance. As F. Balke reminds us of the difference between the juridical status of the evil-embodied alien subjects that owes to the changed notion of national security, Indian state—being coterminous with the global trend of Islamophobia– gunned down more than 1,000 Bangladeshi citizens (working peoples, small-time cow-smugglers etc) who dared to pass the border illegally. That is, the frequent and intentional killings of BSF is precisely a manifestation of the heterogeneous or juridically uneven status of Bangladeshi citizens. Numerous flag meeting between BSF and BGB (erstwhile BDR) could not reach to an agreement for the very reason that sovereignty – the state of exception – only can express itself through the pride of acting alone. The blatant functioning of the presupposition that Bangladesh is a mere combination of ‘good secularists’ and ‘bad Islamists’ can easily be discerned from the recent portrayal of Bangladesh in the hegemonic neoliberal voices of India. Indian Prime minister recently claimed that 25% of Bangladeshi citizens belong to parliamentary Islamist organizations(hence a threat for India’s security), while the actual number is less than 5% (in terms of electoral votes). Similarly, India’s mainstream medias consistently portray Bangladesh as a vying field between “Bengali-secularist-India-friendly’ and “Islamist-anti-India”, where only the tutelage of India (which also implies that the strict isolation of subversive elements from Indian land) could save both parties. As Kolkata-Based Daily Anandabazar clearly says: “The main conflict in Bangladesh is between its Bengali-self and Islamic-self. After the Mujib-assassination, Pakistan (sic) sought to invigorate Islam undermining the Bengali-self. That struggle still continues. In this historical moment, Indian diplomats think Manmohan Singh’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh will help the initiative to build a new Bangladesh.” In other words, the forced bifurcation of Bangladesh between good and evil, as evident in the aforementioned instances, does not only sustain the presuppositions of mutual relations, but also reproduces the legitimation of the logic that governs the site of inter-national differentiation. To that extent, Border killings – by virtue of its reassertion of the symbolic order embodied in the fence – is political killings par excellence.

    While the movement of labor is delimited by such forced containment, the hegemonic capital is making it way annihilating the disjunctive spaces (as in the enactment of much-debated transit-route through Bangladesh). The ironclad body of border-fence that seeks to restrict people’s movement through force has been appearing as a site of a struggle that can’t be reduced into a national barrier. In other words, the generality that underpins the struggle is a thoroughly global phenomenon, notwithstanding the specific historicity that concerns Indo-Bangla border-fence. That is to say, the meaning of border-fence, for the affected people of global south, is unambiguously concrete. This is a kind of concreteness – to paraphrase Anna Feigenbaum – that requires no metaphor. [Anna Feigenbaum, “Concrete Needs No Metaphor: Globalized Fences as Sites of Political Struggle,” Ephemera 10/2 (2010): 119-133. This is how she defines contemporary border-fences: “....‘globalized fences’... can be identified by four commonalities: they serve transnational security functions (particularly in a post 9/11 homeland security context), they are contracted through multinational companies, they are built with materials imported from different nations, and they integrate ‘virtual’ and  physical technologies]



Notes:    

Unknown and Unmarked Graves of Kashmir

PRESS NOTE: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Srinagar, August 29, 2011

INTERNATIONAL PEOPLE’S TRIBUNAL ON
HUMAN RIGHTS AND JUSTICE IN INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR (IPTK)
http://www.kashmirprocess.org

together with the
Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons

Re.: Response to SHRC’s Report on Unknown and Unmarked Graves of Kashmir

From:
Dr. Angana Chatterji, Convener IPTK and Professor, Anthropology, California Institute of Integral Studies
Advocate Parvez Imroz, Convener IPTK and Founder, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society
Gautam Navlakha, Convener IPTK and Editorial Consultant, Economic and Political Weekly
Zahir-Ud-Din, Convener IPTK and Vice-President, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society
Advocate Mihir Desai, Legal Counsel IPTK and Lawyer, Mumbai High Court and Supreme Court of India
Khurram Parvez, Liaison IPTK and Programme Coordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society
and the Executive Council, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons

Queries may be directed to:
Khurram Parvez
E-mail: kparvez@kashmirprocess.org
Phone: +91.194.2482820
Mobile: +91.9419013553

We welcome the report of the State Human Rights Commission of Jammu and Kashmir (SHRC) on unmarked graves in north Indian-administered Kashmir (dated July 2011 and recently released), taking suo moto cognizance of the matter, and appreciate the courage and labour that this work signifies.

SHRC’s report acknowledges and corroborates the research documented in the report, BURIED EVIDENCE, released by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice (IPTK) in December 2009.

SHRC investigated unmarked graves in Bandipora, Baramulla, Kupwara, and Handwara districts across 38 graveyards and verified 2156 unidentified bodies in unidentified graves.

Based on investigative research conducted between November 2006-November 2009, BURIED EVIDENCE had documented 2700 unknown, unmarked, and mass graves, containing 2943+ bodies, across 55 villages (in 62 sites within these villages) in Bandipora, Baramulla, and Kupwara districts of Kashmir. Of these, 2373 were unidentified and unnamed graves.
See http://www.kashmirprocess.org/reports/graves/toc.html

To respond to the egregious violations of the past and secure justice requires that we acknowledge atrocities that have been committed and address their effects. In the matter of unknown, unmarked, and unidentified graves in Kashmir, we call for a three-tier process: Investigation, Prosecution, and Reparation.

Investigation and Prosecution: We request that SHRC extend its investigation to include each site documented by IPTK in north Kashmir, and beyond, to all twenty districts in Jammu and Kashmir. In particular, we ask that investigations take place in Anantnag, Budgam, Ganderbal, Kulgam, Pulwama, Shopian, and Srinagar districts in Kashmir province and in Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, and Reasi districts in Jammu province.

We ask that DNA-based profiles of those buried in the unmarked and unidentified graves be cross-tabulated with those that have been involuntarily disappeared in Kashmir. Further, in addition to the identification of the dead, we ask that comprehensive forensic examinations be conducted to determine the circumstances of death, including incidences of torture.

The Kashmir Police have stated that they have records of 464 unidentified graves. However, it appears that, even in these cases, the Kashmir Police have not maintained photographic, DNA, and other evidence. All unidentified graves that have been listed as holding the bodies of “foreign militants” must be investigated. The police have filed First Information Reports stating these persons as dead from encounter killings. However, these bodies have not been identified based on records or other verifiable evidence. Neither has conclusive evidence been offered to prove that the bodies are of Kashmir’s disappeared.

SHRC has stated that 574 bodies have been identified as locals following their burial. However, the Kashmir Police and Indian Armed Forces had previously claimed these 574 bodies as those of “foreign militants.” This indicts the government’s negligence in identifying unclaimed bodies. Based on the above, the SHRC report evidences that there is every possibility that the 2156 unmarked graves hold the bodies of persons that were involuntarily disappeared. The cases of the 574 bodies also intimate that numerous persons have been killed in fake encounters and secretly buried in unmarked graves to conceal their identity. IPTK’s 2009 report too had documented a list of 49 bodies, all designated by the state as “foreign militants,” 47 of whom, on investigation, proved to have been killed in fake encounters, and none were identified as foreign insurgents.

If, in the course of future investigations, it is proven that disappeared persons were killed in fake encounters and buried in unmarked graves, exemplary punishments should be pronounced against those accused to deter future and repeated crimes of the same nature. In instances where non-local persons are killed in alleged “encounter” killings, relevant international human rights and humanitarian law must be applied in matters of redress.

SHRC has relied on statements from persons who, fearful of reprisal, wish for their testimonies to be placed on record anonymously. Given the nature of the issue, and the heightened risks involved in offering testimony, utmost care and caution should be exercised in securing witness protection, following international protocols and standards.

We ask that the matter of unknown, unmarked, and mass graves be subjected to a rigorous, independent, and impartial investigation. We ask that the story of these graves be investigated in their entirety: What are the particular legal and institutional histories of the graveyards? How did they come into existence? Per whose order? Did District Magistrates requisition the construction of graveyards, burials, and record keeping? Such historiography would permit holding actionable particular officers and offices that acted in violation of the law, with arrogance and indifference, and failed to follow the law in burying unidentified bodies. This would disaggregate the amorphous state and enable holding accountable particular institutions of state.

Reparation: The issue of unknown and unmarked graves involves the living as much as the dead. Reparation must both be individualized and collectivized, so that communities, neighbourhoods, and villages can heal and break their isolation. SHRC’s either/or proposal of offering a relief of Rupees 700,000 to the next of kin or undertaking DNA testing-based investigation should be amended, and both the investigation and provision of relief be made mandatory. Monetary compensation to the next of kin should not be calculated as ex gratia relief, but should be particularized according to the individual circumstances of death, and the affect the death has had on the family, and relief should be calculated based on the complex task of quantifying loss of life and providing psychosocial and economic rehabilitation to family members.

We ask that all special laws and provisions of immunity that authorize the military and paramilitary forces to act with impunity in Kashmir be revoked unconditionally. We ask that the Government of India ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to which it has been a signatory since February 2007, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which it has been a signatory since October 1997. We ask that the Government of Jammu and Kashmir institute a comprehensive ban on practises of torture as defined by international law and humanitarian ethics.

In Kashmir, between 1989-2011, the actions of the military and paramilitary have resulted in over 8,000 enforced disappearances and 70,000 deaths. We ask that human rights violations in Kashmir be recognized as resulting from, and concomitant to, the impunity of militarization and state violence, and the dangers militarism imposes on civil society. We caution that, without addressing these structural and prevalent conditions, justice and peace will remain elusive.

In calling for conflict resolution in South Asia’s nuclear zone, we recognize the precarious cross-border conditions between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and condemn the violent actions of misogynist state and non-state groups operating in the region.

We gratefully acknowledge the collectives/organizations that have endorsed the above statement:
1.        Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Philippines.
2.        Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
3.        Families Of the Disappeared (FOD), Sri Lanka.
4.        KontraS (The Commission for “the Disappeared” and Victims of Violence), Indonesia.
5.        Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained Disappeared (FEDEFAM), Venezuela.
6.        Odhikar, Bangladesh.
7.        Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), Andhra Pradesh.
8.        Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR), Punjab.
9.        Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), West Bengal.
10.        Bandi Mukti Morcha, West Bengal.
11.        Campaign for Peace & Democracy (CPDM), Manipur.
12.        Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Mumbai.
13.        Coordination for Human Rights (COHR), Manipur.
14.        Human Rights Forum (HRF), Andhra Pradesh.
15.        Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Movement, Jammu and Kashmir.
16.        Kashmir Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), Jammu and Kashmir.
17.        Lokshahi Hakk Sangathana (LHS), Maharashtra.
18.        Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS), Assam.
19.        Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights, Nagaland.
20.        Organization for the Protection of Democratic Rights (OPDR), Andhra Pradesh.
21.        Peoples Democratic Forum (PDF), Karnataka.
22.        Peoples Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), Chhattisgarh.
23.        Peoples Union for Human Rights (PUHR), Haryana.
24.        Peoples Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), Jharkhand.
25.        Peoples Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), Nagpur.
26.        Peoples Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan.
27.        Peoples Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), Tamil Nadu.
28.        Peoples Union For Democratic Rights (PUDR), Delhi.
29.        Valley Citizens’ Council, Jammu and Kashmir.

India’s Health Minister is a homophobe

*** PRESS RELEASE ***

TRIKONE condemns Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s homophobic remarks about Men who have sex with Men (MSMs)

San Francisco — Trikone, a non-profit organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of South Asian descent strongly condemns Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s remarks about homosexual acts committed by Men who have sex with Men (MSM) being unnatural. On July 4, 2011, while speaking at a HIV/AIDS conference in rural India, Mr. Azad called sexual acts of men who have sex with men (MSM) “unnatural”. In his speech, Mr. Azad also happened to mention the difficulty in “detecting” MSMs in general population. He went on to say that the act of men having sex with men should not be happening in our country. The Health Minister’s comments caused a massive uproar across the country and drew sharp criticism from international agencies such as the UNAIDS. With mounting pressure, Mr. Azad issued an insincere clarification, accusing the media of taking his words out of context, that he meant “HIV/AIDS” was unnatural and transported from the west.

People across the country and the broader diaspora have come together to condemn Azad’s insensitive remarks. From this unified and unambiguous response, we can confidently say that the nation is unwilling to tolerate ignorant comments towards homosexuality. Mr. Azad has rightly come under fire for his insensitive comments and his issued clarification has done little to throw clear light on his ability to lead as the country’s health minister. Trikone strongly condemns criminalizing either homosexual conduct or HIV transmission. Such antiquated attitudes only curtail the efforts of valiant community organizers in the country, who are working on the ground, adopting grass roots strategies to encourage and establish models of testing and safe-sex practices. The Health Minister’s insensitive remarks concerning homosexuality or HIV/AIDS clearly jeopardizes the gains made in the past decade.

Like our sister organizations in India, we at Trikone have lost our faith in Mr.Azad to lead the country as the Health Minister or provide much needed services to the queer community. His personal judgments and remarks over the last weekend have cast looming questions in his ability to think and lead with clarity and in clear resonance with the medical and scientific community – a Health Minister’s prerogative for governance.
Unless an unequivocal apology is issued by the Health Minister and corrective actions suggested, we demand his ouster.

As organizations in India and abroad continue to work passionately to combat homophobia and educate people about homosexuality, we at Trikone not only condemn Ghulam Nabi Azad’s remarks but also request the Government of India to provide sensitivity training about queer issues on an on going basis to all public servants. We will be happy to put together an advisory panel or provide references if need be.

A solidarity march is being planned in San Francisco, California. On Wednesday, 07/13/2011 at 9 am, members of the Trikone community plan to peacefully assemble at the intersection of Geary and Arguello, a few hundred feet away from the Indian Consulate and our representative will hand over a letter of grievances to the Consulate General.

Contacts:
Harsha Mallajosyula (Trikone Advocacy Director), 408-332-7468,
harsha@trikone.org

The Bengal Famine in art

I read the following piece with quite a bit of interest. I know a few things about contemporary Indian art (I spent a summer being a tour guide for “The Edge of Desire” – a fantastic exhibit of contemporary Indian art) but I hadn’t heard of Chittoprasad Bhattacharya. Doing a google search for his works doesn’t really come up with all that much, but I found a few things which give you sense of his technique. (I would have given the author of the piece credit, but he/she wasn’t named on the Mangalorean.com website):

New Delhi, July 7 (IANS) Artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya chronicled the great Bengal famine of 1943-1944 with sketches of abject human suffering that he experienced as an artist struggling to survive the hunger epidemic.

Largely unsung outside his home turf, the artist, born in 1915 at Naihati in West Bengal, translated almost all major political movements against oppression and urban poverty in Bengal in ink-on-paper drawings and lino-cuts etchings. Chittoprasad also created a large body of scrapboard illustrations for children.

Now, the first retrospective of the artist’s work in the capital July 9-Aug 11 will bring to audiences the intensity and diversity of his art that drew from the Bengali social life and everyday realities.

The exhibition will include drawings, paintings, linoleum cuts and other prints, the artist’s writings in original, his letters, published writings and drawings in communist party journals, manuscripts, posters, puppets and photographs.

This retrospective will be accompanied by the release of five books researched by art-historian Sanjoy Kumar Mallik, which will include a reproduction of the lone surviving copy of “Hungry Bengal”, a written and visual account of the famine by Chittoprasad published by the Mumbai-based People’s Publishing House.

The book, which was the culmination of an expedition by Chittoprasad, depicted the pangs of hunger across the early 20th century Bengal brought about by chronic crop failures and a series of oppressive measures by the British colonialists, who forced the diversion of grain to feed the allied forces during World War II.

All the copies of “The Hungry Bengal” were seized and burnt by the British when it was originally published by Chittoprasad in 1943, barring one.

An early contemporary pioneer from the Bengal School of Art, the artist was an active communist.

The first two books focus on his art and life while the third comprises his political sketches. The fourth is an anthology of the letters he wrote to friends and family that shed light on his career, art practice, his interest in literature and cinema, in people, politics and nature.

The fifth book in the series is a reproduction of “Hungry Bengal”.

“In my art work, I represent the tradition of moralists and political reformers. To save people means to save art itself. The activity of an artist means the active denial of death,” Chittoprasad often said about his work.

The most striking feature about Chittoprasad’s studies of human figures in pain were the eyes.

Chittoprasad, also a story-teller and poet, illustrated “Indian Fables and Fairy Tales” and “With Puppets to Calcutta” by Czech writer Norbert Fryd.

The retrospective exhibition, presented by the Delhi Art Gallery, will move to Kolkata Aug 30.

“Though Chittoprasad is best known for his body of work on the famine, like me you will probably be surprised by the extensiveness of his oeuvre, his willingness to constantly experiment, and remain oblivious to the demands of the market. This exhibition, and set of books, is my humble homage to one of India’s greatest, but unsung artists,” said Ashish Anand, director of the Delhi Art Gallery.

This is “Fish Seller in Bombay”:

This one is clearly part of the Bengal Famine series, but I couldn’t find anything other than a small image:

This one (Untitled) is fantastic (Linocut on paper):

Someone will have to explain to me why the Jamini Roy-style eyes persist as a feature of figure drawings, but they’re still pretty.

Class Struggle in India

Industry near Mumbai, India

Image via Wikipedia

Notes from my presentation at Socialism 2011

Thesis 1: India Shining is the name given to aggressive neoliberalism in India so that middle-class prosperity is supposed to mask the absolute immiseration of immense majorities of the population; the devastation of state-led social spending has made people increasingly vulnerable while given a free hand to corporations in India to do what they can.

Thesis 2: the last thirty years have been a one-side class war in India which the working class, the peasantry, and the poor have lost decisively

Thesis 3: there are five main areas of class struggle in India (broadly understood): the fight between indigenous people and the state-corporate combine over land; the fight of national minorities against the state for greater autonomy and resources; the fight of the peasantry and poor farmers against the state and the large landlords and agri-business; the fight of the urban poor for greater access to rights and jobs; and most importantly, the fight of labor against capital

Thesis 4: there have been four main ways the class struggle has been contained over the last thirty years: state coercion and force; the diverting of class anger into electoral politics; ideologically through either state-led Pakistan-phobia or populist-chauvinist communalism that is also called Hindutva; the maintenance of an immense reserve army of the unemployed.

Thesis 5: the development of a revolutionary left in India has absolutely been paralyzed by the persistence of mass Stalinist and Maoist parties

Thesis 6: in the absence of major working class fight back the center of gravity has shifted to a civil-rights campaign in defense of indigenous peoples against land grabs, largely produced by the nexus of urban middle-class intellectuals and the indigenous poor – this has an anti-capitalist but not a revolutionary socialist character.

Thesis 7: the development of an independent left in India and the development of mass working class activity is a dialectical process, the beginnings of which are more possible now given the exposure of the CPM as vulnerable in the last state elections.

Thesis 8: the only way that the Indian and Pakistani working class can win real social transformation will be the elimination of the national boundaries between them on the basis of real equality

At the outset let me say two things.  The idea behind pitching this talk was to think about how the Arab Spring might eventually turn into the Indian and Pakistani summer (and make that awful phrase mean something better).  Of course, the spread of struggle is neither spontaneous nor automatic and it rests on developments both structural and organizational that have happened in the various countries in which the mood of revolt has quickly met with the everyday experiences of people living under the brutal heel of both neoliberal capitalism and aggressive American imperialism.  But if you were to do a thumbnail sketch of the countries in which the protests have broken out, I think that you would find enough similarities between India and Pakistan and the countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe to make the question more than simply academic.

Increasing rates of absolute immiseration – depending on how you calculate it between 60 and 80% of the population of the Indian subcontinent lives in poverty (every year there is a big debate about this, but the economists change the way that they calculate poverty, sometimes ideologically to drive the numbers down); there is massive inequality (Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India built a 27-story skyscraper/mansion for himself and his family worth 1 billion dollars US – it’s spitting distance from some of India’s largest slums in Mumbai); massive growth but horribly uneven: 40% of the gains of growth go to something like 1% of the population; the last twenty or so years have been spent liquidating all state industries and social services and giving massive amounts of what can only be graft to corporate interests both foreign and domestic (in fact, much of the growth of the last twenty years has been the product of a massive giveaway of industries on the cheap to private capital); massive assaults on civil liberties; high rates of unemployment among educated young people (something like 20-30% of college graduates can’t find work); immense social polarization with spectacular spending at the very top and farmers who can’t make enough to feed their own families at the bottom; an enormous ratcheting up of absolute levels of exploitation in manufacturing in the interests of accumulation under the alibi of competition; and the lack of any real political alternative to the neoliberal agenda.  This should all make for explosive social conditions.

At the same time, there is a kind of disconnect between that picture and the picture laid out by the financial experts in the US and the political elites in India, which is a picture that has come to be called “India Shining” in which the vast majority of people are benefiting from economic growth and India is now one of the growing powers in the world.  This claim gets repeated over and over so often that it doesn’t ever really get investigated, because despite the fact that the Indian economy has grown somewhere between 12 and 15 times in the last twenty years, that growth has been predicated on some economic choices that cannot be continued indefinitely.  Much of India’s growth has been financed on credit, transferring wealth from the middle and working classes to the rich, which has contributed to inflation (9.6% over the last 12 months and even that doesn’t tell the whole story as food prices are quite high) on the one hand and real-estate speculation on the other.  Much of the growth has been in the finance and service sector rather in manufacturing, which is also some indication that there are limits to profitable investment in accumulation.  And between 2004 and 2010 the Indian economy generated no more than 2 million jobs for the 55 million people who entered the job market.  There has also been an decline in foreign direct investment into India partly because of the rotting infrastructure but also because of corruption, which has prompted the media shenanigans of people like Ana Hazare and the various political parties to come out and condemn corruption (even though they are all on the till).

Let me just say very quickly, that while there are differences between the BJP, the Congress, and the Communist Parties, at one level or another one is merely choosing between different kinds of neoliberalism not between neoliberalism and its alternatives.  Alongside these processes you also have some very intense levels of struggle that I will talk about in some detail, but just to sketch it out at the beginning: massive resistance to land dispossession through massive social movements or all out military confrontation with the state; a long tradition of labor struggle that is beginning to come up against the leadership of the unions which is connected usually either to the Congress Party or the Communists and therefore unwilling to lead most strikes to successful conclusions; long-standing grievances about national liberation in Kashmir and in the Northeast, places like Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Manipur.  Ultimately, I want to say that these are all part of a struggle between a state allied very closely to capital and ordinary people trying to exist, which sometimes takes the form of economic struggle at the shop floor, sometimes gets routed into political processes, and sometimes becomes open armed conflict.  There are also openly fascistic forces in India which attack these struggles: the far-right parties in the urban areas and the paramilitary groups like Salwa Judum in the rural areas.

To make matters worse, just like Tunisia, India is the darling of the international economic punditocracy.  It’s enviable rate of growth has meant that the economy has doubled every five years for the last twenty years.  This is the image of “India Shining” that the elite in India want to project, growing middle class, fancy technology, slick malls and high rises, Bollywood, and they therefore chafe if you talk about “Slumdog Millionaire” which will be my catchall for poverty with anything other than an air of ironic disdain for a putative Orientalism.  All of this seems like an explosive combination.  In fact, wages for some sections of the new middle-class have gone up for the last 20 years, but we’re really talking about the highly skilled workers in manufacturing or the managerial and clerical workers that make up the army of India’s new high-tech service industries.  Real wages among workers have stagnated over the last 25 years.  There’s almost universal agreement that this is because the vast army of the unemployed, which politely gets called the informal sector, exerts a downward pressure on wages, as employers always have a labor surplus from which to hire.

To be clear, I’m making predictions about any of this – as I read it, the organizational development of a far left in India is so much farther behind than it is in places like Egypt and Greece that you can’t really expect it to happen soon, but at the same time, I thought that about Egypt six months ago.  So what I want to do in the rest of this presentation is really lay out how India came to look the way that it looks and what the primary axes of struggle are in India.

1947-1991: From independence onwards, India pursues a strategy of Import Substitution Investment or ISI to try to get industrial development in India to replace external competition.  So this means a few things: first the raising of tariffs – some as high as 100% — to allow Indian industry the ability to develop, and second the direct control over certain sections of the economy to ensure development and industrialization: construction, infrastructure, communications, mining, etc.  These were done through a series of 5-year plans and the goal was to try to get Indian economic development internally with some gestures towards social redistribution.  Land reform was implemented (though incompletely) and there was investment in education and social services.  Up until the 1980s, though, India performed quite badly economically, growing at 3% a year, what some economists called in a marvelously racist way, the Hindu rate of growth.  The real problem was that India was pursuing a kind of weak state capitalism, which could take advantage of few of the benefits of trade or competition but without the development to be able to meet the needs of its population.

Under Rajiv Gandhi, the process of changing the economy commences more fully.  He ends what was called the “License Raj” because of India’s investment-averse regulatory regime which prevented the free movement of capital; privatizes many of the nationalized industries; and more or less enforces labor discipline on the working class.  But Rajiv Gandhi’s plans are financed through massive increase in public debt by borrowing for international sources which leads to a bailout by the IMF in 1991 and a more aggressive series of neoliberal reforms.  Incidentally this is exactly the period that leads up to the Mandir-Masjid-Mandal crisis of the early 1990s.

In 1991, under pressure from IMF but also indigenous interests in favor of liberalization, India pursues a full-scale liberalization of the economy.  Tariffs and duties are lowered to zero, state industries are fully privatized, international trade was encouraged, and everything was done to cultivate foreign direct investment.  One of the more brutal aspects of this period was the wholescale transfer of investment from the countryside to the urban areas when food subsidies and development schemes for India’s farmers were removed.  This not only impoverished farmers, but it also pushed them into the cities into the slums.  The other that has happened is that ideologically the state has moved over to backing capital at almost every point, so development schemes are now in the interests of big business rather than poverty reduction with the idea that the benefits of growth will trickle down at some stage.

One of the main features of this has been an accelerated push for raw material inputs for the development of manufacturing in India (iron and bauxite, etc.) and taking advantage of natural resources for infrastructural developments (rivers, dams, forests) which all happen to be right underneath the land that adivasis live on.  I’ll say more about this minute.

The resulting picture is one of untenable and protracted crisis all over India.  I want to point to the five main areas along which resistance and suffering are happening: 1) the persistent crisis in agriculture in India, 2) the still unresolved national liberation struggles (Kashmir, and the northeast), 3) the process of accumulation by dispossession that is happening in the “red corridor”; 4) the fight of the urban poor against things like slum demolitions, and 5) the exploitation of labor by capital.

However, it is clear that dualism in the economy (whatever be the terms one uses to describe it) has persisted, even hardened. The vast under-employed labour force in agriculture, despite being available to industry at subsistence wages, has not been, and is not being, absorbed in industry. This fact stands out particularly starkly against the current boom in corporate profits and investment. Of the population between 15 and 64, less than 60 per cent was ‘usually employed’ in 2004-05. More than half of India’s workforce remains self-employed, and the share of wage employment in the economy has actually declined during the last decade.  It was once anticipated that with the spread of new technology from the original areas of the Green Revolution (Punjab, Haryana, western U.P., and pockets elsewhere) the rest of India would catch up with the growth in these original Green Revolution (GR) regions, and regional disparities in agriculture would diminish. However, the liberalisation period witnessed disparate trends: in the GR centres, growth slowed;  in regions without irrigation but with heavy rainfall, crop prices collapsed and so farm incomes declined despite some production growth; and in dryland regions both production and incomes declined. Production in rainfed agriculture, which accounts for 60 per cent of cultivated area, is not only much lower than in the irrigated area, but is more or less stagnant. The bulk of growth has come from expansion of irrigated area and increased production of irrigated land; since the growth of irrigated area has come to a virtual halt under the neo-liberal policy of restricting public sector investment, agricultural disparities have widened.

Manufacturing not keeping up with population growth – means that people who are moving to the cities are caught in a permanent low-wage trap against an enormous reserve army of the unemployed.

Where manufacturing has been able to absorb rural labor, its practices are barbarically exploitative.  Textile manufacturers in Tamil Nadu for instance, recruit young girls from rural areas and place them in gender-segregated labor camps from which they are not permitted to leave in exchange for 3-year contracts and a promise of 30,000 to 60,000 rupees upon completion of the contract – this not only makes them vulnerable to extreme economic exploitation but also sexual exploitation;  those of us who have been involved in the antisweatshop movement in the US will see this as a familiar pattern.  It’s not accidental that the financial and economic planners in India have tried to help Indian textile manufacturers try to pick up the fallout from the collapse of the Chinese textile manufacturing industry.

Capital – land (usually adivasi controlled) – national liberation (can extend the analysis to large chunks of the northeast, much of the red-corridor) – doesn’t explain Kashmir

State hands over land to capital in exchange for “development”; deals are cut with multinational corporations and indigenous capital to develop manufacturing, real estate, or technology.

State uses its eminent domain powers to take land that people use for their subsistence, occasionally using colonial laws which required papers to prove ownership of land to displace and dispossess the local population

Local resistance then keeps the basic infrastructural inputs stalled as long as it can, but more often than not it fails.

Primitive accumulation or accumulation by dispossession.

Farmers – land

One significant feature was the participation of agricultural workers. Agriculture, which is still the mainstay of the Indian economy, provides nearly 60% of total employment. Aggressive liberalisation has deprived the small peasants and the rural workforce of their livelihood. The doing away of agricultural and food subsidies has resulted in the large-scale pauperisation of the rural people. Obeying the dictates of the WTO, the Indian government withdrew the restrictions on the import of agricultural commodities. As a result, the rural economy is in shambles. The dumping of cheap agricultural products has driven many farmers and peasants to distress suicides in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and even in Punjab.

Immiserated peasants then try as hard as they can to get to the cities.  Some of the better-off farmers can afford to send a son or two to college, where the majority of them become skilled blue-collar workers and the lucky ones get white-collar jobs.  Otherwise they migrate as entire family to the city where they join the ranks of the slumdwellers.  In Bombay for instance, almost half of the population is composed of migrants who are all a part of the informal economy.  60% of Bombay lives illegally because housing prices are so high (the real estate bubble has not yet burst in India).

Capital – labor

The contradiction of growth in India is such that the consumption patterns of the top 20% of the population make up for the declining or stagnant consumption of the bottom 80% — so it looks like the country is doing better off as a whole.

One of the key problems continues to be the domination of unions by the various political parties (and the proliferation of large trade union federations).  So in India there is the All-India Federation of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML-Janashakti), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML), All India United Trade Union Center run by the Socialist Unity Center, the All India Trade Union Congress (run by the CP) – roughly 2 million members, the Hindustan Mazdoor Sabha run by the BJP, Center of Indian Trade Unions (CPIM), United Trade Union Congress (Run by the Revolutionary Socialist Party), the Indian National Trade Union Congress (run by the Congress Party).  Now since many of these parties are no longer revolutionary parties in the long run, they tend to play a dampening rather than developing role on class struggle.  Which is not to say that workers don’t fight back, they do, but that their fights are limited from the top.  In 2006, there was an attempt to form a federation of Independent Trade Unions called the New Trade Union Initiative, but that is still too new to tell the story of.

But there have still been major bits of resistance: in 2005, more than 29.6 million days of labor were lost to striking activity in 456 industrial disputes – some of these are industry-wide and so they get aggregated; in 2006, 20.3 million days in 430 disputes, in 2007 27.1 million days in 389 disputes, fast-forward to last year, though, and the number drops off quickly to 1.7 million days in 99 disputes.

All of this is really to point out that the coming years will see the intensification of struggle in India, but it will require two things.  First, the development of an independent left and second a more serious fight from labor against capital.  Those two processes are inter-related, of course, and whatever we can do to support them from abroad will be instrumental in bringing Tahrir Square to India.

Thoughts on nationalism and culture (in response to KN Panikkar)

The most recent issue of Frontline has a very interesting reprint of a lecture by K.N. Panikkar, a scholar whose work I very much admire.  (Incidentally, his father was also quite an important historian).  The lecture (“Role of Culture and Language in the Making of a Nation”) was given at the University of Mumbai , and I suppose that accounts for the general tone of the piece which is directed at making a criticism of religious nationalism (i.e. Hindutva-style chauvinism).   There is also a critique of “modernist” nationalism in the piece, by which I’m assuming Pannikar means Congress-style nationalism, in which the demands of ethnic minorities and the low caste were not taken seriously.

Because I work on theories of nationalism and on much of the same material that Panikkar covers I found the essay interesting, but there are some problems with it as there are with most left-wing defenses of nationalism.  Here’s the problem as I see it: no matter how you slice it, nationalism has both progressive and reactionary content that cannot be willed away; the progressive content opens the door to the more chauvinist content in periods of economic hardship or political demobilization.  The nation-state similarly has both a progressive and reactionary use: it is a useful demand in the fight against colonialism and empire, but also an effective tool for the consolidation of national capital and the disciplining of a labor force.  Culture is the primary way that the progressive credentials of the nation-state are shored up so that the reactionary project can continue (sometimes openly, sometimes quietly).

So when Panikkar defends a particular variety of cultural nationalism (secular, composite, progressive) you want to be on board.  In fact, it’s hard not to subscribe to many of the claims that he makes in the face of the ideological rot that is allowed to pass for culture in much of India.  Here are the concluding parts of the lecture:

In the making of the nation, culture affords multiple possibilities. A popular and revivalist tendency is to romanticise the past and attribute to it a religious character, which in turn opens the doors to a supremacist ideology. An alternative view would recognise the culturally plural character of society as evolved through complex historical experience. More ideally, it could lead to a multicultural society by accepting the equality of all constituent cultures of the nation. All these possibilities are inherent in the relationship between culture and nation. As Ernest Gellner observed, “Nations as a natural, god-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is reality, for better or worse, and in general, an inescapable one.”  India is not yet a nation; it is a nation in the making, as Surendranath Banerjea, an early nationalist leader, observed almost 200 years ago. Even when all objective conditions are met, a nation like India can achieve nationhood, even if inadequately, only when cultural equality is established.

This view is elegant, and it has all of the hallmarks of much of Indian secularism over the last 60 years, but it also has some of its main contradictions.  For instance, the more you want to talk about the composite culture of India, the more you find yourself doing weird things like defending feudalism and certain “good” kings or valorizing certain literary texts, even when they were composed by people deeply embedded in class and religious chauvinism.  Yes, I love Tagore, but you can’t take the landlord out of the poetry no matter how hard you try.  So the process of equality that Panikkar is describing is based on the occlusion of class differentiation that persists in and through cultural “tradition” and not merely picking one, more egalitarian version of nationalism over another.

But it’s the place where he ends that gives me the most trouble, because the implicit assumption is that the nation-state is here to stay (if you read the rest of the essay, you get the sense that Panikkar prefers the nation-state as a bulwark against the ravages of global capitalism, a title it has yet to earn in any serious way).  I think that nation-states are engines of capitalist accumulation, and even in the fight against imperialism, they become the demand of a developing bourgeoisie that needs a different state form in order to accumulate successfully.  But in order to do that, the bourgeoisie needs the “nation” to get behind its demands and so it is willing to enter into a compromise with the more radical section of the middle-class (these are the cultural figures that Panikkar references) to develop a story about the nation that is compelling.  And the middle-class of course does this happily.  They chafe at the racism of empire as well as the restrictions of religion, the problems of sexism, and the oppressions of all marginalized sections of society and they try to unite all of them together into as large a unit as possible.  I’ll characterize it like this: the most capacious and effective bond of solidarity that any middle-class can imagine is cultural.  That is both its strength and its weakness.

About the problems of this kind of capacious solidarity, Panikkar provides a helpful description:

The attempts to relate culture and nationalism during the colonial period betrayed two general tendencies. The first was homogenisation and the second was exclusion. As a part of the first, a national culture was invented which invariably comprised the practices of the upper castes. The revival of Hindu classical tradition, be it in music or dance, privileged an Indian culture which was earlier the preserve of the upper castes. What is national, therefore, came to be equated with the Brahminical. In the process, the cultural practices of the lower castes were excluded from the national. Nationalism by definition is inclusive, but Indian nationalism did not develop an inclusive character based on equality. Secondly, the cultural perspective was very elitist, as a result of which culture was defined in terms of either mental refinement or the creative. Everyday practices and the creative elements within them were not reckoned as culture. As a result, the symbolic representation of the nation was confined to the achievements of the privileged, and the life of ordinary people did not figure in the nationalist pantheon. While Koodiyattam, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Carnatic music and several other upper-caste forms were accorded national status, the dances of tribal people and Dalit music did not receive the same consideration.

The idea that nationalism could “develop an inclusive character based on equality” is a non-starter, though.  Nationalism attempts to build a provisional unity precisely by masking diverging aspirations in anticolonial struggles.  This is both what makes it elegant and dangerous – it is simultaneously a necessary tool in fighting against empire and an intellectual dead-end for solving problems of inequality and oppression in the nation-state.  In other places, I’ve preferred to talk about this problem as a specific problem of class and the confidence that certain sections of the middle class have in thinking about the ability of class struggle to alter radically social and political structures in the present.

If you look at what is developing in Egypt, for instance, you can also see what was developing in India in the late colonial period.  As the struggle for political change heats up, the debates between various visions of the future open up.  Nationalists try as hard as they can to paper over these differences, but it’s hard to pretend that they don’t exist or that they all share something in common that can be called “nationalism.”  Gramsci’s essays on Italian reunification are perhaps the most useful for me in thinking about this problem, where the middle-class radicals essentially fail to see in the nation-state the conditions for the reversing of all their radical aspirations, and the goal for Gramsci and others, was the creation of an organized collective that understood both the need for the nation-state and the impending betrayal by the bourgeoisie so that it could fight against both.

In the end, Panikkar’s essay is a product of the pessimism that seeped into middle-class radicals in the 1980s and 1990s in India when nationalism meant aggressive neoliberalism and cultural/religious chauvinism, neither of which could be effectively resisted.  And so intellectuals retreated into the domain of culture to find resistance there.  The idea that there could be more durable bonds of solidarity that were imagined not in isolated cultural artifacts but in the kinds of collaborative actions on the shop-floor, in urban slums, in the forests, etc. in which new kinds of culture were being forged, too, seems never to enter Panikkar’s thinking, since for him nationalism is still necessary as a way for him to relate to the broader masses in India and imagine that they all have the same interests.

The problem is that they do and they don’t – or rather, that they won’t until they manufacture it for themselves, piecing things together from the past and understanding them anew.  It might involve Odissi dance and Kumarasambhava or it might not – but it will involve a common resistance to the state and national capital, both of which are also good at using the cultural past to preserve their vision of the present.  Without a dialectical understanding of the relationship between culture and the nation, anti-imperialists become liberals, hoping that ideas can change the nation.

I imagine, too, that part of Panikkar’s complaint is also rooted in the ways that contemporary India increasingly appears to be discarding its interest in culture.  Take this piece in DNA India describing the difference between Indian and UK education:

Knowledge just for the sake of knowledge? Na, not anymore. Ask David Levinson, senior careers adviser in the Newcastle University, he would say: As everywhere else, education is witnessing a sea change in the UK as well. “Gone are the days of narrow mindedness and traditional thinking, now, educational institutions are changing to teach students how to apply the knowledge acquired and are preparing them for careers.” Levinson explains: “Earlier, it used to be like, people study English literature and become clerks, politicians or whatever they want to. That trend is waning.”

It’s true – one used to study English to get a job in the IAS or ICS in India but then you felt absolutely destroyed by the banality of the position you got (read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August to get a sense of that).  And part of Panikkar’s plea seems to be connected to the fact that most people in India no longer take either history or literature seriously any more.  I don’t think they ever did (education and literacy have never been really directed at the kinds of liberal humanism that Panikkar imagines) so bemoaning it doesn’t really help.

And I came across this piece, too, about farmer suicides in India:

In Maharashtra’s Gondia district, 25,000 tonnes of rice procured by cooperative societies are lying in the open. “It’s difficult to carry on,” a distraught Harne, a postgraduate in Marathi literature, scribbled in his signed parting note. “I have unpaid loans.” Harne was meticulous in keeping records. His ledger showed he had suffered losses of about Rs 10,000 for each of the six acres he cultivated —- Rs 60,000 in all. Together with his outstanding loans of around Rs 2.5 lakh, the going had looked tough.

Postgraduates in literature are massively indebted.  The conditions in India look not dissimilar from the ones that produced the conflicts in Egypt and Tunisia.  They will produce explosive political movements – the aim of which needs to be the abolition of the state form and free flourishing of culture, nationalist or otherwise.