Read full review at The Oxonian Review
Inspired by anarchist ideas, the Kurdish struggle in the Middle East led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliated groups is a particularly successful and spectacular movement. Though initially conceived as a Kurdish nationalist-cum-Marxist-Leninist movement, it evolved into a movement that seeks to transcend barriers of nations and states, and seeks instead to establish autonomous sovereign communes of peoples based on equitable distribution of resources, mutual recognition, and tolerance. The PKK-led Kurdish struggle, under the theoretical guidance of its founder-leader Abdullah Ocalan, is based on direct democracy and grassroots participation. It is of note here that Ocalan was greatly influenced by the ideas of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin. The latter’s idea of “libertarian municipalism”, the creation of local level democratic bodies as opposed to a centralised state apparatus, contributed to the development of Ocalan’s idea of “democratic confederalism” which forms the theoretical basis for the praxis of the PKK. Even though a critical situation like the one with which the Kurds are now faced—confronting ISIS—requires strict military discipline, the vanguard of the Kurdish struggle has not established a vertical decision-making process, choosing instead a more horizontal approach to cultivating cadres and leaders.
The effects of such an approach can be seen in the enthusiastic participation of Kurdish women in the struggle. Unlike most nationalist movements that symbolically use the bodies of women in the peak of a military campaign but send them “back to the kitchen” once the goals are achieved, the Kurdish struggle in Kobane involves women as an integral, organic part. Kurdish women in Kobane are the agents of their own liberation, and are as politically equipped at resisting chauvinism within their own communities as they are fierce in resisting the brutalities of ISIS. Few movements in the world have been able to rival the PKK when it comes to gender parity. And, while Chomsky himself has written little on the Kurdish struggle, it might actually be the best contemporary example to validate his own position on the moral superiority of anarchism.
Originally published on Sangam
Is Pirapaharan dead?
Ten years back, TamilNet senior editor and military analyst Taraki Sivaram wrote a brilliant piece on the political legacy of Pirapaharan at fifty. Come 26 November this year, the founder-leader of the LTTE and one of the most brilliant military minds of South Asia will turn sixty. Quite a lot has been said, by both admirers and adversaries, about the life of the man. But what is his meaning?
It is impossible to understand Pirapaharan unless one understands the interrelated essences of Sangam poetry – love and war – and its influence on the Tamil military tradition. The ethics of Tamil akam poetry, that of unconditional love towards the object of concern influences the ethics of the puram poetry, which calls for unconditional fidelity to the king and the kingdom. However, even this unconditionality carries within it a condition that reinforces the unconditionality. For instance, the woman of virtue (Tamil progressives will, and with ample justification, criticize this, but let us leave discussions about gender problems in epic poetry for another day) is the object of love because she is a woman of virtue, the love has a platonic character because of the virtuous nature of the object. Likewise, the soldier’s fidelity to the king is because the king is loyal to the kingdom, and the king’s loyalty to the kingdom commands the soldier’s fidelity. The object of love and the object of fidelity function as cornerstones in a discursive network, without which the network would collapse. In other words, they provide meaning to the meaning of things.
In a sense that is Pirapaharan. At sixty, in what some call the ‘post-conflict era’, the symbolism of Pirapaharan speaks that Tamil nationalism is alive and kicking. The 5 lakh students who got out on the street in Tamil Nadu in early 2013, and thousands of protestors in the diaspora who challenged the injustice of the international community carried his image. These activists believe that this image signifies Tamil nationalist resistance to oppression. But isn’t this ‘idol worship’ problematic?
Commenting on the veneration of revolutionary leaders, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle writes “‘Hero-worship’ becomes a fact inexpressibly precious; the most solacing fact one sees in the world at present. There is an everlasting hope in it for the management of the world. Had all traditions, arrangements, creeds, societies that men ever instituted, sunk away, this would remain. The certainty of Heroes being sent us; our faculty, our necessity, to reverence Heroes when sent: it shines like a polestar through smoke-clouds, dust-clouds, and all manner of downrushing and conflagration.” An oxymoronic, mostly moronic, ‘liberal left’ discredits the idea of leadership. No less a person than Lenin believed that a revolution required revolutionary leaders who stuck to their principles, and were willing to make decisions that the ordinary could not make. This belief is reinstated by contemporary philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, who also argue that a true revolutionary leader represents a Universal over and beyond narrow particulars.
While Lilliputian minds would fix a region, religion or caste label to Pirapaharan, the real ideological significance of Pirapaharan is that he transcends these narrow particularities and serves as a Universal referent for Tamil nationalists. Not only is Pirapaharan now a symbol of Eelam Tamil nationalism, he has also transfigured as a symbol of Tamil civilizational consciousness. What else explains the tens of thousands of youth in Tamil Nadu considering an Eelam Tamil leader as their own Tamil hero who provided a promise of Tamil renaissance?
But every great uniter is also a divider. As Pirapaharan becomes the symbolic standard that unites patriots, he is also the standard that separates traitors. The Pirapaharan school of thought, which is the radical extension of the thoughts of V. Navaratnam and SJV Chelvanayagam, as much as it is a standard for evaluating patriotism, also becomes the scale by which treason is judged. To be a true Christian, it is imperative to believe in the struggle between Good and Evil, not just external Evil, but also the Evil that is internal. Likewise, to be a Tamil nationalist in the footsteps of Pirapaharan means not just an opposition to the Sinhala state and its allies, but also traitors who undermine the struggle from within. And for that, we need to keep reminding ourselves what Pirapaharan means, what is the idea of Pirapaharan.
Coming back to the original question – Is Pirapaharan dead? This might confuse some people, but I would say that Pirapaharan the individual died when he founded the LTTE. Ever since, what has existed is an idea. An idea that means sovereign Tamil Eelam; the creation of a society that is based on universal principles of justice and equality; a society without regionalism, communalism, sexism or casteism; a society where the love of heroic passions replaces the lust for trivial sentiments; a society without particularist chauvinism or cheap liberal cosmopolitanism; the creation of a people who resonate the glories of the Tamil past purging it of all darkness and enriching it with the emancipatory narrative of a universal future; the idea that the impossible can be made possible by the Will to Freedom.
And ideas, like heroes, are immortal.
Finally, when people ask questions like “Will Pirapaharan come back,” I remember a conversation I had with a Jesuit in Chennai. I asked him “Do you really believe in the Second Coming of Christ?” He replied nonchalantly, “I do not know if he will come or not. But if he does, I want to be sure that I have remained a true Christian, that I have done all in my power to serve the humanity he so loved so that he will be pleased on arrival.” This is precisely the spirit that Tamil nationalists must adopt now.
Article originally published on The Conversation
As the battle against Islamic State fighters draws in viewers across the world, there has been some attention given to the men and women resisting them in northern Syria. The Syrian part of Kurdistan, or Rojava, as the Kurds would like to call it, has been fighting Islamists for well over two years now but only recently has the battle for the border town of Kobane brought them to light.
And while it’s easy to portray the Kurdish people as pitted against this new terrorist threat, they are actually involved in something far more profound. Kobane is symbolic and the conflict there carries a universal significance. Not only are the Kurds battling the Islamists, but they are also attempting to create a model of democracy that might actually bring stability to a war-torn region.
The Kurdish political vision is not founded on any particular racial, ethnic, regional or religious belief but rather on an idea, or a set of ideas, that should resonate with people everywhere.
Fighters in Kobane claim to be standing up for the freedom of everyone in the region, be they Kurds, Turks, Arabs or anyone else. The way the fighters in Kobane have challenged stereotypical gender roles is just one example.
As far as religious difference goes, Kobane disproves both Islamophobes who believe the Middle East to be incapable of progress and politically correct Islamophiles who push the patronising idea that religious identity is a top priority for Muslims the world over. In their readiness to defend the Yazidi minority against persecution from IS, the Kurds have essentially been promoting a radical secularism and a vision of tolerance in a region torn by religious strife.
What is novel about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination is its very definition of self-determination. The concept, when applied to nations, is generally taken to mean the right of nations to secede and form states of their own, but the Kurds see it differently. Many believe an experiment in democratic confederalism is what the region really needs.
This is an idea espoused by PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who is a central intellectual and moral figure for Kurds. The PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has been fighting Turkey for greater autonomy since 1978 and has also trained Kurdish fighters in Kobane. Ocalan’s writing, compiled from within the confines of a Turkish prison where he has languished for about 15 years, has provided a solid ideological plank for the Kurdish struggle. He believes nation states are inherently oppressive. While oppressed groups might have a legitimate desire to form states of their own, even such newly formed states only serve to replace one form of domination with another. For him, the nation state is linked to xenophobic nationalism, sexism and religious fundamentalism.
Democratic confederalism is a system of governance that would be based on greater collective consensus and voluntary participation. Ecology and feminism are seen as central pillars for local self-governance. It calls for an economic system that should be based neither on exploiting human labour nor the unsound use of natural resources.
Kobane has essentially implemented this theory in practice. The ideas might seem utopian and realists may, quite legitimately, question the sustainability of autonomous communes that do not have the political or military backing of a centralised state. But as Oscar Wilde said, progress is the realisation of Utopia. Maybe Kobane’s progress is just that.
The struggle for Kobane is an event of global significance on a par with the Declaration of Independence, the Storming of the Bastille, the Paris Commune, or the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. Success for the Kurds would challenge established intellectual, ethical and political horizons.
At a time when right-wing parties are growing in Europe and elsewhere, and minority fundamentalism is growing in parallel, the Kurds are offering something different and it should not be ignored. In that sense, they are fighting for everyone.
The first party at your house in New Delhi. You asked me “Karthick, why is your glass empty?”
The glass is full today Sir. But where are you?
I know that you didn’t like me calling you ‘Sir’. You said that it was a legacy of colonialism. You wanted me to call you just Pandian. As a friend. As a comrade. But sorry Sir, I am just too much a product of a colonial mentality. You will always be ‘Sir’ to me.
As you will be ‘Sir’ to my good friend Kalai. I knew you as a mentor and a great teacher. He knew you as a father figure. But today, both of us are alone. Sir, Kalai called me from Cambodia where he had gone for a conference a few days back. He is doing very well. He told me how much I still had to learn from Pandian Sir. He told me to re-read your writings on Periyar and the Dravidian movement. You had so much confidence and faith in him. He was your prodigal son. He was with you in your last hours. How could you leave him? How could you leave us? Where are you?
You have inspired countless students. You have left your indelible mark in the academia. You are, without doubt, the foremost among Tamil intellectuals. You have stuck to your principles. You defended Periyar and that great old man’s principles in a context when a horde was out to unjustly defame him. You were tooth and nail opposed to all forms of casteism and exposed how it operates both at the level of the political and the personal. You have always stood by the cause of the oppressed. At a time when several Tamil intellectuals behaved in a most unprincipled manner, you said in the middle of a class in JNU that you supported the LTTE’s cause. You supported Kashmir even before it became popular in Tamil Nadu. You, the eternal iconoclast, took on several icons and brought them down. Can I talk of certain really subversive acts that you did during your tenure in JNU? Or maybe that is strictly between us? You have been a great family man to your wife and your daughter. You have been a great human being. What have we lost? What has the world of the South Asian oppressed lost? A Sartre? A Fanon? A Gramsci? I know that you would say that I am being too emotional here. Go ahead and say it Sir, with that affectionate laughter that accompanies whenever you chide me. But where are you?
You taught me to re-evaluate my political understanding. You taught me to challenge everything I thought I knew. You introduced Zizek, Schmitt, Sontag and Agamben to me. You re-introduced Periyar to me. You helped shape my PhD proposal. You gave me academic references. You gave me invaluable feedback on my chapters even though you were pressed for time. But there was so much still left for you to teach me. But where are you?
You dropped several words of wisdom to me in your lighter moments. “Karthick, cook for the one you love.” “Karthick, don’t take yourself too seriously.” “Karthick, at times, letting go can be as important as holding on.” “Karthick, there is fine difference between a pamphleteer and an academic.” “Karthick, understand the line between being and acting.” Have I grasped them all? I need you to tell me. But where are you?
I know that I could not push my intellectual horizons as much as you wished me to. I know that you were disappointed that I could never transcend the nationalist paradigm. You thought it was your failure. No Sir, it was mine. Maybe this is what I am meant to be, what I need to be. This might be our eternal disagreement. More than anything else, I would love to debate with you just to hear you prove me wrong. But where are you?
In our last conversation a few days back on gchat I told you “you were the best teacher I had. but I am still structurally unable to transcend the ‘alternative nationalism’ paradigm.”
You replied, “Get rid of the thesis. We will have a long long conversation. That is a promise. Bye, brother. :)”
I will be done with my thesis soon. I will come to Chennai soon. The glasses will be full again soon. There will be a long, long conversation soon. But where is your promise? Where are you?
Maybe you are still here. Maybe you always will be.
Friend. Comrade. Guide.
After deep consideration, discussion and deliberation for about 20 minutes, we decided that Tamil ‘progressive intellectuals’ have too many privileges in our society. So, since we are pretty jobless at the moment, and since we also want to try fighting privileges by naming and shaming instead of participating in deep theoretical and political struggles, we have come out with the following list of privileges that Tamil ‘progressive intellectuals’ have. We use ‘progressive intellectual’ as a generic pejorative term to designate those writers, journalists, academics, artists, (non)thinkers, poets, sculptors, wine-shop owners, dappankuthu dancers, etc. who consider themselves as ‘progressive intellectuals’ and feel that it is their task to criticize real or imagined injustices even if they are absolutely clueless on how to change them, who also take it as their divine right to pass judgments on people’s movements.
We place ‘progressive intellectuals’ within single quotes because that sounds a lot cooler.
These points were jointly written by myself, Catwoman*, and Bane*. Mostly myself [expects standing ovation]. Many thanks to Magneto* and Mystique* for their feedback. [*Names changed to protect identities.]
Please, please, please like and share this post. The authors will also send private mails/fb messages/tweets to their contacts appealing to circulate this post as much as possible.
- You call yourself a ‘progressive intellectual’. That is the first joke. A bad one at that.
- You think your lived experience validates your political position. FYI, it doesn’t.
- You do not want to take responsibility for your choices.
- You want to criticize everyone who has contributed in practical terms to the Tamil cause, be it Periyar or Pirapaharan. Fine. But if your criticism is criticized, you react like a monkey whose ass is on fire.
- You demand the freedom to criticism as an inviolable right, but you can stay aloof from a people’s movement while judging it in your terms.
- You can have no knowledge of Tamil history, politics, culture, art or philosophy but can still claim validity to your arguments just because of lived experience.
- You say that there is no essential Tamil culture and yet use an essentialized notion of a Tamil culture to condemn it.
- You can only identify differences in Tamil society – and there are many indeed – but you would deliberately thwart all attempts to create a unity.
- The reason you would give for doing the above is that you claim to oppose the domination of a particular region, caste, or gender. Nothing new. That was Karuna’s rationale for splitting.
- You want to solve the problem of class, caste, gender and region disparities by just talking (mostly whining) about the same. The idea of these being resolved in a struggle led by a genuinely progressive party does not strike you.
- This brings us to the next point – you want to replace political struggle with political correctness. Since we do not want to be like you, we want to say that we think that you are a bunch of whiny wimps.
- You want to celebrate the difference of identities while refusing to acknowledge that a brutal free market capitalism precisely thrives on the proliferation of different identities.
- Your excuse for political and theoretical bankruptcy is usually a sad life story designed to provoke cheap sympathy.
- You (half)read Marxists, anti-racists, feminists and other culture critics from a western context and try to apply their methodologies to a totally different Tamil context. Again, you will explain your lack of originality with a sad story.
- You take Marxism totally out of context and judge social revolutionaries like Periyar for being ‘reformist’ or a liberation struggle like LTTE for being ‘fascist’.
- Your idea of feminism or gender justice is derived solely from advanced liberal democracies. The gender justice of movements like the LTTE, PKK, FARC are anathema to you.
- To quote the bard, your wit makes wise things foolish.
- You think a dozen likes by dullards on facebook has won you allies and you write in a manner to appeal to their unrefined emotions. You are the Tamil academic version of TR Silambarasan. [And the authors apologize to simbu for this analogy]
- You can call Tamil Nadu activists as ‘mobs’ and ‘fascists’ when they democratically criticize an anti-Eelam movie, but remain conveniently silent when the Indian state bans and censors pro-Eelam movies.
- You can ally with a thoroughly brahminical CPI(M) to degrade Tamil nationalists and Periyarists.
- You can use brahminical establishments and the space that they provide to condemn Tamil society as casteist.
- You can claim to be above the Tamil identity while at the same time forcing Tamils to subscribe to micro-identities. If you can transcend your Tamil identity, why cannot Tamils transcend their caste identity?
- You can drop terms like intersectionality in abstract without any principled consideration or sober assessment of the concrete.
- You can claim to oppose White-imperialist-capitalist-patriarchy (only because that’s the easiest way to get attention) but you welcome the pro-LLRC US resolution.
- Tell the truth. You are afraid of freedom.
[points 26-999 are just repetitions of above points, reworded in more cool sounding academese.]
1000. Ok. We need to go out now. It’s SATURDAY. WE HAVE A LIFE. To quote the bard again, you are not worth another word.
1001. But maybe we can spare three words as a goodbye. Piss off losers.
Some wars are more brutal
Some pains more poignant
Some tears more salty
Some screams more loud
Some children more innocent
Some genocides more terrible
Some oppressors more horrible
Some pictures more aesthetic
More worthy, always more worthy
Sometimes 1000 is a world tragedy
Sometimes 150000 is just a local statistic
We are weakened
but not weak
We are scarred
but not crippled
We are without power
but not without strength
And we have counted
we can repay with interest
How do you unlisten a song?
How do you kill an unwanted memory?
How do you help a blind butterfly?
How do you paint loss?
How do you read poetry to a tomato?
How do you convince a sheep that it is black?
How do you bridge mind and soul?
How do you psychoanalyze a mighty tree?
How do you reconcile deer with tigers?
How do you respect the feelings of boiled potatoes?
How do you continue dying while living?
He was actually a Brahmin, but
Popularly known in party circles as Comrade Iyer, Balasubramaniam Iyer, or “Balls” as he was affectionately called by close friends and family, was the second son of Vishwanathan Iyer (critically acclaimed director known for his path breaking movies) and Mythili Iyer (classical dancer). When little Balls was eight, the year was 1992, the Iyer family moved into a posh bungalow in Alwarpet, Chennai, the year when Hindu nationalists demolished an old unused mosque called Babri Masjid in the state of Uttar Pradesh triggering riots across the country, an event on which Mr. Iyer senior would make what is now called in Chennai circles ‘an intellectual film’ three years later which would win a few national awards following which your average Chennai film lover would refer to Vishwanathan Iyer as “Iyer Sir” alone because of Iyer Sir’s ability to churn out movies that were placed on par, according to influential journalists like M. Vishnu of the Mount Road Daily, with those of a Scorcese, a Kurosawa, a Satyajit Ray. Vishnu’s review of Iyer Sir’s Roses (1998), a movie about the life of a Madras Regiment soldier posted in Kashmir, proudly concluded that the movie “put the Tamil in the Indian and the Indian in the Tamil.”
Mythili, originally Mythili Seshadri before she became Mrs. Iyer, was a product of Kalakshetra, South India’s world renowned school of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance that has been associated with the urban culture of the socially refined. Prior to the 20th century, it was called dasi aatam, the dance of prostitutes, but that is a different story. Before she met Iyer Sir, Mythili performed at national and international concerts, hosted TV shows, won several awards and acted in a couple of films. It is important to let the readers know here that unlike her father Mr. Seshadri, a conservative Brahmin who frowned upon inter-caste marriages, who suffered a fatal heart-attack in November 2004 when he heard the news that police had arrested the Sankaracharya of Kanchipuram in a murder case, Mythili was of a liberal orientation who did not attach a value to caste and it was just a matter of coincidence that Iyer Sir whom she fell in love with was of the same caste. After she married Iyer Sir she was content to be a happy socialite actively involved in charity. Disabled children, orphans, old age homes, you name it. So, it was into such a family of cosmopolitan high culture and liberal thoughts that Balls, our Comrade Iyer, the future central committee member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), was born.
One thing which struck Balls when he was five was that both his paternal and maternal grandparents, not to mention many of his male relatives, wore a white thread diagonally across their torso. But his father did not have one. “It’s the sacred thread. It means that we are Brahmins, the learned caste,” Iyer Sir told him. “But I don’t believe in this ritual, this caste symbol. So I don’t wear it.” Little Balls asked in all innocence “Can I get to have one?” Iyer Sir laughed. “You don’t need it. It does not matter. It is an old custom.”
By the time he was 15, when he was a student at Krishnamurthi Foundation and was dating Aparna Ramani, Balls was well versed with the classics of world literature. He was familiar with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (which he would later, when he was 32, defend as the first dialectical materialist text of the Indian philosophical tradition), works of Homer, the comedies of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, Twain, Sterne, Keats, Byron and Shelley. For his 18th birthday, M. Vishnu, who was by now a good family friend of the Iyers, gifted Balls the Communist Manifesto and Motorcycle Diaries. Balls did not sleep that night, and on the next day, was twice-born as a communist. As Comrade Iyer.
Thereafter, he could see oppression everywhere in Chennai. A gigantic Malar hospital in Adyar, one of the most expensive healthcare facilities in the city, overlooked a settlement of the poor on the banks of the dirty backwaters of the Cooum river where malaria and dysentery was rampant. The Marina beach, probably Chennai’s most well known public place, was home to several large slums that figured in the news only when the Tsunami hit them. While working class neighbourhoods were congested and suffered from lousy sanitation facilities, posh localities were emerging, dispossessing the poor of their lands, to provide better services for a creamy layer. In contrast, look at Calcutta, Havana, Beijing, Hanoi…
Comrade Iyer could also not be blind to caste violence in the state of Tamil Nadu. His heart bled for the Dalits, who, he felt, were cheated and oppressed by the successive Dravidian regimes. The DMK, which came into power on the wave of student agitations of the 1960s, Annadurai, Karunanidhi, MGR, the AIADMK, Jayalalitha all contributed to the strengthening of the non-Brahmin castes at the expense of the Dalits. Whereas, in the West Bengal of Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, there was no caste at all! To what sublime heights did the philosophy of Marxism take the people of Bengal and in what squalid wretchedness did Tamil Nadu still suffer! “The problem you see,” Vishnu uncle explained one day at his office “is that the Dravidian movement was ideologically flawed from the start. Periyar, for instance, had no knowledge of political economy. Therefore, the Dravidian movement failed.” A very intelligent friend of the author, however, has a different and more elaborate explanation. To state it shortly, Periyar had no knowledge of phenomenological ontology, therefore the Dravidian movement failed.
In 2008, Comrade Iyer cleared the entrance test for the prestigious Modern History M.A. course at Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU as it is commonly known in Indian academia, the strongest red bastion of India and the nurturing ground for revolutionary conquistadors, and was lodged in Kaveri hostel, which was a five minute walk from Ganga Dhaba, the informal hub of thinker-activists who would breathe Gramsci, speak Althusser and drink to Guevara, and there would be all types of leftists there, those who believe in parliamentary democracy, those who call the parliament a pigsty, those who take a middle-path because Comrade Lenin said so in ‘Left-wing communism: An Infantile Disorder’, those who say that India is semi-feudal semi-colonial and begs for a protracted people’s war, those who angrily reject this thesis and point out that Indian nationalism was and is a bulwark against imperialist expansionism, those who reject both because the day was not far off when the workers of the world will come together to wage the glorious permanent revolution…
Comrade Iyer, much like his roommate Debabrata Ghosh, was convinced that the CPI-M alone represented the best interests of the country and the controversies around alleged police brutalities in Singur and Nandigram were just conspiracies floated by ultra-left and ultra-right groups to discredit the noble work that the CPI-M had done for the people for Bengal, and his passionate commitment to gender justice apart, sheer logic compelled him to reason, in Lacanian fashion, that the rape of Tapasi Malik by CPI-M cadres could not have happened, because had it happened, the perpetrators could not have been CPI-M cadres, and thus, with all sincerity, even as he slogged his behind off for the rigorous papers in his course, he joined the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), his cherished party’s students’ wing.
These were the happiest days for Comrade Iyer, in the company of those Indians who shared his beliefs, in the 1500 acre big JNU campus, probably the only place in New Delhi where a woman wearing shorts and a t-shirt could walk alone without fear at 2am, the discussions on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution over endless cups of tea, enjoying the weekly dinner at Mughal Durbar, where Comrade Iyer would be the only person going vegan, of course, not owing to some caste prejudice as he did enjoy his occasional peg of Absolut Vodka, but rather as a matter of taste.
Being a true internationalist, Comrade Iyer organized meetings, protests and rallies both in and out of campus for the cause of the world oppressed. The sanctions on Cuba. The Iraq war. And when the Gaza War happened, where about 1200 Palestinians were killed, which occurred roughly in the same period when about 100000 plus Tamils were killed by the Sri Lankan military, Comrade Iyer organized a series of demonstrations in front of the Israeli and American embassies notwithstanding the cold, rain, storms and hail for the cause of Palestine because, as I said before, he was a true internationalist above parochial Tamil sentiments and besides, Comrade Iyer intuitively knew that Hamas was progressive and revolutionary but LTTE was patriarchal and fascist, which is actually interesting because his elder brother, Natarajan Iyer, a foreign policy analyst with the LDTV, condemned the LTTE because it was uberleftist. Anyway, it is not productive here to talk any more about the elder sibling because he had never had any influence whatsoever on Comrade Iyer. Yes, while the elder Iyer was into Gayatri Mantra, the younger Iyer was into Grundrisse.
However, not everything was smooth for Comrade Iyer and if he could identify the proverbial fly in the ointment it would be K. Raja, thin, dark, with horn-rimmed glasses, MPhil student at the Department of Sociology, an intransigent pro-LTTE activist, a Periyarite, who became notorious in the campus for burning an image of the Hindu god Rama in October 2008, who wore one shirt for 6 days and a pant for a month, single, from Tirunelveli, president of the JNU Tamil Students’ Union, a three member organization that acted as though it was the representative of all the Tamils in New Delhi. “If Dravidian movement failed because of Kilvenmani, then parliamentary Marxism died with the Morichjhapi massacre,” Raja pompously proclaimed at a SFI public meeting on caste politics in Tamil Nadu.
Comrade Iyer, the archetypal argumentative Indian, believed in convincing individuals through dialogue but Raja was incorrigible. He knew that Raja was a non-Brahmin, probably a Pillai, or a Nadar, and when he asked Raja in the course of a casual conversation what his caste was, the fellow snapped.
“That is none of anyone’s business.”
“I am actually a Brahmin, but I am also a communist. So caste does not matter to me. If it does not matter to you, why can’t you state it?”
“And besides, though you guys have hidden your caste titles, you cannot elude the fact it is only the non-Brahmin castes of Tamil Nadu who oppress the Dalits.”
To which the crazy chap replied, “Well, then I suppose the class enemy of the proletarian is not the capitalist system but the police constable who pushes him around.”
The heated argument continued and Comrade Iyer was firm in his position that it was Marx who mattered more to Tamil Nadu than Periyar. When the irascible Raja accused him of being a Brahminical casteist, Comrade Iyer angrily retorted that Rupini Nair, his Malayalee girlfriend, a feminist and a passionate SFI member (who was later to become his wife), was a proper non-Brahmin. Raja was wrong, as were his ideological forefathers who resorted to unrefined Brahmin bashing to flee from pressing questions of class privilege. Though Raja himself was from a family of agricultural labourers, his reasoning as such was bourgeois and Comrade Iyer would never entertain a debate with him again.
By the time he reached his final semester, Comrade Iyer had gained a goatee, lost a few pounds and his virginity, learned to roll a joint properly, impressed most of the faculty at the History department with his presentations that were proof of his eclectic knowledge, made a name for himself as someone who had a flair for sophistication, and was advised by Prof. Ambika Venkataraman, a party sympathizer, to apply to the Department of History at Oxford where one Prof. Vinay Shastri, an expert in South Asian postcolonial studies, would be an excellent supervisor for his line of research interest.
Needless to say, given Comrade Iyer’s background – his academic background I mean – and the powerful recommendations he got from lecturers at JNU, walking into Oxford, with a scholarship, was a breeze for Comrade Iyer.
And the erstwhile colonized was now at the heart of the Empire, he thought. Ha. Skype calls with Rupini once in three days and not once did he contemplate breaking up. In Chennai, Iyer Sir got his ninth national award for his movie Heart, a touching family drama about a love story of a Telugu guy and a Manipuri girl. It was a beautiful tale much like that of Comrade Iyer who got married to the one true love of his life when he returned home for summer vacations. But Rupini did not change her surname to Iyer but to Balasubramaniam.
At Oxford, Comrade Iyer submitted his dissertation on ‘Parallel voices: Dalit narratives and the Dravidian movement’ which, of course, was a completely non-partisan account of how the Dravidian movement, in the guise of fighting Brahminism, was only interested in constructing a non-Brahmin hegemony caring little about the liberation of Dalits and how Dalits found their own autonomous voice of subalternity by constructing their particularities through lived experiences. Comrade Iyer who had transcended caste long ago could always be objective in whatever intellectual project he undertook and he later got a job as the associate editor of Political and Economic Monthly.
And even though his thesis did not mention Marx even once, his rise in the ranks of the party was meteoric, for the party, which had completely discarded caste, laid great emphasis on promoting persons of merit.
Below, I have compiled a list of 35 must read texts for activists involved in radical political projects. I have selected works on political positions of all types, philosophy, history, military strategy, literature, which I believe would greatly assist activists in their understanding of the world today. I have arranged them in no particular order – I just listed them as they came to my mind. So you might be surprised to find Hitler placed along with Gramsci, Huntington with Marx, and Arendt with Sartre. Each of these texts are, in my opinion, the best representations of certain political/ethical/philosophical perspectives that activists need to be familiar with. For instance, a good understanding of fascism, right-wing propaganda, and the idea of the ‘authoritarian personality’ is totally impossible without being familiar with Mein Kampf. Likewise, Civil War in France provides an excellent account of how a ruling class can and will deal with a crisis, especially if the oppressed are not willing to go the extra-mile to overthrow the powers that reign. Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen informs us what true political heroism is in the figure of Adrian Veidt. Each of the texts that I have selected provides a unique perspective on practical and ethical political questions that confront activists today. I hope it is of some assistance. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment.
1. 36 Stratagems
2. Thomas Kempis – The Imitation of Christ
3. Alain Badiou – Philosophy for Militants
4. Carl von Clausewitz – On War
5. Sun Tzu – The Art of War
6. BH Liddell Hart – Strategy
7. Slavoj Zizek – Violence: Six Sideways Reflections
8. Frantz Fanon – The Wretched of the Earth (With Sartre’s Preface)
9. Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil
10. Maximillien Robespierre – Speech on “The Principles of Political Morality”
11. VI Lenin – What is to be done?
12. Louis Althusser – On Ideology
13. Antonio Gramsci – Prison Notebooks
14. Adolf Hitler – Mein Kampf
15. Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince
16. Mao Tse-Tung – On Contradictions
17. Paolo Friere – Pedagogy of the Oppressed
18. Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan
19. Sigmund Freud – Civilization and its Discontents
20. Carl Schmitt – The Concept of the Political
21. Samuel P. Huntington – The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
22. Karl Marx – The Civil War in France
23. Reinhold Niebuhr – The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
24. Alexandre Kojeve – Introduction to the Reading of Hegel
25. Hannah Arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
26. Jean-Paul Sartre – Colonialism and Neo-colonialism
27. Martin van Creveld – The Transformation of War
28. Walter Benjamin – Critique of Violence
29. D. Sivaram – Essays on Tamil Militarism
30. Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War
31. Amilcar Cabral – Speech on “National Liberation and Culture”
32. Plato – The Republic
33. Oscar Wilde – The Soul of Man under Socialism
34. William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar
35. Alan Moore – Watchmen