Originally published on Round Table India
“If you accept to play the games by the rules set up by those who own or control the board, you will always lose.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Surprisingly, a writer for Scroll.in in a recent article asked a very pertinent question – “Why doesn’t the violence against Dalits incite liberal fury, as does violence against Muslims?” (Unsurprisingly though, he fails in his analysis.) But it is worth our while to consider this question. So what is it about caste violence that makes it worthy of far lesser attention and outrage than anti-Muslim violence?
One obvious conclusion to arrive at, and which is not without truth in it, is that the lives of lower castes value less. Three main material reasons for this is that the Dalits have never been ruling classes in this country and structural violence against Dalits has been a constant for centuries; two, Dalits do not have the international networks and influence like the Muslims, and atrocities against them will not provoke adverse reactions from external actors; finally, the (forced) invisibility of Dalits in the public sphere makes the liberal mind ignorant and immune to anti-Dalit violence.
But a far more insidious process is happening here, one that is ideological in nature. This is the Hindu-Muslim Love Story. And it is this narrative that we must try to decode if we are to understand why the concern for Muslims does not extend to the lower castes, if we are understand why the anti-Muslim BJP is enemy no 1 for the liberal Hindu, but the CPI(M) which began its rule in Bengal with the massacre of hundreds of Dalits is an ally in the fight against communalism.
The historical playground is important. At one end, the Hindutva brigade moans the Islamic invasions and the ‘cruelties’ of the Muslim rule in India. To counter the Right Hindus, it has been pointed out by several Left Hindu historians that the Muslim rule was tolerant to their Hindu subjects and that claims of persecutions were exaggerated. They present several historical records to show the privileges that Hindus enjoyed in Muslim courts. We know that the ‘Islamic bigot’ Aurangzeb’s court had a sizeable representation of upper-caste Hindus. Movies are made eulogizing Akbar’s affairs with Rajput princesses. We can add some more examples. Muslims served in Rana Pratap’s army. Devaraya II built mosques for his Muslim soldiers while Ramaraya allowed his Muslim subjects to kill and consume cows in their quarters. Vavar’s mosque near Ayyappan’s temple in Sabarimalai is worshipped by the Hindus. The Muslim lady Bibi Nanchari’s devotion to Vishnu is celebrated by The Hindu as a ‘tale of eternal love’ – indeed, she is considered at places in South India as a lover and consort of Vishnu.
Liberal scholars will hold up these facts to state the tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism etc. of India. What is missing in these historical romances is the fact that none of this mutual tolerance and respect translated into a modicum of change for those at the lower ends of the society. None of these religiously liberal rulers even considered something as simple as providing the untouchable castes access to temple entry or a decent education. Whether the Indian postcolonialists like it or not, it was secular colonial modernity that opened up that space. That is another theme to be considered later. But it is precisely the validation of this Hindu-Muslim Love Story that is required to preserve the entity of India, to impose an artificial unity on several nations within the sub-continent, and to put a veil on far deeper structural injustices in the Indian society. Why? Because the Good Hindu realizes that the Muslim is necessary to his being-a-Hindu and is thus genuinely grateful to the Muslim for it.
Another writer on Round Table India, Khalid Anis Ansari, has captured how the Hindu-Muslim narrative in India is set by the Hindu upper castes and their Muslim equivalents, the Ashrafs. He also notes how this works to the detriment of the lower castes and the Pasmandas, the lower sections of the Muslims in India. Let us see how this ideology operates.
Good Hindu/Bad Hindu
Brahminism’s brilliance as an ideology is its creation of false binaries and forcing them on people who have nothing to gain from either side, but are nevertheless ‘compelled’ to take a side. Shankaracharya or Ramanujacharya? Gandhi or Savarkar? Congress or BJP? Teesta Setalvad or Amit Shah? This is a strategy that predates and perfectly complements the postmodern condition of making false free choices in neo-liberal capitalism. “Do you want Pepsi or Coke?” No thanks!
We might assume that the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim is such a binary that has dangerous consequences. But it is the Good Hindu/Bad Hindu binary that is far, far more lethal. The Bad Hindu is a bigot. Often coarse and vulgar, he is easily identified by his unabashed xenophobia. The Bad Hindu is just like any other fundamentalist in any other part of the world, easy to understand, easier to oppose.
The Good Hindu on the other hand is a peculiar phenomena. He reeks of ideology. You can find him quoting any radical text from anywhere in the world, giving support to exotic causes, and leading the fight against imperialism. He has several isms (pluralism, feminism, socialism etc) in his jhola which he will take out and use according to context. But the ism hidden in the pockets of his Fab-India kurta is the cultural logic of Brahminism…
In my stay in JNU, I had met some ultra-leftist Good Hindus who defended Osama bin Laden, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban for being ‘anti-imperialist’. These same leftists accused Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, and the Dravidian parties of being corrupt and practicing identity politics. But then again, these Good Hindus will also adopt the role of Dalit saviors if the situation requires, accusing the OBCs of being the real oppressors. They will discover Ambedkar and write a preface to him to introduce him to the Western world. They will use corporate platforms to convey communism, while lecturing to Dalits and OBCs about the evils of capitalism.They will question White privilege, but questioning Brahmin privilege will be termed ‘identity politics’. They will note how their party cadres are 90% Dalits, but not how their party leaders and intellectuals are 99% Brahmin… such are the riddles of the Good Hindu!
Fluid, flexible, and highly fashionable unlike his neanderthalic Bad Hindu counterpart, the Good Hindu is the highest point of evolution of Brahminism. And if there is a cause par excellence that he is committed to, it is Islamophilia. And we can take some examples from cinema to consider this point.
Some Islamophilic Cinematic Fantasies
We can consider some movies where the Hindu-Muslim identities are subject to an intense romantic treatment. These are just a few popular samples. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) is of a Hinduized Tamil male marrying a conservative Muslim girl. In the wake of the Mumbai riots, the love story comes to the foreground and unites Hindus and Muslims as one family, one nation, one India. Karan Johar’s Kurbaan (2009) shows a Hindu woman married to a Muslim terrorist and his My Name is Khan (2010) shows a Hindu woman married to a Muslim who is not a terrorist – both movies promoting the idea of tolerance and the vitality of modern India. The more recent Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014) showing a Hindu Indian girl in love with a Pakistani Muslim shows that Indianness can also be reconciled with Pakistaniness. Anything can go: as long as the Hindu upper caste remains at the top, and the Indian physical and ideological structure that preserves this remains intact.
Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) is instructive here. The Hindu character, Meenakshi Iyer, a conservative Brahmin wife and mother of a child, is exposed to an Islamophobic world of rioting Bad Hindus while travelling with a Muslim acquaintance. As she witnesses the violence, her humanitarian (Good Hindu) side takes over. She helps out her Muslim friend, and gets helped out by him in return, with both developing a strong mutual attraction eventually. We must resist the temptation to be blinded by these ‘human feelings’ overdoses and question the brutal logic that lies beneath. In the movie, Raja, the Muslim character does nothing to change the attitude of Mrs. Iyer towards her caste identity, how the “Iyer” identity by itself discursively implies that there are caste identities inferior to it. Is this not also the character of Muslim Rajas in India, who accommodated the elites, but did nothing for those at the lowest end of the spectrum? At the end of movie, as at the end of the Muslim rule in India, the Brahmin remained a Brahmin, if anything, more revitalized thanks to the Muslim. So, one must not miss the significance of this movie winning the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. (Incidentally, Nargis Dutt’s story itself is a Hindu-Muslim Love Story.)
We can observe such fantasies playing among the reactions of the Good Hindus to the bogey of Love Jihad that was raised recently by the Bad Hindus. One such Good Hindu woman was very concerned for the safety of her Muslim partner and the prospects for their marriage under Modi rule. She feared, perhaps rightly, that the Modi rule would place restrictions on Hindu women to make their choices. And she ended up defending the Aam Aadmi Party, an outfit no less Brahminical than the BJP. Another such touching story was narrated in The New York Times, of one Ms. Iyer and a Mr. Khan. Their children were praised as “poster girls for a modern and liberal India.” So it is not just the reel, but also the real Mr. and Mrs. Iyer who make a fantastic story!
The Story That Is Not Told
Now, to prevent misinterpretation, the author must add here that he is not conveying a lack of belief in the possibility of love between a Hindu and Muslim. Indeed, love, genuine love, can exist between them as individuals. But when this love becomes a story that articulates certain identities (at the expense of others) and enters the terrain of discourse, it ceases to concern two individuals alone. It becomes political, exposes the politics of the narrators and the subjects, in what they say and what they do not say, and why this is so.
We know for a fact that violence in the forms of killings, attacks, sexual assaults and humiliation heaped on Dalits is a pan-Indian phenomenon, an everyday occurrence, and has been happening even prior to Muslim arrival. If so, why aren’t stories of inter-caste marriages and appeals for dismantling caste bigotries appearing in the public domain with the intensity and zeal as the Hindu-Muslim Love Story? Why couldn’t these individuals be critical towards their Hindu identity and challenge it? It is, as Ambedkar observed, because the Hindu who is obsessed with his own self and the selfish interests of his class is incapable of critical self-introspection. The Dalits and OBCs asserting their humanity will dislodge the superhuman status of the ones at the top. Which is why the romance of the external Other is much preferable to asking crucial questions about the construction of the Self, which stories of the internal Other will bring about. In fact, the romance of the external Other is a screen to prevent such questions being asked about the imagined Hindu Self.
What Position to Take?
Why did Ambedkar and Periyar attack ‘Islamophilic’ Gandhi more than ‘Islamophobic’ Savarkar? The intellectual acumen of Ambedkar and Periyar was such that they realized Bad Hindus like Savarkar and Golwalkar were only a malignant symptom (and one can extend this to the BJP, RSS and VHP too) while it was the Good Hindus like Gandhi then (and in contemporary times we can add CPI(M), Congress and others) who were saving the disease of Hinduism using the love of Muslims as a cover. The former wanted a militant Hinduism, one that would not tolerate other religions. The latter wanted to create an image of a benevolent Hinduism, one that would embrace other religions, while benevolently maintaining its inherent social hierarchy. The Bad Hindu wants only his own particularity to be respected. The Good Hindu, in his tolerance for all religious particularities, also wants his own particularity to be tolerated. Neither are capable of a genuine Universality. To be asked to choose between these two is to be subject to a fraud.
Unfortunately, some non-Brahmin writers too have fallen in the trap laid by the Good Hindus of specifically opposing Hindutva’s opposition to Islam and Muslims. I have sought to show in the article above how Brahminism is a dynamic system that creates elite subjects who BOTH hate and love Muslims. If the bad Hindu uses Dalits and OBCs as mere pawns in the Hindu-Muslim hate games, the Hindu-Muslim Love Story of the good Hindu places them as poor spectators allotted the cheapest seats in a farcical drama. The only radical thing to do is avoid taking sides and to articulate the Periayarite and Ambedkarite position that the construction of the Hindu identity is by itself an oppressive riddle that needs to be dismantled. Ambedkarism and Periyarism have no place in, and no need for, the fantasies of Mr and Mrs Iyer.
Originally published on Round Table India
The recent documentary “India’s Daughter” on the 2012 New Delhi gang-rape case by Israeli born filmmaker Leslee Udwin has come under criticism from certain leftist feminists for being ‘Western racist’ and the likes. A particularly trending article in these circles is one by Kavita Krishnan, who is a central committee member of CPI (ML) – Liberation. Comrade Krishnan is pained that Udwin has shown “India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women, that inspires both shock and pity, but also call for a rap on the knuckles from the “civilised world” for its “brutal attitudes”.” She laments that there is a “racist profiling of Indian men” that informs this documentary. And so on and so on.
To start with, yes, Leslee Udwin’s documentary is problematic because it is not well informed. It picked a most brutal gang-rape that caught worldwide attention and tried to show some light on violence against women in India – but it failed to adequately pay attention to the systematic most brutal forms of rape and sexual violence that millions of Dalit, adivasi and lower caste women endure on a daily basis. The problem with the documentary is not that it demonizes Indians and India’s (Hindu) misogynistic culture. The real problem is that it has NOT demonized them enough!
Yes Comrade Krishnan, brutality is an Indian cultural problem, Indian backwardness is a problem, and Indian mentality is a problem. The problem is structural, embedded in India, in the idea of India, in the way this idea was imagined, in the discourse of India, by the people who create that discourse, who accept it and who defend it. I am not saying anything new. I am only repeating what Periyar has said in the past.
But what ethical rights does a Western person have to make a documentary on Indian women?
“I was in Hyderabad recently and was seriously appalled to hear that Arundhati’s piece is apparently being construed by some as being demeaning of Ambedkar and ‘devoting more space to Gandhi’. If this is indeed the nature of the criticism that is being made the pretext for the denial of permission, it is a travesty of reason and a deliberate, mischievous misreading of her article, not much unlike the Hindutvavadi’s misreading of Doniger.”
The above are Comrade Krishnan’s own words, based on nothing but rumour.
So let us twist it slightly and say:
“I was in recently in New Delhi and was seriously appalled to hear that Leslie Udwin’s piece is apparently being construed by some as being demeaning of Indians and racist. If this is indeed the nature of the criticism that is being made the pretext for the denial of permission, it is a travesty of reason and a deliberate, mischievous misreading of the documentary, not much unlike the BJP’s rationale to censor it.”
One logic for Roy and another for a White person. If a Roy can write a (theoretically shallow) preface to Ambedkar to highlight Dalit issues to the West, why cannot a Westerner make a documentary to highlight India’s rape crisis to the West? Between the two, Leslee Udwin was at least honest to admit her shortcomings. Roy and comrades on the other hand said this and more. While the documentary has been wholeheartedly welcomed by other women activists, Roy’s preface came under massive critical condemnation from Dalit activists, thinkers and writers – which were dismissed off by the privileged leftist intellectuals without any just engagement.
Comrade Krishnan challenges Westerners to recognize “the “brutal attitudes” that abound in our own comfort zone, our own “culture”.” What she should do is to challenge Brahminists, the leftist ones especially, to challenge their brutal intellectual attitudes, the comfort zones that they inhabit, the academic spaces that they occupy, the political culture of their politburos, the voices they silence and marginalize. What she should do is ask how many Dalits and OBCs – the people who actually form the working class – are there in decision making levels of the various communist parties in India. But of course, anti-Westernism is “radical”. Anti-Brahminism is “identity politics”.
This is not meant to be an individual attack on Comrade Krishnan, but rather an attempt to offer an insight into a pernicious trend that is dominating political discourse in the name of “anti-Westernism” “postcolonialism” and so on. In fact, Krishnan’s response to the documentary is much in the line of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where the latter argues against White men saving brown women from brown men. But in condemning western universality, who gave these members of an ultra-elite closed group the right to condemn in the name of all brown women and men? If it was not for the intervention of “white imperialist capitalist patriarchy” women of a particular low caste in Tamil Nadu would not be allowed to cover their breasts. It was British colonialist legislation that put an end to the barbaric practice of temple prostitution in the state. All these moves were also fought for and welcomed by the women of the concerned castes. The subaltern actually spoke. Spivak did not care to listen.
Some of the feminists have had a problem with the documentary being named “India’s Daughter”. But in their zeal to defend the image of India, they are behaving like dutiful Indian daughters in ensuring that the name of their mother country is not besmirched by a ‘colonialist Western foreigner’. Gayatri, Kavita, Pragya, Rithambara… sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
Originally published on Round Table India
With her new preface to Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ Arundhati Roy, and the publishing house Navayana, have received criticism from Dalit activists and writers. Very compelling critiques have been put forth explaining how Navayana’s annotated version of an Ambedkarite classic is an act of appropriation. In the short essay that follows, I seek to explain why it is an act of appropriation with the help of an analogy.
In 1961, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was released. The book, which was later praised as the “Bible of the Third World”, had a preface written by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, probably one of the most recognizable faces of “First World” philosophy of the 20th Century.
The beauty of Sartre’s preface was that it offended everyone privileged – the French nationalists who wanted him murdered, liberals like Hannah Arendt who thought that the preface was more incendiary than the original, dogmatic leftists who dubbed it anarchistic and also a section of Black American academics. These critics’ only contribution to Fanon studies is to reduce an intellectual giant’s thoughts to a Lilliputian idea of “lived experience”, who felt that a White man had overstepped the boundaries in writing a preface for what they felt was the work of a “Black man”.
However, Fanon himself was above such thoughts. He wanted Sartre to write the preface because he considered Sartre a “living god” and several biographical accounts confirm that he was greatly satisfied with the controversial preface. The power of a preface is that it conditions the way a text is read. And when the author of a work has conveyed an explicit approval for a preface, he is in a dialogical process with the one who writes the preface, and he also indicates that he wants to be read in that spirit. Or, Fanon wanted to be “framed” in the ideological parameters of Sartrean humanism and posthumous criticisms of the preface can only be termed as acts of bad faith.
Now, let us turn to a book that can rightfully be called a Bible, a manifesto of liberation, for the Dalits and the other oppressed castes in India – Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste.” Is there any indication anywhere in “Annihilation of Caste” that he wanted a Brahmin publishing house and upper-caste intelligentsia to frame how he should be read? Is there any indication anywhere in any of Ambedkar’s works that he wanted upper castes to assist in interpreting him? Since the answers to these questions, to the best of my knowledge about Ambedkar, is in the negative, the critics are right when they allege that Navayana is engaging in an act of appropriation when they decided to frame him in the fashion that they did. What those defending Roy should realize is that what is being contested is not Roy’s right to write an essay on Ambedkar – I’ll add here that I enjoyed reading the essay for the stuff on Gandhi – it is this essay framing Ambedkar within certain paradigms and reading him in a manner which has little relevance to Ambedkar’s politics that is being challenged.
There is also a particular way in which the Dalit criticisms are being read by those to whom it is addressed to and the way they respond to the same. It is as though they are responding “Ooh, we understand and sympathize with your lived experience but we are trying to help you with our knowledge.” This seems to be a way of saying “Ha ha ha. Knowledge still belongs to us, but you guys can only talk from experience.” Sorry to disappoint you friends. Ambedkar’s critique of caste was not based on lived experience alone but rather was and is one of the most rigorous theoretical analysis of a social system of oppression that has confounded and condemned the oppressed for millennia. And likewise, the Dalits and lower castes who are “claiming Ambedkar for themselves” are not doing so based on their lived experiences alone, but rather because of a thirst for emancipatory knowledge by challenging the epistemological privilege that Brahmins have enjoyed for ages.
What is this privilege? The superiority of the Brahmin is not based on economic power that can change with fortunes. It is also not a weak pseudo-science argument of race superiority. It rests largely on the Brahmin’s power over definition, on his ability to determine good and evil, social and anti-social, clean and unclean, high and low, acceptable and unacceptable, interpretation and misinterpretation. It is the Brahmin’s power over the Word, over knowledge, and over meaning.
In contemporary India, take the Indian nationalists, the Hindu nationalists, the central committees of the various socialist parties, postcolonialists, liberals, anti-modernists, anti-Eurocentrists, anti-Enlightenmentists, anti-colonialists, feminists – which caste defines the ideological paradigms in any of these different political/intellectual/ groups?
When the Brahmin determines what the philosophy of oppression is, the Brahmin determines what ‘neutral’ liberalism is, and the Brahmin also determines what resistance is, where is the space for a counter ideology to emerge? And when a Brahmin runs a powerful publishing house that markets how Dalit thinkers should be read, is it not legitimate to think that the traditional monopoly over knowledge and meaning is being extended to assimilate even the voices that counter it?
Going back to Fanon, he clearly recognized that Europe had a thousand problems. But he also recognized that it produced schools of thought that sought to take man to a higher level. Thus, Fanon accused the White colonizer of hypocrisy, of belonging to intellectual traditions that spoke about equality but behaving as a person practising inequality. But in our case, as recognized by Ambedkar and thinkers like Periyar, the Brahmin is a hypocrite only when he talks about equality. The radical potential of the thoughts of Ambedkar lies in the fact that he recognized that, throughout history, even in the most liberal vision of equality as propounded by the Brahmin, whatever intellectual tradition the Brahmin hails from, to take an Orwellian line “some animals are more equal than other animals.” Consider this, Arundhati Roy has pointed out several times in her public speeches that over 90% of the cadres of the Maoist party are Dalits and Adivasis. But why is it that over 90% of the leaders of the Maoist party and its urban intelligentsia come from the upper castes?
Some years back, Hindutva ideologue Arun Shourie wrote “Worshipping False Gods”, a third-rate pamphlet against Ambedkar. The sordid history of the Hindu religion shows us one thing – while there are one section of Brahmins who denigrate and deride the gods of the lower castes, there is also simultaneously another section of Brahmins who try to accommodate and assimilate these gods within the Brahminical tradition and spin their own myths about these gods which are then imposed on the rest of the population. The lower castes have lost several such gods in history. They cannot lose anymore.
They cannot lose Ambedkar.
In a country where Whites constitute the overwhelming majority, they occupy 80% of posts in academia, corporations, judiciary etc. And that country is supposedly “racist”. But a country where only 3% of a population, a permanently closed in-group, controls over 90% of the resources is a what? Only yesterday, a friend, who is consistently opposed to “white racism”, from South Asian origins said that he was not in favor of Great Britain outlawing caste discrimination. Sometimes, I feel that “white racism” is the easiest thing to criticize, and those from the Third World, especially from South Asia like to jump in the bandwagon and declare themselves as “progressive anti-racists” only because they are either willfully ignorant of social stratification back home or they are just complicit in it. Either ways, a truly progressive politics has to recognize these people as no different from the White racists, or maybe even worse because they wear the mask of “being oppressed” as a privilege. We need another Lenin.
THIS IS A PAPER I PRESENTED AT THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY, JAMIA MILLIA ISLAMIA, ON 27th JANUARY 2011, FOR A CONFERENCE ON ‘CONCEPTUALISING RESISTANCE’ (I should add that my views have significantly changed since then)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
-John 1:1, The Bible
“Not so long ago the Earth numbered 2 billion inhabitants, i.e., 500 million men and 1.5 billion “natives.” The first possessed the Word, the others borrowed it.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to The Wretched of the Earth
We in the academia are familiar with the Foucauldian discourse on power-knowledge relations. Knowledge engenders power and power requires knowledge to sustain itself. Knowledge, is not just a body of facts, facts that have been selected by a group of people as worthy of knowing, it is also a system of words, and a system of ascribing meaning to words. Combined with power, it is a system of discriminating interpretations of words and texts – it determines which interpretation is right and which is wrong. What about the word of our focus, ‘resistance’? Does it have any inherent universal meaning or value? Sartre argued that “The word is a certain particular moment of action and has no meaning outside it.” (Sartre 2009, p12) Let us take a case – the white slave-owners in erstwhile Southern America opposing the abolition of slavery and the black slaves opposing slavery both deployed the term ‘resistance’ to their respective demands. A word or a collection of words i.e., a text, has no meaning, no value in itself but that which is given to it by humans in particular scenarios and in particular power relations. A logocentric approach to a text is almost always connected to systems of power and domination.
Of course, there is great subversive potential in a text, which can also be considered a sign. “Texts can say more than one supposes, they can always say something new, precisely because signs are the starting point of a process of interpretation which leads to an infinite series of progressive consequences. Signs are open devices, not stiff armors prescribing a bi-conditional identity.” (Eco 1981, p11) But there arises a situation when that very text becomes a monopoly of a powerful elite and they, with their knowledge and with their interpretation(s) of the text, hijack the potential for liberation in it and turn it into an instrument of repression. An old example of this is Christianity under the church. A more recent one is Marxism of the Leninist variant. My paper, besides attempting to critique the Leninist view of Marxism(1) seeks to emphasize on the need to look beyond a rigidly defined set of texts and interpretations for a successful praxis of liberation-centered resistance.
PROBLEMS OF THE TEXT
The fundamental problem of a resistance movement that relies greatly on a text for its worldview and political action is that after a point, the emancipatory essence of the movement is lost and the text, and those who control it, take over. Yet, it is hard to envision a liberatory movement without a body of writing that has a deep understanding of existing conditions in the society that it seeks to transform. As many Leninists would argue, it is necessary for a revolution to have a revolutionary theory. But the priority has to be set here – it is liberation that is central to a revolutionary, not the text. This, then calls for a democratic, free for all criticism and critical inquiry of the concerned text by those involved in the revolutionary struggle and especially with participants from the target group. This is what Paulo Freire termed as ‘problem-posing’ pedagogy where “people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” (Freire 1996, p64)
But how far is Leninism, and its conception of a rigid party apparatus, reconcilable with free and fair criticism? From a text which is considered to contain Leninism’s central tenets, ““freedom of criticism” means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism.” (Lenin 1979, p111) Blind, uncritical faith in a text without taking into account of the subtleties of the context is criticized as dogmatism by most Marxist-Leninists, including that one leader who is blamed for most ills of socialist praxis and who is accused of himself following a ‘mechanical Marxism’, Josef Stalin. I would however argue that the foundations for a dogmatic reading of Marxism was laid by Lenin himself. Stalin just walked into the fortress that Lenin built. For it was Lenin, who interpreted Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat as “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class” (Lenin 1977, p324) and relentlessly opposed, even persecuted, those who held different views on the same.(2)In practice, only the Leninist interpretation of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was recognized as the legitimate one. This gave absolute power to the party, power to read, interpret, and give meaning to Marxian concepts and frameworks. The Leninist party-state, a panopticon par excellence, was the perfect resort where power and knowledge enjoyed an enduring tryst.
What happened eventually in the Soviet Union is, of course, a sad (hi)story. One is indeed compelled to draw a parallel with religious dogma. I would like to make reference to Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. The critically acclaimed novel, besides a fantastic exercise in semiotics, is also a critique of a closed-ended reading of texts, of restriction of thought to a particular reading of text and the abuse of power that flows with it. At one level, it appears to target the dogmatism of the medieval church. At another level, the critical reader can read into the novel a general critique of totalitarian regimes that base a text, an interpretation of that text as their foundation. The villain of the novel, Burgos, murders people who access a rare text (in the monastery’s library, an exclusive sphere of knowledge) as he finds the knowledge of the text dangerous – it eulogizes laughter, which Burgos believes, will make people fearless of God. God is Word, God as the Text, but to laugh at texts will make The Word as a word. Once power over Word ceases, power over people ceases. This fear sparks off a killing spree, the totalitarian extinguishing of other voices. Burgos, incidentally, is a visually impaired character in the novel. Is this Eco’s portrayal of the blindness of dogmatism? One can ponder. The message of the novel’s protagonist, William of Baskerville(3) is relevant to the paper’s contention that no text, or no ‘truth’ of/in the text is to be held sacred; “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for truth.” To laugh is to trivialize, to deconstruct, to make common, to make low. When it is directed at a power source, like the text, it no longer is something sacrosanct as it is laughed at. The Word ceases to be with God, it ceases to be God as it explodes as laughter on the lips of the commoner.
MARXISM IN INDIA – A SLAVE TO TEXT?
Let us briefly consider the two major parties that claim to represent the communist movement in India – the CPI(M) and the CPI(Maoist). The CPI(M) has been in rule in West Bengal for over 30 years. And all its (mis)deeds in the state, right from the massacre of Dalits in Marichjhapi in 1979, as soon as they came into power, to their recent brutal suppression of the tribal agitation in Lal Garh have been justified by taking recourse to this or that text of Marx and/or Lenin. It is not a mere coincidence that the majority of the Central Committee members of the CPI(M) happen to be upper castes. What in effect happened in CPI(M) ruled West Bengal was that the upper-caste who had access to the sacred texts of Hinduism and who used them to the detriment of the masses of lower castes was replaced by the upper caste who, by virtue of his literacy, had access to the ‘sacred texts’ of Marxism, who interpreted them to produce the same effect.
The Maoists on the other hand also criticize the CPI(M) and its failures again by reference to the texts of the deities of Marxism-Leninism viz. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. While one is hopeful of the Maoists for the simple reason that the base that they have made inroads into, the tribals and the Dalits, are some of the most poorest sections of the subcontinent who have rich narratives of suffering and of resistance to oppression, one is skeptical whether the Maoists are not actually indoctrinating the cadres taken from these sections with selected texts of Marxist-Leninist thought and the party’s interpretations of it rather than paying more focus to the stories of hope, joy, sadness, subversion and rebellion that comprise the oral tradition of these sections. Why shouldn’t these stories of resistance be the focal point of the party rather than some text written in some context for some purpose that the concerned subjects have little or no knowledge of? While, indeed, the writings of Lenin or Mao do provide valuable inputs for the purpose of organizing resistance, they should be, ideally, dealt only as mere strategies for the larger purpose of creating liberated individuals. When a strategy degenerates to dogma, it replicates the powers that it sought to displace in the first place, for it becomes a body of knowledge that constitutes new power relations(4) How true was Nietzsche when he said that a man who fights monsters should take care least he become one himself!
Maybe the Maoist leadership should also do what Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Com. Azad, who was recently shot dead in a police encounter, asked the reading Indian public to do, “when we do not understand the feelings of the affected people, it is better to imagine ourselves in their place. This may help us in getting nearer to the truth.” (Azad 2010, p108) I would like to highlight the word ‘feelings’ for that is something completely absent in the Leninist reading of Marxism. The thinking, feeling, sensuous being-subject that the young Marx wrote of was replaced by the object to be manipulated of/by the Leninists. Personal feelings are abundant in the stories of the tribals and the backward castes. An imported text is devoid of it. It will always remain alien to the concerned subject and remain a property of those that bought it in and be open to manipulation by a group of elite. Liberation is a philosophy of strength, not weakness. And faith in the invincibility of a text, in dogmatism, implies not strength, but its opposite. “How much one needs a faith in order to flourish, how much that is ‘firm’ and that one does not wish to be shaken because one clings to it, that is a measure of the degree of one’s strength (or, to put the point more clearly, of one’s weakness).” (Nietzsche 1974, p374) Such a faith also stems from, if I might say so, a will to power, a desire to perpetuate authority, and a fear of the free-thinking, critical individual. And any political philosophy that bases its praxis on such a premise is doomed to totalitarianism.
PARTICULAR DANGERS, PARTICULAR POSSIBILITIES
One must emphasize on the necessity to consciously de-emphasize the role of the text for a successful liberatory praxis, especially in India. It is by the virtue of access to and interpretation of ‘sacred texts’ that a minority community of elites, the brahmins, were able to grade their fellow human beings on the basis of a ritual hierarchy, of course, in collaboration with the upward and the upwardly mobile sections of those castes immediately below them. And it is always easy for a elite that controls a text to negotiate terms with another elite, even if the latter is against the interests of the vast majority of the populace over which the native elites presides. Colonialism in India and the collaboration of the brahmins in the initial periods is a perfect case. “Brahmanic texts, both vedic origin stories and the much later dharma texts of Hinduism’s puranic period, provided transregional and metahistorical modes of understanding Indian society that clearly appealed to British colonial interests and attitudes.” (Dirks 1992, p6) What was completely submerged in this process were the narratives of the rest, the Dalits, the tribals, and the various non-brahmin castes that were on the outskirts of brahminical discourses. Once one narrative was put across as the narrative, it was easy to push the others to the fringes, to look down on them as ‘primordial’ or ‘premodern’. What then was written on these sections, then, becomes what the master narrative and the masters of that narrative chose to write. Indeed, as Chinua Achebe points out “There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.” (Achebe 2000, p24)
Eric Selbin observes that “Traditionally, history has been constructed from above, composed by the victorious, orchestrated by the powerful, played and performed for the population.” (Selbin 2010, p9) The mythical characters of the Indian past that are referred to by the ‘mainstream’ Indian leftists in their writings happen to be those that figure in the brahminical texts. S.A. Dange had no issues in calling the Gita a materialist text whereas Subhas Chakravorty of the CPI(M) proudly claimed that he was a Hindu, a brahmin and a communist. Koteshwar Rao alias ‘Kishenji’, the number 2 of the CPI(Maoist) who is also most known for the role he played in the Lal Garh movement, referred to the Maoists as the Pandavas while Kobad Ghandy(5) the recently arrested Central Committee member quoted from the Rig Veda in a recent article. I have mentioned before how the two opposing parties refer to the same Marxist-Leninist sources to oppose the other’s policies and to defend their own. The similarity in framing oppositional discourses also extends to their selection of aspects from the past. Yet, “There is another history, rooted in people’s perception of how the world around them continues to unfold and of their place in the process. This is a history informed by people’s ideologies, the views they have, and it reflects the context, material as well as ideological, of people’s everyday lives; a history revealed and articulated by the various instruments of popular political culture.” (Selbin 2010, p9) Observe the striking contrast in the Naxalite balladeer Gaddar’s (a dalit by caste) performances. Almost a cult figure among lower castes, students and activists in Andhra Pradesh, his invocation of memory and the past involves the tales, the folklore, the gods and goddesses, the popular culture of the marginalized, a far cry from the carefully disciplined, high moralizing texts of an organized religion/dogma.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is then right when he criticizes orthodox Marxism for ignoring the role of memory as a tool in the reconstitution of the present. (Mannathukkaren 2006, p17) I’m inclined here to quote at large MSS Pandian’s reading of a Dalit intellectual’s framing of a counter-narrative to the logic of ‘civilization’ created by texts of the brahminical castes, who
“rejects the civilisational claims and the teleology of modernity, and instead recuperates the past of lowly hill cultivators, hunters, fisherpeople, pastoralists, and the like as the high point of human achievement. He characterizes their social life as communal, with people pooling together and sharing food with a sense of equality, without much internal differentiation. Flow of history ceases to be civilising and Raj Gowthaman incites the dalits to step outside it… The need to reclaim what has been stigmatised is essential because that alone would end the self-hate that Indian modern has produced in the lower castes.” (Pandian 2002, p6)
These pasts have no texts. Only memories. And stories. Which leads us to exploring possible alternatives to the organized body of knowledge as text which might actually be tools in creating a more democratic discourse of resistance.
THE STORY AS AN ALTERNATIVE
The most common element in conventional politics is the creation of binaries. Modernism’s great contribution was the drawing of binary between truth and fiction, the former represented in that which is not fiction. And considering the value attached to that considered ‘truth’, all that deemed as fiction is condemned to the margins of the political. Rather than being an attempt to analyze and realize reality in all its complexity “opposite values are an intellectual framework created by the mind to simplify reality, and as a result, the framework does not do justice to reality The rich details and vast subtleties of the world cannot fit into two starkly separate categories” (Glenn 2004, p5). The body of knowledge that draws binaries is considered as infallible whereas the ‘unlettered’ narratives of varied experiences is looked down as unfit for serious politicking. A liberating praxis of resistance, I would argue, will need to go beyond simple binaries and attempt to absorb experiences, each experience, as a resource base for radical politics. Experiences are richer than texts as they are not just there, as being, but are in the process of becoming. This is where the story and the poem should enter politics, or those in politics should engage with stories. For what presides over stories, like poems, “is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.” (Cesaire 2010, p18)
Achebe notes that “Man is a story-making animal. He rarely passes up an opportunity to accompany his works and his experiences with matching stories.” (Achebe 2000, p59) I would like to use this opportunity to draw attention to the story of a resistance movement that was recently brutally crushed – the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle. Tamil popular culture has a tradition of venerating the dead in battle. The practice of installation of veerakal – symbolic stones to honour the fallen heroes of a community – was a celebrated practice among most subaltern classes. These stones are not just rallying points for the public, but they also become topics for emerging stories and oral narratives which became folk tales over the time. These tales got a new dimension with the onset of the Eelam liberation struggle. Frantz Fanon, writing on the articulation of national culture under colonial repression, points out that “oral literature, tales, epics, and popular songs, previously classified and frozen in time, begin to change. The storytellers who recited inert episodes revive them and introduce increasingly fundamental changes. There are attempts to update battles and modernize the types of struggle, the heroes’ names, and the weapons used. The method of allusion is increasingly used.” (Fanon 2004, p174)
In the course of the Eelam struggle led by the LTTE, the martyrs of the movement were honored annually on November 27th, the day that the first Tamil Tiger was killed in action – a tradition created from the 80’s. The LTTE leader, V. Prabhakaran, called it “a day of national resurgence, a day we pledge and commit ourselves to the emancipation of our nation.” (Prabhakaran 1993) When the Tigers were active, the day used to be marked with festivities in their strongholds. The Pongu Tamil cultural group used to stage street theatres and performances which expressed a collective memory of past resistance. Not always historically accurate, but again “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’… It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” (Benjamin 1955, p257) The tombs of the slain Tiger cadres were revered as shrines, as veerakals, and analogies to past heroes were often drawn. The present modified the tales of the past, and the tales of the past aided the present struggle for a better future. Once the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the Tigers, the army went on a systematic destruction and defacement of the Tamil martyrs’ graveyards and explicitly prohibited, with open threats of violence, the celebration of Heroes’ Day. The point was simple – they wanted no stories to be told. Fanon also points out how storytellers were targeted and arrested in colonial Algeria. (Fanon 2004, p174) The Eelam Tamil diaspora settled in many western countries still continues to celebrate Heroes’ Day not just as a show of solidarity, but also to recount the experiences, the stories of the struggle.
According to Edward Said, stories “are the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.” (Said 1994, pxiii) The story has an intimate relation to history. All histories are stories told by a person; all stories are histories accessible to many. The story is more democratic than the text as it is undisciplined. It is not connected to an exclusive body of knowledge but emerges out of particularities of experience, but which have a far more universal relevance than is imagined. It has a far greater appeal in the day-to-day lives of the masses than the well-disciplined but cut off from ground ‘realities’ that a text puts forth, as a story is something that can be easily absorbed, modified, retold and passed on. The space for maneuver and adaptation makes it a potent device in resistance movements. Since it is as comfortable in the oral as in the written, it is accessible to those outside the frameworks of literacy. And there is above all the possibility of human hope, “the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere…” (Berger 2008, p101)
I would like to rest my case by saying that while I do not completely reject the role of a well researched text in a resistance movement, it cannot be the focal point of a liberatory movement, that defines it and justifies it. “We need to find a way to focus on the thoughts and feelings of people engaged in revolutionary processes, a perspective which binds the stories they convey of past injustices and struggles as they fight for the future.” (Selbin 2010, p9) The role of non-textual forms, particularly the story need to be reconsidered as they allow access to the greatest number and connect with the most valuable of all human desires, the desire for happiness of one through the happiness of all. After all, “in the final reckoning the people who will advance the universal conversation will be not copycats but those able to bring hitherto untold stories, along with new ways of telling.” (Achebe 2000, p83)
(1) Zizek questions the root of the term Leninism in his essay A Plea for Leninist Intolerance. “Is it not that it was invented under Stalin? And does the same not go for Marxism (as a teaching) which was basically a Leninist invention, so that Marxism is a Leninist notion and Leninism a Stalinist one?” (Zizek 2002, p23) Loyal to Lenin, Zizek draws a difference between Lenin’s ‘good’ Marxism and Stalin’s perversion of it. However, Zizek also points out that “To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.” (ibid, p26)
(2) Interestingly, Marx’s vision of the proletariat winning power was “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” (Marx and Engels 1981, p75) Marx was always ambiguous about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ An interpretation would be to look at it as the proletariat as a class for itself that seizes power – not as the proletariat represented by a party which takes power and rules in the name of the proletariat, which is the Leninist interpretation.
(3) The protagonist of the novel also explores how Biblical stories and tales of Christian heretics can be interpreted in a manner that breaks from the rigid orthodoxy of the church towards a more democratic formulation.
(4) Foucault argues that “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (Foucault 1977, p27)
(5) Kobad Ghandy and Anuradha Ghandy have written quite extensively on caste. In fact, I would credit them as the major Maoist party members who have intellectually engaged with caste with the seriousness it deserves. The rich on-ground experience of the Maoists compels them to take caste and ‘tribal identity’ as issues worth serious consideration. Yet, I would argue, that their chief limitation is that they still look at caste through Marxist paradigms rather than looking at it through the subject position of the groups that they seek to address. Attempting to solve the caste question requires greater imagination than that the texts of Marxism offer.
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