Published earlier in Social Action, Vol 54, April-June 2004
Shortly after the World Social Forum (Mumbai 2004) I came across an article by Cecilie Surasky, an American Jew, posted on a discussion list by a friend from Amsterdam. The article was startlingly entitled “Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?” and naturally invited one to read it immediately. It transpired that the author was the Communications Director of an organization called “Jewish Voice for Peace” that works for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Palestinian problem and is therefore, also anti-Zionist. She was writing from within the specific context of a well-known but disturbing trend in Jewish politics, particularly in the US. A glimpse of this troubling context is provided by the fact that important voices among Jews, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in particular (which has been known for its important work in hunting down Nazi criminals worldwide), has been portraying the World Social Forum (WSF) “as one of the centers of the ‘new anti-Semitism'”.
Surasky further reports that “these charges have been picked up by various journalists as evidence of a dangerous new trend on the left.” The SWC had described the atmosphere at the third WSF in Brazil the previous year as “anti-Jewish”, according to her. She therefore landed up at Mumbai to check out first hand: “I have come to the WSF to be loudly and visibly Jewish…and to see for myself this purported new tidal wave of hatred of Jews from the rest of the global left.” The actual event of course, turned out to be something entirely different and if anything, Surasky ended up making some of the most moving friendships with many Arabs. Her account of these friendships in the article is quite touching in itself. What was most amazing for her, however, was that on return she found that the SWC had published an article on the WSF in the Jerusalem Post, entitled “Networking to Destroy Israel”. It further claimed that the WSF Mumbai event had been hijacked by “anti-American, anti-Israel forces”. As Surasky puts it, it became clear that many of these propagandist accounts made practically no distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism or in fact, any criticism of Israel.
The important thing about the WSF however, was that it provided a space to some one like Cecilie Surasky, a “come out” Jew, as she puts it, to meet, exchange notes and make friends with people from the Arab world. So did it to the innumerable others who have so far only known about the ‘Other’ through representations by propaganda machines like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and their Arab counterparts – or through the US media. This is of course, one small episode in the big event called the WSF. But the WSF is actually made up of literally thousands of such episodes. It was an occasion where the displaced Tibetans – supporters of the Dalai Lama – could move about prominently, distributing their literature, making friends and allies from different parts of the world. It was an occasion where the Dalit groups of India could make their voice heard before a vast gathering of people who were all fighting for their own liberation from oppressions of different kinds.
Continue reading Beyond the Tyranny of Blueprints: WSF as Experimental Form
Sometimes it is a matter of a moment, just that moment …
I headed towards the cobbler at Madhavan Park to repair my broken sandal. He was a darkish man. His shop had a photograph of Dr. Ambedkar.
Around Madhavan Park are some small shops and spaces occupied by people at different times in the day. There is a coobler shop, then a knick-knacks shop which also sells newspapers and is an information space for the auto drivers who are lurking there. A lady also comes by in the afternoon and sets up shop to sell food to the auto drivers and to other clients.
I stood by the coobler shop, watching the cobbler repair my shoe. An old vegetable vendor came by and dropped some tomatoes in the cobbler’s shop. The two of them had a mischievous exchange and the cobbler continued repairing my shoe. I continued watching the cobbler at work, very intently watching him, his facial features, his craft. It struck me then that here is a man who would be called ‘chamar’, a ‘dalit’. But how different is he from me? What is this theory and politics about caste?
My words are proving to be futile here because I am really attempting to describe that moment, that moment where a certain transcendence occurred and I could only see this person repairing my shoe as myself, as me. Such a moment betrays all theory, all politics and it is perhaps such moments which cause major transformations among humankind.
Such moments are those which give me a great amount of hope. There is much hope in this world. We all live by it!
As I walk by Bangalore, pass by the city in the buses, I watch the newly formed cobbler kiosks. Most of them are empty. The occupied cobbler spaces are many. And most of them are laced with photographs of Dr. Ambedkar. This photograph does not appear in a vacumm. It appears as a source of consciousness of being, it emerges out of an assertion of a certain identity.
The empty cobbler kiosks are empty not as a matter of lack of occupancy. They are empty because politically, these spaces are flat, devoid of the very identity which forms the basis of our everyday politics.
This is the Concept Note for a panel in the India Social Forum on “New Horizons For a Radical Democratic Politics: In search of a New Left”.
The panel is being proposed as a way of getting together activists and scholars in thinking afresh about the possibilities of a different kind of Left – a New Left, if you please – or radical democratic political practice. It is being proposed as a forum for thinking of ways of bringing together different kinds of radical urges and aspirations that have come forth in the last couple of decades. Many of these, broadly subsumed under the category of social movements, are based on sectional identities and interests. There are others that have been based on class questions but in a way quite different from conventional kinds of class politics. At the level of thinking however, most movements, despite having taken some extremely bold initiatives, have not really begun to articulate alternative theoretical positions or think through the far-reaching implications of their own practice.
Feminism, ecological movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the sexuality movements have undoubtedly made major contributions in terms of enabling us to think of democracy and ways of radicalizing it, of thinking about the good life very differently. Movements like the Dalit movement or some recent independent trade union initiatives that are inclined towards the idea of an autonomous workers’ movement have also started posing new questions for radical political practice – questions that are not always very comfortable.
Yet, the fact remains that the moment we begin to think about contemporary capitalism, we almost unthinkingly tend to lapse back into some nineteenth and early twentieth century formulations that need to be seriously re-thought today. Much of the thinking on capitalism – influenced by Marxism of one shade or the other – has remained caught within the problematics of the state and the nation-state (both seem to us to be discrete but inter-related problematics). Even when we recognize that global capitalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century is an altogether different beast, all we get by way of theorization are tired repetitions from the Communist Manifesto (“the bourgeoisie seeks to build a world in its own image” or “the need for markets chases it all over the globe” etc). In contemporary capitalism this may tell us only a small part of the truth.
Further, in most of Left-wing discourse, nation-states continue to be posed as some sort of defense against global capital and the ultimate ground of emancipation and the state in general as the object of revolutionary politics, as that point where all transformative attention must be focused.
The panel is being proposed to explore questions connected with some of these articles of faith. As indicative of some of the questions that we could address, we list below some which we group together according to some broad themes. (To be sure, this is a tentative list): Continue reading In Search of a New Left
Posted on the Sarai Reader List on 16th October, 2006
A few days from now, a man called Mohammad Afzal Guru, son of Habibullah Guru, currently resident in Ward Number 6 of Jail Number 1 in Tihar Central Prison in Delhi will hang to satisfy the bloodlust of the Indian Republic, unless the President of India thinks otherwise, A few weeks ago, I recall reading the NDTV newscaster Barkha Dutt’s breathless three cheers for the fact that India retains the death penalty (so that the indignant tears in the eyes of television presenters like herself, and the loved ones of murder victims, can be wiped away with each rope that tightens around the neck of condemned prisoners). [See ‘A Battle for Life’: Barkha Dutt, on NDTV Columns, September 20, 2006]
At times like this, when hangmen are asked to practice their moves, nothing comes more in handy than the teflon coated enthusiasm for capital punishment of television crusaders like Barkha Dutt. Great democracies, like the United States of America, the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Peoples Republic of China, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and enlightened states like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are known for their zeal in retaining the death penalty as a necessary part of state ritual. The Republic of India is in eminent company, and I am grateful to Barkha Dutt for making me remember that. I need not advance moral and ethical arguments against the death penalty here, because they have been so well countered by Ms. Dutt. Never mind the fact that states that have done away with the death penalty have lower rates of violent crime, never mind the fact the innocence of people that condemned to die has often been established after they have been executed. Ms. Dutt has demonstrated that the death penalty is the balm that comforts her agonized soul. And many of those who argue that the President should not in fact assent to the petition filed by Afzal’s family are also arguing that the Afzal must hang so that the Indian democracy and the loved ones of those who died defending the Indian parliament may rest in peace. The dignity of the Indian Republic hinges on the lever that will catapult Afzal into the empty space under the gallows in Tihar jail. As the noose tightens, our polity will blossom with renewed vigour. Continue reading Satyameva Jayate? : With Regard to the Impending Execution of Mohammad Afzal Guru in Tihar Jail.
‘So you are the little woman who wrote the book that made this great (American) civil war’
-Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Bruno Fulgini, a non descript employee at the French Parliament, would not have imagined in his wildest dreams that his tedious and boring job at the Parliament library, would lead him to treasure hunt of another kind.
Today he finds himself metamorphosed into an author and editor, thanks to the sudden discovery of old files of the Paris police, which provided details of its surveillance work done way back in 18 th century. In a report filed by AFP, Mr Fulgini tells us that ‘Beyond criminals and political figures, there are files on writers and artists. In some cases, they go far in their indiscretions.'( The Statesman and The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 26 th September 2006).
An edited version of these old files, focussing themselves on the writers of those times, has recently come out and is making waves. The said book ‘Writers’ Police’ gives details of the way in which greatest writers of late 18 th century who were living in Paris at that time were kept under surveillance.
Definitely even a layperson can understand that the whole exercise was not part of wreaking of vengeance by a frustrated writer who had joined the police force as some senior officer. Neither the police was keen to understand the impact of the actual lifestyles of the writers on societal mindset nor did it cared how a particular author would help unleash a new hairstyle on the block.
In fact the Parisian police had a very specific agenda.
It was clear to these protectors of internal security of a tottering regime that the renowned literati then viz. Victor Hugo, Balzac or Charles Dickens, might be writing fiction, but their sharp focus on the hypocrisy of the aristocrats or the livelihood issues of ordinary people is adding to the growing turmoil in the country. They knew very well that they might be writing fiction for the masses but it is turning out to be a sharp political edge that hit the right target and is becoming a catalyst for change.
While the Parisian police was engaged in tracking down the daily movements of the writers, its present day counterparts in Maharashtra especially from the Chandrapur-Nagpur region have rather devised some ‘easier’ and ‘shortcut routes’ to curb the flow of ideas.And for them it is also immaterial whether the writer in question was alive or dead. Continue reading Books As Crime
Taxi driver was driving past Mysore Road. As usual, I asked him where he was originally from and when he had come to Bangalore. Fifteen years ago madam, he told me. We passed by a bus station along Mysore Road. He pointed towards it and said to me, ‘international. Totally international’. I looked at him and said, ‘Aha, international’.
As we continued further, I asked him where he lived in Bangalore. He said Hanumanth Nagar. Where is Hanumanth Nagar, I asked him. It is near Banshankari, he replied. It’s official area. I was a bit flummoxed when I heard the word ‘official’. I asked him to clarify, what does official mean. Like residential, commercial, like that official. I presumed he meant that it was a place where a lot of offices were situated. He continued, proper, water, electricity, no problem. And when he said this, I thought he meant regularized, no problem.
Official, that’s a new term in my dictionary of the city.