TKR: The Portrait of an Editor

TKR: The Portrait of an Editor


Over the last fourteen years I had the opportunity to know T.K. Ramasamy, as an editor, a person, a friend and even as ‘a spinner of yarns’- all at the same time. As I attempt to write about him I can only hope that my perspectives will help to construct or conjure at least a part of the person himself.

Let me begin by admitting that my experience with TKR was above all, highly educative- he instigated one to write but also plodded, corrected and showed the way forward.

As an editor, TKR worked hard on some of the articles and book reviews that he received. In my case, my very first one was substantially changed- for good reasons, for after he had read my review he asked me (rather maliciously as I imagined it then): is it a book review, an article or an essay? I didn’t know the answer. However, I more than understood when I saw the review in print. That was my first lesson in writing.

Subsequently, my relations ship with him was more like an Urdu poet of yore sending his couplets to his ustad, who would bring about corrections here and there and for which one would wait impatiently. Over the years these corrections became less frequent and increasingly nuanced. Once he told me that he had to work very hard on a review that I wrote on a book on Indian nationalism. On reading my published review, I commented that I saw no change to what I had written. He only smiled.

Later when I compared my original review with the published one, I realized that he had indeed modified it: he had cut off its rough edges, chiseled it with an adroitness that smoothed out the words and brought it to an even tenor. Subsequently, it forced me to look for every tittle that he changed- it was an education that one started taking for granted. It upsets me today to think that what I write will not pass through the clinical gaze of TKR. It feels as if a pillar that one had got accustomed to lean on has disappeared.

TKR was a teacher in another way. Having studied engineering at college my forays into social science and literature was mostly by self- learning- an unstructured learning guided by the study of Marxist classics in the company of equally amateurish activist students. It was the Marxist ideologue Mohit Sen, and next only to him, TKR who provided a more mature appreciation of theory. Both, however, were contrasting in their methods. While the former provided, as he continues to provide, broad sweeps and direction, TKR was concerned more with the nuts and bolts. While the former was always convinced about his formulations, allowing little space for disagreement, TKR always retained a streak for skepticism.

TKR’s criticism of a point that I would make was in pointing out small, dark recesses of the argument- rarely a direct or frontal attack. Instead, he would make a statement of fact or offer an opinion countering a seemingly irrelevant point in the case that I would have built. He left extending the argument to its logical conclusion open. In other words, he would leave its generalizations and theorization to me.

Slowly, as I began to understand his method, it often shook me as the flaws in my argument dawned on me. Sometimes, it was overwhelming- because I thought that by making a minor criticism and not questioning my broader argument, he had conceded my main point. Little did I realize that his seeming surrender had been, in fact, a conquest.

Going over to Ramasamy’s house on the weekends that I was in Chandigarh, especially the last few years, had taken on something of a ritualistic rendezvous. I often found him with his regular set of friends, and there would be discussions on everything under the sun, always illuminating.

On less crowded days, he would quiz me about computer viruses or how the Internet worked. I tried to explain the more intricate technologies involved, rather clumsily I suppose. I would get my own back, quite gainfully, when he explained terms and processes in economics, a subject of which I was completely ignorant.

Sometimes the topic would span different terrains- I particularly remember once when he discussed how change in technology affects journalism, in fact, the thought process of the journalist and therefore the content itself. Journalists of his age, he remarked, usually thought out everything in their mind, revised and altered it a number of times in their minds before sitting down behind a typewriter to put them on paper in a single shot- a process that took only the time that depended on the typing speed of the person behind the typewriter.

Not having known many journalists of his times, I am not sure if this applies to everyone, but it surely did for him. The actual time that he took to churn out an editorial was a few minutes- for he had composed and refined it over and over again in his mind.

His own initial opposition to computers melted into a grudging learning of the technology and later to a comfortable co- existence as he tried to learn new features and use the computer for his daily work.

He had his idiosyncrasies. He would insist on using my full name in the byline, while I preferred only the first name. I could never decide what I could buy for him as I scoured the malls and specialty stores abroad. His needs were few, and gifting him something that went beyond those would have offended him. I always came back empty handed.

He would also dislike certain traits in people but suffered them in silence. He would take his drink slowly and avoided eating much, even as he relished talking about delicacies and intricacies of recipes.

What, however, appeared as idiosyncrasies were mostly a manifestation of the world outlook of the man, which was a confluence of many streams- customs of his native South Indian upbringing, his ideological moorings and his liberal dispensation. The last two were especially important, and interesting because while he remained on what he considered to be the more radical version of Marxism, and therefore should have been, I felt, to be more sectarian and less accommodative of contrary opinions, he was quite the opposite.

As I moved quickly in the four years at college from fringe versions of Naxalism to Soviet Marxism and still later to what TKR generously termed as the liberal left, I realize that it was actually TKR who assisted with the transition and made me question a number of my premises. I feel that he never renounced the core of his beliefs as much out of conviction as because of loyalty even as he refused to force others to kowtow his line of thought.

For TKR, like for many others of his generation, Marxism was the contemporary face of humanism. Their embracing of Marxism had involved among other things, a deep commitment to its ideals and a substantive break with the past.

He saw himself as part of a larger army that comprised some of the finest minds of his generation. They felt that not only the future was bright, not only that they had deciphered the genetic code of history and hence mastered the future but also they were its harbingers- the future belonged to them! Only the details had to be worked out. They had a role in shaping this future.

However, unlike many others who aspired or placed themselves at the head of this movement, TKR was content to be a foot soldier. His area of operation remained at the molecular level.

As the years went by to give way to doubts and eventually the smothering of their dreams as fort after fort of ‘existing’ socialism collapsed like a house of cards and their Indian vision began to give way to popular neo- liberal propagandists, it was clear that the dream had soured. The general optimism was giving place to a pessimism- but TKR did not let pessimism lead him into the labyrinth of cynicism.

It did not mean an abandonment of his core beliefs- for him Marxism combined intellectual rigour with an abiding ethical appeal for the underdog. For those like TKR, as he once wrote about himself, who wore their heart firmly on the left, it took on the form a religion in the affirmative sense- a religion for the modern world, a religion whose belief rested in iconoclasm. ‘De omnibus dubitandum’ (‘Doubt everything’), as Marx had put it.

In addition, it imposed a code of personal conduct, Stalin himself had firmly instructed the then Indian communist leadership of Sripad Dange, Rajeshwar Rao and B.T. Ranadive when they went to see him: above all, renounce your personal interests.

TKR’s formative years also coincided with the emergence of the newly independent country. A general optimism suffused the air.

The more impatient ones opted for Marxism as frustration with the relatively bland flavour offered by Nehru-ism became evident. The historic split in the Indian communist movement found TKR on the more radical wing. This was surprising and somewhat contradictory for in his writings he was always balanced and mild. One exception was a eulogy that he wrote on the death of B.T. Ranadive, whom he admired.

At the risk of a hyperbole and over- stretching a historical analogy, one cannot help feeling that while his age produced its fair share of Bazarovs and Rudins, it is yet to produce its Turgenevs.

TKR worked all his life with small newspapers, and before he joined the Tribune, with ideologically left of center papers.

His professional life was guided by ideas and his ideas were moulded in the fire of Marxism, his puritanism a part of not only his moorings in the Old Left but also his Brahmanical upbringing in a South Indian family- a legacy whose living content he continued to uphold and, mediating through his new glasses, channel them in new directions. As a small aside, one can remark that his knowledge of classical music, for example, helped him savour the Punjabi Sufiana qalam of a Puran Shahkoti or the Wadali brothers in whose singing he found a confluence of the classical with the folk, though he did not fully know the language.

To Chandigarh, a city devoid of history and traditions in a country where time is measured not in centuries but in millenniums, TKR brought a part of that history, traces of that tradition and inklings of the social and political struggles that had raged there. He adapted himself and them into the local conditions. Without him, the city is devoid of a piece of architecture that Le Corbusier forgot to design- an edifice of the mindscape.


TKR changed in certain respects over the years, at least with me. The early years (in late 1980s and early 1990s) of debate and verbal criticism gave way when he would recount his days in Nagpur- as a child and as a student. His escapades conjured up images of a little Swamy, not in Malgudi, but in Nagpur as he waded with his listeners through the lanes and by lanes of Nagpur with flourishing portraits of the people he had known.

My last meeting with him was three weeks before his death. I was meeting him after nearly five months and I felt a substantial change in him. He was much weaker physically and somewhat incoherent.

I had noticed, for the past few weeks, small spelling mistakes or a stray typographical error on the book review page- these should have been an indicator enough of his health, so immaculately was this page normally done, which he insisted on doing all by himself. But that winter evening, as we clinked our glasses, my eyes briefly met his- and in that moment I discerned a softness that betrayed resignation. The final news came as a vindication of that momentary encounter when one had desperately hoped for a refutation.

But then death and tragedy had stalked Ramasamy’s home for the last few years of his life. Illness and fatal accidents claimed, first his nephew, then his youngest brother and then the disappearance and presumed death of his remaining younger brother two years ago- all making for a gory sequence that would have made any other person of his age turn to superstition and mysticism. TKR felt emotionally depleted but tried to make as little of this as possible. ‘My grief is my personal grief’, he remarked to a friend, ‘No one can share it.’

Bhupinder Singh
07 March, 2002

Review of Lenin: A Biography by Robert Service

Lenin: A Biography
By Robert Service
Papermac (Macmillan), London £12 (Special Indian Price £7.20), Pages 494

One of the first actions that symbolically marked the demise of socialism in the former USSR was the bringing down of the statues and pictures of Lenin.

The irony, in the first place, was that the state that he more than anyone else was responsible for bringing into existence had iconized one of the most iconoclastic figures in the pantheon of human history. Lenin himself would have approved the demolition of his statues, though not of much else that accompanied it in 1991.

Robert Service, author of the book under review, is no Leninist, indeed, he has little sympathy for the kind of politics that Lenin espoused. Yet he has written a fairly readable biography though he does not entirely succeed in convincing the reader about why Lenin’s “extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant”. Much of what is contained in the book indicates otherwise.

It must be said to the biographer’s credit that he places his subject to the scrutiny of facts and therefore avoids the extreme conclusions of other authors who have written about the Russian Revolution in general and Lenin in particular. In the last one-decade these include Dmitri Volkogonov, Edvard Radzinsky, Orlando Figes and Richard Pipes.That Service manages to do a doublethink (to borrow a phrase from Orwell’s otherwise flawed “1984”), is another matter.

To this reviewer whose early introduction was to the hagiographies on Lenin churned out by Soviet publishers, the recent researches have tended to be more in the nature of additions of some facts or in the de-mythologization of others.

The qualitatively new dimensions have been few: the impact of Russian agrarian extremists in addition to Marx on Lenin’s thought and his many edicts and decisions during and after the Civil War that can be considered to be the genesis of the later totalitarian state. In the book under review there is new light on Lenin’s exchange of letters with those close to him, particularly Nadya Krupuskaya and Inessa Armand.

Beyond these points, even Service has little to add and there is a reason that despite his attempts to highlight the negative aspects of Lenin, he inaugurates the book with the sentence: “Lenin was an extraordinary man”.

With the proverbial wisdom of hindsight, the first point need not really have surprised us. After all, there was substantial material to indicate the violent program of the agrarian socialists and their impact on Russian revolutionaries. Dostovesky’s “The Demons” and particularly Joseph Conrad’s near- prophetic “Under Western Eyes” had underlined these streams of Russian revolutionary thought much earlier.

Regarding Lenin’s role in setting up the later Stalinist State, it needs to be read cautiously. While it is hard to imagine that the Soviet State would have been fundamentally different if Lenin had lived longer or if the leadership had passed on to someone else other than Stalin, it is also incorrect to see Stalinism as being a direct and legitimate continuation of Leninism.

Lenin was, as Service rightly points out, capable of reversing his decisions in the light of new developments- he often took an isolationist position but then used all his force to carry the rest of the Bolsheviks along with him. This was not the case with Stalin, who preferred the somewhat more “convenient” option of physically eliminating his rivals.

If Lenin resorted to polemical pamphleteer- ism for the dissemination of his ideas, Stalin paved the way for simplistic sloganeer-ism masquerading as profound truths. This was carried to its logical culmination in the Red books in Maoist China that pioneered the “communism for dummies” trend, if you will.

Besides, by reversing the early 1920s economic policies, Stalin deviated grievously. Though it may be conjectural to state this, it is possible that the ex- USSR might have developed those policies at an earlier stage that China adopted in the 1970s. As Roy Medvedev has forcefully argued in his recent book “Post- Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin years”, a pragmatic symbiosis of market features would have been a historically judicious choice compared to the barrack socialism that finally evolved.

The author recounts information about Lenin’s pedigree, including Mongol and Jewish ancestry. The family background of Lenin was generally ignored in the official biographies about Lenin and therefore the chapters on Lenin’s childhood and early upbringing make for interesting reading, if only for their novelty. Even Louis Fischer’s “Lenin: A Life” focused more on his later years.

The author also touches some of the important works like the “April Thesis” and “The State and Revolution”- attributing these generally to Lenin’s whims or wily scheming. Though one expects that he would have discussed these more seriously in his previously published 3-volume work on Lenin’s political thought, it is necessary not to underestimate his theoretical writings and to throw out the baby with the bath water.

A number of principles still carry a lot of weight, one of them being Lenin’s critique of Narodism. In India, for example Narodism in the form of Gandhism and neo- Narodism in the writings of third- world theorists like Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva has been a much stronger current than in the Russia. In this regard, one still needs to “go back to Lenin” to use a cliché popularized by Soviet writers. As the early 21st century comes to resemble more and more the early 20th century, this need may become all the more relevant as does a much more critical attitude.

Then there are certain aspects that Service either does not expend himself fully on, or does not touch at all.

For example, he points out that despite all his faults, Lenin was the acknowledged leader among both the Bolsheviks as well as his closest adversaries, the Mensheviks. If Plekanov was respected, Martov loved but still it was Lenin that the people followed, there must have been some reasons. Many of the other leading revolutionaries were extremely educated and forceful personalities in themselves. Despite that, why was there such universal agreement regarding Lenin? Service answers this with a thundering silence.

An aspect of Lenin’s personality that has recently been highlighted by Volkogonov and Radzinsky as well as Service needs attention. This is the supreme importance that Lenin attached to his personal security. While Volkogonov terms this “cowardice”, Service does not go so far, but even he does not attempt to provide an explanation.

The reason may be partly psychological and partly borne out of conviction on Lenin’s part. In his seminal work “What is to be Done?” Lenin had indicated that the working class cannot accomplish revolution by itself and there is need for an intelligentsia that grows outside the working class that develops theory and injects class- consciousness into the working class.

Tsarist Russia on the other hand was powerful enough to silence the rebellious intelligentsia. It must be remembered that Nikolai Chernesvesky’s literary and philosophical works were written only in his early years. Once he returned from his incarceration, he became completely silent. His mental faculties had been ruined. Lenin must have been fearful of a similar fate befalling him- his brother Alexander’s execution would have been a gory reminder too.

An aspect that needs attention from Lenin’s biographers and scholars of the Russian Revolution is a more judicious treatment of the personalities that he was associated with. In Service’s account, these personages appear and disappear like passing silhouettes except for Krupuskaya, Inessa Armand and Stalin. This leaves one not only with numerous loose ends but also does not help to adequately compare Lenin with some of the other leading figures in the Russian Social Democratic movement.

This is specially true of the important Menshevik theoreticians Yuli Martov, Pavel Axelrod and Alexander Bogdanov (whom Service considers to be Lenin’s intellectual superior and with whom Lenin engaged in polemics in “Empirio- Criticism and Materialism”), not to mention Trotsky , Stalin and Bukharin.

The last three at least have had their share of biographers (Isaac Deutscher for Trotsky and Stalin, Stephen Cohen for Bukharin). It is the leading Mensheviks who have been ignored by historians.

As for Lenin, the current biographer does not achieve what Deutscher accomplished for Trotsky. The need and the long wait for a definitive biography of Vladmir Illyich Lenin are not yet over.

19 December, 2001
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 13 Jan 2002

Review of The Famous Ghalib by Ralph Russel

The Famous Ghalib
Selected, Translated and Introduced By Ralph Russell
Roli Books, New Delhi Rs. 295 (HB), Pages 192

Ralph Russell came to India as a British soldier during World War II and went on to join the Department of Oriental Studies at Cambridge. His previous works over the years, mostly written along with Khursidul Islam, have made him known as an authority on Urdu literature especially on Mirza Ghalib.He remarks that, “If his (Ghalib’s) language had been English, he would have been recognised all over the world as a great poet long ago. My translations are an attempt to present some of his poetry in English so that English speakers may be able to judge the work for themselves.” However, the book caters well even to those already familiar with the poetry of Ghalib, this is so both in the selection and translations of the poetry and in the accompanying essays.

The sheyrs and ghazals translated into English are followed by the original in Urdu and the transliterated versions in Roman and Devnagari. An essay on ‘Getting to Know Ghalib’ serves as an insightful introduction to Ghalib, his poetry and the milieu that it grew on. Another essay ‘On Translating Ghalib’ brings forth the problems and techniques of translating from Urdu to English. These essays help to supplement and explain the translations. They weave together the translated sheyrs into a cohesive whole.

The current translations are marked by a stress on the literal meaning of the sheyrs, though there are some sheyrs and ghazals where the translator has tried to practically recreate both the meaning and the form in English. This is not a mean achievement and as compared to the other two significant translations (one by Qurrat-ul- ain Haider and another edited by Aijaz Ahmed), Russel has attempted -and achieved- much more. One hopes that it will encourage the reader to read the original.


Ghalib roars over and above his predecessors as well as contemporaries, he rarely whimpers. He is a lively, even a gregarious character. For a long time and especially till the age of 25, Ghalib refused to consider any criticism of his poetry. Consider the following sheyr:

Bandagi men bhi vuh azada o khud-bin hain ki ham
Ulte phir ae dar I kaba agar va na hua.(We serve You, yet our independent self regard is such
We shall at once turn back if we would find the Kaba closed)

This assertion of the self was to reach its crescendo in Iqbal (with the development of the concept of khudi) and still later metamorphosed into the collective individual in the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Aur raaj kareygi khalaq-e-khuda,
Jo main bhi hoon, aur tum bhi ho(And the Creations of the Lord, which is you and me,
Shall rule the world)

Russel’s selection rightly brings forth this aspect of Ghalib’s poetry. One cannot stress this enough as the traditional ghazal form does not facilitate presentation of the poet’s world- view in a systematic form. Each sheyr is a complete poem in itself, and it is not necessary for a ghazal to express the same mood in all the sheyrs- in that sense it can be said that the form tends to dominate the content. The exposition is, therefore, disparate and scattered in sheyrs across different ghazals. One has to wade through to pick and choose and then reconstruct- a difficult and onerous task.

Understanding Ghalib requires that one understands not only the literal meaning of a verse, but also the allusions that occur in them. Ghalib wrote from within the Muslim tradition and it is therefore necessary to understand that tradition, the religious concepts, references to aspects of the Muslim way of life and so on. Russell explains some of these and illustrates the usage in some sheyrs.

Ghalib himself, however was hardly a ‘good’ Muslim. For one, he drank wine, as is famously known. He did not keep fasts or say his prayers or go on pilgrimage. In this he follows other Urdu poets who stand on the verge of transgression or beyond. For instance, Mir had said:

Mir ke deen-o-mazhab ko, ab poochtey kya ho, unney toh
Kashka khaincha, dair main baitha, kab ka tark islam kiya

(Do not ask what Mir’s religion is, he has
Put on the sacred mark on the forehead (tilak), sits in the idol house, and has given up Islam)

Ghalib wrote much that ridiculed and often put to serious cross-examination many of the religious and Islamic concepts. One of his somewhat cryptic posers is:

na tha kuch, toh khuda tha, na hoga kuch toh khuda hoga
duboya mujhko hooney ney, na hota main, toh kya hota?(When nothing was, then God was there; had nothing been, God would have been,
My being has defeated me, had I not been what would have been? )

Regarding the references to idol- worship and Hinduism in Ghalib’s poetry, Russell observes that Hinduism was the nearest religion outside Islam known to Ghalib. He points out that the practices of Hinduism afford a vivid symbol of the worship of God through the worship of beauty. “The idol is the symbol of the irresistibly beautiful mistress you ‘idolise’ and adore… All these concepts make ‘Hinduism’- that is, Hinduism as a symbol rather than actual Hinduism- the expression of one of the mystics’ key beliefs.”

Ghalib was aware that the milieu in which he grew up was in its twilight and was being replaced by a more advanced civilization. At the same time, he saw the emerging world from the framework of ‘medieval ways of thought and shared many of the attitudes of his eighteenth century predecessors in poetry.’ Hence, the conflicting pulls in the following sheyr:

Iman mujhe roke hai, jo khainche hai mujhe kufr
Kaba merey peeche hai, kalisa merey aagey(My faith restrains me while the lure of unbelief attracts me,
That way, the Kaaba, and this way, the Church before my eyes)

It was the spirit of transgression, of crossing the accepted norms of society that excited Ghalib. “If you are to experience life to the full, you must not confine yourself to actions approved by the virtuous”, remarks Russell. This recalls to mind a Punjabi Sufi couplet:

Jo had tapey so auliya, behad tapey so pir
Jo had, behad dono tapey, us noon aakhan fakir

(The one who crosses all boundaries attains the exalted title Auliya, the one who crosses non- boundaries becomes the Pir,
The one who crosses both boundaries as well as non- boundaries, becomes a Fakir)

And Ghalib, of course, prided himself on being a fakir. He remarked:

Banakar fakeeron ka hum bheys ghalib,
Tamasha-e-ahl-e-karam dekhtey hain(Taking on the garb of a fakir, Ghalib
I watch the goings on of the world with a detached air)

Russell points out that Urdu poetry, unlike poetry written in English, is meant to be primarily recited and not read. “It is significant that in Urdu idiom, you don’t write verse; you say verse; and the poet who ‘says’ it presents it to his audience by reciting it to them. Only later does it appear in print… Clearly, poets who compose in this tradition need qualities which those who compose for a tradition of written transmission do not need at all….”

“The mushaira is a long- drawn out affair and the poet’s main enemy is monotony. If they are to participate effectively in a mushaira, which will perhaps last for hours together, they cannot hope to do so without resort to variety. The audience knows as soon as the first couplet has been recited what the metre and the rhyme scheme are. Unless the ghazal is one of quite exceptional force, uniformity of tone and emotional pitch are likely to pall.”


The present selection has a number of sheyrs from what is considered to be one of the finest ghazals that Ghalib wrote in Urdu and whose matla is:

Muddat huee hai yaar ko mehmaan kiye hue
Josh-e-qadah se bazm chiraaghaan kiye hue

Russel has translated this as:

(An age has passed since I last brought my loved one to my house
Lighting the whole assembly with the wine- cup’s radiance)

One would only have appreciated if the author had included the ibtidaayi (first) ghazal of Diwan-i- Ghalib. It provides the poet’s own introduction to his diwan, despite it being a little complicated for a beginner:

Naqsh fariyaadee hai kiskee shokhee-e-tehreer ka
Kaaghazee hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka

Ali Sardar Jafri wrote that visionary is the one who sees and speaks to the future. It is to this exalted group of remarkable men that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib belonged. In his own time, he had rued:

Today none buys my verse’s wine, that it may grow old
To make the senses reel in many a drinker yet to come
My star rose highest in the firmament before my birth
My poetry will win the world’s acclaim when I am gone

Urdu poetry, Kaifi Azmi once remarked once in an interview, will keep the Urdu language alive. In the last one-decade or so, interest in Ghalib’s poetry has seen something of a revival with the increasing presence of audio and visual mediums in addition to print. While the TV serial ‘Mirza Ghalib’ and the rendering of his poetry by a variety of singers have increased the reach of his poetry, one still has to turn to the written word to drink deep and not merely taste the Pierian Spring. This is clearly illustrated by the book under review- a masterly introduction to the Urdu language’s greatest poet.

April 3, 2001
Published: The Tribune 20 May 2001

Review of: On the Edge of the New Century by Eric Hobsbawm

On the Edge of the New Century by Eric Hobsbawm
In conversation with Antonio Polito

The New Press, New York
$21, Pages 176, April 2000

If Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Age of Extremes’ was an anguished, even if intellectually stimulating reflection on the 20th century from the vantage point of the early nineties, the present book is marked by a renewed exuberance. There are numerous questions that Hobsbawm is still vague on or treads hesitantly, but the change in mood is evident. The historian par excellence, now in his eighties, is back with perceptive insights and his characteristic ability to question accepted wisdom.

This is most evident in his treatment of the globalization phenomenon. While most people believe that it is not only unstoppable but is increasingly gaining ground, Hobsbawm questions both these views.

He observes: “Globalization is primarily based on the elimination of technical obstacles rather than economic ones. It is the abolition of distance and time. For example, it would have been impossible to consider the world as a single unit before it had been circumnavigated at the end of the fifteenth century… the turning point (for the enormous acceleration and global spread of good transport) was the appearance of modern air freight… Until the seventies, a company that wanted to produce motor cars in a country other than the country of origin would have to build an entire production process on the spot.”

” Now it is possible to decentralize the production of engines and other components, and then have them brought together wherever the company wants. For practical purposes, production is no longer organized within the political confines of the state where the parent company resides… thus while the global division of labor was once confined to the exchange of products within the particular regions today it is possible to produce across the frontiers of states and continents. This is what the process is founded on.”

“The abolition of trade barriers is, in my opinion, a secondary phenomenon. This is the real difference between the global economy before 1914 and today. Before the Great War, there was pan- global movement of capital goods and labor. But the emancipation of manufacturing and occasionally agricultural products from the territory in which they were produced was not yet possible”.

The drive for globalization requires that ideally the world be seen not as a globe with national boundaries but as a map of the major corporations of the world.

And this, Hobsbawm avers, is not only an impossible but a very dangerous ideal. For one, it considers only the production aspect leaving out the distribution aspect altogether. Another, for the ideal to be realized necessitates standardization and homogenization. The point that Hobsbawm raises is that there are bound to be physical limitations and resistance to these attempts. That is the real Y2K problem that will determine the limitations to globalization however omnipotent it may seem today.

Some indications to these limits are borne out by developments in the European Union itself, where it has become “extremely difficult to determine a common foreign and defense policy and this proves that there aren’t the necessary conditions for an effective and total political integration, whereas there are for social and economic matters. The enlargement of the European Union will make the situation even more difficult”.

The only two important fields in which Europeans have come close is the recognition by governments that European jurisprudence takes precedence over their national laws. The other aspect that unites Europeans is protectionism in order to resist competition from the United States and mass immigration from the Third World.

Hobsbawm is equally emphatic regarding the failure of the free market. “When historians in fifty years time look back on our era, they will probably say that the last part of the short twentieth century ended with two things: the collapse of the Soviet Union and also the bankruptcy of free market fundamentalism that dominated government policies from the end of the Golden Age ” (1970s). The global crisis of 1997- 98 may very well be taken as the turning point”.

The other is of course the implementation of the purest free market policies in the former Soviet Union whose tragedy has still not been well understood.

“The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don’t understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don’t believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules) if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is a disaster”.

That globalization is not unstoppable is controverted by historical experience- control of immigration (humans being a necessary, even if an “evil” part of the production process) is an example.

The author regards Pope John Paul to be the last great ideologue to criticize capitalism for what it is, though it is “eccentric” in relation to Western conformist thought and the dominant political and intellectual consensus”. This, of course, implicitly underlines the ineffectiveness of the Left to articulate this criticism- indeed the Left itself has been divided as the European socialists who are in government in most of Western Europe have demonstrated. Tony Blair and his guru Anthony Giddens term it the “Third Way”. Hobsbawm expresses his disagreement, rather brutally one feels, by terming Blair as the “Thatcher in trousers”.

Neither does Francis Fukuyama escape his acerbic taunt- he is branded as the Dr. Plongloss of the 20th century (Dr. Plongloss is a character in Voltaire’s Candide).

Hobsbawm feels that it is also incorrect to consider the liberal and left traditions as unrelated if not divergent. It was only with the Bolshevik revolution that the Left came to be identified with the specific form of Soviet socialism that ultimately failed to sustain itself and collapsed. On the other hand the liberals too did not exactly manage to change the nature of the state. The welfare state always operated within the capitalist framework.

Some of Hobsbawm’s comments are personal in nature- for example he comments that he deliberately chose to study 19th century history so as to remain above the debates regarding contemporary issues.

“I… have to admit that while I hope I have never written or said anything about the Soviet Union that I should feel guilty about, I have tended to avoid dealing with it directly, because I knew that if I had, I would have had to have written things that would have been difficult for a communist to say without affecting my political activity and the feelings of my comrades”.

Some of Hobsbawm’s comments are disconcerting, for example, when he notes that ethnic cleansing can actually solve problems. Others are subtler, for example his observation that modern nationalism is generally top down. “Human beings were not created for capitalism”, Hobsbawm remarks tongue in cheek elsewhere in the book.

As a reversal of a centuries long process, the long historical wave which moved toward the construction and gradual strengthening of territorial states or nation- states comes to an end (the end itself starting around 1960s and deeply accelerating after 1989), Hobsbawm notes that it has become increasingly difficult to mobilize people on collective lines specially in the West. This underlines the crisis of class based action today and also the reason why Hobsbawm considers the most appropriate symbol for the 20th century not to be the working class or the peasantry but a mother with her children.

“The people who have most in common are mothers, wherever they live on the face of the earth and inspite of their different cultures, civilizations and languages. In some ways, a mother’s experience reflects what has happened to a large part of humanity in the 20th century”.

These intensely humanistic insights remind one of what Antonio Gramsci in another era termed as the optimism of the will overcoming the pessimism of the mind. From the “Age of Extremes” to the present book, Hobsbawm has displayed tremendous optimism of the will and fired a salvo that may not completely overcome the pessimism of the mind, but somewhat lights up the darkness that has characterized the last decade. Alas! There is none of his caliber and perseverance after him in sight.

June 15, 2000
Published: The Tribune 02 July 2000

Review of: Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution by Sitanshu Das

Indian Nationalism: A Study in Evolution
By Sitanshu Das
Har- Anand Publications, New Delhi 1999. Pages: 291 Price Rs. 325/-

The historian Bipan Chandra has shown, nearly three decades back, that the economic critique of imperialism by Naoroji, Ranade and others formed the bedrock of Indian nationalism. An essentially anti- imperialist movement led to the formation of a national state- though not really a nation in the West European sense.

The author of the book under review, however, has a different opinion and views nationalism from a religio- cultural angle. According to Sitanshu Das, the defining element of Indian nationalism was essentially anti- Muslim. His study on nationalism is confined to the 19th century Bengal, Maharashtra and the Punjab. In all the three places he thinks that nationalism had a unifying anti- Muslim thread.

According to him, the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ is a myth and there were other contending streams of nationalism that Bengal produced in the immediate aftermath of the British rule. These were expressed in religious terms and were essentially anti- Muslim. The Hindus of Bengal had welcomed the initial British rule as it gave them some freedom that had been “stifled” under Muslim rule.

He holds the basis of nationalism in Maharashtra to be the “nationalism” of Shivaji. Before the coming of Ranade and Tilak, the Chitpavan Brahmins- as inheritors of the Peshwa dynasty (despite its degenerate rule) saw themselves as the natural nationalist leaders. Their nationalism was also essentially anti- Muslim.

The author’s understanding of nationalism in Punjab is equally superficial. In the Punjab, he feels, the question was essentially between the Muslims on the one hand, and the Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Sikhs were the defenders of the Hindu faith. Guru Gobind Singh practically represented Hindu nationalism. Till the 19th century, the Hindus sought the protection of the Sikhs. The British created a separate Sikh identity and the latter sided with the British government after the Anglo- Sikh wars. Modern nationalism, therefore, came to be represented by the emergence of the Arya Samaj under Lala Lajpat Rai.

Das opines that Nehru and Bose were wrong to read a syncretic tradition in the medieval age and instead it was Vivekananda who represented the best stream of Indian nationalism. Hindu resistance to Muslim rule was present throughout the medieval period. Vivekananda revived this “tradition” in a package of militant nationalism (the discerning reader may be reminded here of what Hobsbawm once termed as the “invention of tradition”).

The author’s basis for understanding 19th century Indian history in general and nationalism in particular is flawed on a number of counts.

Das views Indian history in terms of religious identity and confines himself only to the “high tradition”. His work belongs to what has been termed by Sumit Sarkar as the “older kind of work on nationalism focused on politics inspired or manipulated from the top” and one that is a rather unreliable guide to what the rank and file of the common people actually thought and felt.

The writer assumes an a priori notion of nationalism as an ever-present phenomenon, while today there is more or less a consensus that nationalism emerged only in the early 19th century Europe (see Raymond Williams’s excellent summary in his compendium Keywords).

Das also fails to locate Indian nationalism in the context of current debates on nationalism, significantly the works of Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn. The author is blissfully unaware not only of these, but also the excellent work done by Sudipto Kaviraj and Partha Chatterjee in this decade and the Marxist and subaltern schools previously. Sumit Sarkar’s extremely relevant essay on Ram Mohan Roy is not even mentioned. The least one could have expected on a work on India nationalism is a discussion, if not a critique on some of the issues raised by these historians.

Sumit Sarkar has recently observed, rather self critically, that even in the context of the modern Indian history written as late as the early 1980s (including his own work Modern India, 1983): “The common sense or textbook understanding of late colonial Indian history, for instance, is still in large part grounded on the assumption that the entire meaningful world of political action and discourse can be comprehended through categories of imperialism, nationalism and communalism… Such an assumption involves an uncritical acceptance of holistic ideological claims of ‘Indian nationalism’ and ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim communalism’ “. (See his “Identity and Difference: Caste in the Formation of Ideologies of Nationalism and Hindutva” in Writing Social History, 1997). Das, woefully, continues to sell his wares in an even older and long defunct paradigm that comes close to articulate the unifactory projects of Hindutva and Indian nationalism. Incidentally, if not intentionally, this well suits the Sangh Parivar’s current offensive for saffronizataion of history.

The author’s attempt at writing the history of Indian nationalism can be described as belonging to a school of historiography that is at best outdated and at worst discredited.

Hobsbawm notes in his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) that nationalism is a complex business. He quotes the French historian Renan as saying: “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation”.

Whether India is or was ever a nation, will it ever be a nation or whether it is a nation in the making or in the unmaking, whether it a cultural unity or a civilizational unity or whether India has to be discovered or invented- these are questions that are at the center of the debate and contest today not only in academics but also significantly at the political level. As far as the work under review is concerned, it does not attempt to raise or answer any of these and trace their evolution. It does, however, qualify the first part of Renan’s observation- it magnificently manages to get its history wrong.

13th Oct 1999
Published: The Tribune 05 Dec 1999

Review of: The Sena Story by Vaibhav Purandare

Authorised Biography of the Shiv Sena
The Sena Story
By Vaibhav Purandare
Business Publications Inc, Mumbai 1999 Pages 462, Price Rs. 250

The Shiv Sena’s emergence is a specific instance of a worldwide trend- the swamping and infringing of the metropolitan core by people from outside and the organised resistance to the immigrants. In case of the Shiv Sena, especially during its formative years, its championing of the Marathi manoos was rooted in the fact that most of the white- collar and even blue- collar jobs were denied to the local populace.

This is the focus of the early part of the book where the author has relied on two rigorously academic studies done by Mary Katzenstein (1979) and Dipankar Gupta (1982). Besides there are a number of interviews with aging socialist and communist leaders who once strode the city and who provide a number of incisive though critical insights into the early years of the Shiv Sena.

The Shiv Sena filled the vacuum created by the dismantling of the Left- led Samyukta Maharashtra movement after the main demands were met and a separate state of Maharashtra with Bombay as the capital was created and nobody was left to speak for the Marathi manoos. Later, according to the author, the city centric Sena struck a responsive chord in rural Maharashtra because of Sharad Pawar’s joining the Congress in 1986. Pawar’s co- option into the Congress left the traditionally anti- Congress backward castes with no choice but to support the Sena, which had been trying to make inroads under Chaggan Bhujbal.

Mrinal Gore, the veteran socialist leader from Bombay, however contends that the Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray have, despite their aggressive advocacy of jobs for the Maharashtrians, actually restricted their vision and have duped the working class Marathi youth.

She observes: “(Thackeray’s) appeal was to youngsters whose reasoning faculty wasn’t fully developed. He told them outsiders were taking away their jobs and suggested quick fix solution…another reason he caught the fancy of youngsters was that he told them not to read and increase their corpus of knowledge. He pooh- poohed all social, political and economic theories and told the youth these were useless. Thus, he kept the vision of the youngsters confined to the Marathi issue…he stunted the intellectual and cultural growth of Marathi youth”.

As the book progresses, the author chooses to increasingly rely on newspaper reports and journalistic flamboyance that he possesses in abundance.

The result is a book that, after the first few chapters, reads something between a racy potboiler and an American corporate success story. It could have been a good study of the Shiv Sena. That it is not so is indeed regrettable since there have been few studies of the Sena in recent years unlike that of the Sangh Parivar. Purandare has missed a chance to step into this void, since at a number of places he is incisive and there are flashes of serious journalism. Instead he has turned it into what is at best a narrative of the rise of the Sena (as the word “story” in the title indicates) and at worst into a hagiographic account of the Sena and its supremo Bal Thackeray.

He asserts: “The Left wing critics of the Sena always maintained that class exploitation and not ethnic competition deprived the Maharashtrians of economic strength, but the middle class Maharashtrian found the Sena’s position more convincing.” And what was the Sena’ position? Its position was to drive out the non- Maharashtrians by advocating reservation for the local Marathi speaking populace- so far, so good.

But it went beyond that. It resorted to strong- arm tactics and street smart justice. It resorted to intimidation, murder and outright terror, first against the South Indians, then the Communists, then Muslims and, by way of variety, against liberal individuals like AK Hangal and Dilip Kumar. Purandare recounts a number of such incidents, yet, all this does not diminish his enthusiasm either for the Sena or for Raman Fielding (as Rushdie characterized Bal Thackeray in The Moor’s Last Sigh).

The author’s celebration of what should actually have been a lament for the de- cosmopolitanization of Bombay is misplaced. That indeed is sad and a cause for concern.

Published: The Tribune 10 Oct 1999

Review of: The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism Edited by K.N. Panikkar

The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism
Edited By K.N. Panikkar
Viking Penguin India, New Delhi
Price Rs. 395/- (HB) Pages 252 + xxxvii

The volume under review is a collection of 6 essays by well- known academics and writers. It seeks to understand and rebut the communal offensive that has taken a new dimension after the installation of the BJP government last year. The BJP has faced a slight handicap of having to work within a coalition of 18 parties. However, the communalist drive has been marked by the unwarranted explosion of nuclear bombs, the offensive against the minority Christian community, attempts to replace the school syllabi in BJP ruled states and the jingoistic hype accompanying the Kargil intrusions.

Sumit Sarkar provides a historical backdrop to the attacks on the Christian community and points out that conversions are generally not a one step jump. Historically, these have often taken long periods of interaction between communities before conversions actually take place. There are different reasons for conversions, including the advocacy of social and economic demands of the people by missionaries.

During the Indigo revolt in the last century in Bengal, Christian missionaries took up demands of Hindu planters and even went to jail. This particular event, interestingly, has been well recorded in a Bengali folk song that recounts the efforts of a Rev Long during the revolt.

He also points out the close association of the Church with Liberation Theology during the last few decades especially in the Third World countries where the Church has identified itself with the aspirations of the downtrodden. That the Hindutva attacks on Christians have been concentrated in Orissa and Gujrat, where the Christian population consists primarily of tribals and the poor, is indicative of the Sangh Parivar’s real intentions.

Similar movements from the Right are active all over the world. Jayati Ghosh looks at the global economic situation and links the current social unrest to the changes in the distribution of economic growth that are increasingly loaded against those who are already poor and deprived. Between 1960 and 1991, the income share of 85 percent of the world’s population actually fell, as the income share of the richest 20 percent rose from 70 percent to 85 percent, while that of the poorest 20 percent fell from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent.

In India, from 1993-94 to 1997, the percent share of the population below the poverty line increased from 37.3 percent to 38.5 percent in the rural sector and 32.4 to 34 percent in the urban sector. Employment in the total organized sector increased by less than 1 percent between 1990-97.

These increasing disparities provide the objective conditions for the growth of ethnic and religion based unrest. Why and how such movements originate, however, are specific to the history and political conditions in each country.

In a scintillating essay on the attempts by communalists to use history, Romilla Thapar critiques the viewing of Indian history in terms of two monolithic communities identified by religion. Historical works before the 19th century, including those in Sanskrit and local languages, used a variety of terms like Turushka, Tajika, Yavana, Shaka and mleccha to refer to those who today would be referred to by the blanket term of Muslims.

It was in the 19th century that the two communities were described as not only monolithic but were also projected as static over many centuries. That people in India have multiple identities (like those of caste, language, religion etc) was completely ignored. This well served the British colonial interests.

The anti- Babri Masjid movement in the eighties threw up a host of women leaders like Uma Bharati and Ritambra. This was really surprising since the RSS, fountainhead of the Parivar, has been a typically patriarchal organization known for its conservatism. Tanika Sarkar has written earlier on the gender dimension of the movement. The essay included in this volume updates her studies on the same theme in the late nineties.

She finds that there has been a shift in the role of the women’s organizations linked to the Parivar. These have now been relegated into the background after the attainment of state power. Women’s issues per se had never been important for these organizations, but now not only the membership has plummetted, these organizations have withdrawn from active politics and even reduced their meetings and the social space that they occupied at the height of the movement.

Sarkar points out that while mainstream Left movement has been either stagnant or declining, Leftist women’s organizations have continued to grow and have strongly implanted bases among working class and poor sections. These have a combined strength of over 50 lakhs, while the Sangh related organizations have barely crossed thousands, besides having been confined to the upper class, upper caste sections.

Siddharth Vardarajan, senior editor with a Delhi newspaper, writes on the use of the media in general and that of the newspapers in particular in propagating communalism. Modern media have contributed in fostering communal hysteria and the construction of the “Other” in the enemy image (the Sikhs in the eighties, then Muslims and finally the Christians in the last one year). He points out that most of the media is controlled by large businesses. Most of the editorial staff comes from the same social base that has also been at the forefront of Hindu communalism. The Sangh Parivar has proved to be an expert in handling “pseudo- events” in the media and raking up emotive non- issues.

In one of the finest essays in the collection, Rajeev Dhawan focuses not so much on communalism as on secularism with respect to the Indian constitution. He points out that it will be near impossible to come up with a document like this in our times. The constitution adopted in 1950, even though in the immediate aftermath of one of the bloodiest events in the sub- continent (the Partition) is full of compromises and adjustments on part of all the parties.

He points out, however, that a number of desirable progressive measures were relegated to the Directive Principles instead of Fundamental Rights. Overall, he feels that the Indian Constitution provides the bedrock for Indian secularism, ambiguous though it is in many senses. He also points out that communalism can no longer be attributed to the colonial condition, it is also a condition of post- colonialism.

The title of the book is well thought of, and so are Ram Rehman’s photographs on the cover. The work comes as a most welcome addition to existing literature on the one of the most acute problems of our times, and one which is going to be around for a long time to come. The incisive academic analysis of the contributors, buttressed with their deep social concern is evident in each of the essays. That is an assurance against the prophets of doom as well as ammunition in the intellectual armoury against communalism.

10 August 1999
Published: The Tribune 22 Aug 1999

Review of: India Caught in Transition Trap by Avijit Pathak

India Caught in Transition Trap

Indian Modernity: Contradictions, Paradoxes and Possibilities
By Dr. Avijit Pathak
Gyan Publishing House, 1998 Pp 243, Rs. 325/-

From Nehru’s famous midnight speech that India was “awakening to freedom”, we have come a long way when every morning newspapers tell us that far from awakening we are still going through an agonizing nightmare.

Similarly, Nehru’s vision that “dams are the temples of modern India” has been replaced by ideas that question the very relevance of the dams built in the country after independence on the one hand, and on the other hand consist in placing a Ram temple at the center of Indian nationhood.

Analysts are seeking to understand and explain this increasing divergence from the idea of modern India that Nehru and the nationalist elite envisaged and the actual direction that events have taken during the last half a century. Primarily, two opposing camps can be identified in this venture.

One of them seeks to question the very relevance of modernity for India. Since “unlike as in Europe, modernity came to India as primarily an external proposal as a theory and an external agenda as practice” (Sudipto Kaviraj, “The Unhappy Conciousness”, 1995), the political elite that came to power in 1947 tried to thrust Western notions and institutions down the unwilling throat of an India that was so unlike the Europe where these institutions were born. Proponents of this line of thought urge to find an Indian “essentialism” and “exceptionism”. Some of them trace, if not derive, their ideas from Gandhi, who, they affirm, not only took on British colonialism in the political terrain but extended his critique to a civilizational crusade.

“Railways, lawyers and doctors have impoverished the country, so much so that we shall be ruined…Hospitals are institutions for propagating sins…hatred against the English ought to be transferred to their civilization…”, he urged. Gandhi went on to create his own notion of a future India without industry, without railways, without hospitals and without cities.

Those who claim to derive from such ideas are not Gandhi- capped village workers, but academicians and university dons both in India and abroad. They have raised neo- Gandhism to almost a fashionable intellectual trend. Adherents include Ashish Nandy, Bhiku Parikh, T.N. Madan and Vandana Shiva and their collaborators. Grass- root workers trying to appropriate this aspect of Gandhi’s thought include Sunderlal Bahuguna and Medha Patkar. This group can be termed as the anti- modernist group.

Partha Chatterjee and certain adherents of the subaltern school claim to oppose what they term as Gandhi’s homogenizing project. They belong to that sect of the subalterns that has been heavily influenced by the post modernist approach that celebrates “fragments” and “parts”, in contrast to the “universalism” and the “whole” that they accuse European Renaissance of fostering and the Indian nationalist elite of furthering. Not only the ruling elite, but the communists also get a bashing from them. The prescription for India’s rejuvenation from this school lies in strengthening the “fragmented responses to the universalism of modernity”, as Partha Chatterjee remarked in his influential work, “The Nation and its Fragments”, 1993.

The modernists, on the other hand, contest that the problems created or exacerbated during the last 50 years of modern development suffer not from modernization, but precisely from its incompletion and insufficiency. The task, therefore, lies in strengthening modernity. While the liberalizers, on the one hand argue for integrating with the Western dominated global markets, the Left calls for radicalization of the process and a more equitable distribution of the gains of modern development to the poorer sections. Both, liberalizers and the leftists, from the point of modernity, belong to the same camp.

Achin Vanaik (“Communalism Contested”, 1997) has emerged as the most serious and articulate proponent for those who would rather put their eggs in the modernity basket. Sunil Khilani (“The Idea of India”, 1997) has also produced a somewhat milder defence of Nehru’s modernizing project.

“To have modernity or not to have modernity”, therefore is the central issue that the two warring camps are fighting for. In this contest between the two powerful armies of intellectuals and practitioners, Avijit Pathak, the author of the book under review finds himself at the crossroads. In fact, his intention is to even pave a third way. But he is not sure.

He recognizes that while modernity does offer bountiful gains, it is also not free from its “discontents”. The title of the book seems to suggest that while he accepts the desirability of modernity, he also recognizes that it is not a fatalistc state. Its realization does not necessarily lie in transplanting the European grown modern institutions on an India that is not a “clean sheet” of paper. (Mao once described China’s backwardness in capitalism as an advantage as it would be easier for socialism to be implanted on the “clean sheet” that China supposedly was). Still, modernity, the title seems to suggests, holds a number of “possibilities” of transmutation.

“The idea of emancipation was closely linked with the agenda of modernity”, he avers, ” Emancipation of man from the tyranny of tradition. But then, it is no longer possible to deny that modernity itself may prove to be a trap. Its mega- structures, bureaucracy and irresistible technology often deny man’s authentic autonomy. Because the story of modernity is not simply the story of well- fed, well- clothed men; it is also the story of intense agony- loss of self and communication and relatedness. The fact is that even when Bacon and Decartes shape my mind, my heart cannot escape Gandhi and Ramakrishna. This is my ambiguity, my contradiction… despite this ambiguity I am becoming more and more inclined to those who critique modernity”. This, however, contradicts what the title indicates.

The result is that while the author has brilliantly managed to bring issues to the fore, he falters in the way of providing answers. His prescription of forging a dialogic between modernity and spirituality, resulting in his call for “spiritualization of economics” and other such contrived jargon fails to lead the reader anywhere. It is, at its best, eclecticism and at worst, a forced marriage of unconnected or even contradictory points of view.

The central, and in view of the present reviewer, critical weakness of the book lies in the near complete indifference of the writer to counter contending schools of thought. Thus there is no attempt to examine, for example, Vanaik’s spirited defence of modernity. Vanaik’s case shows the strong critical trend within modernity. The author at best acknowledges this viewpoint with a dismissive nod, and at worst betrays an attitude that refuses to engage in a dialogue with critical modernity. This is indeed strange since the need to engage in a “dialogic” is the author’s leit motif.

The author has an uncanny ability to come up with penetrating insights and in intellectually echoing the tensions inherent in contemporary society. Yet, his approach lacks the “confident restlessness” that Iqbal once spoke of. Instead his flights of inquiry are rather doubtful and apprehensive. All the same, the restlessness is to be unabashedly welcome.

One can discern a similar contradiction- if not a dilemma- in Gandhi. It lay in the fact that while Gandhi decried the railways, he made use of the railways more than anyone else. While he idealized an ascetic living, his friend G.D. Birla ruefully grumbled that people did not realize how expensive it was to keep Gandhi in poverty. Finally, Gandhi’s dilemma lay in the fact that it was the champion of modernity- Jawaharlal Nehru, and not any a Gandhian, whom he nominated to “speak my language when I am no more”. This was nothing but Gandhi’s acceptance of modernity in his own manner.

It was also no co- incidence that it was the late P.C. Joshi who paid back modernity’s compliment to Gandhi, when he first called Gandhi as the father of the nation. Joshi was then the general secretary of the CPI and Gandhi’s unrelenting critic.

4 February, 1999
Published: The Tribune 14 Feb 1999

Review of Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky

By Edvard Radzinsky
Anchor/ Doubleday, New York
Pages 607, $15.95 1996

“All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but whenever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared…We brought you the truth, and in our mouth it sounded like a lie. We brought you freedom and it looks in our hands like a whip…we brought you the future, but our tongue stammered and barked”, thus mused Rubashov, the Bukharin like central character awaiting a certain death in a GPU prison in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon. Rubashov’s prosecutor Gletkin says as he pronounces the sentence on him, “You were wrong, and you will pay, Comrade Rubashov. The Party promises only one thing: after the victory, one day when it can do no more harm, the material of the secret archives will be published.”

The archives today have been opened, though not after the promised victory of the Party. In the book under review, rather pompously subtitled as the “first in- depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia’s secret archives”, Stalin, the dead dictator comes back to life.

Radzinsky is the most popular playwright in Russia after Anton Chekov. He trained as a historian and this is his second book on history, the first one having been published in 1991 as The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicolas II. The present one makes for a gripping reading, the author’s penchant for dramatization rising over and above the life of its protagonist, often, however to fall down as if with a damp squib.

Questions are posed with a theatrical flourish, like, “The official date of his birth is indeed fictitious. But when was it invented? And why?” Others: Did Stalin murder his wife Nadzezhda Alliluyeva? Did Stalin poison Lenin? Was Stalin himself a victim of his proteges when he died in 1953?

These are questions that have lingered on more in gossip rather than as questions of serious historical inquiry. To each of these questions, the author falls back on routine answers, more often than not basing himself on conversations and hearsays rather than on any “explosive” archives. One is often left wondering why he raised the question in the first place and then devoted tens of pages to finally greet the reader with the fallacy of the question itself.

In terms of tone and intent, the present work follows the pattern set earlier by Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin (1988). Its purpose seems to be to wreck vengeance on his subject rather than seeking to understand him in a wider historical context. The study is at either a descriptive level or at a psychological level, often creating the impression that the author is keen to read Stalin’s life selectively. For a much more serious study, one would without any hesitation still turn to Isaac Deutscher’s Stalin published in the 70th year of Stalin’s birth anniversary- 1948 (a newer edition was published after his death with an additional chapter).

And yet the book makes for a compulsive reading. For one, it brings out some very interesting archive material on people like Trotsky and notably on Bukharin. For another, it forces one to grapple and look again into the life of Stalin- and how a revolution can be taken over by a sheer mediocrity and how history gives a rich space to political shrewdness and chicanery at the expense of brilliance and eloquence.

Radzinsky points to the early influence of the anarchist Nechaev on both Lenin and Stalin as well as that of N. Chenesvesky, who urged: “Summon Russia to the Axe”. Nechaev had also said “poison, the knife and the noose are sanctified by the revolution”.

Early on in the Party, Stalin realized that being close to the God Lenin, a la Sancho Panza (though Lenin was no Don Quizote) was essential for a successful career. Radzinsky points to a number of incidents when Stalin hid or protected Lenin from arrest or physical danger. That was the reason Lenin preferred to keep the pock marked Georgian around him. In the dazzling company of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin, Stalin was the undoubtedly an anachronistic dwarf. This must have given him a bruised ego, as the author rightly suggests.

The author also conjectures rather provocatively that Stalin could have been a double agent for the Tsarist police. One of Lenin’s proteges Malinovsky had indeed turned out to be a double agent and despite Lenin’s soft corner for him, he was executed after the Revolution when his treacherous role had been clearly proved by the police records seized by the Bolsheviks. After Stalin’s death, when it was suggested that Stalin too might have been a double agent, N. Khrushchev is said to have thrown up his hands and declared: “Its impossible. It would mean that our country was ruled for 30 years by an agent of the Tsarist police”. Indeed, in the face of any incriminating evidence, it seems to be yet another speculation, a rather amusing one.

As one reads the gory account of the terror that Stalin launched after his trusted lieutenant and heir- apparent Kirov’s murder under suspicious circumstances in 1934, one gets transported to the most tragic period of the revolution. It was Stalin the paranoid in action as he systematically went about physically eliminating the Bolshevik old guard. Among them was Lenin’s “son”, the “darling of the Party”, as Lenin had once termed the young Nikolai Bukharin.

As this century draws to a close the Russian Revolution for all practical purposes has passed into history as yet another “could have been” the long prophesied socialist revolution. One may finally conclude and recognize for what it truly was. A product of the late 19th century secret revolutionary groups that happened to be intellectually well prepared and organizationally well oiled to fill the power vacuum that marked the collapse of the absolutist Tsarist ancien regime, the Bolsheviks just happened to be in the right place. Trotsky was to correctly remark later: “Revolution was lying in the streets of St. Petersburg for us to pick it up”.

The Bolsheviks did just that and under Lenin and Stalin went about turning Dostoyevsky’s grim prophecies in the novel The Possessed into reality.

November 25, 1998
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 20 Dec 1998

Review of Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders who Built the Soviet Empire by Dmitri Volkagonov

Autopsy for an Empire
The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Empire
Dmitri Volkogonov
The Free Press, New York 1998 Pages 556. Price $32.95

Before his death in 1995, Dmitri Volkogonov published three biographies in quick succession, those of Stalin (1988), Trotsky (1991) and Lenin (1994). The present book is the last one to be written by him, and gives an account of all the seven general secretaries of the Soviet regime.

A former Colonel- General in the Soviet Army, during the last years of his life, Volkogonov had unequalled access to all the archives of the Soviet state in his capacity as the director of the Institute for Military Studies and then as Defence Advisor to President Yeltsin. His works represented an iconoclastic break of the writer’s own previously held positions, indeed each of his books are a break, if not a contradiction of the previous one. While this reflects a growing realization about the true nature of the Soviet regime as more and more archives were opened, critics have attributed this meandering in no less measure to Volkogonov’s changing loyalties, from Marxism- Leninism to Gorbachev’s liberal socialism (Stalin, 1998), to Yeltsin’s populist democracy (Trotsky, 1991) to Christian Russian nationalism (Lenin, 1994). The present work falls in the last phase of the writer’s changing convictions.

Right- wing historians have acclaimed Volkogonov’s works since his numerous references to Soviet archives support what these historians have been proclaiming all the while. Others, especially on the Left, have pointed not only to the contradictions referred above, but have also accused him of mutilating facts. Trotskyite writers have termed him a court- historian and of representing the post- Stalinist school of falsification. Within Russia, however, Volkogonov has emerged as the first historian to write on Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, barring the eulogistic panegyrics of the Soviet school, or vilification in the case of Trotsky.

Most of the criticism of Volkogonov’s works seems to be justified as one reads the book under review. The flow is disjointed and facts seem to have been collected with the sole purpose of driving home the writer’s “convictions” at the time of writing. This is not surprising since Volkogonov held an exalted position in the Soviet hierarchy, which rewarded those who toed the current Party line, appreciated mediocrity and encouraged servility. Volkogonov was the product of such a bureaucratic system.

Yet, just as for all its lies, Soviet propaganda did carry a few grains of truth, the present book too brings out some revealing facts. It is a collage of the leaders’ misdeeds. Only for Khrushchev writer has genuine praise and for Gorbachev, who too earns a few hesitant good words.

Lenin emerges as an unscrupulous power hungry politician, Stalin as the devil incarnate, Khrushchev as the who tried to undo the wrongs of the Leninist- Stalinist system, Breznev as a lazy, slothful mediocrity who was happy to let events take their own course, Andropov as the most intelligent of all the seven leaders but unable to break out of the system’s mould, Chernenko as the least worthy of all- “a head clerk promoted to the topmost post” and Gorbachev as the last communist who brought about the fall of communism.

About Lenin, he says, “he did not appeal to the higher instincts, to patriotism and civic mindedness, but rather to hatred, fatigue and unfulfilled expectations….thanks to Lenin, mankind has learnt that Communism is a road to nowhere”. He quotes Lenin justifying the terror: “The dictatorship- and take this into account once and for all, means unrestricted power based on force, not on law”.

Volkogonov’s account of Stalin does not add anything new on Stalin, except the quotations from numerous archival material. One new fact that he does reveal, though, is the paranoia Stalin had of flying. In his entire life, he made just one air trip!

In 1939, the seventh biography of Stalin was printed in an edition of 18 million copies. Stalin himself edited this edition, shamelessly adding words like “Lenin’s outstanding pupil” in his own hand. At the end of the book, he added: “Stalin is the worthy continuer of Lenin’s cause, or as we say in the Party, Stalin is the Lenin of today”.

There is one reference, a rather unflattering one, to the Indian communists.

He writes: “A conversation between Comrade Stalin and comrades Rao, Dange, Ghosh and Punnaya, in fact it was a long monologue by Stalin. Sitting at the long table and turning their heads in unison as Stalin padded around the huge room, pipe in hand, the Indians absorbed his words of wisdom: Individual terror achieves nothing,….Partisan warfare can be started wherever the people want it. Don’t try to be too clever, just take the land from the landlords and if you take away too much, you can always sort out things later….you can make a fine regime in your country. The important thing is to renounce your personal interests”.

There are numerous accounts of large amounts of money being sent to the other communist parties, notably those of Italy and Spain. As more studies on the archives come out, it may not be too long before the Indian communists too are in the dock. They may have much to answer for.

Khrushchev was a typical leader to emerge from the Stalinist system, uneducated (“two winters of schooling”), energetic, expeditious, never doubting the correctness of Party instruction. He was quick to understand that to survive, he had first to distance himself, and finally discredit his predecessor. The problems accumulated during Stalin’s years could not be reined without drastically reforming the structures of Soviet power. This, however, was not carried to its logical end- indeed it would have been precarious for him to do so- the opposition even to his rather mild reforms within the Central Committee remained strong.

On his part, Khrushchev was not exactly above board for his role in the Stalinist terror. He, too, had played his part in whipping up hysteria, suggesting in 1936 that: “We have to shoot not only this scum (the son of a purged party leader), but Trotsky should also be shot!”. He was voluble and a rather unpredictable character, famous for his quotes as: “My job is chairman of the council of ministers, so I can manage without any brains”. His anti- American rhetoric came to be parodied as: “The USA is standing on the edge of an abyss. We are going to overtake the USA”.

He was not only unceremoniously dismissed by his own prodigy, the rather unassuming Brezenev, making him the sole general secretary not to die in the saddle, his too death was dismissed in a brief and inconspicuous report in Pravada.

Brezenev was the perfect appartchik, his personality the least complex of all. He was a man of one dimension, with the psychology of a middle level part functionary, vain, wary and conventional. He was afraid of sharp turns in policies, and convinced that Communism was on its way at its own leisurely pace like the numerous files that came in and went out from his office. The chapter on Brezenev is exceeded in its dreariness only by the one on Chernenko, the supreme personification of the Party clerk.

Meanwhile, as the Party organization continued to sink in bureaucratic marshlands, the power of the KGB to guide events inside as well as outside the USSR continued to grow. Andropov, then the head of the KGB, prepared the following document: The KGB residency in India has the opportunity (after the explosion in a Jerusalem mosque in 1969), to organize a protest demonstration of upto 20,000 Muslims in front of the US embassy in India. The cost of the demonstration will be 5,000 rupees and would be covered in the 1969- 71 budget allocated by the Central Committee for special tasks in India”. Brezenev wrote on the document: Agreed.

The chapter on Gorbachev is a little out of the place in a book on the “leaders who built the Soviet regime”, for Gorbachev was the man who brought an end this dinosaur like monolith.

18 June 1998
Published: The Tribune 1998

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Review of A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution
by Orlando Figes
Hardcover, 912 pages $39.95, Paperback $19.95
Published by Viking Pr
Publication date: March 1997
ISBN: 0670859168

Since the archives of the Soviet Union were opened in 1990 and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist in 1991, there has been a plethora of literature on the October Revolution and the role of Lenin himself. Whether it was a revolution at all, and whether Lenin was really so humane as he has been made out to be later, these are the questions that are being raised. The October Revolution is being termed as no more than a coup and Lenin as a precursor of Stalin- the roots of Stalinism are increasingly been seen to be inherent in Leninism.

None of the above views are in themselves very new. Right wing historians have indeed, maintained these for a long time. The newly opened archives- at least the studies based on them- have tended to be more strident in reiterating these opinions, but more than that it is the collapse of the Soviet Union itself that has made these historians sound more credible. Many of them have felt vindicated- Adam Ulam and Richard Pipes, for example. The book under review, however, is by a historian who is still in his thirties and therefore cannot be said to belong to the tribe of old Soviet bashers. That the thrust of his arguments tends to be more critical of the Russian Revolution needs to be taken seriously, though cautiously.

Orlando Figes is a Cambridge lecturer and brings his acumen forcefully to the front in this monumental work. His style is narrative and reminds one more of Tolstoys’s War and Peace rather than a historical treatise. It is definitely a work of social history, but it also allows a peek into the life of about half a dozen individuals whose fate was intertwined with the Russian Revolution. They are Prince Lvov, Kerensky, a peasant Semyenov, Gorky and Oskin- a peasant soldier turned Socialist Revolutionary- turned Bolshevik. Gorky as we all know, was the great Russian writer, but he was also a severe critic of the Bolsheviks both before and after the Revolution. Prince Lvov, an aristocrat and a patriot, was the Prime Minister in the first Provisional government. Figes’ traces their lives along with his basic theme, some times with insightful observations, for example, about Prince Lvov he observes: His (Prince Lvov’s) hair turned white in the four months that he was the Prime Minister. That one statement says a lot about the tension that engulfed the times. Similarly Kerensky emerges as a hesitant, self styled Napolean of the Revolution, increasingly isolated from the course of events underway.

Figes contends that the revolution by the Bolsheviks was theirs for the asking- the old monarchist order had completely collapsed- Tsar Nicolas fiddled while the Russian army was slaughtered in the World War, a war in which the ordinary Russian had no stake. The soldiers- recruited from the large mass of peasants, fled from the army in millions. They were fighting, unlike their German enemies, not for the Russian nation, but for ‘God’ and his representative on earth- the Tsar. The concept of Russian nationhood was alien to them. That is the reason, Figes avers, that as the revolution progressed the peasant- soldiers were drawn to the Bolsheviks call for hands off the war and their “internationalism”, though their understanding was far different from the Bolsheviks concept of proletarian internationalism, rather than towards the Mensheviks or the monarchists, both of whom stood for the continuation of the war. The Russsian villages were Asiatic- almost self- contained units and the peasant outlook quite narrow. As one peasant- soldier asked: “Why are we fighting the Germans ? My village has no quarrel with them.”

This, combined with their call for all power to the Soviets- analogous to the traditional village committees, made the Bolsheviks the sole contenders for power. The Mensheviks did not realize that Russia was not in the situation where it could follow the gradual evolution from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism. Their incapacity to make a decisive shift in their politics after the fall of the Tsar and go all out and seize the initiative proved to be their Waterloo. The Socialist Revolutionaries, on the other hand, placed too much faith in the abstract “power of the masses” and failed to take on the mantle of leadership. It was only the Bolsheviks, rather Lenin alone, who was capable of realizing that Russia was the center of all major contradictions at that time- between imperialism and people, between autocracy and liberty and simultaneously between capitalism and the working class. Armed not only with this theoretical understanding, ‘the man who lived politics all 24 hours of the day’, proved to be the rallying point for the Bolsheviks to seize power, despite the reluctance of the rest of the leadership. Trotsky was later to remark, famously, that without Lenin, there would have been no Russian Revolution.

The otherwise unattractive Lenin was a dominating figure among the Russian intellectuals as well as the politicians- both of these groups tended to overlap in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia. In his own personal relations with comrades, he was even affectionate and lovable. Yet, one émigré writer called him an “evil genius”. Plekhanov was respected, and Martov was loved, but it was only Lenin that the people followed. On his part, within the Boshevik party, Lenin cajoled, got angry, screamed and threatened his colleagues specially when he stood in minority with the other leading Bolsheviks opposing him. He, like Gandhi, generally had his way.

Orlando Figes uses a great deal of choice phrases to describe Lenin. For example, he writes, “When it came to putting himself at physical risk, Lenin had always been something of a coward.” He promptly forgets to follow this up with any convincing proof. There is definite evidence, though, that Lenin did have a streak of violence in him, and not only ordered executions but personally vilified and chased away his opponents from Russia after he came to power.

Figes has not cited many such incidents, but one “oversight” which he narrates is particularly frightening. He writes:

“In 1919, during a session of the Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: ‘How many counter- revolutionaries do we have in prison?’ Dzerzhinsky scribbled: ‘about 1500’, and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed a cross by the figure and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night 1500 Moscow prisoners were shot dead by Dzerzhinsky’s orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake, Lenin had not ordered the executions at all: he always placed a cross by anything that had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account. As a result of Dzerzhinsky’s simple error, 1500 people lost their lives.”

There is increasing evidence, however, and which the author presents, indicating that Lenin was instrumental in creating the Cheka, the precursor of the NKVD and the KGB, as ‘a state within a state’. It is still debatable whether what might have been a temporary tool in the hands of a genius would have brought about the devastation that it later did in the hands of a sheer mediocrity like Stalin.

Figes devotes considerable space to the terror, killings and murders that took place during the and specially after the Bolshevik “seizure” of power. The accounts are gory enough to make future revolutionaries shudder from the thoughts of attempting a revolution at all. Figes is brutal, and one might say at the expense of being a termed a sadist, that he is at his very best in describing the mass violence- medieval in form and content, thinly veiled then as the offensive against the counter- revolutionaries. The author’s thrust on the violence justifies the title of the book.

He recounts a number of incidents which were quite bizarre when they happened. For example, there were widespread anti- Semitic feelings and violence among the people and inevitably a number of anti- Jew pogroms took place during and after 1917. Some Bolshevik supporters wrote on the walls: “Down with Kerensky, the Jew, Long Live Trotsky.” In reality, Trotsky was a Jew, and Kerensky was not. One can only wonder what Trotsky must have felt.

In another case, one enthusiastic Uzbek paper translated the Bolshevik slogan of “Workers of the World, Unite!” to “Tramps of the world, Unite !”. The slogan appeared on top of the daily’s title head.

The book is too vast in scope as well as detail that a review like the present one cannot even claim to touch the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of difficulties too in a text like this where the extremely well read author has quoted profusely from hundreds of sources. The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus. If 1991 marked the fall and defeat of the socialist experiment, it also marked the start of a new debate on its genesis and the viability of socialism. For all those who still dare to dream of a better future for humanity, this book is a call to critically examine their beliefs. For those whom events and age have made turn cynically to their socialist and communist youth, it is a call to come to terms with their past.

26 May 1998
The Tribune 7 June 1998

Review of: On History by Eric Hobsbawm

One who wins, does not learn

On History
by Eric Hobsbawm
The New Press, New York ,1997 Price: $25.00

The book under review is a collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s essays and lectures delivered over the last 3 decades. The range of the topics revolves around, as the title announces, on the theorization of history. Clearly, Hobsbawm is far more scintillating and powerful when actually writing history and the book under review is therefore cannot be classed along with his other works. Partly, the vintage of the papers in not in the favor- most of the issues are quite old and even hackneyed.

And yet, the book makes for a good reading, pepperred as it is with insights, personal anecdotes and the keen sense of observation that Eric Hobsbawm retains about life. Primarily, the collection focuses on a defense of the Marxist method of interpreting history, evident in “Marx and History”, “What do Historians Owe to Karl Marx” and “On History from Below”. It is interesting to know how the first generation of Marxist historians was reared in the 1930s in the universities of England-

When I was a student in Cambridge in Cambridge in the 1930s, many of the ablest young men and women joined the Communist Party. But as this was a very brilliant era in the history of a very distinguished university (Cambridge) many of them were profoundly influenced by the great names at whose feet we sat. Among the young communists there, we used to joke, the communist philosophers were Wittgensteinians, the communist economists were Keynesians, the communist students of literature were the disciples of F.R. Lewis. And the historians ? They were Marxists, because there was no historian we knew of at Cambridge or elsewhere ………thirty years later the economic historian Sir John Hicks was to observe: Most of those (who wish to fit into place the general course of history) would use the Marxian categories, or some modified version of them since there was so little in the way of an alternative version that was available.

Eric Hobsbawm not only played a key role in the writing of history from a Marxist point of view, but in a sense made history by interpreting it. This was all the more notable since Marx’s direct contribution to the writing of history is negligible- most of his comments were only indirect and peripheral to his main works- like the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bounaparte and the footnotes in the “Capital”.

The writer underscores the importance of Marxist historiography in Third World societies where historians have far less sophisticated tools for collecting statistics and facts and therefore find the general methodological approach of Marxism more relevant. He also draws attention specially to the French school of historians (Annales) who prepared the ground for Marxists to make a fuller contribution to it during and after 1950s, when the latter began to occupy seats in academic institutions.

It was the French tradition of histriography as a whole, steeped in the history not of the French ruling class but of the French people, which established most of the themes and even the methods of grassroots history- Marc Bloch as well as Leferbre.

Interestingly, reflecting on Indian historiography since the times of D.D.Kosambi, one is struck by the singular lack of influence, if not ignorance, of the Annales school on the writing of Indian history, profoundly influence though it was by Marxism.

The writer’s observations on the ‘civilizational debate’ that has been triggered off by Samuel Huntington’s “Clash Of Civilizations” are acute and worthy of consideration even though not made in response to Huntington.

As late as the 14th century, the Arabic historian, Ibn Khaldun, showed little interest in Christian Europe: “God alone knows what goes on there”, he observed, two centuries after Said ‘Ibn Akhmad, who was convinced that nothing could be learned from the northern barbarians. They were more like beasts than men. In those centuries the cultural slope ran in the opposite direction. Here precisely, lies the paradox of European history. These very U- turns or interruptions are its specific characteristics. No other civilization except the Roman civilization actually faced permanent destruction, so civilizations like the Chinese or the India never felt a need to “go back” to their classics. Without such a collapse of cultural space, would a need for ‘Renaissance’- the need to back on a forgotten but supposedly superior heritage have arisen ?.

The erroneous conviction of Western philosophers not excluding Marx”, Hobsbawm avers, “that a dynamic of historical development could only be discovered in Europe, but not in Asia or Africa, is due at least in part, to this difference between the continuity of the other literate and urban cultures and the discontinuities in the history of the West.

Not ignoring the fundamental import of the history of Europe in transforming the world after the 15th century and its role in making world history possible at all, this can be a potentially possible area which historians can explore. In the Indian experience, the system of caste, for example, despite all its deformations did provide a stability for a long time. In these times of caste conflagration, it might pay to retrieve those possible aspects of the caste system, while doing away with its more pernicious deformations.

Finally, in the paper on Has Histoy made Progress ? Hobsbawm defends his well- known position on the dicey area of contrafactual studies. However, it is in The Present as History that Hobsbawm is at his best in piquantly delivering the most powerful statement in the book. Interestingly, he quotes another (non- Marxist) historian, Reinhard Kosselck:

The historian on the winning side is easily inclined to interpret short term success in terms of a long- term, ex- port teleology. Not so the defeated. Their primary experience is that everything happened otherwise than hoped or planned.…..they have a greater need to explain why something else occurred and not what they thought would happen. This may stimulate the search for long- term causes which explains….the….surprise…..generating more lasting insights of, consequently, greater explanatory power. In short run, history may be made for the victors.. In the long run the gains in historical understanding have come from the defeated.

Marxist historians, with the fall of Soviet Union behind them, have a future after all.

06 Jan 1998 , NJ
Published: The Tribune ?? 1998

Review of Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P Sainath

Everyone Loves A Good Drought
By P.Sainath
Penguin India 1996, Price : Rs 295/- Pages: 470
ISBN: 0-14-025984-8

Palagummi Sainath is a bitter man.

On a Times of India fellowship in the year 1992, Sainath has toured some of the poorest districts in the country to know how the poorest of the poor citizens of free India live.

Exist might be a better word.

The book under review is a collection of reports that the author filed during his tours. Some of the reports kicked up controversies and in a few cases even led to some action on the part of the authorities. It is another matter that these were a drop in the ocean, and provide only an academic satisfaction in the otherwise grim scenario.

Sainath’s main findings can be summarized in one word- apathy. Apathy towards the victims of rural poverty in the country. Around this core, he weaves the stories about real people who generally lie hidden in the great piles of statistical data. In a way, he has given names to poverty. His stories are provocative, jarring and shocking to the point of being macabre.

The selection of the districts which the author chose to study were the 2 poorest districts each in the 5 poorest states of the country- Orissa, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the author, there was near unanimity among the experts regarding their dubious status. Seeing the problem of poverty as a process rather than an event (in the form of outbreaks of epidemics or the infamous ‘sale’ of children in Orissa in the mid- eighties), formed the bigger challenge. The process, it turns out is a ruthless, grinding one and one that is full of amazing contradictions.

There is a story of the farmer who earns more money by selling water than by agriculture. A super hi- tech project in one of the most backward regions- Godda in Bihar, creates jobs for not more than 1300 people- many of them from outside the region, at the cost of Rs. 65 lakhs per job ! Meanwhile, the foreign consultant has been involved in transactions worth Rs. 645 crores, out of the total outlay of Rs. 966 crores. In the same district, loans have been given to members of a tribe to purchase cows, in some cases two cows per family, little realizing that the tribe does not consume milk products at all, and instead consumes beef in large quantity. At the end of the benign exercise, the cows ended up in the dinner plates of the lucky recipients, and the latter in a life long debt trap.

Sainath discovers that while there are schools without buildings and teachers, there are schools with buildings and teachers too. Except that while the ‘buildings’ are used for storing fodder and tendu leaves and the teachers teach non- existent students. There is a teacher who has not visited the school where he is ‘teaching’ for years, while drawing his salary all the time.

Then there is the case of the residents of a village called Chikpaar. The village was first acquired in 1968 for the MiG jet fighter project for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in 1968, the 400- 500 families were evicted on an “angry monsoon night” . They moved to another location (on the land they owned themselves) and resettled there. Nostalgically, they named the new village as Chikpaar.

In 1987, the families were evicted again for the Kolab multi- purpose project. The villagers again resettled at another place.

However, ‘development’ has chased them to their new place of residence and the residents have received eviction notices for the third time. Needless to say, the displaced persons were either paid a pittance as compensation and in many cases, the money took years to come by.

On the state of the Sekupani village in Gumla, Bihar, a government official himself demands from the author: “What if residents of Malabar Hill in Bombay have to evacuate each time the navy has an exercise ? And are paid Rs. 1.50 a day for their pains ? This is happening here because the people are adivasis. Since this is a backward, cut- off region.”

An adivasi artist, Pema Fatiah is discovered by a bureaucrat and goes on to win laurels for his murals. But that is about all that he earns, after his recognition, come the hordes of SPs, DSPs , SDMs and tehsildars who force paintings out of him free of cost, with a flunky or a havaldar looking over his shoulders all the while he paints.

There are stories upon stories like these- Sainath has captured an entire landscape of people for whom everyone from global agencies downwards to the mohalla politician and bureaucrat has a concern. Often this concern either gets diverted to the pockets of the local strongmen or lands up for the wrong cause, like in the case of the tribes gifted cow in a loan mela. Sainath has, in a fabulous sweep, captured this entire net of linkages in his stories, often peppered with ironic insights.

The book under review can be seen to be operating at a number of levels.

First and foremost is the actual state of affairs in which the poorest in India survive. These are tales of poignant misery, and at the same time of admirable courage. At another level, it is about the needs and aspirations of the “insulted and the humiliated”, to borrow a phase from Dostoyvesky. It is about policies, schemes and programs launched with great fanfare and soon left to take their own wayward course, making a mockery of the intended aims.

At another level, these are stories about the idocity of what has been termed as development. There are dams that have displaced people who will never benefits from the dams anyway. There are dams that are under perpetual construction, with the contractors assured of a perpetual source of income. There are missile ranges which displace village after village like Chikpaar, with the villagers and adivasis losing not only their land but also the very world they belong to. They form the multitudes migrating to big cities, ending up as virtual slaves of contractors in an alien world.

Finally the book is a scathing indictment of the elite in this country. What Dr. K.N. Raj termed as the “two Indias” pithily and epigrammatically comes out in the present work. No debates on the pros and cons of liberalization or Nehruism can substitute for the reasons for such grueling poverty. If the tales in the book sound other- worldly or chillingly macabre, it is because the Indian elite, specially the middle class, which has been reared on this very ‘development’, or in other words on the heads and shoulders of the poor in India, has come a long way from the victims of this ‘development’.

Sainath has given words to the adivasi in Govind Nihalani’s film Aakrosh (the role was played by Om Puri), whose tongue has been cut off and despite being the victim, is actually hauled up in jail.

Palagummi Sainath has reasons to be bitter.

NTC, 15 Aug 1997

Review of: The Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal by Iqbal Singh

IqbalThe Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal
By Iqbal Singh
Oxford University Press, 1997
Pages: 183, Price Rs. 295/-

In the Great Trinity of Urdu poetry, that is, of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal forms a crucial link between the poetry of Ghalib and Faiz. This is both at the level of time as well as in the space of ideas, that is, from the mysticism of Ghalib to the thundering declaration of communism in the verse of Faiz.

The book under review is one of the latest to be published after the celebration of Iqbal’s birth centenary in 1977. Though largely still largely ignored in this country, some of the books on Iqbal to hit the market in recent years have been Khushwant Singh’s translation of Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, Rafiq Zakaria’s Iqbal: Poet and the Politician and Ish Kumar’s Ghalib and Iqbal. Iqbal Singh’s revised edition of the book he wrote in 1951 comes as a welcome addition to the contemporary literature on Iqbal.

The strength of the present work lies in the tracing of the philosophical ideas of Iqbal. The son of a tailor, Iqbal won fame early in life while still a student of Government College, Lahore. At this stage his poetry was under the heavy influence of Sufi mysticism. It was only when he travelled abroad later in life to study at London and Heidelberg that he underwent a metamorphosis. Specially in Germany, he was thunderstruck, as it were by the considerable body of philosophical thought he encountered. Specially notable is the impact of Hegel, Bergson and Nietzche. Later in life he was to spurn the entire idealist tradition in Western philosophy. It was in London, too, that he started writing in Persian, which afforded him a more versatile form as well as sophistication for his ideas to find expression. Indeed, all the great writers in Urdu, have like Ghalib, either written extensively in Persian or like Faiz, made extensive use of Persian expressions. In the case of Iqbal, however, this switchover to Persian for some of his most mature poetry was to be a great loss for the development of the Urdu language.

It was at this crucial period of his stay in Germany that Iqbal was to be faced with serious misgivings regarding nationalism. It was the decade before the First Word War and the undercurrent of the conflicts between the European nations were already present. These rivalries were based on greed- and Iqbal was repulsed by these developments. The culmination of these into the First World War was to confirm his misgivings. Iqbal’s response to come to terms with the question of nationalism led him not towards socialist internationalism, but, on account of his psychological make up and instinct, towards early Islam, which for him had subsumed various tribal loyalties into a powerful spiritual movement. The Bolshevik Revolution was yet to take place and the ideas inspired by Bolshevism were yet to sway the intelligentsia.

He quoted with proud approval the well known remark of the famous Arab conqueror, Tarik, who, when he led his forces from Africa across to the coast of Andalusia, asked his soldiers to burn the boats in which they had crossed and cheered his homesick followers with the declaration:

Every country is our country because it is the country of our God.

Iqbals’ self perception as the harbinger of Islamic revivalism was beginning to show its contours. His entire life subsequently, and his poetry too, was to be directed towards this goal.

The militant mood of the young Muslim intelligentsia that was asserting itself at the time of the Khilafat movement was reflected in the Al Hilal, the paper edited by Maulana Azad. Iqbal remained politically unmoved, but his writings now began to have a definite and pronounced anti- modern and anti- Western bias.

The alternative that Iqbal now started espousing was that of pan- Islamism, and in the development of this doctrine, he was considerably influenced by the ideas of Saiyad Jamal-ud- din Afgani whose lectures and travels in the 19th century across the Muslim world had deeply influenced the intelligentsia in the respective countries. This positive ideal, as opposed to Iqbal’s denouement of nationalism, became his leit motif and became the cornerstone of his poetry.

This was also the time of the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman hegemony and it was soon after Italy grabbed Tripoli from the Turks that Iqbal’s anger found its vent in Shikwa where he blamed Allah for the misfortunes of the Muslims on earth. The poem was read and recited all over the country. In it the Muslim intelligentsia found its words. Iqbal now attained popularity and above all came to be recognised as the most eloquent voice of Muslims in the country. With his brilliant academic background- in philosophy (Cambridge), philosophy and poetics (Heidelberg) and a bar at law , also from England, his firm grounding in Arabic and Persian, his inborn gift as a poet and finally his insatiable intellectual thirst and prowess all ensured that he would be among the towering and most eloquent personalities that modern India was to throw up in the first half of this century. He was the poet- philosopher, if ever there was one in this country.

Iqbal now went through a process of catharsis and self- purification starting with Asrar-e- Khudi . Influenced by Rumi, he turned away from the Sufi mysticism of Hafiz and western idealist influences, essentially the Greek influences on Islamic thought between 9th and 13th century. This logically led to his repudiating Sufism in general and the Hafiz tradition in particular.

As part of his critique of Sufism, he began to stress on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasised the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposed stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:

Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam

(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)

In tracing the evolution of Iqbal’s thought, Singh also devotes considerable space to link his evolution to the specific social, political and cultural development in the early twentieth century. Peppered with insights and keen observations accumulated over half a century, Singh is at the very best, his treatment of the subject scholarly and his critical faculty acute. His zest for the subject finds expression in the book- which is impassioned and dispassionate at the same time.

This said, there is at least one point that the present reviewer feels that Singh falls short of “brimming over”. In th enature of things, the philosophy of Iqbal overwhelmingly overshadows his poetry and the author too has concentrated more on the philosophy of Iqbal at the expense of his poetry .

This leads to two problems. One, the poetic milieu in which Iqbal’s poetry arose is at best understated, and at worst ignored. Specially, Iqbal’s inheritance from Ghalib is completely left unmentioned- besides that of contemporary poets. The second result is that while Iqbal emerges as a poet of Islamic Revivalism (which undoubtedly he was, just as Vivekanand was for Hindu Revivalism), he was also the poet who captured the hearts and minds of the non- Muslim intelligentsia as well, specially after the strongly leftward turn that came over in the 1930s. The intrinsic humanistic appeal, specially relevant for the “awakening Asia” , and which transcended Islam, fails to emerge.

That, unfortunately, continues to be a major cause for Iqbal’s relative ignorance this side of the border. This ignorance also reflects what MN Roy had in 1939 in his small but illuminating book The Historical Role of Islam had observed- the Hindus are perhaps the only people, who despite the advent of Muslims in India, never tried to understand and learn from the revolution of Islam, unlike the Europeans, whose Renaissance was borne from the encounter with Islam.

Published: The Tribune July 1997

Review of Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags

KHAKI SHORTS AND SAFFRON FLAGS: A Critique of the Hindu Right

By Tapan Basu,Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarcar, Sambuddha Sen
Orient Longman. 1993. Rs:35/-

1991 marked a turning point in setting the agenda for political debate in the country. The Left was completely paralysed following the dismantling of the socialist bloc resulting in the unprecedented crisis in socialist theory. The Congress too backtracked its steps from its Left linkages, in the process dumping Nehruism, and despite the switchover to the fashionable “free -market” economy, it failed to project a new vision.

The vacuum that was subsequently generated was sought to be filled up by the backward caste based Mandal movement and the upper caste, Right wing Hindutva movement. For the first time after partition, mainstream Indian politics came to be focussed around previously peripheral ideologies

The book under review is a penetrating analysis of the Hindutva movement, its origins from a local RSS unit to a multi- headed hydra of menacing dimensions and the organisational and ideological structures within which it functions.

The book bears the stamp of two prominent historians Sumit and Tanika Sarkar and is distinguished by a meticulous exploration of the history of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). With the historical insight it offers, it becomes easier to understand a massive movement of our times, which promises to lead us into the Hindu Rashtra, even though the whole movement has been built around a hoary, imagined past fed by myths.

“At the heart of Hindutva lies the myth of a continuous thousand year old struggle of Hindus against Muslims as the structuring principle of Indian society and, point out the authors, “the myth of the Muslim invader and Hindu resistance has also been employed to prove that Hindutva represents the true, native nationalism”. The usurpation of the term “nationalism” is quite understandable as it is but natural for majority communalism to pass off as nationalism; more so since there has been an overlapping of nationalist and communal politics in the country.

The authors, however, have chosen to study not communalism as attempted in other works (like Bipan Chandra’s Communalism in Modern India and Gyan Pandey’s Construction of Communalism in Colonial India) but to study the ideological and organisational aspect of the Hindutva movement, which comes into its own with V.D.Savarkar’s definition of the Hindu in 1923 as a person who regards the land of Bharatvarsha from Indus to the seas as his Fatherland as well as his Holy land -that is, the cradle of land of his religion. By implication religions like Islam and Christianity are always suspect, and Golwalkar in his book Bunch of Thoughts added communism to the list.

The other implication is that only those who ascribe to the Hindutva concept have a right to comment and debate on what “rightfully” belongs only to the self styled Hindutva “nationalists.”

Sketch of RSS History

The RSS originated and continues to have its headquarters in Poona, the bastion of the Chitpavana Brahmins. “The centrally of Maharashtra In the formation of the ideology and organisation of Hindutva in the mid -1920’s might appear rather surprising, as Muslims were a small minority and hardly active, and there had been no major riots in the region during the early 1920’8. But Maharashtra had witnessed a powerful anti -Brahmin movement of backward castes from the 1870:8 onwards when Jyotiba Phule had founded his Satyashodhak Samaj.

By the 1920’8, the Dalits too had star1ed organising themselves under Ambedkar. Hindutva in 1925 and in 1990-91; was an upper caste bid to restore a slipping hegemony: RSS’s self -image of its own history makes this abundantly clear. There was, in addition, the distrust felt for the new Gandhlan C.ongress on the part of a section of the predominantly Chitpavan Brahmin Tilakites. It is symptomatic that B.S.Monje, an old associate of Tilak, was one of the five who founded what became the RSS on Vijaya Dashami day, 1925″ {pg 10-11).

The upper caste character of the Hindutva movement, perhaps explains why the Samajwadi Party- Bahujan Samaj Party (a backward caste- lower caste front), has taken a hard anti -Hindutva stance.

The RSS remained a local affair till 1927 when it shot into prominence following the role it played in the Nagpur riot in 1927. The riot was followed by a rapid spread of RSS organisation in and around Nagpur. 1927 was also the year when the national movement was being revived but the RSS remained completely aloof from it. The Civil Disobedience Movement which followed it and by far remains the greatest single movement within the Indian nationalist struggle, marking a new highpoint in its radicalisation as well as spread, too saw the RSS not only out of step with the mainstream but also completely isolated.

But the RSS as yet did not want to make “a demonstrative break with the nationalist mainstream”. Therefore, Hedgewar invited Gandhi to his camp at Wardha in 1934 as a symbolic gesture, but the latter remained ever suspicious of the organisation. “In the wake of the 1946 riots a member of Gandhiji’s entourage praised the efficiency, discipline, courage and capacity for hard work shown by the RSS workers at Wagah, a major refugee transit camp in Punjab.

“…But don’t forget”, answered Gandhiji, “even so had Hitler’s Nazis and the Fascists under Mussolini”. He went on to characterise the RSS as a ‘communal body with a totalitarian outlook’ and categorically declared that ‘the way to national independence does not lie through akhadas… if they are meant as a preparation for self -defence in Hindu -Muslim conflicts, they are foredoomed to failure. Muslims can play the same game, and such preparations, overt or covert, do cause suspicion and irritation. They can provide no remedy:’

By the end of the thirties communalisation had already reached its peak and while the Muslim League began clamouring for Pakistan and the Hindu Right within the Congress was asserting itself, the RSS aligned with the North Indian based Hindu Mahasabha and started penetrating the Hindi heartland and the Punjab. The relations between the two however remained fickle especially after Golwalkar took over from Hedgewar. The RSS continued to remain primarily a “cultural” organisation, which frustrated more politically inclined elements like Godse who finally joined the Mahasabha. Between 1937 -40, the RSS grew rapidly from a cadre strength of 40,oob to 1lakh. The recruiting ground remained the same upper caste, middle class trading and services strata.

In Punjab the once militantly reformist Arya Samaj had prepared a fertile ground for the dissemination of the RSS version of Hinduisation. Still the spreading out of Maharashtra necessitated changes in the rituals of the RSS, for instance Hedgewar abandoned the worship of Hanuman, changed the language of prayer to Sanskrit, and generally toned down the insistence on rituals.

“In the 1940’s, the RSS had gone through a particularly aggressive phase in theoretical formulations and activities alike; demonstratively aloof from the 1942 quit India upsurge, violently active during the 1946-47 communal riots, suspected by many of complicity in the murder of Gandhi. “Golwalkar, who succeeded Hedgewar as the supreme leader of the RSS in 1940, enunciated his thoughts in We, or Our Nationhood Defined and A Bunch of Thoughts, brought out the fascist inspiration behind the RSS. Besides expressing his fascination for the Nazis, he makes no bones about his sinister conception of nationalism. He elaborates, “…Being anti -British was equated with nationalism. This reactionary view has had disastrous effects upon the entire course of independence struggle, its leaders and the common people”.

No wonder, therefore, that the RSS neither participated in the genuine strugg le for independence nor did it ever have to face the British onslaught, to which the Congress, and specially the Communists, had to face repeatedly.

After the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, there was a widespread revulsion against the RSS and the organisation was banned 5 days after the assassination. Its immediate response was to plead for revoking the ban. This was to be repeated in 1975 when it was banned again. In contrast to this, the CPI opened up jail fronts to continue its struggle, even though misdirected, against the State, when it was banned after the Telengana movement.

The organisational structure of the RSS has always remained totalitarian with the leader nominating his successor, both at the local as well as the national level. A strongly patriarchal set-up regulates the militant complex, with suppression of debate and the imposition of a simplistic, typically RSS, world- view imposed on the cadres who are normally recruited at the tender age of 12-14 years. By its own admission and in the words of its important ideologue K.R. Malkani, the RSS does not encourage “doubting Thomases”. It remains one of the few exclusively male organisations.

It was only later that the RSS grew its other faces (much like the Ravana!) -the BJS, BJP, V HP, BMS and the ABVP with first the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and then the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) being its political mouthpieces, even though it did not fight shy of playing hide and seek with the Congress specially during the 1984 elections. In 1981 , however, it entered the extra -parliamentary phase of numerous yatras with the emergence of the VHP as the spearhead.

Emergence of the VHP

The V HP stage marks a qualitatively higher stage in the development of the Hindutva movement, cashing in on the new high- tech means of mass mobillsation. “Unlike earlier periods of acute communal tension (in the 1890’s, the 1920’s, the 40’s, or the 60’s) it (the Hindutva) is inseparably identified with a concrete organisational complex. Earlier, communalisation did depend on organisational inspiration as well, but the VHP has made itself co -extensive with the phenomenon of mass communalism.

This is done through staking out a new and a very large claim. The movement it leads is supposed not only to represent the vanguard, the politically aware elite within the Hindu society (this would have been, roughly, the earlier RSS claim); it asserts that it already includes the whole of Hindu society as it stands here and now, and that an exact correspondence exists between its own field and the boundaries of an admittedly varied, pluralistic, differentiated Hindu world.”

While earlier Hindu communal revivalist movements like those in the late 19th century set out for transformation both within the religion as well as society, the VHP movement rules out the need for any such reform within either itself or the Hindu society at large.

As an RSS pamphlet proclaims “Sangh samaj me sanghatan nahin, samaj ka sanghatan hai” (the Sangh is not an organisation in society, it is the organisation of society). Thus, no internal transformation is required. This “already acquired” unity in the Hindu society is sought to be suggested by invoking prominent Hindu personalities and hiding their differences and diversities. For instance Tagore, Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar- all distant and even antagonistic individuals are presented as belonging to one great lineage, standing in opposition to the absence of any comparable “nationalist” Muslims.

The VHP movement being a mass movement has its own paradoxes and contradictions for instance in the perception of the movement by a sophisticated central leadership and the local activists, which the authors have brought out very well. Similarly, the unprecedented mobilisation of young women in the movement has its own fallout -leading to the emergence of a new phenomenon.

‘Within an as yet limited social and geographical scope, then, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement seems to have effected major breakthroughs in women’s self activisation… So far, the fetishised sacred or love object to be recuperated had been a feminine figure- the cow, the abducted Hindu woman, the motherland. Here, however, the occupied Janmabhoomi belongs specifically to a male deity, and women are being pressed into action to liberate and restore it to him, to bring back honour to Ram’s army… The reversal of roles equips the communal woman with a new self powering image. She has stepped out of a purely iconic status to take up an active position as a militant.”

Caste remains by far the biggest obstacle for the Hindutva movement. The sophisticated jugglery of the leadership notwithstanding, a slogan that came up at a VHP rally is illustrative of the anti- lower caste bias; “Jis Hindu ka khoon na khola, woh Hindu nanin bhangi hai”.

However, “The BJP has several ways of tackling this social dilemma. Once the militant moment of its movement was over, and the anti-Mandal storm subsided, it reverts to its ritual gestures towards Harijan welfare -notably in U.P It also preserves its ascendancy over lower castes without undertaking any meaningful reforms in their status through a monopoly over ground -level intellectual leadership.

Even where it has no direct bases among lower castes, it exerts an ideological influence through teachers and priests. Mitra Sen Yadav, the CPI ex -MP from Faizabad, made to us the important observation that harijans and OBC’s have not so far thrown up their own intellectual leaders”. Perhaps, the measures Laloo Yadav has taken in Bihar by installing Harijan priests is a reflection of the need for such a leadership desired by the emergent backward caste- lower caste movement in the UP- Bihar belt.

Having dwelt on the upper caste/ class composition of Hindutva, the authors do not overlook the fact observe that there has been a considerable change in its character over the years. “In the 50’s there was a tremendous boom in both the numbers and prosperity of this upper caste/class formation which was bred in great part by the upsurge in consumerism, fuelled by imported screwdriver technology and facilitated by soft bank loans and government aided small scale industrial projects. Predictably, this has led to a widespread and rapid social mobility.

Simultaneously, the base for a huge civil and military bureaucracy has grown, spanning urban as well as semi -rural areas in north India. It was (and remains) a class that was committed to an unfettered growth of consumer capitalism and to a strong state that could manage the political crisis of the country and the economic discontents arising from the boom in private enterprise.

For a time, this class found its representative, indeed its self-image, in the person and politics of Rajiv Gandhi. His political ineptitude, in addition to the internal crisis within the Congress paved the way for Hindutva- with its aggressive right wing world -view embodied in a seemingly coherent ideology, its emphasis on a strong organisation together with the projection of itself as an untried party to acquire the allegiance of this class”.

Emphatic words these, but the authors make no bones about the danger that the movement portends for the nation. It indeed is time for hard secularism to speak out.

01-Feb- 1994

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Edited By S.GOPAL Penguin (India); Rs 75/-

The Babri-Masjid- Ramjanmabhumi issue, like so many others, has invited two opposite view points -one for the masjid and the other against it. Unfortunately , even enlightened secular opinion has tended to jump to conclusions with preconceived notions and subjective prejudices rather than trying to understand the problem and then make an effective intervention. The result has been that despite the strength of secularism in the country, communalism has made a definite and consolidated advance since Independence.

The book under review is a refreshing effort in comprehending the problem. The contributors to the book make it sufficiently clear that, not only are they trying to interpret the world in order to change it, but also trying to change it by interpreting it. The galaxy of contributors includes Prof. Romilla Thaper, Asgar Ali Engineer, Prof. Mushir-ul -Hasan, A.K. Bagchi and others. The book has been edited by S.Gopal, well known as the biographer of Jawaharlal Nehru and S.RadhaKrishnan.

The book, rather the collection of essays, begins with an introduction by S. Gopal who introduces the rest of the essays and then goes on to trace the rise of communalism immediately before and after 1947 He points out the serious lapses on the part of the Indian national leadership in meeting the challenge of communalism. As he points out Nehru himself, unequalled though he was in his commitment to secularism, was responsible for giving ground to communal forces.

Weaknesses on his own part helped to defeat the objective of various legislative and constitutional provisions enacted to confront communalism. In 1948 he committed the resolve of the government in banning communal parties, but never actually implemented it.

Were it so, it would have been much difficult for communal ‘groups like the Jana Sangh(BJP), Akali Dal and the Muslim League to gain credibility. Then again, he allowed cow-protection to be included in the Directive Principles of state policy while ensuring that nothing of the sort was actually put into practice. Further in order to assuage the wounds of Indian Muslims, he refrained from promulgating a common civil law despite the resulting inequality of Muslim women before law. Nehru erred in making a distinction between majority and minority communalisms.

Prof. K.N. Pannikar in his essay ‘A Historical Overview’ offers a critique of the RSS-VHP stance on the issue, noting that the glorious accounts of Ayodhya being a highly developed historical place is refuted by archaeological facts according to which Ayodhya began to be inhabited only around 7th century B.C. and it was much later that it developed into an urban settlement. Probably what happened, he argues, is that King Vikramaditya renamed the more developed town of Saket in order to gain prestige by drawing upon the Suryavanshi line. This also explains the local myth of Ayodhya having been re-discovered by the King, after it had been lost.

Panikkar draws attention to the claims that a Rama temple, that too his birthplace, was destroyed by Babur in 1528. It is interesting, he notes, that such a “major event” was not recorded either by contemporary Persian literature nor even by a Ramabhakt like Goswami Tulsidas. It was much later that such a claim went on record (1870) -that too by an English writer. The claim was related to the confrontation over the nearfy Hanumangarhi temple in 1855. Under the liberal Shia rulers of Awadh a large number of temples was constructed by powerful Hindu ministers This enraged orthodox Muslims who, under one Shah Ghulam Hussain, claimed that the temple of Hanumangarhi had supplanted an earlier mosque. The Bairagi occupants of the temple fought a pitched battle with the Muslims and defeated them. They even occupied the Babri Masjid, but after their victory they withdraw to their abode.

During the course of the subsequent legal enquiry, no Hindu even mentioned the existence of a temple at the Babri masjid. The claim originated later, probably ”as an attempt to check mate the Muslim claims”.

Sushil Srivastva traces the evolution of the ruling British viewpoint over the issue and concludes that under the pretext of lawlessness and misgovernment they could force the Nawab to relinquish his authority and increasingly give the British a greater say in internal matters of the state. Hence they were interested in keeping the pot simmering. A.G. Noorani throws on light the ‘Legal Aspects to the Issue”.

Prof. Mushir-ul-Hasan writes about “Shared codes and competing Symbols” between the Hindus and the Muslims and repeats the old cliche about communalism being a modern phenomenon. Aditya Mukherjee too writes on the critical role of the colonial state in giving birth to and legitimising communal parties. Amiya Bagchi makes a comprehensive study of “Predatory Commercialisation and Communalism in India” and shows how the phenomenon of Communalism, specially communal rioting, is intimately related to local socio-economic hierarchies. His explanation of riots like the first communal riot of 1893 (in Calcutta) is particularly invigorating.

The best pieces of the book are, however, contributed by Neeladri BhattaCharya, Romilla Thapar and Asgar Ali Engineer.

Popular conceptions of the past,” Bhattacharya points out, “are often informed and structured by myths. In these conceptions, myths are true histories, we cannot dismiss such myths, we cannot counterpoise history to myth. These are different modes of knowledge…if fabulous stories circulate and light up the popular imagination, we cannot merely demonstrate the fabulous character of such stories, we must know why they circulate, why they play on popular imagination.”

This is a most crucial question of our times Even if there is no real historical basis for communal ideology “myths” do refer to reality .They do provide an insight into the mode of living and thinking of the people who originate and believe in those myths. The mixture of history and myths is typified by the RSS- VHP propaganda -it satisfies both the modernist as well as the more backward sections. As the writer points out, “it is a strategy necessary in the modem age when all types of minds have to be united”.

This strange admixture of history and myth is not all. Also central to the RSS-VHP propaganda is the theme of the so called ‘weaknesses’ of the Hindus Among the ‘weaknesses’ cited are disunity, unmanliness, patience, generosity and tolerance These virtues are identified as the cause of present ills.

This framework idealises masculinity -a specific form of masculinity Anger and aggression are identified as the qualities of man-hood, tolerance and patience are feminine, manliness symbolises strength and femininity weakness. To overcome their weaknesses Hindus had to give up their femininity and assert masculinity”. This also finds reflection in Rama being increasingly portrayed as an aggressive god, but since even then he cannot provide the personit;cation of the aggressive, fiery Hindu -Shiva is increasingly looked upto (‘Angry Hindu, why Not?’ and other pamphlets).

In her fascinating study on’ A Historical Perspective on the story of Rama, ‘ Romilla Thaper delves into the plethora of the versions of Rama’s story the variations in the different versions “are for specific reasons and constitute a defate whose parameters change with historical change.” Each major version reflects a substantial change in both how the role of the story was perceived and in the acceptance of each of these versions by their audience as the authentic one Unlike sacred religious texts, Rama’s story was refashioned time and again sometimes to convert it into a religious text and sometimes for other purposes.

Prof. Thapar goes on to summarise the different versions of Ramayana It is indeed surprising to find the variations -contrast the role of Sita as Rama’s sister In one and as the incarnation of Shakti in another -confronting Ravana instead of being a passive hostage. In another she turns out to be Ravana’s daughter. According to one version Ayodhya lies in North Vietnam and the Kingdom of Ravana in South Vietnam. The recent attempts to force down one version of the Ramayana is doing injustice to these versions -but ‘Syndicated’ Hinduism is doing precisely that.

Besides the use of Rama’s story later on in the ideological conflicts between various Indian schools of thought, it has been used for popular mobilisation of peasants. Prof. Thapar illustrates this point by referring to the Baba Ram Chander -led struggle in UP early this century (Nehru refers to this movement in his Autobiography) in which Rama and Sita symbolised the peasants Interestingly, Baba Rama Chander did not indulge in nostalgia by idealising a past ‘Ram- rajya’.

Published: NTC, 01- Feb- 1992 Edited by the late Mohit Sen