Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Living Together: The Life of Muslims and Hindus in a Kerala Village

Here is a recent post I made to a discussion on Muslim Resurgence in Kerala: Renaissance or Reaction, at Fourth Estate Critique, a Google discussion group:

IN THE other thread, The Arrest of an Editor, on the arrest of People's March editor P Govindan Kutty, there is a discussion about those who are not eligible to be part of a democracy. Well, I think this is a related subject. Who are eligible to be part of a democratic process and who are not...

When we discuss about Islamic resurgence, it is common that this same ambivalence surfaces. Are they part of a democratic set up, are they to be trusted or are they working in secret for something sinister, with some ulterior motive, something quite alien to our ethos?

John, in his note, had described the Islamic society on a global level, in an excellent macro study. In order to address the same problem, I try it at a micro level, looking at my own village and our own life to understand the complex relationships that define and give shape to our society today.

Now, who are this 'us'? I raise this question because I know that there is a deep, hidden casteism in all our social interactions. Hence, it is necessary to make a declaration about one’s own "identity" in relation to these social/cultural/historical discourses.

I belong to a place called Omassery, a panchayat on the periphery of the erstwhile Eranadu-Valluvanadu taluks which were the epicenter of the Malabar Rebellion. The dominant castes there are as follows: the Hindu upper castes, mainly Nairs; lower castes mainly Thiyyas, Cherumas and Pulayas; and Muslims. The Nairs were on the decline, though there were caste practices even in our village. The Thiyyas had their own kavu, which we called Karumanakkal. (I don't know the significance of the combination of these words kavu and mana here). The kavu was administered by a committee of family elders who elected the ‘aviathan’, who ran the property and looked after annual celebrations like thira. The Gulikan Thira was one of the most important there. In fact Gulikan was an important deity, and he inhabited the tree. I remember that in our own family, we used to make regular offerings to Gulikan, known as Gulikanu kodukkal, part of the ritual was the sacrifice of a cock to him under the tree. Once my father enlisted me to help him in this and when I saw the blood gushing out of the slit neck of the bird, I backed out and refused to be part of it ever since.

In this social structure, I remember that the Thiyyas and other lower castes were much closer socially and culturally with Muslims, who had no caste prejudices. Our village, as most other villages in Malappuram, Kozhikode districts was dominated by Muslims, mainly Sunnis.

But a much more major bond these lower castes had with Muslims was economic, as they worked in their fields, and took daily provisions, often on credit, from their shops.

And their children went to schools set up by Muslims. My pre-high school days were spent in Karuvampoyil Govt. Mappila School, set up by a Muslim landlord. We had two libraries there in the village, one a public library and the other set up by local Jamat e Islami halqua.

Then came politics. Nairs and others (there was just one Namboodiri illam in the whole place) were generally Congress or RSS; the Thiyyas and lower castes Communist and the Muslims, League. Now these equations seem to be undergoing a change: The lower castes, some of them at least, are now being drawn to the RSS-Congress line. Still Communists are dominant.

In this scenario, what is important is to realize that Muslims as a community had a dominant role, in every sphere of our village life. They still do have it and they are now leading others, mostly from the backward castes, along with them.

So these relations are very deep and extremely complex, which no external ideologies like the Hindutva could easily penetrate or destroy. The same is the case with Muslims who had such a deep relationship with others, and no amount of Pan-Islamism could force them to abandon their village people.

My mother, who is now 85, is an example: She is a great devotee of deities like Sabarimala Ayyappan, Kottiyur Amma, and Sree Muthappan of Parassini...(Remember none of these deities ever practiced untouchability.) But she is equally devoted to Karakkattil Thangal, who appears to have settled in the area some 250-300 years ago along with other thangals like Bafaquis of Koyilandy, Sayeds of Kondotty and Jifrees of Kozhikode.

Same is the case with my father: His greatest friend and ally was Kottuvatta Aboobacker Haji, an elderly person who had spent decades in the Andamans in the wake of the 1921 Rebellion. (I don’t know whether he was deported for his involvement in the rebellion or he chose migration there as part of the Andaman Scheme launched by the British Government those says.)

So who is eligible and who is not eligible to be part of a democratic process? And why do we keep our tongues tied when we speak of our own past, and present, at least that of a substantial section of our society, who never had a chance to speak out?


Monday, January 28, 2008

Comrade VS Goes Down; But Will it Bring an End to Factional War?

SO, WHO has been successful in this ding-dong battle?

Those who have watched the ongoing local, area and district level conferences of the CPM in Kerala, say in unison that Comrade Pinarayi Vijayan has been winning hands down. Good old comrade Achumman, or the venerable leader V S Achuthanandan who had proved the dark horse in so many battles in the past, is now a washout. His days are over. So, Long Live Comrade Achumman, and move forward comrades…Let us unite under the new leadership.

But the skeptics remain skeptics. Is the battle in Kerala’s CPM over the control of the party is finally and truly over? Is the party, as Pinarayi Vijayan claims repeatedly these days, going to be once again united after the Kottayam state conference next month, removing the final vestiges of factionalism that haunted it for over one and a half decades?

Like the repeated signs of bad omen that disturbed the sleep of Julius Caesar on the day of his death at the Roman Senate, even in this silver skyline dark clouds appear giving anxious nights to those who say the party has finally emerged from the cloudy days of factionalism. The CPM state secretary’s solution to the party’s woes of factionalism is simple: Remove the bad egg, purge the dissidents and everything will be fine. As soon as he was re-elected secretary at the Malappuram state conference three years ago he had launched this cleansing mission, throwing out many from the party.

However, he found that the party central leadership was not playing ball. Every time he made a decisive move, there was an equal and firm rebuff from the centre: Many of those who were removed from the party rolls unilaterally were taken back; clear guidelines were issued from central committee as to how to conduct Kerala’s party conferences, and now the Pinarayi group’s coup de etat at Thiruvananthapuram, where they had edged out 11 VS supporters from the official list in a last-minute operation, had been declared null and void by the politburo headed by Prakash Karat.

That raises the question: Who actually runs the Kerala CPM today, Pinarayi Vijayan, the state secretary, or Prakash Karat, the general secretary?

It would appear the CPM central leadership has little faith in its state leadership as repeatedly they had stepped in to keep the state unit under a tight leash, guide it in the proper way and to force its hands to build unity and consensus in the party. And the mistakes committed by the state party leadership were not confined to organization, they were equally culpable of political deviation and opportunism.

The biggest declaration of the state party leaders’ alienation from its national thinking became evident when they made a not-so-secret effort to water down the quarter-century old Left Democratic Front that consisted of CPM, CPI, RSP and other left and democratic parties ostensibly to expand the electoral base in alliance with the Democratic Congress led by Karunakaran and his son. But this line was firmly rebuffed by the party national leadership.

Now the state conference is just a few weeks away and the state leadership is, for all outward appearances, firmly entrenched. They have a majority of district units under their control and almost three-fourths of the elected state conference delegates are on their side. That, they reason, would ensure V S Achuthanandan would have no chance to make a comeback in this state conference.

They may be right; possibly Achuthanandan may cease to be a force to reckon with in the party from now on.

But will it finally put an end to the dissidence and factionalism in Kerala CPM? I doubt it, because Pinarayi Vijayan has emerged as the most divisive among the leaders of the party in its entire history. So now we may be entering a new stage in the internal battles in the party. Perhaps, the post-Kottayam inner party struggles may decide the future as the fight will be on two broad agendas: To make the party more democratic and genuinely people-centered on the one side and more undemocratic and more bureaucratic on the other.

Let’s watch and wait…

(Devil's Sermon is a weekly political commentary.)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Civil Society Movements and Political Parties

Capitalism and Future of Democracy:A Debate-Part Three

N P Chekkutty: I would like to return to a critical issue of the democratic practice: The role of civil society organizations vis a vis the political parties.

While the existence of the dichotomies of the micro/macro worlds is fine, what seems to be a disturbing phenomenon is the way these micro level efforts trying to upstage or even subvert the larger political process. I am not going to any examples, but recently while going through the IMF/WB discussion papers I saw (World Bank president) Wolfenshon paying glowing tributes to some women’s groups in Andhra Pradesh. Nothing wrong with it, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable knowing fully well about the political agenda behind most of these organizations.

So the question is, who is there to monitor these groups, who are they accountable to?

Let me give an example from our own neighborhood. I used to report from Wayanad for almost 20 years and I have seen the growth of a large number of civil society groups there in these years. Many funded and promoted by church, some by Hindutva forces and others seemingly secular. They were very active in most of the areas and in the process have effectively edged out the political parties.

But what is the net gain of their work? In Wayanad, there has been no improvement in the life of the people. The larger the number of NGOs, the more the number of suicides there.

John Samuel: Good question! First and foremost, these formations, groups, or institutions (which people variously call NGOs, CSOs, Voluntary Organizations, etc) are very heterogeneous. The one thing you can generalize about them is that they can not be generalized. Like there are political parties of all colours and character, these formations too represent the contradictions, tensions, identities and ideological flux. There is a whole history of this process (I have explained this in detail in my book on Social Action: An Indian Panorama) in India and elsewhere and such process has different trajectories. As I have mentioned earlier, I consider such formations as transitional bridges, whenever there is any flux in terms of political process and ideological formations. We are at the moment going through a flux and hence they are relevant (whether someone like them or not). They are even called the Fifth-Estate.

Such process has more than two hundred years of history in India. Organizations like Anti-Slavery International has played a historic role in changing the politics of the world. In the early stages, even socialist and communist parties were very small formations.

The new institutionalized and funded NGOs are also are very, very diverse- in their character, purpose and programmes. So it is not easy to paint all of them with one brush. Also, just because some one has praised some NGO does not necessarily mean that they are bad. While there are indeed some very good NGOs, there are bad ones too (like any other field). There are good newspapers and bad ones. There are good editors and bad ones.

N P Chekkutty: When we launched this debate on capitalism and democracy we started out from a gloomy premise: The (near) impossibility of any radical societal change as Zizek seems to point out (at least that is what I gathered from his article.) Capitalism emerged victorious with its twin sisters, an open and competitive market and liberal democracy. But today, it seems both are facing a reversal as we can see from the wave of protectionism even from the ' liberal' west, and the rising trend of shock and awe tactics. The other hope, socialism, is dead and peacefully buried too.

If one were to look back at the history of democracy, it would appear that it was generally moving forward, from the days of Magna Carta to French Revolution, to the parliamentary system and to more and more liberal ideals like universal human rights. Of course there were setbacks, but they were overcome.

Now from the way things appear, it would seem that the world is going beyond this phase of liberal democracy. No takers for it any longer. Everywhere, the liberal is a species facing threat, a species on the verge of extinction. It is the age of bigots that we see ahead.

So for any politically conscious person, it would appear that this is an age of losing hope, or at best, hoping against hope. If democracy, the last hope, fails what lies ahead?

N C Narayanan: About post modern discourse, it is like the question of 'development'. In post- development debates, we bury the possibilities of 'development' totally and then it becomes a question of development Vs anti-development or post-development. In post-development debates, even the idea of development is taken as subversive and equated to westernization and global capitalism. Though I would go with it to an extent (taking their arguments of environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, etc), this is an extreme position.

To one of my teachers, once I told that I'm pessimistic. His answer was that "You can afford to be pessimistic but not many can. They might have to struggle and dream of a better tomorrow". I think this was a lesson to me to be a structuralist again. I agree with you.

John Samuel: 1. While Zizek has made some valid points, I do not agree with many of his conclusions.

2. As I have mentioned earlier, I believe that we are in the midst of a profound transitions, in terms of ideas, ideological premises, mode of governance, forms of mobilization, etc.

3. As a student of history, I noted that: Mode of technology often determines the mode of communication. The mode of communication determines the mode of thinking. The mode of thinking influences the mode of action. In the years to come, we will feel this more.

4. Few years ago, this kind of discussions would have been impossible. Many of us who are in different parts of the world, involved in different professions, are sharing a space debating, discussing and challenging each other. These too can change the world!

5. The idea of World Social Forum emerged through series of discussions on the net-- soon after the mobilization in Seattle against WTO. As someone who has been involved in such discussions and also mobilizations (Challenging WTO in Seattle, Cancun, Doha and Hong Kong; being a part of the WSF process from the very beginning; and instrumental in organizing Anti-war protest and GCAP), I do not agree with Zizek. There has been substantial change in the Latin America. More than seven governments came in the name of socialism. Tony Blair had to go. Bush is on his way out! Of course, none of them may look like revolution...

6.Yes, the role of political parties have changed. In a liberal democratic set up, political parties are very important -- as they are the chief instruments/institutions to capture state power and sustain state power. But politics is too important to be left to politicians or political parties alone. In the last decades, most of the important legislations emerged out of the non-party political process: Right to Information, Tribal Land Rights Bill, Bill to Stop Domestic Violence, Right to Education, NREGA and many.

7. The digital democracy initiative is also powerful. The entire campaign against Multilateral Agreement on Investment ( MAI) on trade was fought and won on the net. I am happy that I was the one who initiated the campaign against MAI in Asia.

There is an interesting book by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe – ‘The Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. This book first published in 1985 actually predicted many of the political developments and suggested ways and means for a socialist strategy.

8. In fact, world is at the beginning of an economic turn down, and there will be substantial shift in the political process in India and elsewhere in the next ten years. In India, coalition politics has actually strengthened the quality of democracy.

So I still remain optimistic -- as a participant observer -- in the business of influencing and changing the world. Still not being apologetic about Socialism!

NP Chekkutty: Well, I can see John chuckling at me, the diehard socialist from the 19th century in an age of post-modern political discourse. But I remain an unashamed socialist partisan.

The basic thing, for me, is that the fundamental principle of socialist world view-- the idea of class struggle-- still remains valid. For me, the key to understand the riddles of history and society is the dialectical way, and in this confusing period I am hopeful that Marxism will regain its lost glory once again.

Having said this, I fully agree with the point that human thinking is shaped and influenced by the level of technology available in a given society. It was true in the days of Guttenberg and is true in the days of internet. But that in no way nullify the validity of historical and dialectical materialism.

John Samuel: Dear Chekkutty, we have come to the crux of the matter.

Socialism can mean different things to different people. For me it is an ideal towards creating a political system and policy framework that would ensure 1) Dignity and Equality of all human beings irrespective of caste, creed, gender and location; 2) Economic, Social and Ecological Justice; 3) Right to live with a sense of dignity; 4) Realization of all human rights to all people; 5) Accountability of the State to People; 6) Just and Democratic Governance. While I do not have anything against private property, I am against accumulation of wealth at the cost of others and monopoly of power, military and market. I do not think that Statism is Socialism. Hence I am more of a democratic socialist.

While I am immensely influenced by some of the writings of Marx, I do not believe in a Gospel according to Marx-- neither I think Marx got the last word about the dynamics of human history. His analytical model (dialectical materialism) is very valid in social, political and historical analysis. I have immense respect for Marx, the way I respect Newton or Einstein or Foucault. But I consider him the product of the 19th century economic, political and knowledge milieu.

When was the "glorious" period of Marxism, and where? But let us also not forget that some of the worst atrocities in the history of the world was also committed in the name of Marxism. Pol Pot too claimed that he was a Marxist. Stalin too was a Marxist. The North Korean leader also swears in the name of Marx, the same way his father used to do. When we make a Prophet or God out of a scholar or a thinker, that is a bit of a tragedy at least in terms of the integrity of human search.

The notion of class has undergone tremendous change-- due to number of factors-- in a post-industrial, service economy and information revolution. So the whole dream about ‘class struggle’ and ‘withering away of state’, etc, need further thinking in the changing context

So I am all for the ideals of Marx, Lenin, Gramsci and Che. They were all relevant in their own time and there are many things that need to be learned from them. But I do not consider Marx as the "Last Prophet", I consider him as a scholar and thinker who was also in the business of dreaming, influencing and changing the world!

N P Chekkutty: I leave the last word (and the last laugh) to my dear friend John.

But not without this caveat: Marxism is not the ideology of the ruling classes whether in USSR, China, Korea or Bengal...).
It is the world view of the oppressed and the exploited. It will remain so.

M P Chandrasekharan: So, for the last laugh: If you want more and more people to be Marxist, more and more people should be oppressed. Is that what you mean?

N P Chekkutty: Dear Prof. Chandrasekharan, Sorry for the confusion caused by my off the cuff remark. I did not mean anything like that.

What I meant, and do believe, is this: John had made a scathing criticism of our contemporary experience, the Marxism of praxis in the Socialist bloc, the one we know as the ideology of the ruling class in many places. It is the one the world rejected in the nineties. Djilas described them as the New Class, decades ago. What he said is absolutely true, I have no answer to it. What he referred to are more than devilish experiences of the mankind. So I was just accepting defeat on this point and saying goodbye.

Still, like Oscar Wilde, I could not resist the temptation of making a last remark: That Marxism for me, is something much more than a creed used, misused and wantonly abused by a group of power crazy buggers. For me Marxism is the revolutionary creed of the oppressed and the exploited, and that will remain so till the day there is a class society where human beings are exploited and oppressed by other human beings. That is the glory of Marxism to me.

R V G Menon: There is no denying that there is an inbuilt conflict of interests between capital and labour, even in the modern IT industry, which seems to be a win-win proposition on the surface.As long as this continues, Marxism has relevance, even though its prescriptions, or rather the prescriptions ascribed to Marx by his followers, may not be applicable, verbatim.

But what really frightens me is that capitalism might not fall under its own internal contradictions, as many Marxists seem to believe. On the other hand it displays remarkable powers of recuperation and regeneration. Given its propensity to put profit before not only people, but even before survival of the planet, this is sure to lead to the destruction of our life support systems, as is happening in several parts of the world.

So, I repeat, some kind of social control over the market forces is critical for the survival of humanity. But the neo-liberal forces are acting as if they have rediscovered leisez faire just now. Even the vestiges of social control which were prevailing in the western welfare economies are being dismantled by the neo-liberal advocates. That means 'responsible capitalism' will not be allowed to work, by the die hard capitalist fundamentalists. But what is the way out?

The only solution I can think of, is more democracy, and stronger advocacy by those who believe run away capitalism cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. If the majority were able to identify what is really good for them and their children in the long run, they will not support many of the measures which now enjoy the support of the middle class. For this ardent and informed advocacy is necessary. This is where the new e-media can play a vital role.

Social Democracy (I am yet to find out why or how it became a dirty word among the leftists!), in the sense of a democratic society with social control over the instruments of production, seems to be the only viable alternative. But nobody will vote for state capitalism, as exemplified by USSR.So, we have to think of alternative models of social control. There is no ready-made solution.Each country will have to experiment and evolve an answer suited to its genius.

N P Chekkutty: Thanks RVG, for taking this debate to a higher level.

I agree with your basic position that more democracy would be the only check on the run away capitalism. My contention right from the beginning of this debate has been that for this to happen we need political parties with firm class basis; trade unions for protecting the rights and interests of the working people. We are in the process of disintegration of the trade union activity in the new world. They speak of changing the labour laws. Fine, we need to review those archaic ones. But what is coming in their places? Nobody asks. This can be dangerous.

However, I accept that the trade union activity and its methods itself will have to undergo a deep process of introspection and change. It will have to accept the new realities and adapt itself to them. We need new kind of leaders. This is becoming all the more important with the new realities emerging even from the glamorous areas of new economy like the IT industry. I am sure, a few years from now we will see thousands of cripples coming out of those sparkling edifices called IT parks. It will be a great sad story, which is in the making now. I am not a prophet of doom. I was in some posh ayurveda resorts at Kovalam and Kumarakam as part of a TV documentary programme last month. Some of the best clients they had were those youngsters-- very young, you know-- from the IT industry who came with nagging physical problems. They came with plenty of cash. But tomorrow when they are not earning they will still be left with those problems... No one will be there to take care of them. We will see suicides shifting to a high tech area from our poor farmsteads

Santhakumar V. Nair: Somebody becoming a software chap, making some money, then realizing that it is not so good for my health, and I can do something more relaxing (since I have made some money, as can be seen very often these days) is much better than a situation where educated people see no jobs or can get only meagre salary. Who said that “Our real problem is that nobody is coming to exploit us”?. There is a serious issue of un-freedom in the latter (unemployed) case.

T T Sreekumar: Who said that `our real problem is that nobody is coming to exploit us'?
A Polish economist during the democratic struggle against Stalinism in Poland (quoted by Pranab Bardan in a seminar in CDS.)
Santhakumar V. Nair: Yes TT, I remember it was by a Polish economist, but I may have heard it from someone else, somewhere else.
N P Chekkutty: Dear Dr. Santhakumar, I have no objection to any capitalist coming and investing in anything here, so long as it is legal. They are welcome. My concern is that as one who sell myself, I should get the minimum to keep myself and my family going. In many industries, the present contract raj does not ensure it. It is no exception in most of the IT firms too.
Your Polish economist seems to think that those money bags are doing it for charity, to help us poor wretches out of our difficult plight. How familiar this is... When those missionaries and gun-toting mercenaries landed here and Africa and Latin America, they also said the same thing, that they were discharging the white man's burden. Even in Iraq the other day they said the same thing that they are exporting democracy there.
What a cock and bull story..

Santhakumar V. Nair: I share your concern that sometimes the reward is not adequate. When many people invest our freedom to shift from one master to the other increases. May I know the situation of journalists in Kerala today? Is it not better today since many newspapers and channels compete for them today (and since many boys and girls have options other than journalism)? Getting a higher salary through strikes/ trade unions is not that satisfying always even for the workers. Exiting from one job and taking up another for higher rewards need not be painful always.

N P Chekkutty: As a person who has been subjected to this "freedom of choice" (not for me, but for the boss: I was asked to pack up a few times...) I can assure you that the free market enthusiast in you might face a rude shock when you see the reality of how it works…


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is the Concept of Class Struggle Still Relevant?

Capitalism and Future of Democracy:A Debate-Part Two

M P Chandrasekharan: Has revolution resulted in anything other than transfer of power from one clique to another? Oppression of the innocent and powerless is a continuing feature before and after revolution. Even Communism has fostered emperors like Ceausescu. What is the difference between Revolution and Counter-Revolution? When members of CITU come to power do they not emulate Maharajas? When I asked these doubts to a Naxalite (long back) he asked me to read a book by K.Venu (I did not get the book). Venu later underwent a metamorphosis, passed through communal parties and ended up in Congress? (I am not sure). I think most people who talk about this stuff authentically are not too sure about themselves.

D K Warrier: Nothing wrong in fighting to better the conditions of your constituency (the working class). Problem is how to avoid the "silver bullets". The lead bullets are not lethal as far as ideas are concerned. There is a readily understandable heroism in facing the possibility of death for the cause, and so it is easy-- in a way. Even getting killed inadvertently by a stray bullet can make one a respected martyr. However, resisting a bribe is not at all easy. Poverty is by no means colourful and so far as I know few are respected for accepting deprivations rather than compromise of principles. This is perhaps the reason why peace and security have proved to be so disastrous for revolutionary ideas. It seems a matter of time before former radicals get transformed into admirers of capitalism. I think we need to invent a new method to keep our ideas sharp in the corrosive atmosphere of consumerism and cultural degradation exuded by modern capitalism. This is the need of the hour, without which all efforts to fight for a better world within the constraints of the present order will unfortunately go the way of the communist parties.

N P Chekkutty: John asks, Why do you think Communist Parties are capable or competent to absorb or address the issue of social class or subaltern politics?

To answer this, it is necessary to take a hard look at the alternatives. One option, as far as I can see, is the NGOs who are now taking over a great part of the work political parties used to do in the past. But NGOs do have inherent limitations. They, at least some of them, are doing good work at the social level, fighting evils and an unjust system and organizing and empowering the most deprived sections of the population. So far so good.

But beyond that politics is about a constructive rebuilding of society. It needs an involvement in the administration of power, and a conscious effort to lead the society on a more egalitarian principle. Here the NGOs are up against a wall. They are essentially grassroots organizations with a narrow focus. They do not have any programmatic understanding about the approach to take for social reorganization.

A few years ago, while I was at Kairali TV, I had a debate with Medha Patkar on this aspect. Her work was commendable, she had brought to the forefront the issue of the displaced at Narmada. But beyond that how do you go for changing the society on an alternative platform? She had no answer but that their work should influence political parties. It did too, for example, the RTI Act and the rural employment act in India. She agreed with me that only a political party with its own policies and programmes can take up such a task.

Then if this is the reality, only the organized communist parties which are still the most democratic in the country in spite of all their failures, the only forces available to take up this role. They are the only ones with a clear understanding, agenda and necessary power to effect change.

My complaint is that instead of taking up this role of a political alternative to the ruling classes, our communist parties are toeing their own class line. What use is the Communist Party if it voluntarily takes up the Congress agenda?

K Satchidanandan: The local struggles, transversal or micro-struggles as Foucault calls them -- on specific issues(Narmada, Nandigram, Plachimada, the Adivasi struggles for land, the struggles of women, Dalits, people with different sexual preferences, human rights struggles on diverse issues, anti-war struggles etc -- do have and have played their role in changing the set mores of the society and challenging/ revising/ reforming the State agenda and even changing the laws. After all what we call the Kerala Renaissance was but a conglomeration of such movements for internal reform, and similar movements across the country have played a major role in changing the attitudes of the society towards issues and towards marginalized/ oppressed social sections which get gradually reflected even in our legal systems.

At the same time it is true that their interests are at times mutually contradictory (See some Dalit leaders welcoming globalization as a new opening enabling them to transcend caste barriers and join a global technological society.) Ambedkar and Sree Narayana Guru also had found colonialism preferable to feudal landlordism and the suffocating caste system. Narayana Guru even said it was the British who had given “us” sanyas, meaning the Brahmins would never have allowed an Ezhava to be a sanyasi, which has a kind of truth in it in a specific circumstance and from a specific perspective, but may not be true in a larger national or human context. While macro programmes and mega ideologies seem to be under attack from post-Modernists, countries like ours still need larger, more inclusive and basic agendas of social reconstruction. The Indian State certainly has such an agenda which is the New Capitalist agenda, and it is in this context that we need to develop alternative agendas. I would not say that it is only the communists who need to, or are qualified to, think about such an agenda, socialists of various hues, radical intellectuals, even genuine Congress men who have not forgotten Gandhi entirely, if that species still exists, and activists from social reform organizations and secularists need to come together and work on an alternative agenda. This again may be a mad dream, but can't we think of an Indian Socialist Forum, like the World Socialist Forum --but not as its branch, as our context is as much specific as it is general-- where people of different persuasions but working towards another form of society can come together and initiate a national dialogue on change and reform? Let diverse thinkers address us, including Zizek-- I don't think he has visited India -- and let us speak, argue, and arrive at a consensus as to what is the best form of just and egalitarian social reorganization possible (by which I mean not only economic, but also cultural and ethical reorganization) and what are its modes in the given global and Indian circumstance!

John Samuel: Thanks Satchi for your perspective. Here again, we seem to be on the same page. World Social Forum was an initiative many of us promoted, where there is a diverse group of people-- as an open space to discuss, debate and think through alternatives. I have been a part of the process from the very beginning. While it helped to bring together a whole group of actors opposed to imperialist globalization, and build up solidarity beyond the English-speaking world, one wonders whether WSF will be able to sustain itself and keep its organic form. The India Social Forum too has active participation from CPM, CPI, progressive NGOs and social movements. But your suggestion is worth taking up for further discussions. In fact many friends (like Aruna Roy and others) too have been talking about such a possibility...

V. Sasikumar: John writes, "Often anything that happens in Washington, New York, London or Brussels or any such cities qualify an action to be “global”. Anything that is appeared in the BBC or CNN is worthy enough to be “global'. Any book that is published in London or New York or reviewed in the Time or the News Week or the Economist is supposed to have “global” influence. Any theory or knowledge that gets manufactured or processed in the northern universities or think-tanks is supposed to have “global significance”. By the same token cities of the South, knowledge from the south and the
media in the south are still “local” or “national”."

Interestingly, this reminds me of what our senior scientists have always been telling us: You should publish in international journals. I used to wonder what these are, or how a journal becomes International. As you said, a journal seems to become "International" when it is published in
the west, or sometimes even in countries like Japan. Journals published in India are merely national, and have little value.

John Samuel: Yes, Sasi Kumar. This is something that needs to be challenged-- the political economy of knowledge production, legitimization and dissemination. It is there in science, technology and every field...I wrote an essay in 1994 (on people-centered advocacy) but till it was published in a book (in 1999) brought out by Kumarion in the US, it was never quoted (now it is in the curriculum of few universities). Some of our best authors and books are not even quoted or mentioned in any of the standard books published in the west....

We need to create journals, research institutions and publications of of the best quality that can compete with any other such things in the world.

V Sasikumar : And we certainly can, if only our own scientists would be willing to publish their good papers in Indian journals instead of sending them abroad.

Your contention was that a big, powerful body/movement has to evolve to counter the beast. But I have some apprehensions about that. A beauty can possibly be big, though I am not very sure about that. But will not a big, powerful beauty soon evolve into a beast? Intuitively, I feel that is bound to happen. We may be building another beast to counter the existing beast. What form that beast will take, I have no idea. But if that happens, then we would be back to square one. Again, just intuitively, I have a feeling that only small beauties can ultimately eliminate the beast, or beasts of any kind, though this is bound to take a lot of time, and a lot of suffering.

N C Narayanan: I'm glad to read your last line. This is what I thought when I read Sasi Kumar's mail. When the west 'sets' standards we have two options. First is de-linking and creating our niche of scholarship. Second is to surpass them with quality work. In the first case, we should be self-confident enough not to look to the west for recognition and pat. In social science, our own Economic and Political Weekly is one journal that has survived the test of time and adapted to times. Until recently (or still?) EPW was not a refereed journal. However, it is respected and widely read at least in this part of the world and has much wider audience than any western refereed journal.

John Samuel: Chekkutty, Yes. You have a point. In fact NGOs and the role of NGOs are rather transitory or transitional or like a bridge when there is flux of political process and ideas. If we look at the history of 19th century, many of the political ideas, ideals first started with small groups or organizations and many of them got transformed into bigger political formations. There were a number of them, from Servants of India Society to Tolstoy Farm of Gandhi, in the 19th century and early 20th century. Such small formations or institutions operate in the political and social vacuum at a given point in time -- mostly in a reformative mode, but sometime with revolutionary potential.

Left parties do have a very important role to play in Indian politics. But let us be real: What is the real presence or influence of these parties beyond three states? Why is it that all the key leaders of these parties came from Brahminical or upper caste background? Why is it that the left parties failed to understand the issue of adivasi communities, dalits and women? In most of the states of India (except two or three) the left parties do not even have the influence of NGOs or social movements. So if it is not a real pan-Indian party in terms of mass base and real presence, how can it be competent to absorb and even mobilize the tribal communities, and poorest of the poor in MP, UP, Orissa? When these parties are by and large run by NGO (non- gazetted officers) class, is it a wonder the party is more about the privatization of airports and less bothered about the land struggles of Ekta Parishat and others in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere? The tragedy is that such a political space in many of the states are occupied by the Sangh Parivar, Maoists or the likes of Minority Front in Bengal.

(To be concluded.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Resistance Becomes Surrender...

Capitalism and the Future of Democracy: A debate--Part One

This is the edited version of an online debate that took place at Fourth Estate Critique, a Google discussion group. The participants (in the order of their appearance) are:

John Samuel, international director of Action Aid, Bangkok, and editor,;
N P Chekkutty, executive editor, Thejas daily, Kozhikode and former director of news, Kairali TV, Kochi;
K Satchidanandan, eminent poet and critic, former secretary, Sahitya Akdemi, New Delhi;
R V G Menon, former president of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad;
P J Cheriyan, director, Kerala Council for Historical Research;
M P Chandrasekharan, former principal, National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode;
D K Warrier, scientist at C-DAC, Thirvuvananthapuram;
V Sasikumar, scientist at Centre for Earth Sciences Studies, Thiruvananthapuram;
N C Narayanan, economist, Hyderabad;
Santhakumar V. Nair teaches at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram;
& T T Sreekumar teaches at the department of social sciences, Singapore National University.

John Samuel: Here is an interesting piece from Zlavoj Zizek-- a rather provocative one.(Resistance is Surrender, London Review of Books.) Those who are interested in discussions on the role of left in the context of the new capitalism and changing world may be interested to read, challenge and comment.

My own sense is that we are going through one of the profound transitions-- in terms of ideas, institutions and political process in the history of the world. It is also most like living in those "rupture points" of history. Hence, there is a flux of ideas, action, ambivalence and confusions-- both in the world of capitalism (the emerging pan-global identity politics) and that of the left. Where do we go from here?

N P Chekkutty: Thanks for bringing this article of Zizek for discussion here. Last week when I read it at the London Review, I had the same feeling you share, that our politics need to have a thorough re-examination. It is very clear that what we used to describe as radical in the past is no longer so. Even those who spent life time in this kind of politics seem to think that it is nothing more than a benign form of fascism. It is sad indeed, but instead of sulking, one should make a thorough and deep analysis of the ways politics is evolving in our times.

My feeling is that instead of accepting the liberal face of left wing politics which some of our reformists from M A Baby to Budhadev Bhattacharya seem to favour, what we need is a political party that is more conscious about its class nature. A party of the working class and the peasantry is what we need today as liberating the established left from the tentacles of the middle class is next to impossible.
K Satchidanandan: That was interesting reading. At the end of it all I begin to wonder how difficult it is to separate realizable goals (practical demands) completely from unrealizable dreams (impossible demands). When we begin to think of demands within the realm of the possible, are we not collaborating with the State whose reasoning is always confined to the realm of the possible (possible Vs impossible)? Will we not finally end up endorsing the reformist agenda that the State claims it is pursuing, but is finding it difficult to implement due to practical constraints imposed by reality? May be as a poet I dream of the impossible and will never understand the argument! What we need to do is perhaps to keep on enlarging the realm of democracy and of the so-called possible so that what seems impossible gradually enters the realm of the possible and the marginalized sections who are outside the present working of democracy enter the process, slowly changing the very nature of democracy. Since anyway the State has no plans of withering away, we may at least give it a tug and try to change its nature and make it more inclusive: a limited 'social democratic' agenda?

RV G Menon: Personally, I think there is nothing wrong in fighting for ‘realizable’ goals, keeping the ’immediately unrealizable goals’ as a long-term ideal. Come to think of it, most ideals are unrealizable in this imperfect world. Our commitment to such ideals should not prevent us from attempting what is possible, at the risk of appearing to be compromising.
It depends on what we want.
If we want to die with a ‘clean image’ --that of a person who never compromised on ideals-- well and good. But if we want to make a teeny weeny bit of a difference to the lot of the poorest and the most miserable, we must accept what is possible, as an immediate goal.
At the same time, we should pitch our long-term goal further and higher, towards the ideal.
I don't think these two are inconsistent. The ‘best’ should never be the enemy of ‘the better’.

John Samuel: Thanks for the comments. 1. The analytical categories like ‘class’ and other markers of identity may not be necessarily eternal or even universal. Because these analytical categories and many others are based on some key assumptions as well as the predominant economic-technological, social and cultural paradigm of a given time. So though we use the term ‘class’ or even ‘working class’, the exact notion may not be the same as that of Germany or Britain of the early 19th century in the context of old industrialization, urbanization, etc. Even the notion of the Nation-State is a relatively new concept-- after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. These notions and ideas-- particularly the social and political ones-- keep changing their character over a period of time. So the Athenian notion of democracy is actually far removed from the character and notion of democracy today. In a post-industrial situation or that of new economy or information/media driven politics, these categories also may undergo change.

2. Ideals and the zest for the perfect seem to have a universal appeal. That is why in theology, philosophy and even science, these notions recur over a period of time: from Vedas, Buddhism, Old Testament, Gospels, the sayings of Muhammad, Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel and Marx. I do not think one should put a full stop in any one person ( Philosophers or "Gods", the last Prophet) in our perennial search for ideals and perfection. Such a search is what makes beauty-- poetry as well as political ideals. When we realize there is no Gospel according to Marx or Newton, or Einstein...our search will continue: always trying to negotiate between the real and the ideals, keeping our feet on the ground....raising our eyes to the end of horizons, spreading the wings to fly....that search for perfection, that curiosity for ideals…that is what makes us creative...the art of breaking the shell of egg...and making ideas and action alive-- dreaming of ideals...and doing things that are possible...hence politics is both the art of the possible as well as the art of the is the art of selling dreams as well as making oneself relevant with certain amount of impact...

3. Every institution is a product of its time: Communist Party is an Institution. So is Catholic Church. Each Institution with survival instinct will redefine itself or perish in the wave of time and new realities. So while the Communist party of the USSR got smashed up by its own contradictions, the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam redefined themselves to survive as well as to keep some core ideals alive even at the cost of mortgaging those ideals.

4. So it is a bit unrealistic to think the Communist Parties of India will have the same ‘class’ base of 1940s 0r 50s. Because the world has changed; the notion of ‘class’ too changed. Many of those from the erstwhile working class became Middle class in Kerala and many of the middle class became rich (either through global labour market or through the emerging service sector). So while I can understand what Chekkutty says, the fact of the matter is Kerala is by and large a middle class and mediocre society: all political parties (in spite of the claim or colours) will reflect the contradictions, aspirations and competing identities of the middle class in Kerala. So it is natural for the left parties in Kerala to try and be relevant to the competition and contradictions of India and Kerala. They are still relevant in the larger tragedy and comedy of the Indian Politics. So Left parties also signify the tragedy and comedy of the Indian politics in all its size, shape and smell....What is the big deal about it?

P J Cheriyan: What is important is to have discernable goals may be even 'unachievable’!. To cherish 'unachievable' goals has always been there: Thomas Moore termed it as 'Utopia' - dreams of heaven that could never exist on earth.

I remember reading a lecture by Immanuel Wallerstine on 'Utopistics' --he invented that word as a substitute to Utopia –Utopistics, he says, is the serious assessment of historical alternatives. It is the sober rational evaluation of human systems, the constraints on what they can be and the zones open to human creativity. e adds Utopistics is about reconciling what we learn from science, morality and politics about what our overall goals should be.

N P Chekkutty: The question of class has come up often here in these discussions. It is good that it is back again because for any discussion to move ahead, we should know what we are talking about.
Earlier in another note Sachi master, in the context of Nandigram, had pointed out that he was not using the term class in the pure classical Marxist sense and he is including the social class also in this category. I too share the view that the 19th century understanding of class is not sufficient to explain our new world. There is no doubt also that in India when we think of working class we will have to take into account the millions of subaltern castes like the dalits. So I have no quarrel on the inclusive nature of the term class.

But my main concern is the erosion of the fundamental left wing values. Of course you aim for the moon, but are happy with the mango. However, simply because our left politics has to contend with contemporary realities, we cannot wish away the reality of class antagonism and class exploitation that appear in a thousand different ways. Earlier it might have been the working class, but today it is the peasants, the unorganized workers, the landless and many others. Simply because those who came to the communist parties in the seventies, like myself who came from the poor rural peasantry today find a middle class existence, we cannot say that the whole life has changed. It is not so. A few weeks ago I was at my village and I find little has changed even among my own friends and relatives who were not lucky to go for a higher education.

So they do exist out there. Only that the leaders of our own times seem to forget; they forget their own past and the present of the majority of our people.

I think this is the crux of the problem. A part of the communist party's rank and file is making real progress, progressing from subaltern to the mainstream and are influential at all levels of the social and political spectrum, while the party itself remains, in paper, a working class entity. But most of the ranks think it is no longer their own party. So I eagerly submit that unless we go for an ideological battle within the working class party to regain its original ideals, we will be allowing the party's own disintegration and in the process, accepting that the mindless violence of the Maoists or the fundamentalists is legitimate and there is no alternative but to take up arms.

John Samuel: In India, all political parties, with a mass base, are in the business of capturing or sustaining the State Power. Revolution itself is more like a promise eternally postponed....Ideology is more like a veneer. Power has its own logic; and the state power has its own magic! Why do you think Communist Parties are capable or competent to absorb or address the issue of social class or subaltern politics? If so why Shiv Sena managed to absorb some of the very same social and economic classes when the leadership of the socialist and communist parties in Maharashtra faded away and my childhood hero George Fernandes took refuge in the Sangh Parivar?

Why do you have high expectations from the CPM or CPI? They too need votes, they too need media, they too need funds and friends, when they are in the business of capturing and sustaining the state power? Revolution has taken long holiday and Che is the most celebrated logo on tea-shirts in the market place. Is it what we call Tragedy? Or is it a comedy?

A translation in Malayalam of this debate is available in the Mathrubhumi Weekly, dated January 27,2008.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Will Nano Put Dear Old Rickshaws to Rest?

Ratan Tata’s dream project, the Rs.1-lakh Nano car, is likely to give a much needed rest to our dear old auto-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws that crowd Indian cities.

That would mean a revolution on Indian roads. Elsewhere in the word, the rickshaws are seen only in automobile museums but here even on Rajpath in Delhi and Kolkata’s and Hyderabad’s crowded streets they are a live presence. It was Buddhadev Bhattacharya, West Bengal’s chief minister, who recently decided that enough is enough and told the cycle rickshaws to keep off the roads.

It was a sad thing to see: A frail old man, his ribs jutting out, struggling to pull his rickshaw with a fat lady or a big family happily sitting behind. The auto-rickshaws are much more respectable, as drivers in front maneuver these three-wheelers often violating all possible traffic rules in busy streets giving jitters to the passerby and other vehicle owners.

Now that the Nano is coming to the Indian streets, it is most likely to be the favored vehicle for quick and short-distance travels, replacing the rickshaws. They are fuel efficient, can hold up to five persons and can move about even in small alleys as our rickshaws do.

And they are sure to compete with the auto-rickshaws in prices too. The Bajaj and Piaggio auto-rickshaws that ply in the Indian roads cost almost as much as a Nano. Thus with some prodding from the government and easy finance from the banks, it is likely that the rickshaw drivers may opt for Nano taxis that would bring them more money, more passengers and more prestige.

That means the fears expressed by western analysts like Andrew C Revkin of New York Times, who wrote in his blog, Dot Earth, that Nano would be India’s contribution to the vehicle explosion on world’s roads, are misplaced. Revkin says that by 2020, the world’s roads would be full with over a billion cars, most of them coming from the new economies like India, China, Mexico and other developing countries. That, as he says, would mean disaster for the environment.

He quotes his colleague Tom Friedman who wrote after his visit to Bangalore about the Indian way of development: No, No, No, Don’t Follow Us, he screams as India and others are revving up their engines.

No one claims that the new vehicles coming to the streets of developing countries would not pollute. They would, as any other vehicle using fossil fuels anywhere in the world. But what is the solution? Return to vanaprastha as suggested by ancient Indian rishis and heartily recommended by post-modern western analysts like Revkin and Friedman? But even the rishis advised to take up vanaprastha and sanyasa only after enjoying the life and the world in grihasthasrama, or the life of the person with a family.

That goes true with young economies too. Let the United States and other rich countries enter vanaprastha as they have had enough of the worldly goods. The developing south needs its own grihasthasrama now.

That apart, it is also wrong to say that these new cars would only add to global pollution. In fact, when they conquer the roads and displace the highly polluting, less fuel efficient
Ones like our auto-rickshaws, they would actually be helping to reduce pollution.

(Cartoon courtesy: Sudheernath, New Delhi.)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Landmark: 2500-year-old Canoe Found in Makotai

The Iron Age canoe brings first proof of Kodungallur as the centre of global trade 2500 years ago.

By N P Chekkutty

Yaleglobal, the online magazine of the Yale University Centre for the Study of Globalization, describes globalization as an historical process that began with the first movement of people out of Africa into other parts of the world. Traveling short, then longer distances, migrants, merchants, and others have always taken their ideas, customs, and products into new lands. The melding, borrowing, and adaptation of outside influences can be found in many areas of human life.

The movement of technology, food and plants and ideas are three major areas where this process made its impact right from the early days of history. New historical and archaeological studies have proved how this process developed through centuries and how mankind was going through a process of integration ever since they came to know how to travel around.

In the past week, two major archaeological findings, from the two hemispheres of the planet, brought back into focus the ancient roots of this process. The first report came from Yucatan in Mexico, where scholars unearthed evidence of a 1500-year-old market in an ancient Mayan city. The market place was a thriving place dealing with food articles and other essential items as any other market in these days of post-modern globalization, reminding us how ancient are most of the modern trends that we speak of.(See report, Ancient Yucatan Soils Point to Maya Market, and Market Economy, New York Times, Jan.8.,2008,

On the other side of the planet, in Kodungallur near Kochi, Kerala, archaeologists reported finding of the remains of an ancient ship. The Hindu on Wednesday, January 9, reported that the radiocarbon dating of the remains unearthed at Pattanam, seven kilometers south of the present town of Kodungallur, has proved that these remains date back to around 5th century BC.(See report, Study Points to 500 BC Kerala Maritime Activity, The Hindu, Jan.9,2008;

These are exciting findings: The Iron Age remains unearthed in Kodungallur including part of a wooden canoe and bollards (stakes used to secure canoes and boats) give the first archaeological evidence that trade was indeed part of human activity even in those Iron Age days.

It was the Kerala Council for Historical Studies (KCHR) which conducted these studies at Kodungallur in February-April 2007 and the findings were tested for dating at the Institute of Physics, Bhubaneswar. The analysis was done making use of the method known as Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Radiocarbon 14C, a well known process for dating historical artifacts.

The KCHR director, Dr. P J Cheriyan, describes the findings as evidence for the maritime activities in these parts as early as the fifth century BC. “The artifacts received from the excavation site suggest that Pattanam, a hinterland port and a multicultural settlement, may have had links with the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea rims since the early historical period of South India,” he says.

Archeologists and historians are excited about the new findings. T Satyamurthy, eminent archaeologist, Chennai, has expressed the view that the new findings were very encouraging. It is necessary to conduct more excavations of a horizontal nature to find further validation for these initial findings, he says.

Dr. M G S Narayanan, eminent historian and former chairman of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), also feels these are very important findings. This is the first time archaeological evidence has come up that points to the existence of maritime trade in these areas as early as the fifth century BC, he said in an interview.

Dr. Narayanan said that the ancient Sangham literature referred to the booming city of Makotai, which was known as Muciri in Tamil and Muziris in Greek. There were a number of songs in the Sangham literature that spoke about the town. There were inscriptions and other epigraphic evidences that proved the importance of the town of Makotai which later became Mahodayapuram during the second Cera’s who ruled from the ninth to 12th centuries.

Dr Narayanan said the present day Pattanam was most likely the ancient Muciri Pattanam, described in the ancient Tamil literature. Many interesting findings had been made here, like the ancient Roman pottery and coins that date back to the first and second centuries AD. Large broken pieces of amphora, the long beaked Roman wine glass, were also among them.

But the present findings take the history of Makotai to even before the Roman age, much deep into the Iron Age. The KCHR plans to continue their digging in the area, including an under-water exploration, later this year in search of more detailed information about the ancient trade that linked this port to other parts of the world.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mayilamma and the Struggles for Water

Remembering the frail old woman who stopped Coca Cola, defending the people’s right to water

I first came across Mayilamma a few years ago in Delhi. She was coming out of the Constitution Club in Rafi Marg, just across the Indian Newspaper Society building where I worked as a reporter for a Malayalam newspaper those days. She had come to the national capital as a representative of the adivasi-dalit action committee in her small village called Plachimada on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.

By then Plachimada and Mayilamma had become world famous. The dry village and the frail woman with untidy grey hair were by then symbols of a global resistance against Coca Cola. Mayilamma spoke to us Kerala journos in her peculiar dialect, which was neither Malayalam nor Tamil and one thing that was quite coherent was her loud and clear assertion: “We will never quit this struggle. We will not allow them to take our water.”

It was water that pitted this woman who was in her late sixties, living with her four children in her derelict hut in the adivasi hamlet miles away from the towns and cities, against the global giant. She was born and brought up in Muthalamada, a village on the border of Palakkad. Then when she became 15, her father Raman and mother Kurumanda married her off to Mari Muthu of Plachimada. She came to live with him in the village bearing him four children when Mari Muthu died leaving her to carry on life.

Life in these villages is tough. It is quite hot in the summer and the empty paddy fields dry up, the scorched earth emitting heat from within. The adivasis plant summer vegetable like water melon in the fields as inter-crop after paddy harvest, bringing water to nurse them from far away. That helps them survive in the off season when there is no work in the fields after the harvest is over.

The village Plachimada is in the Chittur region of Palakkad district and it is a predominantly agricultural area, with paddy being the dominant crop. Sugar cane is also planted in some places and the main source of water for the villagers is the canals from the Malampuzha Reservoir which irrigates thousands of acres of fields. But water has always been in short supply, the cultivators giving up paddy as the costs were going up while their incomes came drastically down, and during the past two decades Palakkad had seen a massive drop in paddy cultivation. Even the State Government’s Statistics Department gave the figures that up to 40 per cent of the paddy fields had been converted into less water consuming crops like coconuts or simply left fallow, making the life of the adivasis and dalits all the more difficult. They had no land and no means to survive as the traditional ways of life came to a standstill.

It was then the global giant came to their village. Armed with a license form the State Government and the local panchayart, Coca Cola set up their plant in Plachimada. Their rival Pepsi had another plant in another village, Pudussery.

Within six months of their operations, all hell broke loose. The water level in the wells and other sources dropped in an unusual manner and the village turned into kind of a desert in a matter of a few months. Within the highly fortified compound of the Coca Cola plant, they had sunk six huge and deep wells that suck up all the sub-surface water leaving the villagers literally high and dry. The long trek of the women in summer months in search of water became longer and their anger boiling. It was then on April 22, 2002, the tribal women marched to the gates of Coca Cola company, and launched an indefinite satyagraha that entered into the annals of history. Police came in force, threw them out, they came back again and again and soon the agitation became a direct confrontation between the tribal women supported by the activists from all over the country and the world against the Cola giant.

It was a long and arduous struggle. Mayilamma went to the small dilapidated hut they had set up in front of the gate every day and served water ands food to the satyagrahis, collecting everything from the public who supported their struggle. She was a face that appeared at the satyagraha scene everyday; whether it was rain or shine, whether she had work or not, whether her children had been fed or not. She was the public face of the agitation of these adivasi women who demanded that their water be restored to them.

The struggle raised a number of issues and caught the attention of national and international press. BBC and others came, investigated the situation, exposed the lethal content in the chemical discharge from the plant that was causing harm to the soil as well, the High Court and Supreme Court intervened. The Kerala High Court in a landmark judgment against Coca Cola said that the right to water resources was a fundamental right of the people. A Joint Parliamentary Committee on colas and aerated waters set up by the Federal Government in Delhi sharply criticized to the excessive drawing of sub surface water for commercial purposes ignoring the need of the people living in the vicinity.

As the struggle entered its 1000th day, Plachimada witnessed a huge turnout of activists and supporters from all over the world. The occasion was observed as world water meet which felicitated Mayilamma and others who launched this struggle. She was selected for the Outlook national award and was feted in many forums.

This month the adivasi action committee is observing the first death anniversary of Mayilamma who died on January 6, 2007. She died after a long and hard struggle, her last days spent in acute pain as her skin was wracked with psoriasis. The one thing she repeated to all those who came to listen to her were these words: “We cannot leave our water to others. We need water from birth, we need it for our life and we need it till our death. Even after death we need it as we must wash the bodies of our dead before they set out on their last journey!”


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Silent Valley Buffer Zone:A Step Forward for Kerala

By N P Chekkutty

The Kerala Government’ decision to declare an area around the Silent Valley National Park as a buffer zone around the famous ecological treasure trove is a major boost for the environmental protection movement in the country. The buffer zone would comprise an area of 148 square k.m. of forest land around Silent Valley National Park ensuring the safety of the rare flora and fauna in the park.

The Silent Valley, declared a national park in 1984, comprises only 89.52 square k.m. of reserved forest land in the ecologically strategic Nilgiri biosphere region. Its boundaries were fixed in 1914 on the basis of administrative and legal considerations while the natural habitat of the variety of flora and fauna in the region extends much beyond the area earmarked as the park. If human encroachment and development activities were allowed in the surrounding region it would spell doom for the national park, as pointed out by the environmental activists and government agencies connected with the forest and environmental ministries of the State and Central governments.

The Left Democratic Front Government in Kerala which came to power in 2006 had made a commitment in its draft forest policy, released a few months ago, that the area surrounding the Silent Valley park would be declared as a buffer zone for the protection of the ecologically fragile national heritage. Forest Minister Benoy Viswam was passionately committed to the protection of Silent Valley though there was resistance from within the Government to the proposal.

The opponents to the buffer zone proposal were led by Mr A K Balan, Minister for Electricity Generation, who was campaigning for a new hydel power generation project in the vicinity of Silent Valley named the Pathrakakdavu Hydel Power Project (PHPP). It was not his original idea, but something he borrowed from his political rivals. The Pathrakkadavu project was originally proposed in 2004 by the earlier Congress-led Government, but it had to face stiff opposition from various government agencies as well as environmental groups from within the State and outside. The reason was simple: The PHPP was a much watered down version of the Silent Valley Hydel Power Project in the seventies which became the focal point of environmental movements in the country attracting international attention and intervention. The movement which raged from mid- seventies till the early eighties was the first major rallying point for the ecological movement in the country: It came to a successful conclusion when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made the decision to declare the valley as a national park.

The PHPP envisaged by the Kerala State Electricity Board was projected as an environmentally friendly initiative, necessitated by the increasing power shortage in the State. It was designed as a run-of-the-river hydel power generation scheme, channeling the water of Kunthipuzha over a 2.5 km stretch, with an installed capacity of 70 mw. in the first phase (105 mw. in the final phase), and an energy generation of 214 million units making use of a 64.4 metre-high dam. The total area of forest land to be submerged in the dam was a minimal 4.10 ha, said the project report. But a subsequent study pointed out that the actual submergence will be higher at 22.16 ha, though it was negligible when compared to the 830 ha. of tropical evergreen forests that would have perished if the original Silent Valley project had been implemented, argued the officials supporting the PHPP.

But a rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out in 2004 in an area of 5 km radius of the proposed project site proved that the actual impact would not be as minimal or as simple as was made out by official sources. The most important objection raised by the environmental groups was that any development activity in the Silent Valley region would destroy the fragile ecological balance of the region and eventually would spell doom for the national park. The significance of Silent Valley is that it is an “ecological island” with a relatively undisturbed evolutionary history of at least 50 million years manifested in a high degree of floral and faunal endemism. Rare and endangered new biological species were discovered from the region making it a hot spot for biologists worldwide. Any intervention in the park or the region surrounding it would be disastrous, asserted the opponents of the project.

The government-sponsored EIA report also brought to light the ecological significance of the Pathrakkadavu region. It found 381 species of flowering plants in the proposed PHPP region of which 55 were endemic to Western Ghats; seven were categorized as rare by the IUCN. The EIA enlisted 23 species of mammals, 79 species of birds, 22 species of reptiles, 14 sp. of amphibians, 18 sp. of fishes (of them 10 found not even in Silent Valley) and 43 sp. of butterflies in the region. The report pointed out that of all these species, 20 per cent were endemic to the Western Ghats.

Ecologists like Dr. V S Vijayan, then director of Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology, Coimbatore, had argued that the rapid environmental impact study was inadequate, as it was carried out in a few days. What was necessary to get a complete picture of the biological richness of the region was a study taking into account a multi-seasonal sampling. What is significant is that even this officially sponsored rapid study could not conceal the biological uniqueness of the Pathrakakadavu region.

It was circumstances like this that prompted the LDF Government, when it came to power in May 2006, to take a fresh look at the issue of environmental threats and to declare its intention to provide for a buffer zone in Silent Valley. The scientific community and the Union Government have been strongly in favour, and the Central Ministry of Forests and Environment had promised to double its financial support for Silent Valley, now around Rs. 30 crore annually, in the event of the State going for a buffer zone. A 1979 proposal made by Dr. M S Swaminathan, then secretary to Department of Agriculture, had called for a National Rainforest Biosphere Reserve in the region bringing together 39,000 ha. of forest land falling in the Silent Valley(8952 ha), New Amarambalam Reserve(800 ha), Attappadi Reserve Forest(12,000ha.),all in Kerala, and Kunda forest (10,000 ha) in Tamil Nadu.

The forest officials in the Kerala Government assert that with the cabinet approval for buffer zone for Silent Valley, the KSEB’s Pathrakkadavu power project is as good as shelved though the Electricity Minister has asserted that it would go ahead. But it appears that the Central environmental clearance for the project is hard to come by, as even the public opinion in Kerala is strongly in favour of alternative proposals for power generation leaving the Silent Valley alone. What caused a change in they local public mood is the proposal to engage the tribal population in nine settlements in the region as major stakeholders involving them in environmentally sustainable projects in the zone.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Is Jail the Right Place for Editors in Kerala?

Last week, I wrote in this column that we have inaugurated the New Year sending an old editor who runs a magazine that sells a few hundred copies from a small room and living in a world of revolutionary dreams into jail. I am sorry to report that even after almost three weeks in jail, the 68-year old P Govindan Kutty, editor of People’s March, is still languishing in the Alwaye sub-jail as his bail application was rejected by the local magistrate late last week. Govindan Kutty who launched an indefinite fast on December 19, in protest against his illegal arrest, still continues his fast.

And nobody seems to bother. Except for a few stray voices here and there in the smaller newspapers, no mainstream newspaper in the State has bothered to report on what is happening to this old man, who had once undergone medical treatment for some mental illnesses.

But I suppose it is not a crime; that is having undergone medical treatment for some illness, mental or otherwise. The police had initially announced to the press that he had harbored hard-core Naxlites from Andhra Pradesh who were in hiding in Kerala. But they failed to find any proof to substantiate it. Then they charged him with hailing the attack on former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandra Babu Naidu some five years back.

That, in a nutshell, is the present situation. The only crime he has possibly committed seems to be that he wrote something in his magazine, which sells hardly a few hundred copies. I feel the police in this land now ruled by communists like comrades V S Achuthanandan and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan are in mortal fear of dreams, dreams of a revolutionary socialist kind. Poor old Govindan Kutty still seems to nurse such dreams that make our rulers jittery.

Though the mainstream Malayalam media has so far not bothered about the development of the violations of human rights taking place in front of us, the national press seems to be taking notice. In her regular column, Media Matters in The Hindu, Sevanti Ninan, wrote today:

In Govindan Kutty's case, the point raised by a fellow Kerala editor,N.P. Chekkutty, is, can he be arrested arbitrarily by Andhra Police in the State of Kerala without even the minimum legal procedures? He was allowed to speak to a lawyer only with jail officials present. The charges now framed against him are under Sec.134, 124 A, 133 B, of IPC and under the 1967 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which is
normally used against criminal elements. Is it now to be used against those who run publications? He has been accused of applauding the attack on Chandrababu Naidu five years ago. Why is he being arrested now?

Of course, in the blogosphere too there is some concern about these developments. In a Google group discussion, I received a number of responses for my post about the arrest.
Here I reproduce the original post and some of the responses that were received. It gives us some hope that at least there are still a few people left who are concerned about the plight of others in this land:

Date: Sun, 30 Dec 2007: N P Chekkutty wrote:
Dear Friends,
Mr Govindan Kutty, editor of People's March, an English monthly with Maoist leanings, has been under arrest in Alwaye for the past ten days. He has been on an indefinite fast ever since his arrest for unlawful activities by the Kerala police.

It is sad that the mainstream media in Kerala simply seem to have turned a blind eye to this attack on media freedom. The monthly's office in Trikkakkara was ransacked, the computer system messed up and a series of calumnious stories were planted against the man by the police which the major Malayalam dailies carried without ever questioning him about it.

A few newspapers had taken a different line. For example, Madhyamam did a story on the arrest with an interview with the editor. We at Tejas also did a story and followed it up with an edit page article which questions the police claims about the arrest. We also had written an editorial a few days ago highlighting the dangerous trend of arresting media-persons with no evidence against them.

No one in the Kerala civil society has said anything about it so far, except a few human rights activists. This deafening silence is extremely disturbing. Hope somebody here would listen and join in condemning this attack on an editor who has an independent view of his own, with which I disagree completely. But he has a right to keep his view and write and propagate about it.

Poet K Sachidanandan wrote from New Delhi:

I do not think as long as Govindan Kutty has only propagated his /his group's ideas, he can be arrested, censored or tortured. I am in solidarity with him and all those who support his freedom. I never knew this as I get only Mathrubhumi and Manorama at home -besides English dailies- and they did not seem to have carried the news.

Social critic T T Sreekumar wrote form Singapore:

He spoke to the media as the cops were ransacking his office and the unlawful arrest was being made. He said he is the editor of a registered newspaper the license of which has not been cancelled till date. I hope all those who champion the cause of human rights and condemn fascist/state terror would protest. They can break their silence of almost two weeks.

N D Jayaprakash of Delhi Science Forum wrote:

The arbitrary and unlawful arrest of Govindan Kutty is a highly condemnable act. If Govindan Kutty had indulged in scurrilous writings, appropriate action should have been taken against him under the relevant laws of the land. However, it does not appear that he had been warned or served notice on that account. As has been pointed out, he is the editor of a registered newspaper with a valid license. If he had acted contrary to the laws of the land, action should have been initiated against him through due process. But in this case it appears that it is the State which is acting contrary to the laws of the land.

Sajan Gopalan, senior television journalist in Thiruvananthapuram, wrote:

Even the reporting style by media on the arrest of the Maoist Leader also needs a thorough analysis. He was treated like a murderer by the media and it was not considered that he is also a political activist, whether we agree with his style of politics or not. There is a need to inform the public about the reasons of Maoist growth in rural India. Media which is dazed in the urban growth is far away from
these realities...

Let us watch and wait what happens next in this sordid drama of ‘media freedom’ (not to report) and media un-freedom (self-imposed.)


(Devil’s Sermon is a weekly political commentary.)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Laughing Gas

Laughing Gas will appear every weekend.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Is it Possible to Settle Ideological Disputes in a Court of Law?

No, finds Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad in a costly court battle with Prof M N Vijayan

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), Kerala’s premier non-governmental organization, filed a defamation case against Patom, a political journal launched by the dissident group in the CPM in the State, under Sections 500 and 501 of the Indian Penal Code at the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court, Ernakulam, setting off a major debate on the role of media in politics. The case field by Prof. K Pappootty, president of the KSSP on behalf of the organization, went on trial from July 13, 2006 and its verdict was pronounced by the magistrate on September 28 this year.

The case, its long trial and eventual verdict are now part of media folklore in Kerala as it touches upon a number of aspects of Kerala society and politics, making it a classic case of a courtroom battle reflecting the major political tussles that divide the society at large. Hence the case took a much significant role in defining the ongoing debate in Kerala society and sparked off a feverish debate on the role of media in politics and society and what constitutes a defamatory comment in matters of public debate.

The case has been a high profile one from the beginning, because those who appeared in it as prosecution and defendants were tall figures in Kerala’s public life. It was for all practical purposes a side show to the main battle in the CPM, the most powerful party in the State, which is divided into two major camps, on political and ideological grounds. The case also took a tragic turn towards the end, as Prof. M N Vijayan, one of the most respected leftist intellectuals and editor of Patom, who was the second accused in the case, died of a massive heart attack, in front of television cameras and media-persons as he addressed a press conference at the Trissur Press Club on October 3, while speaking about the important aspects of the case and its verdict.

The case field by the KSSP alleged that an article in the Patom magazine dated May-June 2004, written by S Sudheesh, a columnist with the magazine, was defamatory to its reputation as it described the KSSP as an organization which indulged in anti-national activities working for foreign agencies. It also alleged that the said article which ran into more than 20 pages in the magazine, used a number of epithets and words that put the organization, its leaders like Dr. M P Parameswaran, Dr. T M Thomas Isaac, Dr B Ekbal and others in a poor light and raised questions about their standing as important figures in Kerala’s public life, describing them as “imperialist stooges, foreign agents and spies”. The petition said that since a calumnious and derogatory campaign was carried out by the magazine, which was taken up by the mainstream media in the State, the organization suffered heavy losses as a number of its activists left its ranks and it suffered immense damage because of its loss of face among the public.

The crux of the allegations made by Mr. Sudheesh in his Patom article, which was echoed by an editorial written in the same issue by its editor, Prof. M N Vijayan, was that Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, which is known as a left wing non-governmental organization with strong anti-imperialist credentials, was in fact, working in cahoots with those same forces and had accepted foreign funding for some research work that it took up, without going through the formal official clearances for the same. This foreign aid, which it received through the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, from a Dutch Government agency was routed through its subsidiary IRTC ( Integrated Rural Technology Centre, Palakkad), with ulterior motives and the subsequent study of village level resources, charted in resource maps prepared by the KSSP and the IRTC, were made available to foreign agencies, the article had alleged.

The KSSP, in its petition, pointed out that the funds for the research work was made available to them by the Kerala Government’s autonomous research institution, the internationally respected Centre for Development Studies which was originally set up by eminent economist Dr. K N Raj, after a scrutiny of the projects proposed by it. The same research funding was made available to more than 300 scholars in the State and it was with criminal defamatory intent that the name of KSSP was singled out in the magazine article for such an allegation.

The court examined a number of witnesses and documents: Six from the side of the prosecution (including KSSP president Prof. Pappootty and five others) and Mr. Sudheesh for the defendants, besides a large number of documents, mainly local newspaper and magazine reports. The major points the court had to decide, according to the 23-page verdict, were: Whether the imputations made by Patom magazine in its editorial and articles were defamatory; whether they lowered the public image of the KSSP; whether the accused were justified in their action by the support of truth; whether their actions were justified by the principle of public good and good faith; whether any criminal offence has been committed, etc.

Going through the actual words used by the authors in their articles, the court comes to the conclusion that these “comments were per se defamatory.” The court finds that the language generally used in the article against a highly respected public organization like KSSP, and public personalities like Dr. T M Thomas Isaac, then a State committee member of the CPM and currently Finance Minister of the State, and Dr. B Ekbal, an eminent neurosurgeon and then vice chancellor of Kerala University, were “excessive and volatile”.

But when the other points were being considered as to the culpability of the offence, the court makes the important observation that Patom magazine was a political journal edited by an eminent left wing thinker like Prof. M N Vijayan, who is known as a “leading light in Kerala society and public life” along with other similar eminences like Justice V R Krishna Iyer and Prof. Sukumar Azhikode. Both the magazine and the KSSP are known to be forces in the left circles and hence the criticism can be construed as a “corrective effort” against the tendency to toe the line of globalization and acceptance of foreign funding. The court comes to the conclusion, based on the evidence before the court and from the “reluctant admission” made by the KSSP president during cross examination that they had received foreign funding for research work, that the “accused are justified in their allegation” about acceptance of foreign funding by the KSSP. It can be considered as fair criticism made in pursuance of public good. “Though the words are excessive, they would not lead anyone to think that the KSSP (had) really engaged in espionage” activities, averred the court acquitting all the accused, the editor, printer& publisher and the columnist of Patom, political magazine.

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad has come out with a statement critical of the verdict, asserting that the findings of the court were not according to the evidence provided before it. They have said they would appeal in a higher court of law.

But the case and its conclusion appears to have widened the scope for public criticism and media’s engagement with the establishment over critical issues like governance and policy making. Though the efforts made by Patom in its articles criticizing the collaborative efforts of the KSSP and the influence they wielded in formulating public policy at the Kerala State Planning Board and other official forums during the last LDF Government (where they had a substantial representation), were wanting in many aspects including a dignified and temperate use of language and fairness of comment, they were the first attempts to bring into focus major issues of public policy in Malayalam media in a long time. As Prof. M N Vijayan said in his final comments at the Press Club, “our innocence is not the matter here, but the culpability of the KSSP is the real issue. We are accused of using foul language, but it was Bernard Shaw who said if you want to catch the attention you need to use strong language…”

Those were his final utterances, and they go a long way in pushing the frontiers of critical journalism in the days of policy planning as backroom operation.

(Courtesy:, November 2007.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

N P Muhammed: Chronicler of the Life of Malabar Muslims

Remembering the Eminent Malayalam Writer on the Fifth Anniversary of His Death

It is now five years since N P Muhammed passed away. It was on January 3, 2003, that he went out of the scene, leaving a big void in Kozhikode, his home all those years. Ever since the passing of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, the Beypore Sultan who made the city his home after a life time of wanderings everywhere, it was dear old NP who remained a cultural beacon in an atmosphere progressively growing dark and gloomy.

N P Muhammed was a writer and a true secular intellectual who agonized himself about his society, his world and the role of Muslims in a world where civilizations were now being described as warriors, mutually destructive forces while his own thought and upbringing told him that it was a different kind of thing altogether. As the author of some of the most important works of fiction in Malayalam, he left behind the picture of a people and a community steeped in culture, tradition and maintained a kind of symbiotic relationship with outside world in which they lived in harmony with other communities, other people and other cultures. They fed and strengthened one another, they through generations gave birth to what is uniquely Malabari or Kozhikodan in the world of culture, literature and folk arts.

N P Muhammed was the child of the composite culture that Kozhikode had developed through its long and eventful history as it was here, in this land of the rajahs of Zamorins that the Arabs from across the seas came a thousand years ago and built up their own pandikasalas and businesses, became rich and famous and powerful, and came to be the leaders of the Zamorin naval force, with the Kunhalis with their forts in Iringal and Ponnani fighting the Portuguese as they came as colonizers in the late 15th century. These heroic battles continued for over two centuries and they form the basis of a huge body of literature starting from the Tuhfathul Mujahedeen of Sheikh Zainudheen Makhdoom of Ponnani.

In Kozhkode and surrounding villages, even today this long history is visible and vibrant. There are three major families in these places with deep and powerful contacts with the West Asian countries as their forefathers came with trading groups in ships from Hadermouth in Yemen and other famous ports those day. Parappil Muhammed Koya, the historian of the Muslims of Kozhikode, says that the venerable families of Sayeds, Jifris and Baramis came from Hadermouth around three hundred years ago and landed up at Koyilandi from where they spread to other parts like Kozhikode and Malappuram where they settled in later years.

And N P Muhammed also came from such an illustrious tradition. His father N P Aboo was a freedom fighter who was one of the closest followers of Muhammed Abdurahman, the legendary freedom fighter who came from Kodungallur and settled in Kozhikode. Muhammed Abdurahman was a strange phenomenon, he came to Malabar as the Malabar rebellion was brewing in 1921, became the secretary of the Malabar Khilafat Committee and then continued his political life for a quarter century here, dying suddenly one evening a few months ahead of the dawn of freedom. His Al-Ameen press and the newspaper that he started there, gave birth to a new generation of Muslim writers and intellectuals and N P Muhammed was a true descendant of this group. He grew up in an atmosphere of nationalism and the memories of freedom struggle as his family was closely linked to the nationalist Muslim tradition represented by leaders like E Moidu Maulavi, P P Ummer Koya and others in Kozhikode.

He wrote many books and articles, mainly fiction and some on literature and society. Ennappadam, the small and congested place where hundreds of traditional Muslim families lived in Kozhikode, just on the side of the Kallai river, was his own personal Macondo. It was a place with a number of lanes and by-lanes, busy as it was close to the river which once boasted the biggest timber business centre in the world. He grew up there, as his father lived there for long. Every child in the small lane west of the railway line where this place of legends, Ennappadam, started, knew about the lean and tall old man, who used to walk the streets in the evenings. He was a freedom fighter who remained among his people, some one who strongly reminded one about the colonel in Marquez who kept waiting for the never arriving letter.

N P Muhammed’s Ennappadam could be considered along with O V Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihasam and M Mukundan’s Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, as a novel that recreates the soul of a place. His early works like Arabipponnu, the story of gold smugglers, trace the unique culture and history of the place. It was from these shores that the first migrants to the Gulf launched themselves on a long lasting exodus, when young men desperate for jobs smuggled themselves out of the country in long country boats called urus which took cargo to the Gulf ports. Arabipponnu was written in cooperation with M T Vasudevan Nair.

There are many other important works that should be mentioned like Hiranya Kasipu, a political satire. His last major work, Muhammed Addurahman, the biographical novel on the life of the legendary leader, is a great work of fiction. Burt much more than his literary contributions, he is known and remembered today as a man who remained heroically secular, principled and loyal to the Indian nationalism even in those days when all these great attributes were put to severe test in an India divided deeply in the middle of its soul.