Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Laughing Gas

Comrades jump for Special Economic Zones in Kerala:

This is a special recipe, we ensure full socialism in the zones...!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Extremist Groups or New Social Forces in Muslim Community?

RECENTLY I had a long correspondence with a young friend, who is a human rights lawyer and writer, on the rise of new movements within the Muslim community and their significance in the present Indian social and political context. Many of these organizations like the National Development Front in Kerala, Karnataka Forum for Dignity in Karnataka, Manitha Neethi Pasarai in Tamil Nadu, etc, are dubbed extremist in the mainstream press.

The question debated was whether a communal identity alone would be sufficient, or is it the right kind of social organization, to meet the present challenges facing the minority community in Indian society.

I made a few long comments, which are reproduced below, slightly edited to avoid personal references:

1. My dear friend, I was thinking about your points last night, both at the level of the principles of a pluralistic society and also based on my experiences and observations.

Yes, I agree that a movement which seeks to think only in terms of global Muslim identity can harm the Muslim cause in India. It is a wrong conception, which comes out of a homogenization project now on in various parts of the world. In this sense, I agree that this is essentially an offshoot of imperialist strategy and could backfire on the communities who emulate this model unthinkingly. I know that wherever Muslims were showing a promise of engaging themselves with the contemporary reality in their own terms, there has emerged this move towards a fundamentalist streak. I think Taliban, Usama and even Hamas were products of this kind of a global phenomenon at one point, and hence if we blindly follow this model, it can lead us to unpleasant results. But what we need to remember is that though many of them began as such, often they had taken an entirely different route and evolved to equip themselves to meet new challenges. In fact, when you look at the end results, often what you see is something fundamentally different, as they come through a process of social engagement and self-criticism.

Now let us take NDF and such indigenous movements. They came out of a serious period of introspection, immediately after the Babri attack, and were encouraged by this self- sacrifice model that had become popular in other parts of the world. No harm in it because things were in such a bad shape then. People could think there was no way out and being a martyr was the only way out.

But experiences and history count, because these are what take the society forward. The aggressive model of attacks that people like Usama bin Ladin argued for, are now seen as counter productive. It has destroyed quite a lot of bright Muslim youths and it damaged the Muslim image incalculably. It was disastrous for a community like Muslims. Even a person like me, who was born into a backward caste Thiyya family in a Muslim dominated village, who went to a Mapplila school and received so much of help from my Muslim neighbours all these years, used to feel sad that such a great community could fall a prey to such bitterness and revenge seeking.

Now, there seems to be a realization that ultimately these social tensions need to be understood and tackled on the class basis. Hence the new efforts to engage with subaltern forces like dalits, backwards and even communists to locate an effective strategy to go forward. Look at the way a new social empowerment is taking place as NDF and such forces are now bolder to question the entrenched beliefs, social classes, patriarchal forces and indirectly helping a questioning culture to develop. I see this growing trend in my newspaper when I read all the letters we receive.

It happens without any clear plan on anyone's part. It takes place as part of a natural and irreversible process of empowerment now taking place in the community with more money at their disposal, more educated people, more exposure to outside world, more women in work places, mosques and public places, and other developments. Also I feel the Muslim community's younger leaders realize that they do have a chance to give leadership to the other subaltern sections in our society, something which they did in past, say from 1880s till 1920s in most parts of south Malabar, and the present developments that point to social engagement and not exclusivity do provide an indication of how a new social partnership is emerging on the basis of equality and mutual respect. This could, in the long run, prove to be the best remedy against social divisions and communalization.

2. Every social/political movement comes as a response or reaction to some challenge. Without a challenge, there cannot be a response. Throw a stone to a pond, ripples emerge; keep the stone with you, water remains calm.

So there is nothing special about the fact that most of the new social movements like NDF or Popular Front of India emerged as responses to new challenges in our political and social life. I think two major factors that defined the contemporary course of Indian history were the Mandal factor and the Babri incident. The first unleashed new social forces at the bottom of the pit; the second had an explosive impact on the social psyche of the Muslim community; and it had its own repercussions in the entire Indian society.

It is now more than 15 years since these turning points in our history. Now it is time to take into account how important are these new forces thrown up by these cataclysmic events and what future course they may take.

I have watched the Muslim League since 1989. It seems lost in its track and is unable to answer the questions from youngsters in the Muslim community. The INL and PDP of Madani too seem to be clueless about the answers and they look forward only to some share in power, at the expense of the League.

3. Well, the point I was driving at is this:

The Muslim politics is changing, and changing quite deeply. In early 80s when I became a reporter in Kozhikode, I used to cover Muslim League meetings in their office in the middle of Big Bazar. It was a traders’ party and they conducted its affairs that way, as a business. They did not find anything wrong with it.

Then came the challenges in the form of upcountry Ayodhya movement in late eighties. In Kozhikode, Gujaratis and some upper-caste people were the Ayodhya supporters. These trading class Muslim politicians did not find anything to worry about it; it was business as usual. If you go back and check Chandrika of those days, you will see how little they bothered about the gathering clouds in the north. That is why when Babri fell, it came as a shock to them while most of us in left parties were afraid this moment would come sooner than later. It did.

The only exception I can remember is that of Sait. Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait had contacts in north India, he had travelled widely and he was deeply worried about the way things were going. From 1990, I used to communicate and interact with him, as I found him a real soul deeply concerned with the fluid situation. He thought it was the left which will prove helpful, and he made contacts. You know how he built up a link with CPM general secretary Har Kishen Singh Surjeet who advised him how to go about developing a new political party on secular basis. That is how INL came about.

One of those days P M Aboobacker, who was a great friend, rang me up in Indian Express, and told me Surjeet had called Sait to talk about INL. He was so excited. It was off the record, but I could not resist the temptation of reporting it. I did. Manorama took it up and played up so that resistance built up within the CPM itself against allying with INL, a perceived communal party.

The CPM was then in the grip of VS Achuthanandan and EMS who had written about Madani and Mahatma was in ideological eclipse. It was the hard line of VS that kept the party in thrall.

So this experiment which should have been a unique one failed right from the beginning. It was a tragedy, as I see it. As a result, it failed to take Muslim masses into a secular platform. The only option left for them was a communal platform, which is now taking place. As for Madani, he was removed from the scene for nine years and even otherwise he is not a sincere leader with any commitment to principles.

So I feel we need a new movement that is more tuned to issues, ideas, ideological positioning. NDF and Popular Front, with all their shortcomings may, hopefully, fill the bill because these are not personality oriented, are tuned to national and global developments and have grassroots contacts. It is a movement that can listen and evolve, try to understand and seems to be willing to engage itself with emerging situations. I think their models are A K Party of Turkey, Hamas and Hezbollah all of whom have evolved and taken up more pragmatic positions in recent past.

Let us see what happens when these people face real challenges and judge them by our experiences and not be guided by pre-meditated positions.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Down Memory Lane:Dr A Achuthan on Early Days of Sastra Sahitya Parishad

YESTERDAY I had a meeting with Dr A Achuthan, an eminent conservationist, pioneer of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad and a well known environmental activist.

He lives in Kozhikode, where much of his working life was spent, first as a teacher in the Regional Engineering College (now National Institute of Technology), and later as dean of students welfare at Calicut University. When he was dean of students welfare, I happened to be the chairman of the Calicut University Union for a term (1979-80) and so I had occasion to work with him closely those days running the affairs of the union. Even before that I knew him because both his children were with me in Malabar Christian College in late seventies when I served the college union in various capacities.

Yesterday, we were talking about the early history of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad and how it evolved into a major popular science movement in India and indeed in the third world, winning international awards in its over 40 years of history.

But in 1962 when it was launched in Kozhikode it was not a popular social movement. It was indeed a movement for the spread of science and science consciousness with books on popular science rendered in Malayalam, with classes for younger generation held in various colleges and schools and for the common people, and other activities which were mainly of an academic nature. He remembered people like P T Bhaskara Panikker, Prof V M N Namboodiripad, Dr K G Adiyodi, Prof M K Prasad, Prof I G Bhaskara Panikkar, Konniyur R Narendranath and others were pioneers in the movement, most of them teaching in colleges in Kozhikode and surrounding areas those days.

One of the major activities was translation of science books and publication of a science magazine, Sastragathi, first edited by P T Bhaskara Panikkar and later by Dr Achuthan. Those days they conducted ten thousand classes in various parts of the state on the topic Nature, Society and Science which addressed the issue of the relation between these forces through scientific and often Marxist point of view.

Dr Achuthan remembers there were contacts with the official CPM leadership even those days, and later this bond became quite strong. "I told EMS that we were doing a service to society which would eventually help the left and progressive forces and hence better leave us with the way we are," he said recalling his conversation with EMS on this aspect. EMS too agreed to this view, he said.

There were problems in the organization in those days too. For example, Dr K G Adiyodi, an eminent scientist, left the Parishad within two years of its formation and Dr Achuthan feels that he left because he thought his contributions were not given sufficient recognition in the organization. It was a feeling of hurt ego that forced him to leave, he said and recalled all his efforts to bring him back to Parishad when they worked together in Calicut University failed to bring any results.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Laughing Gas

Another mid-September nightmare...!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What Onam Sale Statistics Tell Us About Life in Contemporary Kerala?

Kerala's liquor sale and consumption break record this Onam season:news

THIS ONAM week’s most interesting news came in the form of statistics. Yes, dry statistics about sales. Sale of liquor vis a vis sale of food articles in the state’s major public sector outlets for the two, namely the Kerala State Beverages Corporation and the Civil Supplies Corporation respectively.

According to official figures, the sale of liquor in Beverages Corporation outlets in the two weeks up to Onam was to the tune of Rs. 145 crore, while that of food items was around Rs. 200 crore in Civil Supplies shops. Both did register some increase but in the case of liquor the increase was to the order of a staggering one third compared to last year’s sales. Those who know about the business say that if you add the massive sale in retail outlets like toddy shops, bars, and plain hooch, etc, the consumption of spirits in this Onam season would prove to be phenomenal.

No wonder one could see huge crowds around the Beverages Corporation outlets almost every time of the day during the past weeks and I have never seen such crowds even outside the cinemas where a Mammootty or Mohanlal blockbuster is freshly released.

What does it say about us?

Well, one thing it tells us is that the present-day Malayali would not let go of his bottle of rum or brandy even if his daily bread is not forthcoming. Watching the milling crowd around liquor outlets, one can safely say that they do care for their daily drink much more than their daily bread. Most of them are comrade workers, hugely addicted to the one passion that keeps them going. Perhaps revolution does not give them any real kick nowadays.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dalit Identity & Politics of Access to Land: Will It Really Help Dalit Liberation?

IN INDIA, dalits and adivasis are on struggle, mainly for right to land. The adivasi, dalit land question today is one of most critical issues in the country. From Singur to Chengara, the anti-globalization campaigners to Gandhian satyagrahis to cause junkies to causeless politicians looking for a saleable slogan, are now speaking about dalits, adivasis and their right to land.

No doubt, adivasis and dalits were denied access to land and their lands were alienated treacherously by the vested interests and crooks. In Kerala, the Adivasi Land Alienation (Prevention) Act which sought to stop this trend and restore the land to the original owners) was watered down to such an extent that the adivasis who were owners of huge chunks of forest lands are now left with nothing.

Still, the present struggles raise some other questions relating to the strategy and slogans of these struggles. Here is a post I made to a discussion groups on the issue:

Will access to land help dalits and the other most disadvantaged sections in our society liberate themselves really from their slavery and poverty? In reality, how far these struggles like Chengara where access to land is made the central point will help dalits?

I am really confused here because I do have a sneaking doubt that for all practical purposes, the projection of land and land alone as the central feature of dalit life and identity would only help perpetuate their past and present miserable state of affairs. In fact, when they agitate for land and land alone and not for anything else, they are accepting an asset that had always been a curse, keeping them in the social position that they found themselves in, all these years, all these generations.

I am extremely doubtful whether those anti-globalization movements, those romantics who are convinced industries are bad and must be kept out at whatever cost, who now come to the aid of dalits and landless, would really help dalits. They are opposed to globalization because they are disturbed about the familiar, laid back idyllic life going for ever. They now enlist dalits only because they are suitable allies for the time being. Look at their priorities: They do not want manufacturing industries that will pollute (but will ensure more jobs to unskilled and semi-skilled people from dalits and adivasis) and they are fine with high-tech industries like information technology that would not pollute and would ensure good jobs for their kids …

I think Chandra Bhan Prasad and Sree Narayana Guru were right. Prasad says globalization and industrialization would help dalits lose for ever their segregated existence, will take them into a kind of existence that will make them part of a global work force with no name, no caste, and no discrimination on the basis of mere birth.

Guru said, for him what was important was fighting this segregation than the fight against British colonialism, whom some Chalappuram-based lawyers were waging hammer and tongs in their own drawing rooms, which at a later stage Muhammed Abdurahman called Sunday Congress. Still, people even today are asking where had been the Guru and his people when "we" were fighting for freedom! Well, those tapping toddy at tree tops never knew they had lost freedom in the first place because they never had any freedom to speak of.

So I wonder, perhaps this dalit identity that non- dalits are quite vocal of these days can be the most dangerous trap the dalits are falling into in their current social and economic plight? Why not at least think of a subaltern identity?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Laughing Gas

The atom smasher, Large Hadron Collider, begins Big Bang experiment; doomsayers say apocalypse is near.

Are you sure we are safe, friend...?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Onchiyam and the Rising Rebellion in Communist Party

THIS YEAR marked the 60th anniversary of the police firing in Onchiyam, a village on the revolutionary map of North Kerala, in which eight communists died on the spot. The firing on the unarmed people took place on April 30, 1948 when the people resisted the police move to search the households to arrest a few communist leaders who were hiding in the village in those days when the communist party was a banned organization.

The village had witnessed horrible police assaults in the wake of the bloody confrontation, many people were arrested, brutally tortured and two more comrades lost their lives in the next few days in custody.

These incidents are part of the revolutionary folklore in North Malabar, where the communist party built up its bastion on the blood of those who dared the police on that fateful day.

And what an irony of history that it was exactly on the 60th anniversary, a few weeks after the party refreshed the memories of those historic incidents, that the communist party virtually split into two in the same village. Ever since the 1964 split, Onchiyam has been the stronghold of CPM. Now if you go to the same village, you will see the party split, with the official group left with only a handful of members while the rebel ranks swell. Not only the CPM, all mass organizations are also now divided with the rebels forming their own committees to challenge the official party that has the support of State CPM leadership.

The feelings in Onchiyam are seething, with most comrades frustrated and angry with the way the party is now going. It appears what has divided this small village with its own romantic memories to nurse, is a deep political and ideological crisis that has gripped the party from bottom up everywhere in Kerala. The sense of revulsion, anger and frustration among the rank and file is palpable, but it is yet to take a clear ideological and political form. Talk to anyone in rebel ranks and you see they are unhappy with the party and its bureaucratic leadership who are making every effort to put yes-men in leadership, promote sycophants and henchmen to key posts, and hijack and the party and its traditions for their personal gains. This is not an isolated case with Onchiyam alone; similar developments are taking place in many other villages in most parts of Malabar.

But the developments are really poignant in the case of Onchiyam; and a harbinger of sadder tidings to come. This week, I came to know that one of the last surviving revolutionaries who faced bullets in the firing, 80-year-old Puravil Kannan, who received a bullet in the firing while his father, Puravil Kanaran, died on the spot, left the party and took to the rebel ranks. There were three Kannans surviving in the village, who were the jewels of CPM all these years, as they had taken part in the 1948 incidents. All of them were honoured on April 30 this year when the party held its grand function in the village. Now two of them have left, and only one remains with a jaded red flag while his comrades have marched to the rebel ranks.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bill Gates: A new Messiah for Philanthropic Capitalism

This is my note on Bill Gates’ speech at Davos, submitted to creativecapitalismblog, which discussed the speech and his ideas for reinventing capitalism:

BILL GATES is now the philanthropic messiah and his speech at Davos where he elaborates on his new concept of creative capitalism is his manifesto. It could enthuse people and it could perhaps even solve many of our problems with the help of corporate do-gooders.

Having worked in and reported on economic and development issues of some of the poorest parts of the world, I feel the devil could always be in the details. Once former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose youthfulness and commitment to the cause of the poor reminds me of the Bill Gates of today, had pointed out that of every 100 rupees the government spent on the welfare of the poor only 15 actually reached them. The rest disappeared into some black-holes that divided the governments/philanthropists/ NGOs and international aid agencies from the really needy people who lived far away.

So what seem to be the real problems is not the lack of resources or lack of willingness of the rich to pay for the benefit of the poor. It is the sheer chasm that divides both these worlds, quite unbelievable but absolutely true.
Bill Gates speaks about a number of projects launched by the corporate world for bringing better resources and benefits to the poor of our world. One of the projects he speaks about is the new initiative for bringing the African coffee growers in direct contact with the major corporations in the business so that their returns would be doubled.

I am not familiar with the African scenario, but I have seen the life and experiences of Indian coffee growers, mainly in Wayanad, a district which has seen the largest farmer suicides in Kerala, a south Indian state afflicted by widespread farm distress in recent past. During 2002-2006, this tiny district had reported as many as 179 farmer suicides, according to the Economic Review 2007, released by the Government of Kerala.

Coffee has been a major crop here, most of the plantations started by the British planters who came here in 19th and early 20th centuries when India was a British colony. Now the major plantations are owned by big companies while there are a large number of small and medium growers who solely depend on coffee for survival.
As a journalist, I went to the place during November-December 2007 to find out what went wrong with their life and why there were so many suicides in those villages. It was a distressing situation: coffee is highly dependent on global market prices and small and medium scale farmers who cultivate it in a few acres of land, find it hard to withstand price dips and they have no resources to wait till the prices recover. They have to sell out even at huge losses because they are, in most cases, heavily indebted to banks, money-lenders, etc.

Here is the economics of coffee production for small growers:

Malana James, a grower with 2.65 acres of coffee in Kaniyampatta panchayat, Wayanad, got 30 bags of coffee beans in the 2007 season from his plants. Each bag contains 54 kg of beans and when processed he got 30 kg of coffee kernel from each bag. And the amount he got for one kg of coffee kernel in 2007 was just Rs. 70.

He sells in the open market, and agents for major global corporate companies procure it. The prices keep fluctuating every year, every season: it was as high as Rs. 120 for a kg in 1994-95 and then it dropped to as low as Rs. 16 in 2002-03. He said last year he lost around Rs. 60,000 on his small plantation.

At the same time the value-added coffee sells in the markets, at prices astronomical compared to the prices farmers get. Nestle India’s Nescafe Classic, a premium brand, is sold at Rs. 68 per pouch containing 50 grams.

I have experienced similar situation in most of the crops that depend on global markets. There is an obscene level of price differences, the small growers being fleeced like anything. But the corporate firms failed to ensure even minimum price stability for the growers, even in the days of acute farm distress and mass suicides. It was the federal and state governments who did some fire-fighting operations with the institution of a debt relief commission and higher budget outlay, etc, and taking over the debts of those who committed suicide so that their families need not keep running from pillar to post to pay off the debts left behind by their dead bread-winners.

I am not ruling out that corporate firms may have a say or a role, but can they really bring about any change? I doubt it, because their philanthropic role has always been conspicuous by its absence where it really matters: that is among the most backward parts of the world where people are committing suicide because of debt, destitution and lack of any support at the time they really need some.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

When Politicians Run Businesses and Business Runs Politics

EARLIER THIS week came the news of the inauguration of the water theme park in Pappinissery in Kannur, launched by a business firm controlled by the CPM Kannur district committee. The corporate structure is of a unique model, with a cooperative society as the front organization which legally manages the park but actually it is micro-managed by a group of individuals within the party.

This is not a new experiment on the part of the Communist party in Kerala. In fact, its present organizational structure is built upon such a complex mechanism that has various levels of controls but actually the entire buck stops at the table of the state secretary of the party, who happens to be all powerful in this semi-corporate, semi mafia type of organization.

Kannur’s Dinesh Beedi Cooperative was the original model for this structure. Its success and recent decline are to be studied closely to see what are the possibilities and likely pitfalls for this model. Dinesh Beedi emerged as a strong cooperative movement to withstand the exploitation of workers by the Ganesh Beedi Co, which had control over the beedi market in north Malabar with Mangalore as its base. Then the emerging clashes between Sangh Parivar groups and Marxists got mixed up in this and when Dinesh Beedi Cooperative was formed, this political battle took an ideological veneer with the rival firms becoming the support base for warring groups.

Now the beedi industry is in decline, but the fratricidal battle it spewed continues unabated. In fact, this killing business itself has become more diversified, into a new kind of industry, with the professionals lending their services to various clients like blade companies, private banks, vehicle agents, revenge seekers, etc.

It is evident that the three-decade old murder politics in Kannur is closely linked to this business model of cooperatives/private firms controlled by political parties, controlled by vested groups with close links to business interests, mafia groups, land grabbers, and other operators in the shady economy. It has vitiated business and it has corrupted politics, across party lines. The politics in Kannur might take quite a while to recover itself and assert genuine people’s interests. Perhaps that is why V S Achuthanandan decided to keep away from the inaugural function of the water theme park. That must be why Vayalar Ravi, Congress leader, said political parties running businesses was harmful both to politics and business.

But the dominant section in the CPM seem to think otherwise: Yesterday came the news that a party-controlled cooperative in Kozhikode, would soon launch a star hotel in the heart of the city bringing this noxious business model to this city which had so far kept a decent divide between politics and business. Now this traditionally political city too is taking a new turn, definitely for the worse.