Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Year Tableau

Wishing a happy new year to all readers...!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Summit Concludes; and Warming...?

Global climate summit concludes in Copenhagen with no definite agreement: news.

Did anyone ask the planet how she feels now...?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

In Defence of Thejas Daily: A Reply to Critiques

WHAT IS the responsible media's job in a democracy?

For the past quarter century when I was active in this profession, I was under the impression that we are the watchdog and we need to a keep barking and if possible do some biting too.

But going by the Central Home Ministry's letter (sent by the Ministry's National Integration wing's director Y K Baweja, to Kerala chief secretary, asking effective steps to curb Thejas daily and fortnightly, I think the government is now thinking of providing some new roles to the media in this country.

The letter is an excellent piece of media criticism. It needs a thorough critical analysis, but right now I will quote here only the four major points they have raised in the letter:

First, they say Thejas in its editorials and articles speak up against the Government of India's policy line on Israel and the United States.

Second, they say the paper in its articles and editorials dubs the Government's actions to control extremism in the country as State terrorism.

Third, the paper opposes the Government of India's actions and policies in Kashmir to control extremism and tries to debunk all the initiatives there.

Fourth, the paper tries to look at issues and developments from a communal point of view.

While I was writing these points for a discussion forum, I had not a copy of the letter with me. I was quoting from the media reports that appeared in various publications and channels like the New Indian Express, Deshabhimani, India Vision and Amrita TV. Since then, I have been able to get a copy though a friend and it urges the State chief secretary to take effective steps to curb the operations of Thejas so that it does not vitiate the communal atmosphere in the state of Kerala.

The letter warns the government of Kerala about Thejas daily as well as fortnightly. I have been closely associated with Thejas daily (run by Intermedia Publishing Ltd, while the fortnightly has a different ownership pattern), an from its inception on January 26, 2006, I was its executive editor. It was one of my primary responsibilities to keep the newspaper under a firm professional control and I think I had done the job fairly well. There were mistakes and criticisms, but I must say that it was a fairly well edited and professionally run newspaper. Then how did the government of India find it a threat to communal peace in Kerala is a mystery to me.

I was watching the public reaction to this and was happy that most people thought this was a serious encroachment on media freedom and there was nothing its pages that warranted such a criticism or perceived punitive action. That is good, but I do not know how the Government proposes to go ahead in the coming days as it appears there is some concerted and serious moves on the part of the officials to put difficulties before Thejas daily.

I saw that in some public fora, there were criticisms raised against me personally and some even raised questions about my credibility to speak about media freedom vis a vis the contemplated actions towards Thejas, in response to the first part of this post I quoted above.

Below, I am just quoting a post I made where I try to explain my position vis vis Thejas and its role in Kerala society and media:

I am returning here not to defend myself or my paper against public criticism because I have said earlier in this forum itself that as a media-person, I do consider myself a public person and I am willing to be subjected to pubic scrutiny. Not only my public life, but even my private life.

So let the question of my personal credibility, raised here, remain there unanswered.

But I think it is absolutely necessary for us to ask some important questions in the charged atmosphere that is Indian journalism today. It is about the charge that certain newspapers and certain media-persons are communal, they need to be hauled over the coals for violating our public morality; they need to answer for and provide proof for their loyalty to the nation and its ideals. And some others are whiter than white, they are secular without a spot; they only deserve the nation's undivided attention and adulation.

This, at best, looks like a nursery story of black and white world; a world of certainties and no gray areas. That Punjabi bureaucrat in charge of National Integration in Home Ministry (!!), who has passed a judgment on the (lack of) secular credentials of Thejas, a Malyalam newspaper from deep south which he has not even seen most probably, must be living in such a world of fantasy. God save him and his nation.

Now what is the reality?

Let me give my take on this: When I returned to the regional media after a long spell in the national press, what I could see was a terribly fragmented media scene with substantial sections of the people just left out of its ambit. You cannot imagine the kind of gap and communication vacuum that existed here. You can say such a situation is the national reality, and why bother about it?

Well, I think the difference at least in Kerala was that those people who were feeling left out and dejected and frustrated were still in a position to build upon their limited resources. Unlike Gujarat or other places in the north, where the 'Final Solution' is almost achieved in the case of Muslims, (“they will not dare to make a noise any more...”), Kerala offers a peculiar situation where members of the community, though frustrated and angry, do have the resources and powers to fight back and build a life of their own.

In this context, we must remember in the 90s there was the rise of a militant tendency among the youth (Madani was one example, SIMI & NDF were some others) and this did cause serious introspection and concern among many, especially among the Muslim community. I was a reporter with Indian Express in Malabar and I did have deep and intimate contacts and communication with various players and had a deep idea of these concerns and the search for new options and solutions.

Those days I was arguing for a new alliance among the restive Islamic youth and the left wing, as you can see in my many articles of this period, including the Indian Express edit page piece, The Radical and the Faithful, published some time in late 90s. But we know such a turn never took place, and the left, to my mind, was taking political advantage of the helplessness and frustration of these people.

Now we are at a crossroads: Things are taking a bad turn and we hear reports of youngsters even from remote Kerala getting shot on Kashmir border; they are being taken into custody even from Afghan or Bangladesh borders. So what? One might ask. The police and border cops will take care of them. As far as Kerala's own security is concerned, who said we do have any problem here? Of course, even if there are a few malcontents, the forces are capable of handling them.

But I do feel we cannot and should not opt for such a solution. The only way is to go through a democratic process, a dialogue process and a process of engagement and empowerment.

So in the past four years when we were running this newspaper, we had to take up strong and uncompromising positions; tough stances. We were asking why the six men from Muslim community were shot dead point blank at Beemapalli, we questioned the claim of the police that the boy from Pakistan who came here to meet his relatives was a terrorist (which he was not), we said there is a different tale to tell for Shahansha (in Love jihad case)... no other paper cared to tell this story as we did.

Now can anyone in their sense describe these as communal propaganda? I don't think so. Of course Thejas, in its editorial today(December 19, 2009), has thrown the challenge: All its editions during the past four years are available in public domain (also available online free of charge), and just locate one sentence in all these that can be dubbed a deliberate, malicious and hateful attack on another community, (must be easy as some honourable people have discovered that we are full of venom spewing it every day), and confront us in the public sphere with the proof.

A post-script:

On Monday, I heard on India Vision an interesting comment made by media critic S Jayasankar: "On the centenary year of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai's banishment, Tejas' N P Chekkutty also can hope for a place in history through another deportation!"

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Role of Subaltern Classes in Future Indian Politics: A Critique of the Left positions

RECENTLY Dr K N Ganesh, of the department of history at Calicut University, published a long article in Sasthragathi, on the society and politics of Kerala and its future development perspectives.

The article and its timing is interesting in many ways, as Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) which runs Sasthragathi is one organization that influences the ruling left front’s policies to a large extent and Dr. Ganesh himself happens to be one of the foremost Marxist thinkers in the younger generation.

Some comments I made in a discussion forum and my response to some critics:

1. I would like to comment briefly on Dr Ganesh's article though he does not seem to be a member of this forum. I hope someone here would invite his attention to the views expressed here:

I do agree with his basic argument that what goes on in the name of development debate in Kerala is a political debate. I also agree that in development debates, what take upper hand is middle class vested interests which have all but buried the real class interests of the toiling segments.

But I disagree with his assertion that the newly emerging movements of various social segments (like minorities, Dalits, backwards, women, etc) are essentially reactionary and they are camp-followers of imperialism. He is refusing to look at the specific class and historical origins of these movements in Indian society in the past two-three decades and fail to address the objective conditions in which they came up and what historical role they have played. Without taking this into considerations, his assertions are baseless and made only to serve a specific partisan/political purpose.

It is very interesting to note that in recent articles, other left theorists like Prabhat Patnaik also raise similar allegations against Maoists operating in India, that they are serving the imperialist agenda. Ganesh also appears to be keen on attacking the emerging new movements of the oppressed sections with almost similar arguments. . Both are interestingly failing to address the issue why these movements sprang up and whether it had any reason in the failure of the established left in taking up slogans which were important to these people? Or perhaps whether the official left and its governments were in anyway responsible for actions that gave them the impression that their class interests did clash and hence they found to their utter dismay that the official left is at the other side of the barricade in recent times?

Why does he fail to ask the question, why the middle class interests came to dominate our left parties and their government policies? Why can't he look at the issue of development vs. political debate in the light of what has been happening in the left parties, especially the CPM, during the past two decades? Is it not time for us to put these questions of inner party disputes in the 80s and 90s in their proper historical perspective now and see why the left took such a right-wing turn, though Dr Ganesh deftly avoids entering such dangerous ideological waters?

2. I do not want to respond to all the points raised by John and I do not want to say anything on the prescriptions offered by Dr Ganesh. But without a proper stock-taking of the past, we are not going to build any future, I am sure. So before John proceeds to discuss his own prescriptions for the future, let me make some points here which might possibly influence him as he draws up his own action plan.

The question he raised about the class/caste basis of the so-called past politics based on class struggle is very relevant. In fact I do feel Kerala's left politics started in late 30s as a class-based movement but at some point it was obviously taken over by other interests and ended up in a middle class-controlled, upper-caste dominated movement which ultimately resulted in its present impasse. (Which Ganesh also seems to recognize implicitly.)

The development of the present subaltern class, identity-based movements (mainly of Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, women, etc) are a natural extension/corollary arising out of the failure of the traditional left in carrying forward its original political agenda. I would also argue that these new movements do fill a vacuum left behind by the Left parties in our society. Here we must say that the new social movements of the marginalized groups are actually taking over the slogans practically abandoned by Left parties in the economic, political, social and cultural spheres for emancipation and equality. They are taking the Left's unfinished agenda forward.

To continue my point that the Left actually started out as the force that cemented the unity of the oppressed social/class elements in our society, I will revert back to the 30s when it was all started.

In the 30s Malabar, especially Kozhikode, was the major point of class struggle. The organization of the left movement actually started mainly among workers in this region and in the second stage it spread to the peasants in north Malabar which resulted in a series of violent struggles, in 30s and 40s.

On the political side, we see a coming together of these forces mainly opposed to the upper-class &caste dominated Congress leadership. In fact in 1937-38 we have the most beautiful alliance of all such forces with EMS as KPCC secretary, Muhammed Abdurahman as president, and people like P Krishna Pillai, A K Gopalan, K A Keraleeyan and E Kannan, a Dalit leader, as top leaders of the masses. Note that the left leadership even then was predominantly upper caste, just like the Gandhi Sangham in Congress which they opposed and displaced in 1937-38. Unlike the Gandhi Sangham which was exclusively upper caste, the left was firmly in alliance with the socially oppressed segments (mainly Dalits and Muslims in the 30s) which gave them their real strength and energy.

But in the post-Independence period, especially after the left formed governments, we see only the predominance of the elitist segments in the left while those who were their original allies in the 30s, slowly receded and drifted away.

Now these people who were left to the devil as the Communists took power are returning to the limelight and taking up the slogans their friends had abandoned. Why such a development should irritate people like Dr Ganesh is something which needs probing. When I read his diatribe against the dangers of identity politics, I see very well that in fact what irritated him was the rise of newly assertive subaltern politics in our midst.

3. Reply to Mr. RVG Menon,president,KSSP:

When I was reading your note, I was struck by the image of the new political and social movements, which are generally called identity political formations, being dismissed as of no serious consequence to the social/political transformation.

You seem to charge the new movements as being simply groups that would want to bargain some economic and political benefits for themselves (and their caste/community sub-sects) from the existing system, while giving no thought for the larger social and political change. That boils down to the charge that they are there to bargain and collect the benefits and not the change society through revolutionary means. So at best, they are only peripheral players and nothing more.

Reading Dr Ganesh, I felt he too accepted this limited role for the new movements though, as a historian, one should expect a more encompassing and larger picture from him. Or, as a senior KSSP person, is he simply projecting the 'politically correct' views the KSSP may hold and remain only a spokesperson for their views?

I ask this question because I have read the narrative of Kerala history Dr Ganesh made some time ago, in his book the Yesteryears of Kerala. The book is very important because it tries to study Kerala history and social evolution from a historical perspective and try to delineate the actual, deeper forces at work throughout our history.

That is why I thought it odd a person who has such an historical vision and deeper analytical skills do comes out with such a mechanical and automated response to Kerala's present problems and makes sweeping generalizations about its present process of churning, and provide a view for the future, which could have been done even by a computer at work on the data.

I am sorry for the harsh comments, but I just can't understand why you and Ganesh miss the point, why the crisis of confidence in the present dominant views that has given rise to the debate, after all. It is simply a fact that the present model is a failure, and is felt to be a failure at the larger social context, and you see there is a clamour for change, which actually is now overtaking all of us. The setbacks at electoral political level for the leftist ruling parties were an indication of the deeper setback they do face at various levels, including ideological, political and cultural spheres.

This failure or unwillingness to address the real issues, to face the reality of the utter debacle of what was once close to one's heart, one's world view, is the real problem that Ganesh and others from the left parties face today. It is this incapacity to accept this reality e that keeps them harp on the shortcomings of the new challengers to their dominance which is only laughable.

4. From a reply to JS, a friend:
Let me point out that I make a distinction between identity politics past and identity politics new (which I prefer to call New Politics because much more than identity what decides their ideology and nature must be class intermingled with caste/community).

Clearly there is a distinction between them as one can always see the line between the Kerala Congress groups, Muslim Leagues and NSS-SNDP formations, etc. They are more or less what RVG describes them; pressure groups who are content with bargaining for something for themselves and their offspring.

But the new movements which we, for clarity call groups of New Politics, are different and they do have deeper roots and wellspring. Their origins need not be local, but more national and even supranational. They acquire their strength and ideology from our recent historical experiences and developments, both national and global. In Kerala's context there might be regional issues also.

Just look at what these factors are: I would say the Mandal movement and the rise of backward castes is one; the Babri Masjid destruction and the churning in the Muslim community is another; the global war on terror and the rise of a global and national alliance against imperialism is a third, the onslaught of new economic policies and their impact tribals, dalits, farmers and others is a fourth; the rising forces of radical and Maoist politics might be another. There are so many new forces coming up and coming together in a new crucible of political experiments, that make it difficult for the present ruling classes to carry on as usual for long. For mere survival, they will have to accommodate changes.

The crisis in the left is an indication of what are the real forces at work today and the deep impact all these factors now have on our ruling elite. It appears that these huge churning are shaking up our crumbling traditional left edifice already and surely, as Lenin said, they would prove to be the weakest link in this imperialist-capitalist chain that rule India today.

Now you may ask: So what? Trinamool terror may replace the CPM terror; UDF corruption may replace LDF corruption, etc. But I am not sure this phase will continue for long. Every revolution sets off a series of big changes. There are other forces everywhere and it is only a matter of time before they come together and make the push into a shove.

5. A friend criticizes the new movements that originate from the Muslim community in parts of India as merely fundamentalist outfits. Here is the relevant text and my reply to it:

Where in socially regressive, reactionary and politically progressive. Anti-Imperialist on the one hand and pro-fundamentalist on the other hand. Such a politics do no add up. Because without democratic content of emancipation at the social and political level, there can not be a genuine subaltern politics.

I hate to fight with you but I am appalled by the exhibition of a set of preconceived notions about some groups and communities that is seen in this post, something that reminds me of Samuel Huntington.

As you can see I was making an effort to look into the future and speculate the strategy and alliances of various forces in future India, as the present dominant forces are showing unmistakable signs of fatigue and are likely to be crumbling down.

Your criticism is that some of these forces are clearly regressive in social outlook, and most have disparate and often mutually exclusive visions and agendas. Hence like water and oil, they don't mix.

But political alliances are complex mechanisms and I have never seen any alliance in the history of India where all partners were agreed on all issues. They came together on a minimum agenda and worked together; some times they failed, as in the case of the Janata experiment in 1977, and some were fairly successful as the United Front in the nineties and a few were successful to a large extent as the NDA and UPA in recent times.

So what does it tell us? It tells me that despite differences and cultural problems, people and political formations can come together and hang together. What helps them stick together is the commonality of interests despite differences. Also, it tells us that as years pass by and our politics gains in depth and experience, there is a growing willingness on the part of all parties (at least mainstream parties who were experimenting with alliance model) to stick together and work together.

In the case of subaltern mass movements that grow up from grassroots, what is going to be decisive is the common interests and the joint struggles they conduct. We have had many such experiences already. For example, I have not heard of any person who kept away from the Nandigram struggle simply because some of those who were at the receiving end of state repression and those who fought the police were Muslims with long beards and a possible patriarchal outlook when they go back home!

(My comments were originally made at