Friday, July 4, 2008
Violence from the Left and Right
Most Indians are painfully aware of the violence unleashed by the forces of hate from the right. The Narendra Modi Government in Gujarat presided over the genocide of large numbers of Muslims in that state, in 2002. As a result Modi has become a hero for large swathes of the Gujarat public, and has handily won re-election twice over. However, the issue of violence unleashed by the left forces (not including the extreme left -- the Naxalites -- which is in a class all by itself) has not been so well documented. (I see that in 7 lines I have already stepped on the toes of the left and right wing forces, each one equally offended at being clubbed with the other, so one might as well forge ahead). In an article that seems to have escaped the scrutiny of the media in India, Martha Nussbaum has analysed the genesis of recent violence perpetrated by the left parties in India, mostly in their home state of Bengal. Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is a frequent visitor to India and has recently published a book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future which was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by the well known India baiter Pankaj Mishra. The book is a discussion of India's complex experiment with democracy and the roots of the violence that has become endemic in Indian society, despite the country's undeniable success with democracy. While the book is largely about the Hindu right wing and the violence that it has unleashed on the minorities, the article mentioned above has more to do with the violence associated with the left, and particularly in Nandigram and Singur. Nussbaum describes both the successes and failures of the communist movement in India, and particularly compares the experience in the two major Communist ruled states in India, West Bengal and Kerala. One significant aspect is that Stalinism has never been formally repudiated. Describing an amusing anecdote Economist Amartya Sen tells of explaining to his daughter, around 1975, who that mustached man was on the huge posters in Howrah station, Kolkata: “Look at him carefully, Indrani, since you will not see his picture anywhere else in the world any more.” The communist experiment in Kerala has clearly been more successful -- the state leads in almost all Human development indices compared to West Bengal. She points out that despite the failures in health and education, In Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) had one of India’s most savvy politicians. Whatever his failures on health and education, Basu combined a deep commitment to social equality with a canny awareness of the ways in which communism, to work for people, must be tempered by economic realism....One of the state’s current problems is that Bhattacharjee (the present Chief Minister) is a much less able man, a dogmatic, unmoving hedgehog to Basu’s wily fox. After discussing the build up to the Nandigram violence, Nussbaum says As the months went on, things got worse. Although the CPI(M) tried to keep journalists out of the area, there is much evidence by now that armed Party cadres patrolled the villages, engaging in rape, assault, and murder. Opposition villagers were forcibly evicted from their homes, and many remain in temporary camps today, still vulnerable to violence. (Much of this is extensively documented in the report of an investigative People’s Commission published last summer.) In the late fall, things heated up, and numerous clashes were reported, again with Party cadres, not the official police, playing the aggressive role. The state’s high court ordered normalcy restored and refused to hear the government’s objections to the involvement of national forces (both police and investigators) in restoring law and order. Left Front chair Biman Bose scoffed at the court, calling its judgment “unconstitutional”—and was cited for criminal contempt. By now, the nation’s Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter on both sides, at the same time chiding the CPI(M) for wasting people’s time with litigation rather than doing something constructive for the people of Nandigram. By November, violence escalated, again with Party cadres, not officers of the law, taking the aggressive role. Indeed, the police were withdrawn, and the chief minister openly handed the area over to the cadres, stating that he was not just a chief minister, but also a Party person. Graves from these assaults are still being discovered by the central police force. It is alleged that government-controlled hospitals were reluctant to help the victims. Chief Minister Bhattacharjee defended the use of force, saying that the villagers had been “paid back in their own coin.” The issue not only split the left but also disillusioned a large number of left leaning artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom returned their state given awards, though some well meaning individuals who worked with the Government, found it difficult to condemn it. However, one who stands on and looks at these events as an outsider must conclude that the government’s actions are vile and utterly unacceptable. I find one of her positions particularly important - this is the value of (in my words) calling a spade a spade, even if that spade is a friend. Many of us, who have watched with despair the attitudes of some highly respected left wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky predictably and mechanically defending their fellow leftists, will find an echo in her description of the position of such people on such events Not so admirable, by contrast, have been the statements of some leftists to the effect that one should not criticize one’s friends, that solidarity is more important than ethical correctness. One may or may not trace this line to an old Marxist contempt for bourgeois ethics, but it is loathsome whatever its provenance. A particularly fatuous document of this kind was a letter authored by Noam Chomsky, signed by a number of Indian American intellectuals who should know better, and published in the Hindu, a leading national India newspaper, on November 22, 2007. Besides lauding the CPI(M) for “important experiments” for which it deserves no particular credit (such as “local self-government”), the letter reasons that people on the left ought to focus on opposition to the actions of the United States in Iraq, rather than fighting with one another. “This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist,” concludes Chomsky, having asserted, entirely without cause on that date, that things are basically back to normal and that the two sides have reconciled. This is the type of left politics that holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no matter how many rapes and murders that friend has actually perpetrated. And what are the seeds for this breakdown of governance? The seeds of catastrophe lie, no doubt, in the never-sufficiently-de-Stalinized background of this Party, always suspicious of democracy, always used to treating people as agents of class struggle rather than as individual human beings who need specific life prospects if they are to give up their land. This general orientation toward human beings led to a lack of appreciation that an industrial strategy, even if basically correct, needs to focus on what real people are able to do and to be, rather than thinking only in statistical terms. Under Jyoti Basu the party would never have erred in this way, so one must also impute the disaster to inferior, insecure leadership, fearful of genuine debate and transparency. The arrogance of long electoral success contributed further to turn this insecurity into an aggressive strategy for total control of the rural areas. Finally we come to the crucial matter of comparison of his violence with that of Gujarat which is how I started this post. The two are very different and it is important to keep that distinction clear. What happened in Gujarat was genocide, where people who were Muslims were targetted simply because they were Muslims. Nandigram was a case of hideous lawlessness..and a determination to wipe out opposition, but there seems to be no ethnic or genocidal component to them. (Sumit) Sarkar’s comparison to Jallianwala Bagh (where the British, bent on total control, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators) is far more apt, and we might indeed see Bhattacharjee as a first cousin of General Reginald Dyer, unable to accept the reality of a human being who disagrees with him. Whether Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee will appreciate this fine distinction of being compared, not to Narendra Modi but to Reginald Dyer is seriously doubtful. On the other hand, given the left's pathological hatred for the Narendra Modi style of right wing politics (one of the few positions where I concur wholly with the left), he might actually prefer to be compared to a strict but completely ruthless military commander.