Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > General > Identity and Inheritance - Talking about revolution

Identity and Inheritance - Talking about revolution

by Ashok Mitra, 4 August 2010

print version of this article print version

The Telegraph, 30 July 2010

City of conversations

The eras of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Behenji were far in a distant at-that-point-unfathomable future; Lucknow in the early 1950s was an exciting place to be in. The taluqdars had taken their bow, but a whiff of their sophistication still hung in the air, maybe a whiff of their indolent living too. They were replaced at the top of the social scale by politicians. Jawaharlal Nehru was very much the role model for the political set, especially in Uttar Pradesh, at that juncture. Since he loved books and preferred to be closeted with learned people in his spare moments, politicians based in Lucknow tried to follow suit.

The university at Lucknow, located across the river Gomti over a lazy sprawl, was small and overwhelmingly residential. The faculty had arrived from all over the country; several of them were known for their deep scholarship. Exercised over major issues involved in nation-building, Lucknow’s politicians eagerly sought the advice of professors, who, it was assumed, knew a bit more about many of these issues. It was therefore reckoned as essential for the two communities — political activists and university professors — to meet constantly and exchange views. Curiously, or not so curiously, the venue for these rendezvous was the India Coffee House round the bend at Hazratgung, the emerging downtown of Lucknow. University students and young lecturers would cross the Monkey Bridge and go ‘gunging’ on weekday evenings and Sunday mornings. The senior dons would drive down in their cars and perhaps first stop at the trim little bookshop set up by an earnest young man, Ram Advani, and then head towards the Coffee House, in which the politicians had already ensconced themselves.

Lucknow was celebrated for its tradition of courteous conversation. Conversation broadened the mind; it taught one to give and to receive in equal measure, and was at the root of the acquisition of knowledge. The politicians assembled at the Coffee House were a remarkably mixed lot: Congressmen, socialists, communists, even some who described themselves as revolutionary communists. The dons, too, would be from a wide array of disciplines: historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, physicists, botanists, biologists, musicologists, philosophy and literature buffs. The menagerie would be completed by the presence of poets, playwrights, artists, singers and, inevitably, some nondescript gadflies.

The juxtaposed aroma of coffee and nicotine, the demure lighting, the murmur of voices clashing with the murmur of other voices floating from other tables, would create a particular ambience. The glitterati were all there: D.P. Mukerji, scholar extraordinary, enlightening Zain Ahmed, the communist trade unionist, on what distinguishes a Marxologist from a Marxist; Narendra Deva, savant, socialist and at the time the university’s vice-chancellor, listening stoically even as Feroze Gandhi would keep narrating one naughty political gossip after another; Fariq Malihabad exchanging graceful banter on the asymmetries of Urdu and English prosody with the redoubtable professor of English, N.K. Siddhanta; a batch of young university lecturers provoking a visiting Rammanohar Lohia to explain why he thought Nehru’s foreign policy was all wet. The range of themes covered was truly astounding, from the sociology of knowledge to Nye Bevan’s National Health Service to the on-going campaign against betterment levies in Punjab to the historiography of Arnold Toynbee to Edgar Snow’s latest book on China to the debate in the pages of the New Statesman on the Two Cultures to Begum Akhtar’s recent recital at a private soirée to Maurice Thorez cold-shouldering the French socialists.

One exciting issue reverberating across the tables — sometimes the tables were joined together to bring the genteel combatants closer — concerned the class-caste dichotomy in Indian society. Among budding as well as seasoned socialists and Marxists crowding the Coffee House, quite a few were sold on the idea of the nation gradually mutating into a classless paradise. To ensure this denouement, it was, they agreed, necessary to bring together into a single integer the country’s mute masses, splintered into a multiplicity of castes, sects and tribes. Those advocating the undiluted class line nursed the belief that this would come about once the level of consciousness of peasants and workers attained a certain level.

There would be formidable dissenters to this proposition, divided roughly into two broad streams. One group would imagine an apotheosis in the form of a grand coalition of proletarian caste groups, who, while reluctant to shed their caste identities, would nonetheless acknowledge the cruciality of united struggles for resisting and overcoming economic and social injustice; class would not swamp caste, it would, however, emerge as a magnificent rainbow of castes. Others would argue somewhat differently. Caste alignments in the country, in their view, were an inalienable datum; class consciousness could only aspire to be a humble camp-follower. What they were close to hinting at was that, with its background of chaturvarnashram, Indian society was destined to be an arena not of class war, but of caste war. A sprightly PhD scholar would make no bones about it: he was a Yadav first, his priority was the uplift of the Yadavs; that he was a socialist and an Indian was of secondary significance.

All this was many decades before the Mandal Commission and the political rise of the other backward classes or the Bahujan Samaj Party. Still, morning showed the day. The communist party — only it — stuck to the orthodoxy of the class line and continued to argue that caste issues were subsumed in the class issue. Apart from Kerala and West Bengal, it has had few other notable successes with the adopted line, not even in Andhra Pradesh. Contemporary Indian history is replete with chronicles of identity politics, glaringly manifested in the carnival of reservations for this or that caste or community.

If it is agreed that Indian Maoists are lapsed Marxists, it would be a sort of tautology to accuse them of deviating from the impeccability of the class line. At least in one respect, though, they have not broken away from the mainstream of national politics. They have evolved their strategy by championing the cause of the tribals. This choice on their part is qualitatively no different from the stance of any of the caste lobbies currently occupying the nation’s centre-stage.

What, however, sets them apart is their gruesome programme of indiscriminate assassinations, including the killing of ordinary householders. In this matter, they are conforming to no alien model either. In the 1970s, the rump of Cohn-Bendit followers in West Europe, as also the urban guerrillas in South America, took to widespread terror tactics. But in both instances the targets were capitalist dogs, not general citizens. The Maoist praxis over here is far different. It was initially a photocopy of the line of action endorsed four decades ago by the Charu Mazumdar faction of the Naxalites. And what Charu Mazumdar believed in was actually the credo of Bengal’s romantic revolutionaries in the early decades of 20th century.

The nation had to be liberated from the clutches of alien rulers; namby-pamby, non-violent agitation would not do, it was necessary to take to arms. Raising a national army to fight the foreign usurpers was yet inconceivable. Therefore the romantic youth decided on the alternative course: of terrorizing the enemy by targeting individual British magistrates, judges, police personnel and, besides, native sons who operated as lackeys of the foreign masters. Little thought was expended on whether such acts of isolated bravado were enough to scare the daylights out of the imperialist rulers.

The revolutionaries themselves perceived their strategy as akin to one-night stands; there is no other explanation for their consuming potassium cyanide, almost inevitably, as the finale to their ‘actions’, even when they could make an easy getaway. Those of the romantic heroes who were gathered in and underwent long prison sentences realized in due course the futility of individual killings to further the cause of national liberation. Accepting the imperative need of mass mobilization, most of them joined the communist party.

That propensities and inclinations have a way of getting handed down the generations was proved by the Naxalite programme of killing sundry people in the name of eliminating class enemies. This, in fact, alienated them from the masses for whose sake they were itching to create an instant revolution.

The Maoists have gone a step further. They are no longer targeting individuals; they have chosen general terrorization, with indiscriminate murders and mindless destruction as the road- map of successful revolution. They are, instead, likely to arouse mass aversion; not among the tribals, they will presumably retort. And possibly that is their real objective, to provoke the Indian establishment into an ethnic war. Some quarters in New Delhi — and in one or two state capitals — cannot, it would seem, wait to obey their script.