An IITian’s Success Story among the Poorest in India
Rahul Banerjee did not make his millions in the Silicon Valley. In fact, he has never been to the Silicon Valley. He hasn’t made his millions either.
Instead he has written a book- and the book has not found a publisher. So he did not make his millions this way either.
But Rahul Banerjee found a wealth of experience and inner satisfaction of having spent a life among the poorest of the poor in the country. He represents that diminishing tribe of middle- class young men and women fired with an empathy for the downtrodden, forsake what could have been more comfortable lives, to work for, and with what Dostoevsky’s called the ‘insulted and the humiliated’.
Recovery of the Lost Tongue is Rahul Banerjee’s mid- life autobiographical reflection on his life spent working with and organizing the adivasis in Madhya Pradesh. It is written in the manner of a well read and well- engaged activist, his range of reading is mind boggling, and his experiences as a foot- soldier organizer among the people he chose to work with, fascinating.
But the most exhilarating aspect of the book is is the harmony between thought and action, a constant dialectic between theory and action. Small is the tribe of such people, and fewer still are those who have documented their experience and engagement with some of the poorest of the poor in the country.
The result of this dynamic praxis is very evident in every chapter of the book, with its insights into the life of the poorest- adivasis, women and the Dalits. There are occasional flashes of flamboyance (Love is all you need) and humour. Some of the chapters are treatises in themselves, and each could spawn a book by itself.
What remains in the mind at the end is the constant effervescence of ideas and wisdom gleaned over a quarter of a century.
The themes that the book deals with are the author’s own urge that led him to give up a what could have been a comfortable middle class existence after he completed his engineering from IIT, Kharagpur in 1983 (A Mission Found ), his discovery of the life and struggles of the adivasis, his romance with his future wife and via her insights into Dalit life, the double exploitation of adivasi and Dalit women and the travails of organizing the poorest of the poor.
Some of the chapters written with an exceptional sense of adventure are those about the involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and its sad marginalization that continues (Reliving the Myth of Sisyphus). On Aruna Roy’s struggle for the RTI, he observes:
Unlike Medha who has directly challenged the state to repeal unjust laws and policies and implement fully its just laws, Aruna has remained content with coaxing it to just formulating good laws and implementing them in fits and starts and so has tasted a little more success. When the National Advisory Council was formed under the chairpersonship of the President of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi to act as a super think tank for the Congress led coalition government at the centre in 2004, Aruna was chosen to be a member of this powerful body. She used this opportunity to make two very good interventions resulting in the passage of the Right to Information Act 2005 and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005. (Casting Pearls Before Swine)
Parallel to this is his ideological evolution- from Marxism to interactions with Lohiate socialists and to the advocation of what he calls anarcho- environmentalism. One can differ with him on these, indeed as I do, but what is unquestionable is his extreme sincerity to the ideas that he has believed in at various times during the last quarter of a century and the ‘confident restlessness’ that the poet of the reawakening of Asia, Mohammad Iqbal spoke of.
In a very perceptive chapter Reliving the Myth of Siyphus, he analyses the objective conditions that requires Gandhiji’s techniques of Satyagraha to succeed:
What price satyagraha then as an action strategy for bringing the modern state to heel. Satyagraha has some chance of succeeding in crunch situations only when those practising it are in very large numbers and so convinced about their cause and the philosophy of Gandhism as to be able to exert moral pressure and bring about a change of heart in the oppressor. The Gandhian philosophy relies heavily on Hindu ascetism and mysticism as we have seen, and is far removed from the lives of common everyday people and even more so from that of the Bhil adivasis. Arundhati Roy, who has pitched in lyrically in support of hedonism in her Booker Prize winning novel “The God of Small Things” (Roy, 1998), has admitted in the monograph ‘Greater Common Good’ that the theory and practice of Gandhism requires a very strong moral fibre, especially when it comes to renouncing sex and shopping, which most ordinary mortals cannot do without
Sisyphus was such a daredevil that on one occasion he even kidnapped the God of Death and kept him chained in his palace. Pluto had to send the God of War to free him. We in the environmental mass movements in India too have been trying to chain the God of Ecological Death and like Pluto the high priests of the God of Modern Development have continually sent their God of War to stymie us. It looks as if we are similarly doomed to eternally rolling the rock of mass mobilisation up against the mountain of state obduracy only to see it go crashing down time and again. What can be more punishing than such futile and hopeless labour? But according to the French philosopher, author and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, Sisyphus is in fact at his glorious best when he is back at the foot of the mountain because then he is not bemoaning his fate but pondering over its inevitability given his rebelliousness against the Gods).
He considers the environmental challenge- to which even the adivasis have now fallen prey- to the “prisoners’ paradox” in which both the beneficiaries and the victims try to outdo each other devouring up increasingly scarce resource of Mother earth.
The adivasi mass organisations reviewing the situation found that the only way in which things could be improved was for the government to take action under the various laws at its disposal against the sahukars. Since this was unlikely given the political power of the sahukars plans were finalised for launching a mass action programme pressing for punitive action against them. This campaign was to piggy-back on the other ongoing campaigns for access to and control over the main natural resources of forests and water that were already underway. Given the persistent drought conditions the pressure on these resources had increased and so had the confrontation with the agencies of the state regarding their proper utilisation. In the Udainagar area the Gram Sabhas stopped the logging of timber by the Forest Department saying that if the government could not find resources to provide them with relief works to tide them over their livelihood crisis then it had no right to take resources out of the area to finance its other activities.
This decision of the Sangathan brought it into direct conflict with the deep-rooted resource extractive character not only of the Indian state but also of global capital. The state through the forest department has continually tried to increase the extraction from forests and the first major new initiative in the post independence era was the setting up of the MP Forest Development Corporation in 1975 to encourage industrial forestry, which would yield high returns in a short time, both in terms of timber output and revenue. But whereas bamboo was supplied to industry by the Corporation at 54 paise per 4 meters of bamboo the rate for the villagers was Rs 2. (Sundar et al, 2001). After this at the behest of the World Bank a social forestry programme was then implemented between 1981 and 1985 but this too was unsuccessful in meeting people’s needs for fuel wood and fodder because of the lack of sincerity on the part of the forest department. (Cry, My Beloved Mehendikhera)
How mammoth and pointlessly excruciating the task is, is expressed in some of the more cynical chapters like The Exasperating Anarchist and increasingly becomes shrill towards the later chapters. The author has made repeated references to the myth of Sisyphus- made memorable by the Albert Camus, though at places, the experiences of the writer in fighting for justice for the adivasis recall to mind Kafka’s Joseph K- in the novel The Trial.
Two of the most passionately written chapters are Time for a Sabbatical and The Treasure of Terra Madre. The former is based on the experience of his wife, Subhadra, who coming from a Dalit family found the distance learning course from Indira Gandhi University to be a challenge. The author’s own attempts to get access to get data under the Right to Information Act from a university whose professed goal is ‘knowledge … dissemination through sustainable open and distance learning systems seamlessly accessible to all’. Instead, he discovers that:.
A total of 35,844 students enrolled in 2002 of whom 63.4 % were females and 36.6% were males. The Scheduled Castes constituted only 6.2 % whereas their percentage in the population as a whole is 15%. Their female to male ratio was about the same as that for the total students enrolled. The Scheduled Tribes constituted 5.9 % whereas their proportion in the population as a whole is 7%….
The most striking feature of the results is that of the considerably fewer number of female students passing as compared to male students. Thus in 1996 even though females constituted 67.1% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 29.5%. Similarly in 2002 while females constituted 63.4% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 31.6%.
Despite the harsh experiences, the author concludes with the following words in the last chapter The Obsolescence of the Art of Daydreaming:
Given the likes of the World Bank the task of recovering lost tongues is always fraught with a danger that is quaintly termed by Bengalis as the cool wind from the River Ganges blowing on one’s back. Whenever a mass movement reaches its peak there are a lot of people lending their active support to it. However, as state repression gradually intensifies, most of the supporters melt away preferring to watch birds instead. So the cool wind from the Ganges, which earlier had been kept at bay by their once numerous supporters, begins to uncomfortably caress the backs of the activist leaders and deters them from fighting on! That is why the shining example of the practical naturalist Ambedkar should act like a beacon for all those committed to freeing the human race from the destructive myth of modern industrial development. This “Mook Nayak”, or heroic leader of the dumb, right up to the day of his death single-mindedly pursued the goal of recovering the lost tongue for the dalits regardless of the support he may be getting. Like for him our battle cry should be “The battle to me is a matter of joy, for ours is not a battle for wealth or power, it is a battle for freedom.”
Rahul Banerjee has not been able to give back the tongue to the adivasis. But he has learnt their language and spoken for them. And in the process, has etched the ideas and struggles that have defined the sensitivities of our age.
One hopes that he continues to carry forward as a crusading public intellectual of the other India.
(This post appeared earlier last week at How the Other Half Lives.)
Above all, thanks to Rama for the link to Rahul’s book.