Visions Belied

Independence Day of Pakistan is on 14th August, that of India, 15th August.

This post, a slightly abridged version of the one written two years ago, reflects on the speeches that Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru made on 11 August 1947 and midnight of 14/15 August 1947 respectively.

***

Jawahar Lal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were delivering the most important speeches of their lives on the eve of India/ Pakistan’s freedom from British rule.

Both had lead their peoples from the front and carried immense responsibilities on their shoulders. Both must have been aware that their speeches were historic not only for them as individuals and leaders but also in the life of their respective nations.

It is to be presumed, therefore that these were carefully prepared and sought to both paraphrase the past and look into the future.

As one reads the two speeches, one finds them startingly similar.

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Kosambi Festival of Ideas

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907- 1966) embodied the quintessential Indian Renaissance man that came into its own in the immediate years after independence.

He was a polyglot- an accomplished mathematician and a self- trained historian. He was well trained in Sanskrit and had a very good knowledge of Buddhism acquired from his father, a noted Buddhist scholar of his times. Educated in the United States, he returned to India not only to make contributions to mathematics but, above all, lay the basis of the current historiography of ancient India.

His orientation was firmly Marxist, and his works are a very good example of how the Marxist method can be used to give surprisingly innovative results. Many of his formulations have been proven incorrect by subsequent researches, but anyone reading his works even today cannot be but impressed not only by the wide scholarship and fascinating field work that he carried out, but also illuminating insights.

His deeply humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.

“The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”

The DD Kosambi Festivals of Ideas being celebrated in Goa right now was inaugurated by Vice President MH Ansari on 5th February. P Sainath delivered a lecture on the 6th and Romila Thapar, who can easily be considered his most deserving succesor (along possibly with RS Sharma), had a talk yesterday. The events are being covered at the DD Kosambi blog. A news video there covers the speeches of Vice President Ansari and Dr. Meera Kosambi, DD Kosambi’s sociologist daughter.
 
For anyone who at any time has bathed in that suffusing glow of enlightenment when reading any of Kosambi’s works, reading and watching (the video) of the tributes to him, would be both nostalgic and re- assuring.

(A short biographical note appears here, as well as some of his other writings.)

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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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An Interview with Sunil Janah

Faiz’s photograph Faiz’s photograph by Sunil Janah
(I am now doubtful about the earlier picture attributed to Sunil Janah, so I have replaced it with one I am more sure about)

Thanks to Kamla Bhatt, we have podcasts (Part 1 and Part 2) of an interview with the legendary photographer Sunil Janah. Sunil Janah was one of the finds of the CPI General Secretary PC Joshi and became well known in the 1940s for pictures of the Bengal famine.There is a video of his photographs too that appears below.

Youtube Link

A number of pictures by Sunil Janah have been previously used in this blog (with due credit, of course). At the top of this post appears the famous picture of Faiz, with a very,well, Faizian look.

Link to Sunil Janah’s website.

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The Battle of Algiers- in Iraq

World Literature’s November issue has excerpts from “My Father, The Rebel”, written by Maissa Bey., the daughter of Larbi bin M’hidi on whom was based one of the characters in the film The Battle of Algiers, a  movie as disturbing today as it was when it was released in 1966. The daughter’s memoir about her father, who was tortured, denied a trail and hanged by the French colonialists during what was termed as the ‘Battle of Algiers’, is touching. The author’s father was summarily executed by the French colonialists, along with others like Larbi bin M’hidi, the FLN head on whom was based one of the characters in the movie The Battle of Algiers, a  movie as disturbing today as it was when first released in 1966.*

Screened at the Pentagon in 2003, the film has been subsequently re- released and has often been recalled in context of the Iraqi “resistance”. In the same issue of the magazine, the book’s translator Suzanne Ruta brings out a more gory dimension of the movie.

The film- released in 1966- could only speculate about the death of M’Hidi. Now we know that General Paul Ausssaresses, one of the commanding officers in Algiers that year, had him hanged at a farm outside the city a month after he was arrested. Ben M’Hidi died surrounded by his jailers, who denied him his last request, that he be allowed to die with his eyes open. They blindfolded him and then told the world that he had committed suicide in his jail cell with his necktie….. Protected by amnesties concluded in the 1960s, Aussaresses could not be persecuted for war crimes. But he was prosecuted successfully for ‘complicity in apology for war crimes’, along with his publisher, then stripped of his rank and the right to wear his uniform in public.

And yet, in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq war, Aussaresses’s shocking book, in English translation, was studied by our (i.e. US) military as a contribution to the new debate on the uses of torture. “To cause sufferring is not the same as torture, no matter how intense or sustained the pain- as long as there is no other alternative and the pain is in proportion to the desired outcome”. This sounds like Rumsfield or Gonsalves. In fact, it is taken from instructions given his troops in Algiers in 1957 by Aussaresse’s colleague and mentor in the Battle of Algiers, Colonel Roger Trinquier. The resemblance is probably not accidental.

A note about the online World Literature site: limited pages available online, and whatever is there is in barely readable font color and the pages appear as image files! Apparently this is a further regression from the pdf files that used to appear earlier.

If you have not seen the movie, it is very highly recommended. It was much discussed when its director Gillo Pontecorvo passed away a year ago, on 22 Oct 2006.

In the trailer below, M’Hidi appears briefly 1:21s from the end (the bespectacled man speaking the sentence: “It is difficult to start a revolution, even more to sustain one and still more to win one.”)

youtube link

*Note: This blogger’s (imaginative!) deduction that Marissa Bey is Larbi bin M’hidi’s daughter, stands corrected by Suzanne Ruta who has commented:

Bey is NOT the daughter of Larbi Ben M’Hidi…the French tortured and summarily executed thousands of Algerian rebels, her father and Ben M’Hidi met the same fate, but M’Hidi was the head of the FLN in Algiers, Bey’s father was a school- teacher in el Boghari…I took a round about way into the subject, sorry if it wasn’t clear. Part I is about Algeria and the ways its history has been used lately by the Pentagon, part II is about Bey.

Also the essay stands by itself, Bey hasnt written a book length memoir about her father, but she has written a number of novels, all marked by early trauma.

glad to see people are reading WLT. best wishes, S Ruta

Thanks for the correction, Suzanne! And thanks, of course, for the translation and the essay.

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Discovering Che- Forty Years Later

“It is impossible to eclipse the life of Che, nobody could do that. One could consider themselves the successor of Che only if they give their life for humanity.”

– Evo Morales, first indigenous President of Bolivia speaking today on the 40th anniversary of the Latin American revolutionary’s summary execution

***

My discovery of Che Guevara started on a false note when I met “Guevara”, the tall, lanky leader of the student union. He had just managed to flunk, I believe for the second time, his second year in B.A in the local government college. A sticker on the front of his light chocolate coloured Vespa two wheeler had a picture of a man with flaming eyes and another on the rear number plate  read “Guevara”. He called himself “Guevara”, all other students called him “Guevara” and that is what I thought his real name was– until I discovered his real name. My curiosity simply sky rocked: who is, or in this case was Guevara? Only then I discovered, that our local hero had taken the name after a person called Che Guevara, the harbinger of the Cuban revolution.

I went on to read Che’s biography at the library. The otherwise informative hagiography written with typical Soviet dryness failed, however, to transform me into a wide- eyed admirer of the Argentina born revolutionary, even as I sympathized with his politics.

Meanwhile, the “Guevara” that I knew went on to flunk a few more examinations, finally dropping off and taking up a distance education course to complete his bachelors and then his law degree from the local university. By then, his escapades were well known. He had always been very energetic and had once slapped a senior political activist in his face during a drunken brawl. I mean he was energetic in that sort of way.

Soon thereafter, on my first travel abroad, I chanced on a just published book in Amsterdam airport- The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara and found myself carried away by the adventures of the 23 year old medical student venturing to travel all over South America on a motorbike. His descriptions of a continent that he, as Simon Bolivar before him, believed to be essentially one, are evocative, touching and peppered with insights. For the brief time that Che and his friend Alberto spend with the inmates of a leprosy hospital, for example, they establish an instant rapport.

‘Although it was very simple, one of the things which affected us most in Lima was the send- off we received from the hospitals inmates. They collected 100.50 soles (the local currency), which they presented to us with a very grandiloquent letter. Afterwards, some of them came up personally and some of them had tears in their eyes, spending time with them accepting their presents, sitting listening to football on the radio with them. If anything were to make us seriously specialize in leprosy, it would be the affection of the patients’.

This is how Che describes a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’- produce 20 percent of all the world’s copper…’

The book made me respect Che more than I did earlier and the reason was not far to seek.

Meeting the “Guevara” of my university had not been a pleasant experience. The Soviet book had dwelt on the political exploits and ideology of Che. The Motorcycle Diaries, on the other hand, presented the young Che, the Che that had not yet become a legend and was a well meaning, inquisitive medical student out to discover the people and humanity of South America– a continent bruised by centuries of colonization and conflict, much before he went on to discover an armed revolution there. The political Che, I realized, was an outgrowth of his deep seated humanism.

His legacy, however, has turned out to be an inversion in which his aura as an armed insurgent seems to overshadow his humanism.

To some extent this is understandable, after all if Marxism was the face of humanism for many in the twentieth century, armed revolution was nothing but an extension of the same in the 1960s South America and elsewhere. The appeal of his persona finds resonance in every upstart generation everywhere while the appeal of his humanism echoes only in the silence of the jungles as it were. The self- styled inheritors of his name and legacy continue to be all sorts- the lumpen as well as young people revolting without any cause in particular. Entrepreneurs profit from his name by printing his pictures on T- shirts and coffee mugs. Che, the revolutionary, has become a money-mill for his nemesis, Capital. Cuba wallows in his name to justify Castro’s dictatorship. His legacy, therefore, is confusing, and seems to appeal to all and sundry, and it is disconcerting to find his admirers especially among the  ‘wrong set’ of people, sending out wrong messages about the man.

In my case, for example, my introduction to Che started with a person with whom I would rather not be friends. It created little interest let alone respect for Che. Nevertheless, I persisted and tried to discover him in his politics, first via the Soviet hagiography and then via his book On Guerrilla Warfare. Both left me cold and uninspired.

I finally found Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, in the deep humanism of a 23 year old student, as frightened by a pair of a cat’s eyes in the night as anyone else in his place would be.

I realized then that to discover Che, one has to trudge through various layers of reality, through the phases in his life and his deeply sensitive reactions to the world that he lived in.

To discover Che, one has to go with him to his youth and grow up with him.

To discover Che, one has to accompany him to the ruins of Machu Picchu, and observe with him in quiet poignance- ‘gold doesn’t have the same quiet dignity as silver which acquires new charm as it ages’.

To discover Che, one has to realize that Che is talking as much about himself as about the ruins of Machu Picchu.

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Ramar Sethu and Common Sense

One does not have to be a Marxist to see common sense.

Romila Thapar writes on the Ramar Sethu controversy.

Some detailed discussion is necessary as to what would be the economic benefits of such a scheme in enhancing communication and exchange. Such benefits should also be seen in terms of the future of local livelihoods in case they are negatively affected. Are there plans for the occupational relocation of local communities that may at the end be at a disadvantage?  We have become a society so impressed with figures and graphs that we tend to forget that each number is actually a human being.

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