January 10, 2008

No Similar Values

I have this essay in the latest (January) issue of Seminar.

(Thanks to Rahul for his remarks and suggestions to tighten this up).


In August 1991, I was on a long driving trip through the southern states of the US. I had the radio on, and that's how I heard the big news. In the USSR, communist die-hards -- unmindful of the pace at which history was passing them by, alarmed by the years of perestroika and glasnost -- had staged a last-gasp attempt to regain power. It was during this coup attempt, to remind you, that Boris Yeltsin stood dramatically on the hood of a tank in a photograph seen the world over, intent on fighting the coup leaders.

And yes, it was a last gasp. Laden down as it was with the weight of its own contradictions, not even these once-powerful men could hold the USSR together; and oddly enough, their very attempt to do so only hastened what happened afterwards. Only days later, the coup, such as it was, collapsed. Only months later, the USSR imploded spectacularly, leaving a slew of what the American humorist Dave Barry memorably described as "throat-lozenge-sized independent republics with names like Huzzubegonia, whose primary military activity is knocking over statues of Lenin". And today we can even look back in wonder -- did that enormous improbable experiment actually happen? And exist for seven decades? Or did we imagine it?

But I remember listening to the radio in those frenetic days, and I remember most of all a particular curious turn of phrase. Routinely, the reports described leaders of the coup as "conservative". Curious, because especially after ten years lived in the United States, I had grown used to the broad notion that "liberal" equaled "left-leaning", usually meaning the Democratic Party; "conservative" equaled "rightist", and usually referred to the Republicans. In retrospect, this was a thoroughly simplistic view of the political spectrum, but there you are.

Now here were these arch-Communists in Moscow, arch-leftists, being referred to as "conservatives".

Of course, at the time and in the years since, I grew to understand two things.

One, that "conservative" as used in those reports really means "reactionary", or perhaps "addicted to the old ways." Applied to the men of the coup, it meant that they were fearful of change, of losing power and pelf and privilege, anxious most of all to return to the way the USSR used to be.

Two, that the "spectrum" from right to left, from conservative to liberal, is not really the straight line you might imagine it is. It's better described as a circle; perhaps even better as a two-dimensional chart. In any case, if you trudge along that line, you will eventually run into fellow-travellers you might have thought were off at the other end. Left meets right, east meets west, whatever you like: the further left you go, the better the chance you'll end up in a never-never land also frequented by people who have tramped to the far right and beyond. And vice versa.

And when leaders trudge that far, ideology falls somewhere by the wayside. Left or right, what drives them instead is the seduction of power, the yearning for the old tyrannies and certainties. That's what happened in the old USSR during that momentous August of 1991.

Oddly enough, it is these lessons, those radio reports, that have been on my mind as I read about a place called Nandigram.

For what, after all, is the ideology of a person who sees power through the barrel of a gun, or at the end of a wielded sword?


The facts of Nandigram are not my concern here; they have been discussed at length elsewhere. There's this to say, though: Nandigram in West Bengal is emblematic of battles that I think India has seen plenty of and will have to endure plenty more of, as we pursue what is called "development."

Note: I said "development" and not "globalization". Meaning, the sentiments in Nandigram are not new ones we've never encountered before. Through the years, the way we have developed has set off resentment and fierce opposition. By now, it has raised hard questions about what "development" itself means. So let me put down here, to start, one thought about development.

Writing my book about dams on the Narmada River ("The Narmada Dammed", Penguin 2002) made me understand something fundamental about that rancorous issue. The reason to object to the Sardar Sarovar dam is not shoddy relief and rehabilitation, nor lip service to environmental issues, nor something else along those lines. Though there's enough wrong in each of those areas, there's actually something worse. If you read the Government's own literature about the project, you reach an inescapable conclusion: the Government has no intention of delivering on its stated promise. And that's the real reason to oppose this dam. (In other words, the best case against the dam is made not by its opponents, but by those who are building it).

The promise was that water from the Narmada would be delivered to the thirstiest parts of Gujarat, perennially drought-stricken Kutch and Saurashtra. Yet a few years ago, we had the much photographed sight of the long-dry Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, filled to the brim with Narmada water.

A pretty sight, sure. But the Sabarmati flowing again does nothing to help Kutch and Saurashtra. Ahmedabad doesn't need water like those districts do. No plans that I know of called for the Sabarmati to be filled from the Narmada. Yet that's what happened.

In other words, this was just a picturesque stunt, deliberately staged in the big city to shore up political support. It had nothing to do with the great promise of the Narmada, but everything to do with politics.

And too often, that's what development has meant to us in India: it has fallen some way short of promise, and it invariably has political overtones.

So you could make the argument that the Government's plans for Nandigram did not find favour in Nandigram because people remember the failures of other "development" projects. That holds lessons for the future.


But you could also make another argument. In the CPI(M) using Nandigram to attack political opponents; in the effort to tar an entire half of the political spectrum with the blood and shame of Nandigram; in the litmus test it inevitably has become: in these things, you know that Nandigram is about politics.

Indeed, I believe Nandigram is just the latest in a string of wrangles that have emerged from the pattern of our development for decades now. If today it is a SEZ there, earlier it was SEZs elsewhere, or those dams on the Narmada, or a profoundly mistaken power agreement with Enron in coastal Maharashtra. Looked at that way, Nandigram is no different from those other issues.

So why the fuss, then? After all, nobody pays much attention to what's happening in the Narmada Valley any more, even though (or perhaps because) affected people shout about their troubles just as they have for years. Nobody pays much attention to the Enron plant either, because Enron dissolved so completely a few years ago. Yet Nandigram makes people sit up and take notice.

I believe the reason is this: on the face of it, Nandigram represents the failure of the left to practice what it preaches. There's talk on the left about democracy and people's participation and the attention to the poor: yet in Nandigram, all those were treated as so much garbage. That perceived failure causes heartbreak among those who lean ideologically left, for such disdain is what the left usually accuses the right of. What must we make of a "left" party indulging, on the face of it, in the same chicanery?

To answer that, let me tell you about an open letter circulated towards the end of November. It is a response to a short statement on Nandigram issued by a few well-known US-based academics and writers: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Vijay Prashad (the sole Indian) and some others. In fact, the letter is actually addressed to Tariq Ali, whom the writer, Kunal Chattopadhyay of Jadavpur University, says he has admired for a long time.

The Chomsky/Zinn/Ali/et al statement tries to walk a tighrope between what it suggests are two sides of the "left". "It would be impetuous to split the left", it warns, and "this is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist."

As often happens with such attempts, it ends up saying very little of any note, and that's putting it kindly. After all, and for just one thing, why this prescription that the left must stick together, think alike? Whatever happened to dissent and independent thinking, the great strength of a liberal outlook?

One sentence in the letter turns into something of a red flag to Chattopadhyay. It reads thus: "We are concerned about ... what appear to be unbridgeable gaps between people who share similar values." This prompts Chattopadhyay to ask Ali point blank: "Who are these people who share similar values? Just what do you know about the values shared by those in governmental authority in West Bengal?"

He goes on to describe how CPI(M) leader Benoy Konar urged women in the party "to show Medha Patkar their buttocks" as an indication of what they thought of Patkar's concern for Nandigram. "When Medha tried to go to Nandigram," he writes, some "supporters of the CPI(M) indeed followed Konar's advice and showed Medha their buttocks."

Chattopadhyay then suggests to Tariq Ali and his colleagues: "I dare you ... to come forward and assert that you share similar values as these people."

And that's the point of it all, right there. Some years ago members of the Shiv Sena stripped to their chaddis outside the film star Dilip Kumar's Bombay home, protesting an award he got from Pakistan. How the chaddi-show amounted to anything but perversion, I don't know. But here we have the CPI(M) going one better, or worse. Just what values are there to be found in such people, let alone "similar values" to those who signed that statement?

The truth is that such people know nothing about values; in fact, values are not even any kind of consideration for them. So really, there is no "split" here, no two sides of the left. There is the left, and there are the fellows who have trudged so far beyond that they occupy only that never-never land where power is the end and the means. No ideology, no values, no principles, no left, no right. Only power. And underwear and buttocks.

And given that, I don't see why there should be any hand-wringing or agonizing over any particular "failure" of the left here. The thugs of Nandigram are no more representative of the left than they are of the right; what's more, they are no more representative of the left than the thugs of Gujarat '02 were representative of the right. Every sensible, responsible rightist thinker or leader would have been repulsed by the killing in Gujarat, and so it is absurd to tar the whole right with the bloody brush of 2002. In exactly the same way, sensible, responsible leftist thinkers and leaders have been repulsed by what has happened in Nandigram. They cannot be tarred with that brush. This was no "failure of the left", this was just crime.


Yet like with other such crimes, there was the usual slew of "Where's your outrage over Nandigram?" demands. About some ghastly crimes -- though not Nandigram -- I first get news from one of innumerable outrage-mongers out there. To me, it looks like they hear about the ghastly crime and their earliest thought is not "how can I donate blood?", or "anyone I know who's been hurt?", things like that. Instead, they think: "Let's write an article, or send a message, or call, demanding of these guys we don't like why they haven't yet expressed outrage."

Not that this needs reacting to. It's hardly that I plan to draw up a list of appropriately outraged reactions to, and condemnations of, the Nandigram violence. Doing so is meaningless, not least because it falls into the trap laid by the outrage-mongers. For you know: however long that list is, it is never long enough, nor outraged enough, for them. And when the next crime comes along, as it inevitably does, it's as if the list never was. Back to square one: why haven't you condemned this yet?

No, this game interests me not in the slightest.

But even so, this kind of response to Nandigram makes me wonder: are we in a time of competitive outrage? Do such incidents amount only to a pretext for some of us to demonstrate our particular righteous horror, to demand to know why others aren't as horrified?

Yet consider. Walking down the street, you and I, utter strangers, witness a brutal murder. What would you assume about me? That I must be unaffected by this crime, callous to it? Or at any rate, that my reaction to it must depend on my particular ideological slant, which, if different from yours, must therefore mean that I feel zero outrage? Would you turn to denounce me because I haven't yet shown outrage over the murder?

My feeling is, you're reading these questions in bemused wonder. Who would stop to think in these terms? Would you even notice me on the street? Wouldn't you rush to help, or call the police, or something?

"She doesn't think like me. Therefore this murder must make her happy": why do we reduce our shared humanity to this small-minded, twisted state?

There was a simple assumption all of us made, perhaps unconsciously, as we grew up: when something horrible happens, my fellow human being is appalled by it as I myself am. Doesn't matter which side of which ideological debate she haunts, she's appalled. Period. Why does Nandigram instead become a litmus test of ideological leanings?


"It would be impetuous to split the left," says the Chomsky/Zinn/Ali letter. Yet keeping your distance from thugs hardly amounts to "splitting the left" (or the right, for that matter). What's impetuous, and perhaps dangerously naive, is to fall into the trap of assuming a split along these lines at all. Because in that direction lies the wasteland of political mud-slinging.

The real split that Nandigram stands for -- and the "left" is certainly strong enough to recognize and point it out -- is between governance, or justice, and their absence. Between those who stand for justice, and those who spit on it.

In that sense, it may tell us something about our Indian future. Just as a last-gasp coup in the USSR said things about that country's future.


Anonymous said...


Not one of your best. Very long and rambling. Not very new either, rehash of various posts it looked like.

May go better for the seminar audience who arent familiar with your writing at this blog.

Re-agree with what you re-said here.


Anonymous said...


Indeed, it was long. Perhaps making it a two-part post would have been ideal but you'd know better.

Proves some points though, no doubt.


Anonymous said...


I was pleasantly surprised at kaangeya's comment there on sandeepweb and also from your note that you may be in touch with Realitycheck.

I would still not recommend sandeepweb though. There are a few posts there that do highlight stuff that mainstream media perhaps downplays, and he appears to be very knowledgeable on matters relating to my faith.

But if there is any dialogue in the middle ground that is happening btwn you guys, more power to you. INI is possibly middle ground IMHO.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Aditya, it is long, yes. Partly, that was the space Seminar gave me, but more important, there were many issues I wanted to get at.

Jai, I don't know what you mean about RealityCheck. If you mean the "RC" I had a reference to, that's the initials of the good friend who sent me that email. He's not RealityCheck, and in fact does not blog.

This was a one off, because RC is a friend. I do not plan to visit sandeepweb again.

Anonymous said...


And as far as knowledge of scripture goes, a lady Shama at Indian Muslims quotes well from the Upanishads, in context to subjects being discussed. I respect the ground she covered to get there.

And on that note, let me end this way out of context discussion here.