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Branding Binayak: Balmurli Natrajan

January 26, 2011

Guest post by BALMURLI NATARAJAN

Writing on the history of insanity in the age of reason in seventeenth century Europe, French philosopher Michel Foucault notes: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Foucault’s insight into the workings of power is an incitement for us to think boldly in public, sadly an endangered species in today’s India.

The recent judgment on the Guha-Sen-Sanyal case prompts one to wonder: Could state functionaries know what what they do does? Could ruling elites who watch silently or goad and guide the guardians of law and order to perform at their bidding know what what they do does? Could the state’s branding of Binayak and thousands of others as Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists or seditionists (terms that it conflates but without scholarly or legal basis) allow civil-liberties activists to create a brand Binayak?

For, even as the international campaign to free Binayak and others gains momentum, it is quite clear that Binayak has already become a brand ambassador. Brand Binayak is poised to unravel the myth of ‘democratic growth miracle’ called Brand India that is carefully constructed by India’s investor classes as a positive contrast to totalitarian China. The so-called underbelly of India’s famed runaway growth rates is now revealed as being really the belly itself. Bloated like the distended bellies of India’s malnourished children, adivasi and Dalit populations who Binayak’s team of dedicated health specialists have sought to heal back to life. Only to be crushed by the repressive state.

Binayak has himself asked his supporters to treat him as a sign – as standing for something other than himself. The image then of a frail and incarcerated Binayak actually turns out to be a powerful weapon to nails the lies of state. Much like the wishes of the legendary ex-slave abolitionist Frederick Douglas who noted in 1852 about slavery in the United States that “no abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.” Douglas’ reference to the light is the then emergent international news media which has since managed to shine through to every corner of the world, expose secrets and shame nations in the process.

Brand Binayak then is a powerful beacon that issues an SOS to the rest of the world about the alarming state of political, economic, legal and cultural affairs in India. About how political muscle (armed militia such as Salwa Judum or its variants today, draconian laws and militarization of large tracts of mineral-rich and forested areas of central India), economic terrorism (development projects that never benefit those whose lives it demands as sacrifice via forced displacement and lost livelihoods), legal bloopers such as the Sen-Guha-Sanyal judgment, and a general valorization of the culture of greed and goondaism.

It is a searing searchlight that reveals hidden truths in the jails, courts and “refugee camps” of Chhattisgarh such as the fact that thousands of ordinary people, mostly adivasis but also civil liberties activists and intellectuals, languish in jails, many of them without any possibility of even a chargesheet to their name. For, despite the reluctance of the government to admit that a “civil war” exists in this part of the country even while the military is openly deployed, this region is indeed a warzone for the most vulnerable populations who face the brunt of special and draconian laws used to snuff out their life and life chances.

It is a flare sent up by the forgotten to light up the madness of what Sen has consistently pointed out as the structural violence of the state and its failed development policies coupled with an apathetic society reveling in a GDP-led civilization. As studies have shown, the character of India’s economic growth has actually decreased the foodgrains intake for the bottom half of the rural and urban poor, increased food insecurity, and placed India at 65th out of 83 countries in the 2009 Global Hunger Index. The world now knows the true health of Indian society, thanks to Sen’s ilk. That India’s malnourished children after all make up a whopping 47 percent of India’s children below the age of 5 years, and 41 percent of all the world’s malnourished children according to recent World Bank, UNICEF, and UN reports. And, what better way to expose the “pathologies of power” – that power marks the bodies of the poorest – than for Sen’s team to have shown that a full 50 percent of adivasis and 60 percent of Dalits have body mass index of less than 18.5 which is the cut-off figure for determining a state of “permanent famine” according to WHO standards?

Brand Binayak is surely a spark that has lit a bonfire in the hearts of those who would otherwise remain mute onlookers or simply go about their lives staying out of trouble. Whatever be the endgame of the state, the intellectually honest and ethically courageous Binayaks, Guhas and Sanyals of the world speaking truth to power have won this recent round.
Now that the state has effectively ended the good doctor’s work among India’s impoverished and oppressed, the real genocide of poverty compounded by absence of healthcare and erosion of fundamental constitutional rights for bulk of its citizens will be that much easier for the world to see. Perhaps those Indians who want to continue to believe that India’s economic growth has either no costs or is equally borne by all and who wish to continue to blindly beat their chests about living in the world’s largest democracy will now appeal to the Indian state to release Binayak Sen right away?

Balmurli Natrajan teaches anthropology in the USA and is a member of International Campaign to Free Binayak Sen
mailto:mnatrajan@yahoo.com

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Uday permalink
    January 26, 2011 11:05 AM

    OK I understand your angst sitting in the US, but don’t kid yourself that those who “continue to blindly beat their chests about living in the world’s largest democracy will now appeal to the Indian state to release Binayak Sen.” The case isn’t even on the front pages of most national dailies. Let’s get real here! It astonishes me how distant and irrelevant this article appears to the problem being discussed.

    Also “Brand Binayak” is pretty offensive, I think, and really trivializes the Sens’ struggles against the Raman Singh government. When saying “Binayak has himself asked his supporters to treat him as a sign – as standing for something other than himself.” the author is, I believe, obliged to give readers a citation. I am unaware of any such statement by Dr. Binayak Sen. In any case, Dr. Sen is not marketing himself or anything in a capitalist marketplace to be bought and sold by bourgeois publics in India and elsewhere.

    This is a deeply problematic piece, and I hope other readers will recognize that too.

  2. Piya Chatterjee permalink
    January 26, 2011 11:25 PM

    While I “get” the general argument of this piece, I have to agree that I find this use of “Brand Binayak” as really problematic–particularly in “using” Binayak’s Sen’s own own words of signage–if indeed he used those words. I can’t imagine that in the onground trauma that he and his family are experiencing that he would say this.

    I think the use of “Brand Binayak” as a term of subversion doesn’t work precisely because it uncritically engages the terms of commodity capitalism which ofcourse the Indian State has deployed. As Uday (above) notes, lets not underestimate the power of the Indian bourgeoise to make this case invisible in the very media that creates such brands–how can “it” (the Binayak Brand) combat the force of such systems?

    The other thing is that the high individualism of the “Brand” argument is deeply problematic. The Sens and their supporters have been consistent about the COLLECTIVE nature of what is going on as well–and that too cannot be confined to an argument of Brand Binayak.

    And bottom line: this is a desperate struggle for justice and surely spills out of the confinement of “brands” and brandings. It feels offensive.

  3. Murli permalink
    January 27, 2011 6:45 PM

    I will keep this short since I hope others will discuss the point raised in this piece.

    1. Dr. Sen has repeatedly told many of us in the national and international campaign to not turn his arrest into a singular focus on his persona, but to also include the fact that others (mostly still nameless to the rest of the world) languish in jails in Chhattisgarh, and the fact that still many more die everyday or live in incredibly dire conditions due due to hunger, malnourishment and displacement. Hope this suffices as a response to your question on him being a sign of something beyond himself. It speaks of Dr. Sen’s generosity of spirit to be able to think of others like him.

    2. The point about those who call India as a democracy…asking for Binayak’s release is written in deep irony and to provoke those who can be provoked to act. It is not something i expect to happen. Binayaks’ imprisonment actually reveals the lies of the Brand India developed by ruling classes and their followers. Confronting it, some of the ‘believers’ may be compelled to act ?!

    3. About the term Brand Binayak. It is a brand that is about ethical and intellectual courageousness. Nothing offensive to those who relish such a brand of being. The internet where we are discussing this is a product entirely of the American defense/offense machinery. Do we not make use of this in ways that resist that imperialism? Why shy of the term “brand” and pretend that all capitalist ideas are somehow capable of being shunned? Where in Brand Binayak is any bourgeois value furthered – selfishness, individualism, competitiveness? This is a counter to the Brand India that is all of the capitalist ideals.

    4. Finally, about me sitting or standing in the US and feeling angst. People are entitled to their beliefs of course. But, one could be sitting right next door to injustice and not see or feel any of it, or worse allow it to happen. Injustice anywhere is of course a threat to justice everywhere. The point is we all have some stakes in fighting injustice anywhere.

    So how can campaigns and mobilizations around the issue of sedition actually work? Ideological combat, as Gramsci pointed out, needs to focus on the opponent’s strongest point (not weakest). What is Brand India’s strongest claim? A repressive state’s strongest claim? How do we combat that?

    Peace,
    Murli

  4. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    January 28, 2011 2:05 PM

    Murli, I left it you to respond to the petty and querulous comments above, but it should be clear to anybody with a modicum of political sense that you have tried to wrest the idea of “branding” away from its capitalist roots and to creatively use it against the values normally associated with it. A common enough and indeed, powerful strategy – consider the political use of terms like Dalit and Queer to mean exactly the opposite of their apparent meanings.
    I dont see your use of “Brand” in this instance as implying “high individualism” or an “uncritical engagement with the terms of commodity capitalism”. Nor do I think it fair that Uday can make snide remarks about your location about which you have been open, when we have no idea where he is based, because he does not reveal it. One can be ethical and politically radical living in the US and opportunistic and smug right here in Bharatvarsh.
    I find it obnoxious that this issue of serious concern for so many of us here in India as well as out of the country, and on which hundreds of us are working on so many levels, should be used to score some petty points in a self-designed game of competitive radicalism.

  5. Subash permalink
    January 28, 2011 10:48 PM

    It is notable that while Binayaks sentence is being protested against by the intellectuals there are no protests coming from the tribals whom he had been working among. One would have thought that the people whom he had served would have at least put up a demonstration in solidarity with him stating forcefully that he had been serving them and his arrest was totally wrong.

    • Murli permalink
      January 30, 2011 10:13 PM

      Is this protest by 700 people in Raipur good enough? Or are they only intellectuals?

      http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article1140070.ece

      On a related note, on power: many times, power does not allow those who are not in its ambit to “see” or “hear” (let alone listen) to voices of protest, acts of resistance or simply signs of dissatisfaction. When there is a reign of terror and fear (as there is in Chhattisgarh) and when it has been part of the lives of adivasis for so long, we cannot honestly expect easy-to-see demonstrations or dramatic uprisings (although these do happen from time to time and are usually sought to be brutally suppressed) by those who are facing the brunt of power.

      The other point deserves more space – on how the term “intellectuals” has come to mean a particular kind of classed and political individual constructed as “bad” by the political ruling elites and their acolytes. The securitized mileu has long identified these “intellectuals” as enemies of the state, which is another way of averring that intellectuals’ key job is to be the voice of criticism especially in times of mute or blind assent to power. So, anti-intellectualism in thought and practice is also the hallmark of a society that has run out of ideas to discuss and reaches for brute force to silence.

  6. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    January 29, 2011 8:14 AM

    Subash – “there are no protests coming from the tribals”…
    And you know this because you have travelled the length and breadth of Chhattisgarh and found absolute silence and indifference on Binayak? Or because you dont see reports in newspapers and on TV, which proves that it didn’t happen?

    • Subash permalink
      January 29, 2011 8:58 PM

      I have not traveled to Chhatisgarh nor am i on lookout for bits and corners of TV news to check whether any protests etc. But as i see it, had the media highlighted prominently such protests by tribals of his constituency (of work)- it would have strengthened his case.

  7. Umang Kumar permalink
    January 29, 2011 10:08 PM

    I do not see any inherent issues with Murli’s use of the term “branding” to describe the way the Binayak Sen issue has been taken up.

    I did wonder if Brand Binayak is “a flare sent up by the forgotten to light up the madness…” or as he says earlier in the piece, a creation of “civil-liberties activists?”

    Yes, one could certainly say there is the Brand Binayak but the world has also seen Brand Che if not Brand Fidel…and a Brand Gandhi…and we know how those brands have lived their life…or, still live their life.

    This multi-layered nature of suggestions is what makes the piece provocative for me…

  8. Murli permalink
    January 30, 2011 10:15 PM

    Report from Raipur:
    IMPRESSIVE RALLY AND PUBLIC MEETING IN RAIPUR ON 30TH JANUARY NATIONWIDE PROTEST DAY

    Despite the fascist propaganda and repression in the State of Chhattisgarh nearly a thousand workers, peasants, students and intellectuals – half of them women, marched from Raipur Railway Station to Budha Talab on 30th January Shaheed Divas to demand

    RELEASE DR. BINAYAK SEN, KARTAM JOGA, KOPARAM KUNJAM AND THOUSANDS OF OTHER HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS UNJUSTLY INCARCERATED!
    REPEAL THE COLONIAL PROVISION OF 124A (SEDITION) AND THE CHHATTISGARH SPECIAL PUBLIC SECURITY ACT WHICH MAKE EVERY DISSENT A CRIME!
    DEFFEND THE RIGHTS OF PEOPLE TO OPPOSE THE LOOT OF “JAL, JANGAL, JAMEEN”!

    in a programme jointly organised by the CPI, CPI(ML), Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, CPI(ML) Liberation, Gondwana Gantantra Party, CMM (Mazdoor Karyakarta Samiti), Nadi Ghati Morcha, Chhattisgarh Visthapan Virodhi Manch, Ekta Parishad, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, Chhattisgarh PUCL and many others.

    The public meeting was presided over by Shri Hira Singh Markam, the respected elder of Gondwana Gantantra Party and addressed among others by Shri Balchandra Khushwaha (Gandhian intellectual), Com Soura Yadav (CPI(ML)), Ms Bela Bhatia (Researcher), Com Manish Kunjam (Adivasi Mahasabha), Com Rajaram (CPI(ML) Liberation), Ms Sudha Bharadwaj (Chhattisgarh Visthapan Virodhi Manch), Shri Gautam Bandhopadhyay (Nadi Ghati Morcha), Dr Shaibal Jana (Shaheed Hospital), Com CR Bakshi (CPI), Shri Salimuddin (Ekta Parishad), Shri Rajendra Sail (ex President Chhattisgarh PUCL), and Com Janaklal Thakur (Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha). Smt Bhagwanti Bai Banjare, Shri Kaladas Dehariya and Smt Budhan Meshram added colour to the meeting by their singing songs of struggle.

  9. Raza permalink
    January 31, 2011 8:45 PM

    Murli,
    I think it is very important to have an alternative reading of the word “brand”. in the wake of loose talk about “Brand India”, it is a significant intervention to re-apply that term. One way to do that (in an environment that valorizes empty “positive thinking” and undermines cririque) is to celebrate India as a site where the violations of democratic rights and civil liberties are never allowed to go unquestioned. Binayak Sen could well be a template for activists across the world who protest the unjust incarceration of human rights workers. That is a brand for you.
    And also, if the mainstream media is ignoring (or under-reporting) these protests, that only makes our task more urgent.

    • Anant M permalink
      February 2, 2011 6:14 PM

      “One way to do that (in an environment that valorizes empty “positive thinking” and undermines cririque) is to celebrate India as a site where the violations of democratic rights and civil liberties are never allowed to go unquestioned.”

      Cannot agree more!!

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