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A Great Opportunity, A Serious Danger: A Statement

August 24, 2011

A Statement Issued by some individuals and friends in social movements

The Anna Hazare situation invites two common reactions: many dismiss it as a middle class driven “urban picnic”; and others, notably the mainstream media, describe it as just short of a revolutionary movement to establish “people’s power.” The same divide exists among progressives and those concerned with social change. Strategies differ on the basis of where one stands on this divide. The problem, however, is that neither of these reactions fully reflects the reality of what is happening.

We note that our position below is focused on what can be done in this situation, and is not meant to excuse or defend the government. We condemn the brutal, corrupt and anti-democratic actions of the UPA; we also, it must be noted, condemn the actions of the BJP and its State governments in trying to portray themselves as crusaders against corruption. The dangerous Lokpal Bill that has been presented must be withdrawn, and, as said below, a process initiated for effective institutions of people’s control that can be used to defeat corruption. We issue this statement precisely to caution against erroneous tactics that are strengthening the very state that we must fight against.

 

The Opportunity

It is true that the protests so far have been dominated by middle classes, and that they have been exaggerated by the media. But this does not mean that this process becomes meaningless. Precisely because there is no strong organised movement among the working class at the national level, no alternative media, and no consciously projected alternative to the existing system, a hyped up middle class movement can easily grow into something much larger. We can already see that happening, as protests are spreading and diversifying in terms of their mass base. People’s anger at this system and at the corrupt nature of the Indian state is hardly a middle class phenomenon alone.

For that reason, we cannot and should not dismiss this situation. The more people are willing to see this system for what it is, and to express their anger and disgust with it, the more there is an opportunity to expose it and fight for something new. A crisis is an opportunity for those who are fighting for change.

Therefore we cannot agree with those who look at these protests and hunger strikes and see in them a “blackmailing” of Parliament. Parliamentary democracy in this country has never been more than a very limited space. Even this space has been rendered meaningless in recent decades, by precisely the forces who today are shouting about its virtues.

For instance, the SEZ Act was passed after barely a day’s debate in Parliament. Economic reforms were introduced through stealth, FDI in retail is on the verge of being approved, and the UID project is going ahead – all without a whisper of Parliamentary approval. It is correct to be cynical of neoliberal pro-corporate leaders when they suddenly discover that Parliament is a sacrosanct institution. When people feel that the system is rotten to the core, we should not attempt to dilute that reality by saying that Parliament will deal with the problem.

The danger is not to Parliament; it lies elsewhere.

The Danger

The fact that people are angry is an opportunity. But it is also a risk, because that anger can be channeled in ways that actually strengthen the existing power structure. In this case, consider:

  • The message being conveyed about these protests – the tactics of the leadership notwithstanding – is that of support to Anna Hazare and his “Team Anna.” Beyond the concept of “transparency”, the public campaign does not engage at all with the idea of a democratic organisation of the people (as opposed to one “supported” by the people). As such, this raises the question of whether those participating are being asked to fight to build people’s power, or whether they are fighting to increase the power of the “good leader.”
  • The demand of the campaign too is not about, even in a minimal sense, democratising the Indian state or society. The Jan Lokpal being sought may address some types of corruption, or it may not do so; but it is not intended to give people any greater control over the state. It is projected as effective not because it will be democratic, but because it will be powerful, because it will stand “above” democracy and politics itself. Just as Anna is a good person who deserves support, so the Jan Lokpal will consist of good people who deserve power, and who will use it to “cleanse” the state.
  • Most of those joining these protests are doing so on the basis of media coverage. In practically all areas (with one or two exceptions) the mobilisation lacks any core organisation. At most there are ad hoc groups of urban elites; but in large measure, the place of the organisation has been filled by the mainstream media itself. All the ideas sought to be communicated are therefore seen through the lenses that the media applies to them. As a result, even where elements in the leadership try to talk of popular struggle and democratic principles, they are overridden by an overwhelming focus on attacking the current power holders and replacing them with an even more powerful, more “clean” institution.

The net result of all this is that “corruption” becomes defined very narrowly, as the taking of benefit in violation of the law. The ultimate message of this movement is: trust the rules, trust the state, trust the Lokpal; what matters is finding the right leaders and having faith in them. This is the message that is sent by the mobilising instrument, the media, regardless of what the leaders may actually say.

This is not only not a democratic message, it is an anti-democratic one. At this moment, in India, it is also dangerous. Brutality, injustice and oppression in this country is not a result of violation of the law alone. Indeed, much of it happens because of the law in the first place. We have a state machinery which has brazenly shown itself to be the servant of predatory private capital. This is the biggest reason for the current boom in corruption: the enormous money generated through superprofits that is then used to purchase the state and generate more superprofits. Sometimes this is exposed as violating some law and gets called a “scam”; but at other times, as in most economic reforms, it simply changes the law. The SEZ Act is again a good example. It triggered a wave of land grabbing across the country, which was only slowed by the global economic crisis; but there was nothing “corrupt” in the Lokpal sense about most SEZ-related actions. Our people are being crushed by a cycle of intensifying capitalist exploitation and repression. Can this be stopped by good leaders with the right powers?

Many would answer “Obviously not; a Jan Lokpal cannot address everything.” This may be true, but that is not the message actually being sent out. Rather the message is that Lokpal-style solutions and Anna Hazare-style “good leaders” are the answers to people’s anger at injustice. When the leadership, Ramdev-style, starts adding on a laundry list of additional issues to its demands – as land acquisition has recently been added – it reinforces this dangerous message. Thus this movement not only does not weaken the state; implicitly, through the message it sends, it builds people’s support for making the state and its leadership more powerful. This of course the reason that it attracts support from everyone from Jindal Aluminium to the RSS.

What Can Be Done

The mere fact that people are protesting against the government does not mean that they are fighting the state. The Indian state certainly has little to fear – as a state – from a mobilisation whose prime message is that change happens through good leaders. The current power holders are resisting the threat to their position, but the system itself is not under threat. Indeed, the danger is not to the state or its institutions, but to efforts at deeper social change in this society.

The dilemma of the current situation cannot be answered by simply joining wholeheartedly, or by withdrawing in silence.

Some have declared support for the current movement, while seeking to push it to take up other issues. The sympathies of some in the leadership for left and progressive positions is often cited. But the main engines of these protests – the media and urban elite circles – are actively opposed to any such positions. One has simply to imagine what will happen if this mobilisation does begin to turn towards a more radical stance: the media will instantly change its position from “Anna is India” to “Anna is a power crazed megalomaniac”, confusion, slanders and disinformation will start, and the movement will collapse. Given this reality, simply joining at this stage will be counterproductive. People will no longer be able to distinguish between forces who fight for social transformation and those who are upholding the current system; and when the latter fail, they will take down the former with them.

But to remain silent is to be irrelevant at an important time. It is also important not to fall into the trap of those who, in their criticism of the anti-democratic tendencies of this movement, start defending the existing state. In our view parliamentary supremacy is not and cannot be the slogan of those who seek social change.

What is required therefore is an approach built on two realities. The first is that the current explosion of scams is a direct result of neoliberal policies that have converted the state into the arm of a particularly predatory, criminal form of big capital. Today the real face of the state is more apparent then ever before, and corruption is one glaring sign of it. Therefore, to try to fight corruption without fighting for true people’s power over the economy and society is impossible. Therefore, our demands must at present focus on building such people’s power over the institutions of the state.

The second reality is that the current atmosphere of anger and suspicion of the state offers a chance to raise precisely these issues and to make the link between corruption and the system under which we live. The more political forces, mass organisations and people’s struggles do this, while keeping their identity separate from ‘India Against Corruption’, the more it will be possible to use this opportunity to build and expand radical struggles. If people can see the system is rotten, that can be developed that into an awareness that this rottenness goes far deeper than mere corruption and dishonest leaders. That is the challenge of this moment.

Abhay Shukla, Pune
Arvind Ghosh, Nagpur
Asit Das, POSCO Pratirodh Solidarity, Delhi
Bijay-bhai, Adivasi Mukti Sanghatan
Biju Mathew, Mining Zone People’s Solidarity Group
C.R. Bijoy, Coimbatore
Kiran Shaheen, Journalist
Pothik Ghosh, Radical Notes
Pratyush Chandra, Radical Notes
Ravi Kumar, Dept of Sociology, South Asian University
Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Shiraz Bulsara, Kasthakari Sanghatna
(all signatures are in individual capacity)

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Shankar permalink
    August 24, 2011 5:31 PM

    “The more political forces, mass organisations and people’s struggles do this, while keeping their identity separate from ‘India Against Corruption’, the more it will be possible to use this opportunity to build and expand radical struggles.”

    Finally! The penny drops.

  2. Shankar permalink
    August 24, 2011 5:32 PM

    Also…

    “…to remain silent is to be irrelevant at an important time.”

    I suspect it may already be too late.

  3. Alankar permalink
    August 24, 2011 5:38 PM

    Crisp, pointed, clear, very well articulated.

  4. August 24, 2011 5:53 PM

    Anna Hazare had said that Jan Lokpal will stop 65-70% corruption. It is required now to make clear who will suffer the most from remaining 35-30% corruption. are they going to be the farmers, middle class, women, dalits, tribals or all or any community.
    corruption is not just limited to scams, black money, or ghotalas etc. we need to widen our understanding of corruption. Following Caste, Gender discrimination etc all should be included in corruption.
    we need to know and ask from ourselves that whether this jan lokpal will solve the problems of people who are living on less than Rs. 20 per day.Is this jan lokpal going to solve the problems of tribals.
    Those people who are standing in ramleela maidan with Anna Hazare, are they going to agree that they will not do any such work which will directly or indirectly make the life of farmers, tribals, Poor more miserable.
    The country not only needs a strong investigation body to stop corruption but also needs a body to keep a check on policies formed by the government. the removal of corporate level corruption is as much necessary as it is to remove corruption from government sector.
    We the people of India need to follow the spirit of our constitution and also to increase our moral standard.

    • August 24, 2011 7:16 PM

      Anna Hazare had said that Jan Lokpal will stop 65-70% corruption. It is required now to make clear who will suffer the most from remaining 35-30% corruption. are they going to be the farmers, middle class, women, dalits, tribals or all or any community.

      He has also said that Jan lokpal is also the first step. After this, he will attack the problem of land acquisition and others.

      Nothing wrong with taking one target at a time.

  5. August 24, 2011 6:36 PM

    Hello All,
    I fully endorse this statement
    Jagadish G Chandra
    New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India)

  6. rajphys permalink
    August 24, 2011 10:43 PM

    The main problem is that creating another top down bureaucracy with extra-ordinary powers (roughly equivalent to police + civil courts) can and, given the scale of the institution required, will, in all probability, lead to extensive abuse of the power. Specially given the mandated time limits, it is very possible that the any deficiencies in investigation would be covered up in the quasi-judicial process. The only bulwark against this is that the proceedings would be public. This is a dangerous concentration of power in a single agency. The irony is that result of suspicion of state agencies has been to build another big agency to police the state agencies. Given that the left has most often felt the heavy hand of state in post-independence Indian history, it is baffling that in trying to utilize the energy generated by this movement, they are rooting for this authoritarian structure.

    So, it is not enough to just open parallel channels of mobilization. It is also important to put forward a stance against this.

  7. Bhupen Singh permalink
    August 24, 2011 11:42 PM

    You people have given words to my ideas. I endorse this statement.

  8. Pushpendra permalink
    August 25, 2011 1:05 AM

    I too fully endorse this statement.
    Pushpendra
    Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (in individual capacity)

  9. George K. Varghese permalink
    August 25, 2011 9:59 AM

    Such clear thoughts should get more publicity. Very well written

  10. Nirmalangshu permalink
    August 25, 2011 10:04 AM

    Familiar intellectual intervention. Analyze a situation, bring out the obvious parts, show that there are tensions between these parts. Then propose a masterly “two-realities” solution, a dose of buddhism always helps. Both do and don’t. Take care to add that each of the conflicting choices are themselves problematic. If you do, then there are dangers. So, don’t, until a presently absent scenario (right leadership, reassuring organisation, familiar masses,issues that expand radical struggles, but this is not supposed to be a laundry list)obtains. In other words, wait until OUR blue-print is ready and the real masses show themselves. Then we talk of “people’s power.” No wonder the left has become totally irrelevant outside radical blogs and EPW.

    Well, there is another mid-term solution for now: join the current movement “half-heartedly”. I hope people understand what that means! I hope it does not mean “run” when the State finally attacks.

    • ShankarG permalink
      August 25, 2011 10:45 AM

      I think you may have missed these sentences:
      “But to remain silent is to be irrelevant at an important time.”

      “the current atmosphere of anger and suspicion of the state offers a chance to raise precisely these issues and to make the link between corruption and the system under which we live. The more political forces, mass organisations and people’s struggles do this…”

      I fail to see any “presently absent scenario” that is being sought. The point that is made repeatedly (and in bold, at that) is to act now.

      Perhaps you are of the view that the only kind of action worth undertaking at the moment is to run into the Hazare group’s ranks? If so, then yes, certainly we who signed the statement were not of that opinion.

      Otherwise, there are left groups already undertaking the kind of strategies that we argued for in this statement. In Hyderabad a parallel anti-corruption mobilisation has begun. The CPI(ML) LIberation has mounted its own mobilisation linking corruption and resource looting and held a three month long mobilisation effort in Delhi and across the country on it. This is what the statement is advocating as a position for many across the left.

      • Nirmalangshu permalink
        August 25, 2011 12:52 PM

        Appreciate the patient correctives. But the advice not to remain silent was not accompanied by a statement of what to say. The same applies to the idea of acting now. Act now on what? The Liberation example won’t work because they are also fighting for a strong lokpal virtually identical with the jan lokpal. Same with CPM, CPI. The fact that these struggles are developing outside Ramlila is most encouraging since they are beginning to worry team Anna. Last evening Kejriwal announced that all movements are centered in Ramlila and urged people not to pay attention to similar movements outside it.

        Team Anna obviously has an agenda as I pointed out in my response to Nivedita and Adtya-Nivedita, but it will be farcical to endow a motley group with powers to swamp all other people’s movements and capture state power. Yet the fact remains that a vast range of people, unprecedented since the food movement of 1950s, support the janlokpal. If the left supports it as against the government bill, the left must articulate the support publicly. If the left is convinced that janlokpal is dangerous, it owes the people the responsibility to articulate that view, even if some of them are beaten up. In either case, the struggle is in the streets.

        In my own view, right now, as the State is beginning to open its fangs with apparently “all party” approval, the left must support the demand of withdrawing the govt. bill and a discussion of janlokpal and NCPRI drafts in the parliament after quick dispensation by the standing committee. The govt. bill must be rejected at once. The historical fact that a people has taken a matter in its own hands against the authoritarianism of organised politics must find a respectful response in the parliament. Now. But that demand does not negate the other historical fact that no politics is really unorganised, and the politics of non-State organisation is likely to have streaks of authoritarianism that also must be fought. This includes both the Maoists and the NBA.

        It is the people, not Hazare.

  11. Jairus permalink
    August 25, 2011 11:29 AM

    An excellent statement, but two qualifications. You don’t spell out your stand on the actual issue of whether corruption can be fought legally and if so how (taking ‘corruption’ in the narrow sense in which Hazare and everyone else defines this). Are all the drafts (including those of the NCPRI) simply irrelevant because legislation is irrelevant? Or is there some bill or set of bills on fighting/curbing corruption that the statement at least implicitly supports? Second, surely ‘the people’ is as much of an abstraction, a myth if you like, as ‘the nation’ or ‘civil society’. The vast majority of the country’s population are wage laborers. They are workers on the land, in the mines and elsewhere. If ‘the people’ is code for the mass of workers in the country, isn’t it less confusing to talk about them in class terms, in terms of who they actually are, than in the same rhetorical language that the IAC and the media and the rest of the middle class wallow in? Why has class politics suddenly taken a back seat?

    • ShankarG permalink
      August 25, 2011 1:05 PM

      Though I speak only for myself out of the signatories of the statement, I think both of these are valid criticisms. In this case, though, they were also conscious choices because of the specific purpose of the statement. Re the first point, the statement is concerned more with analysing this current political situation than the specific demands of the anti-corruption movement, and pointing to the character of the movement rather than to the character of the demands as such. Hence we did not want to get into a debate on which anti corruptoin institution will be better but rather to point out that this mode of politics will address neither corruption nor justice. Re the second point, the aim of the statement was to draw out a few points from the debate among left, democratic and progressive opinions and present a position that could be acceptable to as many organisations as possible; hence so the statement specifically avoided some terminology in order to make it acceptable to more streams. This was at the expense of clarity – and for those of us who are Marxists, of a complete analysis – but it seemed worth it.

    • Paresh permalink
      August 25, 2011 2:41 PM

      I suppose the challenge is really to reconceptualize this, like any question, in class terms. What would a working class intervention in this situation look like? Does the ‘corruption issue’ hold any possibilities for such an intervention? While agreeing to most of what has been written, I must point out that it is important that we be very clear about these questions. Whether the term ‘working class’ is used or not (although I don’t see why it should not be used), ‘left interventionist’ cannot afford to lose sight of strategic goals while making tactical decisions to enter such moments/movements. The language which this piece uses (‘people’, ‘masses’ etc) does not necessarily imply that class politics has taken a back seat, but Jairus’s fear is certainly reasonable; an intervention, if it is not reflexive enough, may well lose direction.

  12. Varun Anand permalink
    August 25, 2011 1:04 PM

    Politicians have closed ranks, the media have closed ranks…it is the people who have to face the bribery at the lower level every day, are now left in the lurch.

    Our PM has just now said, ‘Look, we are parliamentarians, and you don’t tell what law to pass and how it is to be passed. So please call off the fast and ask your guys to go home. ”

    Everyone thumps desks, because now the supremacy of the parliament has been restored !!

  13. Nikhil Pandit permalink
    August 25, 2011 1:13 PM

    This is a movement to change the way this country is governed. Agreed this can not remain a movement by Anna or by IAC…all who join must get credit for being there. Anna & IAC will not be able to sustain this fight if this remains a middle class movement. The politicians are playing a divide and rule game..they know if the poor stay away, they will get the historical 15% vote to grab power again without making any changes in the way this country is governed. I hope the day will come when we can have similar movements to resolve the basic inequalities that exists in our society. But let us focus on fighting corruption now.

  14. patel sajid permalink
    August 25, 2011 2:41 PM

    i aint totally agree with this personal point of view but just want to ask that ‘what will happen suppose LOKPAL BILL is valid? do u think it is not the way of revolutionizing? but to me we have to close parliament and all political mainsource for 10 day that they even personally realize what is democracy where not only the parliament is supereme but a CITIZEN of india.

  15. August 25, 2011 11:10 PM

    a radical working class or peasant mobilisation faces much greater state repression and is almost totally ignored by the media and so is be much more difficult. this mobilisation because it has a big middle class element is fortunate in that respect but ultimately after its strong postures it has come round to a compromise with those in power.

  16. narendra permalink
    August 29, 2011 12:41 PM

    Media has no role in agitation. Most of the agitation was controlled using messaging. the miss call idea created huge databank of sympathisers.

    The signatories of this letter have no relevance in india. Indians have long rejected class war hypothesis and world has seen failure of it. even Cuba has changed. Still I find left liberals mostly from Kolkata still dream about it.

  17. ShankarG permalink
    September 3, 2011 11:46 AM

    So far the following additional people have signed the statement:

    Natarajan D.V., Chennai
    Satyen Bordoloi, independent journalist, Mumbai
    Bhumika Chauhan, Correspondence and Radical Notes
    Rama Paul, Assistant Professor, University of Delhi
    Indrani Mukherjee, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
    Amitadyuti Kumar, Vice President, Association for Protection of Democratic Rights
    Daniel Taghioff, Green Party of India
    Kundan Kumar
    Binu Mathew, Editor, Countercurrents.org
    Nayanjyoti, Delhi
    Adv. Kamayani Bali, Mumbai
    Soumya Dutta, Assistant Professor, University of Delhi
    Vipul Kumar, Fergusson College, Pune
    Ravi Badri
    Saraswati Kavula
    Niharika, Researcher, University of Delhi
    Snehal Shingavi, Assistant Professor, University of Texas
    Sirisha Naidu, Sanhati and Mining Zone People’s Solidarity Group
    Supriya Madangarli, Mumbai
    Viveka Sundara, HRA, Mumbai
    Sagari Ramdas, Yakshi, Hyderabad
    Nityanand Jayaraman, writer and researcher, Chennai
    Madhumita Dutta, Chennai
    Dulali Nag, Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, Calcutta
    Wilfred D., INSAF
    N.K. Jeet, Lawyers for Justice and Democratic Rights, Punjab
    Shriya Bhatia, Mumbai
    Jagdish Chandra, New Socialist Alternative
    Ankur Tamuli Phukan, Researcher, CSSS, Kolkata
    Shree Prakash
    Ashwini Chhatre, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    Deepti Nair, Hyderabad
    Sudha Bharadwaj, Raipur
    Ashok Agrwaal, Delhi
    Thomas Pallithanam
    VP Sarathi, Coimbatore Human Rights Forum
    Amit Baishya, Assistant Professor, Ball State University
    Shiney Varghese, Minneapolis
    Guman Singh, Himachal Pradesh
    Soumit Dutt
    P. Chennaiah, APVVU
    Ajay Kishor Shaw, poet
    Anil Sadgopal, Member, Presidium, All India Forum for Right to Education
    Bhupesh Shah
    Sayantoni Datta, Researcher, New Delhi
    Neshat Quaiser, Assistant Professor, Jamia Millia Islamia
    PK Sundaram, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace
    Mayur Chetia, Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University
    Anivar Aravind, Bangalore
    B.S. Raju
    Surya Shankar Dash, Filmmaker, Bhubaneshwar

  18. ShankarG permalink
    September 4, 2011 7:42 AM

    Sorry, please also add:

    Ningreichon Tuensang, Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, Delhi

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