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Hazare, Khwahishein Aisi: Desiring a new politics, after Anna Hazare and beyond corruption

August 27, 2011

Hazare, khwahishein aisi, ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle armaan, lekin, phir bhi kam nikle

Hazare, so many desires, that every desire takes our breath away
so many hopes, and yet so few

(with due apologies, for liberties taken, to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, sometime poet and native of Delhi)

On the ninth of april, this year,  I wrote a posting on Kafila titled – ‘At the Risk of Heresy : Why I am not Celebrating with Anna Hazare Tonight‘. A little more than four months later, I have to say I have not yet found reasons to celebrate. But I am not in mourning either. What follows is my attempt to think this through, in all its contradictory character. For once, I am not even trying to be consistent. If my argument occasionally faces two directions at once, it is probably because I feel the needs to be double faced in order to understand a double-faced moment. When all the talk is only of the need for honesty, one might want to stake a claim to being double-faced, if only for the sake of breaking the moral monotony.

The Story So Far

A lot has happened since April, and not all of it is bad. A seriously bad draft Jan Lokpal Bill with its frivolous provisions of setting up selection committees composed partly of Nobel Prize winners to choose the Lokpal has given way to a draft Jan Lokpal Bill that is still marked by flaws, still worrying in the way it concentrates power, but is, at the same time, a much more substantive and serious piece of work. Unlike its earlier avatar,  the current version of the Jan Lokpal Bill  can be the basis of a serious discussion on how to confront the issue of corruption.

This only goes to show that close and vigilant reading of the things that are never read but get talked about very loudly on television still has its uses.

We also have the suggestions made by activists associated with the National Campaign for the Peoples Right to Information, and many of them are substantive. The draft bill prepared by the state is a joke, which is not surprising, because this government is a joke, and a bad joke at that. The government bill is just as much of a joke as the first draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill was. So at least on the matter of circulated drafts of legislations for the institution of the Lok Pal, we are in a sort of two steps forward, one steps back dance. Still, I suppose, some movement forward is much to be preferred to stasis, or to regression.

Meanwhile, babas and sants have come and gone, and more will come and go. Baba Ramdev has danced his dance, and Rahul Baba has sung his song. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar offered us his wisdom (delink the agitation from the fast, and proceed with both, because Indian tradition teaches both steadfastness and accommodation) and Srimati Kiran Bedi has visited her erstwhile office (Tihar Prison) in the entourage of its recent most honored guest. The Anna Hazare touch is truly transformative. How else can we explain the phenomenon of Ms. Bedi blossoming into an excellent and lively vaudeville performer from the dour guardian of law and order that she once used to be. Clearly, the struggle against corruption can do wonders for personal development, as was in evidence in her excellent recent performance at Ramlila Maidan. On the same stage, we have also witnessed the moving ‘coming out’ of a management guru’s ‘inner revolutionary’. This management revolutionary, this shining lodestar, endoresed Hazare-ji’s crusade and promised us that we would become as clean as South Korea and Singaore. Perhaps it was merely a paucity of time that prevented him from mentioning that South Korea had matured into its cleanliness over several decades of military dictatorship and that Singapore, while it is known to be free of the corruption of chewing gum traces, is not exactly a shining example of vigorous democracy, or fiscal probity. Never mind. The speech was excellent. It will go down in history as the kind of thing we will look at several decades in the future while wondering how we ever got there.

Even T.N. Seshan, that sweet old curmudgeon, has come up with his own version of a Lokpal Bill, I suppose it can be called the Run Lokpal Bill (Seshan was always thought to have run every institution he served).. A serving prime minister is beginning to resemble his predecessor (or at least the mukhota/mask of his predecessor), cocooned as he is in the silence (or statemanseque staccato statements) of his own devising.

And yet, the wheels of politics are turning. Sooner or later, somebody will offer Shri Hazare the customary glass of orange juice that signals the timely restoration of what is praised as harmony and good sense in our polity. And in all probability, a bill, maybe even two bills, maybe three, will be tabled on the floor of parliament. The more things change, the more they remain the same. What started out as a fast may well eventually turn into a feast. Times Now has said it is a ‘victory’ and when Times Now is victorious, all times past and future are bound to submit in homage.

Where is the ‘Independent Left’ ? Where can it be ?

Many amongst us on the left, especially on what we like to think of as the ‘independent left’, have felt bereft by the fact that ‘we’  seem to be unable to ‘respond’ adequately to this situation. I have been told, “We are committing another historic blunder if we remain distant from this situation” and so on. The situation, meanwhile, seems to be doing quite well without us. Regardless of how many ‘people like us’ turn up at Ramlila Ground, like slightly bewildered tourists, the crowds, vast numbers of whom are unaffiliated, have swelled. And they are not tourists, they are more like pilgrims at a Kumbh Mela or an Urs. They know what to do. They know that a lot of what needs to be done is about being patient, listening, sitting, chatting, finding echoes and resonances, comparing genealogies and geographies, just being there. As ‘peoples’ movements’ go, this one seems not to be suffering in the absence of the left’s effective presence at all. The crowds are peaceable, they are diverse, they are ridiculously, amiably well behaved. I don’t think that we can improve them in any way. Even the Delhi Police personnel at the venue (“with you, for you, always”)  are being chivalrous and gentlemanly. I hope they stay that way.

The question that my friends are really asking, then, is not about what the left can do for the movement, but rather, about what the movement can do for the left. So, the real concern is not necessarily the merits of Anna Hazare’s crusade against corruption. Rather, it seems to me to be based on a dispute over the dividends of finding a place to stand in the big tent of Hazare.

As of now, the most important thing that the Hazare campaign seems to be offering is  an opportunity  to wreck the fragile consensus that an independent left might have been able to build for itself, within itself, post-Nandigram. Now, it is no longer a question of what kind of attitude one can have to the ‘mainstream’ left, but also about whether or not to align with Anna Hazare. Surprise, surprise, all those who thought they had finally ridden the hump of longstanding internal differences in the post-Nandigram and Singur euphoria are now confronted with the enigma of how to respond to some of the camp followers of ‘Faster’ Hazare, (not necessarily on the left) who, like the Marathi children’s detective hero, ‘Faster’ Fene, can find the whiff of a pro-corruption tendency in the most unlikely of places, even in the deep well of the minds of  those within the independent left who are not wearing ‘I am Anna’ caps.

Because, after all, they have said, if you are not with Hazare, (read a certain thread of comments on any postings that question the Hazare agenda, even on Kafila), you must be with the Hazaron, (thousands) Lakhon (hundreds of thousands), Karodon (millions and tens of millions) rakam (amounts) of Kala Dhan (black money) that is secreted away in all those locations (Switzerland, Mauritius, Dubai) where song sequences in Hindi movies are routinely filmed.

We need to separate this natural suspicion and hostility that might greet the choice of some of us not to be celebrants of what is going on from our own assessment of the importance of this moment. Even if people caricature our distance and our questions as, ‘indifference bordering on support for corruption’, ‘insensitivity’,  ‘stand-offishness’  and ‘elitism’, we still need not respond with counter-caricatures of our own – with mistaken claims that this is all only a result of an RSS conspiracy (notwithstanding the fact that the RSS may indeed be playing an important part) or that its all upper middle class and middle class posturing translating itself into a media-friendly spectacle. The moment for making this kind of comment, in my view, is past. It has been overtaken by the genuine transformation of a narrow anti-corruption stance into the possibility of a mass movement, or even, several mass movements. A movement does not have to be endorsed only because it stands at the threshold of acquiring a mass character, even if momentarily, but it has to be taken seriously. This does not mean that there are no longer things to be critical about. In fact, the need for criticism, unmarked by dismissal, is greater today than it was before.

At such a juncture, we can maintain the vigilance of our questions without being arrogant towards the people who flock to Hazare. At the same time those of us who haven these questions can refuse to silence or even mute them. To do so in the name of the chimera of a slippery and fragile unity of an independent left position would be to let ourselves by overwhelmed by what we have seen unfolding on Ramlila Ground in the past few days.

Unity/Disunity

My heart does not break easily over left disunity, or about the difficulty of choosing clear sides, which then becomes the ‘obstacle to unity’. I actually occasionally prefer the confusion that the complexity of situations like this bring in their wake to the holy grail of left unity. Unity is necessary when the left claims itself to be the vanguard, the leader. I think it is time that people on the left realized that sometimes the interesting revolutionary thing to do is to listen, and to have a conversation, rather than to lead. That in a genuinely transformative situation, the best thing that the left can do is to be an interlocutor, a learner, not a dictator, or a pedagogue, so that people can make up their own minds. That is what makes the left democratic, when it chooses democracy. Otherwise, the left can turn into an authoritarian vampire, sucking its own blood, and the blood of all those who are drawn to it.

A platform like Kafila, which does not try to conceal real differences under the rhetoric of false unity, is indicative of the kind of possibilities that remain open to us, and to a new style of politics. For these possibilities to be realized, maintaining a diversity of positions, which is sometimes also known as ‘disunity’ may not be a bad thing. In order to even understand what this means, the men and women on the left, especially the young men and women on the left,  need to stop giving slogans that contain ‘the only path’ or ‘the only party’ as subordinate clauses. There can be more than one path in and out of this ‘situation’. One path might be walked into being by going into Ramlila Maidan and another might be trudged by walking out of it.  Instead of being demoralized by what some might think of as our own apparent insignificance, we could also say that encountering Hazare makes us realize that Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi Aur Bhi Hain ( a thousand desires still remain), and that we could then begin articulating those thousand desires. The Hazare phenomenon has made it possible for a lot of ordinary men and women to actualize their desires of being in public space, of articulating their discontent, of discovering solidarities. This is something for us to build on, not to dismiss. Especially, and even if we are not comfortable with a lot of the content of the things that get said when people meet under the tricolor. It is not a matter of what we do with, or within, the crowds at Ramlila Maidan. It is more a question of realizing what we can do by being within the terrain of the social even after the crowds melt away from Ramlila Maidan. It is more a question of how we learn from this experience to organize in a myriad disaggregated ways. It is about how we shape popular discontent at having been cheated by the way things are run in the direction of claiming a share of the social surplus directly. It is about staying the course, and about being in there for the long haul.

Vanguard/Rear-Guard, Inside/Outside

If one stops trying to be the advance guard of revolution, and brings up the rear instead, then a whole new set of possibilities open up. We can then also fight a few rearguard battles that are worth fighting. We can retreat, regroup and recover lost ground. We do not have to constantly worry about our ‘irrelevance’, or our ‘failure’ because we do not desire ‘our’ victory.  What we desire is an interesting and fair outcome, one that maximizes liberty and justice for as many people, and as many kinds of people, as possible. We can be mature enough not to identify the prospects of this occurring with the petty political fortunes of our own formations.  We can then learn to take advantage of our marginality, our ‘irrelevance’ even, by presenting agile and visionary proposals (that do not insist on being realized at all costs and thus are free to be more open ended and imaginative, more capable of shifting the goal-posts of the discussion than interested in scoring goals and self-goals). We can try and ensure that such visions, by admitting openly to their own imperfections, can open up spaces of discussion rather than close options through sheer force, manipulation, emotional blackmail and bluster. We can do the unspectacular thing of listening and talking, rather than fasting and feasting on fasting.

Let the independent left actually stake out the ground of constituting a radically imaginative politics that anticipates other worlds of action and reflection rather than be bound and gagged to a commitment to the fine tuning of this social order. The ‘current situation’ offers us that possibility, and we neither HAVE to be at Ramlila Ground to seize it, nor do we have to remain aloof from what is going on in people’s minds when they agitate against corruption. We can, instead, choose to be at Ramlila Ground and try and make things more interesting and lively for every one there, without necessarily buying into the dominant rhetoric of what is emanating from Hazare’s vicinity. Alternatively, we can stay away, and take advantage of staying away by questioning the very premises of a ‘moral cleansing’ of capitalism. Both seem to me to be valid options, and can be exercised by different kinds of people, for different purposes, in different styles. I will not lay a claim to constructing a  false hierarchy of moral choices between them, because unlike Anna Hazare, I am not duty bound to making moral noises and moral choices. My only mandate is to make things interesting for my comrades on the left, and that too not necessarily by offering them a bouquet of better or worse choices.

A united leadership can be terribly authoritarian, and a disunited leadership can be a terribly fractious and annoying thing. It is a combination of both these dynamics that we see in the government and the congress party in the recent past – a leadership that is incapable of taking the lead, or even decisions, and yet tries to be authoritarian, and therefore makes a complete ass of itself. The productive disarray that I am advocating as a stance that some of us on the left might take to, perhaps to good effect, is something altogether different.

The Crowd in Hazare’s Tent

I had said earlier, and I say it again – i cannot effect a disdain towards those who flock to Hazare, because I do not possess that disdain. I do not doubt their sincerity. And today, I do not doubt their number. I also do not believe that what we are seeing is  something that is happening because of media manipulation alone. The situation was different in April. Between then and now, the ineptness of this government, has transformed what might have been a vocal minority into a growing and very diverse constituency. This phenomenon is partly crystallizing around Anna’s charisma, partly mobilized by right wing as well as liberal formations, and partly conjured up from nowhere by the desperate foolishness of the government. Of course it is fueled by 24X7 coverage, but to say that it is being created by it would be both inaccurate as well as un-necessary.

I also think that there is something admirable in the fact that the crowds at Ramlila Ground have been as diverse as they have been peaceable. I said it before, in April, and it needs to be said again, I do not think this is a solely, middle class, upper caste mobilization. I think it is genuinely cross-class phenomenon, and must be recognized as such. I think that being there affords people a sense of solidarity, an experience of peaceable togetherness, between men and women, between generations, between classes and communities, that our fractured society rarely provides occasions for. What is tragic for me is that we think of this as exceptional, whereas it should actually be a part of the normal, routine, banal fabric of life. Strangers are finding themselves surprised by their friendliness towards each other, and there is something both sad and joyous about this realization.

We should recognize this hunger for solidarity, and learn from it, respect it, not hold it in contempt. If people say that this is what the experience of being there is about, I have no reason to doubt them. It is the experience of a society coming to know, in its own fuzzy, touchy-feely sort of way, that something in the nature of society actually exists. In a city like Delhi, the last two times crowds (as in crowds that are not bused in by political parties) were out in force on the streets were during the 1984 riots and the Anti-Mandal agitation. Both were occasions where the crowd had a menace written into it. This time, the crowd is altogether different.

But recognizing this fact is one thing, and endorsing the currents and the politics that generate the momentum of this togetherness is another. More of that later. That being said, I do believe that the fraternization, the friendliness of strangers, the search for ways of saying things politically on the street, even the random attempts at claiming public space, of gathering in front of the residences of ministers and the prime minister, that have been part of the experience of the past few days  – all these are good things, and we on the independent left must find it in ourselves to build on the fact that a lot of ordinary people seem to have discarded their inhibitions about being out on the streets at all hours of the day and the night, peacefully, in order to hear each other and make themselves heard. We do not have to endorse the content of the slogans to appreciate the importance of the phenomenon that has unfolded before our eyes. Something in Delhi has changed, and that transformation need not be lamented.

On the Right in Hazare’s Tent

Let me clarify, lest I be misunderstood, that I am also, not unduly perturbed by the presence of the right, or the predominance of nationalist motifs in the mobilization around Anna Hazare. Some of my friends on the left are upset because they hear ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. This fact upsets me not at all. I am not upset by hearing these slogans exactly in the same way as I am not upset by hearing ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ in a demonstration on Kashmir. Incidentally, there has been quite a bit of sporadic chanting of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’  at Ramlila Ground, and that, in my view, proves nothing. Neither that ‘minorities’ are with Hazare, nor that they are not. And those who are trying to base their criticism of the movement around Hazare on the grounds of the fact that it either excludes minorities and dalits are, in my opinion, barking up the wrong tree. Nor does the number of dalits and minorities in the crowd tell us anything about the ‘inclusiveness’ of ‘Team Anna’. Let us leave censuses to the examining eye of the state, and not try and reduce every political discussion to statistical performances.

I am also not disturbed by the presence of RSS workers in Anna Hazare’s camp in the same way as I am not disturbed by the presence of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his followers in mobilizations on Kashmir. I oppose both these kinds of formations and the visions that they hold out (the RSS in India as well as the Islamists in Kashmir) politically. But I do not dispute their right to be present in the field of politics, even of their right to attempt to hijack and dominate the proceedings (which, I believe must be countered, and I have every intention of doing so, without denying them their claim to political space and attention). Any political current that seeks to enlarge its space would do the same. And for the same reason, I do not castigate those on the left, especially on the independent and far left, who wish to be present with Anna Hazare. I hope that they can respect my distance as much as I respect their decision to be close to the heart of the anti-corruption campaign. We should be able to talk with each other despite how close or how far we happen to be from the Hazare tent.

It is not inconceivable that an RSS shakha pramukh, a Jamaat activist, an NGO worker, a Marxist-Leninist,  a Gandhian  and a conscientious technocrat who prides himself on his apolitical stance, may all be equally enraged by the fact that this government is so egregiously corrupt and inept, that their rage may bring them, from their very different corners into the same space. That does not disturb me one bit. In fact, it is probably a positive sign, because at least they will not be able to dismiss each other so easily, and at least they will get a sense of each other’s presence in the social arena. It will certainly improve the quality of their conversation with each other, and even amongst themselves.

Perhaps I am just a congenital spoilsport.  So let me continue to be a heretic, and a spoilsport. Because I think it is important that there be such people amongst us, even so that the rest  might shine better in the reflected lustre of their own moral worth. And so, I ask for indulgence towards my spoilsport questions. After all, if those who claim to have right on their side, do answer them well, they will only be strengthened by the occasion and the opportunity to do so.

Corruption and Justice : A Complication

My main question is as follows. Why must we believe that a society cleansed of corruption (as ‘India Against Corruption’ see it) will necessarily be a more just society?

I do not mean to ask this question in the –  ‘there are other and more important problems, structural issues, that need to be tackled, and the discourse on corruption is just a smokescreen’  – sort of way. I am speaking of corruption as substantively, and as narrowly, as Anna Hazare and his colleagues do.My understanding of what ‘Team Anna’ upholds as its discourse on corruption is basically a dispute about the way in which socially generated surplus is distributed under the conditions of the rule of property and capital. Wealth, or any asset, in this view, is legitimate when its owners can currently demonstrate their legal claim over such a resource, and is illegitimate, when they cannot. Access to an asset is legitimate when it has been acquired by the unsullied operation of the free market, without fear, favor or influence, or when it is yours by inheritance. Those who buy their food are clean, those who try and feed themselves by means that do not involve buying what they can get their hands on, are dirty.

This means that both the encroacher who builds a villa in Sainik Farms, in violation of land use laws, by greasing the palm of a local official is as much a party to corruption as the squatter who hacks away at state owned land in a city like Delhi by building an ‘illegal shelter’ protected momentarily by arriving at an accommodation with a lower level municipal official and the local thug. It means that the man who accumulates wealth by secreting much of it in a Swiss Bank is as corrupt as the person who cuts corners while at work during a grueling fourteen hour shift in a factory. Both are not doing something – not declaring their assets, not obeying the clock, concealing their earnings or stealing time on the shop floor. Look back on the history of prosecution under any law of the land and you will realize that more of the working poor were fined, imprisoned, punished, hung, detained in solitary confinement and tortured as compared to other, more privileged sections of the population. Equality before the law in a deeply unequal society always more often than not tilts the scales of justice in a direction favorable to the rich and the powerful. A Dominique Strauss Kahn gets away with sexual assault because the maid he had assaulted in the hotel had once been economical with the truth in order to substantiate her claim to asylum as an immigrant. Barring a few spectacular prosecutions, the majority of ‘corruption cases’ will fill the prisons with more of the working and deprived poor, and with those, especially in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy, who make things easier for the working and deprived poor for the price of a bribe.

Imagine this

Now let me propose a scenario to you. Imagine that you are a recent migrant from the hinterland in a city as heartless as Delhi.  (in its legal avatar the city of Delhi is heartless although it is quite generous and welcoming in some corners of its ‘illegal’ soul). Imagine realizing that you cannot afford to pay rent, even in a tenement that looks and feels like a prison cell, because of the way in which real estate is structured in Delhi by the purely ‘legal’ apparatus of the master-plan. Imagine realizing that you cannot make ends meet with legal, documentable work. Imagine that you have to find ways and means to cut and paste a living by doing slightly shady work. Imagine that there is no ‘honest living’ to be made. For the vast majorities who face the glare of documents,  the demand for transparency,  the imperative to come clean and be visible – corruption offers an occasional patch of friendly shade. Corruption, at least as a certain looseness with the law and with the regulatory power of the legal apparatus, is what keeps this society humane at its deeper, darker recesses. When wages are horribly low, it is the circulation of surplus in the form of a bribe that brings food to many tables, and also makes way for some things to be done. Ask an ill paid clerk, a linesman, a postman, a government school teacher, a health worker, or a policeman what it means to raise a family on the pittance that they earn. Ask an industrial worker in NOIDA how much of his or her wage would be eaten by rent if he or she did not live in an illegal settlement. Then talk to me about corruption. If by corruption, we mean a hollowing out of the things that make life worth living in dignity, then the low wage is as much a sign of corruption as the bribe. And yet, while Anna Hazare does talk about the evil of the bribe, I have yet to come across anyone in ‘India Against Corruption’ speak of the evil of the non-living wage. In all probability, some of the good men and women who endorse them today might tomorrow find workers taking to the streets for higher wages a very ‘corrupt’ sight. If, by the eradication of corruption we mean that a woman in Kashmir has no one to bribe in the local police to get news of her son in custody, then I would much rather have her pay the bribe and know whether her son is living or dead, and have the policeman take the bribe and give her the information that the dark legality of the state forbids him to do, then have her face the possibility that he might be one of the more than two thousand odd unidentified bodies that are now known to be rotting in mass graves in the valley. And yet, while Anna Hazare does talk about the evil of the bribe, the scam and the sleazy deal, I have yet to come across him speaking about the corruption and the corrosiveness that placed the rotten body in the unmarked grave in the first place. In the last week, while Anna has fasted, we have also come to know that a state agency (the J&K State Human Rights Commission) in Jammu and Kashmir has finally admitted what was known all along. That there are at least two thousand and one hundred and fifty six unidentified dead bodies in thirty eight mass grave sites in different parts of the state. If this were to happen in any other part of the world, there would have been an immediate hue and cry. And yet, here, its as if, some remains have been found in an obscure set of archaeological digs. The problems of disappearances and of mass graves full of unidentified bodies that have been put there by people acting in the name of the Indian state ought to be central to any discussion of what it means to have corruption eat into the vitals of the political system. This is not just a question of bad policy, or errors of judgement. It is a huge, systematically constructed moral lapse, impelled by strong monetary incentives, at the very core of the functioning of the state in India. And Anna Hazare has nothing to say about this. His silence (and the silence of his close associates) about a black hole as profound as this at the heart of governance  is as disturbing to me as Manmohan Singh’s silence about the 2G scam.

Life in 3 Cases

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Anna Hazare, or anyone, can at any given time, articulate, or even be reasonably expected to articulate, grievances against everything that is wrong in our society. I am not one of those who is saying – “look he doesn’t talk about corporate greed, or big dams, or communalism, or private sector corruption”. Frankly, I don’t expect him to. He has said he is interested in the abuse of power by the state, and in the way it favours those who benefit from corruption, and that is why it makes sense to me that he talks about black money and land grabs So I am not disappointed when he doesn’t talk about things that he thinks are unrelated to what he says is his central mission. Perhaps other people should take up these causes with as much energy as he has shown, or take them up again, if they have done so already. But when Hazare and the people around him talk about how the people who run the state unjustly take away from us  the things that we hold dear (hard earned wealth, assets, land, services, life) and that are ours by right, I do expect this very specific idea to be followed through. I am afraid that is not what I find happening in the big tent of Anna Hazare.

The most basic asset that all of us possess and have inherited is life. Bare life. And those with power who act in the name of the state, and with the force of the state, routinely, by legal and illegal means, deprive people of what should be theirs, their life, or the means to sustain life, through force or fraud, and sometimes through a combination of the two. That is why there is a connection between the fact that common people often do not have access to quality medical attention in a government hospital because medical supplies have been siphoned away in a minor scam (let’s call this Case 1), or that workers in large, prestigious, public building projects may be denied the wage (that can sustain their lives) that ought to be theirs by right (let’s call this Case 2) and  the fact that somewhere, say  in Kashmir,  a common man –  a barber, a baker, a teacher, disappears in the fog of the AFSPA because some officer in the army or the special police forces finds it necessary to demonstrate a ‘kill’ in order to try and maneuver a promotion, and with it access to unaccounted for counter-insurgency funds (let’s call this Case 3).  In each of these instances, in terms of what happens to medical care, the prospects of earning a living wage, and life itself, the casualty, the harm, occurs because of acts of omission and commission, acts of force and fraud, by the state and its agents.

Anna Hazare’s movement would have no difficulty in recognizing and acknowledging corruption in Case 1 – the poorly equipped government hospital. With regard to Case 2 – they would probably quibble over whether or not low wages (not stolen wages, not unpaid wages, just low wages) constitute a corrosive force in society (even though it is impossible not to link the scale of bribes to the level of wages, especially at  what gets called the lower level of the phenomenon of corruption). I do not think that they would even acknowledge Case 3, or,  their recognition of Case 3 would be so muted as to be of no consequence. Questioning the terms of what is happening in Case 2 would require them to think about the relations between classes, between capital and labour. Questioning the terms of what is happening in Case 3 could take them uncomfortably close to a close examination of the way the state governs its intransigent peoples. And that is why they stick to Case 1. Case 1 is corruption (as Hazare sees it)  through and through, but the rage against it in Hazare’s tent does not seem to translate into even a modest reflection about Cases 2 and 3. In reality it is corruption of the ‘safest’ kind –  easy to initiate, easy to end, easy to mask, easy to unmask and easy to be seduced by and easy to hate. This is the kind of corruption that translates into filmi dialogue, breaking news on TV and soapbox oratory. It requires little to explain it or to explain it away. But the overemphasis on Case 1 and its variants also means an underplaying of the significance of Cases 2 and 3. Does this tell us something about an inability to see and hear what is in front of one’s eyes, or is it actually a willingness to look away? Righteous indignation always troubles me. But selective and safe righteous indignation troubles me even more.

Let’s look at Case 3 more closely. Perhaps the body, the asset, that went missing in the fog of the AFSPA was never ‘clean’ enough, not patriotic enough, to begin with, to merit the attention of the newly constituted moral majority . If we are interested in the question of justice, we have to be interested in it even for those who can’t be legal all the time, or even ever. If we cannot discuss that possibility, then the talk of corruption sounds really hollow to me. Elsewhere, the connection between corruption, the AFSPA, and an atmosphere of impunity that does not allow mass protests of the kind that are held in Ramlila Maidan does get talked about. Here, for instance is a letter to Ramlila Maidan from the security ward of JN Hospital, Imphal, Manipur.

A Letter from Manipur

Irom Sharmila response to Anna’s invitation

23 August 2011, Tuesday

10.27am, Security Ward, JN Hospital

Respected Anna,

I whole heartedly welcome your invitation to join the anti corruption rally you are crusading. And yet I would like you to be convinced of the reality of my situation, that I cannot get the advantage of exercising my non-violent protest for justice against my concerned authority as a democratic citizen of a democratic country, unlike your environment. This is the problem I cannot understand.

My humble suggestion is if you feel seriously; please try to reach the concerned legislators (read authorities) to let me get free, like yours, to join your amazing crusade to root out corruption – which is the root of all evils. Or you can come to Manipur, the most corruption affected region in the world.

With full solidarity and best wishes.

Yours,

Sd/-

Irom Sharmila

Hunger Striker to repeal the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act

A society without bribes, need not be a society with better wages, or without encounter killings that exchange for cash and promotions. It could also just be a hungrier, more desperate and bleak society, especially if there remain large sections of the working poor, and the disenfranchised, who have no means to live a straightforward life, or die a dignified death and not be buried in an unmarked grave.

Some caveats (to my own argument)  – of course I know that the corruption of those who occupy positions of power is based on privilege and violence. That it feeds like a dark cancer into the vitals of every process in our society. Of course I know that one needs mechanisms to inhibit the egregious abuse of power. And of course I know that legislation to rein in the arbitrary use of power by people entrusted with office and responsibility is a necessity. Of course I know that a bill is needed. And that eventually a bill will be passed. But the framing of laws and by-laws, and the fine tuning of the police powers of the state does not capture my imagination as the task that a new left , the kind that I would be interested in, in our part of the world, needs to be doing. Let this be done by those who dream of filling prisons with more offenders, not by those who dream of opening their gates.

Tasks and Legacies : Legalese and Militarese

The tasks of politics do not begin or end with the framing and passage of laws. The legacy bequeathed to us by the big tent of the Anna Hazare movement will not be simply a well drafted bill. it will also be a set of attitudes, a basket of sensibilities, things that are beyond the question of mere laws. Some of these attitudes and sensibilities fill me with delight, others fill me with dread. I am delighted by the new found sense of entitlement to public space, by the raucous,unruly asking of questions, by the improvisatory sense of a politics that is made on the fly, by the way in which (like in a good old time Hindi movie) brotherhood can be lost and found in a fair-ground. I think there are things to learn from the dynamism of a networked, agile political intelligence that has made itself known, sometimes spontaneously, during this campaign. There is reason to be delighted by the way in which the whimsical, the cranky, the odd, the queer –  off-stage and in the crowds have created an elegantly awkward counter-weight to the dull earnestness of the do-gooders on stage. All these things are well worth holding on to. But I am not at all sanguine about the way in which the Anna Hazare campaign tries to create divisions based on morality and law over and above the categories of class and justice. To steal and to be corrupt when you are poor and weak is not the same thing as to grab privileges for yourself when you are rich and powerful. To focus one’s attention on dealing with corruption through a purely juridical-repressive-punitive mechanism (the institution of the Lokpal) is also to assume that all kinds of corruption can be viewed equally. The principle of equality before the law would ensure that a monomaniacal obsession with the law actually strengthens the status quo.

To combat the corruption of those who captain the ship of state with the letter of the law is something like trying to defeat the standing army of the state with the standing army of revolution. The centralization of power in the organs of the state is something that I think needs to be resisted at all costs, regardless of who wants to to the strengthening, regardless of whether it occurs in the name of fighting corruption, increasing GDP, strengthening capitalism or building socialism. It is time for us on the independent left to stop focusing on the state as the source and destination of all things good and bad in our society.

You might achieve a coup d’etat against corruption only to realize that  the standing army of the revolution is now the standing army of the state and that the revolution is now, effectively a counter-revolution, at the very moment in which it succeeds. I do not believe that the administration of social surplus that the state is required to undertake in India can proceed without fear or favor. As long as social inequalities remain as sharp as they are, the very effort to administer an unequal society through  ‘clean’ methods requires one to safeguard the rules of property.

I am not one of those who opine that ‘Team Anna’ ought not to be trusted because it is contemptuous of parliamentary procedure. There may be debates over timing, pace and whether a legislation brought in at a central level should be automatically operational in the states, but these are all questions about procedure. And in the days that follow, what we will see will be endless wrangling about procedure, not about content. The discussion will be about when and how to pass the bill, not about whether the bill furthers the question of justice. That seems to have been taken for granted already. It is this confidence that I find disturbing. This confidence cuts across the government-opposition-civil society divides.

Contrarian that I am,  my reason for keeping my distance from Team Anna lies partly in the fact that  they are all too wedded to legalese and parliamentary procedure. They are not dismissing parliament and standing committees, they are merely setting themselves up as the tribunes, as the permanently standing committees of very civil society. They are by no means ‘anarchists’, as some have suggested they are. Instead, they are the most vehement (even if ‘would-be’) custodians of law and order. They are lawyers, former law ministers, prison governors, bureaucrats, technocrats, saints, do-gooders, earnest men and women all.The kind I run a mile from when I see them arrayed so impressively. They mirror the legalese of the state, just as  those who fight the state with people’s armies mirror the militarese of the state. Both are the state in waiting, and act as if they know they are. They are waiting to cleanse the state, in the name of what they both believe will be a better state. Is their ‘better state’ going to be more just ? Will it not uphold with equal alacrity, with even more intense passion, the law of property, the rule of capital, the marking of social assets  and surpluses in terms of who controls them and who does not, even, who must not ? Will they not divide social surpluses into state and non-state actors without challenging the way in which social surpluses get produced, at what human cost, or even the rate at which they get produced. Do they, for instance, ever call for a reduction of the working day, or even a modest amelioration of production targets, even, the occasional modest rise in wage ? No, at the most, they tell us that a person working under NREGA must know how much they are entitled to get. (a goal with which I have no quarrel), as if to know what one’s wages are can adequately compensate for the fact that such a wage is not a living wage.

In this way, what tends to happen is that the fight for a change in the conditions of production, becomes subsumed under a fight for a living wage, a fight for a living wage, becomes subsumed under a fight for the right to information about the same paltry wage, the fight for a right to information about that paltry wage becomes subsumed under a fight for a Lokpal Bill, and finally the fight for a Lokpal Bill becomes a dispute over how long it will take to pass the bill, and who will form the standing committee that will scrutinize and assist in the passing of the bill. I am not suggesting that none of these fights are not worth fighting. Only, that I find something strange about pressurizing some imagined ‘left” into doing this fighting. Since this ‘left’ is being imagined into existence even as we speak, why not provoke it to fight for the maximum demands with economy and intelligence, rather than waste its time and scarce human resources fighting for minimal and steadily diminishing demands with maximal energy.

Here and Elsewhere

Everywhere in the world, in Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli, London, Madrid,  Paris, Tel Aviv , Athens and Santiago, people are disputing the apportioning of the social surplus. They want more, or what they think they ought to be given and are in fact given less. This is what brings them out on to the streets. What is happening in Delhi is NOT exceptional. It is part of what is happening all over the world. There is nothing new about this dispute. It is after all, as old as class society. All struggles against power derive their existence from this basic fact. But there is something else going on in our time. For the first time since the twentieth century ended, capitalism finds itself in a situation of severe crisis. The diminishing share of social surplus is giving class conflict a very sharp intensity, it is also, at the same time creating the conditions for conflicts within ruling elites. There is ‘less’ of the ‘more’ going around and naturally, disputes over who can claim what are proliferating. A great deal (though certainly not everything) of the current talk about corruption is taking place under the shadow of a dispute within ruling elites about legal and extra legal claims on the appropriation of a diminishing social surplus.

The participation of an ‘independent left’ as a party to this dispute, without changing the terms under which it is framed, can only end in tilting the balance in favor of this or that faction of the ruling class. It cannot serve the purposes of a radical refashioning of social relations. And if it cannot do so, I do not see what end will be served by being cannon fodder for conflicts within capital. It is entirely another matter to countenance entering the fray as individuals, answering private calls of conscience against a venal crony-capitalism. And there may be a total justification in doing so, as private citizens. In fact ‘India Against Corruption’ functions best as a coalition of otherwise apolitical private citizens, that is its strength and its weakness. But a fight against crony-capitalism is not a fight against capitalism. Sometimes it can even be a fight for capitalism. As far as I understand, (but that could just be silly, dogmatic me) nothing that claims itself to be the ‘independent left’ has any business doing anything other than fighting capitalism, pure and simple. Choosing between this and that form of capitalism, making fine distinctions between legal and illegal appropriations of surplus value, need not be our function, let alone our goal.

If, despite all this, some on the left seek to join the fray for purely ‘opportunistic’ reasons, for the marketing of their specific agenda and as a public-relations exercise amongst a burgeoning constituency, I have no quarrel with them. But I do have a quarrel with dressing up such efforts in the costume of moral righteousness and revolutionary zeal. I think the cloak of moral righteousness sits more elegantly on moralists and those who want to improve society than it does on those who say they want to transform society.

If the transformation of society is our goal, then we have to work very hard to ensure that the terms of the discussion of corruption are also transformed. The big tent of Anna Hazare has momentarily brought in many people into the conversation who may or may not share everything that ‘India Against Corruption’ sets itself out to be. Some of them may see the corrosiveness of low wages and disappearances in places like Kashmir. We should keep a line open to them.

This does not mean we have to commit ourselves in any way to ‘Team Anna’. We should neither want to supplant their leadership, nor should we applaud them. We can choose to ignore them, as we can ignore the platitudes of all people who set themselves up as leaders. If we are interested in creating a society of free and equal people, without great men and leaders, we can also have the courage to turn our back on leaders of all stripes, including those who speak most loudly in our name.

Free Floating Signifiers, Whispers, Wages and Life

Anna Hazare, the apostle of non-violence who routinely calls for public executions, is a leader today because he acts as a free floating signifier. His fast makes for fast politics, just as a greasy snack makes for fast food. It can feed a sharp hunger but is guaranteed to give you indigestion after. He can be all things to all men, because he trades in a currency that is universally convertible, the currency of morality, and yet he is careful of where, with whom and how he wants to trade. He wants a government of good men,clean men, incorruptible men. I fear such a government, not because I like paying bribes, but because I fear the unwillingness of good men to doubt themselves. The incapacity to doubt oneself lies at the beginning of authoritarianism.

On the other hand I see the bribe, and the whole spectrum of behavior characterized as ‘petty corruption’ as the only means available to those without power to seek accommodation and tolerance in the face of the incredible violence and force of the state and capital. We have a predatory ruling class that wants to sweep away every blemish, every obstacle in its path. It wants to render all things and people transparent, visible, accessible to its power by unleashing catastrophes like the Unique Identification Database Scheme. It wants to create categories of the deserving and the underserving poor, which it will then apportion meagre benefits to in the name of a sham welfare state. it wants to reward the poor, not have them claim what is theirs by right. At the same time, it wants to do nothing by way of denting its own privilege. It wants to reshape a metropolis every day by ensuring that there will be no housing at all for those who are not privileged enough to pay the kind of rents that a city like Delhi demands from you. Remember, not so long ago a judgement had actually stated that  those who squat on urban land are pick-pockets.

The fat cats will simply legislate themselves a monopoly over society’s resources through legal means, even as they ensure the passage of one, two, three, as many anti-corruption bills as takes their fancy. Their relentless accumulative drive does not need to be corrupt if the state is theirs to mould, and the state, remember, is always theirs. They can mount campaigns tomorrow to build big dams or fight wars of plunder with as much ease as the ones we have witnessed to cleanse society. They can do so in the name of cleansing society. And they will get all the time they need on television.

I would rather stand with the dirty, the shifty, the malcontent, the spoil-sport. Even if it is their last stand. And that is why I am still not celebrating with Anna Hazare. And I am not mourning either, because despite everything, I see in the present circumstances, an opening, the bare outline of a possibility. I would rather that the imagined, ‘independent left’ not offer the meagre glow of its ectoplasmic presence to a stage where the lights are burning way too brightly already, but I do hope that it (myself included) will find it possible to remain attentive to the opening and the possibility that now beckons us.

We can begin to whisper about wages, when they talk about bribes. We can talk about hunger when they talk about fasting. We can celebrate life when they rehearse their martyrdoms.

(This text is the expanded form of an informal address made to students of Jawaharlal Nehru University at the invitation of the Democratic Students Union at Tapti Hostel Mess, JNU on the night of August 25th, 2011. I am grateful to the questions that came from the JNU students after the talk and to conversations (and the occasional late night walk) in the last few days with Aarti Sethi, Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, Iram Ghufran, Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam, they have helped me shape and clarify many of the thoughts expressed here.)

Those who might want to listen to a fine rendition by Abida Parveen of Ghalib’s original Ghazal ‘Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi’ (from which I have shamelessly pilfered and ‘adjusted’  the title of this posting) would do well to stop by –  here.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. Eggman permalink
    August 27, 2011 4:02 AM

    how the fuck cares if you are or not celebrating. And the fuck are you nobody even knows about you other than those handful leftisits jokers in JNU. dude have a sense of reality and proportion.

  2. August 27, 2011 5:27 AM

    Wow! The trouble about so apparently well-written a piece is that it triggers our latent belle-lettrist editorial function. (What? There was a time when Jhollawallahs were Language Pundits)

    I spotted 20 solecisms 20 seconds into this exhibition piece.

    Bad English. Zero thought.

    ‘Ghalib’s original ghazal’- how deracinated exactly is this Sengupta?

  3. August 27, 2011 6:28 AM

    Okay, I was morally wrong to make the snide point I made. Just because someone is named Sengupta does not mean a low Madrasi, vide my humble self, is entitled to censure her (his?) laboured Ind-glish lucubrations.
    Not that many people in any English speaking country could write as well as the author, or indeed at all at such inconsequential length.
    Still, sabak-e-hindi or not, Ghalib didn’t get his prosody wrong showing that there is an austere Virgilian quality which must mediate every alterity’s ars dictaminis- be it that of Augustus or Augustine- such that the ghoti Bhadralok, cut off from the Brahmaputra, rival its tidal bores as being otherwise unparalleled on this planet.

    Did anyone actually finish reading this post? I ask for information only.

    P.S. Yes. I’m actually Narendra Modi and didn’t go to Convent School. You can delete my comment in good conscience.

    • August 27, 2011 6:07 PM

      Dear Vivek, (or should I say Shri Modi-fy-fi-fo-fum, bonde kheye matha gorom – ask any ghoti idiot what that means)

      I really do write ultimately only for a response from someone like you. How could my conscience allow me to delete you post, when, in fact it commands me to enshrine it. Believe me, it makes my day. And I do not mean this ironically. There is no iron in my sole, not a jot of irony in my soul. Apologies for the inordinate length of my posting. Ghoti Bengali that I am (to which lapse, I admit my ancestors’ genes have indeed contributed, give or take the occasional lecherous Portugese sailor, hence, no doubt, the deracination) I cannot help being prolix by nature and foolish by nurture. And since prosody does interest me, I would like to learn how I can improve my scansion of the un-Ghalib that I quoted, (with due apologies to the real Mirza, whose dactyls and spondees I would never dare touch, not even with a quivering feather).

      Though our modest neck of the Hoogly (from which my deracinated self is long estranged) does not compare to the tidal bores of the mighty Brahmaputra, we do occasionally manage a ripple or two. I hope you will sail our waters some day and if I could I would sit by your feet and learn prosody. Really. Then I could jettison my sabak-e-hindi for your sabak-e-hindu.

      Till then, it would help if you could use your erudition, intelligence, wit and better (than mine) breeding to knock my dreadfully tin-plate arguments into shape.

      As some old friends of mine once said in passing, Hic Rhodes, hic Salta !

      I remain, always willing to learn, always willing to submit my sad solecisms to your superior scrutiny

      yours truly,

      Shuddha

      – and I just noticed how many parenthtical violations of Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ my little response makes – woe is truly me – methinks I know who is truly you. : )

    • Shirin Patel permalink
      September 3, 2011 12:02 AM

      Shades of H Hatterr!

  4. August 27, 2011 7:22 AM

    A great article, wonderfully written. The last few pieces on Kafila have been so off-the-mark (Ur-fascism and so on) that it’s great to read something that gets it almost entirely right. Kudos to you!

  5. Vasudevan permalink
    August 27, 2011 7:38 AM

    Thank You, Shuddhabrata, this is perhaps the writing that I personally had been waiting for.
    I am in total agreement, although I have little to contribute from an arm-chair experience, being in the ‘imagined’ category in you concluding statment:
    “I would rather that the imagined, ‘independent left’ not offer the meagre glow of its ectoplasmic presence to a stage where the lights are burning way too brightly already, but I do hope that it (myself included) will find it possible to remain attentive to the opening and the possibility that now beckons us.”
    Nothing more needed, for me at least.

  6. August 27, 2011 7:55 AM

    You wrote
    “For the vast majorities who face the glare of documents, of the demand for transparency, of the imperative to come clean and be visible – corruption offers an occasional patch of friendly shade. Corruption, at least as a certain looseness with the law and with the regulatory power of the legal apparatus, is what keeps this society humane at its deeper, darker recesses”
    May be all those mis-guided poor people who is supporting Anna did not know this. May be we should come out of our libraries and academic lectures and teach them that small corruption is good for the society.
    May be we should ask for legalisation of ‘small’ corruption like say some thing given/taken below Rs 500 with yearly increase linked to inflation.

    • Sajan permalink
      August 29, 2011 12:35 AM

      Even in terms of ‘small corruption’, the police constable or sarkari peon comes off much worse than the gazetted officer.

      Take the extraordinary class bias enshrined in the CCS (Conduct) Rules, 1964, that regulates the conduct of government servants. In the matter of receiving ‘gifts’ on appropriate occasions, the relevant rule says that a Group A officer may receive individual gifts of up to Rs.7000 in value without informing his office, but the permissible value of gifts declines rapidly as you go down the ranks, until the poor peon can receive only Rs.1000 from relatives and friends.

      Please note that the financial status of the peon’s relatives and friends — who may be considerably richer than your own insolvent family — is not the issue here. It is the official status of the peon in relation to the Group A officer that decides the value of the gift.

  7. August 27, 2011 8:10 AM

    Isnt it a bit early to be making all sorts of conclusions about this movement ?

    “The incapacity to doubt oneself lies at the beginning of authoritarianism.” – Well said.

  8. Nirmalangshu permalink
    August 27, 2011 9:59 AM

    No, Shuddha, it is not double-faced. It is as straight a troubled face as we can hope to achieve in a society that cares. But I don’t think the Anna campaign deserves this caring face, although the people that are assembled there, increasingly from the “hapless” sections, do.

    One thing is clear. The Lokpal, in any version or combination of them, will not affect the basic cases you describe. The effectiveness of the Lokpal is entirely predicated on the giver to expose the receiver. That won’t happen in the vast majority of basic cases. I have often offered to intervene with street vendors against the troubles they face with the petty constable on hafta. They never allowed me, saying, if I report on the constable, the vendors will never be able to get back. And they also add, “uska bhi kayse chalega?” In a deeply unequal society, the basic victims often form friendly “predatory” relationships to survive. So, only those with some degree of priviledge will be willing to use the Act, the willingness growing in proportion to the priviledge. So, ultimately, the Sainik farm deals (and upwards including defence contracts) will be the real target, I hope. I am hoping because the “highest” forms of capital wants to grow legally by actual institutional support, explaining the alignment of MNC-types with the Anna campaign

  9. jdevika permalink
    August 27, 2011 10:10 AM

    Excellent post, Shuddha. Many thanks, especially, for this passage:

    ‘We can, instead, choose to be at Ramlila Ground and try and make things more interesting and lively for every one there, without necessarily buying into the dominant rhetoric of what is emanating from Hazare’s vicinity. Alternatively, we can stay away, and take advantage of staying away by questioning the very premises of a ‘moral cleansing’ of capitalism. Both seem to me to be valid options, and can be exercised by different kinds of people, for different purposes, in different styles.’

    This movement and the debate we’ve had on it has made me rethink my own political work and reconsider the implications of my socio-political location seriously. I can well see why Muslim or Dalit activists are sceptic of being there, but I cannot see how upper caste born radicals can stay away from critical, imaginative engagement.

    In the 1930s, members of upper caste communities in Kerala who had rejected the traditional caste order often entered gatherings of their caste, yes, using the privilege of their birth, to make speeches against the caste order, distribute material that criticized it, to make radical gestures of dissent. These actions were mostly non-violent and though the protestors often suffered violence, their persistence did make an impact. Whether this kind of participation made an impact or not is really not so important for me; I think I admire the fact that they used their privilege against the system that granted them the privilege in the first place, and did so in the full knowledge that they would be subjected to violence.

    A muslim friend told me that he felt that he had no access at all to this movement, but someone like me surely has. I actually think that it would be my duty to be there to make that critical, strategic intervention — I mean, I have no real grounds, I think, as someone whose social location has protected her from being within the direct firing line of the state and hindutva, to say that I will not go there to try and make that intervention because I feel oppressed. In other words, the fact that I support the struggles of Muslim and dalit peoples cannot mean, for me at least, that I am thereby excused from the political work of engaging critically and strategically from within, in movements in which elitist ideologies and the non-poor are a sizeable presence. Especially when others do not want to, or cannot enter them. That would mean remaining open to the world, which is risky in many senses. I’d rather take that risk than stay content in the belief that my political work is complete if I simply support Muslim and Dalit scepticism. Personally, I feel it is undesirable moral inaction.

    But it seems impossible to push any point without falling into polarised positions and a veritable Wimbledon of ad hominem seems to be on. I just saw a snippet of your rich and thoughtful post on someone’s FB page of a Malayalee intellectual. Interestingly, it picked out just one line that would gel with the currently popular IAC-is-RSS view and ignore the rest of it!

  10. vallyettans permalink
    August 27, 2011 11:08 AM

    I really liked the idea of independent left ,though i find friction at some places. I always thought LEFTists as the righteous people who are comparatively more close to the common man to carry the baton of transforming our society in such a way, where every single human being find a place that is rightfully theirs. Its time we set aside our anti-capatilist mantras and labour to earn this society what it richly deserved- A STATE BASED ON GOOD GOVERNANCE- not good governance stipulated by crony-capatilist institutions but that which can share and shoulder the responsibility of making this nation truly great.

  11. ShankarG permalink
    August 27, 2011 11:23 AM

    “In the last week, while Anna has fasted, we have also come to know that a state agency (the J&K State Human Rights Commission) in Jammu and Kashmir has finally admitted what was known all along. That there are at least two thousand and one hundred and fifty six unidentified dead bodies in thirty eight mass grave sites in different parts of the state. If this were to happen in any other part of the world, there would have been an immediate hue and cry.”

    I have also really been struck by this. Not by the fact that the Anna Hazare movement said nothing about it, but by the fact that the media too joined in a conspiracy of silence on it at this moment, choosing to prioritise the Anna movement. For those who treat the media like it is a passive transmitting instrument, this should be a good example of political action by the media. The death toll in these graves alone nears the level that was estimated in Kosovo at the start of the NATO bombings; and that conflict is now the subject of an international war crimes trial. Meanwhile our political discourse has united around the theme that Jan Lokpals are more important.

  12. MSS permalink
    August 27, 2011 2:41 PM

    Thanks, Shuddha. Brilliant,.

  13. August 27, 2011 5:10 PM

    why is there so much heartburn over a movement that is very narrow in its demands and well within the bounds of liberal democracy? again and again marxist critiques of liberal democracy are being directed against it and sometimes amusingly leftists are accusing the Team Anna of not following liberal democratic niceties and challenging the supremacy of parliament. it is indeed a waste of time to argue at such length as to why a lokpal act will not be able to ensure justice because this is a basic criticism for any piece of legislation in a liberal democratic state. this act will only be yet another legislation to add to the many progressive legislations that are already there.
    independent leftists should instead think about why they have not been able to build up mass movements that can threaten the state (this is a far more difficult task because such movements will never get the media support that the anna movement has which is only threatening the government and not the state). the leftists have little to offer by way of inspiring examples to the general public regarding what will happen when the liberal democratic state is overthrown or when the leftists come to power through elections. the revolutionary states that came to power all became autocratic and unjust and the communist parties that came to power in the states in india all were corrupt to the core.

  14. Aalok Aima permalink
    August 27, 2011 5:21 PM

    Sounds of a somewhat nervous ‘independent left’, unable to understand the phenomenon. What should have been their space has been taken hold of by, judging the manner in which he is made fun of, a somewhat ‘comical’ (on all fronts) Anna Hazare.

    Anna Hazare represents how simplicity and honesty of purpose scores over ideological intellectualising. It always will.

    Sensible perspectives:

    http://www.hindustantimes.com/Push-comes-to-shove/H1-Article1-737106.aspx

    http://www.telegraphindia.com/mobile/news/details/?fid=6&sid=14423092

  15. Kavita Krishnan permalink
    August 27, 2011 6:22 PM

    NREGA, RTI, domestic violence act, food security act… are these all not welfare measures by a capitalist govt to build credibility in the state in times of liberalisation? Does that mean the left must never campaign or struggle for such ‘capitalist’ measures?
    Marx said the working class, in its everyday struggles, “ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, not with the causes of those effects; …applying palliatives, not curing the malady.” Legal or parliamentary means for better conditions of life or work, he said, could never replace the need for revolutionary transformation; but struggles for such means and measures can “shorten and lessen the birth pangs” of this revolutionary transformation. (Capital Vol I) The left, the working class need not sow any illusions about the ‘revolutionary’ character of a Lokpal or NREGA or any such law; but they must, surely, struggle for it, if only so that they can better expose its limitations among people.
    Identifying crony capitailsm and primitive accumulation and fighting it does not mean we give up fighting capitalism. In fact if we talk of fighting capitalism in the abstract and do not fight the concrete manifestation of capitalism in our specific place and time, that would be phrase-mongering and nothing else…

  16. Ab Ahad (Opressed Kashmiri) permalink
    August 27, 2011 6:48 PM

    “……If, by the eradication of corruption we mean that a woman in Kashmir has no one to bribe in the local police to get news of her son in custody, then I would much rather have her pay the bribe and know whether her son is living or dead, and have the policeman take the bribe and give her the information that the dark legality of the state forbids him to do, then have her face the possibility that he might be one of the more than two thousand odd unidentified bodies that are now known to be rotting in mass graves in the valley.” HOW LOGICAL. I FULLY ENDORSE THIS. EVERY KASHMIRI WILL ENDORSE THIS. WHILE THERE IS AN ANNA TO FIGHT THE FINANCIAL CORRUPTION IN THE INDIAN STATE, THERE IS NONE TO BATTLE WITH THE MORAL CORRUPTION THAT HAS ENSLAVED THE MINDS AND BRAINS OF THE INDIAN SOCIETY

  17. Qalab Hussain permalink
    August 27, 2011 11:13 PM

    I hope India succeeds in minimizing some amount of corruption after this Jan Lokpal Bill is enacted and then we Kashmiris would ask Annas, Bedis, Bhushans, Kejriwals to fight against the Indian occupation of Kashmir which is sustained only by means of violence, lies, corruption, tyranny and arrogance. How can India be a non-corrupt nation when it continues to occupy Kashmir? For India’s real freedom and prosperous future, it needs Azaadi from Kashmir…

  18. smita permalink
    August 28, 2011 1:00 AM

    The first day of agitation in April when I walked out of Freedom Park, a friend questioned me on why I paid the auto rickshaw guy more than the meter and I wanted to explain how for me the agitation was not about plugging the holes through which the poor man breathes, so I thank you for writing this. But some things leave me very confused. I understand your concern about how a narrow definition of corruption may not bring in justice for those who live by making some systems more accommodative towards them. But I wonder how these small doors of bribes given to make life easier worked for the Nithari parents who were ignored by the police constables, sub inspectors, even senior police officers as a small example.
    Was the Police equally accommodative to the Nithari poor as they were to Pandher and co. when they refused to look for the disappeared children who were routinely killed and dumped in the sewer from where distraught parents dragged their rotting bodies out on their own? Just like the laws that are twisted to work for the rich better, with bribery too the richer and more powerful will always tilt the balance in their favour and can always out pay those with lesser money to bribe. When you say that under any law of the land, the poor get the raw deal, then that’s true with or without lokpal. If a hawker wants to sell his/her wares and a big fast food giant minds their presence, they can now get them removed legitimately, but they can also pay the officer in charge more than the hawker’s bribe to get their way.
    As for how it increments the salaries of those who are not paid enough, the small level corruption –like bribing an officer to give a marriage certificate sooner, letting go of a chalan, getting the passport etc are things that are done by people who can pay- who want the system to work for them faster, they won’t go complain to the lokpal for bribes paid willingly- so teachers, clerks, postmen may still have that door open.
    I have been left thinking all these months where I have faced corruption and I couldn’t come up with even a single instance of the narrow kind you are talking about affecting my life. But if it has any chance at all of working for others in terms of land grabbing, illegal mining, encounter killings, communal riots, I am willing to be hopeful.

  19. Milind Wani permalink
    August 28, 2011 12:05 PM

    Very nice and thoughtful article Shudda! Am posting it on my facebook…As for those who would criticise it for your “laboured Ind-glish lucubration”…well, if that the only thing they saw in this very thoughtful..then well. misquoting the much unfashionable Com. lenin, “there are none so blind,as those who will not see:

  20. voyeur permalink
    August 28, 2011 12:31 PM

    Sir very interesting point you make about the other kinds of corruption and the question about whether a corruption free society is a more just society. I would like to mention that the Lokpal (as envisioned by the Administrative Reforms Commission in the sixties) was supposed to be primarily a grievance redressal body (truest sense of ‘ombudsman’) and it’s anti corruption duties were only incidental to this end. In Karnataka, Santosh Hegde had asked our group of law students to study the role of Lokayukta in facilitating good governance. Due to some other factors we could not take it up. But out of personal interest there could possibly be a lot of things a Lokpal/Lokayukta do apart from corruption. (A very valid question of how can one office do so much would exist).

  21. Shishir permalink
    August 29, 2011 12:38 AM

    Besides the belated recognition of the several doubts and Khwahish in the ‘moment’ of mobilisation, it may be instructive to also examine how the ‘middle’ class reared on a healthy diet of liberalisation and repeatedly and scathingly berated precisely for this consumption by some of our better known political commentators like Roy and Sainath, have quite suddenly been willing to enter into the ‘public’. This class which otherwise loathed entering into any sustained conversation with a complicated everyday political [to invert the sense here - "The fear of Anna, is partly a fear of everyday life and the ordinary citizen"] did want quite unhesitatingly to enter this space. & to also examine the adamant dismay and construing of this response of the MC by many of ‘us’ as necessarily rather naive, self serving and opportunistic. I think the older explanations just cannot seem to explain these shifts. The politics now will be how this moment will be get ‘interpreted’ [mostly by the dominant media, but hopefully by the left too] and be made the new ‘common sense’.

  22. August 29, 2011 9:23 AM

    For the vast majorities who face the glare of documents, of the demand for transparency, of the imperative to come clean and be visible – corruption offers an occasional patch of friendly shade. Corruption, at least as a certain looseness with the law and with the regulatory power of the legal apparatus, is what keeps this society humane at its deeper, darker recesses

    Ah, the joys of ‘small corruption’! That great lubricant that keeps the racks and pinions and spindles and capstains of the government machinery running! Demands for transparency? You talkin’ about the Indian bureaucracy?

    Let’s take a look at the practitioners of ‘small corruption’ and the ones at the receiving end. The municipal official and the street vendor. The former is ensured of an inflation adjusted, regular paycheck till doomsday. He can retire at 55 or 58 and spend the last third of his life as an extended holiday at the expense of the latter (or people like him). The street vendor has no steady income and is at the mercy of the capricious weather gods, the germ gods and a lot of other gods. He can’t think about retirement, has to work till the day he drops dead. For all his efforts, he has to permanently live at a far lower standard than the former. The parasitic class (the bureaucracy) never thinks for a moment that their paycheck is the fruits of the productive class’s (just about everybody else who do not depend on the sarkar for their bread n’ butter) labour.

    Let’s also run some numbers, though the intellectual class is allergic to numbers. Here is a quote from the Indian Express: An annual survey done by Transparency International India in collaboration with ORG Marg claimed that Indians spend around Rs 7,578 crore on bribes in health sector — people giving money to public servants for service — which meant that around 8.1 crore people in the country were affected with this menace. The fruits of small corruption, that great lubricant of the sarkari machinery. How big should it get to qualify as ‘small corruption’? Another quote from the same story: Indians spend a whopping Rs 26,728 crore annually on paying bribes with the health sector being one of the most corrupt fields, said a survey. That’s the price we pay to keep ‘this society humane at its deeper, darker recesses’!

    There is a reason why the small corruption story gets so much traction among the Leftist intellectuals. Ardent ‘statolators’, these guys can’t stand taking the sarkar to the cleaners beyond a point. ‘Small corruption’ is an ingenious device to get around that difficulty. It’s easier with ‘big corruption’ – it’s all the fault of those corporate guys in Armani suites who lure the poor sarkari chaps with their bags (or suitcases) of money.

    Of the 3 cases referred to by the author, one should add another – taxation. Why is taxation, the leeching of the productive class to feed the parasitic class, not corruption? Oh, taxation is only for the rich, to feed the poor, I forgot :)

    The hubris and pomposity of the ‘intellectual class’ who talk about the poor people 24×7 is nauseating, to say the least.

  23. August 29, 2011 10:41 AM

    Shuddhabrata,

    One of the more balanced articles I have seen from the leftists, but probably three times longer than necessary. In my opinion, behind every act of injustice there is some corruption. From that perspective, this movement is good; it will most certainly not eliminate corruption from India but it has certainly woken up the common man to raise his or her voice against corruption. Whether it is retail corruption or wholesale corruption at the highest levels, it affects people. The effects of high level corruption are very pernicious – millions of lives are ruined or left unfulfilled. Lack of education, healthcare and infrastructure has rendered many people helpless. So some measure of control over that corruption would be good I think.

    That the runaway capitalism, as practiced in the US, is destroying lives too is apparent to even casual observers. But this state affairs could not have been reached without collusion by the ruling class and their corruption by the wealthy. Even this corruption needs to be contained. It can only be done by mass movements – the common man in the United States is as much hobbled by the establishment as he is in India or China. Whether it is Tahrir square or Anna Hazare’s movement, these are the initial rumblings of a population that is fed up of the status quo. Representative democracy has run its course and the tide is turning against it. It is now time for a participatory democracy. Representative democracy in all its forms (presidential, parliamentary, hybrid) has concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few as much as the earlier less egalitarian forms of governance did. Participatory democracy means a common man has a much bigger say in the governance of a society. Someone called Harazare’s movement as legislation by the mob. I will prefer that any day to the present rule by the scoundrels.

  24. jtd permalink
    August 30, 2011 1:25 AM

    We are getting ahead of ourselves here. No doubt that the power of the state is itself a manifestation of corruption, clearly visible as unmarked graves or dog tags that decide who gets some crumbs in exchange for a vigorous wag of the tail. However one has to begin the fight as a whittling away of state power, rather than a direct challenge – maoist style -, or indirectly via our electoral system, that aims to sweep everything in exchange for more of the same “utopia”. This is hopefully only a beginning and many many more such battles, probably forever will have to be fought as one replaces the other in a never ending circle. there are no permanent victors or losers, or righteous or wronged.

  25. Reader permalink
    August 30, 2011 8:32 PM

    Dear Suddha,
    While I am a great fan of your writing, I must admit, that somewhere along the way, I got lost. You have some great points to make, but I didn’t finish reading your post. A blog post is different from a learned essay, and has its own conventions and expectations. All I am saying is that should it have been split up into multiple posts, it would have been easier to make sense of, as you are saying a lot of things in great detail.

    • Reader permalink
      August 30, 2011 8:37 PM

      I did finish though :)

  26. Manash permalink
    August 31, 2011 1:42 PM

    Lo! Ends thy dreaded Fast, Chaos is restored;
    Intellect dies before thy uncreative Bill:
    Thy farce, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
    And universal corruption buries all.

    – with apologies to Alexander Pope

  27. Nitesh permalink
    August 31, 2011 3:43 PM

    Very nicely article.. Could not understand a lot of it due to my poor english. Please excuse. But kind of understood some points. Liked the comments even more. Mr. author, you must have also liked it because you mention that we need to have many ideas and paths. Limited in my knowledge as I am, I want to add something on objectives of movement that I will support (it could be a left movement or right movement or centre movement :): My objective is to build a society where
    1. People work together for making a better society without selfish profit motives.
    2. Everyone gets equal reward from the value we create as a society, be a sweeper or a great scientist, or a big leader
    3. There is no discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, regional affiliation or access to power
    4. There is respect for different beliefs and people have the right to oppose the system.
    5. As a society we can take care of weaker sections (example, those who are ill, are aged)
    6. There is complete peace and law and order; for example, where a father does not worry if her daughter chooses to walk to her friend’s place at 2 in the night

  28. Geeta Menon----Stree Jagruti Samiti,Domestic workers rights union permalink
    September 2, 2011 12:58 PM

    Salaams from this activist of many years,on womens issues,as also one who has had serious interface with the left thinking,or static thinking i must say….My humble thoughts acknowledge Shuddhabratas reasoning and outline of the contradictions of a movement like Annas team,in these authoritarian capitalist times….The participation of such huge numbers of the middle,liberal class ,with its control over technology and the media,at its best,brought out the fact that once this class,sees any issue as its own,it leaves no holds barred,puts all its resources,into the movement…It will not do the same when it comes to fighting the fundamental issues affecting the class it is against—-the working class.Also from the outlook of caste,this class that does mental work looks down on those who work with the hands!I go along with much of your arguments,and i also see that this movement had to happen,Team anna struck a chord for people to vent out their innumerable frustrations,but as some people were heard saying,this mobilisation is somewhere missing its strength,in the long run,as the movement was for and about a bill,rather than against working corruption…As u also rightly said corruption and the moral facet of it is not the same for the huge landowners and the squatters..And as is our daily experience with the workers,unorg. sector,for them paying a bribe is imp,to getting their survival needs met.As long as the state machinery remains the same within the capitalist framework,satisfying the most dominant,powerful political elite,the hierarchy of corruption,will continue.And also as long as jati society remains,the un it within which we function,corruption will continue,satisfying the needs of kith and kin….
    We in the left have to forget our cynicism,and not think that we alone have a hegemony over political mobilisation..Let us learn fro the different needs arising,and innovative ways of mobilisation…A point i was continously thinking is that the fight against corruption is hollow,if we do interlink the fight for our basic rights with it..As long as people lose their rights over land,over survival itself,as long as resources are in the control of the powerful political class and caste,as long as there is huge,unequal divide,the scope for corruption to healthily survive continues…..
    The single point introduction of a strong,all powerful Bill,strong lobbying against the Congress(inept),strong backing by the BJP,are they all signals,hopes towards the build up of a Fascist government——one nation,one party,one authority one strong centralised body one agenda?????

  29. September 4, 2011 12:44 AM

    Building a Just-India, together
    By Tulsi Tawari
    Gake@rediffmail.com

    Shuddhabrata Sengupta in his article has brilliantly raised valid questions on “what and how of a just-society” and “what is corruption”. I feel, what he is asking is the ‘task’ ahead, in relay-race of Nation-building.

    I feel, Anna and his team, have brought the baton to a point where, the “Power-of-One” has convincingly won against the might of an ‘all-powerful organization, i.e. government-system’ having ability to suppress anone or confuse any truth, without a trace. While communication through 24×7 TV reached homes, individuals sitting at home could not have felt inspired without the ‘moral-force’ that Anna exhibits in the minds of people. They deserve greatest respect for this herculean achievement, when most Indians had lost hopes for a corruption-free India. The rise of aspiration across the nation is ‘self-driven’ by individuals, on their own volition. This rise is real. The fact that, it is not just about Lokpal, rather of ‘a new beginning of hope’ that India can be a better country and that ‘an individual with purity for common good in his heart’ does matter; is yet to dawn upon many cynics, whether in political system or intelligentsia. Masses have already declared their ‘clear-intent’.

    Where this ‘rise-of-masses’ can take us, depends upon our collective vision. I feel there is no limit, if we dare to think all the way, timely and rightly. Now, society’s collective
    vision requires its analytic-minds to think clearly, independently and yet be prepared to work together as “one TEAM”, with intent not to prove anyone right or wrong, rather to achieve ‘what is right for all’. This, I think, is our greatest challenge, as we Indians are famously known for our egos, and not being able to work together as one-team. No one has to sacrifice independence (rather, we need to safeguard independent thinking), yet come together for a larger good, that we all want… ‘a just and civilized society in truest sense, where every child can aspire to excel at one’s best’.

    Definition of corruption, to begin with, has to be correctly stated. The term ‘corruption’
    cannot be restricted simply to general terms as ‘bribe’ or ‘black-money’, in isolation of
    associated purpose there-in. If the roots of a tree represent corruption, leaves are
    naturally meant to be corrupt. In other words, if you continue to add ‘garbage in Gangotri’, Ganga can never be cleaned in Bengal’. Such is the scenario in India, where corruption exists, broadly of two types: (a) Primary corruption- by decision making, policymaking bodies, i.e. elected members of parliament and assemblies, with support from administration and in nexus with corrupt business people, brokers, corrupt NGOs through benefitting privileged few at the cost of the rest (b) Secondary corruption- where people at large are involved in effort to make a living and attempting to seek personal-growth. If policies of a nation create artificial shortages, high prices for basic needs, lack of opportunities for all; people would naturally try to evade taxes on hard-earned income or buy cheaper products (which have bypassed excise duties, sales taxes, octroi duties, etc). Imagine, what % of population can afford to eat ‘dal’ and ‘vegetables’, at today’s prices. How many of youth can buy a proper home or an office in cities like Mumbai or Delhi, through their honest-income, unless parents’ owning a house? These questions require closer scrutiny, before equating ‘secondary’ and ‘primary’ as same, while defining corruption.

    Ideally speaking, a society that wishes to take pride of honesty, should be devoid of all
    forms of corruption, whether primary or secondary. But let us understand realities of what
    exists, how we got here, and then find ways as to how we can reach to a better and just-India, step-by-step. The reality is while beneficiaries of primary corruption may not be more than 5% people, the secondary-corruption engulfs most of all, may be 90% or more. There are rare souls, idealists in purest forms, who strive and manage without compromising even a bit. They are constant source of hope and inspiration for the rest of us mortals. For instance, what does a hawker do other than illegally selling things from his ‘thela’ from home to home; or how do you blame house-wives trying to make a living through selling things like sarees, etc.from home, avoiding all forms of taxes and duties… and thus able to seek a few customers away from bigger shops in markets/malls; or a small entrepreneur do when he loses money in his initial ventures and not gain any benefits for having tried or creating employment. Are they corrupt too?

    I think, it’s time to recall the famous statement made in 1985 by the then PM Rajiv Gandhi in Mumbai, that out of One rupee of Government funds only 10-15 paise reach to public. This is what primary-corruption is all about. No wonder most of public-works remain in hopeless conditions, depriving society of what they should have. Mumbai’s roads-with-potholes, at every step, is perhaps the best symbol of ‘Institutional-collapse in India’, natural corollary of ‘Primary-corruption’.

    So, those who may feel guilty of secondary corruption, and feel what right they have to fight the menace of corruption… to them I just like to say… as long as you are not cheating anyone, and are doing full-justice with your work and profession for wellbeing of all, shed your guilt, and ask your own conscience whether you feel corrupt. If not, while you find ways to cleanse self-from-within, do not hesitate a bit… to raise your voice against corruption in full throttle. This can be applicable to even those who are part of parliament and administration. Let us understand very clearly… when primary-corruption (roots) is ‘decisively eliminated’, secondary-corruption (leaves) would cease to happen to large extent.

    It is time, those who desire to build a just-society that empowers each citizen, with
    abundance of opportunities, to network and firstly, “think-together”, without any branding
    like communism or socialism or capitalism etc… about ‘Right-solution through right Policy-
    making’ . We need to learn to connect with right-chemistry; the way seven colors come
    together to make white, yet be able to retain individual identity when passed through a prism. Let us take our own batons from Anna… and march ahead … with…
    a Just-India, in the making!

    warm regards,

Trackbacks

  1. In the Ruins of Political Society – A Response to Partha Chatterjee « Kafila
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  5. In the Ruins of Political Society – A Response to Partha Chatterjee – Aditya Nigam | LSR Political Science
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