Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2017

Irada

Filed under: Ecology,Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

I have been a fan of Bollywood movies for many years. Since they are geared to ordinary people rather than international film festivals, there is a premium on story-telling and a disdain for the irony that has become so dominant in Hollywood films. This is not to speak of the song and dance routines that punctuate the films, which for me are far more enjoyable than anything in “La La Land.”

If you are a fan of Bollywood films like me or if you’d like to sample one of the more interesting examples, I recommend “Irada” that opened today at the AMC Empire 25 theater in NY. This is a detective story named that pits its hero Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), who is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Lieutenant Columbo, against a powerful chemical company boss named Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar). Like probably most chemical companies in India, his is dumping carcinogenic waste products into the groundwater of Bathinda, a Punjabi city.

When Sharma’s massive industrial complex is blown to bits in an apparent act of sabotage, Mishra is called in to investigate. He is summoned to the office of Chief Minister Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta), where she tells him to wrap up the case as quickly as possible. She is anxious for him to not look too closely into the company’s dealings for fear that he will discover that she is helping to cover up Sharma’s toxic waste dumping that has turned Bathinda into a virtual cancer epidemic.

The Chief Minister and just about everybody else in a position of power is beholden to him in the same way that Louisiana elected officials are in the pocket of BP and other polluters. If the idea of the BRICS countries is to catch up with the West, you wonder why such a prospect ever became embraced by part of the left. With people like Narendra Modi functioning as India’s Bobby Jindal, the Indo-American governor of Louisiana, perhaps there is a different model worth embracing.

Inspector Mitra hooks up with two allies in his lonely search to find out the truth. He is aided by the widow of an investigative journalist who was murdered by Sharma’s goons and the father of a seemingly healthy and athletic young woman who developed Stage Four lung cancer after swimming daily in a Bathinda river.

Unlike most Hollywood detective movies that rely on brute force, Mitra is much more old-school. In a way, the film is a throwback to the days of Dashiell Hammett with most scenes involving the sympathetic characters trying to figure things out rather than car chases or shootouts.

I imagine that the film hit a responsive chord in India, especially in Punjab. The film, despite its Bollywood aesthetic including two songs, is not escapist. Just consider what a Punjab newspaper reported in 2013:

The Tribune, October 14, 2013
Govt sleeps as toxic waste poisons water in Punjab
Umesh Dewan/TNS

Notwithstanding claims of the Punjab Government and the state Pollution Control Board (PPCB) that emphasis is being laid on ensuring clean and green environment in the state, the practice of discharging domestic waste and untreated industrial effluents into drains, rivulets and water channels continues unabated in Jalandhar and Kapurthala.

The worst affected is the Kala Sanghian Drain, which originates from Bullandpur village in Jalandhar and goes to Chiti Bein, which finally connects with the Sutlej.

In Kapurthala, untreated sewage waste is polluting Kali Bein. Same is the fate of Wadala Drain. It merges with Kali Bein, which finally falls into the Beas. Pollution of drains and rivulets has also started affecting groundwater. This has started affecting he health of people in many parts of Jalandhar and Kapurthala.

Apart from skin diseases, a number of cancer deaths have also been reported in many villages of Jalandhar. Intake of polluted water is said to be the main cause behind rising number of cancer cases in these areas. Though, the PPCB has tightened the noose around the tanneries at the Leather Complex and electroplating units in Jalandhar, the violation of anti-pollution norms continues.

The problem

Out of about 200 electroplating units in Jalandhar, many do not have effluent treatment plants (ETPs). The result: Toxic chrome effluents are discharged into Kala Sanghian Drain.

It is being claimed that electroplating units send effluents to the Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) at Ludhiana for treatment, but there are reports that many units continue to discharge untreated effluents into Kala Sanghian Drain. There are about 60 tanneries in Leather Complex.

Kapurthala has a sewage treatment plant (STP) with total capacity of treating 25 million litre discharge per day (MLD). Since the plant is not properly functional, the discharge of untreated domestic waste into Kali Bein goes on. Untreated domestic waste of some areas also finds its way into Wadala Drain. Lakhs of fish were found dead in Kali Bein at Sultanpur Lodhi in April this year.

The promises

Sewage treatment plants (STPs) were to be set up in Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur. Industrial units had to send effluents to the CETP, Ludhiana, or had to install their own ETPs. On February 28, 2008, it was announced that Kala Sanghian Drain would be made pollution-free within one month, but there has not been much improvement five years down the line.

On May 18, 2011, some Rajasthan residents came to Jalandhar to lodge a protest with the administration saying the 45-km Kala Sanghian Drain was polluting the Sutlej and ultimately the Indira canal that carried water to several districts of Rajasthan.

The reality

The Punjab Effluent Treatment Society (PETS) has set up a 5 MLD CETP at Leather Complex for the treatment of toxic waste, while the old CETP (1.5 MLD) is non-functional. The installed capacity of tanneries at leather complex is about 8.8 MLD.

PPCB Senior Environmental Engineer SP Garg said the PETS had initiated the process to re-commission the old CETP at the Leather Complex. “The capacity of the new CETP is being increased from 5 MLD to 6 MLD. We are hopeful that work will be completed by October 31,” said PETS Secretary-cum-Director Ajay Sharma.

Garg said board officials kept conducting surprise checks on tanneries and action was initiated whenever any violation was noticed. Kapurthala MC Executive Officer and President had been prosecuted for not been able to ensure that the STP operated properly and achieved desired standards, he added.

Jalandhar needs to have STPs with a combined capacity of 235 MLD. At present, two STPs (100 MLD and 25 MLD capacity) are functional at Pholriwal. A 50 MLD STP is coming up Opposite the Leather Complex, whereas two STPs of 25 MLD and 10 MLD capacity are being set up along the Hoshiarpur Road and the GT Road in Jalandhar. Phagwara has an STP of 20 MLD capacity, while two other STPs of 8 MLD capacity each are being set up. In Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur, 6 MLD and 30 MLD STPs are coming up. The deadline for the commissioning of all STPs is March 31, 2014.

Health hazard

Consumption of polluted groundwater has left a large number of people suffering from various diseases, including cancer. Gazipur, Allowal, Badshapur, Mehmuwal Mahla, Kohar Kalan, Athola, Mandala Chana, Gidderpindi, Bahmania, Madala, Isewal and Namajepur villages in Jalandhar district are the worst-hit. Bulerkhanpur, Sidhpur, Sunra, Chaka, Ahmedpur and Mallu villages are among the worst-affected in Kapurthala.

Tumour and cancer cases, besides stomach, eye, skin and respiration problems are common among residents of Jalandhar villages that fall in the vicinity of Kala Sanghian Drain.

Jarnail Singh of Badshapur village said: “There had been eight cancer deaths in the village. Residents of other villagers are also suffering from various ailments. The state government has completely failed to check pollution of groundwater.” Inhabitants of many other villages also claimed that the people were suffering due to consumption of polluted water.

Seechewal’s take

According to environmentalist Seechewal, the discharge of Kala Sanghian Drain goes down to Chitti Bein, then to the Sutlej and finally to Harike headworks, from where drinking water is supplied to the Malwa region. Polluted water poses a serious risk not only to the aquatic life, but also to humans.

Till all STPs were in place, the Jalandhar Municipal Corporation should make arrangements to segregate silt from untreated waste at different points, so that less polluted water was discharged into the drains, he said. “An STP has been set up in Kapurthala at a cost of Rs 12 crore, but it is non-functional. The entire domestic waste goes into Kali Bein, which is really unfortunate,” he added.

(To be continued)

The sorry state of rivers

CHANDIGARH: Punjab ranks 23rd among states and UTs in environment performance index benchmarked by the Planning Commission in its 2012 report. The poor ranking is in sharp contrast with the commitment made by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal in October, 2010 that all state rivers will be cleaned by November 30, 2011. The Shiromani Akali Dal manifesto for the last Assembly polls promised “clean air, water, sky and land (saf paun, pani dharti and akash)”. It had also spelled out a 5-point programme. Nothing has changed: The Sutlej continues to be a major victim, the Ghaggar is a repository of chemical waste, as toxins are dunked into the subsoil water at various places. The result is stark: most rivers and choes remain polluted. Government sources cite the lack of funds for handling pollution. For instance, they say, the state government identified 45 towns and cities from where untreated effluents flow into either rivers or nearby choes. Safely created dumps would have taken care of solid waste. But the government doesn’t have funds to set up treatment plants. –TNS

December 10, 2016

Hidden Figures; The Man Who Knew Infinity

Filed under: african-american,Film,india,racism,science — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

When two screeners submitted to NYFCO members for consideration as best film of 2016 happen to deal with racism against people of color who are gifted mathematicians if not outright geniuses, your first reaction might be to consider it a coincidence. But upon further reflection, despite all of the gloom about the election of Donald Trump, the film industry still sees such stories as eminently marketable rather than Rambo retreads. Not only are the films marketable, they are first rate.

“Hidden Figures”, which opens everywhere on January 6th, 2017, tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and who had to deal with both racial oppression and sexism. Of the three, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) receives most of the attention. Now 98, she calculated the launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission. As the daughter of a lumberjack in segregated West Virginia, she had many obstacles to overcome. Although I have little use for President Obama, I thought he exercised good judgement when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

While its venue was in art houses last April, where features generally make a fleeting appearance unlike the Multiplexes that will screen “Hidden Figures”, my readers will certainly want to take advantage of “The Man Who Knew Infinity” now on Amazon streaming. This is the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by “Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel), who grew up poor in Madras, India and demonstrated a mastery of mathematics from an early age. Working as a lowly clerk after the fashion of Bob Cratchit, his supervisor was struck by a notebook of formulas he kept, so much so that he encouraged him to send letters with a sample of his work to universities in England. After Cambridge don G. H. Hardy (played to perfection by Jeremy Irons) reads the material, he invites Ramanujan to come to Trinity College and fulfill his dreams. Like NASA, however, the institution is racist to the core and almost crushes Ramanujan into the dust.

While both films have most of the well-trod inspirational elements you would associate with such tales, they rise above the genre and soar. This is mostly a function of their faithfulness to the historical context, informed to a large extent by the well-researched books they are based on. Written this year, Margot Lee Shatterly’s “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” was sparked by conversations she had with her father, who was an African-American research scientist at the NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia where the women in “Hidden Figures” worked. As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, the source material was a book of the same name written in 1991 by Robert Kanigel, who worked as an engineer before becoming a free-lance writer in 1970. In 1999, he became professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he helped start its Graduate Program in Science Writing, which he directed for seven years. So clearly, we are dealing with authors who are very much wedded to the stories they write about.

In addition to Katherine Johnson, the other two Black women facing discrimination at NASA are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Vaughan was the supervisor of the West Area Computers section at NASA that despite the name consisted of African-American women whose job it was to do tedious calculations and check the mathematics of other employees, almost like fact checkers at the New Yorker Magazine. Known as “computers”, they had to be much more rigorous than those working for a magazine since the lives of astronauts depended on it. The West Area was segregated from the main buildings at in Hampton—separate and unequal. The women could not even use the bathrooms on the main campus or even the water fountains. When Katherine Johnson ended up working with the white scientists, she had to walk a quarter-mile to return to the West Area to go to the bathroom. When Mary Jackson decided to become an engineer to get away from the drudge work of being a human computer, she found out that no college in Virginia would accept a Black person. Undaunted, she took a night class in a high school after winning a legal case to gain such a right.

In some ways, the film will remind you of “The Imitation Game”, which was also about a crash program run by mathematicians and engineers. But unlike “The Imitation Game”, “Hidden Figures” is much more of a human drama since there is a daily battle by the women to be recognized as equals to whites and to men. In the most stirring scene in the film, Katherine Johnson explains to her boss (played capably by Kevin Costner) that she disappears a couple of times a day from her desk in order to go to the bathroom in a segregated area. Appalled by the waste of time and the disrespect to a fellow worker, he goes around NASA and tears down all the signs indicating facilities for the “colored”.

As another coincidence, the film climaxes with the successful orbital flight of John Glenn (Glen Powell) in 1962. Glenn died two days ago at the age of 95. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate his orbit around Earth, Johnson was called upon to verify the numbers because Glenn refused to fly unless Katherine verified them first.

When Ramanujan arrives at Trinity College, he is met by racism from every quarter. Even his champion G.H. Hardy mixes well-intended paternalism with jibes about sending him back to India if he doesn’t make the grade.

In many ways, Hardy is a more interesting character than Ramanujan because he is constantly being forced to reckon with the disjunction between his prejudices and the reality of the young man in front of him who he finally acknowledges as the Mozart of mathematics—a man who could penetrate to the heart of a math puzzle and solve it as easily as Mozart could write a sonata.

In one scene, Ramanujan is sitting in a lecture that Hardy has pressured him to attend in order to compensate for ostensible deficiencies in his autodidactic training. When a professor asks him why he is not taking notes, he replies that it is not necessary since he understands the material on the blackboard completely. Not believing him, the professor goads him into explaining what the formulas on the blackboard are about. Nonplussed, Ramanujan arises from his seat, goes to the blackboard and provides a sophisticated solution to the problems being posed by the professor. This does not result in congratulations but instead being thrown out of class for his perceived arrogance. Apparently he doesn’t know his place.

Unlike nearly every film I have seen about scientific matters or chess, this is one that makes very clear what made Ramanujan such a genius. He was the first to crack the “partition” problem that the film elucidates.

Take the number four. There are four ways to calculate the number of paths to that number using simple mathematics:

  1. 1+1+1+1
  2. 2+2
  3. 2+1+1
  4. 3+1
  5. 4+0

But what if the number was 3,789,422 instead? Was there any way to use a formula to arrive at the number of ‘partitions’ and bypass manual calculations? This is a problem that has vexed mathematicians forever until Ramanujan solved it. I have no idea what the practical application of such a formula would be but Ramanujan, unlike most men at Trinity College including Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) who were atheists, was deeply religious and once told Hardy that god gave him the insights to solve such problems. For him, solving math problems and praying complemented each other.

The Wikipedia entry on Ramanujan, who died of TB at the age of 32, is most informative:

During his short life, Ramanujan independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations). Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct. His original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime and the Ramanujan theta function, have inspired a vast amount of further research. The Ramanujan Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was established to publish work in all areas of mathematics influenced by Ramanujan.

Deeply religious, Ramanujan credited his substantial mathematical capacities to divinity: “An equation for me has no meaning,” he once said, “unless it expresses a thought of God.”

After seeing both of these films, I could not help but be reminded of one of the main reasons I became a socialist in 1967. When it is such a battle for the women of “Hidden Figures” or Ramanujan to rise to the top, think of all those who were not fortunate to be given a chance. What a waste of humanity when class divisions require a mass of workers to be treated little better than a horse or any other beast of burden. I put it this way in my review of a documentary about Ousmane Sembene, the brilliant Senegalese film director who was thrown out of grade school for assaulting an abusive teacher:

I became a socialist in the 1960s largely on the belief that capitalism held back civilization by preventing a large majority of the world’s population from reaching its maximum potential. If the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America could enjoy the same benefits of those in rich countries, especially a top-notch education and the leisure time to develop innate talents, that could enhance the possibility of a great artist like Picasso or the scientist who could find a cure for cancer emerging out of formerly neglected regions.

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

June 17, 2016

Parched

Filed under: feminism,Film,india — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Opening today at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the Laemmle in LA, “Parched” is a militantly feminist Indian movie that has elements of “Thelma and Louise” and women’s prison genre films like the 1950 “Caged” except that the prison in this instance is a poor and isolated village on a dusty plain where men treat women like slaves. The Gospel of St. John refers to the word being made flesh. “Parched” essentially makes flesh the words of Frederick Engels in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”:

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.

In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.

Director Leena Yadav’s characters are the lynchpins of a melodrama but they are also representative of how women are victimized in a brutally sexist society either in the village depicted in “Parched”—a woman’s prison without bars—or India’s biggest cities where gang rape is a common occurrence.

With one exception, the men in “Parched” are monsters that defy conventional film-making strictures calling for complex characters even when villains. That being said, the women are deeply flawed themselves—a result of conforming to ancient customs such as arranged marriages in which the bride is often 14 years old as was the case with Rani, the film’s main character now a 32-year old widow. She is seen in the beginning of the film on her way to a nearby village with her close friend Lajjo to pick up a 15-year old girl named Janaki who was effectively “bought” for her loutish son Gulab through a dowry secured by a loan. Once the “bounty” is returned to her household, a hut really, she is expected to serve her son sexually and herself as a domestic servant.

The cash nexus defines relations between the sexes in this film as surely as it does define broader social relations in the Marxist-informed Italian neorealist classics of the 1950s.

Lajjo is married to a man who beats and controls her in the same manner as mass murderer Omar Mateen treated his first wife. She is slapped and even punched for any and every offense, with the most damaging blows a frequent punishment for her infertility.

Rounding out the trio of flawed heroines is Bijli, who dances at a local tent show in a nearby town in the fashion of “hoochie coochie dancers” at county fairs in the 1950s. Men crowd into the tent to watch her perform a Bollywood version of a pole dance, kept more chaste than Western versions. Afterwards they can pay for sex with her, where the chastity is dispensed with entirely. At the age of 35, her value as an exotic dancer and prostitute is beginning to fade but she refuses to take crap from any man including her pimp. The message here is obviously that a modicum of independence is only possible when the cash nexus governs sex. Or to paraphrase A.J. Liebling, freedom of the vagina belongs to those who own it.

The only decent man in these parts is Kishan, the owner of a handicrafts shop that employs Rani and Lajjo in piece-work done in their homes just as was the case in the earliest days of capitalism. He is married to an educated woman named who comes to the aid of a young woman who has fled a deeply oppressive marriage that was also arranged in the same fashion as Janaki’s. She cries out in the village courtyard surrounded by elders determined to return her to her proper “owners” that her husband never makes love to her and that she is simply passed around to different men as a piece of flesh to be exploited sexually, including her father-in-law. For the villagers, Kishan and his wife are outsiders who will taint their culture through their belief in the rights of women, including the right to be educated.

Some Marxist scholars view these words found in the Communist Manifesto to be widely misunderstood:

The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.

For example, Hal Draper argued that a more appropriate English version of Marx and Engel’s words would be “the isolation of rural life”. Whatever the case may be, idiocy and isolation both apply to the social relations found in “Parched”. People are trapped into paternalistic and self-destructive patterns that victimize women primarily but also harm men. Rani’s son Gulab resisted the idea of an arranged marriage but was forced into it because the heavy weight of tradition acted upon his mother and made his own resistance impossible. His only satisfaction is in getting drunk and paying for sex with Bijli.

It is worth quoting the comments of director Leena Yadav in the press notes at some length:

The Inspiration behind ‘Parched’

In the winter of 2012, I went searching for stories in the parched dessert of Kutch, Gujarat. This is a remote stretch of scenic land in North—West India, home to 2 million people living in small clusters and villages, governed by ancient patriarchal “norms” decreed by the village council, that is largely made up of men. The landscape of Kutch called out to me, with it’s barren cracked earth and brightly dressed women.

The Women of ‘Parched’

In one village I met a woman called Rani. She invited us into her hut, cooked lunch for us and shared her story. She had been widowed at age fifteen. Already a mother by then, Rani has since then dedicated her life to bringing up her children. Her story was real, even funny at times. The decisive moment for me as a storyteller was when Rani held my hand and said, “I haven’t been touched in 17 years. I have buried all my own needs so I can do the right thing for my children.” Her words shocked and moved me. What is ‘right’? Is it ‘right’ to order a child of fifteen to spend the rest of her life wearing black and single—handedly raise kids born from a child—marriage that was enforced upon her? Why was the right to color and/or human touch taken away from her? Who decided these societal ‘norms’ and why did Rani accept them?

Another day, a young lady sat with us giggling and chatting, like she had not a care in the world. Her face and arms were speckled with bruises. When I got up the nerve to ask her if she’s alright, she shrugged it off. “He works hard and gets frustrated sometimes. Who else will he take out his anger on? This is my life…lets talk about something else.” She smiled brightly into my face. That smile inspired me to write the character of LAJJO

I met hardworking women who cooked, cleaned, raised children alone, did back— breaking farming work by day and earned extra money from making handicrafts— delicate embroidery designs that are stitched by hand, and eventually sold in cities at high price— by the lamplight at night. These women are brainwashed to believe that their contribution is zero and it is the men who are the real providers. “Poor thing, he works hard all day and comes back tired at night, so its alright if he enjoys with a drink,” the women would say of their drunk husbands, many of whom are seasonal truckers.

The Stories of ‘Parched’ are Universal

It started when I first sent the script of ‘Parched’ to a handful of friends living in different parts of the world. Each reader (male or female) inadvertently sent back a long impassioned email, venting their own story, or sharing a story of someone close to them, that ran parallel to the stories of these women in remote Kutch. I received deeply moving and personal stories from Delhi and Mumbai, London, New York and Turkey. This trend has continued through the making, completion and now the release of the film. Almost every person who watches ‘Parched’, identifies it to an aspect of their own life, or that of someone they know.

It is clearly to me that the experience of watching ‘Parched’ touches a raw nerve and starts a dialogue the world desperately wants to have.

 

March 26, 2016

The “We Can” Moment in Vijayawada, South India

Filed under: india,racism,repression,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

A guest post by Vijaya Kumar Marla

 Picture1

 Kanhaiya Kumar, President of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union. 

Usually any charged atmosphere with a large number of people can metamorphose in to a frenzy and mob violence. But in Vijayawada (capital city of the state of Andhra Pradesh), on the evening of 24th March 2016, a large number of people had gathered in anticipation of hearing Kanhaiya Kumar, the rage among youth and students of this country. His posters are on display everywhere, as we reached the city from the airport.

I was accompanying him on his trip from Hyderabad to Vijayawada. When he got down from the airport bus at the arrival lounge, the appreciative glances of the policemen deployed there towards Kanhaiya could not escape my attention. Is this the same Kanhaiya Kumar who had recounted his tête-à-tête with police while he was in Delhi’s Tihar Jail on trumped-up charges of shouting anti-India slogans in his university, in his now famous address at JNU on 3rd March? I think that conversation of Kanhaiya with a constable in the jail and the way he recounted it has an impact on policemen all over the country. After all, day-in and day-out we often come across politicians blaming police for brutality and atrocities, which are not entirely without substance. But an incisive analysis and comment by a young man just released from jail, saying that the police are also ordinary human beings like us and that they are helpless in many aspects when they had to practice their profession under heavy stress and the mention of their meager wages has had an impact on the police. Lo, here is a young man, charged with sedition and beaten up by goons in the presence of full police force and being hounded in the social media and the net, and now being accompanied by police escorts as if he is a top law maker, all the way from airport to his meeting place.

I have not seen so much love and hatred being displayed against one man in the Internet. The venomous hatred appears to be mostly manufactured in the IT office of the Hindutva (Rightist Hindu) brigade. There are no limits on indecency and anyone who objects to the foul language on display is immediately targeted. Sometimes, I wonder, all this spewing of venom and attacking everyone will not work against the Hindutva brigade? What about all the laws about decency on the net? Or do they not apply to the net-storm troopers of the ruling party? On our way to the meeting hall, we found hundreds of people lining up with garlands at many places to greet this young man. He had to stop at a few places to greet them and receive the flowers. TV cameras were hounding us throughout our journey, even as we signaled to them that Kanhaiya is not in our car. As we neared the meeting place, it was a thorough chaos. The whole traffic in the area is jammed with vehicles and we had to make our way by foot, snaking through bikes and parked cars. We heard a commotion, with two not so young men, in saffron scarves, being pushed out of the meeting hall.

By that time, Kanhaiya was safely escorted inside by a big team of red shirted volunteers. I have seen thousands of young people wearing white T-shirts with pictures of Rohit Vemula and Kanhaiya. The police were trying to halt the Leftist youth from charging on to the two BJP youth wing men, who tried to raise anti-Kanhaiya slogans. An obviously working class woman in her forties was seen shouting at the BJP men and urging the Leftist students to trash them. That was the general mood outside the hall. And such scenes are not uncommon in a politically active city of Vijayawada. As we were ushered in to the hall on the first floor, we found the huge hall jam-packed with students wearing Rohit-Kanhaiya T-shirts and redshirts. From the badges they were wearing, I could gather that they belong to various student organizations, AISF (CPI), SFI (CPIM), PDSU (CPI-ML) and a sprinkling of NSUI (Congress). There were many elderly and middle aged people, obviously from Leftist parties. The National Secretary of CPI, Dr. K. Narayana was seen standing near the wall.

I was seated near-by where he was standing and I had seen people offering him their seat. He politely refused and I had seen A.P State Secretaries of CPI and CPM sitting in the audience, as mere spectators. Then there was commotion again, as a lone BJP youth tried to shout some slogans, but he was quickly overpowered and I have seen him losing his shirt in the mêlée. He was picked up by the police and taken away. I have seen the large hall completely jam-packed, with almost half the people standing along the walls, as there were no seats. With soany thousands of people inside, he hall was hot and stuffy, with the mercury touching 43°C (110°F) outside. I am recounting this as a spectator to the event. The press had given undue coverage to the BJP youth who tried to shout slogans unsuccessfully. This sort of a political friction is not unusual at many places in India. Kanhaiya Kumar was the main speaker and as he was invited to speak, he asked whether he should speak in Hindi or English. The audience chose Hindi, which was surprising.

But from the response he got, I understood that Hindi films had their effect on the people of Vijayawada, where only Telugu is spoken, unlike in Hyderabad. He started with the attack on universities by the BJP government and charged that the upper class mindset could not tolerate poor students from backward regions and lower castes entering the portals of the hallowed institutions such as JNU and HCU and learning to question the prevalent inequalities and social discrimination. “Besides our subjects, we also learn and discuss issues that affect our lives and I believe this is a part of our process of enlightenment. We don’t want to go to the streets shouting slogans. Given a peaceful atmosphere, we would like to spend our time in class rooms and in the library. It is they who are preventing us from continuing our studies. They want to limit the intellectual space in the universities all across the country to the cage of Hindutva ideology and we are opposing this process of indoctrination.”

The ruling ideology of Hindutva wants to create binaries of ‘us vs. them’ in the name of Bharat Mata (Mother India). Whoever does not say, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Hail Mother India) is anti-national, they allege. But we say, our Bharat Mata is not the same as your Bharat Mata. Your Bharat Mata is a glamorous lady, bejeweled and wearing a saffron sari, symbolizing the rich. Our Bharat Mata is a Dalit  (untouchable caste) woman, emaciated, wearing rags and working in the fields under the hot sun, a mother who struggles to feed her children, a mother who works as a village social worker, a mother or sister who works in the factories, drives a bus, pilots an airplane.. This is out Bharat Mata.” He said that he had met Rohit Vemula’s mother (The Dalit scholar who had committed suicide unable to bear the brunt of social discrimination in Hyderabad Central University in January this year) and told her that he will continue the struggle until social discrimination ends. We want Left and Dalit voices to come together.

Besides this unity, we are struggling to build a broad rainbow coalition of all oppressed working people, who have to fight this communal and neo-liberal virus with all the might we could gather. This is a long fight, but the victory will be ours. He further said that India has 700 million young people and Modi had captured power promising Rs. 150 thousands in everyone’s bank account from recovered black money and 100 million jobs. This is a false promise and now he and his government have to face the ire of the youth for their deceit. Modi says that he will build a modern India with Hi-Tech industries and make India the world’s manufacturing hub, with the slogan of “Make-in-India.” I question him, when 75% of young job aspirants in this country have less than 5th standard qualification and they cannot get a job in any modern industry, how are you going to provide 100 million jobs.

The previous government under DR. Manmohan Singh and now Modi’s government are cutting expenditure on education, cutting down assistance to poor and lower caste students. Unable to bear the cost of private education, they are leaving schools. Unless the government spends a large amount of money on public education and health, it is questionable how you can prepare the youth to work in modern industry. He stressed the need for Left Parties to come together, putting aside their differences. He said young people of his generation, those who are born after 1985 could not understand why the communist movement had to split into so many splinter groups. “Let us come together, put aside the differences of the past and start talking to the people about their problems in a jargon which they understand.”

His appeal struck a chord with the thousands who were listening to him in rapt attention. There was a thunderous applause of approval. Having seen for the last 45 years how the various Left groups fought pitched battles among themselves, it was a pleasant feeling for me to see them sitting together and listening to a young man, young enough to be their son, urging them to bury the past differences and come together to fight the bigger enemy. I have seen leaders of various Left groups embracing each other and recalling the good old days when as young men, they fought together under one flag. At the end of his hour long speech, he recited the now famous song that he sang at a meeting immediately before his arrest on February 11, 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It goes like this:

Picture2

Aazadi (Hind/Urdu for freedom)

Aazadi from Hunger

Aazadi from poverty

Aazadi from unemployment

Aazadi from capitalism

Aazadi from Manuvad (BJP’s Hindu politics)

Aazadi from caste discrimination

We don’t want freedom FROM India, we want freedom IN India

There was a thunderous clapping and shouts of Aazadi (freedom) from the participants, young and old. It was electric movement, highly charged with enthusiasm, a markedly noticeable charged feeling that “WE CAN” fight together and defeat the bigger enemy, the fascist BJP.

Picture3

Kanhaiya Kumar addressing his fellow students at JNU, Deli on March 3rd 2016, immediately after his release from Jail on trumped up charges of sedition. The address was telecast live on all the TV channels till midnight and it is reported that it is the most viewed even in recent time. This speech had elevated him to national level politics and he had become a rage among youth.

Picture4

Kanhaiya Kumar singing his famous Aazadi (freedom song)

Picture5A student demonstration in Delhi demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends.

 

Picture6

Kanhaiya Kumar being roughed up by BJP goons in the presence of police in the Delhi Court premises on 15th February 2016.

 Picture7

A BJP goon boasting about his group’s attack on Kanhaiya Kumar in the Indian Court in the presence of police. He was let off within hours of his being taken in to token police custody.

 Picture8

 A BJP/RSS version of Mother India                   

 

Picture10 Picture9

The Left’s image of Mother India (representative) 

Picture11

Kanhaiya Kumar addressing the Vijayawada Meet of united Left Students 

Picture12

 A section of the participants, with the leaders of various CPs in the foreground  

January 27, 2015

Youth and Capitalism

Filed under: india — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

Vijaya Kumar Marla

Youth and Capitalism

a guest post by Vijaya Kumar Marla

Paper submitted for the Workshop on ‘Hegemony, Civil Society and Democracy’ held at Chandigarh, 6th, 7th and 8th, February 2015.

Introduction

The world has come a long way in the last 3 decades. The Leftist movements worldwide were plunged in despair, with the disintegration of the socialist block. Capitalism and more specifically, Neo-liberal New World Order appeared triumphant. The Thatcher-Regan duo delared that ‘There Is No Alternative. (TINA)”. The only glimmer of hope was Cuba and Fidel Castro declaring that ‘I will be the last communist on this earth’. His vehement defense of Socialism and Marxism-Leninism had raised the spirits of communists worldwide.

In a few years, Venezuela had elected a leftist government, which declared its defiance of US domination. The slogan of TINA was met with SITA (Socialism Is The Alternative). Since then, more than half a dozen leftist governments have been elected in Latin America. The imperialist propaganda machine began propagating the message that in these countries which have elected leftist governments, will not last long and that these rogue states will be disciplined. But it had not happened. In the last 15 years, these leftist governments had embarked up on policies that are aimed at ending US hegemony in Latin America and also delinking themselves from the grip of neo-liberalism. Countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia had many successes on the Human Development front. They were experimenting with what they call, “Bolivarian Socialism” of the 21st Century, a clear break away from what was practiced as socialism in the 20th Century in Soviet Union and China (before their reforms). This new phenomenon was not confined to Latin America.

Rise of youth movements

Just 2 years ago, we thought that the younger generation is not interested in struggle against capitalism and that they don’t care about what is going on around them. At least, this is what the neo-liberal propaganda was about. It appeared as if the younger generation was happy and content with the gadgets provided by modern technology. But reality had bitten the youngsters on their backs. The neo-liberal restructuring of world’s economies in the last 3 decades had brought about high economic disparities, rising inflation, reduction of welfare and more importantly, rising unemployment in country after country. Realization dawned on the young people that they have no place in this world and all avenues for their survival are being closed.

Youth revolts had erupted in the Arab countries and in Brazil, Turkey and even in Iran. What was significant about the struggles in the Arab countries was that the demands were a clear break away from religious fundamentalism and were essentially about social and economic issues. More and more young Muslim women had taken center stage in these struggles. It is a welcome development. Another significant development is the leading participation of trade unions and the spirit of solidarity between the young agitators and the workers. Though ultimately, there was not much of success in the Arab struggles and the US was successful in diluting the impact of the struggles by fostering new lackey governments in Egypt and Libya, the very fact that such a movement had taken place is very significant and it will have a great impact on the future struggles in the Arab World.

The Occupy movement that erupted in USA was a rude and unpleasant surprise for the US oligarchs. What is more significant is that a new wave of radical movements have overtaken Europe. Youth struggles against unemployment, austerity and high cost of education had exploded in country after country in Europe. Where is today’s youth revolt heading? What are the key debates developing within the movements? What are the prospects for, and responsibilities of, the Left in this time of crisis and resistance?

Impact of neo-liberal restructuring on the younger generation

Perhaps more than any other section of society, young people around the world have been made to bear the brunt of the capitalist crisis. Throughout Europe, youth unemployment is at epidemic levels.

For one thing, the politics of popular protest emerged as the only possible way out of the crisis facing young people and workers. This in itself is a big advance. A radicalization rooted in a deep economic crisis suggests that today’s struggles will begin to challenge capitalism itself in a much more profound way.

Today’s students are more directly connected to the working class, and their grievances in relation to campus life are more oriented on questions of the political and economic priorities of society as a whole, rather than on questions specific to campus life. It is not difficult to understand why the new movements have consciously reached out to the organized working class. Every working class family feels the brunt of unemployment in their family. Having sacrificed their everything in the hope that their sons and daughters will grow up to a better off life, now they see no light at the end of the tunnel. The jobs simply are out of their reach.

Social media

As for social media, everyone agrees that these new technologies and means of communication certainly have made an impact. The very same toys that the youngsters could be content with, such as Smart phones, Face book, Twitter and Skype playing idle chit-chatting endlessly as was made to believe by the ruling elite, had been now turned by the youngsters into weapons for raising mass awareness and help mobilization of protestors. Police repression was instantly captured on cell phones and transmitted to networks, thus bringing international focus to the struggles. This is an entirely new phenomenon and will have wider repercussions on future struggles.

Many activists and commentators have placed a great emphasis on the role that social media can play in the new movements of today, creating horizontal networks of activists that bypass formal organizations and leadership. While the talk of online “horizontal networks” replacing the need for traditional organization sounds good, it’s simply not true. Any ongoing struggle requires painstaking organization, meetings, discussions, and debates over which way forward. Hence the General Assemblies and the working groups in the Occupy movement in every American city. Moreover, the basic cause of the discontent that produces social struggle is not social media. Each struggle has decades of conscious and painstaking effort by activists in organizing workers, peasants and youth. It is on this basic organizational infrastructure that the new popular movements were based. Why people back a cause is based on many factors and relates to what is happening in the offline world.

Political impact of the youth struggles

One distinguishing factor is that many of the protest movements of the past decade have been defined by the involvement of what is called “the modest middle class”, who have often been beneficiaries of the systems they are protesting against but whose positions have been eroded by neoliberal economic policies that have seen both distribution of wealth and opportunities captured by a tiny minority. As people have come to feel more distant from government and economic institutions, a large part of the new mass forms of dissent has come to be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate ideas of “citizenship”. Civil Society has come to mean something entirely different from what the bourgeoisie defines it.

Ideology and the organized left

Marxist theoretician Eric Hobsbawm said of the Occupy Movement, ‘if there is no party, then there’s no future.’ The struggles cannot remain spontaneous and unorganized. Naturally, an organizational form emerged, surprisingly quickly out of these youth protest movements such as SYRIZA in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain. These organizations had been founded by Leftist intellectuals with close links to the workers’ movements and they had captured the imagination of the masses in their respective countries. Now both these movements are on the threshold of power and we find similar awakening in Portugal, Italy, France, Slovenia and Holland. What is without doubt is that the very political picture of Europe is going to change for good. But at the same time, one should not underestimate the rise of neo-fascist parties in country after country in Europe. It clearly shows that the ruling class is desperate to cling to power and fascism is their last resort.

Though the forces of the organized left are weak, they must be ready to meet this challenge. Now, with the emergence of sustained mass struggles that are beginning to pose a concrete alternative to the status quo, left-wing political alternatives have the potential to grow to an extent unseen in decades.

A look at the developments in the Indian context

As Antonio Gramsci had said, “when the old system is in its death throes and a new alternative system fails to materialize, then, all kinds of grotesque deformations of Capitalism, such as fascism and religious fanatism will raise their head.” This is exactly what we are witnessing after the recent Parliamentary elections. The BJP and its Sangh Parivar want to turn this country in to a Hindu country. Plans are put in place to attack the minorities and Dalits and backward castes, in the name of “safeguarding Hinduism.” There is every danger that this dispensation holding power at the Center can rapidly deteriorate in to a fascist dictatorship. The pronouncements and actions of BJP, RSS, VHP and other Sangh organizations are increasingly turning offensive, undermining the very foundations of secularism and democracy.

Modi had come to power riding on the wave of euphoria created by big-biz media and the support of corporates. Added to this is the miserable failure of the UPA dispensation to stem the rising inflation, corruption and stagnation of industrial and agricultural sectors. The discontent over UPA worked to the advantage of BJP. Modi had promised to bring back black money and distribute Rs. 15 lakhs to each and every Indian, within 100 days of coming to power. Now it is proven that such a miracle is not going to materialize. Added to this is the propaganda that 10 crore jobs will be created by making India the manufacturing hub of the world. But the fact is that modern industry is no longer a job creator on mass scale and if you want to build up world class industrial infrastructure, you cannot create jobs on a mass scale. Morover, you require 90 crore crores to build up the industrial infrastructure and even that is going to create a meager 50 lakh jobs. Presently, India’s share of world’s FDI is a paltry 2%. If Modi wants to realize his promise of making India the world’s manufacturing hub, he has to attract about 900 times the present FDI inflows and 6 times the total FDI in the world for 7 years. He had opened his innings by attacking the rights of the working class and officialising land grabs in the name of development. To cover up their false promises, the BJP forces are trying to fan communal tensions and thus divert attention from their failures.

It is more than apparent that the youth of this country are simmering with anger and frustration. With almost 2/3 of the country’s working age youth facing some form of unemployment, underemployment or partial unemployment as well as seasonal unemployment, the young voters believed in the ‘acchhe din’ promise of BJP and voted them to power. But it will not be long before their hopes will be dashed. In fact, neither the party in power at the center nor any other party ruling in the states can escape the wrath of the youth. Neo-liberalism thrives on increasing exploitation of workers and armies of unemployed workers. Creating large scale employment is against the class interests of the ruling elite.

The Unemployment connundrum

It is estimated that to clear the backlog of unemployment, we have to create 2 crore jobs every year for the next 10 years. About 13 lakhs of youth are joining the ranks of unemployed every month. Heavy industry is no longer a large scale employment generator. It is only through the creation of high-tech rural employment that we can solve the large scale unemployment that is facing the youth. In India, today only 20% of professional graduates are able to get some sort of employment, that too at ridiculously low wages. The position of graduates is much worse. Only 10% among the can hope to get some job.

But the fact is that a developing country such as India has a very small formal sector. About 92% of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, with little or insignificant impact of modern technologies. The increased precariousness of their jobs, often as contract jobs, makes it ever harder for them to seek improvements in their pay and working conditions; it in fact degrades the living conditions day by day.

Agriculture in the developed economies is based on capitalist methods and it is increasingly unsustainable. Anyway, hardly 2% of the total workforce is engaged in agriculture in these countries and the profits are captured by multinational corporations. The ruling class in India wants to introduce similar capitalist agricultural practices and want to drive out 50% of India’s population away from agriculture and drive them to cities. Imagine what kind of a catastrophe awaits us if 50% of India’s population are deprived of their land and thrown into cities!

We have to evolve strategies to create Hi-Tech jobs in rural areas, by modernizing small scale industry and traditional craft based production. To sum up, India’s millions of technically trained youth have to be deployed for India’s development, not to earn profits for MNCs.

We are going to witness mass scale protests of youth for livelihoods in the coming days, with disenchantment setting in among the youth and workers. But the moot question is “is the Left in this country equipped to meet this challenge?”

The renewal of Indian Left – an urgent task

The Indian Left, mainly the mainstream parties (CPI (M), CPI, …) have to come out with alternatives (specific to India’s conditions) to the neo-liberal economic system. Unless they do that, they will surely sink into the quagmire of ideological confusion and class compromise.

Anyway, it not too late for the Indian Left to learn a few much needed lessons from the recent developments in West Bengal, Kerala and the rest of the country. This requires that we critically reconstruct an Indian path to socialism from below, abandon the reformist approach and understand that a revolutionary and democratic transformation of society can only be achieved by organized mass struggles of workers, agricultural labour, youth and other oppressed peoples. Can the Left ever manage to combine parliamentary practice with active mass struggles? This has always been asserted in successive National Conferences of both the CPI and CPI(M), but largely abandoned in practice.

The Left parties can reverse their decline and strengthen themselves only through candid self-criticism and by returning to mass work over the coming years. The Left can see any hope only if it enunciates a clear revolutionary vision of social transformation by going back to the basic tenets of Marxism, offers a radical alternative to neoliberal economic and destructive social policies to suit the present conditions, follow innovative and relevant political mobilisation strategies, and widens its appeal by participating in struggles on issues that deeply concern the toiling masses.

To do this, the Left needs to update its analysis of Indian society and evolve a contemporary vision of development and relate this to its political programmes and policies. This calls for a number of changes, including a shift away from a literal belief in the inevitable development of the productive forces and the idea of a “two-stage” revolution. Equally necessary is a rejection of the presumed inevitability and intrinsic desirability of industrialisation, especially along the classical Western pattern, which can lead to slippage into an “industrialisation at any cost” position.

As it was emphasized above, all is not lost. We can learn from the experiences and victories of the Left forces in Latin America and Europe and struggle for a revival of Left in India.

Conclusion

The necessity for a new kind of Left is all the more pertinent in the present situation, what with the reactionary and communal forces winning the reins of power. There will surely be an intensification of struggles against oppression and the tyranny of big capital. In most of the struggles that had taken place in the recent past, the Left was conspicuous by its absence. The possibility of the emergence of newer formations and coalitions in the coming days, need to be kept open. Those who have steered the Left so far failed to show any vision; now they have lost all credibility as well. If the present attitude of the Left leaders continues in the same fashion, there is every danger that the Left as a force will disappear from the Indian political scene. There is an urgent need to reinvent a new Left. This must be done on a firmly Marxist foundation.

I want to conclude with an oft cited quotation of Prof. Micheal Lebowitz:

In the famous book, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Cheshire Cat tells Alice, “If you don’t know where you have to go, any road will take you there.” But Lebowtz says, “in the case of Marxists, if you don’t know where you have to go, no road will take you there!”

The Left in India has to reinvent itself, shedding old outdated concepts and age-old biases and evolve a new culture of openness and active dialogue with the toiling masses. We have to have a vision about our goals and program. Otherwise, NO ROAD will take us to our goal.

(Vijaya Kumar Marla is the director of the All India Progressive Forum, an organization initiated by the Communist Party of India.)

August 28, 2014

Vandana Shiva answers Michael Specter

Filed under: Ecology,farming,india,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-28 at 1.42.49 PM

Read article

May 4, 2014

Indian Film Festival 2014: four narrative films

Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

Screen shot 2014-05-04 at 5.40.43 PM

Starting tomorrow, New Yorkers will be able to see some of the finest new films in the world courtesy of the annual Indian Film Festival that runs from May 5th through the 9th. I had an opportunity to preview four narrative films as well as the documentaries that I reported on in the latest Counterpunch. All are exceptional and one in particular is a work of genius. Titled “Sniffer”, it is the story of a private eye who has more in common with a Truffaut character than Dick Tracy. Watching the film, it dawned on me that the New Wave is still going strong in India even if that great generation celebrated in Cahiers du Cinéma is long gone.

In a conversation with the festival’s executive director Aroon Shivdasani a couple of weeks ago at an opening ceremony party she hosted, she stressed the social and political agenda that many of the films share. Ignoring the typical Bollywood film, not without their insouciant charm, the curators select uncompromising independent films that are geared to the art house market and leading edge film festivals. Since I am the ideal viewer for such films (I told Ms. Shivdasani that I live for films such as these), my assumption is that my regular readers will drive, take trains, fly, run or crawl to the theaters that are part of the festival venue.

I will start with the film that left the greatest impression on me, a jewel among jewels.

1. SNIFFER

Mohammad Anwar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is paid to track down missing people and cheating spouses. As such, his primary tool is a digital camera rather than a pistol. Unlike his boss, who keeps reminding him to keep a cool professional distance from his clients and from the men or women he is tracking, Anwar cannot help but get involved. If sniffer is slang for detective, it also just as easily can refer to someone who can’t mind his own business. In one case, he has been paid to learn why a middle-aged married man has killed himself, a mystery to his wife and daughter. They told him that he was so happy. When he breaks the news that he was a gay man who had reached an impasse with his long-time lover in another city, they refuse to believe him. Instead of shrugging his shoulders and moving on, Anwar asks the daughter to understand and accept his father as the decent and loving man no matter his sexuality as she is practically throwing him out the front door.

I could not help but think of Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” as I watched this powerful work. West’s novel tells the story of a newspaper columnist haunted by the grief-stricken letters he gets from strangers seeking his advice. Although his cynical editor laughs at the letters, the columnist can’t shake them out of his mind. In the evenings he guzzles whiskey to help him forget their sad tales.

Like Miss Lonelyhearts, Anwar takes solace in booze—his favorite drink being rum and coke, the same enjoyed by his sole companion, a golden Labrador Retriever named Lalo. His predilection for alcohol and his keeping a pet dog has provoked his landlord—a pious Muslim—into evicting him. Once Anwar and Lalo end up on the street, they begin sniffing for the ultimate prey: Anwar’s existential being.

Toward the end of the film, when Anwar is in the midst of his vision quest, there’s a scene that will stick with me forever. It encapsulates the power of cinema and is testimony to the screenwriter and director’s ability to convey in images what can never be conveyed in words. We see a path leading down a hill from a distance upon which itinerant peddlers are walking. Their wares born aloft on sticks appear like religious relics from a distance. We can’t help but be mesmerized by the steady but inexplicable procession. Finally Anwar and Lalo appear at the top of the hill and everything falls into place. The art that surpasseth all understanding.

“Sniffer” was written and directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, a 70-year-old man who was trained as an economist. In 1976 after growing disillusioned by economic theory’s inability to capture Indian reality he taught, he began a new career as a filmmaker. Wikipedia states that he belonged to the Calcutta Film Society, “where he first started going in his senior high school along with his uncle, exposed him to the works of directors like Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. This, in turn, inspired him take film making as a mode of expression.”

No wonder I love his work.

(“Sniffer” screens at Friday, May 9, 2014, 6:00 pm)

2. WITH YOU, WITHOUT YOU

Although the festival mostly features Indian films, there are works from other South Asian countries, including this one from Sri Lanka. Directed by the 52-year-old Prasanna Vithanage, this is a love story rooted in the tragic realities of the bloody, decades-long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.

Sarathsiri (Shyam Fernando) is a 45-year-old pawnbroker who lives alone in an apartment above his tiny shop. Except for his housekeeper and the clients who pawn their gold baubles to help overcome one financial emergency or another, he has no human contact. With his expressionless face and his willingness to take the last ounce of flesh metaphorically speaking out of his customers, he is not a likeable character.

One day a young and beautiful woman comes into his shop to pawn some gold earrings. He shows no emotion but is obviously smitten at first sight. After she returns several more times, he begins to show uncharacteristic generosity toward her that she rebuffs. Undaunted, he persists until her own dire condition persuades her to drop her defenses.

As a Tamil, Selvi (Anjali Patil) has plenty to be defensive about. When Sarathsiri finally proposes marriage to her in his own phlegmatic fashion, she accepts largely as a way of escaping poverty and neglect. But within weeks, she sees his passionate side and begins to return his love, even if she remains trouble by his Shylock tendencies. What she was not prepared for, however, was his secret past as a Sinhalese soldier—thus the underlying dramatic tension that ratchets up inexorably as the film’s tragic dimensions take shape. This is both a tale of star-crossed lovers as well as that of a nation’s social tragedy done with great sensitivity and intelligence.

The film is based on Dostoyevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature” that has been adapted numerous times, including by the legendary Robert Bresson. I am not sure about the availability of Bresson’s film but my advice is to catch “With You, Without You”, a reminder that the grand tradition of French filmmaking continues in Sri Lanka.

(“With You, Without You” screens at Thursday, May 8, 2014, 6:00 pm)

3. FANDRY

Fandry is the Marathi slang word (the language of the state of Maharashtra that is used in the film) for wild pig. It is also the word that the upper caste residents of a small town hurl at members of a Dalit family that is paid to drive the animals from the village from time to time. Such animals are anathema to the upper caste residents, but perhaps no more so than the Dalit family they pay to corral them.

The film is centered on the struggle of a teenaged boy named Jabya (Somnath Awghade) to transcend his Dalit status. This consists in part with him trying to work up the courage to tell an upper caste girl he admires from afar about his feelings. It also consists of him trying to do well in school against all odds. He studies by candlelight in his miserable hut while his mother and father insist that he not waste his time with homework. His father is particularly mean to Jabya, insisting that he spend his days doing manual labor instead of going to school. One is reminded of the documentary “Gulabi Gang” I reviewed for Counterpunch that details the cruelty with which Dalit husbands and fathers mete out to their family. Being oppressed by caste and by class does not necessarily make you more sensitive to those under your power.

The climax of the film is an intense collision of wild pigs, the Dalit family and the upper caste denizens of the village. The film is both intensely dramatic and a good introduction to a social system that should have been wiped off the face of the earth long ago, just like Jim Crow. It is quite an indictment of Indian democracy that such a feudal social relationship still exists.

In an interview with Sify.com, director Nagraj Manjule describes his concerns with Dalit oppression.

The village where I grew up, there were two castes who used to eat pigs. Obviously, there were no toilets in villages, and the pigs grow up on this garbage dump. When you eat pig meat, of course, your izzat (dignity) isn’t rated too highly. And caste is such a pertinent issue everywhere – the perception that Brahmins are superior, and there are certain castes in the middle, and then, at the bottom of the pecking order, there are Dalits. The stigma is a very relevant one.

I don’t think caste is something that will ever stop being important to the Indian psyche. You think once someone is educated, it won’t matter so much, but then I’m not convinced. You see it all the time, even when people ask you your name. They want your surname too, so that they can guess your caste. In fact, there are people I know who use initials instead of their surnames, so that people won’t know they’re Dalits. It happened with one of my own crew members. He told me suddenly, while working on the post-production, that he really liked my film, and could relate to it, as a Dalit, and that he felt for the first time that he was represented in a film. That’s when I knew he was Dalit.

(“Fandry” screens at Friday, May 9, 2014, 6:00 pm)

4. LIAR’S DICE

This, like most films being shown in the festival, is engaged with Indian social and political realities. As a debut film by female director Gayathri Mohandas that was shown at Sundance, “Liar’s Dice” hews closely to neorealist traditions. Filmed in the ruggedly beautiful mountainous border between India and Tibet, it tells the story of a mother and her young daughter in search of her husband who has left their impoverished village in search of work in a distant city. After failing to reach him by his cell phone, she has grown worried. In other words, it like “Fandry” gets to the heart of Indian socio-economic conditions but like that film tells it dramatically and additionally with a real flair for India’s staggeringly beautiful backcountry.

With precious little money to sustain them, mother and daughter accompanied by the daughters pet goat board a bus in search of the missing husband. Along the way they run into a Pakistani man who has deserted from the military. Initially attracted to her on the basis that she can pay him for his protection in the big city, he grows fond of the threesome even though he has trouble showing his feelings.

This is essentially a road movie that has become a virtual genre. As with a number of other films from the semi-periphery, including the Brazilian “Central Station”, it throws together clashing personalities and allows them to interact against a landscape made up of highways, road stops and bus stations. At its best, the genre gives you a sense of the vulnerability of marginal characters fending for themselves in difficult circumstances.

My only criticism of the film is that the authenticity of the characters sometimes undercuts the larger aim of character development. As a gruff and sometimes abusive deserter, the male lead is thrust into conflicts with a woman who only sees him as a kind of male protector. The dialog, while realistic, does not take flight. That, of course, is the challenge that all screenwriter/directors working in the neorealist tradition have to meet.

(“Liar’s Dice” screens at Thursday, May 8, 2014, 6:00 pm)

May 2, 2014

NY Indian Film Festival 2014

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,india — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

New York Indian Film Festival 2014

East Supplants West (On Film, At Least)

by LOUIS PROYECT

In 1998 Andre Gunder Frank’s highly controversial “ReOrient” appeared. It argued that “the East” (mainly China and India) would eventually supplant “the West” as hegemonic powers, thus reestablishing the relationships that existed before 1492 when all of Columbus’s fleet could be put on the deck of the flagship of Zheng He’s fleet that made multiple voyages to the east coast of Africa in the early 15th century.

I have my doubts about Frank’s overall thesis but on one level it is surely borne out by Indian cinema that now makes most American films look crude and amateurish by comparison. To see Indian cinema at its best, I urge New Yorkers to make it to the New York Indian Film Festival that runs from May 5th to the 10th. It can only be described as an embarrassment of riches.

read full review

Trailers for films being reviewed:

 

April 7, 2014

Gayatri Spivak on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I have plans to get around to Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” at some point as well as Ranajit Guha’s “Dominance without Hegemony”, one of Chibber’s chief targets. In the meantime, I try to keep up with the scholarly commentary on Chibber’s book, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s blistering attack that appears in the April 2014 “Cambridge Review of International Affairs” that I read this morning. (Drop me a line if you want to read a copy.)

I doubt that I will ever read anything beyond Guha’s book in order to get a handle on subaltern studies. A big problem for non-specialists like myself is that the price of admission into these academic wars is almost prohibitive. Spivak’s review is shot through with references to figures in the postcolonial field that will certainly be unknown to the average reader. My interest in the debate, however, is probably somewhat narrower than others. In a nutshell, I am interested in exploring what the one negative review of Chibber’s book on amazon.com referred to:

I was excited about this book because I am very interested in postcolonial theory but was disappointed when I learned this book was not really about postcolonial theory at all but Subaltern Studies (which Chibber himself admits is not the same thing)…That’s useful for some purposes but does not fully address the deeper (or larger) issues postcolonial theory raises. Read this book if you’re interested in how capitalism developed in India. Beyond that, not sure if you’ll get much out of it.

That for me is the more interesting question—how capitalism developed in India. When I get around to dealing with Chibber, I plan to refer extensively to Jairus Banaji and Irfan Habib, Indian and Pakistani Marxists who have sharp differences with Robert Brenner, Chibber’s chief influence.

I am not sure how many of you are familiar with Gayatri Spivak but a word or two might be in order. She is a long-time faculty member at Columbia University, a Derrida specialist, and accused (somewhat unfairly) of writing in a dense academic style that is hard to understand, most particularly her “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf) that appeared in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s 1988 Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Despite the impression you might have that Spivak is a hardened subalternist, her article is a critique of the school, albeit within its general parameters.

The first part of my proposition — that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project — is confronted by a collective of intellectuals who may be called the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group. They must ask, Can the subaltern speak? Here we are within Foucault’s own discipline of history and with people who acknowledge his influence.

She then proceeds to find fault with Foucault, including his failure to acknowledge the “epistemic violence of imperialism”.

Her review, however, represents a kind of reflexive defense of subaltern studies and Ranajit Guha in particular, toward whom she feels particularly protective.

Guha, a seasoned communist who paid the price of his political convictions over a brilliantly maverick career as a historian, created a revolution within the discipline. For Chibber to prove him ‘wrong’–especially as an Orientalist misreader of Europe who believes that the ‘non-West’ has a different psychology¾is somewhat like proving W.E.B. Du Bois ‘wrong’ when he calls the exodus of the newly emancipated slaves a ‘general strike’, like the repeated attempts by folks like Bernard Lewis to prove Edward Said ‘wrong’, even, and I do not want to be mischievous, a well-meaning smart sophomore’s attempt to show that in the Poetics Aristotle is ‘illogical’.

In assessing the contribution made by Spivak to the debate, I find her emphasis on Gramsci most useful. Keep in mind that Spivak did not coin the word “subaltern”. In fact, it was Gramsci who was responsible for introducing it into the Marxist lexicon as a way of describing those existing outside the dominant classes examined by Karl Marx in works such as Capital. Some scholars regard Gramsci’s use of the term as a ruse designed to fool the fascists into thinking that he was writing about the proletariat. I for one am convinced that Marcus Green got this question right in an article titled “Rethinking the subaltern and the question of censorship in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks”:

Through an examination of Gramsci’s use of the term ‘subaltern’ in the Prison Notebooks, I will demonstrate that he did not develop the phrase ‘subaltern social groups’ because of prison censorship, but in fact developed the concept of ‘subaltern social groups’ to identify and analyse the politics and activity of marginalized social groups in Italian history. In analyses of specific historical contexts, Gramsci refers to slaves, peasants, religious groups, women, different races, the popolani (common people) and popolo (people) of the medieval communes, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie prior to the Risorgimento as subaltern groups.

Despite the massive footprint of Gramsci in Guha’s work and others operating within the subaltern studies school, Chibber tells his readers that this does not interest him:

Moreover, this book largely avoids the task of tracing the theoretical lineage of the Subalternists’ arguments. As a result, even though the influence of Gramsci and Althusser is evident to those familiar with the relevant literature, I do not analyze the nature of this connection. Nor do I assess how their ideas have been reconfigured at the hands of Subalternist theorists. Again, this is partly because of the need to keep the book to a manageable size (and it is already longer than I had either wished or intended), but primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist. What matters is not whether they are true to this or that theoretical tradition but whether they have produced sound arguments, and it Is that final product—their arguments as they stand—that we need to assess.

Spivak’s reaction to this is worth quoting at length:

Indeed, because Chibber is eager to prove that nothing that the subalternists acknowledged was more than ‘trend’-y, he dismisses Gramsci’s influence as a trend (6). When on page 27 he discloses, ‘I do not analyze the nature of [the Subalternists’] connection [to Gramsci] . . . primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist’, this reader is obliged to conclude—and not only because of this ‘correct’-fetishist gurumahashay’s [schoolmaster] demonstrated inability to be auto-critical—that he is not ‘familiar with the relevant literature’.

For then he would have known that Gramsci’s main contribution was not ‘popular history and matters of consciousness’ (6). (Gramsci’s concern anyway is not consciousness-raising but epistemology, education.) Gramsci’s main contribution was to notice that, precisely because Italy, with its tail tucked into Africa, is not France, Britain, Russia or the US, the Risorgimento did not sufficiently assimilate ‘class’ differences created outside of capital logic (basically the incentive to establish the same system of exchange everywhere). This is why the Subalternists chose the word ‘subaltern’. The existence of the subaltern is also evident in the Pan-Africanist WEB Du Bois’s writings, in such essays as ‘The Negro mind reaches out’, although, being a distant yea-sayer to Stalin (of whose purge techniques he was unaware, as opposed to the lynching techniques of the Southern bourgeoisie), Gramsci’s ‘enemy’, he did not know the word ‘subaltern’ (Du Bois 1968, 385 – 414). So, not not capitalist, but separated from full capital logic.

I thought the reference to Du Bois was quite telling. Excerpts from The Negro mind reaches out can be read at http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1114.htm. I found this passage most useful:

The attitude of the white laborer toward colored folk is largely a matter of long continued propaganda and gossip. The white laborers can read and write, but beyond this their education and experience are limited and they live in a world of color prejudice…Color hate easily assumes the form of a religion and the laborer becomes the blind executive of the decrees of the masters of the white world; he votes armies and navies for “punitive” expeditions; he sends his sons as soldiers and sailors; he composes the Negro-hating mob, demands Japanese exclusion and lynches untried prisoners. What hope is there that such a mass of dimly thinking and misled men will ever demand universal democracy for all men?

What Du Bois is describing is the “subaltern” status of Blacks in the Jim Crow south. Largely outside the industrial working class and existing in the netherworld between slavery and free labor, Blacks were basically debt peons who according to the stringent categories established by “political Marxism” were caught in some kind of “precapitalist” limbo. If capitalism is defined by market rather than political coercion, then one must conclude that the Deep South until fairly recently existed outside of capitalist property relations except for the coal mines, steel mills, garment factories that were reserved for white labor only.

The problem with “political Marxism” is that it generalizes the experience of 19th century British society and shoehorns all of the rest of the world into that model even if it does not fit. Ranajit Guha’s efforts were directed toward developing a historiography that corresponded to Indian realities after years of finding Eric Hobsbawm et al inadequate.

The problem is not just Eurocentrism, to refer to my old friend Jim Blaut’s writings, but more specifically Anglocentrism. Let me conclude with Spivak’s reference to what she calls Little Britain Marxism, and Chibber’s place within it:

In a 306-page book full of a repeated and generalized account of the British and French revolutions, and repeated cliches about how capitalism works, and repeated boyish moments of ‘I have disproved arguments 1, 2, 3, therefore Guha (or Chakrabarty, or yet Chatterjee) is wrong, and therefore subaltern studies is a plague and a seduction, and must be eradicated, although it will be hard because careers will be ruined, etc.’, there could have been some room for these references to describe the range, roots and ramifications of postcolonial studies, so that the book’s focused choice could have taken its place in Verso’s protective gestures towards the preservation of ‘Little Britain Marxism’, shared to some degree by the journal Race and Class. Aijaz Ahmad’s In theory (1992) was such an attempt. Postcolonial theory is the blunter instrument, and its attempt to disregard the range of postcolonial studies in order to situate subaltern studies—confined to three texts—as its representative can mislead students more effectively.

He misses out on Guha because Guha has been placed within an academic battle between what I keep calling Little Britain Marxism and located postcolonial historiographies, here confused with the metropolitan second-generation version, particularly in the US.

Quite plain-spoken, no?

January 8, 2014

Indian realities

Filed under: india — louisproyect @ 4:20 am
An interesting photograph of a Muslim mother in a veil, with her son dressed as Hindu God Krishna (might be for a school function). It depicts the real India where people of all religions lived together for centuries.
 
Vijaya Kumar Marla
 
marla
Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.