Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering EMS

A two-day seminar organised to commemmorate the first death anniversary of E.M.S. Namboodiripad highlights the threats from communalism and globalisation.

IDENTIFYING communalism and globalisation as the main threats to a secular and democratic India, a galaxy of intellectuals who attended a two-day-long EMS Memorial Seminar in Thiruvananthapuram exhorted the Left movement to formulate and implement programmes to combat the menace of communalism in the political, economic, social and cultural fields. The writing of history, they said, was not merely an academic exercise but a powerful weapon in the hands of people fighting for social reforms.
Organised by the AKG Centre for Research and Studies to commemorate the first death anniversary of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the seminar on "Secular and democratic India towards a new millennium" was an attempt to provide a platform to discuss and devise a common programme to deal with communalism and globalisation which threaten the bedrock of secularism and democracy on which modern India was founded. Paying rich tributes to EMS, speakers at the seminar said that EMS' vision of a secular and egalitarian India was threatened by divisive communal forces.

Inaugurating the seminar, eminent historian Bipan Chandra said: "The challenge in the coming decades is going to be that of continuing the struggle for economic development with the struggle for social and economic equality on the basis of a secular and democratic and civil libertarian order." Presenting his paper, "Secular and democratic India on the threshold of the new millennium", Chandra spoke of the need to redefine and restructure Marxian thinking to meet new challenges. He said that Indian Marxists must revaluate Gandhiji and relate to him as the Left movement had much in common with Gandhian thought on capitalism, struggle for social liberty and morality and the question of secularism and communalism.

Bipan Chandra condemned attempts to communalise the Indian polity. He said that it was deplorable that India had not witnessed even one countrywide campaign against communalism since the late 1940s. He demanded that all secular parties assign at least one day in a year to alert people about the dangers of communalism.

Defining secularism as the separation of religion from politics, economics and large areas of culture and treating it as a private, personal affair, Chandra said that in a multi-religious society, secularism also meant that the state remained equidistant from all religions, including atheism, and that it did not discriminate in favour of or against the followers of any particular religion.
Chandra said that Gandhiji had agreed with all the three aspects of secularism and fought against communalism all his life. He said: "It is the intrusion of religion into secular fields that has to be opposed. And in this Gandhi is one with us." Chandra added that India must seek economic development without sacrificing economic equality and social justice. He also spoke of the importance of preserving and protecting the autonomy of the individual in the institutional structures of society, especially the state.
Continuing the discussion, reputed historian K.N. Panikkar said that the fight against communalism must begin at the grassroots level with the mobilisation of people. V.S. Achuthanandan, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) presided over the inaugural session.

The six sessions of the seminar, spread over two days, also discussed at length the Sangh Parivar's attempt to influence public thought and sentiments through the media, education, culture and economy. The topics discussed were "The idea of India: Growth and problems", "Is there an economic alternative in the context of globalisation?", "Future of secular democracy and the media", "Indian nationalism and the question of culture", "Challenges of a secular, democratic education" and "The question of nationality and problems of national unity."

While communalism was identified as the immediate danger, the speakers also expressed concern at the mindless consumerism that accompanies globalisation and liberalisation and the threat it represents to the political and economic sovereignty of developing nations.

According to the historian Irfan Habib, "Marxism provides the most cogent arguments against communalism and all divisive and anti-democratic tendencies." His paper, "The envisioning of a nation: A defence of the idea of India", (the paper was read out in his absence), emphasised that the chauvinistic and fascist ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party would not be modified by the compulsions of governance.

Tracing the growth of India as a nation, Irfan Habib said that it was the resistance to colonialism and the absorption of modern, democratic (and later socialist) ideas that began to transform India from a country - a geographical and cultural entity - into a true nation. He added: "India is then a creation of the Indian people, a product not simply of nature or even of blind circumstances, but essentially of their consciousness."

While Irfan Habib pointed out that the process of saffronisation would spell danger to the nation's unity and integrity, Rajan Gurukkal warned that globalisation and market forces would threaten the sovereignty of nations. Painting a grim picture of India in the next millennium, Gurukkal added that powerful multinational corporations would erode the autonomy of the nation state. Alternative politics, which drew its strength from people at the grassroots and from direct action by the people, were the only means to oppose the unethical and anti-people market forces, he said.

Delivering the keynote address on "Future of secular democracy and the media," N. Ram, Editor of Frontline, said that communalism as a political mobilisation strategy was the principal challenge to Indian politics and to the Indian Constitution. He said: "Majoritarianism is impermissible. India is nothing if it is not multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, multinational." Ram pointed out that secular, progressive forces had not been able to occupy the space created by the decline of the Congress, the party that had traditionally been in power in the country.

Criticising the performance of significant sections of the media during times of communal crisis, Ram said that the media could only be relatively independent and highlighted the Press Council's indictment of Saamna, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, for instigating the Mumbai riots of 1993.

On the economic front, Prabhat Patnaik, Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, called for an alternative politico-economic agenda that would cater to the needs of India and stop the erosion of the autonomy of nations owing to the globalisation of finance capital. In his keynote address on "Globalisation and possibilities of an alternative economic programme," Patnaik emphasised that land reforms and infrastructural development and decentralisation were the key factors for development.

Speaking at the same seminar, member of Kerala's Planning Board T.M. Thomas Isaac said that the People's Plan programme in Kerala was an important element of the alternative economic programme that was being proposed. It was aimed at deepening and strengthening democracy by decentralising resources and decision-making, he said.

Noted historian Aijaz Ahmad, who delivered the keynote address on "The politics of culture" on the second day of the seminar, said that market and commodity fetish was the greatest challenge faced by a secular society. He said that the culture of a country should not be analysed from its past but from the realities of the present. The material activities of the people for a meaningful life constituted culture. Quoting Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist theorist, Ahmad said that the concept of nation-popular would identify the nation with the popular classes and that a national culture would arise out of the practices as well as aspirations of those classes. Ahmad wondered what the market forces, which looked for unity of culture and language, would do to India's plurality of languages and cultures.

Echoing the same sentiments was CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat who spoke on "Problems of nationalisation and unity of the country". He warned against attempts to depict the country as a Hindu nation. Speaking on the rise of divisive forces organised on the basis of caste, region, language and religion, Karat emphasised that these movements and the demand for separate States would not help solve the problems of national unity. According to him, regional disparities and the discrimination faced by tribal people and ethnic minorities could be solved by adequate regional autonomy. He said: "Regional grievances have to be articulated as part of the movement for democratic decentralisation and participation in decision-making; chauvinism that pits one section of the people against another has to be firmly combated."

Participating in the seminar on "Challenges to secular education", K.N. Panikkar said that Hindu communalists were trying to replace secular education with a religious one.

The sizable attendance at the seminars and the active question-and-answer sessions that followed them reflected the people's apprehensions about the policies, intentions and governance of the BJP Government. Owing to paucity of time, some of the questions had to be tackled in a cursory manner. However, at the plenary session, CPI(M) leader M.A. Baby, who presided over the function, promised that the answers to the questions would be compiled and made available to the people.

At the valedictory session, Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar said that casteist and communalist forces were making a comeback at the fag end of the 20th century. However, he hoped that popular people's movements would guard India's democracy and secularism. Agreeing with him was V.R. Krishna Iyer, former Judge of the Supreme Court.

The speakers paid rich tributes to EMS, and said that India would always cherish and remember EMS as a guiding light.

Volume 16 - Issue 8, Apr. 10 - 23, 1999

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