Media Perspectives

A blog for discussions on media, political and cultural issues of South Asian and international significance

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Inconvenient Truth about Maoists

Yesterday, I attended a talk given by Arundhati Roy titled "Can We Leave the Bauxite in the Mountains". It was a slightly extended, somewhat less loopy version of her essay in the recent Outlook magazine, but both pieces were characterized by a peculiar romanticization of the insurgency in Chhattisgarh, and liberally sprinkled with her usual attention-seeking bon mots - terming Maoists "Gandhians with Guns", for example. I was somewhat perturbed by the assertion that Maoists were morally superior to the state, on grounds that they comprised of tribals who had taken to arms in support of their basic liberties, but couldn't put a finger on exactly why I was so discomfited. The record of the Indian state (to the extent that one can treat it as a monolithic entity) in dealing with its "marginal"/"peripheral" citizens is well-documented, and pathetic. So why was I getting so pissed off? Thankfully, I came across Apoorvanand's fine essay in Seminar today, and think he articulates perfectly the unease I felt at Roy's talk:

"This note attempts to understand the nature of the politics behind the violent actions of the Maoists. There seems to be an agreement among human rights activists that Maoist violence is a ‘forced’ response to the extreme repression of the Indian state. The argument is that since the Indian state has been consistently ignoring or violently repressing various people’s movements, the people are left with no choice but to take recourse to the gun.

There is a fallacy in this argument. We know about people’s movements on issues of land rights or displacement which have not turned into armed insurrections, even though they have suffered major losses and have been treated in a very callous manner by the state. Apart from the Narmada Bachao Andolan there are hundreds of big and small peoples’ resistance movements in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and other states which have not given up on the ‘parliamentary’ path of struggle.

Interestingly, we find that Maoist groups are also active in these areas and they constantly try to infiltrate and take control of such movements. We do not know of any movements organized by the Maoists which were initially ‘peaceful’ but compelled to turn to arms after all attempts at working with the state failed. I would suggest that the theory of ‘peaceful’ movements mutating into ‘violent’ insurrections appears flawed. Also that instead of using ‘Maoist’ as an adjective in a careless manner we should treat them as a political formation organized on the lines articulated in its political programme and constitution which is based on its own Marxian theory of revolution which is impossible without violence."

(I'm not convinced that Zizek is the best theoretical source for articulating a critical response to Roy, but he's not really germane to Apoorvanand's argument)

Roy's essay, not surprisingly, has prompted many critical responses. The best are collected in Outlook.

Soumitra Ghosh: "The Maoist movement is not a typical resistance group. It is driven by an ideology that has its own historicity and its own series of histories. Judging by that, the piece reads like a class-one propaganda, similar to those we used to receive from the occasional visitors to the 'closed' post-revolutionary societies throughout the last century. Many of those made for extremely good reading...and human. When it all came down, we saw the 'human' shrouded a lot of 'inhuman', and the ugly devils of hegemony, domination and power lurked behind the pleasant facade, and not all of that was bourgeois counter-revolutionary propaganda"

Anirban Gupta Nigam: The title - "Moonwalking with the Comrades" - summarizes what follows

But also, elsewhere.

Jairus Banaji's critique in Kafila: "In Arundhati’s vision of politics the only agent of social change is a military force. There are no economic classes, no civil society, no mass organisations or conflicts which are not controlled by a party (or ‘the’ party). There is no history of the left that diverges from the romantic hagiographies of Naxalbari and its legacies, and there is, bizarrely, not even a passing reference to capitalism as the systemic source of the conversion of adivasis into wage-labourers, of the degradation of their forms of life and resources and of the dispossession of entire communities."

Salil Tripathi's take in Mint: "Roy is experiencing the vicarious thrill all reporters yearn for—walking the jungle with rebels. The critical difference between real journalists and Roy is that she accepts what she is told, does not question much and romanticizes the revolutionaries, whereas someone like Alma Guillermoprieto in The New York Review of Books describes what she sees in Latin America, reminding us—and herself—how complex the world is, because there are at least two sides to every story. In Roy’s adventure in the Dandakaranya forest (a name resonating with Ramayana metaphors) there is “good” and “evil”; in the Marquezian landscape of Guillermoprieto, there are no angels, only devils of different hues"

What is additionally peculiar is Roy's emphasis on a "biodiversity of protest" when confronted with questions which fault her for excessive jingoism in support of violence. Roy seems to believe that the Maoists can coexist with Gandhian movements of a more traditional sort, and that the armed insurgency is likely to fall away once it's goals are reached. What Apoorvanand's essay does very successfully is to show this for the canard it is - Maoists are not likely to coexist with anyone who disagrees with their methods. Their aims, and in this they are very much like the LTTE, is to coopt, coerce, and infiltrate their competitors in dissent. Any ecology of dissenters with Maoists in it is thus unlikely to be very bio-diverse; if one has to be faithful to the analogy, they are like weeds who will only rest once they have destroyed all their competitors, sympathetic or otherwise, and taken over the entire eco-system. Whether Roy is blind to this scenario, or deliberately dissembling, is something which I leave to the reader to conjecture. A good place to start with the conjecture, however, would be Ramachandra Guha's old pieces: Arun Shourie of the Left, and Perils of Extremism

Monday, March 08, 2010

Debasing free speech

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in his usual perspicacious style, contrasts the treatment of MF Hussain by the Indian judiciary (upholding his right to free speech without significant qualification) with its treatment of a book titled "Islam: A Concept of World Political Invasion by Muslims", where:

"the normative and methodological claims in the judgment tell you how precarious free speech is. While the court makes expansive rhetorical claims on behalf of free speech, it equally makes expansive jurisprudential claims on restricting it. So under Section 153 of the IPC for example, it is “no defence that the writing contains a truthful account of past events or is supported by good authority.” No wonder even works of scholarship can be banned. In terms of incitement to violence it reiterates a rejection of the “clear and present danger test”; even a remote possibility is sufficient to invite a ban. Third, it does what a court should try and avoid. It directly engages in an interpretive battle with the petitioner over certain ayats of the Quran, trying to produce an “authorised” interpretation. This is disturbing because it frames the issue of religion in a bizarre way. Indian courts keep going to great lengths to show that there can never be anything offensive or bizarre in a religious text (and come up with claims like no religion can even preach violence, all religions are progressive if not the same and so forth). In short, courts confirm an ideology of respect for religion that emboldens those who claim they are offended”

Mehta’s suggestion is that the courts should stop messing about with defining what religion means in their terms, for this is a clear denial of the view that freedom of speech exists even for those who make statements which fall outside what counts as socially acceptable. Judicial protection for religion, in other words, is directly correlated with judicial disregard for individual liberties. This point is affirmed when one looks at the cases in which the judiciary steps in to correct perceived violations of the right to free speech and expression is that they are usually driven by controversies in the public eye. So, MF Hussain gets off when his paintings raise fundamentalist Hindu ire, but the uncelebrated author (one RV Bhasin) of “Islam: A Concept of World Political Invasion” does not. This raises significant barriers to a popular embrace of the concept of free speech, for protection for expression is then identified as a bourgeois value; available to the Shahrukh Khans, the Jaswant Singhs and the Taslima Nasreens, but not to the guy who writes crackpot anti-Islamic tomes and posts them on the internet. The right to free speech, traditionally regarded as being foundational to a truly democratic existence, now comes to be identified as a form of tamaashebaazi – a way by which to get yourself heard and gain some attention, but really nothing else. The dilution in the public regard for free speech is problematic, for this is represents one of the most common means by which democracy falls - by turning against its own core values from within.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Naz Foundation Judgment and the Constitutionality of Book Bans

The Indian Express has published, as an op-ed piece, an article I submitted to them on the Jaswant Singh book ban. You can find it here. The comments are particularly edifying.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on Food Inc

I recently caught a showing of the fascinating documentary Food Inc. There’s been enough pre- (and post-) release buzz generated for it already, so there’s little need to summarize its contents. While hardly novel in its scathing indictment of the way food is produced in America (and increasingly, across the world), what is truly significant about the movie is that it incorporates, virtually wholesale, all the different sorts of charges which are leveled against agribusiness and industrial food production. In its brief 90 minutes running time, the movie highlights the cultural critique of Western food production (think Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food), the consumerist critique (Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation), makes an effort to outline the disastrous environmental effects of meat production and over-dependence on corn (King Corn), the industrial roots of the obesity epidemic (Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma; The Future of Food), and the unhealthy influence which food producers (and retailers) wield over regulatory authorities in federal government, and in many of the states (The World According to Monsanto). Towards the end, it even manages to touch upon the impact American food manufacture has upon global food shortages.

Additionally, unlike the documentaries produced by militant environmentalist/animal rights groups, Food Inc. isn’t concerned solely with providing the viewer with a series of graphic images aimed at bludgeoning her into shocked revulsion. Its makers are far smarter than that, while there is plenty of animal cruelty on display in the movie (a healthy proportion of its footage is taken in slaughterhouses and chicken coops), the blood and guts are interspersed with plenty of reasoned discussion by production reform proponents (Pollan and Schlosser are given the most screen time), sustainable agriculturalists, organic food producers, animal husbandry lobbyists (though they are under-represented, most of the corporations whose activities are exposed in the movie were reluctant to be interviewed), and in what must be a notable coup, Walmart management. Through the sheer diversity of critical viewpoints presented, therefore, the filmmakers manage to provide something relevant for people of different ethical, political and gustatory persuasions.

Probably as a result of this overpacking of information, however, the movie comes across as somewhat rushed, and occasionally incoherent. Having a glancing awareness of some of the practices being criticized by the producers, I was able to appreciate where the movie was going. It is not clear, though, that viewers completely unexposed to the problems which result from contemporary food production patterns are likely to follow the argument in its entirety. Food Inc packs in arguments for food labeling, against closed chicken coops, against corn growers, in favour of seed-saving (and, as a corollary, against Monsanto and its strong arm IP protection strategies), against revolving door hiring practices in government, for stronger civic involvement in food consumption strategies, against the current structure of employment, against fast food production techniques, in support of stronger legislative protection for the food inspection regime, and much, much more. It is not clear exactly how all of these points are linked to each other in a coherent analytic manner, and what the central theme of the film is beyond a simplistic assertion of the ‘consolidation is bad’ line.The lack of a focused central narrative structure is an important flaw. Furthermore, the argument seemed somewhat forced at many points (in particular, the section on the likelihood that all of America’s consumption needs could be met by sustainable farming without an emphasis on the need to consume less than we presently do), whereas in other parts the trajectory of a particular line of thinking was left unmapped (the documentary is silent on what the increasing presence of big brand corporate food producers like Kelloggs, Pepsi and General Mills in the organic food sector means for the practice of conscientious consumption. At one point, Stonyfield Farm’s Gary Hirshberg informs us that ‘the jury is out’ on this question, but the movie makes no effort to flesh out why exactly that is). The producers could have done well to concentrate less on trying to capture all that is wrong in the way we make food and eat it, and more on developing their criticisms of particular egregious practices in a convincing manner.

I have a deeper problem with the nature of solutions the movie offers up for the crisis in our food system. While there are a plethora of options the producers provide us, both during the course of the film and in a convenient, eye-catching forest of bullet points prior to the closing credits, consumer activism is by far their most-preferred solution. In this regard, Food Inc shares the world view of both Schlosser and Pollan, who espouse civic action as the best way to bring about a change in the way we get our daily sustenance. This is, of course, not surprising given that they share producer credit for the movie. It is not entirely clear, however, that increased consumer awareness is ever likely to arise in the numbers sufficient to influence a systemic change on the scale necessary for a wholesome food utopia to come back into existence. Part of this, of course, comes from circumstances the movie itself highlights: food companies fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the system as it is, and will try to viciously stymie every attempt to provide greater information about their practices. These companies are also likely to provide information distortion (or, from their perspective, rectification) measures. Already, Monsanto has a site up seeking to rebut the claims made in the movie; this seems to be part of a broader internet-based backlash against Food Inc. The Pollans, Schlossers, and vocal WholeFoodistas of the world will continue to attempt to influence the public’s attitude towards healthy consumption, but they have a huge fight ahead on their hands, one which it seems extremely unlikely they are going to win on their own initiative. Consider for example the microscopic attention dedicated to President Obama’s diet. From the arugula controversy during the primaries, to the snide tittering about his consumption of a single French fry on his date night with the First Lady, his dietary preferences seem to provide an endless source of amusement (or vitriol, depending on who you listen to) for the country at large. Instead of sparking a greater debate about the benefits of healthy eating, or the fact that only those in the same economic category as the Obamas can take advantage of it, enlightened consumption patterns seem to signal a sort of snobbishness; something which is deserving of gentle mockery, if not open derision. In such an ideological climate, it is hard to imagine civic activism on a large scale taking off, far less bringing about a sea change in our current patterns of food production as part of a popular revolution against agribusiness.

What the makers of Food Inc fail to do adequately is to highlight the importance of governmental intervention (and not just regulation) into food production. While there is considerable criticism of the failures of the FDA and the USDA to enforce standards in an effective manner, the reluctance of Congress and State legislatures to strengthen their enforcement capabilities and toughen the applicable standards, and an entertaining and damning sequence listing the effects a revolving door policy have had in screwing farmers and consumers across the country, there is little discussion of the possibility that government could lead a greater cultural change in the way in which we eat. This is quite surprising, given that the documentary is quite clear to lay blame at the government’s door for its role in bringing us here in the first place. The makers note that seed production, for example, is now almost entirely privatized, and those who use publicly developed seeds are being squeezed into line, or out of work, by big agribusiness through the deployment of litigation threats and intellectual property protections. The State is responsible for this at two levels: firstly, by stepping out of the seed development process, thereby leaving farmers at the mercy of companies like Monsanto, and secondly, by taking the side of big agribusiness in its campaign against unencumbered farmers. Take another example: Pollan, in In Defense of Food, is quite clear to note that the calorific obsession plaguing our nation (and fuelled by food producers and packers) arose from a calculated decision by the Nixon administration to promote the production of cheap food. Like all forms of influential government regulation, consistent food policy privileged certain forms of interests over others, thereby leading eventually to a particular system of food production characterized by entrenched players with well-defined interests (a notable parallel: energy policy). Given the importance of governmental policy in getting us to here from grandma’s home cooked meals in less than 50 years, surely there is no reason to believe that government can’t be involved in moving us towards a better, more sustainable eating culture than the one we have now. More than just regulating the production and display of food, government has the power to use its institutions to enable a broader socio-economic shift in methods and patterns of consumption and production through the wise use of tax policy, grants for research and development, and the provision of greater access to knowledge through official information sources. This is not to argue, of course, that only the government can bring about this sort of change. Certainly not, civic activism has to be an integral part of the process as well. However, without significant governmental intervention and active policy encouragement, it is quite unlikely that any healthy eating initiative will have long-lasting (and widespread) effect.

Indeed, while it is beneficial for the government to intervene in influencing the prevailing attitudes towards food consumption and production, it is also probably essential for the state to step in if the wholesome food utopia is to be realized. This is because of the problem highlighted above: no entities other than the governments of the United States have the resources requisite to take the fight to food producers and agribusiness. Even concerted associational activity on the part of food defense activists is unlikely to be sufficient to counter the financial might and strategic cunning of these companies. For, as Hirshberg argues in the course of the movie, sensible eating campaigns cannot flourish only as Davids in a battle against Goliaths. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a recent New Yorker essay, while Davids have often prevailed against Goliaths in the history of conflict and innovation, this is hardly a dependable strategy for bringing about sustained change. What David needs, then, is a little help from a friendly giant: the State. One only wishes that the makers of Food Inc had taken this into consideration while presenting their argument to the public at large. The need of the day is not just to convince consumers to vote with their credit cards for better food, it is also to lobby government to help in the struggle for the consumers’ hearts, stomachs, and minds.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Withdrawing State in West Bengal

The Telegraph runs an editorial piece today about the 'Withered State' in West Bengal, which is mainly a description of how badly the government has messed up in dealing with the Lalgarh uprising, and the Maoist infiltration into the state. Its diagnosis of the condition seems convincing:

"A sectarian view of administration marked their long reign in the state. They did everything to blur and even obliterate the distinction between the government and the party. The administration was bent to serve the party’s interests. In a policy that was perfected by Anil Biswas, the late secretary of the West Bengal unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), top levels of the administration were packed with incompetent people. The only criterion for their selection was their ability to please the bosses at Alimuddin Street. With such people at the top, the administration simply lacked the capacity or will to deal with a crisis."

The title of the article may appear misleading, since the point being made is not so much the non-existence of the administration, as its sheer incompetence, brought about by years of subversion for political ends. However, the editorial goes on to clarify that the situation in Bengal isn't just about using the administration to further party ends (something which is a feature of politics in pretty much every other state in India), but also about replacing the enforcement process with a more deliberative, 'political' method of resolving disputes:

"To the party, all issues of governance must be reduced to politics. The result has been a bizarre situation in which all conflicts are sought to be resolved politically. This may sound pretty harmless; but what it meant in effect was that the party’s approach must prevail over all other options. Such an approach requires the administration to be constantly sidelined in order to make room for the so-called political approach"

This is reflected in the conditions leading to the Shalboni attacks on the CM's cavalcade: while the government did nothing for years to counter Maoist infiltration into Lalgarh and the surrounding areas, it reacted with brutal, and terrorising, force against local tribals following the incident. The decline of the administration implies that the state only has two options left when confronted with internal security crises: it can either do nothing (as it has done in Lalgarh, and continues to do in areas along the border with Bangladesh), or react with excessive, disproportionate force to try to re-establish some semblance of authority (Nandigram being the classic example of this). Neither of these options, of course, is sustainable in the long run to maintaining political authority over a large area of land, so this has led to a third feature of the state in Bengal: it is in withdrawal.

Much like the stereotypical Versailles court, the government in West Bengal is moving out of far-flung, troublesome areas towards consolidation in the centre, pausing along the way only to make a desperate attempt to prove its existence by gratuitous shows of violence. Again, bearing an uncanny similarity to Louis XVI's doomed reign, administration has been reduced to being a function of party games: the decisions of the mandarins at Alimuddin Street are final, and take precedence over the proposals of those in the administration who are far more experienced, and well-informed. This saga, as one may recall from history, is not likely to end well for anyone. Neither for the villagers caught in the cross-fire of the violent state and the despotic Maoists, nor for the pusillanimous administration, which can only withdraw so far and no further. It only took hours for Versailles to be occupied, but the aftermath of the march set back the course of French democracy by decades.

Monday, May 25, 2009

What's Wrong with Dynastic Politics?

The Indian Express has just published, here, an article I wrote about why dynastic politics is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Comments and suggestions are welcome here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kristof: Is rape serious?

Nicholas Kristof, in this NYT piece, wonders why rape investigations in the US are so desultory. It makes for very disturbing reading.

This links up to something I've been thinking about for a while: law enforcement officials in the US usually fall over backwards in haste when dealing with sexual crimes against minors (and understandably so). Why this apathy towards sexual crimes against women? Isn't there a worrying double standard in operation here: somehow, women who are raped aren't as deserving of the help of the State as those children who are. Is this distinction sensible?

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