Who can speak for the people?
Smitu Kothari

This article is a response to Ramchandra Guha's `The Arun Shourie of the left' (The Hindu Magazine, November 26, 2000). Ram is a friend and I write because I am pained by his style and tenor and the damage that he potentially does to the fragile struggles for justice and social sanity in our country. I also write because it is unusual for someone of his sensitivity and experience to make some basic political mistakes in both the timing of his article and his understanding of the role of those who respond to their conscience and commit themselves to critical cultural and political issues in the country.

Vantage Point: Ram's overall tone sounds surprisingly hostile. For someone who has not only been an ideologue of the struggles of the underprivileged and unsung (note his work with the Subaltern group of scholars as well as his work on the social and ecological history of Garhwal in particular and also of India), it is surprising that he would sit in judgment of a writer who has so widely been accepted by a majority of the victims of the Narmada dams. If he was indeed concerned about the adverse impact that Arundhati's writings and her presence were having on the Narmada movement, he should have first gone to the Narmada valley and sat with the movement people and gauged their sensibilities and their sentiment. They have wholeheartedly accepted the role that Arundhati has played. You can argue that this is false consciousness, but it cannot be refuted that at a time when middle class support to the struggle in the valley was waning, Arundhati was one of the few who actively participated in some of the most difficult actions, faced the wrath of the police and went through arduous treks to express her solidarity with the lives and livelihoods of the local people. In the final analysis, they are the final arbiter and if concerned people like Ram and this author have to engage the movement on issues we have differences with, it is only appropriate that this is first done with those who have the most to lose. This is not to say that there is no role for the intellectual to assess social processes without immersion I them. In this case, however, Ram is a 'movement' person and has to exercise a different kind of caution and responsibility.

Arundhati, the RSS and the model of development: Ram criticises Arundhati for her thinking in extremes and yet falls into the same pattern when he criticises her for sharing RSS sensibilities. Almost since the inception of the nationalist movement and even in the statements from social and political movements among adivasis before that, there has been a debate on the developmental path that a community, region or India must follow if it has to secure sustainable livelihoods for all its people. The developmental path of the past thirty years has massively destroyed or undermined the ecological fabric of the country (threatening the livelihoods and cultures of millions), doubled the gap between the poor and the rich and only marginally assisted the poor to secure assets that can provide critical security from the vagaries of climate, hostile markets, even from social oppression. In this situation, there is legitimacy for groups of people and for several of India's social movements to chart a path that fundamentally criticises the present developmental path. Ram surely believes in the plurality of ideas and developmental paths co-existing - a healthy battle of ideas, not a hegemonising of one over the other. Why should a critique of present patterns of economic development or of the profound problems with the enterprise of modern science be a space that only the RSS can occupy? By comparing Arundhati's ideas with those of the RSS, he gives up the space for alternative development to the RSS. This is political understanding with grave consequences. While I share his concern about romanticisation of tribal life, it is in engaging people like Arundhati in the realities, histories and dreams of Adivasi communities in India (and the variations within each community) that a better purpose would have been served. His criticism could easily be used by those who see no other future for the adivasis but to "integrate them into the mainstream" on terms over which they have little or no control. Even the World Commission on Dams which was a plural body representing dam builders, financiers and opponents agreed (in its report released on November 16th) that adivasis should have the `right of prior and informed consent' before development projects are introduced into their lands. Democracy must rest on informed consent and not on the arrogance of those who believe that their model of development is in the "national interest' just because they have been elected to power.

Middle Class Apathy and the Role of `Eminent' People : At a time of growing middle class apathy to the most critical issues of development, justice and democracy, the commitment of writers acting on their conscience and using the popular media to highlight these issues is critical in sensitising the middle classes and creating wider awareness amongst them. I have myself been witness to the dozens of young people, primarily inspired by her articles, who have since traveled to the Narmada valley (many several times) and committed themselves to the struggle there. Sensitising the youth about the struggles for justice in valleys far beyond their daily life is a crucial achievement. Ashish Kothari and Rajiv Bhartari's articles in the Economic and Political Weekly have another space, a more activist and scholarly space. Frontline, and Hindustan Times and Outlook (and the many Indian languages where the Narmada essays have been translated) have a slightly overlapping but distinctively larger space in the middle class world. Ii is both because of her fame but also because the issues she has sought to highlight and commit herself to are critical to bringing to wider public debate that N. Ram, Vinod Mehta and their editorial teams decided to give unprecedented space in their magazines.

Who can speak for the people: With a twinge of elitist arrogance Ram suggests that Arundhati should go back to writing fiction. In fact, we need more artists and literary writers and poets to respond to their conscience and commit themselves to the essential tasks of widening the sensitivity of the middle classes to the unjust and undemocratic processes in the country. The role of better known members of the writer and artists community needs to be celebrated and widened. Let me randomly cite some diverse examples -- Mahashweta Devi's support to adivasis in eastern India and the Adivasi struggle for dignity and autonomy, Shabana Azmi's central role in the Nivara Hakk Samiti, fighting for the rights of slum and pavement dwellers in Mumbai, the role of singers like the Vadali brothers or of writers like Zohra Sehgal, who more recently lent her powerful presence to the cultural programmes that concluded the recent National Convention on Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in Delhi. The role of some of India's best known artists - for instance mobilised around SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) - in issues as wide ranging and communalism and nuclear weapons or the work of Jatin Das in the aftermath of the gruesome tragedy of post-cyclone Orissa are other instances of privileged people of the arts responding to the call of their conscience and politically and culturally committing themselves to the wider struggle for justice and peace in India and beyond. Arundhati is part of that process. She may have her weaknesses but that is no reason to condemn her exemplary commitment, unlike most armchair academics and artists.

Timing : At a time in which we are under such a significant onslaught - both internal and external - it is incumbent upon us to understand who are allies are. When Lal Krishna Advani attacks those who oppose India's nuclear weapons programme and dams as "anti-national", when across the country we are becoming slavish in our almost uncritical acceptance of a consumerist, lifestyle that sacrifices the short and long term security of a majority of India's people, when so much of activism is becoming individualised and the collective political forums -- from unions to radical parties and forums -- are in crisis, we need to acknowledge that this is a time when new alliances have to forged, when we must lay aside (whilst being aware of them) our small differences in the broad left and mould a common strategy together. We may have differences with Arundhati's style, her language but there is no doubt in my mind that in the process of building countervailing power, she is an ally.

Three other smaller errors:

  1. Ram errs when he labels the Narmada movement as an "environmental' movement. I can only quote from a recent article of mine that addresses this issue: "The classification or labelling as `environmental' of the myriad ways in which predominantly rural communities have struggled, fought repression and resisted co-optation is itself a problem. This classification has come primarily from the media but also from scholars and activists who do not adequately understand the nature, the context and the history of these struggles. An inevitable simplification has resulted where complex socio-cultural and political struggles are reduced as being those that are only concerned about elements of the natural environment - the Chipko movement is then only about preventing felling, the Narmada Bachao Andolan is anti-dam, the Kashtakari Sangathna wants control over land and forests, etc.

    These three movements as well as the ones mentioned above are essentially political movements and while they differ significantly from one another, they are fundamentally different from identity (e.g. Dalit) or industrial working class or unorganised labour mobilisations. The primary difference is that while they seek a fundamental transformation of existing socio-economic structures, including the very patterns of political and economic development, they are centred on rights and control over productive natural resources. In the realisation that this transformation is an essential part of regaining control over land, forests or water systems is the recognition that their struggles seek nothing less than a redefinition of what constitutes the political." ('A Million Mutinies Now. Lesser Known Environmental Movements', Humanscape, October 2000).

  2. There are several inaccuracies when Ram says that after reading Ashish Kothari and Rajiv Bhartari's article, "Medha Patkar was encouraged to move from social work in Mumbai to mobilising activists in Madhya Pradesh." While the article may have been a small inspiration, there were other more crucial factors. Medha was in the Panchmahals working on a project for SETU-Lokayan when the Kothari-Bhartari article appeared. She first went to the Narmada valley on a SETU project, went to Maharashtra (with legal activist, Vasudha Dhagamvar) and not M.P. and only later decided to move to the valley full time. It was the pioneering work of activists like Anil Patel and Ambrish of ARCH-Vahini in Rajpipla and the early legal battles in Gujarat's courts that had helped to highlight the plight of the displaced.


  3. Ram identifies the 1970s as the beginning of protests at the sites of large dams. In fact, it is important to acknowledge the historic struggle in the 1960s around the Rihand dam in the Singrauli region on the border of U.P. and M.P. Ram Manohar Lohia and socialist activists staged a remarkable struggle for justice, which rocked Parliament and brought the social costs of large dams into the centre of political concern.