An event in Kolkata

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Noam Chomsky's four-day visit to the West Bengal capital, as a State guest, was marked by intellectual engagement. The honours he was conferred and the enthusiastic popular response he received reflected the respect for his intellectual calibre and positions on issues.


AFTER more than five years since his last visit to Kolkata in January 1996, Professor Noam Chomsky was in the city again, as a State guest of the Government of West Bengal. The celebrated linguist, social thinker and political analyst has always had a special place in the hearts of the scholars and socially aware citizens of Kolkata, and the turnout at his lectures and the appreciation of what he said were ample proof that their affection and respect for him remain deep. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee captured the sentiment when he said: "Professor Chomsky, you must know that you are, and will remain, a very dear and respected person for us."

Chomsky, accompanied by wife Carol Chomsky, herself a renowned linguist, was in Kolkata for four days. In his short but eventful stay in the city, Chomsky visited historical sights, took a boat ride on the Hooghly and met many people. However, for the people of Kolkata, Chomsky's lecture - "September 11 and its Aftermath: Where is the World Heading?" - delivered at the Science City auditorium on November 20, was the high point of his tour. That his appeal is not restricted to the scholarly few was evident from the diverse nature of the crowd that flocked to the auditorium. One could see academics, ordinary people, students in T-shirts and jeans with satchels slung across their shoulders, all impatiently waiting outside the auditorium for the gates to open.

In his long lecture, Chomsky, whom the Chief Minister called the "conscience of America and the friend of the oppressed all over the world", came down heavily on the United States and accused it of perpetrating terrorism throughout the world. He argued that terrorist acts are actually carried out by the powerful upon the weak rather than the other way round. "It is a very serious analytical error to say that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Like other means of violence, it is primarily the weapon of the strong, overwhelmingly. It is a weapon of those against 'us', whoever 'us' happens to be," he said.

He said the new millennium saw two major crimes - the attack on the World Trade Centre (WTC) and the U.S.' inhuman response to it in Afghanistan. He said that the war in Afghanistan, precipitated by the U.S., was a greater terrorist act than the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, as the consequences of the former have been far more grave, affecting hundreds and thousands of innocent lives. "No doubt Washington could have attained authorisation of the Security Council and have gone about the whole thing in a different manner, rather than taking matters into its own hands," Chomsky said. He did not spare U.S.' allies in the war and said that England and France shared an imperial legacy "that legitimises the attack on a weaker force".

He said the situation in Afghanistan looked very grim. "People in Afghanistan have for long been surviving on international aid. At the moment there are over 7.5 million Afghans facing starvation in the country and this war will only make matters worse." He said next year would be even harder for the poor in Afghanistan as the U.S. bombings have affected over 80 per cent of the grain supply in the country. Blaming the media for not exposing the extreme suffering and the real tragedy of the war victims in Afghanistan, he said: "The major atrocities have not been reported , and will not be either; one can be sure about that." The media are too busy projecting the war as America's campaign against terrorism. He said that eradicating the forces of terrorism is a "noble enterprise, and nothing new". He referred to the Reagan Administration's condemnation of terrorism - "the depraved opponents of civilisation" - and reminded the audience of the U.S.-sponsored terrorism that was in full flow during the Reagan years, including steps taken to oust the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. He added that this once again proved how world politics was ruled by force.

Carol and Noam Chomsky being shown around the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.

Chomsky criticised the reasoning behind the claim that the U.S. attack was an act of defence. He said that the U.S.' policy of complete "dominance of space" was to ensure that even "poor man's weapons" will not be available to any of its adversaries. He said that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a unipolar world had heightened U.S. hegemony.

Chomsky said that globalisation had taken on a much narrower meaning over the last 20 years than it had earlier. "It is designed for the concentration of power in select hands." According to him, the need for total dominance of space will increase as the expansion of globalisation and the neo-liberal economic policies further the gap between the haves and the have-nots. "As this gap increases, there will be unrest among the have-nots, and the U.S. plans to control that unrest." He said that the term "neo-liberal policies" was a misnomer. "They are neither new nor are they liberal", and liberalisation itself is being shaped into an instrument of power. "Liberalisation is actually eating into the core of democracy," he said.

Chomsky said that the claim of the U.S. that globalisation had brought about an economic boom in the 1990s was fallacious as it had failed in Mexico and other Latin American countries and even in the U.S. Chomsky said that in order to counter this, the U.S., through the might of arms, was trying to gain a position of control, and hence it had to continue with its satellite-based ballistic nuclear-missile programme. With the aid of its policies of globalisation, U.S. hegemony has reached a point where "it is now a threat to human survival". "Even the environment, which preserves human lives, is getting destroyed," he said.

Chomsky said that there was a trend among the less-developed countries to arm themselves to the teeth, as is evident from China's resumption of nuclear tests. He strongly criticised China's sale of warheads to Pakistan. "I am afraid that the continuing war plans would prompt India and Pakistan to procure weapons."

Chomsky observed that the economic system in the U.S. was meant to protect the interests of the opulent at the cost of the poor. The "permanent interest" of the country is defined as the interest of the rich. Chomsky pointed out that because the policies catered more to the rich, the poor were generally victims of deprivation and unfairness.

However, Chomsky said, there were some positive developments the world over. A recognition of human rights is growing among people the world over and there are growing movements against free-trade regimes, deprivation and injustice. Only if such movements spread can a positive change in the world order be brought about.

DURING his previous visit to West Bengal, Chomsky had visited villages in Medinipur district to interact with the office-bearers and members of various panchayats. In an interesting comment on the experience, he said that what he saw was "an example of democratic participation that is not easy to find" (Frontline, February 23, 1996). This time, he saw the city of Kolkata. On November 21, Chomsky and his wife visited the Victoria Memorial and took an extensive tour of the art galleries inside. He also took a two-hour boat ride on the Hooghly - one of the symbols of the city and a source of sustenance for many people - and saw life on the banks of the river, including the Chhat Puja celebrations on that particular day. Although pursued by the press throughout, he politely made it clear that the Chomskys' day of tourism was a private one. He even managed to give the press the slip and walk around unnoticed in New Market, a marketplace that is more than 100 years old and still thriving and teeming with life.

On November 22, Calcutta University, the oldest university in India, conferred the degree of Doctor of Literature on Chomsky for his outstanding contributions in the fields of linguistics and social sciences. Receiving the degree from Vice-Chancellor Asis Kumar Banerjee, Chomsky said he was happy to receive the honour in the land where his subject had its origin. "The first generative grammar in the modern sense was Panini's grammar," he said. In a 10-minute speech of masterly conciseness, Chomsky presented an overview of the present state of knowledge in the field of linguistics and modern discoveries made in the field.

The same day, the Asiatic Society of India presented him with the Rabindranath Tagore Birth Centenary Plaque. Past recipients of the award, instituted in 1961, include Bertrand Russell, C.V. Raman, Satyendranath Bose, Satyajit Ray, Neils Bohr and S. Chandrasekhar. Receiving the plaque, Chomsky said: "It is a rare and unexpected honour and one that I shall always treasure."

Later, he visited the manuscripts section of the Asiatic Society. The section consists of a collection of 45,000 rare manuscripts in 21 languages and 42 scripts. Among the inscriptions in the section, the most fascinating is an Asokan edict written in Brahmi. Chomsky was particularly impressed with an 18th century palm-leaf manuscript containing commentaries on Panini's grammar. In the guest book, he wrote: "A remarkable collection." He encouraged the Society to "go ahead with your academic programme based on these rare source materials on Indian civilisation".

In his interactive session with intellectuals in the city, he spoke extensively on various social, political and philosophical issues. Presiding over the interactive session was the eminent economist Amiya Kumar Bagchi, who referred to Chomsky as one of the most amazing minds in the world today. "He is a beacon for lesser people who are also intellectuals. The only person in my time, I think, who can be compared with him is perhaps Bertrand Russell," Bagchi said.

In reply to a question, Chomsky said that no solution was possible to the present crisis in Kashmir without democratic participation being assured to the people of Kashmir. He observed that India would not stand to gain much from the series of diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Delhi after the September 11 incidents. "The U.S. was all praise for India in August and dismissed Pakistan as a rogue state. But it quickly changed its stand and now with the war in Afghanistan Pakistan has become one of its closest friends." He said that the U.S. was known for continuously shifting its stand to suit its own interest. Saddam Hussain of Iraq was once considered a 'good guy' by the U.S.; but now he is considered a rogue. He said the war on terrorism was not a clash between civilisations as the U.S. was fighting its own creation.

Chomsky strongly condemned any form of religious fundamentalism. At the same time, he observed that the "root of all radical versions of religious extremism lies in the fact that these extremists have been consistently denied participation in social and political affairs in their respective countries. The way to put an end to this menace is to provide education to develop an altogether different culture".

On a question relating to his theories of anarchism, he said the word 'anarchism' had long been misinterpreted. "I believe any hierarchical structure has to justify its existence. If it can not do so, it should be dismantled to increase the scope of human freedom. If my four-year-old granddaughter should rush out into a busy street, I will use both authority and physical coercion to stop her from doing so. But I will be able to justify my act," Chomsky said. Asked about the role of force, he replied that the "use of force requires enormous justification. But if it can be justified, it should be used".

When asked what suggestions he would give to individuals who are trying to raise questions and challenge conventional doctrines, Chomsky said: "It's the same advice you'd give to a young scientist. Be honest, be thoughtful, be creative."

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