Chomsky in India

Print edition : November 24, 2001

His incisive reasoning, searing sarcasm, passionate advocacy of political and social activism and keen sense of humour endeared Professor Noam Chomsky to audiences across the country.

IT is rare for an intellectual to be at the centre of public excitement. Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on a tour of India for the second time in five years, has evoked public enthusiasm on a scale that few intellectuals can dream of. For Indians troubled by the happenings in Afghanistan and craving for an alternative view of what is really happening there, Chomsky's three-week-long tour has been a deliverance. The polymath - pioneer in the field of linguistics, social theorist, political and media critic and above all, the most consistent and powerful voice against the American establishment - addressed audiences in Delhi, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.

Noam Chomsky delivering his lecture at the Music Academy in Chennai.-K. GAJENDRAN

The unique combination of incisive reasoning, searing sarcasm, passionate advocacy of political and social activism and a keen sense of humour, which was never allowed to stray too far endeared Chomsky to the audiences.

In a sense the tragic events in the United States on September 11 and the U.S. attacks in Afghanistan since October 7 have hijacked Chomsky's tour of India, which was fixed soon after his last tour in 1996. He was to speak on a range of subjects that have engaged his attention, but these were swept away by the events since September 11. In fact, Chomsky said as much at his first public engagement in Delhi, the Fifth D.T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture organised by the Institute of Social Sciences on November 3, titled 'Peering into the Abyss of the Future'. He said he had hoped to focus on issues relating to human rights, social and economic development and also on the role of force in world affairs. Chomsky said that since September 11 these issues had been "displaced" by the threat of international terrorism.

The turnout at his lectures simply overwhelmed the organisers wherever he went. The FICCI auditorium in Delhi, venue of the Lakdawala Memorial Lecture, was unable to accommodate the huge turnout. However, arrangements had been made to watch and hear Chomsky on a display screen outside the hall. Across the country the significant presence of youth in the audience was noticeable as was the fact that the audience consisted of a cross-section of society. Intellectuals who had followed Chomsky's lifetime of writing and advocacy were there, as were workers, students, women activists and others from every conceivable section of society.

At Delhi University in his lecture on 'Militarism, Democracy and the Right to Information,' Chomsky spoke about the concentration of power centres. The meeting was organised by the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information and students of Delhi University, especially those of Ramjas College. Also present at the meeting were Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy. This was the first open meeting where people listened in pin-drop silence to the dissident voice of Chomsky for over two hours. At one point when it appeared that the mike had failed, and he thought it was time to wind up, the audience pleaded, "Please continue."

A section of the overflowing audience at the Music Academy in Chennai-SHAJU JOHN

Chomsky said that the United States was a uniquely free country with regard to the right to information and that the task of suppressing the right to information was not undertaken by the state. Chomsky observed in his trade-mark sarcasm that it was the solemn duty of the intellectuals, the educated class and the free press to ensure that the right to information was denied to the people. The mass of the population was unaware of what was really happening in Afghanistan. Where it is known, there have been mass reactions, he noted.

Chomsky delivered the S.K. Bose Memorial Lecture in philosophy, titled 'Language and rest of the world', at St. Stephens College, Delhi, on November 4. The task before linguistic theory, he said, is to continue the examination of the fundamental properties of the language faculty so as to achieve a possible unification with the insights that science had gained about evolution and the principles of the form and structure of organic systems.

In Chennai, every shade of public and political opinion was present at the jam-packed Music Academy where he delivered a lecture, 'September 11 and its Aftermath: Where is the World Heading?', sponsored by Frontline and the Media Development Foundation, on November 10. No one could recall any intellectual having got such a response in the city. Not even a strike by transport workers held people back. Those who work by their intellect often say the hallmark of a great lecture is the effect it has at the end of it - listeners just do not go away at the end of a good lecture. In Chennai, well after Chomsky finished his lecture, people gathered in knots discussing passionately what they had just gathered from the greatest mind of our times.

Earlier in the day, a limited audience of about 200, mostly comprising budding journalists at the Asian College of Journalism, had a two-hour 'Open and Free Discussion' with Chomsky. Participants were provided a rare opportunity to meet the polymath face to face, handling subjects ranging from linguistics to science and media criticism.

In Thiruvananthapuram, Chomsky's lecture, titled 'Globalisation and Human Survival: The Challenges after September 11', on November 11 provided an exciting start to the activities of the EMS Academy. The Academy, to be developed as an alternative centre for learning and research, has been instituted in the memory of E.M.S. Namboodiripad, one of the greatest intellectuals of Kerala and India. Many walked several kilometres to attend the event. Members of the audience, a large number of whom failed to find seats inside the hall, heard him in rapt attention throughout the one-and-a-half-hour speech. Later, one of the first questions that Chomsky fielded, soon after he delightfully acknowledged autograph hunters, was on "what he would have done after the September 11 attacks, had he been the President of the United States." Chomsky said: "Exactly the same thing as President George Bush. It is an institutional reaction and had I been the President, the reaction would have been the same." Chomsky added that it only showed that what need to be changed are institutions, not individuals.

As Chomsky speaks, (from right) Carol Chomsky, N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, Sashi Kumar, Chairman, Media Development Foundation, and Mythily Sivaraman, working president, All India Democratic Women's Association, Tamil Nadu, on the dais.-K. GAJENDRAN


Addressing audiences in his inimitable way, Chomsky has lent context and meaning to the September 11 bombings and the "catastrophe" in Afghanistan since then. In Delhi he reminded the audience that while the September 11 events had the most devastating human toll outside of war, it was not to be forgotten that the death toll could have doubled to gone even higher within a few weeks as miserable Afghans fled - to nowhere - under the threat of bombing. In Chennai, he pointed out that "the crimes of September 11 are indeed a historic turning point, but not because of the scale, rather because of the choice of target". He alluded to the fact that this was the first time the national territory of the United States faced attack since 1814. "For the first time the guns have been pointed in the opposite direction, that is the dramatic change," he said.

Three issues dominated Chomsky's public engagements in India: a discussion of what constitutes terrorism; the militarisation of space by the U.S.; and a searing critique of what he hesitantly calls "globalisation." These have been woven into a tapestry that only a Chomsky can provide. Chomsky makes a distinction between two notions of terrorism. One, of a literal kind, and the other a propagandist one. The literal notion of terrorism, and one which is contained in official U.S. documents, instructed that "terrorism (is) the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature (carried out) through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear." Chomsky argued that American imperialist policy has jettisoned this literal definition in favour of the propagandist one, which is nothing but a truism. This preferred version categorises anyone who is against the U.S., its friends and allies, as a terrorist.

With Arundhati Roy at Delhi University.-SANDEEP SAXENA

While speaking in Delhi, Chomsky pointed to the close identity of this definition of terrorism to the Nazi definition of its own terror directed at the partisans. He said the U.S. goal was to achieve full spectrum dominance which meant a monopoly in the use of outer space for military purposes. Throughout his tour Chomsky hammered at the hypocrisy of the official definition of terrorism which, by convoluted reasoning, always condoned U.S.-led terrorism across the world.

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has barely engaged the attention of the media. Chomsky pointed to the unfolding "catastrophe" there, and said that even prior to September 11, the country was dependent on international food-aid for survival. The population at risk, he said, had risen dramatically - from 5 million to 7.5 million - since then. Before the bombing, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had warned that seven million people faced starvation in the event of military intervention in Afghanistan. After the bombing commenced, the FAO warned that the destruction of 80 per cent of the grain supplies meant that long-term food security risks were greatly enhanced. Chomsky remarked: "What the effect will be, we may never know. Starvation does not kill people instantly but bleeds people." He said there was nothing new in the attitudes of western governments to the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan. "Only those who are entirely ignorant of modern history will be surprised by the course of events, or by the justifications that are provided by the educated classes."

Chomsky dismisses notions of the "new" war on terror. He referred to the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in the early 1980s; the U.S. ignored condemnation by the International Court of Justice for its "unlawful use of force" and vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that simply called on all states to observe international law. This was 20 years ago, during the Reagan administration, which had proclaimed that the struggle against international terrorism would be at the core of U.S. foreign policy. The World Court's order calling for the termination of international terrorism and the payment of substantial reparations to Nicaragua, was dismissed with contempt by the U.S. Instead it escalated the war, with official orders to the mercenary army fighting the Sandinista government to avoid combat and to attack undefended civilian targets. Chomsky said that U.S.-sponsored state terrorists in Central America left hundreds of thousands of tortured and mutilated corpses, millions maimed and orphaned and four countries in ruin. Around the same time, South African depredations, backed by Western governments, killed 1.5 million people. All this, said Chomsky, was barred from the official annals of what is called terrorism.

At the inauguration of the academic activities of the EMS Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. At right is M.A. Baby, Central Committee member of the CPI(M), and at left is Dr. K.N. Panikkar, historian and Vice-Chancellor of the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady.-N. RAM

He referred to Charles Tilly, the historian, to make the point that over the last millennium, European states have been relentlessly at war because of what he calls "a central tragic fact - that coercion works". "Those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, and access to pleasures denied to less powerful people." Chomsky observed that although most of the world understands this, it refuses to "penetrate the heights of intellectual enlightenment."

Terror, he said, provides the context of fear in which it is possible for the powerful to "ram through harsh and regressive measures that would otherwise arouse resistance." The weapons of mass destruction play a part in this reign of terror imposed by the powerful states on the weaker ones. "For the powerful," remarked Chomsky, "nuclear weapons are the weapon of choice." He quoted from official U.S. military sources to make the point that U.S. policy deliberately appears irrational and vindictive to give credence to its ability to impose its threat of terror on the weak - an idea that he has expounded in great detail in his book, Rogue States. The Ballistic Missile Defence system is only a small part of the overall U.S. move to militarise space. The more important objective, he stated, was the American effort "to achieve sole spectrum dominance, that is, a monopoly of the use of space for offensive military purposes."

Chomsky quoted from defence analysts to make the point that "missile defence is not meant to protect America, it is a tool for global dominance for hegemony." Since missile systems depend greatly on satellite communications, the U.S. attempt is to control space "so overwhelmingly" that even the stray missile that may become available to adversaries will be ineffective. He also pointed out that the growing clout of "corporate tyrannies" and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots make terror an important tool to put down resistance.

The U.S. attempt at absolute dominance is linked to what Chomsky hesitatingly calls "globalisation". He takes pains to emphasise that globalisation, in a neutral sense, simply means "international integration, welcome or not depending on the human consequences." He argues that the term has been hijacked to imply a "specific form of international integration," particularly in the last quarter of a century. This, he says, has happened because it is then easy to label the anti-globalisation movement - which is really against corporate domination of the planet - as "primitivists who want to return to the stone age".

There is nothing novel about "neoliberalism," says Chomsky. "It is not new and it is not liberal." This has repeatedly figured in his lectures in India. He argues that liberalism is a double-edged instrument of power and domination. He points out that the British domination of India was achieved by pursuing liberal policies in India while at the same time using state power to protect the interests of the powerful in Britain. In other words, market discipline for the weak and the protection of the "powerful nanny state" for the powerful. This, he argues, was at the heart of British domination of India over two centuries.

Chomsky pointed out that Mexico's integration with the global economy had resulted in declining wages in the last two decades. Wages of salaried workers had declined by 25 per cent and of non-regular workers by 40 per cent. And the number of non-regular workers had increased, domestic investment had fallen and the economy had increasingly been transferred to the hands of multinational corporations. Agriculture suffered a huge blow as Mexican farmers could not compete with highly subsidised U.S. agricultural products. There was a huge influx of people from the rural and urban countryside to the U.S. Chomsky quotes a study by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation: "Consumption in the U.S. is subsidised by impoverishment of farm workers, both in the U.S. and in Mexico." These are referred to as "externalities," he noted.

Chomsky referred to the evolution of the human rights culture across the world, a tendency which has accelerated since the 1960s. He said this has had a dramatic and "civilising effect," which has heightened the concern for human rights in many countries. He said that in the U.S. this was in great measure attributable to the popular resistance to the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Quite apart from the incisive precision of his sheer reasoning, what moved one was the 73-year-old Chomsky telling a budding journalist at the ACJ about the need to be optimistic. Asked if he was not being "too optimistic" about the possibilities for change, given the "World Order," Chomsky remarked: "There is no measure of how optimistic you ought to be. In fact, as far as optimism is concerned, you basically have two choices. You can say, 'nothing is going to work, and so I am not going to do anything.' You can therefore guarantee that the worst possible outcomes will come about. Or, you can take the other position and say, 'Maybe something will work and I will engage myself in trying to make it work. Maybe there is a chance that things can get better.' That is your choice. Nobody can tell how right it is to be optimistic. Nothing can be predicted in human affairs... nothing."

With inputs from T.K. Rajalakshmi in New Delhi and R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram.

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