The historian as gatekeeper

Print edition : December 23, 2001

It is disconcerting to see Ramachandra Guha conferring upon himself the role of elder statesman and presuming to decree who should be allowed to be in the larger environmental movement and who not.

FOLLOWING the damning judgment on the Sardar Sarovar by the Supreme Court, it has been open season for all to offer advice to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Most of these articles, written by a broad spectrum of political commentators, have been valua ble. Some have suggested the consolidation and broadening of the movement. Many have looked critically at Andolan strategies and offered very useful insights, others have encouraged the dam-affected people to struggle on despite all the odds.

But it was Ramachandra Guha's outburst on the opening page of The Hindu Magazine section of November 26, 2000 that perplexed and shocked many of us, because he has used the Narmada issue merely as an excuse to declare a personal turf war. It serve s only to expose the smallness of Guha's concerns and the deep conservatism of his politics.

Arundhati Roy with Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar at a dharna in Bhopal in November. With millions of workers and peasants in India being uprooted and cast aside in the new international division of labour, and the subordination of all soc ial accountability to the quest of economic profit, these are times when intellectuals and artists are going to be called upon to take sides as never before.-M. FARUQUI

It was in March this year that I first encountered Guha's politics. I had known of him as a commentator on several significant ecological movements in India. I was surprised therefore to find on a friend's computer an open letter written by him to Medha Patkar and mailed out extensively a few days prior to U.S. President Clinton's visit to India. The letter advised Medha against participating in or organising protests during Clinton's India visit. He expressed his inability to understand why the NBA sho uld protest on this occasion.

Clinton had come and gone by the time I saw Guha's letter. In the meantime, Ogden Energy - a U.S. power utility that had flown in with Clinton as part of his corporate entourage - had signed a Memorandum of Understanding expressing its intent to invest i n the Maheshwar Project, one of the big dams on the Narmada, and India's first such project to be privatised. So what the NBA had anticipated and feared about Clinton's visit was already becoming a reality. I wrote to Guha, telling him why we had to prot est against Clinton. That the protest was against a globalisation agenda which promotes multinational corporations which seek to take away our lands and waters and forests and convert them into super corporate profits, without caring at all for the peopl e and the environment. An agenda whose functioning is deeply anti-democratic in character. That the survival of 50,000 people in the Maheshwar region is perhaps as good a reason as any to protest against Clinton's visit, and that this was just symptomati c of the larger gestalt. I asked Guha whether the people of the Narmada valley had any option but to protest, and please to clarify to us his own understanding of the process of globalisation. Several other people wrote back expanding the debate, but Guh a never did. Perhaps he never replies to non-celebrities.

In this piece in The Hindu, Guha once again dispenses a fair amount of free advice. This time around, the ecological historian approvingly quotes someone else's suggestion that the NBA should disassociate itself from Arundhati Roy. Further, he adv ises Roy herself to discontinue her political writing and revert to writing fiction.

WHILE he is obviously out to discredit Arundhati Roy, what exactly are his charges? He makes the wholly unfounded accusation that Roy is careless with her words. He insinuates that the strands with which she weaves her essays are flawed. Yet, he is not a ble to fault her on a single fact, he has nothing to say to her carefully and painstakingly researched facts, nor to her marshalling of them to construct an argument. There is no critique of substance here at all.

What he does comment on is what he perceives to be her careless attitude vis-a-vis the structures of the state. He objects to the fact that she does not defer to propriety, that there is no bowing, no kowtowing, no politesse, that she comments aci dly on the government and the Supreme Court. It is this discomfort that I find so worrying.

There are many people who believe that the institutionalisation of justice in the form of the judicial system that accompanied the emergence of bourgeois democracy only serves the interests of the ruling classes in this country. For them it is only natur al that the courts will not and cannot give justice to the poor. But for those of us who do believe that the courts - like any other institution in this troubled democracy - are contested arenas for conflicting interests, the only means of ensurin g that the courts continue to function as institutions that affirm democracy, is by subjecting them to intense and persistent public scrutiny.

It is now a matter of widespread concern that the judicial system of this country and its judgments are becoming increasingly anti-people: the Bhopal judgment as well as the one on the Narmada are both landmarks of justice denied. The recent judgment on the relocation of small industries and the fate of 25 lakh workers in Delhi becomes incomprehensible when you consider the government data that 67 per cent of all pollution in Delhi comes from vehicles. Yet there is no judgment on the sale, purchase or u se of private cars, no real attempt to provide a better public transport system. The rich cannot be touched, but the industries and the workers must go. Does it not need to be asked then, what kind of justice is this, that is so divorced from its real ob jectives and what ends does it seek to meet?

The judgment on the Sardar Sarovar Project has to be scrutinised not only because of what it will mean for the millions of people in the Narmada valley who are being uprooted even while it has been made abundantly clear that there is simply no agricultur al land available to rehabilitate them. It has to be scrutinised also because it draws larger conclusions about big dams in general (based not on empirical evidence, but on judicial conjecture) and about popular movements and people's access to the syste m of justice in particular. The majority judgment suggests that people cannot appeal to the courts of law once a project is under way. Since communities are never informed about a project until it begins to be executed, and since this judgment dec rees that they cannot appeal once it begins to be executed, does it mean that affected people can never question a patently bad project? This can only mean that the judicial system - one of the foundations of a democratic system - is unavailable t o the common people of this country and their struggles.

Apart from the NBA itself, many political commentators have critiqued and commented upon the Sardar Sarovar judgment. Arundhati Roy is one of them. It is not clear then why Ramachandra Guha singles her out for his diatribe.

ONE of the other things that is deeply disturbing about Guha's article is the contempt that he shows for literature. By advising Arundhati Roy to go back to creative writing, he implies that literature is not about politics. That Velutha or the way he lo ved or died is not a skein from the political life or the personal anguish of the Dalits in our country. (But then, he admits to not having read The God of Small Things, though how someone can condemn a writer so roundly without having read her wo rk is a puzzle.) Living in a country where Neel Darpan, a celebrated play about the plight of the indigo planters during colonial times, inspired peasant struggles and a resistant subaltern consciousness; where the independence struggle (and many people's movements before and after) were marked by the participation of writers and artists; where authors like Gopinath Mohanty and Mahashweta Devi have held up for the nation's conscience the relentless expropriation of tribal resources and the pauper isation of the tribal communities; where Ashapurna Devi's trilogy has shown layer by layer what it is to be a woman in a patriarchal society; where fiction in every Indian language as well as Indian writing in English have shown us the impossible politic al contradictions of our times; where cultural movements like the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) have happened, to then suggest that art and literature is not about politics is - to understate it - preposterous.

Guha also tries to make the point that intellectual and analytical resources about the problem of dams in the Narmada valley pre-existed the NBA and Arundhati Roy. Ergo, they are not original and deserve no kudos. There is neither the time nor the space here to go into the omissions in Guha's historical narrative or his feeble attempt to put the records straight. Guha forgets to mention the mass movement against the Sardar Sarovar in the late 1970s, when hundreds of people courted arrest protesting agai nst the project, including politicians like Arjun Singh and even the late President Shankar Dayal Sharma. That in the 1970s, there was a movement in the command area of one of the large dams in the Narmada valley - the Tawa - on the issues of water-log ging and salinity created by this dam. Of course political initiatives and understandings about the Narmada dams existed prior to the Andolan. They have flowered in independent spaces even after the Andolan began. But the point is that each of these initiatives is original. New facts emerge, new scenarios develop and new readings help us gain fresh insights. They are all part of the rich fabric of social and political interventions, an invitation to understand and participate in the real s ocial questions of our day and age. As a historian Guha should know that.

And that is what I find most outrageous about Guha's article. That he calls on Arundhati Roy to disengage from politics, to sever herself from the questions of this time and place, and to seek it in the timeless realms of fantasy, where her writing may p erhaps not be so subversive, or threatening. Worse, he justifies this as being for the good of the environmental movement. Maybe Guha needs to look within his own facile politics to understand why he finds Arundhati Roy's writing so threatening? Is it on ly the crude reaction of one who finds himself unprepared to share his turf? Or is it a deeper, conservative response to a politics that he feels is too radical, too interrogative? Whatever be the case, Guha must understand that these are times that need political engagement desperately, even as millions of workers and peasants in India's cities and countryside are uprooted and cast aside in the new international division of labour, and the subordination of all social accountability to the quest for eco nomic profit. Intellectuals and artists are going to be called upon to take sides as never before.

There is a consensus that is being sought to be thrust on us. That all that dispossesses us is what is actually good for us. That the new prescription of privatisation and globalisation will redeem us with its efficiency. But the truth is far from the cl aims. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out in her recent essay, the fact is that privatised Enron power is five times the cost of state produced power in Maharashtra, and that it has seriously jeopardised the health of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board . That the same scenario will be repeated in Madhya Pradesh - the power tariff of the proposed privatised Maheshwar Project will be 26 times more expensive than the present cost of hydel power being generated in the State. So privately produced power wil l be many times more expensive than power produced by state utilities, and the efficiency claims of the privatisation and globalisation project fall through the floor.

These are questions that must be asked of the Indian state, and asked repeatedly, by those who are being dispossessed as well as by the rest of civil society. What we need as much as the coming together of those who are paying the price of this globalisa tion, is the coming together of those who can bring what is at the moment just outside the realm of common understanding into the realm of common understanding. We need those who can unravel for us the machinations of the state and its partners, a nd those who can ask why the King is naked. We need the artist and the intellectual. There is space for all.

Flailing around for a foothold, Guha has accused Arundhati Roy of sharing a political and economic vision with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). If this is not careless then what is? But even in his incoherence, Guha inadvertently puts his finger on why he is discomfited by Arundhati Roy. It is what he posits as her shared vision with the Hindu Right - while simultaneously accusing her of being the Arun Shourie of the Left - her critique of the process of globalisation. Never mind that Roy points o ut her differences with the Hindu Right on this issue, that she points out that the BJP-RSS combine is schizophrenic on the issue of swadeshi/globalisation. That the emphasis on swadeshi on the one hand and its sell-out to the multinational corporations and the World Bank on the other, co-exist in the BJP-RSS political agenda, with swadeshi remaining only a rhetorical offering for public consumption.

BUT now the answers to the questions I have had since early this year about Guha's politics begin to fall into place. It is not Arundhati Roy's style, but her politics, that brings his latent conservatism to the fore and provokes his sexist and pa tronising onslaught. Hers is not a politics that simplifies things or paints the world in black and white as Guha claims. But certainly, it is a politics that demands accountability. She demands that you take sides. And that is what makes those li ke Guha uncomfortable. So, the advice to her to leave the environmental movement for its own good, is the desire to insult, isolate and banish into exile inconveniently clear voices. Is it the good of the environmental movement or the good of the Globali sation Project that you seek, Mr. Guha? Because you must understand that both are locked in a bitter struggle today. Understand that the environmental battles of today and tomorrow are not just battles between the Indian elite and the peasantry or workin g class. The battle is between the large mass of common people in this country and global corporatisation. The fight over the control and the use of our lands and rivers is going to be as much in the forests of Madhya Pradesh (where tribal people oppose the World Bank Forestry Project), as on the streets of Andhra Pradesh (where farmers, energy workers and domestic consumers fight the wrecking of the power sector on IMF-World Bank prescriptions), as in the Narmada valley. You will have to decide which s ide you are on.

Finally, on the matter of the NBA disassociating itself from Arundhati Roy:

First it must be recognised that Arundhati Roy's voice is the voice of an independent writer. She has never presumed to speak on behalf of the NBA. She has consistently, as a matter of principle, refused to represent the voice of the dispossessed - Dalit , Adivasi or anyone else. (The politics of representation is a vast and complex subject.) The I in her essays that critics like Ramachandra Guha sneer at as self-indulgence, is seen by others as painful honesty. Second, it must be recognised that the NBA is not an exclusive club with paid-up members. The Narmada issue is a larger social question today - it is a question of developmental choices that are facing the nation, how these choices will be made, by whom and at what cost, indeed how we understand democracy itself. It is a question that belongs to the nation at large, as much as it does to the people who will be affected by the dams. This is the reason why the issue has attracted so much political comment. The NBA has striven to raise this issue, to provide a forum for all these voices and to stimulate debate beyond the confines of the movement itself. To say then that the NBA should disassociate itself from someone - anyone - who shares its vision is not to comprehend the nature of this, or any other Andolan. For this reason it becomes disconcerting when Guha confers upon himself the role of elder statesman and presumes to decree who should be allowed to be in the larger environmental movement and who not. Ramachandra Guha has had a respectabl e career writing learned tomes on ecology and cricket. It will be a pity if he ends up being some sort of self-appointed gate-keeper.

Chittaroopa Palit has been with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for the last 12 years.

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