'Empower gram panchayats'

Print edition : October 23, 1999

Interview with Arthur Bonner, author and journalist.

Seventy-six-year-old Arthur Sebastian Bonner, who has spent much of his life writing or talking about India, introduces himself as "a self-taught journalist". Bonner started his career in journalism with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) when he was 19, after dropping out from school. Since then he has accumulated vast experience in radio, television and the print media. Over the last five decades, his main interest has been studying social movements and the institution of democracy in the U nited States, India and some other countries.

Bonner, who considers himself a Gandhian, has been a vegetarian since he came to India first in 1953 as a foreign correspondent for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and lived on in the country for eight years. His love for India was so great tha t he decided to return to the country in 1986 after retiring from NBC. Such is his family's bonding with India that one of his two sons (both were born in India) was named Rahul. Rahul is doing research work in Sanskrit.

Recently in Chennai to collect material for his proposed seventh book, to be titled "Deconstructing India", which deals with the changing caste system, Arthur Bonner spoke to Asha Krishnakumar about his perceptions of India over the last five deca des and reminisced about the India of the 1950s. Excerpts from the interview:

What has been the nature of your relationship with India?

I came to India first in 1953 as a radio and television correspondent for CBS. I was always interested in coming to India and I took the first opportunity I got. Unfortunately, I landed here a few years after Gandhiji died but was lucky enough to tour th e country with Jawaharlal Nehru. Being also a photographer, I went with him to cover many important places and events. I was there when (E.M.S.) Namboodiripad was sworn in the first elected Communist Chief Minister of Kerala, and when major dams were com missioned, and Nehru gave the famous speech of how 'Dams are the temples of modern India'. I walked with Vinoba Bhave across the country. That was a truely revealing experience. I saw India first hand, at the grassroots level.

In the 1950s, there were a large number of foreign correspondents in India. Maybe over 20 - six Americans, six Englishmen, a Japanese, Germans, French and so on - practically every nation was represented. This was largely because Nehru was an internation al personality. He was always glad to meet the press.

The 1950s was the period of "Nehruvian consensus". The whole nation was represented in Nehru's Cabinet. It was not a coalition, but all States were well represented. And any Cabinet member could pick up the telephone and speak to Nehru. So too could J.K. Galbraith or Daniel Patrick Moynihan (both were U.S. Ambassadors in India). Nehru was very approachable and scholarly.


The problem with Nehru was that though he preached secularism and socialism, he never really concretised them. The failure to have a clear policy on many issues, such as on secularism, has led to the problems that India is facing now. Thus, even at that time opinion was divided on Nehru. Some compared him to Stalin while others spoke of him as Charlemagne, the great, brave king of medieval Europe.

I was in India from 1953 to 1961. Then for about a year I worked with a television network in New York and came back to India in 1962 to cover the India-China war for NBC. But the battle was over by the time we went there.

For 20 years I worked for NBC, covering events in the U.S. I also worked as a television producer. I took early retirement when I was 62. At that time I met The New York Times editor A.N. Rosenberg and told him that I would like to be a foreign co rrespondent. He said: "You dare become a foreign correspondent at 62." But I said I would go where nobody else would, to Afghanistan. He said: "We can't send anybody there as we fear they would be killed". But I insisted and he let me go. Then I went to Afghanistan several times between 1984 and 1986, each trip lasting six to seven weeks. I did detailed coverage of how the majority of the people there lived. I also wrote a book, Among the Afghans (Central Asia Book Series; Duke University Press; 1987). This was my second book. (The first was on Evangelism, Jerry McAulay and His Mission, revised in 1990).

I came to India on my own, with my retirement funds, in 1986 to study social movements in different parts. I wandered all over India and studied the emergence, working and significance of the local social movements:

One started by a man, whose name I forget, in a match factory in Tamil Nadu's Sivakasi area. He strived to release, educate and rehabilitate working children;

A movement started by J.P. Ryan to help the fishing community in an Uttar Pradesh village along the Ganga, where, owing to the drastic fall in the catch, women were turning to prostitution to eke out a living;

A movement to rehabilitate tribal people in south Mumbai;

An education movement in a remote, rural Andhra Pradesh village, started by an American, who set up a school with community help. This was really fantastic. Everyone pitched in, each with Rs.5 or Rs.10;

SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) in Gujarat, which worked for women's development.

Contrary to my expectation, Gandhism was dead in all these places. They all had the spirit of Gandhiji in them - simple living, humility, non-violence and so on - but they denied it. This is because while they liked Gandhiji's humane nature, they did no t like his religious or political approach.

The major factor about Gandhiji, and the thousands of people of his generation who died for the nation in the 1930s and the 1940s, was that they were not politicians who fought on the basis of caste or class, but for principles. I found some of that spir it in these people. So I thought there was some hope. But, then, these people need to be empowered. Grassroots democracy is crucial, especially at a time like this when there is political instability.

My experiences of the social movements in India led to my third book, Averting the Apocalypse: Social Movements in India Today (Duke University Press; 1990). It discusses 30 social movements in India. I concluded the book saying that these experie nces are not widespread but need to be projected on a large scale for them to become broad-based and real.

You came to India in 1986 after a gap of 25 years and have been in touch with the country since then. Do you see many changes?

Certainly. Inequalities - economic and social - among the people have increased and basic infrastructural facilities such as education and health have become inaccessible to most. That is why I feel that India needs more broad-based social movements of t he kinds I described.

I also felt that the idea of euologising India as the biggest democracy in the world was a myth. This concern led me on to edit a book, Democracy in India: A Hollow Shell, along with Kancha Ilaiah and Suranjit Kumar Saha (American University Press ; 1994). This book exposes Indian democracy. It has contributions from Asgar Ali Engineer on secularism and Kancha Ilaiah on the Dalit movement in Hyderabad. There are also articles on RSS' activities in Madhya Pradesh, the growth of the BJP, the growth of the Dalit movement over the years and a comparison of racism in the U.S. and casteism in India. There is also an article on the anti-liquor movement by the women of Andhra Pradesh.

Why do you say democracy is a hollow shell in India?

Because caste masks it. Most people, academics in particular, deny what I believe is the reality. It is caste that determines everything in India. And that is a real bane.

What are you now working on?

I am working on a book that I have named ''Deconstructing India''. India is changing so rapidly, especially in terms of caste hierarchy, that its leadership is unable to keep pace. Democracy is used as a mask by the leaders to cover up many things. They talk about democracy all the time. Democracy in India cannot copy the European system. There has to emerge a democratic structure that is sui-generis - that which suits India.

How would you describe the sui-generis system for India?

That is where I would bring in the role of all the social movements. There is a big difference now. A caste awakening has happened. You can see this in the increasing number of caste clashes in southern Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and in several northern States. Empowering gram panchayats is very important. People should be given the power. Only then would they see to it that everyone goes to school, that teachers get paid. There should be someone people can go to if they do not have drinking water, or a school within one kilometre of their village. So the panchayats should be empowered. It is precisely this that the politicians do not want to do because they do not want to give up their power.

Talking to many people across the board, my perception is that the solution to most of India's problems lies in giving power to the people... to the panchayats. And you need to have women in them. I realised this when I was working on the book, Averti ng the Apocalypse. All the people who spearheaded the social movements were willing to sacrifice their lives. For instance, this woman in Mumbai who was working with the people engaged in charcoal-making had decided not to have a child so that she co uld dedicate her life for these people. These are the people who need to be empowered. This kind of dedication and sacrifice is what I was referring to when I said the spirit of Gandhiji was still alive.

What is the role of the government in these kinds of social movements?

It is important. But I do not know anything about how it works because I have not studied it in any detail. But what I see now is that in Indian villages if people have problems - of drinking water, of schools, of getting minimum wages and so on - they go to the people who spearhead social movements. Politicians are by and large busy with other things - they do not have time for the people. It is their (the politicians') work that some selfless people are doing. This is the change I see in India now.

Would you say that the emergence of these social movements in large numbers is the change you see now?

There were social groups even then. But what I now see is their greater acceptance by intellectuals. They now feel that there need to be panchayats. You may ask when you would see proof of this change. Unfortunately, you have crooks breaking down governm ents (excuse me for using the word 'crooks'). You have a situation in Bihar where the wife is made the Chief Minister. This is not democracy. So, it may take longer than necessary for these kinds of changes (brought about by social movements) to make a d ifference to the common people.

What do you think of the future of India?

I am not really sure. But I think there must be much greater autonomy for the States - never separation, but greater autonomy. This is one of the many errors Nehru committed. There should have been greater autonomy for States such as Punjab, Assam and (J ammu and) Kashmir. But Nehru suppressed all of them. Its price we are paying now. We no longer have people who came from the national freedom movement, but we have those working for a regional cause.

What are your other interests, apart from studying India?

I have worked on many social issues in the U.S. My primary interests have been studying racism, the tribal people and the lives of the downtrodden and vulnerable in general. I have written a book on the history of the Chinese in New York (Alas! What B rought Thee Hither?: The Chinese in New York - 1800-1950; Fairlaigh Dickinson University Press; 1996), which is an examination of racism in the U.S. The Chinese (there) have been tremendously hit by racism.

I am also interested in Mexico. Recently I studied the tribal people of southern Mexico who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. The plight of the tribal people in Mexico is similar to such people in India - they speak their own languages and are isolated from the mainstream. I studied why they got converted and what difference it made to their lives. Based on this study, I wrote a book, We Will Not Be Stopped: Evangelical Persecution, Catholicism and Zapatismo in Chiapas, Mexico; Upublis h.Com; 1999.

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