Pete Seeger: UnAmerican, Communist, and a People’s Songster

By Saswat Pattanayak

 Pete Seeger was not the “American conscience”, as he is being now crowned by the corporate media after his demise. In reality, he was the UnAmerican conscience. And to understand this, it is important to underscore the extent of his internationalism, his commitment towards humanity, his selfless unpatriotic journey as a fervent communist, his lifelong quest against American militarism, adventurism and exceptionalism. Most importantly, to use history as a weapon in the class struggle, as Pete used music as his tool, it is pivotal to not let go of the “unAmerican” label that was imposed upon him by the American power, because he was perceived to be a communist, when in August 1955, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and he refused to testify against his comrades or to pass on any information regarding the Communist Party that could help implicate any office-bearer of the party.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra) Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

Unlike many entertainers and intellectuals who gave in to the peer pressures or social benefits, Seeger always stood by his old comrades. Disregarding his own health and limitations, when he arrived at the Tamiment Library of New York University on October 28, 2006 to express his appreciations for African-American civil rights activists James and Esther Jackson at a symposium titled, “James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement”, I had my first privileged opportunity to meet him. What struck me instantly was how humble and accessible a public personality he indeed was, when  he took time out for an exclusive chat with Amrita, where he showered praises on India. What also struck me from his outward appearance was that he not only sang for the working class, he also belonged to the masses. There was not a whiff of elitism about him, not a remote chance of him being perceived as a celebrity. For the few more times that I got to see him after that day, I always noticed him wearing the same shirt, or something quite similar. Nothing fancy about his outfits at all. The only other constant was the way he made sure to engage the audience in the songs he sang. Even a stage appearance for him was an occasion for revolutionary potential. He was a legendary musician, possibly the greatest in his genre; and yet he was not surrounded by bodyguards. Difficult to imagine such a public personality in our contemporary celebrity culture. Maybe because, he never lived a pretentious life boasting extraordinary lifestyles that most celebrities possess today.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra) Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

The last time I got to see Seeger was at a solidarity event for the imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, on December 14, 2012. It was a sobering occasion, and Seeger dedicated profound emotions for Peltier. Not only was he used to stand up for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed people of color, he also always expressed his desire for greater racial diversity. In recommending the same for the US Flag, he once wrote:

“My blue is good, the color of the sky.

The stars are good for ideals, oh, so high.

Seven stripes of red are strong to meet all danger;

But those white stripes: they, they need some changing.

I need also some stripes of deep, rich brown,

And some of tan and black, then all around.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak) Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

Seeger’s refusal to cooperate with the American ruling class was not one of his own design. He always recognized his stake in being identified as an American.  He never denied the privileges he enjoyed as a white male in America whose “light-skinned ancestors participated fully in the decisions, good and bad, which formed this nation.” And yet, he also acknowledged that it was the stench emanating from American pride that was repulsive to him. He wrote in 1969:

“At midnight in a flaming angry town

I saw my country’s flag lying torn upon the ground.

I ran in and dodged among the crowd,

And scooped it up, and scampered out to safety…

And then I took this striped old piece of cloth

And tried my best to wash the garbage off.

But I found it had been used to wrapping lies.

It smelled and stank and attracted all the flies.”

The lies and deceptions characterizing American hegemony had formed the impetus for revolutionary music that went back to search for answers in the folk traditions. As a key figure in the movement, Pete Seeger relentlessly championed the causes of the oppressed through his emphasis on proletarian music. During the 1930s and 1940s, whereas the political struggles of the Communists suffered owing to sectarianism from within the movement and repression from outside, their cultural journey – firmly founded by the likes of “Joe Hill” and “Hammer Song”, never really subsided. It merely transformed itself into even more radical positions. As a result, 1946-1949 marked the period of People’s Songs, Inc., which provided the crucial glimpse into the potential of cultural workers in American communism. With Paul Robeson in its Board of Sponsors, People’s Songs had clear goals of pursuing the path of socialist realism. In March 1946, People’s Songs elected a national board of directors which included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Bess Hawes, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Walter Lowenfels, Felix Landau, Earl Robinson, Benjamin Botkin, Tom Glazer, Waldemar Hille, among others. For all the three years until People’s Songs dissolved, Pete Seeger remained its national director. People’s Songs was followed by People’s Artists and the Weavers – both communist folk collectives, and they continued the tradition of the Old Left through the sixties.

Seeger’s songs were far from merely “protest music”. They were radical communist verses, calling for uncompromising class wars, infused with boundless optimism for a new progressive era that the working class must usher in. Along with Lee Hays, Seeger wrote in 1949:

“O, comrades, come and travel on with me,

We’ll go to our new year of liberty.

Come, walk upright, along the people’s way,

From darkness, unto the people’s day.

From dark, to sunlit day.

Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair

And hate and greed shall never travel there

But only they who’ve learned the peaceful way

Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day.

We hail the coming day.”

What the People’s Songs under Seeger had achieved was remarkable and unique in the context of American history. They strove to collect and preserve American folk materials with the aim of disseminating progressive values. This vision was made possible upon their visits to Soviet Union where American artists witnessed first-hand how the socialist state was providing institutional supports to sustain and nurture cultural roots. Pete Seeger himself had been to Soviet Union to verify the fruits of revolution, first hand. In his recollections at a later stage, he once wrote, “What I saw in the Asian republics of the USSR was a great satisfaction to me. I think it proves that Kipling was wrong when he said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. He was wrong, it’s not true, they can meet. And let’s hope that in the world to come they’ll be meeting more and more…. I was surprised by the bright-colored clothing that Soviet people wore. In America I was often told that Russia is a drab country, that everybody dresses in browns and blacks because they’re scared of wearing anything bright. Walking down the average Soviet street, you see the brightest colors you ever saw: reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks, sometimes all on top of each other. We saw a young man in the Frunze airport with a green hat, a purple jacket, and a red suitcase – bright, all of them, bright….Now it’s perfectly true that the average Soviet citizen can’t, as yet, afford the many luxuries the average American can. The average food on their table is not as fancy. So I was happy to note that even though Russia doesn’t have the stores overflowing with different commodities that American cities have, neither does it have the slums. This is important to me because, while I love my own country, I must confess that there’s not a city I can go to where, in parts of the town, the streets are not littered with trash, the houses are unpainted and dilapidated, and the people live with a sense of demoralization and lack of hope because they think there’s no chance for them ever to get ahead.”

Progressive American artists upon returns from the USSR had helped create the Federal Arts Project which found governmental support in the US not only in archiving and enriching historical materials, but also for the first time, in ensuring that American artists too, like their Soviet counterparts, received compensations for their works which was to be recognized as necessary contributions to society. The WPA Arts Project helped in distribution of folk music, and the group comprised Charles Seeger, Earl Robinson and Herbert Haufrecht. Charles Seeger was the father of Pete Seeger.

Charles Seeger was the founding member of the communist cultural group of the 1930s: Composers Collective, which was an offshoot of Pierre Degeyter Club of New York City – named after the French composer of “Internationale”. Composers Collective was just about as radical as it could get. Their foreword proclaimed:

“Music Penetrates Everywhere

It Carries Words With It

It Fixes Them In the Mind

It Graves Them In the Heart

Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle.”

Music was indeed a weapon in the hands of Composers Collective – an unpolished, unsophisticated group that was musically catering to the masses, and therefore revolutionary in every sense. According to Charles Seeger, “proletarian music was defined by its militance in text and tune and by its association with the working class.” The collective drew inspiration from a German revolutionary composer Hanns Eisler whose songs were sung by untrained workers on mass marches. The only reason the Composers Collective could embrace specific m
usical legacies, especially of folk, was because of their reliance on the “Mighty Five” Russian composers –  Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The communists were Americans, and the Americans the communists in the Composers Collective, which gave way to later radical formations, Almanac Singers and People’s Songs. And Charles Seeger’s son Pete Seeger was to carry the burden forward to enlighten, agitate and entertain. He wrote:

“If a revolution comes to my country

Let me remember now

Old dollar bill, you won’t mean much

I better learn right now

What in life has true value

And, oh, if we’d only learn to share

There’d be no more need for revolution

Oh, hear the thunder. . .”

Ably aiding Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was Alan Lomax who was serving as director of the Archive of American Folks Songs in the Library of Congress. Lomax helped Guthrie, Seeger, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Leadbelly perform across cities and to bring folk music back to the folks, in a progressive, emancipatory  package. Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” also helped chronicle the specific plights of black workers in a labor movement that was complicated by race relations. The slogan of the Popular Front during FDR’s time, “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” was inspired by Stalin’s prescription for Soviet Union where nationalism and communism intersected in useful ways. Socialist realism informed American folk musical traditions to the extent that Charles Seeger set standards to judge music: “The main question, should not be ‘is it good music?’ but ‘what is the music good for’?”

Being Charles Seeger’s son, Pete Seeger was not only introduced to the rich traditions of folk music that informed American history, but also to the immense radical possibilities that communism had to offer. Seeger joined the Young Communist League at Harvard in 1937 and decided against becoming a journalist since he refused to make compromises on political fronts. His association with Popular Front during Earl Browder’s leadership of CPUSA remained unflinching. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie supported the Communist Party’s decisions all the way, including at the most controversial of times, when FDR was addressing American Youth Congress to favor aid for Finland to fight the Soviet Union. Guthrie ridiculed FDR with “Why do you stand there in the rain?” Both of them, along with Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and John Peter Hawes, were part of the Almanac Singers. As unrepentant communists, they vociferously attacked Roosevelt when the communists adopted an anti-war position, and urged him later on to extend support to Soviet Union as an important ally. Here is a stanza that describes FDR as a warmonger prior to Germany’s attack on Soviet Union:

“Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

We damned near believed what he said

He said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor,

But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”

Comparing FDR to bankers and militarists, Seeger further wrote,

“Franklin D., listen to me

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

You may say it’s for defense

But that kinda talk that I’m against.

I’m against, I’m against,

That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D.,

Seems to me they both agree,

Both agree, both agree,

Both agree on killin’ me.”

After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the communists needed wartime organizing, and the Almanacs supported the war efforts in no uncertain terms:

“The butcher, the baker, the tinker and the tailor

Will all work behind the soldier and the sailor —

We’re working in the cities, we’re working in the woods

And we’ll all work together, to deliver the goods.”

Seeger was never to mince words and he never did, regardless of shifting political positions –

“Now Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know,

But that ain’t at all important, now,

What is important is what we got to do,

We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and when we’re through,

Let no one else ever take his place,

To trample down the human race.

So what I want is you to give me a gun,

So we can hurry up and get the job done.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak) Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

It is important to note that Seeger was not driven by pacifism or any spiritual notion of universal peace. For him, peace was an active process needing persistent political efforts towards combating fascism in every creative way possible; and therefore to institute peace, if there was a requirement to turn his music into a weapon, he never hesitated to sing pro-war anthems. With Guthrie’s guitar machine “killing the Fascists”, Seeger joined him and Lampell in expressing their collective hatred towards Hitler in this telling stanza of 1941:

“I wish I had a bushel,

I wish I had a peck,

I wish I had a rope to tie

Around old Hitler’s neck.

Hitler went to Russia

In search of Russian oil,

But the only oil he’ll find there

Is a pot in which he’ll boil.”

Because the American press worked overtime to expose the contradictions in CPUSA stands, and since raid-baiting was a stark reality, Seeger wrote “Talking Unions” to clarify Almanacs’ position –

“Now, you have come to the hardest time;

The boss will try to bust your pocket line.

He’ll call out the police, the National Guard;

They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.

They’ll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.

Call every one of you a goddamn Red –

Unpatriotic – Moscow agents –

Bomb throwers, even the kids.

But out in Detroit here’s what they found,

And out in Frisco here’s what they found,

And out in Pittsburgh here’s what they found,

And down in Bethlehem here’s what they found,

That if you don’t let Red-baiting break you up,

If you don’t let stool pigeons break you up,

If you don’t let vigilantes break you up,

And if you don’t let race hatred break you up –

You’ll win.”

The House Un-American Activities Committee reported on the Almanac Singers in 1944 and they were viciously attacked in the press as Communist entertainers. No respite followed even after Almanac Singers gave way to People’s Songs and the Weavers. When for the first time, HUAC heard testimony against them in July 1947, they were denounced as “subversive organization”, and a “vital Communist front because of its emphasis on appeal to youth and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda.” Against the overwhelming climate of red-baiting, of various left (Trotskyist) oppositions towards the communists and the McCarthy era looming large, Seeger remained defiant, and along with Guthrie, he supported and rallied around Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, as per CPUSA line. And Seeger wrote the iconic “Hammer Song” to celebrate the communist symbol:

“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning,

I’d hammer in the evening — all over this land.

I’d hammer out danger! I’d hammer out a warning!

I’d hammer out love between my brothers & my sisters —

All over this land.”

Seeger’s antiwar sentiments have been much written about. What is less mentioned is that his opposition to war was principled and decisively progressive. His protests against Vietnam War was indeed against American hooliganism and militarism. His call to bring the American troops home was at the same time, an open support for Vietnam’s right to self-determination. He wrote:

“I may be right, I may be wrong,

But I got a right to sing this song,

Bring them home, bring them home.

There’s one thing I must confess,

I’m not really a pacifist,

Bring them home, bring them home.

If an army invaded this land of mine,

You’d find me out on the firing line,

Bring them home, bring them home.

The world needs teachers, books and schools,

And learning a few universal rules,

Bring them home, bring them home.

So if you love your Uncle Same,

Support our boys in Vietnam,

Bring them home, bring them home.”

Seeger did not quite stop there. In a glowing tribute to Ho Chi Minh, he wrote:

“I’ll have to say in my own way,

The only way I know,

That we learned power to the people and the power to know

From Teacher Uncle Ho!”

Seeger always took his communism seriously and he wrote about capitalistic contradictions, but carefully employing a language that was truly accessible to the workers, to the “bottom” uneducated and semi-literate section of society who he remained connected with, all his life. If it was Teacher Uncle Ho at times, it was Karl the Marx at other times that he introduced in his songs. In a poem later in his career, he wrote about the class society in America and resented how the working class was being stigmatized:

“Some say the trouble’s in the Pentagon

Some say the trouble’s in the street

Some say the president’s a paragon

Where’s the trouble at the bottom?…

Some say the trouble’s with the system

Some say the trouble’s in the class

Karl said the trouble is the upper one,

That is the upper, not the bottom.”

Like Robeson, Seeger
had chosen his side in the class war that was, and continues to be, waged. He was deeply affected by the imperialistic aggressions and social unrests afflicting the world. And yet, he was hopeful of resolutions and positive outcomes, and like fellow communist poets Victor Jara and Nazim Hikmet whose songs he also used to adapt post-translations, he too remained at heart a romantic, an untiring lover of humanity. When he dabbled with imaginations for a better world that he, the weaver, could weave, he wrote:

“Oh, had I a golden Thread / And needle so fine

I’d weave a magic strand / Of rainbow design

In it I’d weave the bravery / Of women giving birth,

In it I would weave the innocence / Of children over all the earth,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

Through foreign cities / To every single land,

Show my brothers and sisters / My rainbow design,

Bind up this sorry world / With hand and heart and mind,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

To every human being / So they would understand.”

Seeger was always resolute and optimistic. He possibly could not afford to be otherwise. For someone with the burden of carrying the legacies of several generations of radical songsters, he had to convince the world that he was going to be there every step of the way. And he knew more than any of us, that the march towards a Soviet America was a long and tiring one. But it had to begin with changing the hearts of the people, with expanding the scopes for their imaginations. It was going to be a long process, step by step. In his words, therefore:

“Step by step, the longest march can be won, can be won

Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none

And in union what we will, can be accomplished still

Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.”


Amiri Baraka: Angry Black Communist, the Soul of the Sun


“Who invaded Grenada

Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later

Who killed David Sibeko, Chris Hani,
the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,

Who killed Kabila, the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane , Betty Shabazz, Princess Margaret, Ralph Featherstone, Little Bobby

Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia,Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton

Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
MedgarEvers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed

Who put a price on Lenin’s head?”
(Amiri Baraka)

Amiri Baraka (Photographed by Saswat Pattanayak)

Who says Amiri Baraka is no more?
He is alive as long as there exists humanity. He shall remain relevant as long as critical questions continue to be posed. When Baraka wrote the poem “Somebody Blew Up America”, he was accused of anti-semitism, he was stripped of the poet laureate rank of New Jersey and many prominent political leaders and activists ridiculed him for having taken such a radical stand at a time when the country was mourning 9/11, as jingoism was the only poetic license a poet could afford to retain in America then. And yet, Amiri Baraka did not give in to the patriotic flavor of the day. He instead spoke the truth. Awards and recognitions were not going to influence him. He relinquished the honorary positions. He adopted what a true radical does: he remained unafraid of truth.

This truth however became the contentious issue for a hypocritical world order that soon termed him as controversial. What was controversial about furthering the cause of peace as an active oppositional stand against militarism and racism? Upon his demise, New York Times called him the “polarizing poet”. Polarizing? What was polarizing about the poet who dreamt of unifying the world while challenging the artificial geographical borders conveniently set by colonial masters?

Amiri Baraka was neither controversial nor polarizing. He was a poet, a historian, a progressive, romantic, revolutionary communist. And he was always unafraid of truth. The truth to him was revolution. A revolution to him was beyond a certain group of people, certain race of people, or people of a certain nationality. Like Paul Robeson before him, he strove for the revolution through his art. He shunned social divisions imposed by the ruling class. And if to acquire this truth, he had to struggle to reach there, he remained unafraid of that. He was not ashamed of transforming himself as a political being if by doing so he could further the progressive causes of the world. He wrote:

“I see art as a weapon of revolution. I define revolution in Marxist terms. Once I defined revolution in Nationalist terms. But I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for the communist ideology.”

When I met Amiri Baraka for the first time in Summer of 2011 at his house, he was 77. I had expected to see an old man, a retired poet, a tired revolutionary, or maybe a combination of all three. What I found in him instead was a young man deeply curious to know about international affairs, a passionate researcher sharing his new findings, and an enthusiastic radical radiating hope for the future. I had promised to be back to his place for another meeting, perhaps to conduct a more formal interview. But then I also knew that formal interviews are not conducted with lovers of revolution. Or, maybe I was quick to abandon any professional project in the midst of the hearty welcome, fine homemade foods and introductions with his entire family; the warmth and love that they bestowed upon my father (journalist Subhas Chandra Pattanayak) and I, when we visited him along with my dearest friend Dr. Todd S Burroughs, and beloved Professor and freedom fighter Dr. Les Edmond.

Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Subhas Chandra Pattanayak, Les Edmond Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Subhas Chandra Pattanayak, Les Edmond

I saw Mr. Baraka two more times – once in Brooklyn during an evening of revolutionary recitals, and the last time was at a Left Forum event. On both the occasions, he kindly asked about my father and reminded me that we needed to have that interview we have been planning for. Well, the interview could never finally take place. But I have no regrets at all. The fact that I did get to see him in person a few times was itself such a precious experience. The fact that he and his remarkable wife, revolutionary poetess Amina Baraka posed for my lens will always remain the high point of my artistic career.

Amina Baraka & Amiri Baraka Amina Baraka & Amiri Baraka

Personal is political and that is how I was drawn towards him early on. And that is the philosophy which was embodied in Baraka’s works throughout. His poems inspired me and empowered me. Baraka to me was Langston Hughes of our times. A poet of his people, a poet for all people. Like Hughes, his songs carried messages not of hope, but of revolution. Not of charities and feel good rhetorics, of sweet talks or inner peace bullshits. But of raw emotions, critical posers and call for actions.

Hughes had written:
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME-
I said, ME!”

Baraka, too wrote:
“We’ll worship Jesus
When Jesus do
When jesus blow up
the white house…
we’ll worship jesus when
he get bad enough to at least scare
somebody – cops not afraid
of jesus
pushers not afraid
of jesus, capitalists racists
imperialists not afraid
of jesus shit they makin money off jesus
we’ll worship jesus when Mao
do, when tour does
when the cross replaces Nkrumah’s star
Jesus need to hurt some a our
enemies, then we’ll check him out…
we ain’t gon worship jesus
not till he do something
not till he help us
not till the world get changed
and he ain’t, jesus ain’t, he can’t change the world
we can change the world
we can struggle against the forces of backwardness,
we can struggle against our selves, our slowness, our connection
with the oppressor, the very cultural aggression which binds us to our enemies
as their slaves.
we can change the world
we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus don’t exist
except in slum stained tears or trillion dollar opulence stretching back in history, the history
of the oppression of the human mind
we worship the strength in us
we worship our selves….
throw jesus out your mind
build the new world out of reality, and new vision
we come to find out what there is of the world
to understand what there is here in the world!
to visualize change, and force it.
we worship revolution.”

Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka & Saswat Pattanayak Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka & Saswat Pattanayak

This is the Baraka I have known. The “real guy” Hughes wanted us to remember, emulate and while worshipping the revolution, to worship the revolutionary. It is not the gods who are immortal. It is Baraka and the revolutionaries like him who shall always live in our midst.

Immortality is radicalism. Going to the roots and to find that all of us never really perished. We are all connected with each other, in our life form and without, in our present and our collective history. This is again what Baraka used to characterize as “Digging”, the name of the outstanding work of his that traces the evolution of Afro-American art. About that book, he had written, “This book is a microscope, a telescope, and being Black, a periscope. All to dig what is deeply serious…The sun is what keeps this planet alive, including the Music, like we say, the Soul of which is Black.”

Baraka’s black-is-beautiful was a legendary call for international unity for the people of the third world. It was a call for communism in a country that was the most anti-communist in the planet. Baraka never faltered, never feared and always remained the fighter, against conventional wisdom. In “Reggae or Not!”, he outlined who he was as a black man in America:

“Self Determination
Socialism Socialism Socialism
I be black angry communist
I be part of rising black nation
I be together with all fighters who fight imperialism
I be together in a party with warmakers for the people
I be black and african and still contemporary marxist warrior
I be connected to people by blood and history and pain and struggle
We be together a party as one fist and voice
We be I be We, We, We, the whole fist and invincible flame
We be a party soon, we know our comrade for struggle…
Only Socialism will save
the Black Nation
Only Socialism will save
Only Socialism will save
the world!”

Goodbye, angry black communist. See you again in the morning, the soul of the sun.

Saswat Pattanayak ||

Orissa Killer Cyclone 1999: Recollections & Some Lessons for Phailin

By Saswat Pattanayak

Cyclone Phailin is not over yet, and Orissa is not all about Bhubaneswar. If lessons be learnt from 1999, there’s an enormous amount of work to be done, beginning with the administration ending its premature jubilation. Even as this cyclone did not prove to be as catastrophic as the ’99 one, we must not undermine the challenges that are ahead of us. Evacuation is not enough, rehabilitation is the key. Farmers, fishers and the poor in the vulnerable coastal belts devoid of ecological balances, wrought upon them through corporate greed – are the sections of population that will be the worst sufferers. 500,000 hectares of crops have been damaged and the already impoverished state of Orissa has been relegated further down. 

I am sharing below, my journey as a reporter during the 1999 “super cyclone” when the team of Asian Age (and later on, Hindustan Times) covered it extensively. Some of these recollections have pure nostalgic values, but many are pointers to what may lie ahead.    

1999 – the year of the super cyclone – was the year I started my professional career in journalism. After my studies at IIMC, I left Delhi and my short stint there with Economic Times, to return to my hometown, Bhubaneswar. And, within a couple of months, the first major story of my life was to welcome me at the Asian Age office.

And what a remarkable welcome it was to be. I started with creating layouts and subbing copies at the desk. And even as I actually quite enjoyed QuarkXpress, I wanted to be on the field as well. I wanted to bunk my afternoon classes at the university and do some reports. Besides, I had gained some field experiences investigating “dropsy scare” while at Economic Times. So I could not wait to interview people and address various issues affecting Orissa.  

But my appointment with Asian Age was as a sub-editor, not as a reporter. Our office was located in a forbidden zone, at an “industrial complex” far away from the city; resembling a ghost town. And I used to return home around 3am every night after “releasing” the paper and smelling the first copy by the printer. Along with two of my colleagues at the desk and three colleagues from the I.T. department, we had among ourselves formed a solidarity network. We were fairly young a team. At 22, I was possibly the youngest. We felt overworked, underpaid, untimely hungry, and too damn tired, every night. And there was no working around that…  

My resident editor, however, wanted to give me a chance to work as a reporter as well, since I insisted I could do both the field and the desk jobs. And the breakthrough came when I was told I could cover the “weather” beat. This first seemed hilarious to me, since even as a reader, I never read a weather report in a newspaper. For us Oriyas, weather could be predicted by looking at the sky. And I had no idea where the local Met office was, anyway. It was quite telling, that a beat was being assigned to a reporter who had no idea where the experts in his/her field worked!       

I still took up the offer and wondered if I would ever get a byline for a weather story in an otherwise quaint climate of Bhubaneswar. Maybe I needed to wait for the next summer when the sunstrokes would make some mundane but required news items. Reporters can be ruthless about the news factors, and I was no exception. As a sub-editor, I was already aware of what made “hard news”. It had to involve deaths; in fact, not just deaths, shocking deaths. We were professional sadists. More the mayhem, greater the glee. A train accident made the font size go bigger. An assassination led to multiple column stories. And the more local a tragedy, the more space allotted to a reporter. Alas! In Bhubaneswar, there was no such hard news. A few press conferences here and there. And some quite predictable and boring political shuffles.      

In October, when the “depression” set in by neighboring Andhra Pradesh, it was the first hour of alert. For me, something was brewing, but I was still not sure of its scope. Our Met department narratives were unconvincing during the day and when I thought of covering the story for the front page, it was past the office hours that evening. So I set out to the only cyber cafe in the town, ‘Message Cafe’, owned and operated by Ajay Raut, a young man of extraordinary optimism. Ajay bhai greeted me and assured every support possible to make my story a breaking one. Purely an online investigation, at slow but consistent dial-up connection, we together gathered an array of documents and screenshots of weather reports that I was to carry with me back to my office that October evening of 1999. 

My byline finally featured on the first page of the newspaper. My resident editor Soumyajit Pattnaik, a dynamic new entrant into Orissa media circle from his previous stint at the Pioneer in Delhi, praised my efforts. I soon discovered he and I shared a common passion for the new media and how internet was impacting the newsroom. 

I compiled an “All you wanted to know” piece on cyclone for the interested readers. It was the first of its kind in local journalism and attracted due attention.  

All That You Wanted to Know About Cyclone - Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age
All That You Wanted to Know About Cyclone – Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age

When the first tropical cyclone arrived, we could do all the analysis, but it still claimed 61 human lives. It was quite an alarming sign to what was in store the next month. I wrote a front page piece on what results in such unpredictable a cyclone and what Coriolis Effect was. But what also occurred to me was how 61 lives were lost and yet the central government was least bothered. There was hardly any funding coming in to the state and the political apathy was quite telling.

Coriolis Effect results in cyclones - Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age
Coriolis Effect results in cyclones – Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age

On October 22, I wrote a story detailing how Delhi’s help vis-a-vis the Calamity Relief Fund was merely a straw in the wind for the affected in Orissa. The primary reason for the thousands of lives to be lost in the subsequent super cyclone was primarily rooted in this lack of financial support for the state.

Calamity Relief Fund - Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age
Calamity Relief Fund – Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age

Back in Orissa, in apprehension of the approaching super cyclone, “black-marketing” remained in full force. I focused on the most essential of commodities – kerosene oil which was being sold at seven times its normal rate. I cited legal precedents via the newspaper to prompt the state government to take action and to stay alert on future abuses of the laws (which surely happened).

Orissa Super Cyclone - Kerosene Corruption: Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age
Orissa Super Cyclone – Kerosene Corruption: Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age

Without adequate central government funding, without any check on corrupt practices by the trading class and without any lessons learnt from the tropical cyclone that had already claimed 61 lives, Bhubaneswar and the coastal belt of Orissa awaited what our newsroom declared on its first edition following the most disastrous cyclone to have hit Orissa – Apocalypse.


Forming of Depression: Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age 
Forming of Depression: Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age 

The super cyclone – that I termed later on as “Killer Cyclone” because I was not comfortable with the glorification of this disaster – had its worst manifestations on October 29, 1999. It was so ferocious, and so catastrophic and so unbelievable, that nothing compared to it in recent history. 

As young journalists, we were all excited beyond measure and wanted to cover it in the best possible manners. But the physical limitations were overpowering our will. On the one hand there was no electricity and no one had a clue when it was going to be restored. Electricity in Orissa those days as such was a privilege during regular times! On the other hand, the city we knew to be filled with greenery was now ravaged beyond repair. Literally hundreds of thousands of trees were uprooted. Highways were blocked, let alone the streets and roads. The city entirely unprepared for this disaster became a city without any law and order. Forget about the nights, even the days were no longer safe for anyone. Not just from the want of food materials, but also from electric wires. There was no question of taking a car out on the roads. The only vehicles such as small two-wheelers (Luna mopeds!) could be lifted up if needed to cross over tree logs that were heavier than most bikes. Or, of course, the good old bicycles were the best alternatives. 

Our office as noted earlier, was in a ghost town – Mancheswar Industrial Estate – whose streets were dark even during normal evening hours. Following the cyclone, there was no way to navigate that path, even as all of us colleagues were raring to get out and inform the public about the extent of onslaughts. 


Saswat Pattanayak, in 1999, the morning after super cyclone.  
Saswat Pattanayak, in 1999, the morning after super cyclone.  

My friend and senior sub-editor Pranesh Dey dragged his bike to my house within hours of the cyclone ending its exploits. My father, a veteran investigative journalist himself, was left speechless and astonished. As protective as he was, there was no way I was allowed to venture out in this climate. Following conversations between my parents, finally, my father relented, and Pranesh bhai and I went around the city to inspect the extent of damages. It was a spectacle we would never forget. 

But we could not venture much, as the roads were so filled with trees that it could literally take months to go around all corners of this small town. All public service utilities were shut down, and so were the media. Without power, it was impossible to imagine that any newspaper office would resume anytime soon. 

We had different plans though. Much to our great delight, our management and editorial team decided that we would be the first and only newspaper in Bhubaneswar to resume operations under these conditions. Instead of coming in around the evening hours, we decided to work afternoon through evening. And using generator to pull electricity. An expensive proposition, but what a thrilling one!!!


The Paper: Utkal Age Team, 1999.
The Paper: Utkal Age Team, 1999.

There was obviously no internet and so no Delhi edition, no FTP connections, and no Mr. M.J. Akbar to know about this edition, let alone admonish us on failing on the style sheet. Our underground team comprised our resident editor Soumyajit Pattnaik, utterly brilliant chief of desk, V. Kaushik Kumar, creative superhero and subeditor Pranesh Dey, reporters Elisa Patnaik, Sandeep Mishra, Akshaya Sahoo, photographer Ashok Panda, sub editors Sanjay Nath, Alaka Sahani and Saswat Pattanayak – together, we worked on the greatest layout we had ever created for the newspaper. And since this much smaller edition was literally a team work, we decided against bylines for anyone. It was the first paper that was produced entirely at the desk. We worked at record speed. And we upped the headline font to defy all rules. And so excited we were – amidst the miserable conditions just outside the office building, which we had managed to reach with immense difficulties. 

By the time the paper was released – and in small numbers of prints that day – it had grown dark. We were fearing for not just the occasional “highway bandits”, but also for the wildlife animals on the loose. Snakes were a major concern where our office was. And it was a long long night back home. Getting off from our bikes and bicycles and jumping over the trees and live electric wires, it was an adventure we would never forget.     

Amidst my thrilling adventures, I had not entirely forgotten how worried my family would be. Knowing my father, and without telephone connectivity, I was especially concerned. And just as I had guessed, on my way back from work, I found him in the middle of the road with a torchlight in his hand, searching for me on a bicycle! I had never seen him in such a helpless and worried state as that night. My colleagues were also amazed to see him so concerned, and finally, we all happily returned home. 

Happiness was less for the safe return as it was because of the anticipation for the next morning. In the wee hours, Pranesh bhai and I headed to the Rajmahal Square to celebrate the arrival of the only newspaper that detailed the cyclone. In fact, the only newspaper that was published the night before! What a moment of joy and pride it was for us! And while deeply cognizant of what terrible times awaited the sufferers.

It was almost a surreal moment that made us take a pause and interrogate ourselves. The more tragic a news was, the more fulfilled we felt as journalists. Between our roles as disseminators of news, we were clearly refusing to recognize our privileges of having been alive, been doing well despite all the darings, and more importantly, celebrating the journalism component of it instead of joining the statewide mourning for the loss of lives. 

And at some point thereafter, moving away from the celebrations, we focused on our duties as informers, investigators and potential agitators. Something simply was not going well. We were struck by the thousands who were rendered homeless, who should not have been in that state, to begin with. The worst sufferers were the people who were homeless even before the cyclone ravaged the state. The next day I had a front page “anchor” story that highlighted the good amidst the ugly, the reconstruction amidst the destructions, and the helping hands of volunteers that were attempting to overpower the tight grips of the bureaucrats. And I wrote:

“The whole populace has not been left helpless. And take heart, the providers of silver lining in a cloud of grey for the cyclone-hit ones, do not have political affiliations and are in no mood to earn publicity. In tempestuous times like these, if solidarity ought to be maintained, the students of the city are definitely doing their bit to strengthen it.”

Homeless in Orissa: Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age
Homeless in Orissa: Saswat Pattanayak / The Asian Age

The idea was to bring a smile and some hope. And to use journalism as an empowering vehicle. We noticed that it was never truer than then. Highlighting the ways people were positively contributing to rehabilitation efforts was one of the ways I thought we could inspire more into emulating them. From students to the Red Cross, we covered every effort, no matter how small or big. For it was one thing to write about scandals affecting an individual or accidents involving a few, but quite another to write about the disasters awaiting millions of people, majority of whom being poor.  

Red Cross helps the relief efforts: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Red Cross helps the relief efforts: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

People of Orissa were about to suffer for the next decade due to the 1999 cyclone. It’s impacts were not immediately going to be known. They could only be estimated. Restoration of the green vegetation was to take at least another ten years, and we highlighted the environmental impacts of the disaster and the need to rapidly restore the greenery. 

Environmental Assessment: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Environmental Assessment: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

“Oil is not Well” ran the slug for my ongoing stories on the kerosene mismanagement. Fair price shops were conveniently shut down and the government did not do a thing about it. Hoarding of kerosene continued unabated well into the second week since the cyclone. Police force was not deployed around the areas of conflicts where endless queues were observed for a litre of kerosene. 

Oil is Not Well: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Oil is Not Well: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Kerosene crisis and mismanagement: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Kerosene crisis and mismanagement: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

The courage of Oriyas in fighting against odds, injustices and climatic challenges has been indomitable. Despite the tremendous after-effects of super cyclone, the city of Bhubaneswar had resolved to resume its operations. The city was still engulfed in darkness, electric poles were still twisted out of shape, educational institutions were closed for indefinite periods and majority of people still refused to get out of their homes. But on the other hand, the community of volunteers was ready to police the city by the nights, young students lined up to pack relief materials – food and medicines – for the needy. When our editor was away to a meeting in Delhi, I wrote an entirely unplanned piece declaring that we could withstand it all – 

Bhubaneswar Fights the Odds: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Bhubaneswar Fights the Odds: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Post-cyclone Orissa: The Asian Age
Post-cyclone Orissa: The Asian Age

“In turbulent times as these, not everything goes inimical. Observable vicarious emotions among the city folks was previously even unheard of. From clearing lanes to lifting buckets of water, the city fraternity is helping getting back the vivacious look of the city. It may take a few more years to make it clean and green once more, but the wave of solidarity being displayed has certainly overpowered the wave of cyclone that had swept the city off its dreams.”

While the battle was ongoing against the impacts, it still puzzled us as to why our Met office had failed at predicting the enormity beforehand. Continuing from the Coriolis effect story, I ran a piece exploring the reasons why we failed to comprehend the potential the second time.

Why Cyclone Predictions Failed: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Why Cyclone Predictions Failed: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

Not only had we failed to apprehend the weather, we also failed to apprehend the corruptions. Hundreds of NGOs lined up to cash in on the crisis. Tata Sumo appeared as the symbol of non-profit sector that immensely profited from the tragedy. I ran a few stories highlighting the corruption in the NGO sector which invited a lot of ire. And when I broke the story on Red Cross, the smaller fish on the ocean of misappropriated philanthropy finally stopped complaining. But when Red Cross failed, we knew most of the relief efforts were going to also subsume under waves of corruption. From the British High Commissioner to the Bollywood, everyone visited Orissa with a “human face” to promise help that never quite was delivered.  

Red Cross Corruption Scandal: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Red Cross Corruption Scandal: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
British High Commissioner Sir Rob Young : Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
British High Commissioner Sir Rob Young : Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Charities arrive from North India: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Charities arrive from North India: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age


My fellow colleagues Sandeep Mishra and Akshaya Sahoo broke many a stories detailing bureaucratic corruptions at various levels. Starvation deaths, expired medicines, decaying bodies and epidemic threats were reported from all over the coastal belt, especially from Erasama, Jagatsinghpur. I visited Jagatsinghpur during the third week of November and during my investigation, noticed that despite the desperate needs and allotments, not a single blanket had reached the villagers. 

In my interviews with the affected in Jagatsinghpur, I found out that there was enormous amount of bureaucratic mishandling. In place of the required 767,181 blankets, there was, zero. A villager said, “Every time a team of babus arrive in Manijanga, we make out way there, but are disappointed as many times. We get nothing more than 500 gm of rice. When do not get even chuda (flattened rice) as required, who will give us blankets to cover our bodies from shivering cold in roofless nights?”

Jagatsinghpur Blankets Scam: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Jagatsinghpur Blankets Scam: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

When I decided to visit Paradip and Jagatsinghpur, my father insisted on accompanying. He admitted of not having seen anything like this on the way. Everywhere we went, stinks followed, and approached. Of rotten crops, dead animals, unattended bodies.

There were at least two major corruptions during Orissa super cyclone. If one was the blanket, the other was polythene supply. Whereas the government continued to claim that sufficient polythene rolls had arrived, the local officials claimed otherwise. And during another investigation in Jagatsinghpur I found out that the actual rolls received were far less than the claim was. In Paradip, for instance, there was not a single polythene roll yet. In the entire region, as against the requirement of 51,144, there was a supply of only 4,482 rolls.


Jagatsinghpur- Polythene Scam: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Jagatsinghpur- Polythene Scam: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

Two months subsequent to that, when I made another follow-up, I reached the conclusion that not much had changed in Jagatsinghpur. The worst affected population in a coastal region comprised the fishermen and women, and the government had miserably failed at taking care of their needs to build up boats so they could resume their works.  

Jagatsinghpur - Fishermen Boat Scam: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Jagatsinghpur – Fishermen Boat Scam: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

Killer cyclone of 1999 left behind not just a trail of devastations that needed several years of honest, dedicated governance – which Orissa sorely lacked, it also left behind memories of courageous battles with the nature’s ravaging plans.   The aftereffects were almost indistinguishable from the catastrophe itself. Our state government was mired by corruptions – political and bureaucratic, and the global media had even failed to report the cyclone beyond a single column. 

Orissa Cyclone Aftermath Analysis: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Orissa Cyclone Aftermath Analysis: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Orissa Cyclone Relief Works: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Orissa Cyclone Relief Works: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
Orissa super cyclone relief works in progress:: The Asian Age
Orissa super cyclone relief works in progress:: The Asian Age
A website to chronicle: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age
A website to chronicle: Saswat Pattanayak || The Asian Age

The 1999 killer cyclone had caused the deaths of nearly 10,000 human beings, killing 400,000 livestock, impacting the lives of 12 million people, 7,921 villages, damaging 800,000 houses, 1.67 million hectares of agricultural lands and rendering 400 villages inaccessible as of May, 2000.

That is around the time when I was approached by the eminent political scientist of the state and a critical commentator whom I deeply admire, Professor Biswaranjan, to write a book on the entire bureaucratic fiasco, the ongoing courageous battles and the difficult challenges that lie ahead for Orissa. And we both co-authored the very first book exclusively devoted to what we called the Killer Cyclone of 1999: “Knock and the Rise”. Dr. Bibudharanjan from Puri helped publish it through Insight, and the new Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik inaugurated the book.   

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik releasing the book on Orissa Supercyclone, Knock and the Rise, co-authored by Adhyapak Biswaranjan and Saswat Pattanayak.
Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik releasing the book on Orissa Supercyclone, Knock and the Rise, co-authored by Adhyapak Biswaranjan and Saswat Pattanayak.


In the meantime, Asian Age decided to exit from Orissa and shut down Utkal Age. And around the same time, Hindustan Times decided to make its entry into Orissa. I was interviewed by a panel from Delhi, and was initially recommended to work in Kolkata. I wanted to stay back in Bhubaneswar, however, for two primary reasons – one, I was falling in love in the middle of the storm, with my friend Amrita Misra – and there was simply no working around that! And two, I also wanted to follow-up more on the cyclone aftermath, and my going away to Kolkata was not going to be useful. Everything went in my favor, as both Amrita and I started working together for HT. 

While following up on the cyclone, among other stories, I explored how there was something that the people grappled with and which escaped attention of the media: intense trauma/PTSD. Even after 16 months, the psychological crisis was left unresolved by a state clearly ill-equipped to address them. The most vulnerable people during any disaster are the ones who are left behind in the race to make sense of their lives. Even while the relief materials were being air-dropped, we used to witness the most able-bodied men ending up receiving the most for themselves, leaving behind women, children, and the ones on the fringes, the ones with physical and mental disabilities. For the following story, I interviewed Prof. J.P. Das (Alberta) and Prof. R.N. Kanungo (McGill) to explore why the cyclone was nowhere yet leaving Orissa. This was the first time that PTSD started getting discussed in the media, and we gained immensely from the expertise and pioneering works of Ms. Kasturi Mohapatra of Open Learning Systems, Bhubaneswar. 

Cyclone -  Trauma and PTSD: Saswat Pattanayak || The Hindustan Times
Cyclone –  Trauma and PTSD: Saswat Pattanayak || The Hindustan Times

Before joining Ranchi as part of the new Hindustan Times edition there the following year, I did a last report on the cyclone, a nostalgic piece on “How green was my home”…Never could I allow myself to imagine that Orissa may have to endure a killer cyclone of that ferocity ever again.  

Bhubaneswar, post-cyclone. 2001: Saswat Pattanayak || The Hindustan Times
Bhubaneswar, post-cyclone. 2001: Saswat Pattanayak || The Hindustan Times

With Cyclone Phailin now leaving behind a trail of destruction, it occurs to me that it’s not all over yet. With the loss of greenery from the ’99 cyclone and the subsequent deforestations caused by POSCO and corporate greed, the journey is only going to be uphill and more difficult. Certainly the lives lost this time are going to be far less, and surely the capital city of Bhubaneswar has been spared, but this is too early to say about the extent of actual damages, and too naive to assume the final estimate, in the entire region, beyond the city. I shall keep a watch from afar on the reporting in the rural Orissa and of any possible repetitions of “man-made” mistakes from 1999 days. Thirteen years ago, when Naveen Patnaik had received “Knock and the Rise” the first time, he had promised to take a look at the pointers therein, and I – along with Adhyapak Biswaranjan would be sure to follow up on his promise. That book is out of print, but thankfully, my father has reproduced portions of it for availability to the administration and will remain alert against any falsified claims that may be made by the administration in the coming months/years.       

These days when I shut down my apartment’s glass windows in New York City – despite Hurricane Sandy, I feel much more protected, lot more privileged and far less adventurous. And very much alive. Not all of us are often fortunate to withstand nature’s wraths. But when we do, it is only because we have had the privilege, not because we take anything for granted. The lesson to learn and to implement is that we need to redistribute that privilege, to learn from historical blunders. In such trying times during the aftermath of Phailin, I can only advise, through sharing of my experiences, that in future months, we must do everything possible to raise awareness, consciousness and efforts so that people do not continue to line up for petrol and kerosene and sugar – something that we already witnessed in the week before Phailin approached. That, the medicines they receive as relief materials are not expired. That, they are not in want of blankets and polythene sheets as the winter will position itself with the floods in coming months. That the starvation deaths do not continue to rise (or, be denied) in the pretext of the cyclonic aftermath. That, the massive evacuation efforts alone do not count towards the success, until all the evacuated people have been rehabilitated adequately. That, those of us who can access Internet suddenly do not write away the plights of those who still cannot convey their needs, to those already congratulating each other, in power. 

Sleeping Child

How do I tell her who is a terrorist…

Don’t the terrorists profit from those

Gap Kids clothes she is wearing today?

When the buildings collapsed

And terrorized eight hundred

Underpaid workers in that sweatshop

Didn’t the terrorists make merry

Looking the other way –

The way of uninterrupted greed,

As the Walton families scoop

Another couple of billion dollars

Didn’t I buy her cereal off their shelves?

The comic characters she watches

Spun by the deceit of the hate funders

From the Nazi Germany days till today;

Or isn’t the terrorizing force the books

She reads which make no mention

Of the annihilated indigenous peoples

Replaced by sinister slaveowners

She must respect as founding fathers?

One after another president gleefully

Preaching to her values of patriotism

In name of which profiteering wars

Find justifications, and she will nod

Her head, her empty slate of a mind

That will be overwritten with lies after

Lies after lies about who is a terrorist

And who is a decent human being.

From the small television propaganda

To the Imax theater saving the world      

From the french fries of McDonald’s

Teaching the barbaric fast food values

To the toy stores with guns, video games

Making noise akin to the misguided bullets

Saying cheese to selfish units called families

Learning of capital cities and spelling bees

To win my praise, when she will win a race

Leaving her classmates behind in the chase

Terrorized by failing grade, or dropping out

Cheered for abiding, without a doubt

Teachers and preachers with moral lessons

Terrorizing her of hell, if she throws questions

God’s own land, greatest nation of all

Bombing all dissenters, still standing tall 

How do I tell her who are the terrorists

So long as the very fabric of this culture exists

And if I expect her to challenge this foundation

Will they end up branding her a terrorist nation?


Saswat Pattanayak, Peoples’ Poet

Reflections for 15th August…

We started off with an exalted note, a thundering applause, and an optimistic tryst with destiny. Despite obnoxious Churchill laughing away sardonically. We installed the most erudite of scholars at the highest echelons of power. Even as that could not deprive us of our web of superstitious ignorance. We strived to help Indira’s India turn duplicitously socialist carving out a veritably stimulating mixed economy. That did not prevent us from cementing the biggest feudal setup in modern times. Now a full circle; we are a capitalistic mega success, a military super power in the making, an economic giant, and foremost of all, a proud nation zealously loved, fervently guarded and sacredly held in esteem. And our lofty, unwavering proclamations of nationalism have decisively helped us masquerade our sickening class society as a vibrant and robust democracy.

It is imperative not to discount the significance of political democracy, or the labeling of it. After all, electoral voting is deeply crucial in sustaining a system that can be controlled by those exuding self-perpetuating power attained via means legitimized as desired. Democracy has become the horse for our moral rides, the unquestioned credo that stirs us to inaction, the mystical justification for the status quo. Holiest of scriptures is our Preamble which bestows upon us our long cherished national identities we refuse to critically interrogate and through those, we the people of India have given to ourselves unfathomable hyperboles.

A deeply religious society fractured with majoritarian fanaticism and yet we are the proclaimed seculars; distinctly divisive run our regional tendencies and yet we are constitutionally united; magnitudes in riches determine the electoral reach of candidates and yet we bask in largest democratic glories; unashamed playground for the capitalists of the world and yet documented we are as a socialist nation. We like to be observed as romanticized studies in great contrasts, of the slumdogs and millionaires; yet we are in reality a sustained plethora of unfortunate contradictions refusing to resolve.

Six decades ago, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar put it rather mildly, “On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one-person-one-vote and one-vote-one-value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one-person-one-value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

We have not only embraced the contradictions, we revel in them. One of the vicious outfits we entertain these days is ironically called Youth for Equality which has started appropriating none other than Dr. Ambedkar himself to further its agendas of privileged caste-blindness. Whereas Dr. Ambedkar aimed for a casteless society, he did so by recognizing the root and demanding its elimination. Before dreaming of a casteless India, he made it very clear that it is Hinduism whose scriptures be burnt down, for “inequality is the soul of Hinduism.” He wrote, “Caste is a disease of mind. The teachings of the Hindu religion are the root cause of this disease. We practice casteism and we observe untouchability because we are enjoined to do so by the Hindu religion. A bitter thing cannot be made sweet. The taste of anything can be changed. But poison cannot be changed into nectar.”

Republic of India has failed to change the poison into nectar because it is the poison we the apparently innocent, well-meaning, decent folks have voluntarily been administering within our families and schools. As a result, we not only now have major political parties unabashedly displaying Hindu affections through systematic violence against religious minorities, what is worse is we blame no longer Hinduism proponents, but their victims as the casteists: the untouchables, the Dalits, the indigenous peoples discarded by our majoritarian religious identity. The public perception that Dalit activists are the ones practicing casteism has gained unprecedented mileage in recent times, and the upper caste elitists who refuse to give up an ounce of their privileges are the ones christened as equal rights champions.

Not very dissimilar is our collective attitude towards the poor working class being the cause of embarrassment in face of our superpower aspirations. It is not the poverty that a bunch of us in power corridors – of justice, education, technology and legislation – have institutionalized to our benefit, which needs to be felt ashamed of. In fact, we gloat over the emerging India’s list of billionaires and star cricketers driving Ferraris and celebrities getting paid tens of crores per movie appearance. What we are ashamed of are our poor working class folks who get regularly evicted out of the rising cities we showcase for potential foreign investments.

The shining India up for sale comes tagged with a befitting disclaimer: “There is nothing wrong in being rich if it is hard-earned money.” No questions asked as to whose hard-work enables accumulations for the rich. Questions about capitalistic contradictions no longer require any answers. Capitalism is here to stay and flourish. After all, we have voted our parliamentarians to power and they have welcomed imperialistic trade to enslave us once again. The question that needs to be answered and addressed is that of the undesirable elements that weaken the otherwise radiating image of our beloved country – the question of the Maoists, of the disfranchised, of the destitute, of the refugees.

So embarrassed we are of our own victims that recently a deputy executive editor of Hindustan Times wrote about Orissa: “Twenty-seven years ago, when I migrated to Delhi, mine was a state whose chief minister would make headlines for his alleged homosexual escapades. Then there were starvation deaths that made news in the late 80s. Spotlight fell on it again when a devastating cyclone struck in 1999, killing tens of thousands. The festering image of a poverty-ridden, backward state still did not leave a native like me as despondent as it does today with the spurt in Maoist violence in what was once seen as a state endowed enough to lead the journey of modern India. What was once considered a state where one would rarely see radical politics is now heading to the top of the list of India’s worst Maoist-affected states.”

The dichotomy between the journey of modern macho resurgent India and the poverty-ridden, starving, dying or worse, that of the resisting insurgent Indians is what most glaringly characterizes the past six and a half decades. And the need for most of us to informedly choose one over the other while recognizing the class conflict as a historical necessity is what most strikingly has gone amiss this entire period.

No wonder, in the latest incident of security forces murdering 19 villagers of Sarkelguda in Chhatisgarh, we could not choose the side. On one hand we would not support police brutality on principle, and on the other, we would unflinchingly believe in the official narratives that claim law and order requirement in killing five children among the dead, and sexually assaulting four more teenage girls. When our Union Home Minister discovers three “hardcore Naxalites” in a class 10 student, a dholak player and a marginal farmer, we instantly choose silence as a reaction. Or worse, sadness, for we are forever comforted by our unassailable faith in judiciary system and the unbelievable isolation of those who protest. Even as a national awakening was registered to declaration of the mosquitos in Maoist belts as the public enemy following unfortunate demise of a photojournalist recently, we prefer to maintain steadfast silence over continued police brutality upon independent journalists covering those “affected” areas.

It is as though there is a localized cancer, and the affected area needs urgent dissection. And the social doctors tell us, once we are rid of the mosquitos (and/or the Maoists), the golden bird will sing again, with the mind sans fear with head held high, India will be leaps and bounds ahead of others. Our identities as proud Indians will be reasserted, our civilizational heritages shall be reclaimed in their undiluted forms. All we need are the officially approved militant Operations.

Once we rid our societies of the undesirable Maoists and the wretched villagers who shelter them, the homosexuals and the sluts who arrogantly defy the overarching patriarchy, the Dalit casteists who demand reparation and the emancipated minorities who demand social justice, the suicidal farmers backlogged in interests and the suicidal students performing to societal expectations, once we rid our societies of the women who demand reproductive rights, the victims of abuse who refuse to forgive their perpetrators, and the atheists who crave for no inner peace, we shall have become truly sovereign a state, for now the more powerful we appear for our dispossessed, the more we continue to crave for colonial, imperial approvals. After we have successfully completed our Operations hunting down the dissenters, we shall no longer be forcing a ten year old girl to drink her urine as a corporal punishment measure. After the poor are eradicated from the mainstream, we would not be left with a Dalit woman who can be forced to clean human excrement with her bare hands as a manual scavenging labor.

In face of acute contradictions that have shattered every iota of revolutionary roles India adopted as torchbearer of freedom movements for the colonized peoples, what is the basis of our pride today? Failing to implement the internationalist role we once gave to ourselves of ensuring peace and nuclear disarmament, where suppressed is our courage today? Fast reversing the socialist path we once set out on with a patriotic intent to put people before profit, cooperation before competition and sharing before acquiring, where are those enlightened visions today?

Or, do we at all need those principles anymore? Should we ever go back in time to live the past dreams for social equality when we can make giant leaps into a concrete future of individual liberties? The challenge is not merely philosophical. Do we become the champions of the oppressed, or sycophants of the oppressors. In believing we are the next super power, we behave like one: we torment our poorest, worship our richest, aim for a seat in the Security Council, throttle oil dealings with Iran to appease the rogue powers. And in carrying out this role to perfection, we are emerging as a Fascist state which refuses to let go of its thinly veiled dosage of nationalism, religious chauvinism, and linguistic hegemonies.

The grandest irony is we have been reduced to an oxymoron: a nuclear power with a friendly smile. A smile that accompanied Mr Vajpayee as he signaled victory at Pokhran. Or one that appears fixed on Mr Manmohan Singh’s lips as he signs away the country in the guise of free market initiatives. Our global standing rests on a convincing power tactic that transcends international fraudulence; one which assuredly destroys the domestic dissenters whom the state apparatus declares as insurgents. It’s the poor who cause us the most damage. The oppressed that pose as obstacles. It’s the dejected that distress us, its the celebrities that inspire. The teeming millions whose shows of strengths to challenge the status quo escape our radars, while we continue to get impressed by a handfuls of accumulators whose charities sustain inequalities.

While we prepare to celebrate yet another Independence Day, are we merely to brace ourselves to cheer for the renewed promises delivered from the Red Fort? To witness awestruck the gallantry and the magnanimity of our increasingly powerful military? Or to celebrate the truly patriotic among us who although enslaved are confronting the owners, although relegated to statistical dustbins are growing progressive voices in the tradition of freedom struggles, and although termed socially backward are forming revolutionary fronts for universal progress?

If 15th August is a reminder of fights, struggles and sacrifices, this year we may need to pause awhile from our pompous ceremonies, boisterous democracy claims, privately held economic strides and racial pride narratives; and go back in time to acknowledge the roots of socio-economic inequalities. Each of us has a stake, for a few fulfilled individuals do not build a country; a shared struggling people do.

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2012)