Rohith Vemula: Indian Left and the Dalit Student Suicides

 

By Saswat Pattanayak (Written for CounterCurrents)

Rohith Vemula did not just commit suicide – he was murdered. And this murder was not committed by the right-wing ABVP – it was conducted by the left-liberals. The “Dalit problem” citing which Rohith gave up his life, is not the creation of any fringe elements among communal Hindus – it is sustained by the liberal Hindus who tremendously profit from the status quo it provides. None of this is an exaggeration – these comprise a reality that must be confronted. The entire Hindu society, the Savarnas, are the perpetrators – no one among them is eligible to be member of the jury.

This is so because, whenever the colonial masters have been credited with infrastructure and development, the critical thinkers have added to the discourse a very crucial aspect – that, the ruling class of any given era also deserves to be blamed for the maladies. For instance, it is often said that the British could not blame the Indians for Satti and child marriage practices – if the British could take the credit for building colleges and for educating the Indians, they should also take the blame for the prevailing societal violence against women and widows that took place under their rule.

The ruling ideas of any era belong to the ruling class, and so do the existing contradictions. The ruling class of Indian academia are not the British anymore. They are the left-liberals. And Vemula’s suicide is not the first one to have been committed by a Dalit student at a higher education institute of India. Quite the contrary; it is an alarming continuation. The only reason why Vemula’s news has so caught up the protesting landscape is precisely because there is a right-wing government at the center and its youth wing ABVP that is purportedly responsible this time. In a macabre parallel, the Occupy and the anti-war activists have re-emerged now that the liberals need to be salvaged. The truth is the left parties and their student bodies which dominated the academia ever since India turned a sovereign republic, have consistently downplayed caste discriminations on campuses. Reason why the Left is responsible for Vemula’s demise today is because it did not sufficiently critique the hostile environment its own student leaders and professors were/are enabling all these years.

If the education system in India takes pride in being predominantly leftist, then it must also accept the utter failure in practicing the tenets of progressive politics. The hypocrisy of the Indian left is exposed threadbare in its historical incapacity to take a principled stand against caste atrocities that are systemically flourishing across top research centers of India. From policy makers, to academicians, to vice chancellors – almost all the shining stars in Indian institutes are progressive intellectuals strongly aligned with the Indian Left. College campuses have historically been dominated by youth brigades of Congress and CPI/M. Textbooks are overwhelmingly authored by leftist historians. Open Air Theaters and Ganga Dhabba meetings and the IIT/IIMs are crowded by liberal intellectuals at both student and leadership levels. And instead of addressing the legacies of segregations, all these institutions of higher learnings in India, spearheaded by JNU have remained busy with earned accolades for being tolerant and diverse.

Just as they have been rightfully receiving laurels, they must also be made accountable for what systematically continues in a parallel manner in all the major universities across India. What is it that makes the deans and heads of departments invariably always upper caste Hindus? What is it that sustains a climate where “reservation” is treated as though it is a favor, and not a right? What is it in academic environment that encourages student politics of dissent, but the dissenting voices are indeed from the profiteering social classes? What is it that labels minority students “casteists” while the students whose ancestors invented caste system and passed it down as a virtue, are labeled youths for “equality”? What is it that produces so few scientists, engineers and doctors within the Dalit students? What is it that drives so many Dalit students to suicides and yet the pattern remains unreported in mainstream media?

The Left needs to answer why most Indian universities glorify Marx and Engels, but do not even admit Ambedkar and Phule in their midst. Expulsion of Rohith Vemula and other Dalit students need not have come as a surprise, therefore. The hegemony of left politics inside campuses remains without a dispute, but its consequences upon the Dalit students deserve studious attention. It is not Savarkar or Golwalkar whose presence in university curricula overshadows that of Ambedkar or Periyar. Gandhian and Nehruvian scholars are the ones who have for decades marginalized, if not silenced the voices of Dalit icons inside campuses.

More than just the historical battle between the ideologies, the prevailing animosity against Dalits in Indian educational settings have been nothing less than ghastly. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is a classic case in point. The Medical strike of 2006 had “merit” students holding placards in broad daylight of Delhi announcing their disdain towards a possibility that their own children may end up becoming cobblers if reservations are implemented. Being the most prestigious governmental institute in medical sciences, AIIMS has continued to offer such a casteist climate that the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to personally intervene and set up a three-member committee headed by UGC chairman Sukhdeo Thorat in 2007 to assess the situation there.

The findings at AIIMS pointed to nothing other than a climate of “Caste Apartheid”. 100% of Dalit students reported caste-based ragging, 88% complained of hostel isolation, 76% reported mess discrimination, 72% of Dalit students expressed bias in Cricket, 92% in basketball, 72% highlighted teacher bias in classroom. Regarding the caste-based ragging, a Dalit student said, “They would call us to their rooms and order us…’tell us 10 reasons why you should get reservation…if you don’t we’ll beat you.”

Despite media coverages of the above, neither the government nor any educational institute aided by powerful leftist student bodies established procedures to address the climate of segregation. Insight Foundation reported the suicide of Linesh Mohan Gawle, a second year PhD student from National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi on April 16, 2011, the suicide of Balmukund Bharti, final year MBBS student from AIIMS on March 3, 2010 and even recorded testimonies of family members in a documentary “The Death of Merit”. The complete report “On Suicides of Dalit Students in India’s Premier Educational Institutions” is available on Countercurrents.

The instances of suicide among Dalit students are too many to be blamed on “right-wing political student groupings like the ABVP”. This shifting of blame to an external agency, preferably “fringe elements” is a convenient method adopted by liberal Hindus who wish to retain the status quo while coloring it progressive only because they enjoy the privilege to see published their feel-good stances of meaningless empathies. A win-win situation where the protest is registered, self-respect enhanced, and the tag of being social reformers keeps giving. In a sickening parallel to charitable organizations that need a state of poverty to remain so they can stay relevant. Bizarre but true, political parties like the Congress and the Left need caste hostilities (and despondency among Muslim youths) to remain, so that they can occasionally support the politically correct positions as progressive political outfits. Appears like Caste in India must not be annihilated, but sustained, across the spectrum – Left to Right.

This double standard has been long exposed at the level of electoral politics, where the Dalits and Muslims are increasingly choosing candidates not aligned with either the Congress or the Left. But more crucially, it is also being increasingly realized among the Dalit students who are joining “study circles” to seriously examine Ambedkar and Periyar and the likes who are deliberately kept out of academic curricula.

Rohith Vemula was himself one of those who realized that the Left in India was “inefficient” to tackle caste issue and to unite the working class. Even as he remained an admirer of Marxism, Vemula was disenchanted with the left politics on the campus that was led by the SFI. He made a call to “resist the communal ABVP, reject the inefficient SFI and to support the UDA for a stronger union”. But he was not limited only to student politics on campus. More importantly, he had made a theoretical intervention that is worth analyzing. On August 13, 2014, Vemula wrote, “The shift of my political identity from Marxism to Ambedkarism is a conscious move into building a new future on the basis of more humane, more inclusive society. Thus compelling the present stratified society, perforce, to take off it’s elitist mask of generosity and solidarity in the name of seamless majoritarian cultural unity or nationalism. My core intention is to challenge and expose the upper-class hypocritical advocacy of progressiveness which shamelessly maintains it’s ties with the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender. To fight against the symbiosis of cultural chauvinism and communal politics, to popularize the subaltern, dravidian history and to shout out sharply the radical realism amidst the euphoria of freedom. With my basic world view conditioned by marxism, I dream and work for a society which Baba Saheb has always aspired.”

If the Indian Left needs a wake-up call, this is it. Yet another occasion to own upto the utter failure on its part to align with the working class interests of those who are most exploited in India. Luckily for them, despite pointing out the “upper-class hypocrisy” represented by the Indian Left, Rohith Vemula never quite gave up his hope in communism. With his astute and critical observations that shall comprise the legacy of Rohith Vemula, he refused to fall for political polarization and bourgeois opportunism. He called for the revolutionary unity of the working class instead, and for a much more efficient and radical Left that would spark revolutionary spirits.

Almost a year after his analysis on shift in his political identity, Vemula would assess and hail Marx as “one of the greatest of minds that ever lived on this Earth.” He wrote the tribute on Marx’s birth anniversary on May 4, 2015, “He (Marx) along with Engels produced the fierce theory of revolution. He explained the capitalist exploitation and gave a scientific sense to out anger. His dialectical materialism proletariat revolt idea, historical materialism and class conflict concept will forever help the oppressed sections in revolting against the oppressive systems. Long live Marx..Long live Marxism…Long live Revolution.”

No rest in peace.

Jai Bhim, Comrade Rohith Vemula!

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Comrade A B Bardhan, Lal Salam!

By Saswat Pattanayak

Comrade A B Bardhan (1924-2016) was not just the foremost communist mass leader of India who raised working class consciousness among millions through his oratory and organizational persistence, he was also the Marxist historian who accounted peoples’ struggles like no one else had quite done.

Well before publishing “People’s History” had become a worldwide trend, Comrade Bardhan had reflected upon the critical role of working class in India’s freedom struggle with these words –
“Official histories are apt to pass over in silence the role of the working class in India’s freedom struggle. They depict the freedom struggle as a series of events determined and influenced by individuals from the upper strata of society, who reacted against the humiliation and oppression of foreign rule, and moved the masses in their wake.
As to the workers and working people, they were considered either too weak or ignorant to play any role in this struggle, or concerned themselves with the more immediate problems of mitigating exploitation and improving their lot.
Nothing could be more one sided and false than this picture. In fact, with the growth of the working class in India and the rise of the labor movement commences the impact on India’s struggle against foreign domination.”

Well before social justice movements demanded reservations as part of parliamentary political norm, Comrade Bardhan had gone beyond the traditional proposals and recognizing the imminent pervasiveness of private capital, he had called for reservations in private sector as well –
“As Communists, we take note of the problems of the deprived communities in our society and pay special attention to them. These are for instance the dalits, the adivasis and the minorities, especially the Muslims. We shall actively support the demand that reservation should be extended to the private sector, especially when moves for privatization are afoot.

Well before the caste discourse in public policies had gained momentum and denouncing Hindutva politics had become mainstream, and intolerance debate had gained a foothold in India to prompt celebrities in joining the chorus, Comrade Bardhan had urged the people to reject communal casteist elements from the political sphere, in these words –

“Neither Gandhi or Nehru nor the hundreds of martyrs who climbed the gallows for independence – none of them gave their lives for a Hindu nation.
Never forget that!

We who uphold the red flag – we respect all religions. For the identity and ego of one religion, you cannot attack and break the identity and faith of another religion.
Always remember this.

In Hinduism, there is both tolerance as well as intolerance. There is humanity, but there is also a caste system. That is why for years saints and enlightened ones have tried to bring in reforms. They raised their voices against casteism, but even today caste remains. Today a new effort is being made to share power with those who were always kept out of Government, those who were considered only fit to be servants. Today an effort is being made that they too get a chance to help run the country. But the very forces who wish to preserve Hindu fundamentalism and unfurl their flags over destroyed mosques, these very forces swear by the caste system.
Recognize them and understand their mentality.”

Comrade Bardhan had confidence in fellow Indians that they shall reject communal, Hindutva politics and usher in a new age that will put the working class in charge of its own priorities. And armed with his inspiring words and following the exemplary life he led, his dreams shall certainly be realized.

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.”

Jab Tak Hai Jaan :: A tribute to Yash Chopra

By Saswat Pattanayak

Yash Chopra’s last, Jab Tak Hai Jaan is by far his greatest creation. In many ways, it is one of the grandest experiments in the history of Hindi cinema. However, the aspects that are revolutionary about this movie have not really been deliberated upon by the critics so far.

For one, Jab Tak Hai Jaan addresses ageism and sexism that affect a large section of Indian audience. Piyasree Dasgupta for FirstPost writes, “a self proclaimed 25-year-old, who looks 40, gets to kiss a girl who seems to have walked out of Vogue….(the girl) despite all her Mercedes and Gucci glory, can’t keep her hands off a waiter who has an annoying habit of speaking like he is perpetually in an art of living class.”

The patriarchy subsuming the likes of Dasgupta cannot make room for anyone subpar in their look books. Therefore, not only is a 40-year old not acceptable – let alone attractive or not (which again are extremely subjective adages) – enough simply because he “looks” a certain age, he is not allowed to kiss a girl who again “looks” like a fashion model. Not just a good-looking woman, but one who looks like a Vogue cover. Objectification of women (and, men) does not end here. The man is also derided for being a waiter with an unpolished accent. Clearly working class folks must not aspire for wealthy “beauties”, concludes Dasgupta. Classism has become classy in such reviews.

Except, there is a problem here. Yash Chopra has addressed issues of class society in almost all his movies. Too often the highbrow critics have pronounced Chopra movies to be silly tales of romantic love, and our competitive academic standards coupled with parental strictures have made our educated audience to believe in the notion that there is nothing revolutionary about love as a construct. Love therefore gets relegated to the stature of an Indian myth, connected vaguely with the days of yore. Young folks who would otherwise fall in love have started singing the tunes of “friendship” to appear cool, a live-in to refrain from commitments, and aspire for individual career growths while leaving behind their mutual feelings as “impractical”. Yash Chopra did not fail to depict Anushka Sharma embodying this position. But he took this narrative one step further – he suggested that the old recipe still works today. And that, it should.

To bring home that point, Chopra added a Rishi Kapoor-Nitu Singh pair to the plot. He even broke any stereotypes about the “old” marriage-forever love. Nitu Singh is portrayed as a married woman with a child who preferred to run away with her lover leaving behind her husband and daughter. Not because she was abused in her relationship; in fact she was well taken care of. Hence, under ordinary circumstances, Anupam Kher, the deceived husband would have earned all the sympathy for being the sufferer and for being the father who single-handedly raises a daughter. But no, Chopra makes Kher look like a capitalist crap who did not deserve either the wife or the daughter. So much so that Katrina Kaif, the daughter, ends up learning the lessons of love from the very man who had separated her from her mother. Intriguing, yes. But progressive, very much. This point is clearly lost to most critics, including Anupama Chopra (who writes an otherwise favorable review in the Hindustan Times) when she says, “You don’t go to a Yash Chopra movie to delve into realism or the messiness of relationships. You go to partake in a fantasy of swooning, idealised love – and Jab Tak Hai Jaan delivers plenty of that.”

Yash Chopra movies are brilliant realisms and his love stories are necessarily messy. As a matter of fact, love and realism are not contrasts, they are intertwined. As Che Guevara used to say, “the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love.” What Yash Chopra has consistently done through his movies is project love and its variously complicated manifestations (the realisms, so to say). Chopra started his career as a director with the brilliant Dhool Ka Phool, whose Sahir Ludhianvi (who worked with Chopra for all his movies until the poet passed away) number “Tu Hindu Banega Na Mussalman Banega” still holds torch for the only hope in an increasingly divisive India. Dhool Ka Phool was a love story with all the characteristic messiness Yash Chopra went on to embrace in all his movies. A scenario where a woman abandons her own child simply because she had got carried away with her partner, broke several taboos in a society where motherhood is considered a virtue by all means. And yet, Chopra never made this woman a villain, and he even made an example of a Muslim man who brings up this abandoned child with humanist values – a child who subsequently is accepted by the society. One may argue it is all too idealistic, but Chopra made this convincingly real and urged upon the audience not to just reflect on what is prevalent, but also to consider what is required for a world after his vision.

Likewise if in Daag, Chopra explores issues of bigamy, in Aadmi Aur Insaan, he tackles love’s intersection with class. In Kabhie Kabhie, a daughter from a pre-marital relationship is made as acceptable as the old lovers turning friends, within a highly complicated series of love stories spanning two generations. In Trishul once again, Yash Chopra makes an “illegitimate” son the protagonist, who then takes revenge by destroying his rich father’s capitalistic setup. Kaala Patthar, another outstanding cinematic treatment of social justice, engages love stories within a framework of socialist realism bringing the miners to progressive prominence. Equally compelling is Mashaal, where the decent protagonist turns to arms with no other purpose than exposing the misdeeds of the socially venerated. In Faasle – although considered his cinematic worst – Chopra throws positive light on secret relationship over marriage despite the inherent challenges. Chandni treats disability as a social location and how oppressed it is when it comes to juxtaposed love. Lamhe was revolutionary in its examination of age and stereotypes, where it is not considered in Yash Chopra’s vision any unnatural if the younger men love older women or younger women fall for older men. Darr brilliantly humanizes an otherwise villain as an ardent, misunderstood and irreconcilable lover. Dil To Pagal Hai, Veer-Zaara and Silsile are in their own unique ways romantic masterpieces but have at the same time challenged existing conventions of friendships, patriotism and, loyalty respectively.

To dismiss Chopra as someone who does not complicate relationships in his movies is as blatantly fabricated a charge as there can be. And apart from the complicated love story, what Jab Tak Hai Jaan provides for is even more radical, which unfortunately has escaped the critics so far.

Jab Tak Hai Jaan profoundly challenges the divine belief systems that usually dominate Bollywood. Rituparna Chatterjee for IBN Live says the movie could have a different ending. The “ending falls flat” because the audience were waiting for a tragic twist instead of a happy ending. Well, the ending was a deliberate mischief on part of Yash Chopra but its foundation was laid from the very beginning. Throughout the movie, Katrina Kaif makes promises to Lord Jesus and is rewarded for her religiosity. Shah Rukh Khan, her vagabond lover is a self-proclaimed non-believer and even challenges “Sir Jesus” (a sarcasm) that he will win in the end. Unlike all the movies in the past that have taken up such a topic where the god is challenged, in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, the god eventually loses. Jesus would have won, had Shah Rukh died while diffusing the last bomb because Katrina had broken all her divine promises. Chopra deliberately had this unpalatable but a necessary ending where a man openly and unrepentantly challenges the divine plan, and prevails.

Yash Chopra forces us to rethink the concepts of the vagabond, reminiscent of Raj Kapoor’s experiments with Aawara (which in turn was influenced by Charles Chaplin’s). But he takes up this unenviable task in an era of corporate aspirations where programmatic mindsets and technical expertise and systematized greed rule the day. And he again deliberately poses a struggling Pakistani as a friend-in-need, something which has not gone down really well with the critics. Rituparna wonders how a “struggling Pakistani, who could not hold down a job long enough to save some money to send back home, makes it big as the manager of a posh eatery in London in 10 years’ time with the help of a fist full of bank notes”. Well, guess what, there are numerous rags-to-riches stories in the world, and this one did not even begin with rags.

What is worse, Azzan Javaid for the “Parallel Post” goes one step further to describe this character as “a fat and good for nothing Pakistani who lives on the money of his good Indian friend”. So not only is this person now “fat” (which is to say, he/she does not fit into the fascist standards of acceptance), but the fact that he is unemployable or at the moment unemployed, makes him a “good for nothing”, and make no mistake, here comes another slur – Pakistani (who lives on the money of his Indian friend). And our elitist reviewer Piyasree Dasgupta for First Post fails to digest this phenomenon and caricatures working class heroes as “freeloading floozies to Michelin-starred restaurant owners”. To begin with, “floozies” is an utterly sexist remark and “freeloading”? What are we now, Mitt Romney? Not to mention Dasgupta’s disdain for “taller women with hotter legs” as the Firstpost review describes the women in the movie.

That said, I certainly have utmost respect for Javaid’s arguments regarding Kashmir – although in Chopra’s defense, the vagabond was playing his tunes from Ladakh to London and that is what vagabonds are about, leading therefore to a movie that did not certainly critique contemporary Kashmir crisis. And this movie while humanizes military uniform, it does not glorify war or stigmatize another nation as an enemy – which many otherwise acclaimed movies have done in the past even without displaying the uniforms. Coming back to the Pakistani friend, what Dasgupta and Javaid ignore is what Chopra deliberately planted there – that friendships are unconditional relationships; at times overcoming national boundaries or wealth – a constant theme with Yash Chopra movies, a direct takeaway, if one may, from his elder brother B R Chopra’s works.

Some critics also have pointed out their disappointment at the fact that a vagabond street musician ended up becoming an Indian Army officer. This sentiment of disapproval is a variant of the elitist mindsets pervading the youth today who also wonder how a lower caste child of a cobbler can imagine of becoming a doctor. Well, guess what, such highly annoying visions have remained historically core to Yash Chopra movies. Utopian, for sure, but welcome? Very much.

So not only someone who “looks like he is 40” can actually kiss a Vogue magazine cover stunner, he can also help his Lahori friend (by the way, Yash Chopra hailed from Lahore, and that explains that) to become a hotelier, and that fat Pakistani then remains a friend forever, and the mom who had run away from home becomes the idol for the daughter and the reporter who believes in instant love and the god who demands obedience both end up losing in a film that is a Yash Chopra classic, and going to remain his masterpiece because of sheer radicalism and for painting love in revolutionary red.

– Saswat Pattanayak, 2012.

Referenced/critiqued reviews –

The First Post
IBN Live
The Hindustan Times
Rediff
The Parallel Post
Indian Express

Tribute to Woody!

Woody Guthrie, the labor organizer and agitator who redefined the entire genre of folk music through his political philosophy was an unrepentant Marxist-Leninist, an avowed supporter of Joseph Stalin and a lifelong adherent of Communism.

By today’s standard, it certainly is not a flattering introduction to the man America has glorified to a postage stamp and whose centennial is being celebrated across corporate media in full flair without any mention of his political legacies. But to understand Woody Guthrie’s contributions, it is critical to explore why he has been stripped of all the aspects he held closest to heart. If he is exalted as the father of protest music, it is crucial to know what exactly was he protesting against, and who prevailed upon eventually. Even Nora Guthrie, his daughter who curates Woody’s archives insists today that he could not have been a communist. The Richmond Organization, Woody Guthrie’s publishers deny biographers any permission to quote Guthrie’s songs which praise Stalin. And more famously, “This Land is Your Land”, an authentic narrative of class society analysis is officially bereft of its most critical communistic verses when it is presented for consumption by American children. Like Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie has been rendered an entertainer, a national icon, a talented songwriter, and an American Legend – after registering a collective denial about their involvements with Communism.

And yet, for Woody Guthrie, the Communist Party was his life’s foundation, his moral basis, the reason for his intellectual being which used to get translated once in a while into a song he would dedicate to the workers of the world. “I owe the Party the only guidance and recognition and pay that I’ve ever tasted,” Guthrie wrote. Not just the CPUSA, he was a lifelong admirer of Stalin. “The whole world cannot trick Joseph Stalin because he is too scientific for them,” he used to say.

When the world of communism was crumbling under intense hypocritical pressure tactics from the capitalistic warmongers following Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, Guthrie remained steadfast a defendant of Stalin’s decision. Guthrie detailed his arguments for Stalin in his regularly published columns in the “Daily Worker”, the party newspaper. He reasoned why he felt Soviet Union could never trust the western liberal countries that betrayed her during the Munich Agreement a year ago. The British and the French had merely used the Soviet Union as a pawn in that betrayal. The West had collaborated with Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia, and Stalin was clearly aware that when time comes, they would not stop at handing over Soviet Union to Germany either. This is the reason why Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, which clearly irked the warmongers of the West.

Following Hitler-Stalin pact, when Roosevelt’s militarist face was exposed, and despite the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler, America was sent to war, Guthrie could see how FDR was no friend of the revolution; he was merely a champion of American capitalism. Guthrie thundered, in ‘The Ballad of October 16th’ –

“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.”

The Nazi-Soviet pact, however, was short-lived because as Stalin predicted, Hitler had war on his mind. But thanks to the Treaty, Stalin had availed to Soviet Union some time to prepare for the onslaughts. A country deeply ravaged by years of Civil Wars that were perpetrated against Soviet people by the West for decades, could simply expect no active assistance to fight Hitler from the Munich Agreement allies. Germany started its attacks by invading Poland, a week after signing the non-aggression treaty with Soviet Union, and Stalin came to Poland’s rescue. And Woody Guthrie translated the War in his songs. In his morning radio program “More War News”, he sang:

“I see where Hitler is a-talking peace
Since Russia met him face to face–
He just had got his war machine a-rollin’,
Coasting along, and taking Poland.
Stalin stepped in, took a big strip of Poland and gave
the farm lands back to the farmers.
A lot of little countries to Russia run
To get away from his Hitler man–
If I’d been living in Poland then
I’d been glad Stalin stepped in–
Swap my rifle for a farm…Trade my helmet for a sweetheart.”

His support for Stalin lost him his radio program on KFVD, and lost him his professional patron J. Frank Burke, the Roosevelt supporter who he owed his radio career to. But Guthrie was neither politically naive nor was he acting on emotions alone. Quite the contrary. He was an ardent and studious philosopher of communism. His purpose was not to merely entertain people through performing folk songs or become famous on the radio programs funded by liberal cronies. His idea was to “make all the thoughts of Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin…fly down and roost” in his brain, as he wrote inside a book he possessed: Lenin’s ‘Theory of the Agrarian Question’. Likewise inside Marx’s ‘Capital’, he reminded to himself that he would “memorize contents in a week or so…and try to write all of these things down in short words.” And through his songs and essays he did exactly that and remained uncompromising a comrade. He relentlessly towed the ‘party line’, stood in solidarity with Soviet Union, and understood the radical strategies of a difficult time.

After Stalin was proved right in his dealings with Hitler, and Soviet Union heroically fought the Nazis, FDR extended his friendship to the communists. Stalin was revered as “Uncle Joe” in American textbooks, and Guthrie changed his stance towards Roosevelt. And in “Dear Mrs Roosevelt”, he paid FDR a glowing tribute, following his demise:

“I sent him ‘cross that ocean to Yalta and to Tehran;
He didn’t like Churchill very much and told him man to man;
He said he didn’t like DeGaulle, nor no Chiang Kai Shek;
Shook hands with Joseph Stalin, says: “There’s a man I like!”
This world was lucky to see him born.”

In a society holding scientists to objective yardsticks and artists to subjective experimentations, Woody Guthrie was a social scientist and a realist artist. He was far from a romantic dreamer. And he was certainly not a pacifist for the sake of it. But he was a constant learner and he could discern between values, including his own socially conditioned ones. In his early years, he was just another racist white man. But after receiving a letter from a black young listener, he read it out for all his radio audience and acknowledged his own racism, subsequently emerging in later years as a civil rights champion of his era. Although Hal Ashby’s film “Bound for Glory” portrayed Guthrie as “Saint Woody” in an attempt to dissociate his communistic activisms, Guthrie was no saint. He was a radical, a revolutionary who believed if imperialists raised their ugly heads, it was time to battle them in bloody struggles. To the Fascists, he had the ultimate warning:

“I’ll bomb their towns and bomb their cities
Sink their ships beneath the tides.
I’ll win this war, but till I do, babe,
I could not be satisfied.”

Guthrie’s ‘machine’ indeed ‘killed Fascists’, for reactionary seeds, just as revolutionary ones, are sowed first in the minds. And he appealed to human reasoning through radical folk renditions that have founded the landscape of protest music worldwide. And he never faltered from why he needed to sing what he sang. And who but Guthrie himself could have provided a better rationale:

“I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think that you’ve not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I’d starve to death before I’d sing any such songs as that. The radio waves and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running over with such no good songs as that anyhow.”

Never in his life did he live in the gray. He unlearned his racism as much as he learnt his communism. He chose his progressive comrades and he fought for the collective principles. He picked his radical songs and he used them as effective weapons. He taught us that an artist must not be confined to the world of imaginations alone. The battlefield is the unequal world and the war against injustice is absolutely on. And until this war is won, the artist must not be satisfied!

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2012)