Introduction to Sovereign are the People by Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri: A Sanhati Publication

February 25, 2011

Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri’s column at Sanhati has cast an incisive gaze at political developments, as they have unfolded over the past few years in our state and beyond.

The reason that we decided to publish the collection as a book is that it is many things – a most interesting political chronicle from a seasoned observer, as well as a lesson in faithful, intelligent writing for the political journalist. Its publication in the 2011 Kolkata book fair comes at a crucial juncture in our politics, at a time when democratic voices are under immense threat of statist persecution. Dissent has faced the fist of the police, the bureaucratic menace of the judiciary, and the intellectual admonishment of the establishment. In a climate of fear and compromise, this collection throws out a challenge to the status quo with its uncompromisingly radical outlook.

Most importantly, then, this collection is a weapon for the activist.

Sanhati’s association with Rai Chaudhuri goes back a long time. He has been a direct teacher to some and an inspirational mentor to many more. His politics started off in the turbulent, and immensely hopeful, days of 1966-67, when the spring thunder boomed across the Indian subcontinent. A full description of his life’s trajectory may well be part of the broader story of Left politics in West Bengal for the last forty years.

The formation of Sanhati was a response to certain events around 2006, when the development beast finally reached Singur and farmers rose up in protest. It would not be fair to the farmers of Rajarhat and numerous other places to say that the brutality of the Left Front government had reached new heights. Rather, the striking feature this time was that the brutality had been varnished in the language of development, reason, and even modernity. On the one hand came the bullets, the crude lies, the arrogance of the masters; on the other came the reasoned voice of its writers, its economists and media hawks, who suddenly rediscovered catch phrases like “job creation” and “trickle down”.

In short, the intellectuals had completed their journey and finally anchored up on the shores of neoliberalism. Previously, the police had murdered with stealth; now, their bullets had the prestige of the social sciences. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), sharing the fate of its social democratic cousins across the world, had gone right of right.
 
Rai Chaudhuri has fought it all, with facts, numbers, and passion. In article after article, he proved that the entire intellectual foundation of the neoliberal program in West Bengal was based on dominant class interests and opportunism. None of the pillars of neoliberal propaganda escaped his attention. His method was never journalistic acrobatics and word play – it was based on analytical precision. Those who had the opportunity to attend his physics lectures at the University were not surprised.

In one of his earliest studies archived on Sanhati, Shilpayon – Rupkatha aar Bastob (Industrialisation – Fairytales and Reality) (available at http://sanhati.com/literature/351/), Rai Chaudhuri embarked on an extensive study of post-liberalisation China and foreign capital in Latin America, ending with a history of SEZs in Bengal and a study of Falta, Haldia Chemicals, and other examples. The goal was to examine the equation “big capital investment = job creation”, one of the pillars of neoliberal propaganda, at a time when the establishment took it as self-evident truth. A careful calculation leads to the fact that there are 12 lakh new job-seekers every year in West Bengal, a figure beside which promised job creation by big capital investment (say the Tatas), ranging upto about ten thousand, pales into insignificance. This study is continued to the question of downstream jobs in Haldia (Haldia Pterochemicals and Unemployment in East Midnapore: A Lesson in (Non-)development available at http://sanhati.com/excerpted/366/), where he challenges official propaganda and proves that “The reality of 705 downstream units has been transfigured in a dream to 7000, and the reality of 10,000 downstream jobs to a dream figure of a lakh or more.”

In a rejoinder to Amartya Sen (“Work for everyone and Amartya Sen”, 2007, available at http://sanhati.com/articles/611/), he pointed out that “Market looks at purchasing power. People who do not purchase are outside the market. If the government has money, it will make malls and flyovers.” This is a theme revisited again and again – the sustained critique of trickle down, of a benevolent market, of the common lore that increasing GDP will inexorably cause increasing HDI (Human Development Index) – the other pillar of neoliberal propaganda. In one of his columns, he asks the provocative question: “If Nano had not left Singur?” Taking Hind Motors as a case study, he concludes “Even in 1998 there were 9954 jobs. In 2007, within ten years, the number of jobs more than halved to stand at 4500. The surrounding localities of Uttarpara and Makhla stagnate. After 60 years there are no signs of flourishing townships.” In fact, Hind Motors is the site of one of the greatest scams of neoliberalism – the conversion of industrial land to real estate. As he notes, “The Birlas sold the land to one Bengal Sriram Hitech City Pvt Ltd at Rs 295.5 crs, a neat profit of Rs 285 crs. The Birlas had declared that Rs 70 crs would be used for modernizing the factory and Rs 25 crs for payment of workers’ dues, though it seems that the windfall is actually being used to cut down the workforce by operating a Voluntary Retirement Scheme.”

There is much to think about in these columns, and it is fair to say that the intellectual challenge presented to the neoliberals is daunting. From the World Bank preying on schemes like NREGA (April 2009) to an article on the Union Budget 2009, a careful analysis of price rise in West Bengal (Sept 2009) and jobless growth (Jan and Feb 2011), the economics questions raised are both deep and pertinent.

Rai Chaudhuri’s column has also been one of the most perceptive chronicles of the Lalgarh movement since its inception. Towards the very beginning, he made the point that “poverty alleviation programs are a huge hoax in the interior villages” and located the origins of the movement in the essentially undemocratic nature of our polity:

“In a real democracy, thousand strong demonstrations would cause concern to the rulers who would hasten to address the basic grievances of the people. The Indian state offers a choice of parties with the same broad understanding on pro-corporate ‘development’ and agricultural stagnation to the electorate every five years and pretends that this non-choice makes it a democracy. The basically undemocratic nature of the state and the major electoral parties is revealed whenever there is a mass upheaval. The response is indifference to the basic issues being raised and treatment of the upheaval as a ‘law and order’ problem.” (Jan 2009).

He presented two choices to the State:

“In one, the state agrees to a reallocation of local power with a recognition of the village committee as a local power centre. The people use the committees to fight for their rights and interests, on the one hand, within the panchayets (especially within reactivated Gram Sansads and Gram Panchayets), extracting from the state 100 days work for all to start with” while in the other “the state refuses political space to the people’s committees and resorts to violent repression.

The people will fight back and we might see an escalation to helicopters and army action, backed by “salwa judum” gangs comprising activists of the major ruling party, leading in all possibility, given the presence of Maoists, to guerrilla resistance on the part of the people.” (Lalgarh: Nature of the Movement – Dec 2008, available at http://sanhati.com/front-page/1083/#13).

These were prescient words. It is clear that the State chose option two, and a few months after Rai Chaudhuri’s column Lalgarh became the laboratory for “Operation Green Hunt”.

He had cautionary words for the radical Left, too.

“No political party, not even the Maoists, seem to be able to allow direct political space to the people…The CPI(Maoist) found it necessary to declare at a Press meet that they had built this movement and were directing it, a back-handed way of denying direct political space to the people. ”(July 2009).

The collection, then, is an acutely sharp account of the logical structures underlying the movement and the state’s response. But it is more than that. It is a living history of the civil society movement, of the vacillations, triumphs, and setbacks of the activist space, and its response to a movement unparalleled in nature and scope. An example: confronted with the inertia of civil society on the Lalgarh movement, he was quick to locate the origins of the crisis:

“A large proportion of the rest of the democrats, who supported the struggles in Singur and Nandigram, oppose the Maoists in their ideology/politics and/or strategy/tactics/forms of movement, and look at the movement in the jangal mahal through the lens of this opposition. This is the genesis of the paralysis of the opinion-makers in civil society.”

He urges civil society to uphold the democratic issues of the movement, saying

“A movement of the toiling people may not coincide in its aims/methods with the perception of a large section of civil society, especially when the vocal leadership of the movement spells out methods and aims unacceptable to the class interests of this section.

Democratic opinion should still (1) separate out what can be supported in such a movement and, of course, (2) oppose steadfastly state terror, even when it is used against a movement which it cannot support at all.” (Feb 2010).

There is more along the way – Reflections on Language Martyrs’ Day (March 2009), observations on Pakistani politics (March 2009), the travails of the working class in the wake of hurricane Aila (May 2009), the nature of the State and repressive laws like CSPSA, the Patriot Act, etc. (March 2010), an article on POSCO (May 2010), and a continuous evaluation of the evolving face of the CPI(M) (The “De-politicisation” of the CPI(M) – July 2010, Political struggle within the CPIM – August 2009).

This is the age of media bytes, the age of paid journalists who double as lobbyists for the centres of power, of television channels which reflect the interests of their sponsors and whip up the middle classes in a murderous frenzy against the majority of Indians. “Kill the terrorists!” “Protect the Indian State” they cry, directing their fury at the most marginalized, killing them in the name of development and uplift.

In these times, Sanhati tries to be different. It endeavours to stand squarely on the side of the people, the toiling masses, to give a voice to progressive reporting and analysis that is all but lost in the days of “embedded journalism”. In this endeavour, the importance of a column of this nature cannot be over-emphasised. With this small synopsis, we invite you to read this collection that constitutes one of the most perceptive looks at our times.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Introduction to Sovereign are the People by Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri: A Sanhati Publication”

  1. Alokita Rai Chaudhuri Says:
    February 29th, 2020 at 11:49

    Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri is my grandfather. I have been eagerly waiting to find his writings on the particular subject for a very long time. This website has been extremely helpful in my endeavour. Thank You.

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