Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A student leader in India fights discrimination — and is charged with sedition

Delhi — Across India, students are organizing against an increasingly intolerant, right wing national government. A soft-spoken 28-year-old doctoral student at India’s top public university has unexpectedly become a focal point for the growing protest movement.

Two months ago, Kanhaiya Kumar was focusing on his dissertation on “Social transformation in South Africa.” Today he is charged with sedition and facing a possible life sentence for allegedly shouting “anti-Indian” slogans at a February protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi.

The controversy is about far more than freedom of speech. Kumar has become the face of opposition to policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that are seen as furthering Hindu nationalism and religious intolerance, exacerbating caste and class divisions, and undermining India’s commitment to democracy.

Protests in Mumbai in mid-March, part of nationwide actions supporting the student movements against discrimination and intolerance.

Kumar, in person, is soft-spoken and deliberative, far from the media image of a rabble-rousing revolutionary eager to foment the breakup of India. In a recent interview on a quiet Sunday afternoon, in an outdoor courtyard at JNU, Kumar discussed a range of issues, from the crisis of finance capitalism, to his hopes for equality and democracy in India, to the need for international solidarity.

Addressing the sedition charges, Kumar replied, “We are asking for freedom inside India, not from India.”

Kanhaiya Kumar
The charges against Kumar stem from a February 9 protest at JNU, held to mark the anniversary of the still-controversial hanging of a Kashmir activist for participating in an attack on India’s Parliament in 2001. Kumar was arrested three days later for allegedly shouting “anti-national” slogans, such as supporting self-determination for Kashmir. Subsequent evidence has strongly suggested that the slogans were shouted by agent provocateurs, and that social media videos linking Kumar to the chants were fabricated.

Kumar grew up in a low-income, leftwing family in Bihar, India’s poorest state but known for its political sophistication. He is a member of the All India Students Federation, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India, and has a decidedly wide range of interests. He is an enthusiastic singer, and in college ran a small film society known for showing movies such as The Bicycle Thief and Schindler’s List.

He is also president of the JNU student union, which has been central to protesting discrimination and planned budget cuts at India’s universities that would disproportionately affect low-income and low-caste students.

“There is a student upsurge here in India, as everywhere in the world,” he said in our interview. “The students are very organized, and the government is finding it difficult to manage the student community. So they are trying to suppress it.”

An international outcry has erupted over the sedition charges against Kumar—including a statement by almost ninety prominent academics that Kumar’s arrest is a disturbing example of the Modi government’s “culture of authoritarian menace.” Signers range from Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

India’s sedition law was enacted by the British in 1860 and used against Indian independence leaders, most famously Mahatma Gandhi. In contemporary times, it has been used to silence dissent and jail activists, thus derailing the political momentum of protest movements. Writer Arundhati Roy is among those charged with sedition, in her case in 2010 for advocating the right to self-determination in Kashmir. The charges subsequently dropped.

Protests link the attack against Kumar and the suicide of Dhalit (untouchable) activist Rohith Vemula

In our interview, Kumar stressed the importance of linking seemingly local controversies. Befitting his academic roots, he went into an extended explanation that involved theories of finance capitalism and neoliberalism—the term widely used outside the United States to describe pro-market, austerity and free-trade policies embraced by both conservatives and liberals.

But he ended with a clear and specific message to students in the United States:

“There should be three things. First, peace. And when we are demanding peace, we have to oppose the concept of war, any kind of war.

“Second, progress. This financial capitalism is empty progress . . . . When there is economic surplus, it should be put into production of goods and services, not the system of gambling known as finance capitalism.

“The third thing: I am not talking about a communist state. But there should be a just society, an equal society . . . . There should be equal education. There should be equal health facilities for all. There should be equal access to every kind of basic service.”

“So this is my message to the students of the U.S.A.: Please fight for peace, progress, and equality.”

The protests at JNU are part of a growing student movement across India. They also take place in the context of intolerance fueled by the Modi government. Among other concerns, Modi is close to the rightwing Hindu movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which calls for Hindu supremacy in what is a religious and culturally diverse nation.

Bans on selling and eating beef (cows are sacred in Hinduism) have increased since Modi came to power in 2014 with 31 percent of the popular vote. One of the most disturbing incidents occurred last fall when a Muslim man in northern India was lynched after rumors circulated that his family stored and ate beef.

In October, a number of India’s most famous authors issued a statement deploring “growing intolerance” and returning awards or resigning from Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. “All spaces of liberal values and thought, all locations of dissent and dialogue, all attempts at sanity and mutual trust are under assault almost on a daily basis,” the writers said in a statement.

In November, students started an “Occupy UGC” movement, referring to the University Grants Commission and its attempts to curtail financial aide and potentially make it all but impossible for low-income students to continue their studies, particularly at the graduate level. Kumar’s family, for instance, makes about 3,000 rupees a month, or the equivalent of about $50.

Then, in January, protests erupted nationwide after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit (untouchable) research scholar, committed suicide. He did so after he was expelled from Hyderabad University following an incident with rightwing students aligned with Modi’s party.

Kumar also spoke of the international context of the rightward drift in India, in line with similar authoritarian movements in Western countries. Emphasizing the importance of unity, he said:

“We have to break the categories—that we are students so we do not support in the trade union movement, or are not in support of the ecology, or we are middle class so we will not fight for the poor class. ...

“If I am communist, I have to talk to the social democrats, I have to talk to the liberal forces. If we want to establish a powerful movement, first of all we have to unite the opposition.”

As for his vision for India, Kumar speaks clearly and succinctly. “First of all,” he said, “I want to refer to our Indian constitution and our wonderful preamble that India should be a socialist, secular, democratic republic.”

“Second, there is a huge gap between the rich and poor. This should be the primary concern of the government, to resolve this gap. And we can. We can do that.”
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This blog was originally posted at www.progressive.org.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Life and death along the Varanasi Ghats

There are 87 Ghats in Varanasi, India — steps leading down to the river Ganges. Most of the Ghats are for cleansing and prayer rituals, but a few are for cremation.

I had incredibly mixed feelings when I first walked by this corpse. My first reaction was part denial, part repulsion. After walking by several times during the course of the morning, and seeing the reactions of Indians, and trying to better understand the Hindu approach toward life and death, my feelings became more complicated.

And then two Indian women were nearby when, on what was my final walk past the corpse, I bowed, put my folded hands to my forehead and mumbled “Namaste.” The women immediately and prominently motioned to me, and gave the universal symbol for me to take a photo. Which I found strange. But then I realized that most of the Euro-American tourists, especially older tourists, don’t walk along the Ghats but stay at a safe, antiseptic distance, watching from boats along the Ganges.

There is so much I don’t understand about India, and so many contradictory feelings and concerns. If one were to ask me what I think of India, I’m not sure I could articulate all that is swirling in my head.

But one thing is clear. India is a deeply religious country, where one’s religion is practiced in public. And Hinduism, the dominant religion, approaches death as a normal part of life. I came to see the corpse not as a corpse, but as a person going through their life cycle.

I worried about taking what might be yet another “exotic” photo of India. (I have come to hate that word, too often redolent with connotations of viewing anything different from the European-American norm as somehow strange or inferior — or, at the other end of the spectrum, an example of “the noble savage.”)

But after a while, many things that at first seem strange or different are, in the end, mostly that: different. Not better, not worse, just different.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Mumbai is the world's future. One of the world's "megacities," Mumbai has 25 million people and counting.

Befitting a world dominated by finance capital, Mumbai is a bundle of contradictions. People without potable water or toilets live in shacks built in the shadows of billionaire penthouses. Garbage is omnipresent, and it is left to poor people who dominate the recycling business to deal with the throwaways of the rich. Money exists both in real time, mostly in dog-eared rupees, but also in electronic transfers that live in an increasingly powerful parallel universe. 

Bob and I had the good fortune to see a fascinating exhibit while in Mumbai, by artist Chandrakant S. Ganacharya, that speak to these contradictions in new ways that force the viewer to question and think. Isn't that one of the purposes of art?

Titled “#MONEY*FOOD@LIFE,” the exhibit uses the language of daily life to explore themes of hunger, struggle and power.

Like many, Ganacharya is a transplant to Mumbai. His work speaks to the city’s realities, in particular the omnipresence of money. Those who have it, and there are many, flaunt it; those who don’t are, of necessity, preoccupied with getting enough to live.

The exhibit, at the Jehangir Hirji Art Gallery, uses a variety of everyday images and realities — grocery bags with calculations, mostly subtractions; ATM slips; LED-lit text messages; rusting mess plates; historic Indian coins and denominations, now preserved in terracotta. In one work, gold-plated peanuts are refigured as ants marching in line, forming a question mark.

Pictured here is a photo I took of “A Dictionary of An Empty Belly” — a multilingual reflection incorporating variations on well-known phrases and painted on rusting, metal food plates that evoke memories of India’s colonial history. Some of the English phrases:

• Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what is for supper.

• No man can be a patriot on an empty stomach.

• Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is considered an art.

• Hunger never saw bad bread.

• When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

I often feel alienated from some gallery exhibitions, a combination of a lack of formal background in art, a preference for publicly accessible art (rather than art sanitized and hung in eerily silent museums or galleries), and a predilection for art that resonates with the concerns of the day. At Ganacharya’s exhibit, I was mesmerized, both by the quality of the art and how his work powerfully spoke to the Mumbai reality we saw on the streets.

While at the exhibit, we met Ganacharya. He seemed surprised, and pleased, to see U.S. visitors. (There don’t seem to be many U.S. tourists in Mumbai, and those we saw invariably were part of large tour groups with scripted itineraries). Ganacharya asked to take photos of us, and in turn he agreed to be photographed.

If you get the chance, visit his Facebook page: Chandrakant S Ganacharya. Here are several more photos, by the artist. 

"Evolution of a Transaction" 

Gold-plated nuts, transformed into ants.