Remembering Praful Bidwai

We mourn the sudden demise of renowned journalist, noted columnist, anti-nuclear activist and Left political commentator Praful Bidwai. Known to speak truth to the powers that be, he always wrote and spoke what he truly believed in, without fearing the consequences. His particular efforts towards ensuring a world that was free of war and nuclear weapons and energy were reflected in his tireless activism in the anti-nuclear movements, as well as in his writings. He wrote extensively on this subject and also founded the Coalition of Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in 2000. A powerful voice for the left in India, he was also consistent in his efforts to fight promotion of prejudice, superstitions and non-scientific thinking in education. Co-awarded the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride Peace Prize along with Prof. Achin Vinayak, he was committed to a vision of secular, democratic and an egalitarian India. The demise of Praful Bidwai is a huge loss for the democratic movement in India as people's movement has lost a consistent champion and friend.

As a tribute to Praful, we reproduce excerpts from some of his writings.

Four years after Fukushima, India is flogging a nuclear dead horse

(From Daily News and Analysis, 19 March 2015)

It’s a telling comment on the state of the Indian media that most of it blacked out the fourth anniversary of the still-continuing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, which fell on March 11. The same media reported breathlessly on the Indian government’s plans to triple domestic nuclear power-generation capacity by 2020-21, and on the “breakthrough” achieved on the nuclear liability issue during Barack Obama’s recent visit to India.

In reality, there was no breakthrough—only sleights-of-hand to substitute administrative memoranda for proper laws enacted after prolonged legislative debate. This trick, meant to please US nuclear suppliers at the expense of India’s public, falls foul of Parliament’s intent. But it still won’t work. Westinghouse and GE, now owned by Japanese capital, are unlikely to sell reactors to India so long as an element of liability exists.

Fukushima, the world’s worst-ever nuclear accident (, has probably sounded the death-knell of the global nuclear industry. It brutally exposed the unaffordable nature of nuclear risks even in developed societies, and has made atomic power publicly unacceptable everywhere. In 2014, no nuclear reactor generated power in Japan—for the first time since 1963. The Fukushima clean-up will take four decades and cost $200 billion. No bank or insurance company will back nuclear—unless crony-capitalist governments subsidise it.

India would commit a historic blunder by expanding nuclear power generation, given both its generic and domestic safety record (itself appalling), its high costs—Jaitapur power will cost Rs 15-plus a unit and bankrupt Maharashtra’s consumers—and the popular opposition it faces at every site.

Nuclear has nothing going for it—not when wind and solar energy annually grow worldwide at 25 and 40 percent-plus, when their generation costs fall to those of gas- or coal-based power, and their modularity and flexibility establish their unparalleled versatility.

Promoting Prejudice, Poisoning Minds - Parivar's intrusions into education

(January 15, 2015)

If there’s one thing that the 102nd Indian Science Congress, held in Mumbai, will be remembered for, it’s the outrageous claims made at it about the achievements of science in ancient India, including the assertion that Indians between 7000 and 6000 BC knew how to make airplanes that could undertake “interplanetary travel”, and fly backwards and sideways, as well as forwards!

Similarly, Indians had invented differential calculus, knew about viruses and developed advanced techniques of plastic surgery—well before anyone else. These claims confuse mythology with science, concoct history, and are based on pure fantasies of insecure ultra-nationalists who assert that ancient India’s accomplishments in the arts or sciences put even the modern era to shame.

The claim about airplanes was demolished 40 years ago by Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore aeronautical engineers in scientific journals. Yet, such claims are now made with brazen confidence. This speaks to the power of example, one set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no less, when he cited the mythical figures of Ganesha and Karna as proof that Indians knew about genetics, in-vitro fertilisation and complex surgery thousands of years ago!

Such self-glorification and myth-making can only make India the laughing stock of the world, but is an integral part of the Sangh Parivar’s distinct self-identity and obscurantist agenda. Its impact is now becoming visible in the Parivar’s Long March through the Institutions of the State.

Led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and enabled by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government, Parivar activists are reshaping, changing, and subverting institutions, especially in education and culture.

Hindutva Trumps 'Development': BJP's real agenda

(January 4, 2015)

What we are witnessing is a concerted campaign by the Parivar to impose a redefinition of the Indian state as essentially Hindu and of citizenship as something based on religion and culture, not civic equality and a participatory community which respects diversity and plurality.

Mr Modi may have made a few token and ineffectual noises about restraining Parivar-style hate speech, but his actions suggest the opposite. Thus he refused the opposition’s eminently reasonable demand that he make a statement in Parliament on the hate-speech issue—on pain of holding up Bills on insurance, coal-mining, land acquisition, etc, declared central to the “development” agenda.

By pushing these measures through ordinances, the government is denigrating and demeaning Parliament. Making our democracy rickety, anaemic and dysfunctional is the price Hindutva is extracting from India, in addition to the spread of virulent sectarianism and hatred.

The Sangh’s antics are drawing protests from businessmen and chambers of commerce. This group, comprising Mr Modi’s wealthiest domestic supporters, includes, among others, Confederation of Indian Industry president Ajay Shriram, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry president Jyotsna Suri, and HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh (who, incidentally, was among the first to criticise him for the Gujarat pogrom, but who soon became part of the pro-Modi chorus).

This group has been joined by self-styled liberals who are soft on Mr Modi. They contrast the BJP’s “economic Right” to its “cultural Right”, and back the first against the second. They all regard the Parivar’s anti-minority campaign as an “aberration” or deviation from the “development” agenda (read, pro-business neoliberal policies), and as some kind of BJP “self-goal”.

They are profoundly mistaken. Contrary to media propaganda, Mr Modi wasn’t elected on a “development” plank. This was mere sugar-coating on its hardcore Hindutva agenda, meant to broaden its appeal to the as-yet-non-communalised sections of the middle classes. In 2013-14, the BJP didn’t even claim, as it did in earlier years, to have diluted or distanced itself from that agenda.

The agenda was implemented through systematic incitement to communal violence, with 247 recorded incidents in 2013 in Uttar Pradesh alone—from Pratapgarh and Faizabad in the East to Allahabad, Bareilly, Bijnore, Mathura and Bulandshahr, and worst of all, Muzaffarnagar Westwards.

The RSS was drafted under Mr Amit Shah into the BJP election campaign with greater intensity and numbers than ever before, with huge backing from the electronic and social media, and bankrolled by enormous sums, of the same order as that spent in the US presidential campaign.

Hindutva motifs were carefully deployed, as also slogans like “Pink Revolution” (beef exports) to chide Muslims. As journalist Harish Khare puts it in his very perceptive new book How Modi Won It (Hachette), he “succeeded in instigating another Hindu uprising to become Prime Minister”.

For the Parivar, as for Mr Modi, the top priority is not economic growth, not job creation, leave aside holistic development, but politics—how to deepen and widen Hindutva’s influence and ensure its long-term dominant presence in India, if necessary by coercion and repression. If there’s a clash between promoting growth (or even the economic giveaways promised to Big Business) and furthering the Sangh agenda, the Sangh must take precedence—always and every time.

This poses a new challenge to secular-democratic forces. This challenge cannot be met solely through rational argument and Parliamentary debate, important as these are. It demands grassroots mobilisation based on issues that concern the core-rights of the people which are threatened by Hindutva-dominated neoliberal order which oppresses them.

Untouchability Thrives In India: Fighting the caste menace

(12 December 2014)

It’s fashionable in some circles to claim that discrimination based on caste has steadily decreased in India, as it’s bound to, thanks to modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation. The character of caste is itself changing from a system of social hierarchy based on birth and ritual purity, to a political phenomenon. As India evolves into a “merit-based” society, the argument goes, there can be no place for untouchability vis-à-vis Dalits (Scheduled Castes) in it.

This argument is bogus. India has failed to industrialise significantly. And the modernisation process is slow, uneven and combines many pre-modern elements of culture and society, including caste, and sometimes reinforces caste-based deprivation and discrimination. We know this from daily experience and official reports. Hierarchy-obsessed India is nowhere near becoming “merit-based”.

Now, even the myth of the impending end of untouchability has been shattered by the India Human Development Survey (IHDS-2), conducted in 2011-12 by the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, US. It reveals that untouchability thrives—six-and-a-half decades after the Constitution abolished it. More than a quarter of Indians admit they practise it. The survey asked a direct question: “Does anyone in your family practise untouchability?” If the answer was no, the respondent was asked: “Would it be okay for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils?”

Twentyseven percent of all households said no. The survey didn’t cross-check the answer with the actual incidence, which might be even higher. Yet, the voluntary admission rate is itself worryingly high. As might be expected, an even larger percentage of Brahmins (52) admitted to practising untouchability. So did 24 percent of other “forward” castes.

Less expectedly, a high proportion (33 percent) of Other Backward Classes, lower in ritual hierarchy than these two groups, practise untouchability. Even more “polluting” Dalits and Adivasis aren’t free of the untouchability taint: respectively 15 and 22 percent confess they practise it.

India’s state and society have become complicit in the violation of the Constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability, and failed to combat casteism and the injustices it entails. This calls for comprehensive and imaginative remedies, including a thorough reform of the education system, with revision of school syllabi and teaching practices, and non-segregation of children based on caste.

It’s not enough that school textbooks highlight Ambedkar’s role as a great leader of oppressed people and a principal drafter of the Constitution. They must also educate children on the inhuman nature of the caste system and the persistence of Dalit oppression in contemporary India. Caste-based segregation in schools must be punished by amending the POA.

Perhaps the most effective way of combating casteism would be to restrict the appointment of cooks for the Mid-Day Meal programme in schools to Dalits alone. Upper-caste parents who wish to prevent their children from eating such meals would have to pull them out of school.

Similarly, all restaurants and food-stalls must publicly announce through well-displayed notices that they follow a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of caste both towards their employees and customers—as a precondition for getting a licence. Fighting the entrenched caste system won’t be easy. But that’s no reason to give up.

India's Left Faces Major Challenges as Elections Approach

(From an article on India's Left parties, was written for the BBC's Hindi website, Feb 26, 2014)

The Left has been India’s most important political current with a commitment to the uplift of the poor and dispossessed on a radical agenda of social transformation, including land reforms, redistribution-oriented economic policies, and devolution of power to local governments. For seven decades, it has played an important moral, intellectual, cultural and political role disproportionate to its seven-to-ten percent share of the national vote.

The Left emerged as a vocal and consistent critic of neoliberal economic policies precisely when these acquired dominance. It stood firmly for rationality, liberty and emancipation from hierarchy and oppressive traditions.

The Left distinguished itself as a bulwark of secular opposition to Hindutva-based communalism, and an advocate of peace and nuclear disarmament. This helped the Left attract a variety of progressive and secular forces.

That trend could now be upset. The Left parties are in no position to challenge existing power structures through grassroots people’s mobilisations. In the past, such mobilisations preceded and crucially determined their legislative success.

The Left’s difficulties are not limited to the electoral sphere. It faces a multi-dimensional crisis of ideology, programmatic perspective and political strategy.

They remain vanguardist in their conception of leading mass movements and are often unable to form alliances with autonomous popular movements based on livelihood issues like land acquisition, displacement and destructive industrial, mining, irrigation and energy projects.

The Left has not creatively conceptualised issues like caste, religion and forms of social oppression specific to India, and integrated such understanding with classical class-based Marxist theory. Until recently, it showed little comprehension of patriarchy and gender issues.

The Left continues to be weak on ecological issues. It has failed to generate a model of socialism based on alternative notions of relations between nature, society, production and consumption, which is socially equitable, climate-friendly and environmentally sustainable.

In recent years, the Left parties have virtually abandoned their traditional emphasis on radically reducing India’s enormous and growing wealth and income disparities. Indeed, when in power in the states, especially in West Bengal, the Left accommodated to and often pursued the same corporate-led inequality-increasing neoliberal policies which it assails nationally.

This became painfully evident in the confrontation between the Left and its own constituency of poor peasants at Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal in 2006-08. These crises dented the Left’s credibility and were partially responsible for its debacle in 2011.

Unless the Left rethinks its ideological and programmatic positions, reconnects itself with grassroots struggles, and develops a new political mobilisation strategy, it cannot resolve its crisis. Such rethinking will be wrenchingly painful. But there is no alternative to it.

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