Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Exasperated Anarchist

The only viable way in which the centralised forces of the state apparatus can be fought and overthrown, whether violently or non-violently, is through the formation of a massive centralised organisation of the masses prepared to adopt underhand means to counter the illegality of the state. But by definition, anarchists are against all forms of centralisation and stress on the maintenance of the purity of means to achieve desired ends. So they cannot posit a viable mass challenge to the state that they would so much like to get rid of. This results in a classic Catch-22 situation. Faced with this seemingly impossible scenario, some individual armchair anarchists such as Thoreau have contented themselves with holding forth from their isolated ivory towers against the iniquities of the state, while others of a more practical bent like our own Shaheed Bhagat Singh (before he gave up anarchism and became a Marxist during his incarceration prior to execution) have laid their faith in individual acts of violence against the state. Both these strategies have naturally proved ineffective.  
There have been many ways in which anarchists, who have actually tried to change the world on a mass scale, have tried to get around this dilemma. One common way has been to form a skeletal anarchist organisation and then latch it on to a larger centralised mass organisation that is at work against the state. Gandhi followed this course during the freedom struggle. The problem with this is that the purity of anarchist theory and action often has to be compromised to a greater or lesser extent. Additionally, there is always the danger that when power is eventually won from the oppressors, the centralised organisation tends to shrug off the anarchists and pursue a course directly in opposition to all that the latter hold dear. This is what happened in the case of the Gandhians after independence, and this is also what happened to the Russian anarchists in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Gandhi postponed his anarchist programme of village self-rule for parliamentary self-rule during the freedom struggle in the naive hope that the former could be achieved after the latter was in place, thereby contradicting his own pet dictum of not divorcing means from ends. The Congress led by Nehru, cashed in on this ideological confusion and rode piggyback on the tremendous charismatic influence of Gandhi to attain state power.

The establishment of a parliamentary system with the candidates who went first past the post in elections being declared the representatives, instead of a system of proportional representation with a distribution of seats on the basis of votes polled, resulted in a scenario that gave undue advantage to the ruling Indian National Congress. Even though it got less than the majority of votes, it nevertheless got a majority of the seats. Moreover, the Congress used a combination of engineered defections and sops to wean away elected representatives and their supporters, leading to a continuous exodus of workers and leaders from among the socialists and communists.
Nowadays, all political parties—and there are many to accord with the varied diversity of the people across the spectrum from the left to the right and from the bottom of the social order to the top—that take part in elections, have recourse to unfair electoral practices prior to winning and dubious parliamentary practices after that. Indeed, the Bahujan Samaj Party of the Dalits, which had given a clarion call for cleansing the dirty politics of the "Manuvadi" upper castes when it first began participating in elections, too, has gone the corrupt way of the other parties. All parties have also duplicated the Congress model. No wonder then that hardened criminals who have both power and pelf in the local settings have begun winning elections in embarrassingly large numbers and dictating what little is left of party policy. Since winning elections and staying in power have become ends in themselves, rather than being the means for social transformation and people-oriented governance, both electoral and legislative practice have been reduced to being a theatre of the absurd.
The decade of the 1990s saw this theatre of the absurd enacted even at the grassroots level, with the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments introducing a third tier of governance at the community level in urban and rural areas all over the country. In the initial years of the republic, Panchayati Raj was given a complete go by. However, the failure of the Community Development Programme initiated in the early 1950s led to the appointment of the Balwantrai Mehta Committee to review this in 1957. The Committee found that in the absence of people's planning and participation, the programme had fallen prey to bureaucratic malfeasance. The Committee suggested the setting up of a three-tier Panchayati Raj system. Thus, a rudimentary local government system was begun in many parts of the country. But it soon perished. The main reason was that the state governments did not want to devolve powers to the panchayats. Given the strong concentration of resources and power with the Union Government, the state governments had little room for manoeuvre, and they did not want to lose what little they had. Apart from this, the district level bureaucracy was obviously dead against handing over the control of rural development schemes to the panchayats.  
The Naxalite upsurge of the late 1960s, followed by the mass movement of Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974-75, had made it abundantly clear that mass aspirations at the grassroots were seeking new vistas. After the elections in 1977, the Union Government set up the Ashok Mehta Committee, and it too made wide-ranging recommendations for the establishment of Panchayati Raj. Following on this, the Left Front government in West Bengal and the Janata Party government in Karnataka began on a new note with institutionalised rural local self governance. These experiments were immensely successful as they provided greater participation of people earlier excluded from electoral politics, in governance and development. The dominance of Congress in Indian politics began to decline, and strong regional parties began to emerge. The states thus began to increase their share of power and resources at the cost of the Centre and gained more independence in their own spheres of action. This made them more amenable to the idea of devolving resources to the grassroots. So with time, the pressure building up at the grassroots has resulted in the countrywide adoption of Panchayati Raj.
However, the malpractices of the parliamentary elections have extended to the village level, leading my friend and colleague Shankar to aver that the rule of the sarpanch or the elected head of the Panchayat is in reality a "parpanch" or hoax perpetrated on the people.
Theoretically, it should be possible to counter the corrupt political practices at the level of the panchayats if there is a fairly good local mass organisation. This is what prompted the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) to actively participate in the panchayat elections when they were first held on a direct voting basis in Madhya Pradesh in 1989. The KMCS was in a clear majority in four panchayats. In two of them, prior meetings held to decide on the candidates for the posts of panches or ward members and the sarpanch ended amicably with unanimous choices. Hence there were no contests as only one candidate filed nomination papers per seat. In the two other panchayats, things were not so smooth. The Congress saw to it that candidates filed nominations to oppose the KMCS for the post of sarpanch and panch. Despite this opposition, the KMCS coasted through with handsome margins in one of these panchayats. However, shockingly for us, the KMCS lost the post of sarpanch in the Attha panchayat, where we were headquartered. To add to that, the KMCS candidate for panch from our ward lost by one vote. It was clear that KMCS members had voted against the official candidates that had been decided on in the meetings prior to the elections.
A post-mortem revealed that the Congress candidate, a former KMCS activist who believed that a softer approach should be taken with the administration after the rights to cultivation of newar land had been secured by the KMCS, was supported by the ordinary voter who was in no mood for a long confrontation. In the case of the panch it appeared that the KMCS candidate had, in the early years, when the logging contractors had begun operating, acted as their agent and cheated the rest of the people of their wage dues. He even used to beat up the people when they protested. Despite the fact that he had later reformed himself and played a stellar role in setting up the Sangath, the people decided to pay him back for their earlier insults and torture at his hands.
What shook me most was that we activists did not get an inkling of this massive undercurrent of secret "resistance" among the people to the radical anti-state direction that we were giving to the Sangath's politics. Instead of coming out and stating their preferences openly in the meetings, they decided to use the secret ballot against us! I learnt an important lesson at that early stage of my activism—that the peasant masses offer covert resistance not only to their oppressors, but also to their liberators when the latter begin to go too fast for their comfort.
This, of course, is an old problem that has confronted activists fighting for radical socio-political change. The vast majority of people just want a decent life and with even a little bit of improvement are content to desist from active political struggle. Alternately, in the face of repression they opt for a compromise rather than confrontation with the state. Due to the patron-client system of electoral politics, the state in independent India, however oppressive it might be, still has to be responsive to a certain extent to the demands of the people in order to retain legitimacy. Following this episode, the politics of the KMCS became diluted to accord with the preferences of the people rather than that of the activists!
There is an anecdote about a king once asking his people to contribute a glass of milk each for the purpose of a feast. The people had to secretly pour the milk into a big cauldron through a hole in its lid. When finally the lid of the cauldron was taken out it was found that it was filled with water. Everyone had contributed a glass of water, thinking it would go unnoticed amidst the contributions of milk by the others! Similarly, for anarchists like us who rarely have anything tangible to offer to the people in the short run other than stints in jail, secret first past the post secret ballots result in a watery gravy for our anarchist dreams.
That panchayat election of 1989 marked the first time in my life when I voted. Previously I had considered the whole system of elections a sham and never voted. The hectic campaigning and managing that I had to do in the run up to those elections enthused me enough to go and vote. A number of women, it later emerged, had not even stamped the ballot papers owing to ignorance! Over the past decade and a half, the women have surely become more proficient what with electronic voting machines and regular training in the technicalities of voting. But disillusioned totally with the electoral process after that debacle, I have since busied myself with stamping cockroaches rather than ballot papers till the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party led me to vote again during the last Lok Sabha elections in Indore with similar negative results!!
The corruption in panchayats is made possible because of the first past the post electoral system that has been adopted at this level too, overriding the traditional method used by the villagers where the decisions are taken by the monthly gram sabhas, generally small in size. The elected executive of the panchayats, the sarpanch and panches do not have any salaries. They perforce resort to graft to compensate themselves for the time that they give to the panchayat. This problem came up in the three panchayats in which the KMCS came to power in 1989. We tried to circumvent this problem by having a team of people working by rotation in support of the sarpanches and we activists too did a lot of running around. Soon we found that it was a herculean task getting any work done because of the opposition of the "local state," constituted by the rural development bureaucracy, to our plans.
Nevertheless, we did some good work in watershed development for the first time in Jhabua district and used most of the development funds for income generation at the village level. This arrangement was not a sustainable one as it depended for its success on us activists monitoring it closely. The moment we withdrew from the process to get involved in wider issues, the system we had put in place collapsed. People tended to leave the sarpanches to their own devices and only expected them to deliver the goods. Eventually, all the three sarpanches were forced to resort to graft in collaboration with the bureaucracy who were only too willing. Things became even weirder in later elections, with members of the Sangath fighting against each other. The KMCS finally took the position that it would not actively participate in the panchayat elections as an organisation even though its members were free to do so.
The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan, which later took up the same issue of corruption within the panchayats and elevated it into a successful national campaign for the right to information, has also not been able to overcome this basic problem of the apathy of the people towards higher political goals and support for the sarpanches who have to give their time for panchayat work. The two MKSS sarpanches who had won in the 2000 panchayat elections had to be compensated with funds garnered by the organisation from outside sources for the time that they had spent in managing the panchayat affairs. Despite having worked well in the interests of the panchayat with this external support, the MKSS was unable to retain these seats in the 2005 elections. One of these seats includes the village that is the headquarters of the organisation. The MKSS fought these elections on an anarchist plank with a people's manifesto and a declaration that no candidate for sarpanch would spend more than Rs. 2,000 on election expenses and the promise that the elected sarpanches would be supported with external funds for the time that they give to the panchayat. Yet, only two of the twelve candidates for sarpanch managed to scrape through against the other candidates who spent tens of thousands of rupees on their election campaigns. The people demand immediate fixes to their problems, without fighting long drawn battles to change the skewed over-centralised distribution of political power and the resulting corruption. Thus, between the devil of the state and the deep blue sea of the inscrutable masses, the true blue anarchist stands alone, thoroughly and exasperatingly checkmated.
This inability to make its presence felt in Parliament and the legislatures and even at the panchayat level has severely handicapped the people's movements in India. The Aam Aadmi Party of course has changed all that and for the first time and come to power in Delhi and is putting up a good fight in Goa and Punjab but it remains to be seen how long it can continue to succeed. Moreover, like the socialist and communist parties earlier, which too had won power from initial grassroots mobilisation, the AAP too has made many compromises once in power. Most people's movements, however, find it difficult to even win Panchayat elections let alone state of central ones.
 Yossarian in Joseph Heller's novel Catch- 22 is asked which he prefers more, staying alive or winning the war. He replies that he wants both, because winning the war is of no use to a dead man. He is castigated for such a view, which, it is alleged, would only help the enemy. He cynically replies that the enemy is the person who gets one killed, regardless of the side he is on. Present day anarchists find themselves forced to be part of a highly centralised human civilisation at war with nature. The crazy warriors who control the affairs of this global civilisation are constantly berating them for not wanting to win this war, which is both futile and fatal. When the anarchists are castigated for being enemies of progress, they can only reply forlornly that such progress would, in the long run, emerge as the enemy of both nature and humans. Of what use is progress if billions of deprived people all over the world have to continually pay with their lives and livelihoods for it?
 Like Yossarian, anarchists too can find no escape from a crazy predicament brought about by the warmongers incorporated. 

No comments: