B I B L I O : J A N U A R Y – F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 2
Balagopal found his voice as a critical public intellectual in the early 1980s at a time when the Indian economy was shifting gears and continued to be the most prolific commentator in English and Telugu until his passing in 2009. Ear to the Ground brings together the most significant of this writing in English and serves it up in an aesthetically produced book, affordably priced.
For students and activists of three generations, Balagopal’s voice was an ethical and political compass. He was of course a product of a particular time and place – post-Emergency Telangana – but he transcended time and place not only through his wide ranging work in and on human rights in Kashmir, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, but also through his sophisticated navigation of the world of theory and practice.
The early ’80s was a troubled and violent time in Telangana. Even as agrarian surpluses largely from the Green Revolution were seeking avenues for reinvestment, older forms of exploitation and oppression were being renewed and reconfigured. Competing claims on the Indian State from caste alliances (one hesitates to use that quaint expression fractions of capital) weakened it to a point where populism and extrajudicial violence through armed forces became the only means of ensuring unjust surplus extraction. In Andhra Pradesh, as in some other states, Maoist groups emerged as a formidable force challenging the repressive order bringing about a degree of dignity to the social groups that bore the brunt of these processes — Tribals and Dalits. Building on memories of past struggles against oppression, in Telangana, the Maoists gathered force very rapidly and with a State seeking to crush it violence escalated rapidly. Academic economists and sociologists struggled to contain these processes within the abstract categories of land, labour and capital. If Balagopal’s contributions to the Economic and Political Weekly began as a parallel accounting for the same processes that the academics were preoccupied with, intervening only occasionally to expose the perils of abstractions, they also enriched abstractions by embodying them with flesh and blood. He did this from a unique vantage point — that of the general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee. He travelled incessantly through the villages and towns of Andhra Pradesh, on fact-finding missions, enquiring into extrajudicial violence by the police, contractors and landlords, addressing the press and gathering evidence for judicial remediation. This constant transgression of the boundary between the world of abstraction and reflection on the one hand and the world of immediate action on the other, was guided by a political commitment to a particular understanding of the role of civil liberties activism in India that emerged in the aftermath of the Emergency – defending the space of State guaranteed rights so that democratic struggles can be waged by people’s organisations – in this case Maoist groups.
While by and large, the Maoist groups drove the locus of change during the ’80s, both in Andhra Pradesh and in the rest of the country, new social forces whether in the form of Dalit solidarity groups or in the form of anti displacement and environmental campaigns emerged. The APCLC had to necessarily engage with all these democratic struggles and expand its work. By early ’90s, Balagopal’s writing began to reflect a discomfort with teleological accounts of class transformations. On the one hand, the social classes that commanded the agrarian surpluses and reinvested them did not display any clear drive towards modernity and capital and on the other, the Maoist groups and their constituents not only did not seem to drive change, but also appeared to act with more and more impunity closely mirroring the very ruling classes that they were battling. Where then had historical agency shifted to? By mid to late ’90s, Balagopal began to articulate this discomfort in more and more decisive terms both in his praxis as a civil liberties activist and as an analyst. The result was a vastly broadened field of vision for Balagopal but a sharp divergence from an the intellectual and political praxis of the ’80s which envisioned the role of civil liberties as one that is by and large auxilary to the struggles led by a class determinism — namely the Maoist groups. In 1997, he was confident enough to state unambiguously that human rights movement in India could not and should not be functioning as the handmaiden to any political movement but that it had to seek its own domain of work. For observers at a distance from this deep intellectual churning, Balagopal’s trajectory signaled a simple disagreement with the Maoists on the viability of violence as means of transformation and for those who were too close to the churning, this was a shift towards liberal humanism.
Such closures may have helped different groups involved in these debates to pursue their own agendas but on the whole reducing Balagopal’s questions into rigid categorical formulations imposed a temporal sequence not only on Balagopal’s work but also on the trajectories of radical politics. Ear to the Ground, a collection of 42 essays by Balagopal previously published in the Economic and Political Weekly, organised into eight sections with a rich and nuanced Introduction by V Geetha and an appendix of a timeline of caste violence in Andhra Pradesh thoughtfully inserted by the editors, is a very important contribution to breaking the image of that sequence and foregrounds the continuities in Balagopal’s writing and thereby in social realities. The publication of this volume also brings to a conclusion, the grief that many of Balagopal’s associates and admirers have been experiencing in the two years since his passing.
Ear to the Ground, accentuates certain dimensions of Balagopal’s work that are widely known to his readers. These include of course attention to the richness of detail, an ability to move from the particular to the general to the discovery of a universal truth, a strong sense of history and agency. It introduces Balagopal to a new generation of readers as an intellectual whose praxis builds analysis from concrete realities and works its way to theory.
Ear to the Ground also foregrounds some dimensions of Balagopal’s work that are not as widely appreciated as they should have been. Geetha’s excellent Introduction brings out these. Even through the first decade of his work, Balagopal’s work with a loyalty to class politics, was clearly strongly influenced by questions of caste and violence. In some sense, class was a category that got fleshed out through caste. While there was a schematic elegance to this style of thinking, its limitations began to reveal themselves by the early ’90s, when Balagopal began to first express his discomfort with Marxist teleology and began to look for emancipatory potential in non-class struggles. The common theme throughout all these years is however, a deep suspicion of the ruling classes – their illegitimacy and their unsuccessful attempts to win legitimacy through populism and orchestrated and subtle forms of structural forms of violence – and a deep commitment to people’s struggles. Also, the ways in which Hindutva ideology was insinuating itself into public life.
Yet for all this attention to the new social formations and their potential, there is a surprising persistence in Balagopal’s search for a unifying universal struggle — a struggle that would alter consciousness at a scale where ethical conduct will no longer remain a private dilemma but a public imperative. This search was so deep that it essentially became the main compass for his professional practice as an advocate towards the end of the 1990s. Balagopal’s writing which directly drew on his work and politics reflects a deep restlessness with partial theories. To borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall, the British cultural Marxist, Balagopal’s enduring challenge was to learn to live with a Marxism without guarantees. His journeys through philosophy exploring various strands of Marxist thought is revealed in bits and pieces in interviews published in Telugu. His rejection of the politics engendered by postmodernism and adoption of post-structuralist attention to language and culture are faintly reflected in his writing. Yet he did not leave behind any clear and conclusive answers. What we do know is that by late 2000s, Balagopal began to write and speak more and more assertively that none of the struggles that were unfolding across India seemed to have a complete answer. And yet a complete answer was the need of the hour. How does one stop the excesses of the 21st century Indian State in its tracks except by physically stopping it by large numbers of mobilised people? What would be a broad politics or analysis that will bring together such an emancipatory agenda? Perhaps Balagopal would have turned to Gramsci, after all these decades. Perhaps, he would have reconciled to the necessary incompleteness and found provisional closures through solidarity with numerous local struggles for social justice thatwere multiplying across the territory rapidly. Perhaps he would have discovered the resources for the next political project in Marxism itself. In the absence of an ambitious enough counter-hegemonic struggle that alters the commonsense radically, Balagopal’s writings collected in Ear to the Ground show a simultaneous yearning for a unifying thought and commitment to the imperatives of struggles embedded in concrete circumstances. Balagopal was fully aware of this dialectic and the quixotic ways in which it played out. For example, he recognises clearly how the regional specificity of the Maoist movement shaped its trajectories and how generalising from there into a theory of necessary violence is fraught with risks.
His is an unfinished intellectual and political project. But upon closer examination, we may find that the dialectic is no longer a significant one for our world. Or yet we may find that he is relevant. Either way, Balagopal’s life through the 1980s gives you an insider’s view to Indian society. He was one of the people who animated the most progressive of the forces that shaped it. And for those who want to continue in the best of the intellectual traditions of India, Ear to the Ground is required reading.