This article is based on the 25th Chandrashekar Memorial Lecture delivered on 20 September 2020. The original lecture was delivered in Hindi and the event was organized by Punashcha, the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) and Koshish.
Friends, comrades gathered here;
I am very honoured to be invited to deliver the Chandrashekhar Memorial Lecture this year but I cannot say I am very happy to be here. And that is because there should not have been any reason at all for someone like Chandu to disappear from our midst, so early, so young. I wish so much that he were here with us today.
We are in a time when fear and anxiety are the main product of every process around us. If fear were a commodity whose production could be given a cost and added to the national GDP India would surely have been the richest country in the world.
Fear for the safety of our bodies from the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear of losing income due to the economic crisis. For millions, who have already lost jobs, the fear of not being able to feed their families. For religious minorities, the constant fear of humiliation and arbitrary arrest. The fear of being targeted for speaking out. The fear of conflict with our neighbouring countries and topping all this, the fear that as a nation we are losing it –and that the country itself has come to breaking point.
In the drastic times we are going through, Chandu’s courage, integrity and commitment would have been a great source of inspiration for everyone. I miss him today not just as a comrade but also as a very good friend.
I remember the last time I saw him was in late 1996, when we took an auto rickshaw together from the JNU campus to go somewhere and he told me on the way that he had decided to move back to Siwan. I stopped the auto immediately, pulled him out and told him not to do it. I could see what was happening to Chandu. Being the extremely sensitive soul that he was and someone of great political integrity his decision was – in my view- a natural response to the ethos of the left party he was with.
Nobody would say it in so many words of course but within the far left – there has been for long the deeply embedded idea that political work in the city was a waste of time and energy. The real revolutionary struggle was in the villages or even better – deep inside the forests somewhere. I could see that Chandu felt he could not live with himself in the city any more – the big city with its comforts, seductions and what may have genuinely seemed to him, lots of empty discussions. The real action was happening far away in remoter parts of India and if he was to be honest to himself, he had to go there.
No, I did not expect at all what was about to happen to Chandu at that time. What I was upset about then, was over a very high quality intellectual and student leader going off to rural Bihar to prove that he was indeed a good revolutionary. As if it was only rural Bihar that was in need of a revolution and not any other part of India – especially its cities – where even then a very large proportion of the country’s population lived. Today of course, almost half the population of India lives in cities – which makes it even more important to have more and more radical political activists work in these spaces.
When the current regime talks of ‘urban Naxals’ one does not know whether to laugh or cry because the truth is there are hardly any at all who fit this description – it is a purely fictitious entity. On the other hand, given the dire situation of citizens today India perhaps needs more than a few real urban Naxals to educate, organize and agitate.
And it is not just about geographical spaces as in rural versus urban either. Politics in a certain framework, very prevalent in India particularly, imagines the term as being almost exclusively about administrative power – forming governments, capturing posts and positions, getting elected – or at best capturing geographical territory. The many other kinds of power and spaces that exist in all human societies – cultural, social even ecological – are ignored or utilized, once in a while, only in the service of administrative, top-down power.
Just a couple of months before he was murdered Chandu wrote a letter to me. I still remember his describing the political work he was doing in Siwan but together with that was an expression of longing for the time and opportunity to study and write about the people, their culture, particularly folk traditions of the areas around. Chandu I am sure would have made a very good scholar of sociology or anthropology or even emerged as a great writer.
Again, the problem with the Indian left movement is that, while it has produced some very fine scholars, artists and writers – within party structures and processes creative intellects are not really very welcome. They are seen as disruptive as they ask too many questions and are not satisfied with simplistic answers. Very often they are labeled as ‘anarchists’ – used in an abusive sense – because they don’t seem to fit into the mechanical workings of the party machinery. There is a suspicion of anyone with new ideas as any innovation can lead to ‘straying from the path’.
But why is there this division of politics and indeed many other things we all do, into revolutionary/non-revolutionary, soft/hard, meaningful/irrelevant, lofty/low and so on? While genuine differences in approach or perception are there surely, the framing of complex positions or behavior in such simple binaries does great injustice to the real issues and people involved.
In today’s talk, I want to bring your attention to three such binaries that have been around for much of human history and continue to play a critical role in the ideas and processes that govern our world even today. These are the binaries of the pure and impure; the mind and body; and the material and the spiritual.
All these binaries are, in my view, part of an ancient power grab by those who – once already in power by the use of force and violence – took on the role of defining what is right and what is wrong. They laid out the rules by which societies, families and even individuals would have to live – if they wished to live at all or live without punishment or ostracization.
The most obvious example is that of religious institutions throughout history and around the world – laying down the laws governing everyone’s lives. First, they did it on behalf those in power and then over time became a center of power themselves. The holy books of the Jews, Muslims and Christians and in Hindu society the laws of Manu, told everyone what is high, what is low; what is pure and what is impure. The purpose, on the face of it, was always noble. To establish order in society, to promote good morals, to safeguard the youth and of course keep women and slaves of different kinds from getting ‘too bold’.
The notion of pure and impure however is not confined to religious institutions alone and the ideological and power struggles within many organisations ultimately boils down to one faction accusing the other of being impure or ‘revisionist’, ‘infantile’ or just plain ‘corrupt’. All dialogue ceases once such terms are used, understood to be terms of abuse. The possibility that purity is always an imaginary ideal while reality is messy and contaminated is often ignored.
Another binary quite clear in philosophical or religious debates since ancient times is that of the material versus the spiritual, with the latter considered a greater goal to pursue than the former. The claim is that those who live only for material gains are inferior to those who have a higher spiritual purpose in life.
“Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govinda, Govindam Bhaja Moodha Matey”[i] said the first Sankracharya way back in the ninth century claiming that the world out there was an illusion and the only thing worth focusing on was the service of the divine. In our own times this formula continues with ‘Govindam’ neatly replaced by ‘Narendram’. So if you ask a question about falling national GDP or rising unemployment you are called a ‘moodha matey’ and asked to sing Bhaja Narendram!
The most obvious problem with this claim about the spiritual being a more noble goal in life than the material is simply that in history those claiming to renounce the world have mysteriously ended up with the largest share of prime real estate, not to mention lots of gold and silver. In our own times, this loot includes shares in the most lucrative corporations and businesses. The more they shun wealth, the more it seems to gravitate towards them, while those who want just enough to feed their families and are even willing to work for it, hardly get anything! Surely, there is something very wrong here.
The third binary, I want to bring your attention to and one that has also been around with us for millennia is that the of the mind or the soul versus the body. It is claimed in religious literature across the globe, that the body is just a vehicle for the mind or soul and one should not hesitate to discard it. The transient nature of the body is emphasized while the mind is supposed to be immortal – its aim to merge with an imaginary transcendental Being. Not surprisingly, this imagery of the mind on top and the body at the bottom is used to justify the racist caste system in India with Hindu religious literature claiming the ‘upper castes’ emanate from the head and shoulders while the rest of society springs from the lower portions.
To put it bluntly, this conception of the mind as eternal and pure as opposed to the impure, temporal body, is nothing but an attempt to set up a dictatorship of the non-working, lazy elite. The theory, more explicit in the philosophy of Plato in Greece and Manu in ancient India – is that only some ‘philosopher kings’ or ‘masterminds’ will contemplate deeply and give orders while the rest of humanity will blindly serve them with their physical labour.
The characteristic of fascism someone remarked is that it involves only one mind in command with many mindless physical bodies following. Bodies that will perform tasks given to them and in the process even kill or die. Perversely, these bodies – many of them poor and malnourished- are convinced through propaganda that their bodies are not important. They do not need to be fed, clothed or sheltered and should sacrifice their bodies in the service of the nation, religion, caste or whatever grand vision is projected before them.
In all these centuries, we can see that nothing much has really changed and we are still living in the dystopia of the philosopher king imagined by Plato where no one except the people at the top will be allowed to say their ‘Mann ki Baat[ii]”. And we are not even allowed to say our ‘Tann ki baat[iii]’ anymore – if you say loudly that you are starving and need food you are likely to be arrested as an anti-national or even as a terrorist today!
What is worse is that the proponents of the mind as superior – across religions – have also vilified the human body as the source of sin, desire and evil. The bodies of women in particular are singled out as inferior to that of men because of the phenomenon of menstruation, which in reality is a natural phenomenon symbolic of life and fertility. In the sterile imagination of male dominated societies, quite obviously, all sources of life are seen as a threat to power.
Let us understand a few things very clearly here at the outset.
- Human bodies have been the most valuable commodity ever since the dawn of history. Politics over the millennia has essentially been the fight for control over as many bodies as possible.
- The human body is the most efficient and intelligent working machine in the universe. Whoever controls this will control the world.
- The social, political and economic system of any country -whether monarchy, outright dictatorship or even capitalist democracy – tries to extract as much energy as possible from the bodies of the majority in the interests of a minority.
The question before those who want to be the masters of the world has always been, how do you control as many human bodies as possible? The oldest method is through use of outright violence, through inflicting physical pain and inducing fear and submission. However, this is not a stable arrangement as it requires too much energy on the part of the ‘master’. To give a crude example, if you have to take out the sword to threaten someone every time you want someone to make a cup of tea for you then the system is not sustainable.
Controlling human minds through propaganda, myths, entertainment and so on has been the more stable model that has evolved over millennia and set up a system whereby people become slaves ‘voluntarily’. While violence still underpins the system, it does not always need to be exercised, as people work for you out of a mix of both admiration and fear.
Religion, which captures human minds, by meeting their demand for explanations about the mysteries of the world is a good example of an institution that produces a lot of ‘voluntary slaves’. To keep the slaves mesmerized religion also creates spectacles constantly. The immersion of idols, the grand puja pandal, the rituals, the music, theater and dance, grand architecture all these serve to dazzle the ordinary human into believing in the power of x or y religious system.
Over the last couple of centuries, religion’s function, of capturing minds on behalf of those in power through use of knowledge or information, was replaced to a fair extent by other institutions such as schools and universities. And for the last decade and half, even educational institutions have been displaced from this role by the mass media – particularly social media platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter – which offer a potent combination of instant information (often wrong) and entertainment (often tasteless).
Which brings us to the point that, the idea of mind as master and body as its slave has been adopted very effectively by financial and data capitalism, resulting in the unprecedented concentration of resources in the hands of a few. It is not a coincidence that the richest people in the world today all involved in the businesses of the mind through manipulation of information, abstract concepts and data.
We need further recognize today that there is silent caste system operating globally also and not just in India. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos – these are the global Brahmins who dominate the globe today (there is not a single woman at the top there – except as wives of the rich). They produce nothing tangible that you can touch and feel but deal with abstractions that have somehow become an indispensable part of everyone’s. ‘Like, Share, Comment’ has replaced the idea of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ or even ‘Food, Clothing, Shelter’ as the main slogan of our times.
How does the mind manage to dominate human societies so much? This is simply because it is the facilities of the mind -the emergence of language, the storage of memories, the recognition of patterns, the passing on of knowledge from one generation to another – that have ensured the domination of the human species over Nature. There is no visible species in the world today (the COVID-19 virus is invisible) which is a match for human beings. Knowledge and power have been synonymous for several millennia now. Even in ancient Egypt the pharaohs also happened to be priests and medicine men rolled into one. Having conquered all other species some humans have used the powers of the intellect to subjugate other fellow humans, using all kinds of pretexts, from race and caste to gender and religious identity.
The problem with all this, apart from concentration of power, is the tremendous inequalities of wealth it produces. The world has been an unequal place for a very long time and yet the phenomenal accumulation of wealth in just a few hands today is far worse than during the period of monarchs and emperors.
The world’s richest 1 percent own 44 percent of the world’s wealth today[iv]. The top 10% of the Indian population holds 77% of the total national wealth[v]. Just since March this year, when lockdowns began across the world, 643 billionaires in the US had racked up $845bn in collective wealth gains. In India, the country’s richest man Mukesh Ambani’s wealth rose by $22 billion this year[vi].
For six months or more, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no production, sale, travel, spending and yet magically the wealth of those already very rich rises further. This is the greatest fraud perpetrated on the workers and farmers of the world by the new global elite castes, who monopolise and manipulate abstract commodities like finance, data and information.
And all this is happening at a time when according to the United Nations over 270 million people around the world are facing starvation due to loss of income in recent months[vii]. And in the Indian context, the International Labour Organization (ILO) says that about 400 million – one third of the country’s population- from the informal sector are likely to be pushed deeper into poverty due to COVID-19.
So where does resistance begin in this situation?
First, we have to recognize that both body and mind are needed for humans to live as one cannot survive without the other. So instead of the binary of one versus the other, what is called for is a balance between the power of the two. Right now, we live in an age where the mind wields far more control and resources but this imbalance has gone too far. A correction is required to restore to the body its due importance.
Firstly, what this means is that we need to fight for ensuring that those who use their bodies to earn their livelihood get a far bigger share of national and global resources. The farmer, the artisan, the worker, the carpenter, the tailor, the barber, the cobbler – they should get the first priority in national resources. Far greater amount of resources need to be spent also to make sure that their bodies are looked after well.
We need much more of the national and global wealth spent on nutrition, safe drinking water, access to clean energy sources for the poor, better public transport, good quality shelters – to stop the neglect of the bodies of a majority of the world’s population. Obviously, this will need a major redistribution and regulation to prevent extreme concentration of wealth.
A second process that is required to reduce the balance between the masterminds and their slaves is that those who earn only through the use of their minds should contribute much more physically too. They should for example take part in the actual production of food, goods for public use and work with their hands and bodies – to ensure that they give in tangible ways to the essential processes and products needed for human survival. (The evidence is mounting that COVID-19 affects those who are obese more severely, so it is a good time for the superrich to start shedding some of that weight before it is too late)
At the same time the intelligence and ideas of the people who work should be recognized. We have to call the bluff of those who currently pretend to be wiser, more morally and culturally refined than those who work with their bodies.
And as for the nation, instead of hypocritical worship, it is time to search for the real mother(s) hidden inside the abstract ‘motherland’. To find and ask her, ‘Have you eaten food? Do you have a place to stay? Who pays for your healthcare? Can you afford to send your children to school? Will you get a pension when you grow old?”
Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]
[i] ‘O foolish one blinded by delusion, sing the praise of Lord Govind’
[ii] ‘Mann ki Baat’ in Hindi means ‘Speaking one’s mind’, with Mann= Mind.
[iii] ‘Tann ki Baat’ means the ‘Speaking of the body’, with Tann=Body.