We commemorate the 13th death anniversary of K. Balagopal (1952-2009). Earlier this year we celebrated his 70th birthday. A mathematician, civil rights activist rolled into one and one of post-independent India’s most creative thinkers, who gave revolutionary humanism a new perspective. One of the great stalwarts of the civil Rights Movement, and till his death, one of the best sons of our land. Whatever differences one had Balagopal was an epitome or model of systematic and methodological approach to work.
Born in Bellary, he grew up in Andhra Pradesh completing his education in the State, finishing up with a doctorate in Mathematics from the Regional Engineering College, Warangal. Following a brief period of time in the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi, where he was a post-doctoral fellow, he returned to his home State and taught at Kakatiya University until 1985. He relinquished his teaching post following a threat to his life by the police and turned into a full-time with civil rights work thereafter, first with the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC), as its general secretary, for 15 years and then with the Human Rights Forum (HRF), an organization that he helped found in 1998.
Balagopal belonged to a generation that was crystallised or nurtured by the Indian Emergency of 1975.Arbitrary arrests, detentions without trial and mysterious deaths marked the arrival of the authoritarian State.His critical mind made him explore Marxism, and follow and support the politics of the militant Left in Andhra Pradesh, which represented the backbone of the movements of the Dalits and Adivasis..
The early Balagopal was a product of the students involved in radical politics at Kakatiya University, Warangal in the 1980s while he was a teacher of Mathematics there. So he used to admit that his students themselves were his teachers.
The merciless attack on of the radical Left in the State shaped an active civil rights movement into prominence. Balagopal was associated with it from its embryonic stage and began a life in critical ‘fact-finding’ – enquiring into diverse forms of State violence, from the so-called ‘encounters’ to torture in detention, from criminalizing democratic protests to actively thwarting rights work. His work in civil liberties made him encompass different parts of India, and he worked with other rights organisations in the country, and took the lead in organizing frequent fact finding missions to Kashmir, giving a fitting reminder to the Indian State and its citizens of the crimes committed in that part of the subcontinent in the name of the sovereign nation. In the very thick of the skin he questioned the nature of development, so to speak, and expressed equal concern with the alienation of the common people in numerous instances.
Meanwhile, his understanding of rights evolved as APCLC found itself enquiring into instances of violence against Dalits. Arguing that the caste system was a defining form of inequality, Balagopal insisted that civil rights groups ought to not only address specific instances of caste violence, but portray caste inequality as a human rights question.. That is, it was not the State that was the sole culprit in violation of democratic rights, but social relations and institutions, pertaining to caste and gender did so as well. In this context, he suggested that the history of civil rights ought to be re-evaluated, and not merely with origin in State repression alone. Instead this history’s roots must be traced within the long legacy of rights struggles that posed a threat to the constitutive inequality of our social systems.
As with Marx, Balagopal had also undergone an epistemological break in 1993. So we had two Balagopals: the early Balagopal, the Marxist-Leninist who was an advocate of ‘new democratic revolution’, and the late Balagopal, who turned a ‘liberal humanist.’
During this time he posed questions to the so-called ‘bourgeois’ character of rights. He argued that a right cannot be classed merely as a postulate that is granted by the State to stir popular discontent, but as a norm, defined, affirmed and upheld through people’s struggles for equality and justice.
Such views made him antagonistic with the ideology APCLC and he left the organization. This was when he and others founded the Human Rights Forum , as a rights organization that understood equality to be an idea that “that originated in the fight against brahminical society that began in the middle of the first millennium BC and continues till today”. By imbibing such a long tradition of thought and resistance to the caste order, HRF manifested what Balagopal had always considered important: a philosophy for rights movements that cannot be reduced to the views of those movements or political actors whose rights it seeks to defend.
Balagopal as a lawyer took up cases of the most marginal sections of our population, to do with land, rights of access to resources, and curtailment of rights. Dedicated to the very in his legal work, in defending rights such rights enshrined in the Constitution, he harboured no illusions about the ‘lawless’ nature of Indian caste society, and repeatedly projected the penetration of Hindutva philosophy.He firmly adhered to the view that Rights movements thus had to consistently cope with violations that had roots within civil impunity as with those that had to do with State impunity.
In addition to being a civil rights activist, Balagopal was a notable writer. ,in Telugu and English. His essays gave a new dimension to reporting.. He possibly innovated a new format of writing in this regard, and one that eludes description: most grounded in local detail and histories, but which projected the larger picture, of the class and caste divisions of a society in regressive transition. It taught us how to analyse an event: in its immediate as well as historical contexts, and in terms of transforming social and political relationships, amongst classes and castes, and between the Indian people and the Indian State.
. Balagopal was also perhaps one of the few civil rights activists who awarded respect to Dr Amebdkar’s life and work in shaping a truly ,democratic culture. He firmly adhered to the view that history of the civil rights movement in India should trace it’s roots with the rights struggles waged by dalit and anti-caste movements.
Likewise, his understanding of authoritarian aspects of political life in India, evident in his many writings on the Hindu Right, laying out the ugly contours of Hindutva, point to new directions: the need to locate as precisely as possible the rise of the latter, and the manner in which democratic failure and equally political opportunism have won the Right a measure of political respectability.
Memories always flash in my mind of his laborious work in exposing the stage managed encounters of naxalite groups, with death defying courage. Once he exposed an encounter after facing severe head injuries in Warangal.Balagopal would work in the most intense areas of state repression, inviting the police wrath. No civil liberties activists with such intensity of in such a methodological manner defended the mass work of the naxalite movements, especially that of the erstwhile C.P.I.(M.L) Peoples War group. In all his speeches and writings .At the very root he dwelled on the oppression rooted within the socio-economic system, where dalits and Adiivasis. were stripped of their land rights. With polemical mastery he illustrated the dynamics of a neo-fascist state or how it symbolised oppression of the poor. In journals like the Economic and Political weekly in the 1980’s and 1990’s with incisive Marxist analysis he probed state repression on naxalite activists, dalits, minorities and workers. It is significant that in the early 1990s when group clashes occurred between the C.P.I.(M.L) Peoples War Group and the Chandra Pulla Reddy group he remained neutral. This invited great criticism from the Andhra Pradesh Radical Students Union who classified the attacks of struggle on class lines by the Peoples War Group.Balagopal’s voice was manifestation of the voice of the oppressed against state oppression,nation-wide,be it in Andhra Pradesh, Mumbai, or Delhi.Balagopal knitted the fabric of the APCLC, igniting a spark to civil liberties movement and broadening its framework in diverse spheres. He played an important role in the steering of impactful protests against violation of democratic Rights in Andhra Pradesh in the 1980’s.
For a considerable period Balagopal was silent on certain left adventurist actions of the Peoples War Group, which took a turn from the early 1990’s.With his Marxist mastery, he was unable to gauge aspects of the left adventurist line ,and hardly grasped the significance of the massline trend of Tarimela nagi Reddy ,projected through the Organisation for the Protection of Democratic Rights formed in 1975 or the All India Federation of Organisations for Democratic Rights, formed in 1982.Neverthless like an engine within a machine, he propelled all the major fact finding teams of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee ,which undertook joint activity with the Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights. In later times he gauged how the Maoist groups were turning the civil liberties platform into party front. He inspired activists to come within the fold of the civil rights movement, nation wide.
I recommend readers to critically study his writings on ‘Understanding Fascism and Class, Caste and the State’, where he most illustratively portrays the fascist ascendancy of the Hindu right and fascist content of Brahmanism. His work on ‘Civil Liberties Movement and Revolutionary violence ‘ is a most insightful writing , with powerful dialectical approach. An analytical dichotomy is made between the work of the Marxist Leninist groups with that of the dalit movement or democratic movement in general. However it has important aberrations, with regard to delinking humanism from class struggle .Even when trying to give broad based perspective, he fails to understand that revolutionary violence is imperative for oppressed classes, as distinctive from activities of Maoist armed squads. Even in his ‘Perspective of Rights Movement’ he encompasses humanism in deep depth, but rejects Marxist approach, neglecting angle of class antagonism. Historically approach is expressed, but virtually placing class ideology into the museum. No doubt he penetrates deep depths in probing questions, but fails to comprehend that a Marxist perspective is the only appropriate method for undertaking criticism of errors in past practice or in making a Communist party democratic or correcting errors in USSR in time of Lenin and Stalin or China in Mao’s period. The same trend is expressed in “Recent Popular Struggles in Andhra Pradesh-Some Questions for Communist Theory and Practice.” I value his endorsing of Dr.Ambedkar’s ideas but he fails to bridge its link with revolutionary Marxism, like Anand Teltumde or Ajith.(Murali)I like to remind readers it was the Marxist perspective of T.Nagi Reddy that prevented the civil liberties movement from turning into a Marxist Leninist party platform. I recommend reading of “Irresponsible death of an activist “ in Frontier weekly by Ranganyakamma and article by Biswajit Roy in Kafila on ‘Lucas Tete,Maoist violence and K.Balagopal ‘in 2010,
Quoting Gilbert Sebastion in Mainstream weekly in tribute in 2009 “Whereas the character of the system is determined by the coalition of classes that wield and exercise power, Balagopal’s perspective does not seek to dislodge the coalition of classes in power nor does it visualise an overhauling of the system in its totality.”
It is very hard to analyse what caused Dr Balagopal’s rejection or departure from Marxism .In his last 10 years he attacked the Marxist ideology at the very core .Balagopal dwelled on the failure of Socialist systems in USSR and China and described the Maoist groups of giving scant respect to the individual. I deeply regret this transformation, as errors in practice of Maoist squads in recent times or in erstwhile Socialist countries, cannot deride the all conquering ideology of Marxism. Fitting that in civil rights movement, the Civil Liberties Commitee of Telengana and Andhra Pradesh continued it’s legacy of past decades, in confronting state sponsored fascism, through fake encounters, holding up the mantle of Marxist ideology. Whatever credibility of Balagopal’s views in the stifling of the individual, one must never forget the contribution of Marxism in giving respect to true humanism, and how it shaped historical progress worldwide..Possibly the very failure within our Marxist movement itself depicting crass material approach, caused this 360 degree turn in Dr Balagopal’s thinking. Neverthless he still remained a stalwart of human rights, attacking Hindutva fundamentalism,Brahmanical fascism and Hindu revivalism at the very root. In times when neo-fascism has penetrated at an unprecedented height in terms of suppression of political dissent, such an individual is deeply missed. Without doubt he was amongst the most creative and bravest warriors against Saffron fascism.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has covered mass movements around India and conducted extensive research on civil liberties movement in India