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Whose apocalypse is it?

Averting the Apocalypse: Social Movements in India Today Arthur Bonner Publisher: Duke University Press, North Carolina Price: US $52.50 (hardback); US $17.95 (paperback)

By Gail Omvedt
Published: Saturday 15 August 1992

-- HAVING an attractive, alliterative title is a prerequisite for popular books today, but it is Arthur Bonner's subtitle that is seriously misleading. Averting the Apocalypse is not about "social movements in India today". Rather, it is about a particular subset of activists connected with them -- the educated upper-middle class, overwhelmingly upper-caste youth, who function normally with a vague Gandhian-socialist ideology and are involved with "grassroots" (mostly funded) organisations who work with sections of the poor and oppressed.

Let me make my framework clear, because Bonner never does. There are major social movements in India today, and while nearly all their "leading activists" are educated and come mostly from middle-class and upper-caste backgrounds, their impetus comes from the upsurge of the poor and exploited against their oppression. They have not come about through a process of sections of the conscience-stricken elite joining their upsurge, nor do they primarily seek a transformation of values. But, rather, they are fighting against "hard" realities of power and economic exploitation and the destruction of natural conditions that are the basis of all human society.

If we are to include all social movements, certainly trade union movements and the Communist left would have to be confronted. Needless to say, these do not appear at all in Bonner's work, except in the guise of repentant and now nonviolent ex-Naxalites. If we are to take the concept of "new" social movements seriously, then I would argue that there are four "major" ones in India -- "major", because they have mobilised millions of people in various ways; "new" because they represent social sections who are being exploited in non-traditional ways reflecting recent developments in contemporary capitalism. The four movements are the women's movement, the environmental movement, the farmers' movement and the anti-caste (dalit and OBC) movements.

Though the reality of caste and the oppression of dalits does play a major role in the book, Bonner makes no effort to meet dalit activists except Rajshekhar, who, though he represents a vigorous journal and an ideological trend in the movement, heads an organisation of fewer than 10 members. The book has no activists from such groups as the Dalit Panthers, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Republican Party.

Dalits and adivasis rarely speak in their own voice in Bonner's book. As a result, Ambedkar himself appears in the text in a shockingly distorted form: "Ambedkar anticipated the message of modern social activists: The solution to inequality can be found within the Hindu tradition of tolerance for all." (p 343)

There is no mention of the farmers' movement, not even a flicker of interest in the idea that peasants, especially cash crop-producing peasants, might have a cause of their own. "When I explained I was doing research on grassroots social activism, Anil (Prakash of Ganga Mukti Andolan) said I should go to Uttar Pradesh where there was a farmers' leader who held meetings of tens of thousands of people. I thanked him for his suggestion but said it was the fishermen who interested me." (p 206)

Any assessment of the women's movement would have to recognise various streams in it: urban "autonomous feminists", Communist-connected women's organisations such as Shetkari Sanghatana or the Fish Workers Federation and socialist reformist trends. Bonner seems to recognise only the last of these, which is why he can write, without any apparent need for justification or explanation, "SEWA is India's foremost women's organization." (p 177)

Even within the environmental movement there has been no effort to engage in a dialogue with its radicals, who are involved in movements on the cutting edge of the search for alternatives to the apocalypse. Bonner has met none of the activists of Chipko, the movement against the Tehri dam, or the Narmada Bachao Andolan. In the current Indian situation, where these issues have aroused great controversy in social-activist circles, Bonner pretends such debate does not exist. He takes his views on the Narmada projects from Anil Patel of the Rajpipla Sangarsh Vahini group: "Come what may, Gujaratis will not be denied the Narmada water." (p 152) And, this is another serious misrepresentation.

What then can one say about Averting the Apocalypse? The book has its good qualities: It may give non-Indians some idea of the turmoil and search for alternatives in the country. Its stress on caste, even when it is not carried far enough to examine the caste character of the activists themselves, points to a major reality of exploitation. Its documentation of torture, atrocities and police brutality will certainly boost developing pressures for democratisation.

But all this is vitiated by the biases of a pseudo-Gandhian, socialistic paternalism. "Environmentalism in India," Bonner writes, "is not an attempt to preserve picture-postcard scenery but part of the overarching effort to help the poor: the worst victims of the rape of nature." (p 107) This illustrates the book's most serious flaw: It does not see the "poor", whether dalit, adivasi, peasant or women, as actors. Middle class social activists help them, and remain the agents of transformation, even while using the language of "participation" and "empowerment".

The apocalypse in Bonner's title does not refer to the material dangers of nuclear war, large-scale environmental destruction, famine and hunger. Rather, it seems to refer to a return to feudal traditionalism via Hindu fundamentalism and a resulting break-up of India (the "unravelling of the social fabric"). Those for whom this is the greatest danger are the heirs of the traditional Hindu elite. Those for whom a "transformation of values" takes primacy, do not suffer quite so directly from exploitation and domination.

Averting the apocalypse is, in its true sense, the fight for life through reinventing and renewing the revolutionary impulse among India's exploited and oppressed.

---Gail Omvedt is a well-known Maharashtra-based academic and political activist.

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