Professor Samantak Das, is a well-known academic and he teaches Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University. He has been one of the prominent voices both on and off the campus when it comes to opposing policies of successive governments that pay scant regard to livelihood of people. Khurpi’s political analyst Imtiaz Akhtar interviewed him on topics as wide-ranging as Marx, Modi, Obama, Kejriwal and Kashmir.
Well, Professor Samantak Das, it is indeed a pleasure to interview you, so let me ask you the first question. Tell us something about your own, should I say, ‘meeting with Marx’.
Thank you, Imtiaz, for thinking it worth your while to interview someone like me. I just hope what I have to say won’t prove too disappointing!
The simplest response to your question about my ‘meeting with Marx’ would be two phrases – Reader’s Digest and Gandhian Socialism. Let me try to explain. When I was a kid, we used to subscribe to the Readers’ Digest, and I would devour every issue as soon as it arrived. This was in the late 1970s, very early 1980s. And every single issue of the magazine had at least one article on the wrongheadedness, the idiocy, the ill-effects, in short, the evil nature of Marx and Marxism. So I got to thinking – what is this doctrine, who is this man, who had done so much bad, who had brought so much misery, to the world? And I decided to try and find out for myself.
As for Gandhian Socialism, my maternal grandfather and grandmother were Gandhians who had lived life according to what they saw as the core values of Gandhian thought – simplicity, non-violence, respect for others, secularism, and so on. My grandfather had died long before my parents got married, but my grandmother was very much alive and one of the formative influences of my life. Because of her, I got to spend time in a village in Barddhaman where there was a school, a teachers’ training college and a technical institute run on Gandhian lines and the people I saw there – totally committed to improving the lot of the poorest of the poor, dedicated to a life of simplicity, of “plain living and high thinking”, influenced me greatly. From them I learnt much more about practical socialism than reading any number of books could have taught me.
So, some time in Class Ten or Eleven, I started to read the writings of Marx and Engels, trying to discover for myself what this “evil” man had said that so incensed the folks at Reader’s Digest, and, in the process, I discovered that much of what he had written was actually being put into practice by these wonderful, loving people I saw and spent time with on a regular basis in this village called Kalanabagram in Barddhaman.
Later, when I came to study in Jadavpur University, in 1984, I had teachers who helped me to clarify my thoughts about Marx and Marx’s writings, about their theoretical foundations and practical implications, and I continued, with their active encouragement, to read Marx and read about Marx. I can never sufficiently repay the many debts of intellectual gratitude I owe my teachers in the department of English, as well as in some other departments, at Jadavpur University, where I was a student until 1990.
You must remember also that this was a time when there was a lot less to occupy the time and thoughts of undergraduate students than exists now – no Internet, no TV (at least not in my home), few films, virtually no glossy magazines… So we spent a great deal of our time in talking about the books we were reading and many of those books directly, or indirectly, had to do with Marxism and Marx.
That, in brief, is the story of my ‘meeting with Marx’, as you put it.
What do you have to say to those people who have planned to vote for Modi this summer?
First of all, I do not personally know a single individual who is either planning to vote for Modi or thinks that he ought to be India’s next prime minister; so, I haven’t really thought about this with any degree of seriousness. Second, if someone has already made up her mind about casting her vote for a particular individual or political party, I wouldn’t waste my time in trying to convince her to do otherwise. What I would probably say to anyone who asked me if she/he ought to vote for Modi is this: Think through the consequences of your action. Do you really want someone as PM who has displayed distinctly fascistic tendencies as the CM of a state? Who seems almost brazen about riding roughshod over the rights of minorities, not just Muslims, but tribals, Dalits and so on? But you know, Imtiaz, I suspect those who are planning to vote for Modi are precisely those, or like those, who welcomed the Emergency because of the “discipline” that it brought, who think that “development”, seen in simplistic terms, is all that matters. Who believe, in short, in a kind of fascist-capitalist society where they can benefit from the results of “economic prosperity” and “development”.
Are you surprised on seeing one after another, public intellectuals, film stars, cricketers and big industrialists pitching for Modi? Isn’t it true that Modi’s candidature once again reveals fissures in this system of parliamentary democracy?
No, I am not the least bit surprised. Nor will anyone else be who considers the class (and often the caste) status and character of those who have come out in open support of Modi. These are precisely the kind of people I mentioned in response to your earlier question – those who believe that “development”, seen in narrowly economic terms, is all that matters. Film stars, cricketers and industrialists are all votaries at the altar of capitalistic “free enterprise”, so is it any wonder that they think Modi is a good guy? Remember also that the Congress has made a complete mess of things; think of the enormous corruption scandals that have become a staple of our news. Those intellectuals who have come out in favour of Modi may have done so less because they support his anti-Muslim policies and more because the Congress seems by far the greater evil to them.
What is ‘ideology’ for you? How do you define it?
Now that’s a difficult question. As you perhaps know, I spend a fair amount of time with our MPhil and PhD students trying to define ideology, so I don’t think it’s a question I can answer in the span of a single interview.
Very simply put, for me, ideology is an individual’s view of the world. It usually reflects that individual’s location with the complex matrix of class, caste, religion, gender and so on. It is not always easy to understand and it certainly is not always understood by the person herself. Though sometimes, it might be. Also, I do not think that ideology is necessarily always “false” consciousness.
At the collective level, ideology represents the world-view of a group, which may be that of a class, or of an occupational group, or caste, or religion and so on. Once again, the beliefs that are held to be “true” by those who profess, consciously or otherwise, a particular ideology, may not be so when seen from another perspective.
Share with us your thoughts on Obama and Kejriwal.
Within the narrow margin in which politics is practised in the United States of America, Barack Obama is probably the most radical president we have had for a while. When I say “radical”, I do not mean it in an absolute sense, only relatively speaking. Also, we need to distinguish between Obama’s domestic politics and policies, which have been a lot more concerned with the less-well-off American citizens than his predecessors, and his foreign policy, which is dictated by US Big Business and is in no way distinguishable from that of, say, the two Bushes, despite Obama’s rhetoric. Then again, he has not done as much as he could have, even domestically. I think he will be remembered as a president who failed to live up to his initial promise, who failed to deliver. His book, The Audacity of Hope (1986) will be remembered less for what it presaged and more for its unintentional irony.
As for Arvind Kejriwal, I think his greatest contribution so far is to show that ordinary, well-meaning, patriotic Indians can, in fact, seize the initiative from the corrupt, self-serving politicians who have done more harm to India and Indians than any other occupational group. That said, I see nothing in his, and the Aam Aadmi Party’s, economic policies that is in any fundamental way different from that of the Congress and the BJP. All three parties seem hell-bent on selling India to the highest bidder as quickly as possible. Apparently, Kejriwal wants to do it without kickbacks for himself, his family/friends or party, while the others want an unfair share of the loot. None of these three parties seem to have anything like a well-worked-out environmental policy; none seem to have paid any heed to the potentially devastating ecological consequences of the economic path they want India to follow.
Some days ago, I was reading this amazing book, entitled I, Rigoberta Menchu, it is an account of a Communist from Guatemala. While reading this book, I found a passage, and I shall quote from it, “Our experience in Guatemala has always been to be told: Ah, poor Indians, they can’t speak. And many people have said, ‘I’ll speak for them’. This hurts us very much. This is a kind of discrimination”. Would you not agree that this is precisely the situation with the Left in India, I mean the city-based leftist is always ready to proffer solutions without listening to what people have to say? What would you say on this?
I agree largely with your contention that the Indian Left, by and large, has neglected to hear the voice of the proverbial man, and even more, the woman, on the street or in the bustee or the village. Incidentally, I’m not sure Rigoberta Menchu would identify herself as a communist. I am a great admirer of her life and work and she is, I think, more likely to identify herself as a member of Guatemala’s indigenous people, as a champion of the environment, as a spokesperson for the poor and dispossessed, than simply as a communist.
How do you interpret the silence of an entire generation of scholars, journalists, activists and writers on Kashmir? No average middle class Bengali is willing to write or talk about the issue; somehow, there is this collective bad faith that we practice when it comes to admitting our criminal antecedents.
This is one issue on which most so-called middle-class Indians (and not just Bengalis) would agree – Kashmir is an integral part of India and must be preserved as part of India, no matter what the cost. This is simply wrong. Our generation has failed Kashmir and Kashmiris by not paying them enough attention, by not being sufficiently aware of, and sensitive to, its history; by not making enough noise about the gross abuses that continue to take place there – perpetrated by the Indian State and its agents. Perhaps your generation will do better than us. Or so I would like to hope.
Wouldn’t you agree that single literature departments are a burden on the public exchequer? I mean in post-colonial societies, it is just a sophisticated way to waste the money of the public, especially given the fact that you have an option called Comparative Literature, a subject that is ideal for multi-lingual societies like India.
Imtiaz, no, I do not think it is a zero-sum game where there can either be single literature departments or departments of comparative literature. They can – and do – coexist. This business of being a “burden on the exchequer” is, to my mind, the first step on the slippery slope of judging departments of literature, or humanities departments in general, in terms of their utility. And that is something we all ought to guard against. In any civilized society, there must be a place for the humanities, for it is the humanities that remind us that we are, and we need to remain, human – in the fullest, most broad sense of the term.
I do think that comparative literature has a great deal to offer in terms of the ways in which it looks at literature and other cultural phenomena and we would all benefit if departments that concentrate on a single literature looked more closely at comparative literature and what it has to offer.
To those who are reading this, please suggest a book that you think should be read by them now.
If you haven’t read it, P Sainath’s 1996 book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought ought to essential reading for any person who wants to understand India a little bit better.