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ENEMIES OF THE STATE - Women and men who choose the margins

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By Cutting Corners Ashok Mitra
  • Published 23.05.08
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She was born Krishna Chandavarkar. Love for music ran in the family. She had, even as a tiny tot, a deep, rich, sonorous voice. Rigorous training undergone in the early teens strengthened its texture; it also helped her to negotiate effortlessly the hills and valleys the scales encompassed. The cadence of sensitivity was, however, her very own. Demand for her renditions was intense in the neighbourhood. Another Kishori Amonkar, many thought, was about to emerge. She disappointed them. The prowess of her will nudged her away from music to pursuits of the intellect. There was, in addition, an innate concern for social issues.

Ideology is not an inherited property, it is a gift of the environment one breathes in. In Krishna’s case it was perhaps the influence of an uncle or a cousin coming home full of radical ideas after a term in prison. The stirrings were yet vague, but Krishna had already sorted out in her mind the dilemma of choices and decisions. She opted for economics; the intent was to use the knowledge acquired from this branch of study to advance the cause of the nation’s under-privileged. Krishna turned out to be a star student in the Bombay School of Economics and Sociology and began her teaching career there. She married a fellow economist, Ranganath Bharadwaj, and the two of them decided to travel to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for further research. The wife was indisputably more brilliant than the husband. This could have been a factor, or it could have been something else; they separated soon after their daughter, Sudha, arrived. Krishna got her PhD, returned to Bombay and kept winning laurels for her forays into hitherto unexplored frontiers of economic theory. Simultaneously she continued work on issues of income inequalities and the production function in Indian agriculture.

While all this was happening, a curious incident took place. The economist, Piero Sraffa, friend and confidant of both Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, was a recluse in Cambridge, England, silently toiling away on editing the works of David Ricardo. He was widely known for both the profundity of the wisdom he tucked into himself and his reluctance to transcribe this wisdom into writing. It was general knowledge though that he was trying to build a halfway house between Marx and Ricardo. His little volume, crammed with insight, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, got published in the early Sixties and took the world of economics by storm. Few could grasp its implications and long critiques were written here and there, with the object of interpreting Sraffa’s point of view. Sachin Chaudhuri, editor of Bombay’s Economic Weekly, had an unerring instinct for discerning who could do what most effectively. He gave the review copy of Sraffa’s book to Krishna Bharadwaj. The review article Krishna wrote created a flutter in the academic dovecots: the world now knew what Sraffa meant. Krishna’s piece became a classic, perhaps the only instance of a review article being set down as compulsory text in university curricula.

Krishna moved from Bombay to the Delhi School of Economics and, after a few years, to the Jawaharlal Nehru University. She lectured, researched, produced papers and, during sabbaticals, dug roots in Cambridge to edit the collection of Sraffa’s writings. Sraffa, who had become Krishna’s close personal friend, had meanwhile passed away, but she took upon herself the Sraffa quest of establishing a bridge between Ricardo and Marx. Her life was, however, cut short in the early Nineties, by the virulence of a malignant brain tumour.

It is not so much of Krishna, but of her daughter, Sudha, that one wants to talk about though. Sudha was a prodigy in every sense of the term. For instance, while still barely seven or eight, she would engage in debates on logical positivism, mercilessly laying bare the entrails of the doctrine. The only child of a busy, divorcée mother, she had to create her own world and build her own hypotheses. She sat through all her examinations with an easy nonchalance, topping in each of them. Her five years at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, were a repetition of the story. A piping first class resting in her pocket, the world was at her feet, more so since, by virtue of the place of her birth, she was the possessor of an American passport.

She could have gone away to the US, earned academic plaudits and plenty of money in a university position. She could have joined a transnational corporation as some sort of a technical apparat. She could have become a management guru in India itself, or travelled high along the totem pole of the Indian administrative service. She did none of these. Once she reached the age of 18, she walked to the US embassy in New Delhi, disowned her American nationality, and returned her passport. Sudha then slipped away into the wilderness of the Chhattisgarh forests.

She was, for a time, associated with Shankar Guha Neogi’s devoted group at Bhilai, fighting against the rampant corruption indulged in by middle- and low-level bureaucrats and local contractors. To wrest proper wages for the toiling workers in the mines and plants located in the region was a major item on her agenda. She soon branched out to the wider issues of Dalit and tribal rights. Sudha began living with the adivasis, and learnt fast to think in the manner they do. She and her husband adopted an adivasi child as their daughter. It has been a life of relentless struggle: to establish and protect the rights of the Dalit and tribal population, the right for land, the right for education, for health and for security against marauding landlords and rentiers.

Which is to say, Sudha is engaged in the same kind of activities Binayak Sen was more or less engaged in, again in Chhattisgarh. The authorities have a particular way of sizing up individuals like Binayak Sen and Sudha Bharadwaj: these people mix too much with the tribals, therefore they are dangerous. Any person or group of persons working for the cause of tribals is officially ordained enemy of the State, any agitation to establish tribal rights is reckoned as insurrectionary activity. Sen was taken in precisely on this ground. His sphere of work was providing health facilities, and the dissemination of information about such facilities, among the tribal population. He was therefore a marked man and was arrested. Conceivably, Sudha’s fate will be no different.

For every 9,999 young Indians from affluent families who either fly away to the US or join a trans-national corporation or choose to be a programming boss in an IT outfit or aspire to be top brass in the government system, there will still be a Binayak Sen or Sudha Bharadwaj. This is bound to be so since, every now and then, rationality, which is an integral element of the human mind, tends to assert itself against the rampant asymmetry of the human condition. True, not all rational minds always think rationally. One or two nonetheless do.

The 9,999 young Indians who choose the primrose path will, it goes without saying, roll in money. A Binayak Sen or a Sudha Bharadwaj will live a hard, marginal existence. A question will still keep nagging. If economists and mathematicians succeed in arriving at a common measure for accretions to national welfare on the basis of today and what would accrue in the future and are, at the same time, able to assign comparable weights to contribution by individual citizens, will not the contributions of Binayak and Sudha far outflank those by the rest of the crowd?