Transcription of Teesta Setalvad’s speech which she delivered on 30th October, 2017 at Moulali Yuva Kendra on the occasion of 50th Foundation Day Celebration of Ganashakti
Transcription by : Sanjukta Choudhury

Thank you Shamikda. Thank you so much. Thank you Ganashakti for having me here on this prestigious occasion. For the last fifty years this newspaper has gone from strength to strength and I believe your circulation is growing. Congratulations Ganashakti!

Friends we meet at a very very critical juncture for our country, our sub-continent, South Asia and internationally. I was in Kerela yesterday and am in Bengal today. We are all looking towards the Left to somehow provide the vision and the leadership to bring the country back to normalcy. So much space has been lost, politics has reached an all-time low and I think it is time for intense reflection at many levels. Picking from what Paranjay said about Gauri’s dastardly killing I would like to begin by saying that apart from being a fellow traveller she was a dear friend of mine. Here I would like to quickly recount what Narendra A Dhabolkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh stood for. They were free thinkers in the ultimate sense. They believed in talking about the realities of history which the mainstream media prefers to ignore.  

Just a few words about the kind of anti-superstition network that Dhabolkarji has set up. Every village in Maharashtra has a vibrant organisation. I read Pansareji’s book Shivaji Kaun Hota (Who was Shivaji) 25 years ago. More than 100,000 copies of the book, which is a CPI publication, have been sold. It has been translated into more than five languages. What is so important about his book? It tells us that a nationalist top-down linear historical discourse about Shivaji went completely wrong in not understanding who this ruler was who captured the imagination of the smaller ­­­­­riyasats, who had the vision to challenge economic feudalism, was talking about equal distribution of resources and who signified pluralism because in his army, in his government and in his administration he had people of different background including Muslims. All these were brought up in this little book. Even before Pansareji wrote this book, Comrade SA Dange, in his famous speech to the workers, had spoken about Tyanche Shivaji, Aamche Shivaji … their Shivaji and our Shivaji. I know Shivaji has a certain connotation in Bengal and a different connotation in Gujarat. The widely accepted perception being that he was a marauder who came, grabbed and went away. But we need to understand that history has different relevance in different places.

I had heard very little about MM Kalburgi before he was killed. After his killing I started reading about him and made efforts to find out about his work. I met Chandrakant Patil from Maharashtra who told me that it was Kalburgi who brought Basavanna’s Vachanas to the common understanding and the common discourse.

Gauri Lankesh, apart from the million other things that she did, had become part of a movement that was talking about not just conducting a caste census but saying that Lingayats are not part of the Hindu tradition. These were serious issues that she raised questioning the established hegemonic order which I would like to describe as the brahmanical order. These issues raised by her were not palatable to the forces that govern us today.

As is known by this esteemed audience, according to the classical definition of fascism it is a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. We have that today in place. We have, in the words of Prabhat Patnaik, a proto-fascist force which is running the government. We do not have a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre. It is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) run government at the centre that fundamentally believes in the overthrow of the constitutional order. We need to understand this very very clearly. The RSS say so in their website. Their objective is to overthrow the constitutional order and incorporate Manu’s laws from Manusmriti and build the theocratic state of Hindusthan where Hindu culture and Hindu society would be protected. Among the internal enemies of that state are first Muslims, second Christians and third Communists. A force which believes in this ideology is now holding constitutional power.

We use the term ‘corporate fascism’ when we are trying to describe today’s reality because fascism is not just about superiority or inferiority of race but also transfer of public resources to private. And for the first time in the history of this country we actually have corporate India openly saying that they want not just one particular party at the helm but one specific individual as the leader of the central government. Though the official figure dished out for the public is rupees 5,000 crores but we know it is much closer to 15,000 crores that went into the last election. And while this money was being spent the Election Commission looked the other way. While the Representation of People Act keeps a strict watch on how much an individual candidate spends in his constituency during an election it is oblivious to how much a party spends in that particular constituency. This is a completely hypocritical setup. Nobody questions it. The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) is bringing out report after report every week to show us that if 8,000 plus crores rupees is what the BJP has, Congress, which today is not the preferred party, has 400-500 crores less. I do not think the Left will ever be the preferred party but that is not the point. The point is why the Election Commission is not able to look at how much the party spends on the whole and then decide whether it has been a fair election or not.

We will have to understand how to deepen this democracy and make it more representative. We will have to talk about a fairer and a more transparent funding of the election process. Today the election process is completely bought by money power. And then you have whatsapp and the social media that Paranjay so eloquently talked about, that are being manipulated to sell not a dream but complete falsehoods. We do not know where the messages emanate from and yet they are governing young people’s consciousness. They are also preventing analysis and time to think and time to make the right choices. Because the mind is so cluttered with reactions on social media that there is very little time and space to think.

We shall not be able to understand today’s proto-fascist onslaught without also understanding how neo-liberalism works. I cannot understand how we can have a fifth and a sixth and a seven pay commission for one section of our population when we do not even talk about dignity of labour. 93 percent of our working class today are in the unorganised sector. There is such a divide even among the working people. We are not able to talk about dignity of labour we are not able to talk about why minimum wages cannot be linked to MNREGA. A simple proposition like that does not have a political consensus. And I really believe that if the Left has to recapture the imagination of the vast number of the people it will have to start asking some of these questions. They will have to ask about having a fair and democratic election where money would play a transparent role if at all it plays a role. But you cannot have nine union ministers with 24 helicopters and ten aircrafts all owned by Adani bombarding Bihar, though Bihar rejected that force. It happened just one year and a quarter before UP was won by them. We need to understand that this is bombarding the psyche in a vicious way.

I would also like to humbly suggest that you look back at the ten years between 2004 and 2014. If at all we see a difference of government in UPA I and UPA II it is not much rocket science to answer why. And therefore I request very humbly as a dear friend of the Left but as an outsider please do understand the role you played in UPA I. That is why prices were down, that is why corruption was minimalized, that is why there was greater accountability and that is why rights-based legislation came into force. Ten legislations that should have come in the 1950s and 60s and 70s saw the light of day during these five years. Justice Krishna Iyer who was also part of the first Left government of Kerela, he was the law minister, was my mentor.  We used to have long discussions on this and I used to ask him what has taken Indian parliament so long to constitutionalise our laws. Whether it is the MNREGA or the Right to Information Act or the Land Compensation Act of 2013 or the Right to Food Act and the Right to Education Act and the Forest Right Act of 2006 all these acts were responses to mass movements and people’s movements and should have come within the first 20 years of us becoming independent and giving us our constitution. Why did they take so long to come? Because as Babasaheb Ambedkar had said on 26th November 1949 that we are embarking on a dangerous path. We are giving ourselves political independence but not assuring ourselves social and economic equality. And I think this is the real crux of India’s standing today. I am going to end with an appeal to the media today because I still have respect for the individuals in the media though I know that maliks have a different agenda to play. I know that 80 percent or maybe 70 percent of our media today is owned by three or four corporate houses. The television channels instead of being called national channels should be called corporate channels. We need to understand how this process came about and what do we need to reclaim some of this representative democracy.

Every structure of our democracy has got further hegemonised rather than getting more democratised. Be it our judiciary, or our educational system – not just what is happening at the  Jawaharlal Nehru University but what is happening in all our central universities today. The Central University Act. And the real fight back is coming from young students who are capturing the opposition space by challenging an extremely hegemonic government. I salute them from here. I urge for a huge political mobilisation in protest against the cut backs in the PG seats that UGC is implementing. But sadly there seems to be no political movement. This decision is the fallout of the discussions at the Doha Development Round and is not simply about the RSS agenda regarding education. 25 thousand UGC PhD and PG scholarships were cut back last year. 35 thousand scholarships are likely to be cutback now and that means you will not have a Kanhaiya, you will not have a Rohit Vemula you will not have a Shehla Rashid and an Umar Khalid emerge because you do not want these sections to come and question the set up. And I think we need to understand that democratising our central universities was also a matter of struggle – for the teachers’ union and for the students’ union and the Left has played a huge role there. If the JNUTA had not stood like a rock between the JNUSU and the administration when a complete RSS stamped chancellor wanted to bring an army tank on the campus that movement would have been crushed. But today there is a push back in all these areas and we need to understand how we fight this back. We have a complete proto-fascist regime in place. Friends just a few words about the media. Qualitative and quantitative discussion needs to be done about what our news hour debates are about. 8 pm, 9pm and 10 pm. We need to analyse what they are about. It is usually 50 percent Pakistan and 20 percent opposition bashing. Rarely would you have a discussion there about the fish workers’ protest that took place in Delhi between 15th November and 21st November. Fifty thousand fish workers congregated there to protest against the national policy on our coasts including Adani’s port. He has already ruined the Gujarat coastline and now he wants another port in Kerala. And all the coastlines are deeply hampering the livelihood of our fishermen and fisherwomen. But you will not have a news channel debate on that. I was shocked when some people told me that Canada exports five dals to India. Dals, lentils. I felt very ashamed. Why does my country need to get dals from Canada? We pride ourselves on our cuisines. Why do we not have a discussion on agrarian distress and what is the import-export pattern and what are the policies international and national governing them. Why do we not have a debate on why in Dandakaranya, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand national newspapers and television channels do not have correspondents there to report regularly on the way companies and politicians are behaving. There is complete abdication of space in the media. You do not have “real” issues being discussed.  

I mentioned what fascism tries to do in building up the notion of the nation and in our case a Manuvadi, aggressive Hindu nation. But somehow poverty, hunger, unemployment is not patriotic enough. To talk about the indignities suffered by Dalit brothers and sisters is not patriotic. To talk firmly against the lynching that took place in Rajasthan, Alwar in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra is not nationalist. A certain section of Indians, my brothers and sisters, do not feel safe to travel by public transport. But there is such a sense of encouragement among the rest of us who by our identity and class and caste are protected that we like to believe that even talking about it is not patriotic. What is this discourse that the commercial media is feeding? Hence the emergence of alternate media on the internet. There are many alternate media portals in many languages who are trying to push the envelope to open up this space.

What you are experiencing today is something we experienced 15 years ago. I would like to just share with you that in all the cases of the Gujarat genocide carnage the people who were hired by the Gujarat government were hard-core members of the RSS and the VHP and when we took that matter up in the Supreme Court only some of them were removed. When one of our former employees filed a series of false criminal complaints against me the person who appeared for him, Manisha Lavkumar Shah, is now slated to become a judge of the Gujarat High Court. And she is the public prosecutor of the state of Gujarat. This kind of collusion is old and Gujarat has mastered it. But I think the political opposition needs to have the political courage to raise these questions of vested interests, complicity and collusion. Whether it is happening within the criminal justice system or anywhere else I think the political opposition needs to raise it. And again correct me if I am wrong the best people to raise it are the progressive Left because the other parties are all compromised. However, I say this with disappointment that the Left sometimes does not wish to touch these areas either. For long I have been asking for police reform. We do not want a colonial police force. We do not want four percent of the IPS lording it over 96 percent of the constabulary. We want a complaint redresser system where the citizens will be able to lodge complaints about the police force. There has to be a system in place where the police force functions with dignity and as human beings and where even their human rights are protected. But even whenever Left governments have come to power they have not tried to do away with a very colonial structured police force. I am sorry. I am raising these questions because when we think about taking the battle ahead we have to be able to see where our allies lie and where our strengths lie. And our allies and strengths lie in actually democratising our structures and building allies in different fields.

On the one hand you have the glorious movement of freedom. Different streams asking for a composite nationhood, non-discriminatory citizenship and yet you have the Hindu Mahasabha on the one hand, Muslim League on the other and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh actually asking for religion-based nationhood. All three are equally dangerous. And therefore I feel we must in our politics and in our campaigns always speak about all three organisations.

I unfortunately have to keep reading RSS and Hindu Mahasabha documents as part of my work.  I want to share with this esteemed audience a section of Moonje’s Diary. BS Moonje is a lesser known ideologue of the RSS but he is very critical to their organisational structure and functioning. He visited Italy when Mussolini ruled in 1934. During his visit he spent 11 days in Mussolini’s camps. On returning he travelled across the length and breadth of India. After the 1946 Islampur, Bihar, riots he wrote in his diary his thoughts which I am going to share with you. He wrote, the most important breaking point is the fear of death. He said, as I came out from Islampur this old man in a skull cap caught my hand and he said huzur aap marna katna chhod dijiye hum Hindu banke rahenge. He writes this and then he goes on to say we do not really have to do much else. We just have to inject in the polity the fear of death and once we do that we have got moral, social and political capitulation. The present regime has adopted Moonje’s thoughts and has encouraged an entire culture of lynching. How come there were no Mohammad Akhlaq, Noman, Rafeeq and Habib, Majloom Ansari and Imtiyaz Khan, Rashedaan and Ibrahim, Pehlu Khan, Junaid, Asgar Ansari incident before May 2014? Because now there is a complete sense of collusive impunity. The storm stoppers on the street function with the understanding and belief that the regime is going to protect them. Hence in Rajasthan the police give a clean chit to the killers of Pehlu Khan. A complete subversion of the Rajasthan police. Similarly we know how the Telengana police has behaved with Radhika Vemula. And Telengana has an opposition government. So even where opposition governments rule there is a certain section in the police and the bureaucratic apparatus that support the ideology that believe in the fear of death.

I do not want to take over what Meghnaji is going to say but her personal experience in trying to find justice for Govind Pansareji’s death is a matter of shame. The criminal justice system makes the survivor’s family go from pillar to post to try and get justice. Dhabolkar died when there was a Congress government. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were killed in Karnataka where there is a Congress government. To reinstate a semblance of space within our democracy and to make our Parliamentary democracy more representative and accountable and less into corporate capitalists we need to look at the battle in the short term in the middle term and in the long term. In the short term we will have to make alliances unsavoury as they may seem ideologically just to open up that space without giving up the search for an alternate economic vision an alternate social vision and an alternate political vision.

Friends I do not know how to say this but in and through left progressive forces India needs to have a cultural language, a social language and an economic alternative that somehow also beats a failing new liberal economy that we have seen. It was brought to us and across parties we have embraced that. How do we do that? It is a huge challenge. But yet what gives us hope is that there are battles being fought in every district of this country. Battles being fought for land rights, for forest rights, for gender rights, minority rights, dalit rights. All these battles need to be interconnected and thought of politically as representative of some sort of an alternative vision. Only a largely expansive progressive thinking can actually believe that that is possible.

We do not have time to waste. We really cannot afford to have time to waste. If there is one thing friends that give the survivors of 2002 hope when 1926 people were massacred being the post Godhra reprisal killing of 2002 it was not one individual but it was the fact that the National Human Rights Commission, the Chief Election Commission, many groups and then some of us stood with them and stand with them till today raging the battle of justice for them. I do not know if we will be successful. People ask me do you feel it has been worth it. Sometimes I feel the glass is half empty sometimes I feel the glass is half full. 168 cases fought. We got 172 convictions 126 to life imprisonment. On principal we did not ask for death penalty. And the Zakia Jaffrey case which seeks to establish a line of command responsibility is still alive and the High Court of Gujarat on the 5th of October kept it alive by telling us that the magistrate did wrong in not saying that he has the right to order further investigation. RK Raghavan’s SIT did a shoddy job of trying to give a clean chit. But the courts are still ceased of the evidence that we have given in that case. Evidences provided by brave police officers like R Shivkumar, Rahul Sharma and many others. We painstakingly pieced that evidence together and for us the battle is not whether the courts in this country will have the gumption and the courage to look at that evidence in the face but for us the process is the fight. The very fact that we do not give up that struggle is the struggle itself.

Friends we look to Bengal, we look to Kerela, and we look to progressive section of our society – show us a way forward.

Congratulation Ganashakti once again.