- PA Sebastian & Bernard D’mello
K. Balagopal’s role as a civil liberties and democratic rights activist had two phases – the first, when the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s last thesis on Feuerbach guided his life’s activity, and the second, when, even as he gave up on these precepts, he continued in the tradition of practical humanism.
K Balagopal passed into the annals of history on October 8, 2009 at the age of 57. He was a doyen of the civil liberties and democratic rights movement in India. As a student, Balagopal was not involved in public activities. He did his post-doctoral research at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. While at the institute, he wrote a paper on a subject in mathematical statistics which was widely acclaimed in specialist circles. At the time when he had huge prospects anywhere in the world in his specialised field of study, he made a conscious decision not to tread the careerist path to personal-professional success, and came back to Andhra Pradesh to join the Kakatiya University in Warangal, among the most backward districts in the state. Simultaneously, he joined the CL&DR movement with fervour and devotion.
In 1983, the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) elected him as its general secretary, a post he consecutively held until he resigned in 1998. Balagopal underwent several ordeals during this phase, for instance, the Andhra Pradesh police abducted and blindfolded him and took him to an unknown destination. In his presence the policemen discussed how and when to kill him and the details of the press release which they would issue claiming that he was killed in an encounter. He was imprisoned more than once in the course of which he lost his job at the Kakatiya University. He braved all and continued to document the character of state power, the brutality, the lawlessness, and the ruthlessness with which it dealt with the Naxalite/Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh.
Balagopal travelled throughout the length and breadth of India, not as a tourist but as a member of joint fact-finding teams. The teams documented the violations of civil liberties and democratic rights and presented them before the general public in original. All the fact-findings focused on what is popularly known as human rights. “Human rights” effectively mean facilities which will enable human beings to live with dignity and self-respect. And nobody can live with dignity and self-respect unless one has food to eat, clothes to wear, a house to stay, resources at one’s disposal to educate one’s children and wherewithal to get access to medicines and medical treatment when one and one’s family fall ill. The vast majority of people in India do not have these facilities. Devoid of such provisions, ordinary people ultimately rise in rebellion and the government unleash power and the armed forces on them. This is what the fact-finding teams reported on. They reflected the reality of India.
Another aspect which the fact-finding teams dealt with was secularism. The last joint fact-finding team, of which Balagopal was a member, went to Karnataka and Orissa to study, bring to light and expose the attacks on Christians. They published a report in March 2009 titled “From Kandhmal to Karavali: The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar”.
The CL&DR movement in India has two distinct stages. The first one started in 1936. National leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu came forward and formed the Indian Union of Civil Liberties (IUCL). The objective of the IUCL was, in the words of Nehru, to document and present before the general public the violations of CL&DR which took place in the course of the freedom struggle. This stage came to a halt in 1946 when Nehru formed the interim government. The second stage had its beginning in the early 70s when organisations like the APCLC and the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) were formed. It also brought to the fore the Naxalite/Maoist movement which attracted a lot of youth in India. Thousands of them were, legally or illegally, put behind bars, were tortured and their bodies were mutilated. Some of them were made to stand against walls and shot dead point blank. This was hardly known to the Indian people. The mainstream media first covered it when Khushwant Singh wrote about it in the Illustrated Weekly of India during the Emergency. The history of this second stage will never be complete without Balagopal.
Whether it was the violations of the democratic rights, including the right to life, of the poor peasants, agricultural labourers or the tribals by the rural gentry in Adilabad, Anantapur, Karimnagar, Warangal or Srikakulum or by the police in encounters and deaths in custody, Balagopal and his APCLC comrades were among the first to document and bring to the notice of the public the reality.
But more than that, in Balagopal the movement for CL&DR had found the quintessential intellectual-activist. Unlike the usual run-of-the-mill Marxist academics — with either their empirical paraphernalia, or high theory in search of doubly free wage labour, re-investment of the surplus value, and the development of the productive forces – Balagopal’s writings depicted social relations in the course of people’s struggles (in the process of transformation) in Andhra Pradesh, seen through the lens of the exploited, the dominated and the oppressed.
Indeed, the mode of production debate that appeared in the “special articles” section of the EPW magazine had – as the very perceptive RS Rao of the Sambalpur University puts it more than two decades ago – not a footnote to the agrarian class struggles then under way. The latter were covered in the “commentary” section of the weekly, written by Balagopal – from Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, among other provinces, precisely the areas of “capitalist” or “semi-feudal” relations of production in Indian agriculture. Indeed, some in the left establishment were upset at the EPW’s then editor, Krishna Raj’s decision to treat Balagopal as a regular correspondent.
But Balagopal continued on the radical trail nonetheless. Following in the tradition of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (People’s War Group), he did not split hairs on whether the very poor in rural India were “agrarian proletariat” or “landless peasants” or whether the rural upper-upper crust were “capitalist’ or “semi-feudal” landlords, or whether the moneyed section of the actual cultivators, those who actually worked the plough so to say, were capitalist farmers or rich peasants. The concrete had to be changed, not debated.
As RS Rao once put it, the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto and the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach were always uppermost in Balagopal’s writings of those days. He captured police brutality unleashed on the oppressed in a way few writers had ever done – through the eyes of ordinary people who had witnessed such savagery.
Through the eyes of the oppressed
Being the multicultural, multilingual and, indeed, multinational country that India is, we seldom get a feel of the best of what appears in the various regional languages. The renowned Telegu poet Varavara Rao’s poetry has often been proscribed by the powers-that-be in Andhra Pradesh; indeed, unbelievable as it may seem, the famous Secunderabad conspiracy case in 1974 was against poets and their poetry. Balagopal wrote a hard-hitting piece (EPW, March 28, 1987) when a collection of the poems that Rao wrote when he was in jail in the mid-1980s was banned by the NT Rama Rao-led government; surely it touched a raw nerve somewhere in the corridors of power. In this piece Balagopal translates a poem entitled “butcher”. The background to the poem is the tale told by a Muslim butcher who was witness to the killing of a radical youth in Kamareddy town on May 15, 1985. The youth was apprehended by the police when he was going around asking shopkeepers to pull down their shutters in protest against “encounter” killings. The police took the boy to a busy crossroads, and there, in the public view, beat him to pulp with their rifle butts the way people who are afraid of a poisonous snake crush it to death with weapons readily at their command. Varavara Rao’s poem – the thoughts are the butcher’s, who deposed before the sub-divisional magistrate at Kamareddy – as translated by Balagopal, reads:
I am a vendor of flesh
If you want to call me a butcher
Then that is as you wish
I kill animals every day
I cut their flesh and sell it.
Blood to me is a familiar sight
It was on that day I saw with
my own eyes
The real meaning of being a butcher
I too take lives
But never with hatred
I do sell flesh
But I have never sold myself
To me who kills goats every day
The meaning of the cruelty that
Combines and conspires to take a life
Was revealed that day.
Balagopal also wrote about the ruling classes, their conflicts and crises. The piece he wrote at the passing away of Indira Gandhi (EPW, March 23, 1985) might be an apt one to mention, now that it is 25 years since she left the scene, and the stenographers of power are bringing out their paeans of “India’s Iron Lady”. There a paragraph in the concluding section of Balagopal’s article that goes like this:
By the time of her death she had completed the destruction of the ideological overgrowth of the system. There is no more talk of socialism, which is declared to be alternatively un-Indian and outdated; as for land reforms, there is no more land to be distributed, as everybody knows; secularism she laid bare by making it a point to visit every temple, every dargah, every church and every gurudwara she found on her way, and even more blatantly by inciting Hindu communalism in Jammu and Muslim communalism in Assam; liberal democracy was buried by the forced charade of elections in Assam, and the incredibly undemocratic Terrorist Affected Areas Act, following upon the massacre in Amritsar (parenthetically, it is the final sign of the demise of the liberal intelligentsia of this land that such an Act is allowed to govern 15 million Punjabis without more than a murmur of protest elsewhere); anti-imperialism is a virtue that she herself regarded with a certain amount of contempt in her last days, though Moscow and its fellow-travellers continued to credit her with it.
Balagopal’s role as a CL&DR activist had two phases as this movement in India itself had two stages. In the first phase, he passionately and incessantly wrote and spoke about incidents which were directly or indirectly linked to the Naxalite/Maoist movement in Andhra Pradesh. At a later stage he developed differences with the movement which led to his resignation from the APCLC in 1998 and his forming a different organisation called the Human Rights Forum.
This marked a basic shift not only in Balagopal’s priorities and world view but also in the way the authorities treated him. He was no more an enemy of the state. The intellectuals of the establishment sang paeans in his favour. Balagopal himself began to treat the violence of the state and the counter-violence of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) on an equal footing. His basic analysis tended to show that the violence of the state was preceded and provoked by the violence of the CPI(Maoist). This is a topic which has been raised and debated on several occasions in history. For example, during the Vietnam war there were some who morally equated the guerrilla actions of the Vietcong with the war crimes committed by the US armed forces. Responding to this, Bertrand Russell said that it was untenable to find moral equivalence between the violent actions of the aggressor and the aggressed. Those who claimed that they were equidistant from the aggressor and the aggressed were on the side of the aggressor – it was their class bias that made them assess the two with the same yardstick. The violence of the state forces in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa and the violent resistance of the tribals (under the leadership of the CPI(Maoist)) whose land had been forcibly taken, livelihood destroyed and who had been thrown into the wilderness of destitution, despair and hunger cannot be morally equated.
With the change in his world view, Balagopal’s writings too lost their forcefulness; the poignancy however remained. For instance, writing on the “Maoist Movement in Andhra Pradesh” in the EPW special issue on the “Maoist Movement in India” (July 22, 2006) he lamented the loss of the lives of the “organic leaders” of the “most oppressed” as a result, in his view, of the violence by the Maoists and the state’s brutal counter-attack. “The daily loss of such persons is a sacrifice the oppressed cannot be called upon to put up with indefinitely”, he wrote. Other than the implicit advice to the Maoists to renounce violence, Balagopal does not suggest an alternative. The alternative of the Maoists extending their mass base through non-violent means to the point where the ruling classes are forced to concede state power to them simply does not exist, as Balagopal, more than any other intellectual, knew better. (He, more than anyone else, knew the whole truth about state violence against the legal mass movement in the districts of Karimnagar and Adilabad in the early years of his first phase of CL&DR activism.)
In the second phase of his activism, Balagopal had given up on the Communist Manifesto and the last thesis on Feuerbach as guides to his work. However, this does not negate his historic contribution to civil liberties and democratic rights. Indeed, as we stated earlier, the history of the second phase of the CL&DR movement would be incomplete without an account of Balagopal’s role in it.
–The authors are with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai