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K. Balagopal: A Memory to be cherished

by V. Geetha, 10 October 2009

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At first it seemed a huge, obscene lie, the news of his death. It did not
seem possible - he had been busy as always the weekend before, at a human
rights convention in Ananthapur, to mark 10 years of Human Rights Forum the
organization he and others started in 1998. That had become a pattern
almost, that he would leave for the districts in the weekends, to enquire
into rights violations - land grabbing by the state or private agencies for
special economic zones; hazardous open cast mining, farmers’ suicides,
health issues in adivasi communities...

Balagopal was not just another civil liberties man: A brilliant
mathematician who gave up his academic vocation for a public life, a public
intellectual, alive to ethical doubts and concerns, yet committed to being
political and accountable in the here and now of history, he sought to link
thought, action, consciousness… For many of us, the manner in which he lived
his life was as important as what he said: he was like a moral compass that
you turned to, to check your own political orientation and direction.
Without intending to or wanting to, he became a keeper of social
consciences. In this sense, it was a great public life, but nevertheless one
that mattered to many, in the intimate and silent corners of their hearts
and minds.

For nearly two decades, Balagopal had worked hard and argued much to deepen
and broaden our understanding of democracy in this country - precept and
practice came together in his work, as he wrote, took up legal cases,
organised fact-finding missions and called attention to the darker aspects
of state power and authority in India. His civil rights work acquired great
visibility in the early 1980s, when he was General Secretary of the Andhra
Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC): those were the years of the
infamous encounter deaths, which ended the lives of several idealistic
communist militants belonging to the erstwhile People’s War Group and their
supporters in rural and tribal Andhra. During those years of the ’long
knives’ and draconian laws, he faced threats to his life, was kidnapped by a
vigilante group, widely believed to be linked to the state police, arrested
on a trumped-up charge of murdering a sub-inspector … He survived all that,
and during the end of that period, around the mid-1990s, began to write of
the importance of thinking about rights violations in a broader and more
expansive context.

While agreeing that state violence against its citizens and the impunity
with which it was often carried out was the worst possible threat to
democracy, he called attention to rights violations in other contexts.
Structured inequality, whether of caste or gender, he argued, was as much a
source of these violations. Further, he reasoned, the reactive violence of
communist militants as well as the spate of killings that the latter carried
out in the name of carrying out a ’class’ war often ended in the deaths of
vulnerable citizens or minor state functionaries, even as it left intact the
real and material structures of state power. He argued too of the importance
of democracy, of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution - for these had
come about as a result of people’s struggles and movements, and rights
groups had to learn to defend these hard-won historical legacies.

During this period, he wrote on other things as well - the late 1980s and
early 1990s saw him respond critically to Gail Omvedt’s articles on the
Shetkari Sanghatna (in the *Economic and Political Weekly*). His insistence
on retaining a radical class approach to the politics of the Indian
peasantry helped bracket and problematize Gail’s novel approach to the
unequal relationship between the country and the city. However, he was no
dogmatist. In the course of thinking through the ethics and politics of
communist violence, he asked deep and searching questions about left
politics and theory. He drew upon theories in psychology, existentialism,
and ruminated over the human condition as such, as he attempted to square
the ethical imperative that lies at the heart of the socialist imagination
with the sometimes violent political practice of left militants.

Meanwhile, there was work to be done: Kashmir and the North-east were causes
that took him away regularly from Hyderabad. His writings on Kashmir,
dispassionate, wry and acute in their analysis of the Indian state and army,
and the complicit role of Indian journalism in rendering murky, everyday
news from the valley, were unparalleled. He took to studying other
movements, especially the anti-caste movements in western and southern
India, and produced, as was his wont, stunning observations on the caste
order: Caste, he noted, is a production relationship, defining your access
to goods and resources, limiting, restricting your choices, until you
actually fought for them.

This rich medley of ideas have since come to inform his many concerns, and
for the past year and more have helped illuminate – for many of us – the
continuing anti-people and pro-capitalist stances of the Indian state, the
role of pro-state, vigilante groups such as the Salma Judum in stymieing
dissent, as well as the hugely problematic use of violence by the Maoists,
especially in contexts where popular mobilization is possible and capable of
challenging authority. In one of his latest articles on violence and
non-violence, he noted that it was important not to be dogmatic about the
use of violence; equally, it was necessary to be alive to the limits of
violence, about what it could achieve in the fact of capitalist rationality
and state terror. He did not counsel a simplistic pacifism, rather he spoke
of the importance of mobilizing people, of creating agitational movements…

And this is how perhaps how he would like to be remembered: as one who
trusted to radical popular protest, who at all times wished to examine the
ethics of such protests, wanting to constantly test precept against practice
as well as the other way around.

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