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Rebellion to Reconciliation

by Dilip Simeon, 26 February

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(Published in B.G. Verghese (ed); Tomorrow’s India: Another Tryst with Destiny; commemorating 125 years of St Stephen’s College, PenguinBooks India, New Delhi, 2006)

The title theme, “Rebellion to Reconciliation”, given to me was meant to elicit the description of a personal trajectory relating to political choices and ideas. Even if I had changed the title, as I was first inclined to do, this would perhaps still have remained the essence of the story. It is difficult to encompass many turbulent years, painful transitions and treasured friendships in a necessarily brief essay and I shall inevitably be doing something or someone an injustice. Nonetheless, I have grasped an opportunity for reflection and communication. I hope to be pardoned lapses in this narration of salient developments in an exciting journey. Honouring the most distinctive lesson of my student years, I will be frank rather than euphemistic. This is as it used to be in the late-night informal discussions in College.

It would be arrogant to claim that intellectual openness was lacking in Delhi University campuses other St Stephen’s College in my time. Their alumni must surely have memories as lively as mine. Nor did the passionate convictions of the group to which I belonged go unchallenged. But the outstanding fact was being thrown among people the likes of whom I never imagined existed, to be encouraged to debate and discuss burning issues with complete freedom, and to be fearless while forming one’s opinions. In a sense, this was an aspect and emanation of Indian democracy, something we used to trash and scorn 35 years ago. But it was also the ethos of the college - a place where some of the most eccentric, brilliant, funny and warm-hearted characters I have ever met, had congregated.

I’ve always found it patronising when told versions of the dictum that if you are not a communist when you are 20, you are heartless, and if you are still one at 40, you are a fool. But we were ready to storm heaven. There have always been young people who were not rebels, as there are many in middle age who refuse to be pillars of the establishment. Even so, there was something electric about being young in the late 1960s. This was a period that will be remembered historically as the 1968 era. That was the year of the Prague Spring, the Tet offensive by the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the May uprising by students and workers in France, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Power salute by US athletes at the Mexico Olympics. It marked the height of productivity for the greatest ‘pop’ musicians (I still believe this!) of all time. Students the world over were affected by a radicalism that came not from the campuses, but from factories and fields in every continent, from Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa and Palestine. It was hard not to be affected by this atmosphere, especially as it coincided with explosive discontents in India, where anti-Congress state governments were elected for the first time in numbers in 1967, and the Communist movement was riven with demands for a more ‘revolutionary’ approach.

From our tiny corner of the world in Delhi University, the elitist snobbery of many students, the pomposity of some professors, and the smug self-satisfaction of those who felt assured of a ticket into the establishment, could not occlude the fact that, despite itself, St Stephen’s College produced a phalanx of left-wing students. It was from here that for some reason, the largest number of student radicals in Delhi emerged with the commitment to do their bit to change the world. How far they succeeded remains a matter of debate. But they changed their own lives and those of their families and friends, irrevocably. That this could happen to me is, to my mind, a direct outcome of the kind of place the College was.

Youthful passion and its outcomes are not easily described. My experience of going as part of a Social Service League team to Palamau in February 1967 was overwhelming. I was the only fresher - my team-mates were Arvind Narayan Das, Vikram Chandra, Lalit Sharma and Vijay Singh. Observing the penury of the Indian peasants in the midst of a famine was an eye-opener like no other. The District Magistrate of Palamau, Kumar Suresh Singh (with whom I had the privilege of renewing my acquaintance in later years), deputed us to the deep interior to report on relief operations. Arvind, Vikram and I were sent to Narsinghpur Pathra, my first glimpse of village life in the Bihar countryside.

I still remember Arvind, who died tragically in 2000, telling me it was a ‘reformist illusion’ to think any good would come of distributing food from relief kitchens. He introduced me to Marxism. I was perplexed and impressed! Today I find little to choose between reformist illusion and revolutionary delusion - but more on that later. That was also the time when the Naxalbari uprising had just taken place and the Communist movement was convulsed with intense debate about its ramifications. The discussion spilled over into college campuses, ours being no exception. In 1968, Arvind became the first (and last?) Naxalite to be elected President of the St Stephen’s College students union. The following year, our group of radicals, including comrades from Hindu College, Miranda House and Jubilee Hall, staged a hilarious political lampoon called India ‘69, which was a big hit.

I cannot dwell too long on the complex reasons why some of us decided to become active revolutionaries. It was emotionally taxing to cause one’s parents and families so much travail. Somehow it felt as if we had no option, that this was like the freedom movement all over again, that if young and committed Indians did not do what was necessary to change the dreadful conditions in which most of our fellow-countrymen and women lived, we would be betraying the most precious values of life. Since these values had been instilled in us by our parents, some of us experienced this decision partly as an act of filial devotion. We kept each other’s morale afloat with anecdotes and laughter and expectation of historic events. Arvind and Rabindra, two of my closest friends, went ‘UG’, or underground, in May 1970. Later that year, I followed, along with several others. I was then in my MA Final. Despite our estrangement from the college establishment not all our teachers felt hostile towards us. Among others, the college pastor, Rev. Daniel O’Connor befriended us and sympathised with our ideals. I have remained close friends with him and his wife Juliet over the years. I have written about those times in a short story published in Civil Lines in 1997. A Dutch friend who read it told me she liked it, but that it seemed a bit contrived in places. I had to tell her that truth was stranger than fiction.

This brings up an issue that straddles academic and existential concerns. In recent years I have conversed with certain ultra-left students who would get exasperated with my criticism and suggest to me that my first-hand recollections of the Naxalite movement are a fabrication, a claim made with intent to defame. This is an accusation that I must explore even at the risk of looking for profundity in trivia. On the one hand it touches the issue of historical method. While the historical materialist tradition has great scholars in its pantheon, not to mention lesser lights whose contributions are not to be scoffed at, there remains a Leftist distinction between esoteric and exoteric thought, between aristocratic and demotic mental realms. This should not be confused with the problem of dogma and its ramifications. It would be possible for a materialist historian to accept that X followed the ‘correct line’ three decades ago and now thinks differently. This conclusion could be based on some generally acceptable method of collection and cross-verification of facts. But for the more simple-minded, it is unbelievable that a comrade of yesteryear could now be so critical. If he is critical today, he must have been a reactionary from birth. If he claims to have been a comrade in those halcyon days and knows what he is talking about, he must be lying. And since it is not possible for comrades to agree on a method of historical verification, the simplest explanation for his iconoclastic ideas is that he must be conspiring to defame.

The polemical manner in which the debate about Stalinism has been treated in the Communist tradition highlights the urgency of the question of method. Historical method for the dogmatist is a means of rubbing out those parts of reality that are inconvenient to one’s black-and-white worldview. The question of truth and its procedure is simultaneously an ethical and sociological concern, with relevance for social scientists, moral philosophers and historians alike, not to mention the ’scientists of revolution’. If historical truth is characterised as a matter of pure interpretation and subjectivity, we will end up foreclosing the very possibility of conversation.

What caused me to shift from rebellion to reconciliation or perhaps from strife to reflection? Maybe I should frame this differently, because ‘conciliation’ is often used as a euphemism for compromises that perpetuate systemic injustice and brutality. The transition that I have undergone can better be described as a move from a nihilistic rejection of social reality to a critical dialogue with it; from the politics of violent ‘overthrow’ and ‘seizure of power’, to the politics of non-violent resistance and transformation. It is not often realised how powerful and widespread the attractions of extremism can be. The more radical the rhetoric, the greater, supposedly, is one’s commitment to the public good; the more violent the suggested solution, the more admirable the character of its proponent. Not for nothing has E.J. Hobsbawm named the 20th century the “age of extremes”. Radical discourse of all hues has been characterised by the assumption of a violently adversarial stance, of fierce polemic in the Left tradition (polemos incidentally, means strife in Greek), personal attacks on doctrinal opponents, the reduction of reason to dogma, a disdain for moderation and above all, a glorification of violence in the form of the warrior cult.

Let us approach the matter via a slight diversion. If asked for a summary definition of communal politics, I would say that it is a project for the militarisation of civil society. The stamina that this politics possesses denotes nothing less than the lasting impact and legacy of fascism. It should not surprise us that Hitler and Nazism still carry a positive charge for many literati in India. I think the militarist nationalism of Subhas Bose is part of the explanation for this. Evidently the utilitarian ethic denoted by the phrase “the end justifies the means” has sunk deep roots in Indian politics, and casts its baleful effect on Left and Right alike. Unfortunately, the ultra-left programme of ‘people’s war’ feeds into the same mentality. It is significant that on the whole, the ultra-left and the ultra-right avoid confrontation with one another. It would appear that their shared hate-object is Mahatma Gandhi and their common project the destruction of constitutional democracy. Is it not interesting that contemporary ‘public sentiment’ - that ever-handy tool of hateful mobilisation - finds criticism of Subhas Bose or Shivaji or V.D. Savarkar intolerable, but has put up with a decades-long glorification of Gandhiji’s assassins? I wonder how many of us appreciate that it is Gandhi whom we have to thank for the intellectual freedom to abuse him.

The period that we were ‘underground’, saw momentous happenings in the sub-continent. From 1971 onwards it became clear that the cut and dried formulations of Indian Maoism would not work. The revered Chairman Mao shook hands with “war-criminal” Kissinger as Vietnam continued to be bombed. The JVP insurrection in Sri Lanka was smashed by the Bandaranaike government which enjoyed moral support by India as well as Pakistan, the US, China and the USSR. The Pakistan army refused to honour the results of the general election that had given the Awami League an absolute majority, and launched a brutal military crackdown in East Pakistan, with the full logistic and political backing of the Chinese government. Millions of poverty-stricken refugees flowed into West Bengal.

These happenings threw the Naxalite movement into confusion. At a personal level, I initially persisted in my loyalty to the Chinese version of events, which included blaming the Indian government and the USSR for the crisis in Pakistan. However, along with some of my comrades, I soon became acutely distressed by the sheer cynicism of the Chinese Communist Party. Why, I asked myself, could not the Chinese press even inform the Chinese public of what the Pakistani army was up to? Was not China a socialist country, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’? Did not the Chinese workers have the right to know what was being done with the guns and ammunition that their government was exporting to Pakistan? Those who imagine that the ‘degeneration’ of Chinese communism happened only after the passage of Chairman Mao could enlighten themselves by reading Zhou En Lai’s letter to Yahya Khan in April 1971, after he had begun the slaughter of innocents. The events of 1971 marked the advent of permanent ideological dissarray in the ultra-left movement, something that is reflected till this day in the bitter and often violent factionalism that surrounds extremist politics. It was similar to the disruption caused by Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. It bears reflection that the communist movement has been riven for decades with issues of democracy, the freedom of thought (even within the ranks) and bureaucratism.

As far as I was concerned, these events were the last straw. My faith in the leadership of the Indian and international revolution was shaken. A close relative, who had also been a left-wing radical in his student days, helped me recognise the ruthless pragmatism of the Chinese Communist Party. It was clear even then, that they were motivated by nationalism and great-power ambition, rather than world revolution. They had the blood of innocents on their hands. When the very ethical ground of a powerful commitment shifts beneath the feet of the foot-soldier, it causes a collapse of morale. The loss of moral value made me lose the belief that the revolutionary project was feasible at all, and that the persons leading it had any ethical or even practical sense of what they were doing. In late 1971, I met my father for the first time since I had gone underground, and he offered to help me extricate myself. I must say the step away from violent revolution was deeply disturbing for me, perhaps more so than the step towards it. I knew I could remain ’UG” for an indefinite period. Indian society is an ocean of humanity, and those who got caught did so (mainly) due to a loss of nerve. Could I not simply melt into the masses and live out my refusal? After all, I had not been apprehended by the police. However, something also told me that something of the rebel would remain in me for life anyway, and that it would be better for me and my family if I drew back from an extreme posture into a more moderate way of life and resistance. I know I did the right thing – I would have suffered a loss of mental balance had I remained in a movement that was disintegrating. There is a touch of the suicidal in extremist politics, hence it is not surprising that the most tortured souls in its ranks end up as ’martyrs’. I could not see myself a martyr – maybe that is what saved me. But it was all very painful. And I will not deny that my father’s status as a well-known educationist made the transition easier than it was for many of my comrades.

What made me rethink the nature of left-radicalism was a conversation that, along with some close friends, I shared with E.P. Thompson in 1976. (He has mentioned this meeting in his book, Writings by Candlelight). It was the year of the Emergency, when we were forced to think about things we had hitherto taken for granted. What made an indelible impact was his observation that the use of the derisive prefix ‘bourgeois’ before ‘democracy’ was the most self-defeating discursive practice of Communists the world over. Democracy, said Thompson, was a hard-won institutional gain of working people, and in our case, of the national movement. Preserving it was absolutely crucial for socialists. Talking to this great historian made me realise the complex and tragic nature of the Communist relationship with democracy, which has resulted in the unnecessary juxtaposition of political to socio-economic liberty.

Years later, when I began teaching an optional paper on Soviet history, I had the opportunity to study this question in some detail. It was a fascinating exercise. All that I can say here is that it was a relief to discover that there is not a single liberal-democratic criticism of Soviet authoritarian tendencies, including matters related to press censorship, intellectual freedom or state-controlled trades-unions, that was not articulated forcefully by one or other group or leader within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is a tragedy that critics were considered heretics, and that few in the Left bother to study the ideas of Trotsky, Bukharin, Mirza Sultan Galiev or Preobazhensky. The habit of treating criticism as heresy, is of course, a direct outcome of the notion that the Party is always right, and that it possesses the absolute truth. This church-like approach to ideas is the issue that has troubled me the most, and propelled me in an alternative political direction.

Some years later Delhi University taught me another lesson. Ramjas college was a place that we hesitated to intrude into even as campus revolutionaries. Maybe it was nemesis for me to be selected to join the History Department there in August 1974. I served for 20 years, taking voluntary retirement in 1994, a time more turbulent than my student years and with the underground. I have never experienced such physical pain as I did in 1982, nor such prolonged anxiety as in the years 1981-90. During this time I felt compelled to undertake two hunger strikes, the first in 1981, the second in 1990. It is a long and tedious tale that I shall summarise. My activity was part of an ongoing democratic campaign by students, teachers and karamcharis in Ramjas, something that I did not initiate, but joined. If this account appears self-regarding, it is because I am describing the impact of these events on my personal development, which is the purpose of this essay.

Upon return from three years of study leave, I went on a hunger-strike in October 1981 in order to obtain the salary of Sita Ram the head mali, who had been wrongfully denied it without an inquiry. The backdrop of this series of events was an Emergency-like regime in the college, grave allegations of corruption in the college administration and deep divisions among the teachers, one faction backing the Principal. I took the step after strenuous efforts to secure a just procedure had been scornfully turned down. After a nine-day strike, supported by the DU Karamchari Union and in which I was joined by two colleagues from Ramjas and one from the Sri Ram College of Commerce, we decided to lift it, and pursue the struggle by other means.

The atmosphere in Ramjas remained extremely tense, and there was a fracas in the Staff Council in February 1982. Later that month, my scooter was intercepted near Qudsia Park by six young men who had followed me in a car all the way from home. I was beaten severely with iron rods, my left leg broken in two places and the upper part of my jaw permanently damaged, with five teeth lost. But for my helmet, I might have suffered severe skull injuries too. I was left on the road to be picked up by a couple in a Fiat and taken to Bara Hindu Rao Hospital, on the Ridge. (Despite my best efforts, I never managed to thank them - let me do so now, 24 years later). University colleagues and friends soon turned up and later that day I was taken to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences. A big agitation followed and many students and teachers from all over the campus joined to force the college governing body to suspend the Principal. On medical advice, I was removed to Bombay for surgery, and needed nine weeks to walk again.

My parents, close friends and I were traumatised. I was disturbed to find certain elements in the academic community boasting about having taught me a lesson. We knew who had instigated and carried out the deed, but could not prove it in court. In fact when I was finally summoned as chief witness, the magistrate treated me as if I were a defendant, rather than the victim of a criminal assault. Meanwhile, I returned to work in October 1982, and found myself accused of having rioted outside the Principal’s house, and thus an under-trial, along with three karamcharis. This trial continued for seven years. I must say I have had extensive experience of the venality and unpredictability of India’s system of criminal justice. Not to mention the sweet-smelling corridors of Tees Hazari Courts. One of my close friends, who is a practising lawyer, calls it a casino. I belong to a privileged stratum of Indian society. I shudder to think of what less fortunate citizens must face when they seek justice.

But more than the issue of Indian justice, the episode literally forced me to think about the politics of violence. I cannot deny that the pain and anguish, not to mention the gloating behaviour of those who believed I needed a lesson, filled me with rage and the desire for retribution. Some of the students who used to crowd around my bedside in AIIMS would tell me to forget my commitment to non-violence and just indicate that the guilty be punished. Quite apart from the complicated problem of determining guilt in episodes of this kind, I knew intuitively that any violent reaction from the side of those struggling for a democratic college administration in Ramjas would undermine the politics of the movement, for, after all, politics is the application of ethics to public life. I realised that violence was not merely something we do to our opponents. It is something we do to ourselves, and at great cost.

At yet another level, I found myself thinking about the sheer enormity of what had happened. If I felt so traumatised and humiliated by this brutal physical assault, how could I cause it to happen to others? And if it left such a deep mark on my character and thought-processes, which could have gone either way, would it not be reprehensible for me to make light of such irrevocable deeds, and that too, in the name of some ‘higher’ morality? Today it should be clear that it is not merely the state and the established order that perpetrates violence on defenceless people. Self-styled revolutionaries, freedom fighters and the patriarchs sitting on caste-panchayats also cause a great deal of suffering. We may argue interminably as to who began it, and whose contribution is the greater. Such arguments will not be of any use to, say, the children killed in an Independence Day function in Assam last year, or the 40 or more bus passengers killed in a Maoist land mine in Nepal in June 2005. My roadside experience 23 years ago motivated me to give this issue the seriousness it deserves.

The other major event for me, as for many of my generation, was the growing communal atmosphere in the early 1980’s, culminating in Operation Blue Star in Amritsar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, followed by the carnage of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere. We had heard of mass communal killings from our parents, but we had not witnessed anything on such a scale in our time. I observed frenzied crowds on the rampage, Sikh taxi drivers weeping in fear and humiliation, gurudwaras on fire. To my dismay, I heard of some Delhi University students participating in the violence, and some teachers speak approvingly of it. I had occasion to participate in a rescue operation in the Trilokpuri area, where a young widow was hiding with her two small children and mother after her father and her husband had been burnt alive. When my colleague Nitya and I, accompanied by a constable, climbed the stairs in the burnt-out house to approach the barsati, the infant girl in her mother’s arms saw the policeman’s lathi and burst into tears, whimpering, meri mummy ko mat maaro. I was shaken and deeply moved by the plight of these people, reduced to refugee status in their own city, mohalla and home.

The events of 1984 convinced me that communalism is India’s staggered form of fascism, resistance to which is the fulcrum for the preservation of democracy. The very idea of truth was sorely tested in the storm of political allegations and counter-allegations that followed: Who was responsible for the carnage? Was it systematic or ‘spontaneous’? Was this or that Congress heavyweight involved? Observing a High Court Justice disposing contemptuously of a petition by the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights asking for police cognisance of the crimes was another Orwellian nightmare. After 1984, we cannot comfort ourselves with the thought that ‘respectable’ people don’t do such things. Confronted by riots in 1946 Gandhi said, "I deprecate the habit of procuring a moral alibi for ourselves by blaming it all on the goondas. We always put the blame on goondas. But it is we who are responsible for their creation as well as encouragement".

After Gujarat 2002, can we doubt that vast sections of India’s middle classes and establishment are steeped in communal prejudice to the point of approving of mass brutality? They disapprove of Naxalite violence, but murder in the name of ‘patriotism’ and the ‘honour of the community’ has almost become chic. Advani might well issue a posthumous certificate of secularism to Jinnah, but we will have to wait a long time to hear him utter any remorse for the cruelties committed in Gujarat in 2002 by his proteges. I quote Gandhi again, this time at the height of the violence of 1947, when he said, "it is time for peace-loving citizens to assert themselves and isolate goondaism. Non-violent non-cooperation is the universal remedy. Good is self-existent, evil is not. It is like a parasite living in and around good. It will die of itself when the support that good gives it is withdrawn..".

The changes in my political outlook and the circumstances that prompted those changes must be placed in the context of the core issues of democracy, authoritarianism and violence. Democracy is not the name of a social system. It is a principle of association. A democratic constitution is an institutional arena wherein social conflicts are enacted in an unstable equilibrium. The tension is relentless. The growth of democracy implies popular control of daily life and at the workplace. The decay of democracy results from the action of vested interests that use patriarchy, caste and intimidation to depress wages, avoid the construction of social security systems and undermine modern citizenship. Democratic institutions are inconvenient for those who benefit from conventional forms of social oppression - Indian women and the stigmatised castes and tribes are the worst victims of this system. This situation forms the backdrop for our version of authoritarian politics. It has been present since the advent of democratic movements in India, and has had major successes, most notably, the communal Partition. Authoritarianism operates in all segments of the political spectrum. Yet it is not politically neutral. The organisation of violence is the beginning of a process that merges authoritarianism across the political spectrum, even when it appears otherwise.

Any serious social-democratic programme must affirm fundamental respect for human life, and place on its agenda society’s determination to liberate itself from fear. Violence is both the expression and the symptom of social and political crisis. We need to debate its roots, forms and functions, in order to cast fresh light on the iniquitous relations between the sexes, castes and classes; and on the structured violence of the global polity. If I have learned anything of significance about politics, it is this: to question what is known as ‘commonsense’ is our primary responsibility as human beings. Such questioning and curiosity alone has enabled us to survive. Change, growth and transformation are in the nature of life. We all experience them. What differs is the manner in which they happen, the choices they offer us and the ones we opt for. I learned my most important lessons the hard way, especially the ones about love, truth and non-violence. I am well aware that others pay a much higher price every day.

It has been a long time! Some of my contemporaries will sense nothing but irony in what I have written. And yet, in its pre-political usage, revolution signified the completion of a circular rotation. The ironies of language do no more than reflect the ironies of life. To the persons whom I caused grief during those eventful years, I can only offer my deepest apologies and regrets. That aside, most of what I have described transpired outside the walls of St Stephen’s College. But howsoever odd it may sound today, that is where it all began.


Dilip Simeon is associated with the Aman Trust, an NGO that works to understand violent conflict and ameliorate its effects and was earlier with the Oxfam (India) Trust. He graduated in History from St Stephens College in 1969, became a Marxist and in 1970 went underground in the first phase of the Naxalite movement. He left the movement in the aftermath of the Bangladesh crisis. He returned to St Stephen’s to complete his MA in 1974 and then joined the History Department of Ramjas College. He was elected to the Academic Council of Delhi University in 1988 and took premature retirement in 1994.

Simeon has written on the labour movement of south Bihar (Manohar, 1995) and been a visiting research scholar in the Universities of Surat, Sussex, Chicago, Leiden and Princeton.

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