Peace News in India

IssueFebruary 2010
Feature by Milan Rai

The War Resisters International Triennial (now held every four years, in a cunning ploy to avoid police detection and repression) is being held here in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, at Gujarat University or “Gujarat Vidyapith”. Coming from the recent ice, snow and slush of southern England, Ahmedabad is jarringly hot – but not too hot, dusty but not too dusty. The university, which was closed down three times by the British authorities during the national freedom struggle, was founded by Gandhi, and the library has an extensive section called “Gandhiana” (I just saw it while looking for the internet facilities).

I hadn’t known that Gandhi had agreed to a World Pacifist Meeting in India in co-operation with WRI. He stipulated that it must take place only after liberation from the British occupation. Unfortunately he was assassinated before that took place. This is the third WRI Triennial in India (the first and second were in 1960 and 1985-86). There’s a lot of history around the event: people with long records of struggle were being memorialised yesterday; the long record of speakers was being invoked; a lot has been done to entwine this international gathering with the specificity of long-standing campaigns for justice and peace within India.

Old friends

For me, unexpected bits of personal history have been thrown up, as I encounter friends not seen for over a decade. Jean Dreze, a naturalised Indian, and Bela Bhatia, were leading figures within the Gulf Peace Team in 1990-91, whose organising phase I participated in. They’ve been involved in extraordinary work since then.

Jean helped to put into place a Right to Work Act, which guarantees by federal law that everyone who asks for it can get public employment within 15 days at the minimum wage. Each family can apply for 100 days of work a year, and as the minimum wage is twice the market rate, this translates into 200 days of work a year guaranteed for the poorest families in the country. As part of a council of advisors to the leader of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, Jean also helped to push through a Freedom of Information Act which he describes as the strongest FOIA in the world. I’m in no position to judge at this moment, but for bureaucratic India to have any FOIA at all is astonishing.

Bela has been immersed in research and activism with deprived communities caught up in struggle in different parts of India, and has an in-depth knowledge of the interactions between the brutal Indian police (my words, not hers), the rightist paramilitaries, the “Maoists” and the communities these groupings attempt to control.

Maoists and sleep

I put the word “Maoist” in question marks because Arundhati Roy, the first speaker at the Triennial, questioned the use of this label. I have to enter a caveat here. After an eight-hour flight, and a seven-hour train journey, and only eight hours’ sleep in three days, I was not quite in phase with the opening plenary. My ability to be present came through in waves....

Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Arundhati Roy, the celebrated Indian author, questioned the “Maoist” label. Her opening remarks were highly critical of transnational corporate capitalism, as expected. They were also highly critical of the neoliberal corporate globalisation agenda, as expected. They also critiqued the impact of these forces on local communities in India, as expected. They also expressed a certain agnosticism towards different forms of struggle – as I’m sure most people must have expected. Her phrase was “a biodiversity of resistance”.

There’s been an exchange recently in Peace News about the “diversity of tactics” (though the phrase was hardly used). Smash EDO focused on the same issue as Arundhati Roy: “effective resistance”. Roy said: “That is where we get stumped. What do we do about it all?” She referred to the fight against the Narmada dams that affect millions of people in Gujarat and other states. Roy said that the anti-dam movement won the arguments, but could not handle the actuality. (For more on Narmada, see .)

Perhaps nonviolence is the right way for us, Roy said (I assume she meant the audience), but she did not know what to say to villagers facing repression. She called violence an indicator species, a stress signal in society.