Saturday, January 31, 2009

Laughter server Nagesh is no more...

A man who brought smiles to millions of Tamilians breathed his last today.

Nagesh, the effervescent actor who played innumerable comic roles in Tamil cinema, was a family favourite. I remember when I was a young boy and we were renting videos for our newly bought VCP (video cassette player), the popular choice was always to get hold of a Nagesh classic, and I used to lead the fight against my parents' and relatives' will to get hold of one. How many times had I seen Ethir Neechal, Server Sundaram, "Soap, Seepu, Kannadi" or "Pattanathil Bootham" or "Madras to Pondicherry" as a young boy, I don't remember. But I never tired of the slap-stick, the body flips, the mirth and the general feel-good that this actor generated whenever he was on screen.

Of his later films, I would never forget, Magalir Mattum, where he plays a character, who is a corpse (no kidding!) and that too of a dreaded Mafia criminal. That he played this role without having to do anything but look like a corpse and yet managed to steal the show in all those scenes, proved his worth in mirth.

He was as adept in character roles (the aforementioned Ethir Neechal is a revered classic), the best for me was the college lecturer role he played in the Kamal Haasan movie, Nammavar. I suppose Kamal Haasan always made it a point to include Nagesh in as many important roles as possible in his films- the patriarch from Nagore in the film, Dasavatharam also comes to my mind immediately as that of the make up man, "Joseph" in the Kamal classic, Avvai Shanmughi.

But perhaps his best role ever, was in the movie "Thiruvilayadal", where he stole a march over the leading thespian of Tamil commercial cinema, "Sivaji" Ganesan. His immortal tete-a-tete with Sivaji (playing the Hindu god Shiva) is a classic nugget that remains part of Tamil cinema history as a shining moment of wit, repartee and dialogue delivery (and later satired, copied, in many films). If Sivaji Ganesan made his name as the doyen of Tamil cinema through his ability to perform melodramatic action combined with powerful dialogue, forging it as a template for others to work upon; Nagesh continued the tradition of comedians playing an important role in Tamil cinema (from the days of NS Krishnan, Thangavelu, and many others) and charted his own course of slapstick, wit and mirth.

The closest to a Nagesh these days is the effervescent actor who seems to have made bellyache an infectious pandemic among Tamil film watchers - Vadivelu and it is no wonder that he prides himself as the "Dark skinned Nagesh".

It is with a great deal of sadness that I have to mark the death of a man who gave me so much laughter ever since childhood. Nagesh - you will remain on celluloid and in our hearts forever.

UPDATE: DBS Jeyaraj writes a moving obituary on Nagesh here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Pyrrhic Victory

The LTTE might be on the cusp of defeat, but no viable solution to the ethnic conflict is in the offing.

Not very long ago, commentators on the Sri Lankan conflict were hinting that the latest set of sieges by the Sri Lankan Army were doomed to be interminable as it was assumed that there was no way that the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could be defeated militarily in the harsh terrain of the Vanni in north-east Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan army might have belied those expectations by managing to take Kilinocchi, the administrative headquarters of the LTTE, but the costs at which the Sri Lankan government has achieved this target beg the question whether the victory is indeed what the government claims it to be.

The LTTE, now cornered in a few square kilometres of the Mullaitivu forests, has vowed to continue the fight. Even as the Sri Lankan army entered Kilinocchi, it found the town deserted, pointing to the fear and distrust of the Sri Lankan government that the much traumatised and victimised people of the Vanni harbour. The government has of course promised to proffer a political solution to the conflict once the LTTE is completely vanquished. The displaced Tamils in the Vanni have been used as cannon fodder, subjected as they were to forced recruitment and conscription by the LTTE. And yet, they have betrayed no trust towards the “invaders” from the south. Such is the predicament of the Tamils caught in the humanitarian catastrophe that is the civil war in the north of Sri Lanka.

Why have the Tamil people of the Vanni opted to take refuge in areas under the thrall of an intransigent terrorist organisation facing defeat? Why has the Sri Lankan government not been able to win the trust of the displaced people despite the iron-fisted administration by the LTTE in the northern regions of Sri Lanka? The answer lies not just in the years of ethnic conflict and “majoritarian” impulses that have characterised the Sri Lankan polity but in the refusal of Sri Lankan governments in the present and the recent past (irrespective of the party in power) to sincerely address the federal question in the country. For all the lip service paid to devolution and recognition of minority rights, the facts on the ground – inhuman treatment of the minority population in Sinhala majority areas, a ruthless military campaign which cared little for the lives caught up in the conflict in the north-east, and continuing refusal of the Sri Lankan polity to think beyond a framework of the nation which privileges the majority population over the minority – suggest that the grievances that were at the root of the decades long civil war persist and fester.

During the present phase (the last two years) of the civil war, the Sri Lankan government has taken recourse to stifling dissent over the course of murderous actions that it has embarked upon. Journalists have been prevented from reporting from the war zone in the north, and a cult of violence and murder has pervaded the country, attacking anyone seen as a dissenting voice. The brutal killing of respected journalist and editor of the newspaper Sunday Leader, Lasanth Wickramatunga, a known critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and of the war trajectory followed by the government in the north, is just one inglorious example. Wickramatunga, in a poignant “posthumous” editorial, published in the Sunday Leader after his death, left no doubts about who was the real reason for the cult of violence that would eventually take away his life – the Rajapaksa regime. Wickramatunga's death follows a series of incidents targeting dissident media voices, such as the attacks on the premises of the television channel Sirasa TV early this year, or the multiple threats, detentions and abductions of dissident journalists (both Tamil and Sinhala writers). It is no wonder that Sri Lanka was recently rated at the bottom in press freedom in any democratic country in the world by the organisation, Reporters Without Borders.

Indubitably, the Sri Lankan government's endeavour to use “war to establish peace” – arguing that vanquishing and obliterating the LTTE is the first step to re-establishing a peaceful democracy – has ensured that violence as a means has now been ingrained as an end in itself in a country that has just celebrated its sixtieth year since independence. There remains no excuse for the Sri Lankan government now to refrain from offering a genuine federal solution to the ethnic conflict that has ravaged the country, now that the intransigent LTTE is seen to be on the verge of defeat. But the means adopted for the objective, a reliance on unremitting violence – inflicted even on civilians caught in the crossfire of the conflict or those who question this strategy – suggests that a return to a liberal regime of rights for the much harassed minorities or indeed a rule that respects civil liberties and democratic dissent remains impossible under the existing regime.

That the other major political parties, the opportunist United National Party, which has boycotted an all-party representative committee constituted to suggest a package of devolution, the ultra-nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna, and a blatantly supremacist Jathika Hela Urumaya have no viable alternative to offer, suggests how degenerate the Sri Lankan polity is today.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Friday, January 23, 2009

A leftist take on Barack Obama and foreign policy vis-a-vis India and the world.

One of the much asked questions to this "political analyst" is, "So, is new US president Barack Obama going to be good for India"? I suppose it is not a question worth answering for a leftist who would find that such a question is redundant or at best s/he should ask back, "Which India are you asking about"?

Anything else would be a statist response. But assuming that a leftist is asked to provide a statist response, the leftist has to weigh as to what indeed would be a response from a statist perspective; in other words from an "international relations" perspective that takes states for given - as irreducible units in interaction among each other in the system of states. That is precisely the kind of fare that the average strategic affairs analyst gives you - indeed, he is among a slew of beings who are a dime-a-dozen in New Delhi in mandarin circles, in thinktanks and who get some good chunks of real estate in newspapers and in the electronic media (especially since the Great Nuclear Deal Debate). But lets not digress.

Most Indian strategic affairs analysts, taking a contrarian position to heck..the world, actually felt that the maverick, the Straight Talk Express and the "Bomb ..bomb..bomb.. Iran" guy, John McCain was "good/better for India" (check.. here and here for examples) than The One, as many have started terming Barack Obama these days for his celebrity status throughout his presidential campaign as also after his election whence he has been enjoying nearly 80% approval ratings in the USA.

The primary reasons for the strategic analysts love for Republicans, in particular George Bush (as so pathetically articulated by Manmohan Singh who told Bush that he was "loved by Indians") however flows from the worldview that these folks have and share in common with the hard realist imperial Republicans, in particular the neoconservatives. The Neocons in their quest for a Great American century, believed (and still believe) in a Kenneth Waltzian hard power argument, and an arrangement of the world which is not quite an arrangement, but a derangement that requires the superpower to bring sense to it (for IR buffs, one only has to check out the Stag Hunt analogy by Waltz that makes this point). The American exceptionalist argument that drives the neocons is simple, "Power flows from the barrel of a F-16" (sorry Mao!).

It is this belief that drove the Republicans of the 1980s to fund and support the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and to take up sides with the Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan. It is this belief in power that condoned the AQ Khan profileration network, supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, killed Allende in the 1970s in Chile, and did whatever they did all across the world. End'eth the cold war, neoconservatism is born, an enhanced version of the hard realism of the Cold War era.

The neoconservative project in the 2000s identified (and correctly according to the paradigm) that China, with its growing clout as the manufacturing base of the world, was re-emerging as a hard power and it was necessary to contain its rise. Hard power could not be used as Chinese and American interests were intertwined through the complex, intricate set up of economic relationships between the countries over the years. Enter the new logic of stopping the Chinese dragon on its tracks - containment through "balancing". How to go about it? Engage the services of the other "growing tiger" in the continent - India. Ergo - the Indo US Nuclear Deal.

The Indian strategic community understands the motivations of the Hard Right in America and their goals for sustained hegemony in the world. They see a "correlation of interests" between a domineering United States and an India finding its place through pitching its elites' interests on to the forefront as its national interest. That explains the love affair between the most neocon of all regimes- the Bush regime and the strategic community and its minions in government in India all along.

Why does the Indian strategic community refuse to accord the same love to the Democrats (and by extension- Obama) now? One has to delve into the Weltanschaung of the Democrats (in Marxist terms - liberal imperialism) vis-a-vis the world. The Democrats in contrast to the Republicans are not quite neoconservative (although it is not as black and white as I would want it to be - different Democratic administrations take a mixture of the hard right and the liberal imperialist positions). Thus, the emphasis of the Clinton administration on south Asia was focused on greater engagement with China and consequently with Pakistan, resulting in the whole "hyphenation" argument that drove US foreign policy in the subcontinent. The aggressive posturing on the Kashmir issue by the Clinton administration was never appreciated by the strategic community in India and they expect more of the same in an Obama administration.

The Obama administration in contrast to the Bush's or the hypothetical McCain's, would want a greater engagement with China, in particular to address the US' own financial economic plight as it stands. That would mean that the aggressive moves to use India as a balancer against China, an approach used by the Bush regime would not quite follow. But again, there would be a liberal internationalist zeal in the American foreign policy toward India- perhaps accommodating the rising Indian elites in the global economic clout clique - the G8 or other forums. There would be a return to the hyphenation thing; Pakistan is still important for the theatre of operations in Afghanistan and for the US' withdrawal from this affair (in contrast to a Republican intensification of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan). This explains the strategic community's angst against Obama and fear about his moves vis-a-vis India. I am not sure if Manmohan Singh would have an interest in expressing India's love for Barack Obama.

Lets get back to the original question. What would a leftist's answer be to the question? The leftist's interest would be divorced from the elite interest. For the leftist, "national" interest would automatically mean an anti-imperialist interest, in solidarity with the struggles against imperialism all across the world. What does Obama offer on that account - atleast from his statements and positions that have been on record so far? The Obama administration offers putative engagement with "adversaries", and other forces- say states across the world. This engagement on offer, is welcome (as dialogue is anytime welcome over armed conflict), but not more can be said about this so called engagement without fleshing out the details of the same. If the engagement on offer recognises the validity of the concerns about American exceptionalism, American unilateralism or indeed American imperialism, then it would definitely be real change from the neoconservative past. Say if the US administration under Obama revokes the oppressive blockade against Cuba or decides to forgo the continuing veto of condemnation or halt of Israeli crimes in Palestine - that would be welcome.

Vis-a-vis India, American engagement can be welcome, if the partnership is bound by equal terms of trade and investment and respect for economic sovereignty. Or indeed, if the American initiative on various issues such as terrorism is bound to multilateralism and a genuine intent to forgo the use of instrumentality in fighting terrorism, then it could be welcome. The best way to address terrorism is of course politically, i.e. to reduce the stake of radical tendencies, which take root in areas of disenchantment (I am not assuming that they dont' have any agency whatever though) - which in turn is a result of the nefarious influence of imperialism and its allies in those areas.

This leftist feels that considering the state of affairs that America is - a plutocracy, mind you and a nation that is still ruled by the biggest of the big bourgeoisie and a bourgeois paradise in some senses; such expectations of Obama are going to be belied. An Obama administration would continue the emphasis of using globalisation as a tool for using the terms of trade in the favour of the American big bourgeoisie (with its byproduct of benefits to sections of the Indian elite indeed). It would re-focus on addressing conflict through a liberal internationalist framework, but which would still be driven by a rhetoric that favours the status quo - vis-a-vis Cuba, Iraq, Palestine or indeed in Latin America. The structure and nature of Obama's cabinet - a hangover of the Clinton administration is indicative of this. It is left to Obama to prove me wrong.

The silver lining however, is that the Obama administration, in raising its hopes of "change" and its emphasis of knocking the wax house of neoconservatism, will enthuse those who believe in it genuinely. There would be greater avenues for those in the left to question the motives and the actions of rulers as in America, as elsewhere in the world. The emphasis on internationalism would provide greater relevance to the multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. By suitable groupings, the Non Aligned Movement for e.g. or the get-together of the nations from the third world countries, American and indeed imperialist exceptionalism can be handled hurdles if not completely thwarted.

In that sense, an Obama administration (over a Bush administration) is indeed better for "India".

Friday, January 16, 2009

More on Satyam-Maytas

(More is promised)...

For now...

Praful Bidwai on the Satyam affair. ....

CP Chandrashekar on the same...

Sitaram Yechury on the same.. (forthcoming article in the People's Democracy)

Some sensible opinion on the same..

More articles later..

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

EPW Special Issue on Thirty years of Chinese reforms

Economic and Political Weekly brought a selection of special articles analysing the thirty years after China announced wide ranging reforms that heralded a transition from the so called, "Maoist" era in the issue dated December 27,2008-January 2,2009. The issues covered included - inequality, class contradictions, property rights, rural industrialisation, the countermovement and so on. Presented are the article links with relevant abstracts from the site:

Inequality and Its Enemies in Revolutionary and Reform China
Ching Kwan Lee, Mark Selden

During the epochs of revolution and reform in China over the past six decades, under what conditions have heightened inequality and perceptions of inequality translated into the discernment of inequity and the stimulus to challenge the order perpetuating it? The paper throws light on the key institutions and mechanisms underlying, structuring and restructuring patterns of inequality, the changing features of popular resistance that inequality has bred, and the contested meanings and discourses of it.

Property Rights and the Social Costs of Transition and Development in China
Carl Riskin

There is considerable ferment over property rights in China today. This paper briefly explores important areas in which social unrest over property rights is currently under way, beginning with a discussion of the general debate about this issue in China, and then moving on to consider such rights in agriculture, intellectual property rights, and property rights in the environmental field. The objective is to indicate how the property rights debate overlaps the argument about social costs of transition, including widening income inequality, environmental devastation, and so on.

Rural Industrialisation and Spatial Inequality in China, 1978-2006
Chris Bramall

This study analyses the impact of rural industrialisation in China on poverty and spatial inequality at the county level between 1982 and 2000. The most positive consequence of industrialisation has been its contribution to absolute poverty reduction, especially in the coastal provinces. Much less clear is whether migration – mainly from west to east and driven by rural industrialisation – has contributed to poverty reduction in the interior. For, remittances have accrued mainly to the relatively well off rather than to the rural poor. More negatively, counties which were large exporters of labour have suffered a skill drain. However, the main adverse effect of rural industrialisation has been its exacerbation of spatial inequality, which has also resulted in a rise of inequalities in per capita gdp among China’s counties.

Double Movement in China
Shaoguang Wang

This paper traces China’s move towards a market economy in the mid-1980s, the near triumph of market forces in the 1990s, and the countermovement this engendered as inequalities between the rich and poor increased and social security networks collapsed. It focuses on the country’s regional and healthcare policies to illustrate how it has dealt with issues of inequality and insecurity over time. The prevailing view now is that the market is necessary but it must be embedded in society. And the state must play an active role in the market economy to prevent a disembedded and self-regulating market economy from dominating society.

A House Divided: China after 30 Years of ‘Reforms’

Robert Weil

The 30 years of Chinese capitalistic “reforms” now exceeds the 29 years of socialist revolution under Mao. A “new” China has emerged, economically powerful, showcased by the Olympics and spurred by nationalistic sentiments. But beneath this shiny surface there is growing polarisation between those with extreme wealth at the top and hundreds of millions in the working classes who have lost power and face a bleak struggle for survival in the global capitalist market. Despite ameliorative measures by the current leadership, there is no fundamental plan to reverse this ever widening divide. In the face of the deepening global economic crisis, these divisions are swelling. China is suffering its most severe downturn in decades, and working class protests are spreading. The Chinese left is re-emerging, but remains largely isolated from these popular forces. Only by beginning to bridge that gap, can China once again find a socialist alternative.

Light and Shadow of an Inarticulate Age: Reflections on China’s Reform
Pun Ngai

This tribute to the resilience of China’s migrant workers is by an academic who lived and worked among them in Shenzhen for seven months, sharing their screams and dreams. It touchingly portrays the plight of young migrant workers, many of them women, who have been caught in the grip of capital’s unscrupulous willingness to sacrifice anything in the pursuit of profit. Their efforts to organise themselves have been at best a partial success.

Socialism, Capitalism, and Class Struggle: The Political Economy of Modern China
Minqi Li

This essay traces the evolution of the political economy of China from the 1949 revolution up to the triumph of Chinese capitalism in 1992. It first describes and discusses the tremendous achievements in the first quarter century after the revolution, and also the struggles during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The essay outlines the context of the tussles that followed the death of Mao, the role of the “intellectuals”, the alliance or the lack of it with the urban working class during Tiananmen 1989 and how the forces represented by Deng Xiaoping were able to impose their writ on the economy and society of China.

China’s Rural Reform: Crisis and Ongoing Debate
Dale Jiajun Wen

Despite China’s dramatic transformation in the last three decades, its countryside is in a state of crisis. This study examines the dark side of the country’s economic “miracle”, looking into the various adverse effects that have followed the break-up of communes in rural areas and analysing their causes. It also examines the contentious issue of privatising landownership, which is favoured by those sympathetic to a neoliberal agenda, and reports on recent grass roots and government efforts to rebuild communities at the village level.

Globalisation Meets Its Match: Lessons from China’s Economic Transformation
Dic Lo , Yu Zhang

The sustained and rapid growth of the Chinese economy in the last three decades has been in sharp contrast to the prolonged stagnation in most parts of the nonwestern world. The persistence of a mixed economic system despite market reforms further contradicts the orthodox doctrines of globalisation. This study argues that China’s economic transformation has been mainly based on productivity improvement and is thus to a significant extent a real development. It has been achieved mainly through a process of “governing the market” by a set of structural-institutional factors that are China-specific but can be of general importance for late development worldwide.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

EPW Archives

The Economic & Political Weekly (my organisation) now offers archives on its site. Currently archives are available from 1988 onwards to 1998 (issues from 1998 to 2008 were available on the site). In due time, (hopefully in a couple of months), the entire archives from 1966 (since the birth of EPW specifically, not Economic Weekly - the earlier avatar) will be soon up on the internet.

Needless to say, the archives are a rich source of information for everyone interested in tracing policies, issues, news, analysis, etc that have been tracked in the Economic and Political Weekly for years and have made what EPW has been reputed to be.

This is to humbly encourage all readers of this blog to kindly subscribe to the EPW site online and get a peek and even more of the rich archives of the magazine/journal.

Satyam- beyond incredulity

That the Satyam fraud scam is massive is beyond doubt. Here is a Tier-1 company, one of the top few representatives of the neo-Indian big bourgeoisie, one of the few IT tags-to-riches stories that have defined the Indian liberalisation period, and one of the few perennial contenders/winners for the multiplicity of the bourgeoisie instituted "awards of the year" every year.

Much has been written about it or is still being talked and written about it in the media already. Justify FullWhat is unsaid is the level of colossal failure that can be stuck to several authorities who were seen to be unimpeachable in quality and prestige.

Can you imagine it? Here is a promoter/chairman who says that books were fudged to the tune of Rs 7100 crores and no one in the all powerful and independent"Board of Directors" knew a thing about it. And all this seems to have happened under the nose of a supposedly prestigious accounting/auditing firm (a global "powerhouse" at that)- PriceWaterHouse Coopers. And the CAs who are supposed to have colluded or perhaps simply been utterly inefficient in going about their jobs are considered to be the creme-de-la-creme of the Indian literate, having passed their tough CA examinations conducted by the prestigious ICAI. And to beat it all, not a whimper or a whiff of this scam could be noticed or deciphered by the even more powerful overseer of India's official arena of casino capitalism- BSE/NSE - the SEBI. The one letter by Ramalinga Raju has blown up into shreds, any notion of "checks and balances" in the finance capital institutions in the country. Satyam surely is among the many who have been twisting, ignoring or simply breaking the law of the land in its financial transactions in the country.

The ever growing myth of affluence, prosperity, growth and value addition quarter after quarter, built up a institution of such high repute that Satyam received award after award for "corporate excellence", "best employment", "best CEO" and what not, only for one big lie resulting in the crashing down of this edifice resembling the collapse of a pack of trick joker cards.

Several questions need to be raised and thankfully, already being raised - Whats this Maytas story all about? How much of Maytas' contracts and projects got to do with political patronage and plain crony capitalism. How much of a finger in the pie do these Rajasekara Reddys and Chandrababu Naidus have, in the Maytas-Satyam crony capitalist enterprise? What is the nature of the real estate story in the environs in and around Hyderabad? Already real estate has been swarmed and eaten up bit by bit by land sharks all around Hyderabad, leaving shreds for the government to pick and develop for public infrastructure projects and the likes.

I wish, we in the media, have the gumption to dig as deep as possible and possibly bring about a change in the "system" as it stands. The Satyam-Maytas story is now, surely, the tip of the "liberalised" iceberg, nay glacier. It needed a simple spark to heat up this glacier; it requires a bonfire of media activism to melt this mammoth bit of crony capitalist enterprise which has now threatened the well being of even the most upwardly mobile employees in India today - the IT workers.

Watch this space for more on the affair as things descend further into the spiral.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Forty Years since Keezhavenmani

Forty years ago, on the night of 25 December 1968, in the village of Keezhavenmani in what is today Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, 44 dalits, many of whom were women and children, were burnt alive in a hut in which they had taken refuge. The reason: the labourers had the “temerity” to organise themselves and demand better wages for agricultural work. All that they were demanding was six measures of paddy for every 48 harvested on the land of the mirasdars (landlords). In the course of a prolonged struggle for better wages the dalit workers had organised under a communist union. In retaliation, the landowners had formed a paddy producers’ association. It was not just the demand for higher wages that was galling to the landlords; the fact that they were standing up to the all-powerful mirasdar was unacceptable.

A mockery of a court case followed. Ten landlords were convicted to 10 years of imprisonment. But the Madras High Court overturned the judgment citing the convicted’s “respectable statuses as mirasdars” and this was confirmed by the Supreme Court. Justice denied by the law was in a grotesque way delivered by the brutal murder of P Gopalkrishna Naidu, the leader of the landlord association, when he was killed 12 years after the incident.

What is striking about what has transpired through the years since Keezhavenmani is the improvement in the lives of the dalits in the village and in surrounding areas in Nagapattinam district. The flashpoint in 1968 and the court acquittal did not lead to the dissipation of the agricultural workers’ long-standing movement. The political movement for wages became a wider one for justice for the victims of the brutal murders, for emancipation from untouchability and for self-respect. After demanding a mere handful of measures of paddy in the late 1960s, by the mid-1970s the workers had managed to extract substantially higher agricultural wages. The class mobilisation of the dalits and the agricultural workers soon consolidated into a strong political movement, and today 40 years later, the strength of the left parties (the Communist Party of India-Marxist in particular) under the leadership of the dalits in the district is there for all to see, as substantiated by their electoral performance in the area.

Today’s dalits in Keezhavenmani and in Nagapattinam face other issues – the agrarian crisis in the Cauvery delta region, lack of other means of employment beyond agricultural labour, and only a marginal improvement in livelihood indicators. But the deaths of 44 villagers from Keezhavenmani spurred the dalits of the area to reject exploitation and they took up a concerted struggle that built consciousness and forced the governments of the day to acquiesce to their just demands. No longer is the mirasdar the controller of the workers’ destiny or the overlord of economic activity in the paddy fields. Landownership patterns in the Cauvery delta have changed, though much of the land in large quantities is still under the control of temple trusts. Today’s struggles are oriented towards demand for redistribution of such land and house pattas, as announced by the government but not yet implemented.

The 40-year-long journey of the dalits of Keezhavenmani and of the erstwhile east Thanjavur district since the gruesome events of December 1968 stands as an inspiration to the vast numbers of dalits elsewhere in the country who continue to face the twin barriers of social and economic exploitation. As the Karamchedu massacres in Andhra Pradesh in 1985, the Jhajjar lynchings in Haryana in 2002, the Khairlanji murders in Maharashtra in 2006, and the scores of incidents in which the feudal Ranvir Sena have targeted dalit families in Bihar in the 1990s have shown, dalits are still at the receiving end of violence and exploitation across the country. While affirmative action and reservation have provided some relief, they have only been formal ways of enshrining equality while entrenched caste prejudices and economic exploitation remain.

No longer does the judiciary in India show a blatant class/caste bias as it did in the Keezhavenmani judgment. But kangaroo courts, run by caste panchayats, still go about ostracising dalits in the rural hinterland. Without a concerted political movement for rights, political representation has largely resulted in cooption of sections of dalits into the system.

The saga of struggles and steady political mobilisation by the dalits in Nagapattinam district – despite setbacks such as the court rulings on the Keezhavenmani murders and periodical dilution of land ceiling laws in Tamil Nadu – stand out as a success story in the fight against exploitation and casteism in the country. They may be facing newer challenges and newer struggles, but they hold their head high today in reverence to the memory of those who were brutally massacred 40 years ago.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly