Decolonizing Anarchism: An Anticolonial Critique

From Sketchy Thoughts:

There was an “anti-colonial Victoria Day” book launch in Montreal on May 21, where Maia Ramnath presented her new book Decolonizing Anarchism, published by AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies (and available from leftwingbooks.net). What made this launch special, and different from most such events, was that the Ramnath spoke on a panel with Ponni, a radical activist from India, who used her intervention to level a detailed and outstanding critique of the book, from an anti-authoritarian and anticolonial perspective.

Given the strength of this critique, i asked Ponni if i could upload the transcript here to my blog. She graciously agreed, though wanted me to make it clear to readers that this is not a “review”, it is a talk given at an event, and so is not structured or intended as a written piece would be. Here it is:

I am an activist with the queer movement, feminist movement and labour struggles and a student of history. I also work on conflict related issues in Sri Lanka primarily in the north and east of Sri Lanka. I have studied modern Indian history – which means 1757 to 1947. But later I have come to be involved in a range of different research projects on social movements in post-independence India including archiving the women’s movement in some parts of India in the 70s. I am also part of an informal network of queer feminists across the South Asian region.

This introduction is important not to establish my authenticity; in fact I am mildly annoyed by the authenticity that is read on to me in the global west even by the closest of comrades. It is to explain the background from which the following comments are coming. In many ways the book is too close to home, to say the least.

What I enjoyed in the book are the snippets of information about related social movements in the ‘diaspora’, if I can read that modern category on to another period and the limited channels of solidarity that exist today among activists in South Asia and groups based in the global west.

Here are a few points of criticism for the book.

1.    Tracing the story of Veer Savarkar as part of a revolutionary history – you might have your reasons and frankly I am only partially curious about them – but it goes against at least two generations of historians if not more, working to write his and others’ such as his stories out of the ‘nationalist’ history. The story is told through Bal-Pal-Lal by Congress and left historians alike. All three of them had problematic stances towards a Hindu identity and a nationalist identity from our vantage point today, but did not go on to found the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh – the Hindu fundamentalist body, a right-wing, nationalist, paramilitary, volunteer and militant organization that still exists – in 1925, a mere few years after where you stop with the story of Savarkar in this text.  Savarkar supported among other things the Jewish state in Israel in 1947. The next generation is of course Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Chandrasekhar Azad.  Their story the author addresses to some extent. If the idea was to tell the story of the ‘extremists’ as the Indian National Congress dubbed them, I see the relevance of that. But we do not have the privilege yet of looking at Savarkar as anything more than a self-identified, Hindu fundamentalist leader. India is a Hindu country and State-run massacres of thousands of Muslims are going unpunished and at this stage complicating the history of the founder of Hindutva is like complicating the story of the establishment of the Jewish state. While we can acknowledge the marginal significance of both of these projects as long terms theoretical concerns, we do not have that privilege yet.

2.    The book has fallen into every trap that historians in privileged institutions in India are in. It is a view from Delhi and it is centered on Bengal. Neither of which are surprising to me given that I have been trained in these very institutions. But this becomes problematic in this context as the claim of being from an anarchist tradition is thoroughly debunked if the author could not see beyond the obvious privileged halos of the nation she’s writing about. It is of course not a question of simple exclusion; it is a question of a severely inadequate and often fallacious representation of thinkers and traditions which would have fit very nicely within the author’s project. The only reference to a person based in Madras in the late 19th and early 20th century is that of a Brahmin thinker and writer Acharya at the same time when the likes of Ayothee Daasar the anti-Brahmin Buddhist thinker and philosopher was writing extensively and rationalist groups such as those who ran the magazine Sudesamitran were functioning and had a broad range of connections with their counterparts in Europe.

3.    Speaking of the author’s project – needless to say there is one – there always is. But the author claims in the beginning of the book “instead of always trying to construct a strongly anarcha-centric cosmology- conceptually appropriating movements and voices from elsewhere… as part of our tradition, and then measuring them against how much or little we think they resemble our notion of our own values – we could locate the western anarchist tradition as one contextually specific manifestation among a larger – indeed global tradition of anti-authoritarian thought… something else being the reference point for us, instead of us being the reference point for everything else.”  The author has not done a few basic prerequisites in order to be able to achieve this decolonizing – for example to conceive and frame a working definition of anarchism for the context she is studying and writing about.

The different ‘a’s, small or big are not a working definition for South Asia. Declarations of not being able to mention these terms to folks there and the problems with that are understandable but not excusable in a research project. In fact, an explanation of your own political trajectory and the words you are attached to in your tradition might have led to more engaging and maybe more illuminating conversations there. Further, there are ways to make the story South Asian in the pre-independence period by telling the stories about thinkers and movements that are shared across borders that were drawn later. The revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz or the stories of Sadat Hasan Manto would have been useful as they span at least the regions that are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan or Frontier Gandhi a person of marginal presence in the nationalist story is told in India and completely erased in the story as told in Pakistan would have been a fascinating figure. Traditions of separatism in Baluchistan and their history would have been another story to tell. Or just the description of the actual geographical and cultural entity that is Punjab would have made the story more inclusive. And of course, at least anarchists should acknowledge the small fish in South Asia, be they Sri Lanka, Burma, Bhutan and so on and their unique position and the shadow of the other 3 nations that looms large over them. The hegemony of India in south asia means weapons for the fascist government in Sri Lanka, unchecked control on the economies of Bangladesh and Pakistan, double standards on Tibet and lip service to struggles for democracy in Burma. It is not one that can be done away with in a disclaimer, at least not by us who trace our roots to antiauthoritarian radical political traditions.

4.    It is this lack of a working definition for herself that leads to statements such as ‘the narrative is still dominated by male upper caste voices whereas anti- authoritarian… has to confront the malignant realities of caste and patriarchy. Yet this is not a history of caste or patriarchy or the movements to dismantle the structures of oppression based on them. So for the purposes of this project, it seemed better to offer what is actually there rather than simply to condemn or discard the record on account of what isn’t there’. The problem with this statement is that it is there. It required another pair of eyes to look in order to find them. It is like, I am told by trusted political allies here, telling the sotry of the civil war in the US without talking of how Indigenous people were brutally affected – because that information is ‘not there’.

5.    Then it is not surprising that the author ends with ‘in this way, the warp and the weft of the ongoing process of South Asian decolonization beyond formal independence on into the 21st c are tantalizingly analogous to those of western anarchist tradition’.  It is not analogous. And as someone who is part of the movements the author is referring to, I do not think there is an adequate critique of nationalism or for multiple forms of protest in India. There isn’t a context in which to state the limitations in our movements in order to move us forward to bring thousands on to the street as is happening so inspiringly in Montreal every night. Anarchist thought can help us through these questions. But this author has missed the bus and eventually simply given us the anarchist tick mark.

What is missing in this book is not to be raised here just as exclusions but have a profound effect on the political universe the book inhabits from my vantage point. Here are the stories I would have told:

(Before that a quick note about my vantage point: it is an important one because this book is about my history as an activist and historian engaged in progressive research and activism in various movements. This book is clearly not written for the people about whom the book is. And somewhere the decolonization project has to begin with being able to write texts that are written in the global north that can be of some relevance or of significance in terms of bringing in fresh perspectives to those who the text is about. If we don’t do that we are not different from those who we stand against in our political work.)

  • Periyar – on August 15th, 1947, the day of independence, he said is the first day of the beginning of the slavery of all those who were not north indian, Brahmins. A translation of that speech is available online and I will be happy to provide the details. This is the same thinker who, in his last speech before he died literally said ‘smash the state’ in Tamil.
  • I would have included the story of Savitribhai and Jothirao Phule who for me embodied the anti-authoritarian tradition of going against the state and society in order to provide knowledge to young minds while being critical of the power of knowledge itself. They did this by leading groups of young Dalit men and women, boys and girls into the hallowed spaces of education.
  • I would have told the story of Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and his use of Buddhism as a tool of dismantling the very basis of Brahminism. If Aurobindo’s engagements with radical traditions and then his engagements with spirituality can be part of the story I don’t see why Ambedkar’s relationship with Buddhism cannot be. I see it as a moment of a leader who believed in the state and the law, so much to draft the constitution of India, turning towards an anti-authoritarian thread that he saw to be much more powerful than any constitution can ever be.
  • I would even have used the partially idiosyncratic travails of Subhas Chandra Bose whose story can be told a million ways. He believed in reclaiming the arms of the state and its bureaucracy, more specifically the armed wing and went about it in multiple ways.
  • I would not have forgotten Telengana the peasant’s land struggle in rural Andhrapradesh in 1949, two years after formal independence.
  • I would have told the story of the Emergency of 1975 through the intense context of political turmoil but also critical thought, discussion and debate that existed inspired by the 1968 student revolts in France and later by Maoist struggles in China and also the mobilization against the Bangladesh war in 1971. The 70s saw an overwhelming radicalization of many who joined various political streams. The JP movement spread throughout the country as did Lohiaite socialism. The Dalit Panthers of the 60s inspired directly by the Black Panthers in North America and the ultimate end of their heyday by the late 70s would have been part of this story.
  • Irom Sharmila the Gandhian who has been on fast for the past 12 years against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Kabir Kala Manch, the Dalit cultural troupe that have been arrested by the Maharashtra government for singing songs of Dalit liberation are all for me the streams of thought and action that are inspired by anti-authoritarian traditions.
  • Given the myriad reservations about violence as a means of struggle I would have included the debates within the ultraleft parties such as the formulations of Chandrasekhar of JNU, a student leader who was brutally murdered by the police, or the articulations of numerous other leaders of the far left as well as commentators including the likes of Gautam Navlakha and Arundhati Roy.
  • I would include the cultural history of the theatre of Safdar Hashmi or Habib Tanvir, with all the problematic aspects as well as the songs of our own Ghadar of Andhrapradesh who has inspired generations of revolutionary thinkers across political lines.
  • And last but not the least; I cannot for a moment swallow the absence of women as well as the women’s movement in this story. The autonomous women’s movement emerged as a reaction against party-based left spaces as well as the State itself. So in a sense against two kinds of authoritarianisms. This then lead to numerous conversations about what a movement space looks like in which were numerous conversations of the minute details of anti-authoritarian feminist politics. I would have included the story of Anuradha Gandhi, a left thinker, activist and feminist. I would have included the work and thoughts of Sudesh Vaid who was one of the founding members of the civil liberties strand of politics and was also a self-avowed feminist. I would have spoken on the anti-State thought of the feminist struggles against forced contraception during Indira Gandhi’s time or the national network of women against state violence. If an anarchist scholar wherever she may be from had looked at the story of the women’s movements, pointed out to the anti-authoritarian strands and pointed out to the lack thereof in some places even, I would have used that text to have conversations back home.

6.    The project is an ambitious one.  Any attempt at writing a ‘history of India’ is fallacious as it is not a cohesive unit and has never been. Neither is it a collection of several units. It exists in a complicated web of power that has to be laid out before one embarks on such a project if at all. It has been done with a narrow expanse of secondary reading and primary research being constricted to my friends and professors in Delhi it seems, who themselves know of their limitations. The crux of the problem with this text may be in its intention and in its lack of shifting the lens away from the political tradition that the author hails from. For example: “mushairas” is not spoken word. ‘Direct translations’ such as these are problematic as the author herself points out in her disclaimers. Stepping out of the frameworks we are in is very difficult to do for any of us. But we can only address this by rigorous reading of all that is available and by unabashedly spending sizeable amounts of time living and working while observing the movements in a context that are foreign to you. Without that rigour in methodology, the anti-colonialism cannot even begin. Otherwise one can write about moments of conversations between different political traditions and have us read between the lines of those conversations and see how they can inform our solidarities in the present. The author does that every now and then and I personally think she should continue on that track. It is a useful one and no one else is doing it that much. Until we figure out the nitty gritty of how we can do this, as the author says ‘look to your own house, work at and from your own sites of resistance.’

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