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Seminar: 50 Years of Exploring Indian Perspectives

Indian Persuasions: 50 Years of Seminar: Selected Writings edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee

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BOOK REVIEW

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Seminar: 50 Years of Exploring Indian Perspectives

Sumanta Banerjee

I
n September last year, the New Delhibased monthly Seminar entered its 50th year of publication. The present members of the Seminar family chose to celebrate the occasion by bringing out this selection of articles from the pages of the magazine from 1959 till the turn of the present century. The editor has carried out a daunting task – meticulously combing through the archives of the magazine, selecting some 60 articles by a variety of contributors covering a wide range of topics, and presenting them to readers to help them understand the different ways of seeing and analysing the changes that I ndia and its people have undergone during the last half-a-century.

Emerging Alternative Journalism

Seminar represents the tradition of alternative journalism in India. When in the late 1950s, Romesh and Raj Thapar decided to launch Seminar, it was not as if they were operating in a vacuum. This was a period when a worldwide, off-beat trend of Left wing journalism had begun to flourish, challenging the monopoly of the corporate sector-controlled mainstream press – as well as taking a stand that was independent of the official communist party newspapers (e g, Daily Worker of the Communist Party of Great Britain, or People’s Age of the Communist Party of India).

Small groups of radical journalists and academics in different parts of the world

Indian Persuasions: 50 Years of Seminar: Selected Writings edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee

(New Delhi: Lotus Collection, Roli Books), 2009; pp 532, Rs 695.

had begun to publish monthlies or fortnightlies presenting critical analysis of contemporary politics and economic systems from a broadly Left and liberal point of view. In the United States, in 1949, one such group brought out Monthly Review, which continues to enjoy a wide readership through regional editions all over the world. In the same year, in what was then Bombay, an intrepid intellectual, Sachin Chaudhuri, with the help of an equally a dventurous band of entrepreneurs, started Economic Weekly (to be succeeded by Economic & Political Weekly, which continues to carry on Sachin Chaudhuri’s legacy of presenting every week incisive critiques of current developments). It was this world of alternative journalism, where Romesh and Raj stepped into with Seminar. Fresh from his experience as an editor of Crossroads (the unofficial weekly of the then Communist Party of India in the e arly 1950s), Romesh could perceive the surrounding reality from the grassroots level, and yet refused to be bound by the straitjacket of any party policies. The i naugural issue of his monthly stated in unambiguous terms, that it wanted to “ debate all issues – political, economic, s ocial and cultural – which concern us, in the spirit of free enquiry, so that each of them can be seen in focus.”

The essays selected for the present anthology live up to the promise made in that opening statement of the first issue. Romesh Thapar’s inquisitive mind and flavour for richness of substance, opened up the pages of Seminar to a wide spectrum of contributors – academics and activists, politicians and bureaucrats, journalists and artists – some brilliant in their analysis, some flamboyant in their impetuosity. Just a cursory glance at the list will indicate the quality and variety of the authors. We have veterans from the earlier days, like M N Srinivas, Nirad C Chaudhuri, D D Kosambi, Satyajit Ray, and even two unlikely contributors – C Rajagopalachari and J R D Tata. The former put up a strong defence of traditional values in the December 1964 issue. J R D Tata did not directly write for the magazine, but his talk at a meeting of management experts and economists in Ahmedabad in January 1966 was reproduced in its March 1970 issue, in a bid to offer the industrialists’ point of view in a debate on the economic crisis to which that issue was devoted.

As we move down to the present times, we find a new generation of intellectuals, politicians, journalists and dissidents finding voice in the pages of Seminar – Ashis Nandy, Radha Kumar, Salman Khurshid, Prannoy Roy, Shiv Vishwanathan and Aruna Roy, among others. Their writings faithfully recapture the spirit of the debates of the 1990s and the mood of the participants

– some dispassionately analysing the hard empirical data, some narrating their experiences from the fields, some trying to find answers to the problems, and some predisposed towards theorising them.

Economic & Political Weekly

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june 12, 2010 vol xlv no 24

BOOK REVIEW

The book is divided into five sections – often overlapping. The first contains broad-stroke overviews of personalities, parties and politics that contextualise and outline the political developments running through the last half-a-century. The next consists of a series of essays that take stock of the changing trends in Indian society and the challenges that they pose to the Indian state – the unplanned urban expansion, women’s empowerment, caste and communal tensions, grassroots sociopolitical movements, and the growth and development of the Indian language press, among others.

Seven contributors have been chosen for the third section that deals with economic development – prominent among whom, quite predictably, are Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, Pranab K Bardhan and Montek S Ahluwalia. Particularly prescient among them was Amartya Sen. In an article in the November 1959 issue, while defending the case for a socialist economy, he warned its proponents against reducing their critique of capitalism to mere exposures of scandals and i nstances of inefficiency and dishonesty. According to him, this created the popular illusion that it was only a bunch of honest and moral men, irrespective of their political ideals, that was needed to make things satisfactory. Recalling a similar populist agenda that encouraged the rise of fascism in Italy, Sen predicted a repetition of such a trend “in the context of I ndia, where the right wing is likely to be increasingly less liberal than it has been in the past, putting more emphasis on ‘efficiency’, ‘order’ and ‘honesty’.” Is this not the pattern that has been set by Narendra Modi in Gujarat today, where these three “virtues” are upheld as the sole criteria for defending an amoral model of development, sidetracking the record of the massacre of thousands of Muslims and Christians under his administration?

The last two sections are devoted to problematic issues emerging from the wider sociocultural scenario – art and culture, education, environmental concerns, and ethnic identities among others. The authors range from Satyajit Ray, E Alkazi and Nayantara Sahgal from the cultural world, to environmentalists like Valmik Thapar and social activists like Sanjoy Ghose (who contributed an extremely sensitive analysis of the “Travails of the North East”, just a couple of years before he was killed by the ULFA fascists in Assam in 1997).

The collection serves another important purpose. It has brought together advocates of some of the main political parties within its pages, thereby allowing the readers to examine their respective standpoints – and to realise how insidious the motives of some of them could be! Thus, we find S wapan Das Gupta, still squirming from the backlash of the Bharatiya Janata Partyled Ayodhya movement, trying to rehabilitate his revered party by protecting it as a child – “A Party in the Making” (the title of his piece which appeared in the issue of May 1994). He ended his article with the atrocious statement: “The BJP is a potential ethical alternative. In the course of the A yodhya movement it demonstrated its willingness to lead from the front…After 6 December, the nation has recovered a measure of its self-esteem.”

The Legacy Continues

Two pieces by the founders Romesh and Raj Thapar, included in the first section, stand out in particular, because of the b ittersweet retrospection that they engage in. Their journey to the past unveils a candid portrayal of the collapse of the bourgeois liberal values (which both of them had always adhered to), that was brought about in a cold and calculated manner by a person who was very dear and close to them at one time. In Raj Thapar’s “Just to Remember” which was carried in the March 1977 issue, the reader can breathe the air of relief that she felt after the lifting of the Emergency just a while ago. She gives a blow by blow account of what happened in Delhi during the Emergency when, among other things, Seminar had to stop publishing, refusing to knuckle under Indira Gandhi’s regime of censorship. Some seven years later, in the December 1984 issue, following the assassination of his erstwhile friend, Romesh wrote an obituary of sorts, entitled “Indira and History”. It is a faithful historical account, where the narrator’s initial sympathy for the heroine (“She was a lonely, unhappy person, determined to survive…”) gradually turns into disillusionment with her performance which he describes at the end of his article as “an extraordinary record of mercurial, manipulative, conspiratorial, and brilliant leadership”.

The thoughtfully selected 60 articles in the present collection are an important register of history as it happened in India during the last 50 years. The selection also bears the signature of Romesh Thapar and his successors. The standard set by him at the beginning, continues to be maintained by the present members of the Seminar

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june 12, 2010 vol xlv no 24

EPW
Economic Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

family, which, as Malvika Singh (Romesh’s i nnovative cover designs, varying with I hope that the next edition (which I am
daughter) so poignantly recalls in the pre each issue, were produced by the well sure should come out) reproduces some of
face, was “orphaned in 1987” when both known graphic artist duo Dilip and Madhu the covers that they designed, which were
Raj and Romesh passed away. As an old Chowdhury – old friends of Ramesh and an integral part of Seminar.
reader of Seminar from its birth, I Raj – who were associated with Seminar
r emember how I waited for every issue, which was both impressive in its contents from its beginning. Their contribution, sadly enough, does not find any mention Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari:
and attractive in its production. The in an otherwise exhaustive introduction. A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).
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Economic Political Weekly

EPW
june 12, 2010 vol xlv no 24

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