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R S Rao: An Intellectual in the Marxist-Maoist Tradition

A political economist, statistician, dialectician, teacher, writer, public speaker, master storyteller, a person with a high sense of humour, a very sharp brain and a consistent friend, guide, sympathiser, and critic of people's movements, all combined into one - that was R S Rao. The intellectual world that supports people's movements, in general, and the Naxalbari line, in particular, has lost a highly perceptive and influential spirit.

COMMENTARY

R S Rao: An Intellectual well known for goading a deep churning, giving rise to alternative ideas, theories,
in the Marxist-Maoist Tradition and practice. Thus the two-year stint in Calcutta not only brought Rao fame as a
fine econometrician, but also transformed
him into a committed Naxalite sympathiser.
N Venugopal He used to tell us of how the police

A political economist, statistician, dialectician, teacher, writer, public speaker, master storyteller, a person with a high sense of humour, a very sharp brain and a consistent friend, guide, sympathiser, and critic of people’s movements, all combined into one – that was R S Rao. The intellectual world that supports people’s movements, in general, and the Naxalbari line, in particular, has lost a highly perceptive and influential spirit.

N Venugopal (venugopalraon@yahoo.com) is the editor of the Telugu magazine Veekshanam.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
september 10, 2011

I
n the sudden demise of R S Rao on 17 June 2011 in a Delhi hospital after a brief illness, the intellectual world that supports people’s movements, in general, and the Naxalbari line, in particular, lost a highly perceptive and influential spirit. Thanks to the media glare on sensational events, he recently came into the limelight as one of the mediators in the Orissa hostage crisis in late February when Maoists took an IAS officer and a junior engineer into their custody. But his life is much more than that event. In fact, he always used to tell us that it is not events, but processes that one should look into. Indeed, the real life process of Regulagadda Someswara Rao – coming from an orthodox brahmin family of a small town on the margins of Agency forest in Visakhapatnam district – transforming himself into a insightful and inspiring Marxist intellectual, with thousands of admirers, is protracted, momentous and worth recapitulating.

Rao’s multifaceted persona inte grated several aspects into one in the best of the monist as well as the Marxist tradition, achieving dialectical unity. A political economist, statistician, dialectician, teacher, writer, public speaker, master storyteller, a person with a high sense of humour, a very sharp brain and a consistent friend, guide, sympathiser, and critic of people’s movements, all combined into one – that was R S Rao. Born in 1937 in Chodavaram, Visakhapatnam district, he came of age with the Nehruvian model of “socialist pattern” of development (against which he used his pungent criticism in later years) and did his postgraduation in economics from Andhra University in the early years of the euphoria of Independence.

His career as economist and social science researcher began at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune in 1960-61 and he moved to Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta in 1967. The city and its intellectual atmosphere in those days are

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repression he witnessed in those days as well as his reading of volume I of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value brought about the change in him. In 1969 he came back to Pune and was the friendly person that all of us knew for the next 40 years. Whether it was Pune or Bombay, Calcutta, Nagpur, Delhi, Hyderabad, Warangal, Visakhapatnam, Sambalpur or remote corners of Dandakaranya, he had flocks of friends, students and admirers discussing his i deas, with or without him.

An Inspiration

That impressive stature began to take shape in Pune in the early 1970s when he was instrumental in forming Sparsh, a bi-lingual magazine, and the group around it. The group and the magazine was the earliest platform for Marxist-Leninist-Maoist oriented debates, discussions, initiations, actions, and work among students and workers. He was so consistent in his ideas and practice that even after 40 years he continued doing similar inspirational intellectual activity among students, writers and journalists in H ydera bad, whether it was with Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Virasam) or Veekshanam monthly journal or revolutionary sympathisers.

In 1974 Rao left Pune to join the Economics Department at Sambalpur University. The university in Burla, an educational township that emerged amidst western Orissa’s tribal heartland provided the most apt ground of fertile objective reality to Rao’s critical analysis and intellectual application. Based in Sambalpur, he was equally near and distant to the revolutionary movement he supported, criticised, corrected and admired. Though the Srikakulam struggle suffered a setback by then, there was an attempt to regroup, which culminated in the upsurge of the Karimnagar-Adilabad peasant struggles in the late 1970s. Rao’s direct intellectual engagement with revolutionary practice dates back to this period, continued through the Maoists’ experiments in alternative

COMMENTARY

development in Dandakaranya and till his participation in negotiations with the Government of Orissa, as a mediator on behalf of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

His residence in Sambalpur, B-1, Jyoti Vihar – which came to be known as the B-1 Collective – was the centre for several socially concerned activities including Anveshan, a weekly debate on current topics among students, researchers and university employees. As his students reminisced:

Physically, the B-1 Collective was a staff quarter at Sambalpur University, Burla that gave shelter to Rao and Bharathi for almost 25 years. It was not a home, not a house, but remained as a shelter, evolving over time into a place of intellectual activity. It did not have a fixed kitchen, did not have a fixed bedroom, dining room or drawing room. Depending upon the convenience, its open veranda in the front served as a living place, study place and discussion place.

Rao was in Sambalpur University till his retirement in 1997. During these two decades he not only involved himself in social activities in and around Sambalpur (various fact-finding committees, studies, delegations and public lectures, informal Institute for the Study of Society and Culture, besides the debating group), he frequently travelled to Andhra Pradesh and other places to address meetings of writers, students, youth and academics. His sharp analysis of history, social relations, politics, economy and the revolutionary movement would enthral audiences and whoever heard him once would not leave a chance to attend his meetings again.

Creative and Imaginative

What was so special about him? Doing incisive research based on the facts related to an issue in a nonconformist manner, posing new questions that others failed to pose or ignored, provoking the search for new answers to these new questions, always bringing back the analysis nearer to the reality, making inspiring arguments, providing unquestionable evidence from experience and study and, more importantly, using and explaining Marxist methodology in lucid terms – these were his characteristic traits.

His major contributions in political economy and in a Marxist understanding of society and people’s movements are distinct. In 1990, his essay Abhivruddhi Velugu Needalu (Development – Light and Shadows) was a thought-provoking event in Telugu society. In that essay he said:

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Hirakud dam is next to Sambalpur University where I teach. The dam on the Mahanadi is a multi-purpose project that irrigates 150,000 acres, besides producing a few thousand megawatts of power. However, a number of small villages around this dam do not have electricity. One day I happened to ask a tribal in one of these villages about this and he answered: ‘A lamp would throw light around, but it also creates a shadow beneath and there is space in that shadow’. His quick response seemed to me like a philosophical reply. Indeed, the concept of development is complex and simple at the same time. It can be understood simply because of its strong visibility. It is complex since we do not understand the shadow it creates as we do the light it creates.

In the same essay, he tried to define d evelopment:

Any development of productive forces is the result of inherent human labour and knowledge. Again that knowledge is born out of a world view. Thus a development project in any form, in the ultimate analysis, takes shape out of a certain world view. Then, the essence of a development project is nothing but the world view that gives rise to the project. In that sense, if one wants to find out whether a dam or a factory or a college is development

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EPW
Economic Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

or not, one has to see whether this development project had brought any change in the world view around it or blended itself with the other world view that is dominant around.

With this understanding on development, he proposed an idea that, in popular Indian discourse, there is a misconception of treating “development projects” as “development” per se.

However, this sharp questioning and analysis could be traced much earlier when he intervened in the famous mode of production debate in the pages of the EPW. His small piece “In Search of a Capitalist Farmer: A Comment” (Vol 5, No 51, 19 December 1970, pp 2055-56) raised at least two important questions then. One was on the use of “per acre value of modern capital equipment” about which he said:

The basic idea in taking this as an indicator seems to be to see how far the cultivator has been converting a part of his surplus into capital. If that be so, it is important to note that it is not a necessary indicator, and that at times it may not be possible for certain farmers (due to either the limitations of scale of production and/or the availability of surplus), to possess modern equipment; but they would still remain in the category of capitalist fanners. Modern is a relative term. An iron plough is more modern than a wooden plough, and a tractor is still more modern; and the three coexist at a point of time. What connotes the capitalist character is the increasing accumulation of capital, whether old or new.

The second point he mentioned in this piece and further elaborated in “In Search of a Theory of Agrarian Relations”, presented at the second annual conference of the Andhra Pradesh Economic Association in Warangal in 1984, was

what is important in a study of social relations is not ‘what is’ but ‘what is becoming’….to see the dynamics rather than study the statics, and project on the basis of a theory, dynamic implications.

This idea of constant motion was very crucial to all his writings and expositions, irrespective of the theme he was discussing. If there was any other preoccupation that informed his thought, it was the concept of people and labour. Whatever the topic, he would search for these aspects in it and arrive at startling revelations. A m ajor essay in this regard was “History of Ahistoric People” that was commissioned and not surprisingly rejected by The Times of India in 1991.

Economic Political Weekly

EPW
september 10, 2011

He was also a keen analyst of literature and his literary criticism was tinged with his political economy and sense of history. Particularly, he was enamoured by Gurajada Appa Rao’s play Kanyasulkam and Kalipatnam Rama Rao’s short story Y ajnam and quoted, analysed, criticised and developed themes from these two texts. Kanyasulkam, written in 1892 and revised in 1909, is a social satire that looked critically at late 19th century orthodoxy, the emerging alliance between the feudal and colonial ruling classes and tastes and pretensions of modernity. Yajnam, written in the late 1960s, talks about the post-Independence Nehruvian development model of rural development and its disastrous consequences. No wonder these two texts turned out to be sources of diverse analyses for R S Rao.

His few writings do not match the innumerable oral discourses and debates he participated in. He left a little over 60 thought-provoking essays, both in English and Telugu. His publications include Abhivruddhi Velugu Needalu (1990), Towards Understanding Semi-Feudal, Semi-Colonial Society (1995), Kotthachoopu (2010) and co-authored On Education (2010) with Mudunuri Bharathi. He was also one of the editors of Fifty Years of Andhra Pradesh 1956-2006 (2007) and s upervised a number of MPhil and PhD theses on themes like the handloom industry in western Orissa and agricultural labourers in Orissa.

On the Naxalite Movement

Remembering Rao would be incomplete if his ideas on the Naxalite movement are not taken note of. In a paper presented at a seminar at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi on the models of the Seventh Five-Year Plan in 1984, he said:

The Naxalites may not yet have succeeded but the issues they have raised regarding the centrality of the poor peasant and agricultural labour of the Indian economic scene, the consequent poverty and the market question on the one hand, and the question of depending on foreign technology and aid on the other remain the themes that provide a framework, however loose, for understanding the Indian reality.

He not only recognised this fundamental aspect of the Naxalite movement’s significance, but also gave his best to strengthen that framework. Adding this with the Marxian understanding of historical motion,

vol xlvi no 37

he would never openly denounce even the “excesses” of the revolutionary movement, about which middle class intellectuals jump to pronounce judgments. Intervening in the debate on the “private violence” of the revolutionaries, he said:

The sensitive people who think that there is a systematic evolution of punishments and a movement towards civility, should remember that feudal and capitalist ruling classes do not have civic sense at all. These classes use the first opportunity to brutally massacre the people waging struggles against them. Either through draconian legislations or with scant regard for law, the ruling classes indulge in state violence. For that reason, there is no need for the “autonomous” civil libertarians to preach the people about the “violence” and “brutality” of the struggling people who are waging a fight for their lives. The forms of struggle of the oppressed are d etermined by the repressive acts of the rulers.

That does not mean that he never criticised the revolutionary movement. He expressed himself at the forums he thought proper. But he was very optimistic and would always say:

I believe in practice. Yes, there will be mistakes, but one who is in practice will learn and correct himself. A human being has a potential to make mistakes and correct them and move forward. Revolutions and revolutionaries also follow the same path.

In the second week of March he fell ill with a lung problem as well as suspected blocks in the heart. The Malkangiri hostage crisis began when he was in the ICU of a Hyderabad hospital and two days after he was discharged, the Andhra Orissa Border Special Zonal Committee of the CPI ( Maoist) had announced that Rao would be one of the three mediators. He brushed away the advice of some friends not to undertake this strenuous job given his health condition. “When the party reposed such a confidence in me, I have to rise to the occasion” he said, and went to Bhubaneswar. His piercing comment after the crisis ended was:

We got the IAS officer and the engineer released within a week, but how can I answer Seetanna’s wife. The party was only asking the government to tell what happened to that tribal boy who was picked up by the BSF (Border Security Force) three months ago. We could not get the government answer. Is the IAS officer’s life more equal than that of the tribal? That question – on behalf of the exploited and oppressed tribal – remains unanswered.

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