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Which side are you on? -An Open Letter to the students of JNU

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I am a Professor in Anthropology at Vidyasagar University, West Bengal, India.I believe in research based activism with social responsibility.I have done intensive research on land acquisition in West Bengal and published a book and articles in peer-reviewed journals.I am also a Right to Information activist at an individual level.

This open letter was first published in the online issue of Frontier (a Kolkata based weekly founded in 1968 by Samar Sen) on March 9, 2016

My dear students of Jawaharlal Nehru University,

The current protest organised by you has reached national heights, although you are now being dubbed as “anti-nationals”. One of your 5-Star supporters, Mr. Rahul Gandhi has also been declared as “anti-national” by the ruling NDA. I was a student of Calcutta University during the Emergency period in the 70s and could remember well how the RSS and the ultra-left political organisations were being declared as “anti-nationals” by the then Congress Government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Police crackdowns in the University campuses were banal affairs at that time. Only the CPI (your arrested leader’s party) was exempted.  I could remember that we protested against the entry of a former Commissioner of Kolkata Police, Mr. Ranjit Gupta in our Department of Anthropology just after the lifting of Emergency since he used to visit our department to take some classes on Applied Anthropology! Mr. Gupta was famous for his  police operations to clean-up Naxalite outfits in Kolkata and the districts of West Bengal and a great favourite of the then Congress Chief Minister Mr Siddhartha Sankar Ray, who again was the  blue-eyed boy of  Mr.Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother. Today’s protestors against police crackdown in the campus are yesterday’s political bosses and we have seen many such role reversals in the past and ready to see more.

Under this backdrop, I would like to raise two important issues for your consideration. Being the most progressive and vanguard group of students of the country may I ask why you are not agitating on the continuation and prolongation of the  Ordinance promulgated by the present NDA Government on the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013? With this Ordinance, the NDA Government has actually held up a progressive law which was enacted by the former UPA Government through the long process of democratic consultation in which the present BJP was very much a consenting party as major opposition through the two Parliamentary Standing Committees. The Ordinance diluted the Social Impact Assessment and the Consent clauses of the 2013 law which replaced the Century old shameful and draconian colonial legislation. This Ordinance, as the experts say, has already weakened the democratic and Constitutional institutions of our country and we are back to square one, of course packaged by ‘Make in India’! Why are you not agitating against this Ordinance? Is it not against the majority will of our nation? Is land acquisition less important than the hanging of a person convicted of attacking the Parliament House?  Even outfits like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the RSS’s economic wing, and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the RSS farmers’ body has been protesting to the land Ordinance along with left political parties but you remain silent on this agenda related to the livelihood of millions of farmers of the country.  WHY?

My next point relates to the issue of bringing the major political parties under the purview of the Right to Information Act, 2005. As you may recall that the Central Information Commission in its historic order issued as early as 3 June 2013 categorically stated:

“We have, therefore, no hesitation in concluding that INC/AICC, BJP, CPI (M), CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central Government and, therefore, they are held to be public authorities under section 2(h) of the RTI Act”.

Ironically, all the six political parties who were party to this historic decision of the CIC were united to oppose the order and they are still opposing it! Why? Take for example, the arguments leveled by the former general Secretary of CPI (M), Mr Prakash Karat, who is your alumni and another 5 Star supporter of your movement and he took the leading role to oppose the CIC decision. Let us listen to Mr.Karat’s arguments. He wrote an article in People’s Democracy, the weekly organ of the party on 9 July 2013. The article is entitled “CIC is Wrong: A Political Party is not a Public Authority”. He however began by praising the RTI Act:

Under the RTI Act, anyone can access information from government or a state institution regarding the decisions taken, about the expenditure incurred and the relevant file notings on matters concerning the body. The purpose of the act is to allow citizens access to information about the government and publicly funded state institutions which may affect the lives of the rights of citizens. The CPI (M) had supported the legislation and its adoption as a democratic step forward.

But then Mr.Karat expressed his displeasure with the CIC decision. According to him:

Political parties are not governmental organisations or state funded entities. There is no constitutional provision for a political party. A political party is an association of citizens who come together voluntarily to form a party. This can be on the basis of the fact that they subscribe to a particular ideology, programme and leadership, which the party stands for or espouses.

It seems that Mr.Karat did not carefully go through the steps through which the CIC arrived at its conclusion.  Nowhere in the order did the CIC mention that the political parties are “governmental organisations”. CIC only stated and quite explicitly, that political parties are institutions which are indispensible in constitutional democracy and influence and affect the lives of the public in a substantial manner and should be transparent and accountable to the public, like other ‘public authorities’.   It is better to quote from the CIC text:

The Political Parties mobilize public opinion  around  their  ideologies  and  beliefs  and  contest  elections  to  form  government.  No democracy can exist today without Political Parties. An ordinary citizen does not have direct access to the government except through his elected representative and cannot hope to be part of the government without being a member of a Political Party…… Political Parties continuously perform public functions which define parameters of governance and socio-economic development in the country.

I am sure that Mr. Karat will not disagree with the opinion of the CIC as regards the public functions performed by the political parties. But then, why is he so much apprehensive about the extension of the RTI Act to political parties? The answer to this crucial question is given by Karat himself in the People’s Democracy article. Let us hear in his language:

Now by the CIC’s new order, anyone can ask for access to internal deliberations of a political party. They can ask for relevant material and papers which went into the decision making and the views of various office-bearers of the party concerned. If such a procedure is adopted, it will harm the very mode of inner-party functioning.  Within a party, discussions are held and it is on the basis of confidentiality that certain decisions are taken. To demand that such deliberations be made available will be a serious infringement on the nature of inner-party discussions and the way decisions are taken by a political party. This can lead to an undermining of the structure of political party itself. By such a dispensation under the RTI Act, for example, a BJP member can demand information about the internal  matters of the CPI(M) and vice versa.  Opponents of a political party can thus utilise the RTI Act as an instrument against another party.

It is evident from the above quotation that Mr.Karat and his party would like to maintain ‘confidentiality’ as regards the ‘views of various office-bearers of the party’ which went into the decision making process of the party resembling bureaucrats who also wanted to make documents and files under the label ‘confidential’ and before the promulgation of the RTI Act the colonial Official Secrets Act 1923 was in full force to maintain such confidentiality. Then, what is the difference between a government bureaucrat and the Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)? Mr. Karat fears that if the RTI law is extended to political parties, then it may be misused by one political party against the other. So what? If BJP uses RTI to know the decision making process of the CPI (M), then, CPI (M) could also use the same for the BJP. Going by the results of these RTI revelations people will then be in a better position to judge on the basis of real facts which party followed more democratic decentralisation for arriving at decisions and which did not.

Are you convinced by Mr.Karat’s arguments? Don’t you think that you should not only hold brainstorming seminars on the progressive side of the RTI Act, but also organise rallies against all the National level political parties who are united in opposing the historic ruling of the Central Information Commission? Why you are silent on this vital issue of democracy? Is it less important than the current issues around which you are agitating? Finally, I am surprised to learn from the media that your leader Mr.Kanhaiya Kumar will now visit West Bengal to join in the state election campaign in support of the left front parties. Have you forgotten the role of the left just a few years back during the Singur and Nandigram incidents? Have you forgotten how the capitalist friendly communists of Bengal sabotaged the land reform and decentralised planning programme of their own creation for the sake of inviting big capital in West Bengal? And you are going to campaign in support of these people? In the sphere of higher education have you forgotten what the left front government and the political parties have done during their thirty years of rule? How they choked the voice of protest in the university campuses of West Bengal?

When will you really become independent and bold enough to shout an emphatic ‘no’ to all the political parties who have made the university campuses their playground for winning petty party agendas?

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I am a Professor in Anthropology at Vidyasagar University, West Bengal, India.I believe in research based activism with social responsibility.I have done intensive research on land acquisition in West Bengal and published a book and articles in peer-reviewed journals.I am also a Right to Information activist at an individual level.
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