Notes on chat over chai

August 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

This blogpost is just some hastily-written notes and quotes related to things discussed during a conversation I had with a new friend over chai yesterday. Among other things, we traversed…

…Richard J.F. Day’s book Gramsci is Dead (2005). Scott Neigh wrote the following in his review:

The main purpose of this book is to contrast two different logics of social change, which the author names “hegemony” and “affinity.” Hegemony he links to both the liberal and the Marxist traditions which dominated much political thought and action throughout the twentieth century. In this understanding, a single order, a single centre, a single system, dominates (has hegemony over) a geographical area, often a nation state but increasingly at the global level. When applied to social change, the idea is that in order to effect change you must shift or transform the forces exerting hegemonic control, but keep the hegemonic nature of such control intact.

Affinity, on the other hand, is much more comfortable with change that is transient or incomplete, with struggles that are ongoing, with decentralized networks of nodes of collectives that come together, partially liberate some time and space, that say “this is what we want for us, what do you want for you?”, and perhaps dissipate and reform and resurge in another guise elsehwere, elsehwhen, but do not seek to impose a single model of change on everyone and every thing. He sees this as a logic with a history in anarchist thought that is coming to the forefront in the newest social movements, from the Zapatistas and other indigenous struggles to the Independent Media Centres and the Italian autonomous zones.

…Charles Eisenstein saying something not totally dissimilar, in his text Where next for Occupy?:

Despite the rhetoric of the 99% and the 1%, I find in talking to influential people in the movement a deep understanding that no one is merely a victim of the system I have described. We are also its perpetuators and its enforcers; it is woven into our habits, our psychology, our very being. That is why the movement has striven to embody a different way of relating and being through consensus-based decision-making, open space technologies, gift-based allocation of resources, non-violent communication, and so forth. We want to change the psychic and interpersonal substructure of the system we live in. That is why this movement has united the long-sundered currents of spiritual practice and political activism. And that is also why we say: The revolution is love.

While such a statement might trigger the inner cynic who associates love with a mere emotional state, akin to the spiritual escapism of the last three decades, I think it actually offers an organizing principle around which meaningful social and political action can coalesce. Let me offer some examples of Occupy-themed actions that might flow from a vision of a revolution of love.

…and Marshall Rosenberg and Non-Violent Communication. On this subject Wikipedia (good old Wikipedia) has the following to say:

Nonviolent Communication holds that most conflicts between individuals or groups arise from miscommunication about their human needs, due to coercive or manipulative language that aims to induce fear, guilt, shame, etc. These “violent” modes of communication, when used during a conflict, divert the attention of the participants away from clarifying their needs, their feelings, their perceptions, and their requests, thus perpetuating the conflict. The aim of Nonviolent Communication is then to steer the conversation back towards the needs, feelings, and perceptions, until the discovery of strategies that allow everyone’s needs to be met. The reasoning is that from a position of mutual understanding and empathy, the participants will be able to find ways to meet their needs in a way that works for everybody.

That’s almost all; I suppose a reason the conversation happened in the first place was a thought like this:

Those of us who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening our own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. We will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of our obsessions, our aggressivity, our ego-centered ambitions and our delusions about ends and means. – Thomas Merton


The Riots: In Their Own Words

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recently the BBC screened a documentary drawing on some of the interviews conducted as part of the Reading the Riots research project initiated by the LSE and the Guardian, with which I was involved as a researcher. One of the interviews I conducted was selected for inclusion in the documentary, with actors playing me and my interviewee. Here is a link to the documentary, which is available on BBC iPlayer.

The webpage for the programme on the BBC website writes that

This series was originally scheduled to be shown in July 2012, but was postponed after a judge overseeing a riot related trial in Birmingham issued a court order preventing it from being broadcast. The trial ended and the film was broadcast in August 2012.

The new broadcast date was the day following the end of the Olympics.

I am looking forward to watching the documentary when I return to the UK (I can’t watch it in India because only radio programmes are available on BBC iPlayer here).

“No such thing as waste”

August 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

…is what Leonardo da Vinci said 500 years ago. I’m listening to Paul Connett giving a lecture on zero waste, over skype, to a room full of Indian students in Chennai (courtesy of Reclaim Our Beaches, a youth activist organisation linked with the Vettiver Collective that I work with).

Paul began with a reference to Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff project, pointing out that in the contemporary debate on waste the focus is the wrong question, namely “incinerator or landfill?” Both these are wrong because the focus has to be on how to reduce waste. One way to do this is to reduce the waste you produce (by challenging the assumptions and basis of what Paul calls the “throw-away society”); another is to separate out what you throw away into things that can be recycled or reused (these are the so-called 3 Rs; more on this later). Talking about India, Paul suggests the priority is organising ragpickers, and ensuring Indian policymakers don’t replace the crucial work they do for their livelihoods with incinerators or landfills.

What about the global north? Paul points out that in Vermont there have been experiments with training unemployed workers to refurbish items that would otherwise be labelled “waste”. When I heard this it occurred to me that on Green Lanes, the North London community where I lived before coming to India, there are three shops within spitting distance of the side street I lived on (part of the so-called “Harringay ladder”) that refurbish laptops, phones, iPads and other gadgets, and then re-sell them. Then I thought of the eBay cottage industries around bicycles in London, in which bike-savvy people buy worn-out bikes and sell them for parts. Somehow it hadn’t clicked, until now, that these businesses are part of the solution.

Paul also talked about community composting initiatives, and here I thought of the community gardens I encountered on several housing estates in Hackney last year. The way Paul put it, it suddenly became clear to me how not only gardening but, more specifically, composting and the pursuit of zero waste can become a starting point for community organising efforts (a thought for the two courses I will be teaching in the coming spring term). It occurred to me that they offer a particularly good starting point because even if not everyone is interested in them, there is – as Paul noted – a consensus that they are Good Things To Do. Once people get it involved in these non-controversial activities, it can be left up to them and the group which way they go in their analysis of Why Things Are The Way They Are, and in their response to this analysis in terms of What Should Be Done.

Paul believes what is needed is models, good case studies of What Can Be Done. Lots of his examples come from Italy, but also many from California. It strikes me that what such case studies can offer is not only models of What Can Be Done, but ways of understanding practically What Is Being Done, already, in part by opening our eyes to how the refurb shops and eBay businesses are part of the solution…

…But are the 3 Rs enough? No. They are things the community can do or already does. In addition, we need industrial responsibility, political responsibility, academic responsibility. For example? Industrial responsibility, from the zero waste perspective, involves telling industry that if something cannot be recycled, or reused, they should not be producing it. That is zero waste, and that is how “incinerator or landfill?” is the wrong question. Is it impossible? Paul: we need products designed for disassembly and we need clean production, finding ways of making everything we need without toxics – “a big challenge for the chemists amongst us”.

I haven’t put in all the details of his argument here. On the basis of what I have just written, many counter-arguments can be made. But surely all of us have a responsibility to at least engage with the zero waste perspective. Why? Some statistics: a combination of recycling and composting is 46 times better than incineration in terms of energy loss. Paul’s website,, has a load more statistics, case studies, and filled-out expositions of his position.

This is how Paul ended: “I think the most subversive message we have right now is that in addition to offering jobs, community cohesion, and other things, zero waste offers hope to our children.” Why? “Think what they are hearing about in the news every day. All of this is sending them a message that there is no future. This is a terrible thing to do to our young people. You cannot expect civilisation survive unless there is a kernel of hope.”

Return to London

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment


Yesterday I was offered a job in the UK, as a university lecturer in London. I decided to take the job, on the basis that I know that opportunities like this are extremely rare in academia today, and because I know that if I want to pursue a career in academia I need this on my CV. Term starts on October 1. I almost feel like I’m already on the flight, watching the ground beneath me recede and disappear behind heat haze and clouds.

It pains me to leave the friends I have made and the projects I have dived into in Chennai. I know that I am not leaving them for good, that friends will remain friends, and that I can continue to be involved in the projects in some way – but I also know that distance changes things, that some things cannot be continued in the same way across this distance.

At the same time, there are other reasons this shift now makes sense. One of the things I have learned and come to understand much better through my time with the activist group who call themselves the Vettiver Collective is that the dream I had, the dream of engaging in a certain type of community work, will probably remain a dream if I seek this kind of work in India. There is plenty of work I can do here, but there are also forms of community organising I can do in the UK that I cannot do in India, simply because of skin colour, passport details and language skills. And if it’s community organising I want to do, then why shouldn’t I do it in the UK rather than in India? It’s certainly not as if there is no need for such work in the UK. I know that one reason I wanted to do it in India is because I really like some of the cultures of community organising, social work and activism I have encountered in India; but that doesn’t mean I won’t like ones I am yet to encounter in the UK.

This is not a new realisation, I have known that this is the case for a long time, and yet the realisation that I should pursue this dream in the UK, not here really hit home yesterday when I listened to a story told by one of my friends in the Vettiver Collective, a story that made me realise that what she was describing was work I want to do but that I cannot do here. I feel I have learned a huge amount in my time with the Vettiver Collective that will help me in my pursuit of this dream, and that if I stayed here longer I could learn much more. But the practice I seek will be found in the UK.

With this in mind, one thing I am particularly excited about in the job I will take up is that I have been asked to teach a course conceived of as “providing a critical anthropological context for community and youth practice, emphasising race, class, and gender through themes relevant to both the ‘global north’ and ‘global south'”. The students will be taking my course as part of a Masters programme aimed at graduates interested in working in community and youth work. I am really excited about this course because I think there is so much I can do with it and so much I can learn from the course and from the students, because I can see how there will be opportunities for learning and practical organising beyond the classroom, because I can see how this course is almost perfectly suited to where I am right now.

Chomsky, social theory, activism

August 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

I just read Fred Branfman’s article When I Saw Noam Chomsky Cry on, and found the following particularly interesting:

I recently remembered Noam weeping in the Lao refugee camp, and again found myself wondering why he is that way. What in his childhood or life could account for that? It proved impossible to make much progress in this area, however. For Noam not only guards his privacy but is not particularly interested in psychological and spiritual explanations of human behavior. Although he acknowledges that therapy has been useful for people he knows, he regards attempts to explain human behavior as essentially “stories.” He believes there are too many variables involved in understanding human beings for the human brain to ever really comprehend it — not to mention the impossibility of conducting the kind of controlled experiments that might yield scientifically credible answers.

And, one suspects, he regards too much time devoted to such “stories” as misplaced when so many actual human beings are suffering and building mass movements is the only hope of saving them.

I think this could be read as a criticism of social science, but I think perhaps it should be read as a criticism of social theory which in an important way validates social anthropology as I understand it: as a carefully developed method for describing (rather than explaining) social life in a way that shows that things are never as cut-and-dried and always substantially more complex than most “stories” told by other spokespeople (whether they are social scientists, politicians, the media, laypeople, activists, or others). As such, social anthropology’s contribution lies in bringing into focus the variety of ways in which a particular situation can be – and is – understood by those involved with it; by so doing, anthropology makes it possible to see a variety of ways of changing that situation.

August 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Something interesting I came across while looking for something else…

carceral geography

In summer 2011, ten inmates of the Texas state prison system, US, died of heat-related causes, a death toll that has alarmed prisoners’ rights advocates who believe that the lack of air-conditioning in most state prisons puts inmates’ lives at risk.In the fierce heat of July and August, prisoners suffered from hyperthermia, which occurs when body temperature rises above 105 degrees, and which can be exacerbated by hypertension, obesity, heart disease or antipsychotic medications, all of which can affect the body’s ability to regulate heat.

According to the New York Times, one inmate, Alexander Togonidze, 44, was found unresponsive in his cell at an East Texas prison called the Michael Unit at 8 a.m. on Aug. 8 with a body temperature of 106 degrees. The temperature in his cell, taken by prison officials 15 minutes after he was pronounced dead, was 86.2 degrees. Although prison officials say that they…

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Does non-violence have a future in India? Event today at ACJ

August 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

This blogpost comprises the ad circulated for an event taking place in ACJ today. At the bottom of the blogpost is a link to a relevant discussion of Gandhi and non-violence, in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1971, Vintage Books edition).

Does Non-violence Have a Future in India? Conversations with Sudeep Chakravarti Author of “Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country” & “Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land” (Travels through Nagaland and Manipur)

WHEN: 13 August, 2012. 5.30 p.m.

WHERE: Asian College of Journalism 4th Cross St, Tharamani  Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India Near MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (Opp. Indira Nagar MRTS)

Background: The Government of India has negotiated or is negotiating peace accords with several dozen armed insurgent groups just in the Northeast. In what is called the “Red Corridor,” State and Central governments continues their racist policies towards indigenous peoples in their efforts to free up access to natural resources for corporate grab. Here too, a violent conflict continues well into its fifth decade, with periodic agreements of ceasefire and deals between the maoists and the government.

Simultaneously, though, non-violent struggles such as the decade-long hunger strike by Irom Sharmila, the 28-year old struggle by Bhopal survivors and the 2-year dharna by Haryanavi farmers against the Gorakhpur nuclear plant are first visited upon by violence, then  humiliated, and finally ignored. In Koodankulam, cases of sedition and waging war against the state have been made out against more than 8000 people. In all, nearly 70,000 people (mostly unnamed) are charged with various crimes ranging from protesting without authorisation, to rioting and waging war against the Government of India.

Considering the markedly different response of the Government to non-violent and violent struggles, is it safe to say that non-violent struggles have no future?

About Sudeep Chakravarti

Sudeep is the author of several works, including two works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. In 2008, Penguin/Viking published his Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, a best-selling critically acclaimed work about India’s ongoing Maoist rebellion. His latest work, Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land has just been released by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins. Set primarily in Nagaland and Manipur, the non-fiction narrative is gathering critical appreciation. As a journalist, Sudeep has worked with Asian Wall Street Journal, Anand Bazaar Patrika’s Sunday magazine, as executive editor of India Today, and as consultant editor for the Hindustan Times.

For more information, contact: Nityanand Jayaraman 9444082401

About his works

In Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land, Sudeep Chakravarti attempts to unravel the brutal history of Nagaland  and Manipur, their violent and restive present, and their uncertain and  yet desperately hopeful future, as he travels along Dimapur, Kohima,  Senapati, Imphal, Thoubal, and their hinterlands—all touch points of  brutalized aspiration, identity, conflict and tragedy. These are the  lands that nurture deadly acronyms—like AFSPA, an act of Parliament that with impunity hurts and kills citizens. Lands where militants not only  battle the Indian government but also each other in a frenzy of ego,  politics and survival, and enforce ‘parallel’ administrations. Sudeep  Chakravarti’s journey introduces the reader to stories that chill, anger and offer uneasy reflection. A fourteen-year-old Naga girl who dies  resisting a soldier’s attempt to rape her—and is now an icon. An  eleven-year-old girl abducted by police in Manipur because they want to  trap her parents. A faked encounter in Imphal that kills a former rebel, and also an innocent lady and her unborn child. A family in Kohima  still trying to come to terms with the death of their youngest child in a mortar attack. Chakravarti also interacts with security and military  officials, senior bureaucrats, top rebel leaders, and human rights and  social activists, to paint a terrifying picture of a society and a  people brought repeatedly to breakdown through years of political  conceit and deceit, and stress and conflict.

In prose suffused with a rare understanding of the region and its people,  and with remarkable insight into its convoluted politics, Highway 39 brings into focus a region long neglected and often forgotten by  Mainland India, a region surrounded by nations historically inimical to  India—and yet, which offer a dream gateway to the markets of East Asia. A region India can continue to ignore only at the peril of the very idea  of India.

Red Sun: Travels through Naxalite Country. “In 1967, Naxalbari, a  village in West Bengal, became the centre of a Mao inspired militant  peasant uprising guided by firebrand intellectuals. Today, Naxalism is  no longer the Che Guevara-style revolution that it was. Spread across 15 of India’s 28 states, it is one of the world’s biggest, most  sophisticated extreme-Left movements, and feeds off the misery and anger of the dispossessed. Since the late 1990s, hardly a week has passed  without people dying in strikes and counter-strikes by the Maoists – interchangeably known as the Naxalites – and police and paramilitary  forces.” In this disturbing examination of the ‘Other India’, Sudeep  Chakravarti combines political history extensive interviews and  individual case histories as he travels to the heart of Maoist zones in  the country: Chhattisgarh (home to the controversial state-sponsored  Salwa Judum programme to contain Naxalism), Jharkhand, West Bengal,  Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (where a serving chief minister was nearly  killed in a landmine explosion triggered by the Naxalites). He meets  Maoist leaders and sympathizers, policemen, bureaucrats, politicians,  security analysts, development workers, farmers and tribals – people,  big and small, who comprise the actors and the audience in this war  being fought in jungles and impoverished villages across India. What  emerges is a sobering picture of a deeply divided society, and the  dangers that lie ahead for India.

Saul Alinsky on Gandhi

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