INTERVIEW | ‘Marxists have failed to internalise Indian ethos’: K Satchidanandan
Veteran poet, critic and cultural observer K Satchidanandan is known for his uncompromising take on socio-political issues and for being the voice of the voiceless. In a wide-ranging interview, the current president of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi talks to TNIE about the recent controversy over the government logo appearing on Akademi books, the Marxists’ failure to grasp the Indian ethos, the inherent danger of personality cults and why he thinks the Constitution of India itself is at stake. Edited excerpts:
What led to the recent controversy over government logo featuring on Akademi books?
It was the handiwork of a person in the publishing wing, which, to my knowledge, even the secretary wasn’t aware of. Administrative matters are handled by the secretary. I am not necessarily consulted. Personally, I found it quite offensive. We couldn’t withdraw the books because some copies had already been printed. Two ministers said the government had never issued an instruction.
Was there any miscommunication between the secretary and the president?
I wouldn’t say that. The secretary is the administrative head of the akademi. But I felt he could have consulted me if he was in the know. This could have been done in a more discreet manner. I’m not worried about the particular incident, but the general state of cultural institutions in the state, which I believe should enjoy a good amount of autonomy to do meaningful things.
How autonomous are cultural institutions? Do they suffer from interference?
It depends. It may vary from state to state. I never experienced any meddling at the Kendra Sahitya Akademi. The only exception was after the Kargil war, when all akademies were asked to celebrate the victory. I flatly refused. The constitution of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi leaves room for government intervention.
Have you come across instances where governments do it in a subtle manner?
No. We have been asked to cover topics such as women’s empowerment and secularism, which we were happy to. If they ask us to do something that is much more insular and propagandist, I would certainly resist.
You’re confident of resisting such an effort. There’s a poem you penned (‘Mayakovsky Atmahathya Cheythathu Engane’) about the state dictating a poet...
I wouldn’t compare the erstwhile Soviet state with even the present Indian state. It was much worse. I will either resist or quit because I have nothing to lose. I am first and foremost a writer.
Basically, literature runs counter to establishment. How autonomous can it be?
In a democratic state, it is quite possible that without any kind of direct intervention, the state can encourage cultural activity. Writers can retain their independence. In democracy, the relationship between the writer or the artist and the government is not what you may find in Stalinist Russia or in Nazi Germany.
Left intellectuals in India analysed the ingredients of fascism. Yet on the ground they could not resist its march...
Intellectuals try to foresee and analyse things without compromising their integrity. You see things from a distance and you are critical also of the policies and attitudes of the party you sympathise with. It is possible to keep a distance from centres of power and still be critical. I believe that the space still exists, though it is shrinking. Returning to Kerala after 30 years in Delhi, I feel that space within the left has perhaps, to an extent, shrunk.
Why is this intellectual space shrinking? Is it because it benefits leadership?
I would call it an outcome of the growth of intolerance, which is not exclusive to the left. The way people react to things in cyberspace is clear evidence of the trend. I believe the diminishing open left spaces is also a product of the growing intolerance.
So are both left and right equally to blame for the rising intolerance?
They are culpable. As long as you are wedded to power, and as long as power is more important to you than serving the people, this kind of intolerance is not unnatural.
Do you think power restricts a government’s tolerance of dissent?
I wouldn’t compare the central and state governments in our federal polity. The Centre certainly has greater powers and it can even isolate a state. It is true that there is growing intolerance both at the state and central levels. Intolerance at the central level is dangerous as it could lead to true-blue fascism. If fascism is not already a facet of our polity, then it’s almost at the doorstep.
Rather then comparing with Nazi Germany or Mussolini, there is an argument that the Indian version of fascism is absolute...
I wouldn’t call it absolute fascism, yet, but it has all the makings of conventional fascism. It’s perhaps an attempt to develop an Indian model. I would call it a full dress-rehearsal. Even now we have liberal intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy, Ramachandra Guha and others who voice their opinion.
Indian fascism while allowing free speech also alters laws and implements a majoritarian communal agenda. Is parliamentary democracy giving it that space?
Yes. They have been rehearsing it for a while. It seems this rehearsal is getting bloodier and more violent by the day. It began with Gujarat and is now being enlarged and applied to the whole of the country. But even now there is opposition. There are pockets of resistance. The question is who will unite the disparate forces of resistance and who will be able to lead them.
Did left intellectuals fail to foresee the onset of Sangh parivar forces?
The failure of the left has had a major role in their rise to power. Remember when the Marxist party decided to pull out of the UPA government, citing a flimsy reason that till today is inexplicable to the masses (laughs). If the left had then not parted ways with the government, I don’t think the Congress would have declined so soon. The weakening of the Congress saddens me. I believe it was the only alternative to the right wing.
Left parties were then caught up in a debate over whether the Sangh is fascist or not...
(Laughs) I don’t think the left has fully realised the gravity of the situation, wherein the country, its democracy and the Constitution have been endangered. They have already tinkered with the IPC. The next target is obviously the Constitution. If they get a majority in the next polls, that too will be modified. Not only will the name be in Hindi, but the content too will differ. They can very well change it to make India a Hindu rashtra, and even change the system into a presidential one. We are on the verge of that.
It’s a regime that has been voted to power. Do you think people are not aware of the inherent dangers?
We need to distinguish between people. Compare the people in Kerala with those in UP. People can be easily hoodwinked. The media also plays a major role in obtaining what Gramsci called the consent of the people for the state’s plans. These people were originally unwilling, as the whole agenda was set against them. Through sheer propaganda, they have been made to agree with the government. Such rhetoric has not worked in Kerala because of its literacy, leftist tradition, the general socialist and egalitarian attitude. The right wing has many ways of influencing the media, including threatening them. Whatever be the reason, it seems that even when compromise was not required, the media proved to be accommodating. If you look at the four estates of democracy, which estate now retains its freedom? The judiciary and the media were the last two pillars to fall. All of them have had a role to play in keeping ‘the great lie’ alive in people’s minds.
Do you think Indian Marxists have succeeded in internalising the Indian ethos, as they seem to flounder when it comes to matters of faith or spirituality?
A good majority of Marxists have mistaken Marxism for rationalism, which it is not. Lenin, in fact, spent a lot of time exhorting against the external kind of rationalism. Gandhi would be the best example of a person who understood the Indian ethos. Marxism has failed to take into account several of the institutions that are part and parcel of the Indian polity. They spoke about class, but seldom about caste. Spirituality is an essential dimension of human life that prompts us to understand the universe, something that compels us to see the meaning of our own lives and those of others. The issue lies with marrying what looks like an individual spirituality with social service. This is precisely where someone like Sree Narayana Guru or Gandhi comes in. The Guru’s interpretation of Advaida was completely different from that of Sankara. We need to learn from Gandhi and Guru who tried to combine an understanding of the innate spirituality with the slogan of social service. Marxists need to understand why people believe in religion and their approach to life as a whole. Marxist thought per se lacks such a dimension.
Without recognising the role played by religion, without comprehending caste in all its connotations, you will never be able to grasp the ethos of Indian society. That’s where Gandhi succeeded and Marxists to a great extent failed.
You mean to say left as a political party need not stick on to rationalism?
Even if you look at actual practising Marxists, many of them are believers. Why the need to renounce religion in public and practise in private? I cannot detach religion or spirituality from the idea of justice. Gandhi was one of the very few who learnt the right lessons from the Bhagwad Gita. We cannot reduce him to a Hindu philosopher.
You mean to say that in the Indian context, Gandhi is more relevant than Marx?
We need to break down the walls we have erected between Gandhi, Marx and Ambedkar. There’s a lot of Marx in Gandhi and lot of Gandhi in Marx. The idea of equality, which comprised Gandhian philosophy, is also a Marxian idea. The same holds for true for Gandhi and Ambedkar. Had Gandhi survived 1948, he would perhaps have dedicated his entire life to the removal of caste. Towards the end of his life, he was in agreement with Ambedkar to a greater extent than before. I think we need to re-read all three.
In the current Indian political scenario, isn’t it time for the left to transform into a social democratic system?
It’s a social democratic party, though it doesn’t admit it. You cannot have a kind of truly revolutionary party in the Indian context. We need social democracy. And that’s why earlier revolutions failed. In fact, that’s one of the major challenges before humanity: To create a society that is democratic, but also egalitarian to a great extent. A kind of egalitarian socialism with a subaltern democracy. In such a scenario, though the CPM does not have a major role to play in India, they can influence the masses to make society more equitable, sustain the democratic freedom we enjoy, and uphold secularism. Ultimately it boils down to a single question: Can you uphold the Constitution?
The Kerala government has often been accused of adopting the tactics followed by the Centre.
How can we equate the Centre and the state? Nobody can be as powerful as the prime minister. I wouldn’t make such a comparison. That doesn’t mean that we should not criticise authoritarian tendencies.
You have written a lot about policing? Look at the kind of policing under the LDF government, especially imposition of UAPA, Maoist killings...
I have always opposed this kind of policing. One of the reasons put forward by leftists is the entry of RSS activists in the force. That could be both an excuse and a reason. Even I don’t agree with UAPA and similar legislations. I have been following developments over Grow Vasu. I feel that this is not something a Communist government should do. There have been mistakes. However, there exists a corrective force in Kerala, with the masses ensuring that no party gets too big for its boots. Even two terms can make a party arrogant and three terms can destroy, as we saw in West Bengal. I keep telling my comrades – pray that next time you don’t come to power. Because that would be the end of it (Laughs).
Does Maoism have a future?
I don’t think so. Maoist had failed in every place, Cuba being the last. I don’t think it is an alternative. I agree with K Venu that parliamentary democracy is the best governing system. The question that should be asked is does such a Parliament represent all classes, castes, women and minorities.
What is your take on idolising of a leader both at the Centre and the state?
The leader alone cannot be blamed for that. One needs to understand the psychology behind idol worship. You get to see it across the spectrum. I agree that such a scenario never existed in Kerala before. Personality cult is very harmful, especially in a Communist movement, as we saw in Stalin’s time. If the Marxist party does not criticise Stalin and Stalinism, there is this danger of personality cult coming up in various forms.
Do you think Stalinism still exists within the CPM and its leaders?
It is there as long as you find Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin on billboards. Stalinism is an anti-democratic authoritarian tendency that can harm any party or organisation, for that matter.
How acute is Kerala’s leanings towards the right?
It is happening right under our noses. Probably not marching along the highways, but it is creeping in through the bylanes. It is trying to reinterpret our myths and rituals — including terming Onam as Vamanapooja, which has Brahminical connotations — creating divisions among communities and casteist organisations that often refuse to take a principled stance. Not taking a position can also prove extremely dangerous.
Is the established left not losing its authenticity, too?
The idea of left, the way I term it, is very much alive. There still exists, within both the CPI and the CPM, a good majority who will not be easily persuaded by right-wing ideas.
You introduced Malayalis to western and Latin American poetry. How do you assess the future of Malayalam poetry?
Poetry is one of most democratic forms of literature in Malayalam. With the advent of internet, poets do not need publishers anymore. When it comes to quality, you may find it very uneven. There are few poets who are serious about their writing. In cyberspace, you find a lot of people taking poetry very lightly.
Is it because with the onset of social media, poetry has become a sort of side hustle?
It has become a mere hobby for some. It was not like that for us. Nowadays however, poetry has become an instrument for socialising, rather than an expression of thoughts or emotions.
Though new short story writers and novelists have come up in Malayalam, there are only a few among them who have made changes to the written form and style. Why is it so?
Story writing has emerged as a very strong literary form. There is also a marked change in the use of the language. Poetry is undergoing changes, too. These are, however, not consistent.
Is the absence of serious publications affecting poetry?
That may be one of the reasons. We have very few magazines that publish poetry. P Raman, Rafeeq Ahamed, Ramachandran, and Anwar Ali are a few who write poems seriously. I am unable to recall any other.