Note: this writeup is largely an ‘insider’ criticism about the ‘radical left’ that the writer has come in contact with, online and offline, mostly in Kolkata.
A few experiences with ‘progressives’:
Case 1: “He’s brilliant, y’know, he topped the Joint Entrance Examination! This organization has excellent members, many medical and engineering student.” – is how I was informed about a certain students’ organization. Many of the members of the organization often took pride in the academic records of their own and the fellow members. They took pride in the educational institutes which were ‘centres of excellence’. I saw some of them recently organizing a talk on meritocracy and the problematic conceptions of merit.
Case 2: A discussion was organized. The discussion was attended by quite a few, including students, some of them Dalits and Adivasis, who participated in the discussion. The chief speaker, however, was an upper caste teacher with no history of regular participation in anti-caste struggles. No one said a word when this speaker spoke. No one asked about his neighbourhood, the demographics, the flat-owners. However, there were several interruptions of enquiry – about landholding, demographics etc. in his village – when an Adivasi student was speaking right after him. The discussion was about caste oppression, organised by a platform against caste violence in college campuses.
Case 3: A conference was to be organized in protest against some atrocities. The progressives sat together to decide which persons to invite as speakers. The speakers’ list was decided according to how important the mainstream media finds the speakers.
Case 4: “Ew, look at all the fat on him!” said one progressive person, pointing at a fellow comrade. Another progressive fellow, at a different moment, said to a girl, “you’re pretty!”
Case 5: A progressive person, in a public meeting, described a girl, “she doesn’t do much, she just walks around the campus wearing shorts,” progressively making it a point to mention her clothing.
Case 6: A progressive fellow, eloquent in his description of alienation in the society and the cruelties of capitalism, mentioned of someone, “he’s a waste, he’s just a depressed guy who can’t stick to one job.” On another occasion, the fellow said to another guy, “it’s a low-skill job, which is why you’re paid so low.”
Case 7: A progressive election of committee members – one progressive fellow who has been part of the previous committee calls some others aside, and asks whether they would like to be a part of the new committee. One of them says this cannot be decided like this, others too must opine. Then, the member proposes the names in the meetings, and asks if anyone objects. No one does, and thus the committee is elected.
Case 8: A progressive fellow writes in a magazine that a ‘glorious minority’ emerging from ‘castles’ of progressiveness, which happens to be two of the elite educational institutes of the city of Kolkata, will possibly play a crucial role in ushering in progressive social change (or something of the sort).
Case 9: One progressive to another, “you need to get him into our organization before someone else recruits him into theirs! He seems to be hanging out more with them. What are you doing?”
Case 10: One progressive, at the dissociation from ‘JNU Nationalism’ in a statement condemning anti-Kashmiri violence and RSS-ABVP-media’s role in shutting down discussions on Kashmir, said that she could not stand for ‘militant anti-intellectualism’.
And so on. What I meant to say is that in its practice, as far as I have seen in my limited experience of them in Kolkata, ‘progressive’ politics often marginalizes the vulnerable, the shy one, the ‘ugly’ one, the one who’s struggling to carry on in a world that is so cruel to them, the ones without much ‘social capital’ and upholds the ones with it, just like the rest of the society does, as long as they sing its tune. It talks about debates and discussions, but finds ways to shut down interactions and forms mutually antagonistic cocoons within the ‘progressive’ circles, often through outright slander.
I know I too am far from its vices. I’ve been insensitive, casteist, patriarchal, ableist and so on, and I still often am. This is not guilt-mongering, this is the admission of a problem which needs at least an attempt at a solution. Similar problems exist in various ‘progressive’ quarters, those I am acquainted with, with very little admission, and far less attempts at finding a solution. Take the case of caste. Leftist politics, the kind I’ve seen and have been a part of, owes much to Dalit-Adivasi movements and articulations in developing its understanding of caste oppression and it still has a long way to go, but I’ve hardly seen many admitting to this contribution of Dalit-Adivasi politics (which now compels even the arch-elitist leftists to give a lip-job in condemning the conventional idea of merit and meritocracy). Interestingly, many of the voices critical about Dalit politics (‘identity politics’) do not ascribe any general negative description to left politics. I have come across a post on Facebook strangely describing Salwa Judum as ‘identity politics’, since Salwa Judum talked about getting rid of non-Adivasi ‘outsiders’ from Adivasi-inhabited lands. I wondered if the same poster would also draw an analogy between Marxist-Leninist leftist politics and proponents of theocracy, since the former speaks of a group of ‘vanguards’ who are of an ‘advanced consciousness’ and thus more fit to be leaders, quite like the theocrats who find their religious leaders to be of advanced consciousness. I wondered whether the leftist who described the Dalit-Bahujan web-platform Round Table India as ‘cynical’ (as if after all these years of ignoring and marginalizing the caste issue, there is no reason to be cynical) would also describe Kafila, a website run by various university professors and ‘scholars’, as casteist, if such general descriptions are to be given to them. At the same time, I am hardly acquainted with the various strands of Dalit politics, but I’ve come across constitutionalist, patriarchal, elitist assertions claiming to be propagating the anti-caste cause.
There is no ‘pure’ human being, not even close, nor can there be in this society where one’s self-preservation and gratification are often at odds with those of others. The term ‘progressive’ assigned to oneself is thus often little more than vacuous self-aggrandizement. Yet we must engage with each other, and find modes of socialization that are beneficial to all parties involved. We should engage with all, and at the same time, while oppression exists, we should all have relatively ‘safer spaces’, for it is hard to imagine a person who is not oppressed in some ways. This is cliché, but needs repetition – if the gratification of one rests on the subjugation of another, then that is a problem. Even the informal social networks that we create are often based on hierarchies within, which we need to be mindful of and guard against. We need to stop celebrating social capital in all our engagements. It is NOT politics against oppression where oppressed people don’t get much space to express their thoughts. Neither does it help when various kinds of oppression go unnoticed. We need to get greater participation for all in a political process, find out ways in which people are wrongly excluded from greater and more meaningful participation, and try to resist them.