ITF Not The Drama Seminar: Conversation - George Jose & Aijaz Ahmed
Duration: 00:39:40; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 4.416; Saturation: 0.187; Lightness: 0.411; Volume: 0.140; Cuts per Minute: 0.050; Words per Minute: 111.789
Organised 50 years after the original Drama Seminar in 1957, the Not the Drama Seminar (NTDS) brought together theatre practitioners from all across the country to convene at Ninasam, Heggodu in March 2008. This seminar meditated on the nature of theatre in India today, on how we got to where we are. The attempt was to understand 'Indian Theatre' in all its multiplicity and diversity, bringing these several faces of Indian theatre face to face, and problemetize the issues that arise therein. These ideas were exchanged through a series of presentations and discussions over five days, and each day ended with a performance.
George: So Aijaz as I was saying I really enjoyed this talk. It was a privilege. No really! I have been reading some of your works and to listen to you today it was a very good Easter celebration actually. I don't mean to be insulting in anyway.
Aijaz: These three days are the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Esae...bhai bhai days. This was the promise of the nation. You know...
George: Thursday, Friday, Saturday...
Aijaz: Brothers of the Nehruian instinct. It has delivered it in terms of a holiday.
George: (Laughs) Can't be more damning about these three days. Actually!
George: Just to probably go back to the beginning of your talk you began by talking about the colonisation of nature and how in the present moment what we are seeing is a devastating unprecedented assault on nature that you characterised as an imperialist project in its very sense. I was wondering is there at all an alternative model to an engagement with nature given that what we see with China for instance, an erst while social estate if one might call it that or in the way Russia for instance is waiting for the Arctics to open up in order to start off their search for oil. Is there another way of looking at nature?
Aijaz: Let me say a couple of things. One is that I use the words capitalism and imperialism interchangeably because imperialism is in that classical sense the highest state of capitalism. So the logic is the capitalistic logic and it has been speeded up because of how imperialism now functions. Two preliminary remarks. One is that one should remember that agriculture was the way human beings transformed nature. When we speak of traditional agriculture we are not talking of nature. We are talking of human beings transforming nature. So the question really is how do you transform nature? What are the co-ordinates of that? And for what purpose?
Aijaz: And that is where the other preliminary remark that I would make is that if you read Capital, of Marx, it is quite extra ordinary how frequently he comes to the question of degradation of soil as the necessary consequence of industrialisation of agriculture under capitalist profit. And the profit motive degrades nature. Older forms of agriculture, Co-operative, community forms of agriculture in fact are pre occupied with increasing the productivity of soil and preserving that productivity and therefore improving the quality of soil for the next harvest.
Aijaz: Whereas what happens under capitalism is to expedite the rate of profit, therefore to exploit the land to its maximum capacity in the present no matter what the degradation is. Likewise, because of the profit motive, when they eject industrial waste into the river, they will not care about what happens to that water and down stream to the people who are going to drink that water and so on and so forth because their only interest is profit. It is possible to have industry without polluting the rivers etc.
Aijaz: Now two things have happened. One is that this degradation of natural environment has become much more rapid and much more intense in the 20th century specially in the second half of the 20th century and now you are really reaching a critical point. I can't prove it but I am absolutely sure that the last three days of rain here are the result of the kind of climate change that is happening. We live it everyday. So now that speeding up of it has done two things. One is that left wing ecological movements are arising all over the world. And most of them actually stop at the limit of a reformed capitalism, which asks capitalist states and industries to be more responsible citizens. But that also gives you the opportunity to in fact radicalise that question and see that the kind of crises that is now developing is not a national crises of this country or that country. It is a global universal crises and therefore cannot be addressed nation by nation and government by government. It can only be addressed at a global level and it has to be planned. It cannot be a euro 2 emissions and this that and the other change the light bulbs. If you change 100 million light bulbs your consumption of energy will go down and so on.
Aijaz: Now within that the kind of development model that the Soviet Union and China adopted was from this particular perspective - capitalism without capitalists. Break neck industrialisation as quickly as possible to come and compete with the capitalist imperialist powers. Whatever the rationale may be but the result is that the degradation of the natural environment and the rate of it both in the Soviet Union and China was very rapid and disastrous. And they were doing it precisely at the time when the western European countries had arrived at a point of accumulation. When they were in fact trying to reverse the pollution levels at least in their cities or in places where they lived. London was much more habitable in the late 20th century than in was in the 19th century. So there is no question about it.
Aijaz: Now what has happened is that Cuba first of all, had to address this question and that came up in Cuba in a very interesting way. In the beginning the model was the same. They couldn't industrialise very much but maximisation production and so forth. And you sold sugar to the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union gave you energy that is to say oil and gas, and that was that. Then the Soviet Union disappeared and oil disappeared. And you had no dollars to buy the oil from the international market. So you had to absolutely cut your consumption of this energy and yet keep up.
Aijaz: Those were the years of greatest adversity in Cuba but then different kinds of things began to happen to address that question. I won't go into great details but different kinds of farming. You live in Havana city, you don't have land around your house but you have the roof. Can you grow vegetables on the roof of your house with whatever manure is available? Can you then have compost there which you use for that? There are always empty lots in cities. There are also building which are just standing there which actually need to be brought down. Can you turn these urban lands in the heart of Havana into community owned vegetable gardens to feed? Again, with manure produced in the community - your own refuse. Can you now actually divert you agriculture?
Aijaz: There isn't that much of a market left for your sugar. Therefore maybe many of your sugar farms can be turned into the production of Maize what the Americans call corn and use that to distil ethanol and turn your trucks and taxis on the use of ethanol? Can you absolutely cut down your energy resources. So you actually started going to a different kind of agriculture where next level of productivity of land had to revert to ways that had nothing to do with seed, varieties and fertilizers and so on and so forth. And then you found that you actually could maintain the same levels of productivity. That the nutritional value of your food improved. The taste of your food improved etc. and you didn't have to import a damn thing.
Aijaz: It took about ten years to make that kind of shift the co-ordinates of that are a different kind so. Now once this is experienced in the context of a social society, this can only be done with planning. You have to have a stable planning to do it. To reverse that capitalist industrial model of agriculture and yet have those levels of productivity and so on. Fidel's basic promise after the collapse of the Soviet Union was that look, two things are going to happen. One is that we are not going to give up socialism unlike virtually every other country and you are going to go through a great hardship but we will guarantee 2300 calories per person in Cuba and we will guarantee first aid health services. These two things we will guarantee and therefore also very great concentration on creating a different kind of culture.
Aijaz: Once this is happened, now in Venezuela the agriculture ministry is full of these people who want to develop a new kind of agriculture, socialist agriculture which is tied up with old ways. A very different relationship with nature. Lack of petroleum products this that and so on and so forth. How do you create this socialist agriculture which is completely sensitive to all issues.
George: Right, right!
Aijaz: And so on. Urban farming. Vegetable gardens on the roofs and so on. So now here this is very critical because Venezuela actually has the financial resources to do it and create a prosperous society. Venezuelan society is also ideologically the most corrupt in Latin America in terms of American hold on the cultural imaginary as we now call it.
George: How do you see the situation in India? In terms of, there seems to be a certain consensus around the fact that it is development versus environment. And the political establishment seems almost completely rallying around this either-or scenario. You don't see a sense of an ecological... Any kind of understanding of what an ecological threat might mean and how the organisation of society and the organisation of the way we go about our everyday lives and plan our institutions, how that should be at all informed by us? So how do you see the situation in India?
Aijaz: Look my sense is that unless the question of ecology is directly connected to the question of socialist management of human resources and at the other end among the rest there is a very serious engagement of what it means to develop a society in terms of reconciliation with nature. The historical Marxist discourse has taken it as its premise, that the problem is scarcity. You have to create a society of plenty and the way to create the society of plenty is break neck industrialisation therefore the western model and so on and so forth.
Aijaz: Now there is something deeply wrong with that. Practically speaking India can never do what Europe did. For one thing Europe got rid of its population by sending them to America and Australia and so on and so forth. If the Indian bourgeoisie could throw say 500 million people into the Indian Ocean, you could become a vast South Korea. Its difficult regardless of how big an army you have, you can't throw that many people into the ocean. Now conceptually I think one has to talk about management of scarcity. That is what I was talking about.
George: But where does the scarcity come from?
Aijaz: You see we never actually theorised the lessons of Kerala. Of the good part of Kerala. Many good things happened in Kerala. That small, resource poor, little corner of India where there was no big industrial investment. Where you didn't even have great big educational institutions. You didn't have a hospital where you could get an operation for the heart. You had to go to Bangalore or something. Yet, you could guarantee in India a longevity which was comparable to Scandinavia. You could create cities.
Aijaz: You know when somebody from the north. People like me, when we come from Delhi and so forth, the wealthiest city in the country. You come down to you know Thiruvananthapuram you see how few people are physically distraught as compared to great cities Bombay, Delhi and so forth. What plenty does in Bombay and Delhi and what can be achieved within scarcity in Kerala. You know the left itself never theorised it. Never acted on it on a national level. Never went around the country with the message that we have done this and this is what you need to do, you know.
Aijaz: You can in fact re-distribute things in terms of the measure.There is something to be learnt. You can't bring socialism within the republic of the bourgeoisie but some of the things that you manage to do. And those things couldn't survive long within the neo-liberal order. Suddenly you found that you had achieved the highest wages in the country in Kerala. And comes Malaysian palm oil and destroys your... and so on. It can't be sustained within the neo-liberalism. The other thing that has happened in India, I am very sorry to see that is the ecology movements such as we have, most of them have developed either at least an isolation form in terms of not being really in dialogue with the left, or very often with active hostility. You know there is a way of being critical which doesn't need to create some fundamental intents.
Aijaz: There are ways in which you can be and you ought to be critical about many things that the left does. I find that there are certain fundamental flaws in which socialism has been built in socialist countries and I am a very orthodox Marxist. I apply Marxist categories and I found them wanted. That is the other part that there is no real practical dialogue between the green and the red.
George: Right! So would you say there would have been a responsibility on the part of the left to try and arrive at this dialogue? Because in many ways they have seen the path...
Aijaz: We can go on about who had the greater responsibility and the lesser responsibilities. You see for example what happens in... I was saying to Bapat over lunch that what happens in Bolivia is that if a party of the traditional left puts up a candidate in the elections in the question of that volatile situation, these people who belong to all of these indigenous and women, this and that, peasant, coca farmer and so on and so forth, they hold daily discussions with these guys for hours and say why the hell should we give you our vote if you are not going to do this, that or the other? What is the common pact between us?
Aijaz: Its a direct engagement. They don't say you know for the last forty years your party has being doing this that and the others now you are obsolete. That's what I am talking about practical engagement. Or the tendency in India is to withdraw from those fields of politics which involve this state. Which I find very strange because you scratch the activities of any successful movement of that kind, they deal with this state all the time. They deal with international institutions all the time and they deal with NGO's all the time. Which is all state politics. So I think there is that problem.
Aijaz: You know I am blaming the left for you know not only for not having that dialogue, I am blaming them for not theorising their own experience and benefiting from it and going out into the country and saying that look this is what it is. It is not only about creating more and more. How to manage the scarcity? And we are the best at managing scarcity.
George: In fact in the morning session today I think before you came in, one of the speaker Kaushik Sen who is from Kolkata. He was suggesting that in November 2007 he felt it was an unprecedented move, when the artist community came out to register their protest about what happened in Singur and Nandigram. And for that he was posing this question about... I mean he raised the question in the context of what is the role of critique because many in the artist community are themselves from the left. And what is the relationship that they would now have when the party that was the oppositional role until 30 years ago has now for the last 30 years been in power. So I was wondering what... again to come back to an earlier question what would give this impetus for the left to become, to aid, to theorise their own work like the Kerala module you talked about or be to be able to listen to oppositional voices?
Aijaz: Look, I was completely surprised and dismayed when on the first day of the Singur fight, that evening a statement was issued on which my friends Praful Bidwai, Romila Thapar and so on, a large number of them signed on. I specially asked Romila who is a good friend..(Inaudible)... I said what gave you the impetus to do it the first day? Why didn't you ask what happened and why did it happen? It might have been a damn good reason three days later that is one. And second thing that I have been saying to them from the beginning is that this SEZ is such a huge offensive in India for multi-national capital to have its presence established all over India in an extra-territorial manner directly in relation with Indian corporate capital, on a much bigger scale in Maharashtra for example. What is happening in Bengal is a part of that. If you are not willing to become equally involved and militant about that whole thing...
Aijaz: Then there is something wrong. Yes from the left you expected better. That was one sort of thing that I have never seen you come out like this against what Sharad Powar's and all these guys are doing in Maharashtra. The way Reliance has taken over huge areas. But immediately you come in on this. One! Ok! You didn't until now... Now that I have brought this to your attention, will you do it now? You see part of the problem with intellectuals who are not actually active is this thing of issuing a great statement about one thing or the other but not staying with it.
Aijaz: I also think that there is a dialogue from the side of the left. Prabhat for example Prabhat Patnaik wrote on it in ways in which I know for a fact part of the party was upset. Praveen wrote about it and all that. You have to see the kind of abusive responses that came. This one person by the name of Aditya Nigam, his letter against Prabhat's. Certain proprieties of dialogue are everybody's responsibility. It is certainly the responsibility of the CPM and the Left parties but it is everybody's responsibility. On the left, on Nandigram the political parties split on the question.
Aijaz: In fact these are the issues on which we should in a very responsible fashion engage with fundamental issues of the kind of agrarian crisis that is going on in places like Singur. For example, of course I believe that the West Bengal government acted in a manner that was more apprehensive and the least the Chief Minister could do was to apologise for it but he needed to do a lot more than that entirely. Having said that, I still have to address the question that in Singur, that area, per capita cultivable land is less than half an acre. It is just not going to give livelihood to everybody, at all.
Aijaz: What should be done about it should be addressed in a very very... and in order to do that you actually have to study that whole problem. You have to study water resources. You have to study communications and so on. So you actually have to engage in a serious practical dialogue. Having said that these fightings were ... We don't like it. It is the wrong way to go. I am unhappy about some kind of Indonesians and Malaysians that were. It is not very clear because they are capitalist in both countries in such a big way. It is very hard to tell which of them is a Malaysian and which of them is an Indonesian. But they are crooks. I am opposed to it. Fair enough. Now what do you do?
George: But that is where the greater disappointment lay that here was an opportunity for the left to probably begin to use this as a place to start building a...
Aijaz: No, I think there is another way of looking at it which is that the attack came so fast and so viciously, so viciously that the left was completely on the defensive. Now in being completely on the defensive in that way, there are certain things that I think should not have been done. Certain kinds of statements that were made. But I think when the left actually did something on which there was no way it could simply stand and keep saying that they have done the right thing. That is the time to actually engage in a long term substantial discussion on the most fundamental issues. In order to do that you have to study the issue both in its theoretical / conceptual framework and how it materially plays out in these places. That doesn't come by going there for a 36 hour flying visit and coming back. We know what is going on. So I think the attack came so fast and so viciously that you have to ask yourself how is it?
George: I am wondering whether characterising that as such a motivated... Because I think there was a whole array or spectrum of responses and probably a lot of it was...
Aijaz: You see partly because I myself live in Delhi and I move around in particular kinds of intellectual, academic and certain kinds of activist circles, I am both more concerned about them and both aware of them. I know that in my view, in my world, when you have a statement that is signed by some of the primary Indian historians, some of the most well known journalist, this that and the other list of 30 - 40 people, that is what I am saying fast and furious.
Aijaz: There are many many people. Some people may have done it in a very different sort of way. I have seen one or two which are perfectly responsible ones which need to be signed. But precisely at the time what Praful Bidwai said six weeks later should have been said in the first instance. That you have done so much for the peasant, this is what you have done, this is what you have done, this is what you have done; and now this. Hence a great sense of shock and dismay. But if you immediately jump on to authoritarian... then they start saying hey look they have been... won 6 elections, the peasants don't think that we are authoritarian... Then it becomes polemic.
George: I was just wondering going back to your presentation in the afternoon. It was almost a damning indictment of the political class as a whole to say that India today is the heart of the global reaction and to say for instance that...
Aijaz: Until I say heart,... India is from what I recall you know there are slippages. I remember saying that India is the biggest victory in the world that the United States has won and that the U.S., Israeli and India axis is at the very heart of the global reaction.
George: Right, right.
Aijaz: It is not India per se. It is U.S. - Israeli - India axis. It is a tri-party axis.
George: In terms of foreign policy, in terms of the way we are. In terms of the international relations so to speak. In that context, is it? Or...
Aijaz: Well, you should study exactly where the Indian Navy is going.
George: The area between Okinawa and ...
Aijaz: Well you should read them damning documents. You should read them.
Aijaz: So it is not just a foreign policy in a vague sense and it is not the Nuclear deal. The nuclear deal is just something that Prakash Karat got a handle on. When I asked him why are you doing this, he said give me an issue on which I can pin them down for 18 months, and people will listen to me. They have one grand big exercise off the coast of Orissa. We can demonstrate for a week against it after that everyone forgets about that. That's all. You start talking about the enormous bases being built on Blair's Island and Nicobar and Andaman. And except for some people in the intelligence here it doesn't form an issue.
George: So how does... How do we see our selves in terms of a political class in India today? Where would you place your hope for the future?
Aijaz: One of the things that I would place my hopes on is that there be all the politically motivated people who are anywhere on the left spectrum would come together on a broad anti-bias platform.
George: Would that mean anti U.S primarily or... ?
Aijaz: I didn't say Anti U.S. I began this conversation and I used the word capitalism and imperialism are interchangeable.
Aijaz: So Indian corporate capitalism is as much about imperialism as anything else. One of the absolute cutting edge right now I am thinking SEZ's. SEZ's I see as your first creation of extra territorial corporate capital enclaves. First really the base from which they will attack state regulation of labour all over the country and that is the place from where they will go for corporate and contractual farming in India. Which is what they want to do with agriculture across the world and so on. So the three or four most important capitalist offensives are going to be organised from SEZ's.
Aijaz: My hope will be that the organised Left and all the people who are opposed to this kind of degradation of human life in India come together on a militant platform to fight programmatically against these things regardless of what their mutual differences may be. And if you start doing that, then you will find modalities through which to have a really tough talk on that which separates you.
Somebody asked me over lunch a young man next to me, how did the Latin Americans learn this? I was told that they were together in prison. And I said you can go to prison and have as long discussions you like, you learn nothing. The only way we learn is by doing. That's how the Latin Americans learnt it too. They didn't learn it through long theoretical...
Sudhanva: After all, the RSS and the Left were in prison together during the emergency..
Aijaz: And the RSS didn't learn at all. Thank you very much.
(End of Clip)