The new issue of SANSKRITI is now before you. I want to be forgiven by our readers as I did not find enough time to work for it. The work of Jana Sanskriti is expanding and at the same time acting off the stage has been demanding a lot of time from all of us.
We are committed to work in order to humanise our society through our art. Therefore every artiste in this world should study social science, should continuously analyse the society s/he lives in to develop an understanding about the society and it’s development paradigm, its development philosophy. I am not using the word “Should” in the sense of a moral. An artist construct a relation with the viewers, spectators in order to share feelings, thoughts etc. We know the genesis of all those feelings and thoughts are society around us and our internal world ( not necessarily a construct of the outside world only). So we need to understand our society and ourselves to create art and to create a space for dialogue with our spectators and viewers through our art.
Keeping this in mind we have tried to design SANSKRITI. Jana Sanskriti will be having a continuous input on various streams of social science from the academics and activists and from our spectators. We will try to share those inputs with our readers through this magazine to create a forum of learning. We expect your generous contribution to succeed in this regard.

Aesthetics of the Oppressed
An Essay by Augusto Boal
From www.theatreoftheoppressed
Analogical and Complementary Ensembles

Nature never produces two identical things. All unanimated objects and all living creatures are always unique, even when they were cloned. In a world so diverse, we must organize our perception, otherwise we would remain paralyzed by the sheer abundance of impressions and sensory information. Fortunately, Nature allows for the creation of Analogical and Complementary Ensembles. Newborn babies first look at everything, without seeing. After a while, they start distinguishing between straight and curved lines, depths and colours. If it stops looking at everything at the same time, it can start seeing. It sees ensembles.

Analogical ensembles, homogenous, consist of things that are similar but not identical – Unicities – in a larger unity, like the choir of a ballet, a battalion of soldiers or the flour from the same sack. Heterogeneous ensembles are made of Complementary elements. Not two rivers are identical, but in all of them water runs and all have banks and beds. A human being is an Ensemble of Complementary elements: we have a head, a torso and limbs; we have veins, skin and hair. We have brains

Words As Means of Transport

Ensembles must be named to create communication, and naming is an attempt to immobilize. Naming means fixing what is flowing, fixing what cannot be stopped neither in space nor time. Words – the Names – are indispensable for exchange and dialogue. They designate Ensembles, but they ignore the unicities, which constitute the sole real objective reality. Black and white people, men and women, proletariat and peasantry, none of those exist. They are, but they don’t exist. What does exist is this black man and that black woman etc., in transit, in the process of becoming, in coming to be and ceasing to be. Words are means of transporting our ideas, our desires and emotions. With the same word – through syntax in written words and through the language of the voice in spoken words - you can say exactly the opposite of its meaning in the dictionary.

To appreciate what a word means, it is necessary to precise it. A word is an entirety that is nothing. It is a trace drawn in sand, a sound sculpted in air. Words are nowhere and are everywhere. Words are the emptiness that fills out the emptiness between one human being and another. In this emptiness we deposit everything we are. We are the words we say, transformed in sounds and traces. To precise our words, we must dress them: with masks, like in Greek tragedy, with light, like in cinema and in our everyday lives with clothes, cultural gestures and physiognomies. Words are the work and the instrument of Reason. We must transcend them and look for forms of communication that are not only rational, but also sensual – aesthetic communications. Attention: this aesthetic transcendence of Reason is the reason of theatre and all other arts.

The Aesthetic Process and the Artistic Product

The Artist is he who is able to penetrate reality, hermetically hidden behind words and ensembles. The Artist reveals unicities behind the simplification of language that names it and the senses that groups it, without perceiving it. The Artist penetrates the unicities of the being, as if she were looking for her complementary part, as if she were looking for herself: her Identity in the Otherness. The One looks for the One, looks for itself in the Other. This dynamic perception is always in motion, just like love, which is never the same.

Some people are named Artists, but every human being is, substantively, an artist. We are all capable of penetrating the unicities, either making art or love. We can find the One. It is important to distinguish between the making – the Aesthetic Process – and the already made – the Artistic Product. The latter needs the first to happen, but the Aesthetic Process does not need to come to an end. For the Aesthetics of the Oppressed, the Aesthetic Process is the most important, although it is quite desirable that it leads to an Artistic Product, because of its amplifying and social power.

The Aesthetic Process enables people to do what they are usually denied to do, to expand their expressive and perceptive possibilities. The Process is useful on its own, but becomes more useful when a Product is made, to share with others, equally engaged in their Aesthetic Processes. The Aesthetic Process is not a work of art by itself, but a means of developing capacities, especially the capacity to metaphorize.

Love and Art

Art is love. The loved person is a Unique Being, and in loving, we penetrate the unicity of the loved being, who is a complex one-universe and in constant movement. Therefore, love “is” not. Though based in reality, love is a work of imagination. We project parts of our desire onto the loved one. So Love is Art and Art is Love. They are identical, and so they are identically fluctuating. No loved person or admired piece of art is loved and admired in a constant way. Contrary to public saying, Love is not a meeting, but a pursuit! Someone always in motion pursuits someone who is never identical with his/herself.

Art and Knowledge

Art is a special form of knowledge, subjective, sensory, not scientific. The artist travels beyond the appearances of reality into the unicities, hidden by the Ensembles. In the Work of Art, the journey is synthesized with the core of reality and creates a new Ensemble, which reveals the One, which, by analogy, refers to us. A work of art, composed by unique parts, creates a new imaginary Ensemble. One that makes people experience a certain shared identity. The me transforms into us. In the us, we discover the discovery that the artist makes. Saying `us`, we discover our real me. I become the sum of all my relationships, and something more, like some kind of synergy. Metaphorically, I am sounds and colors, I am Wagner and Velásquez. Art rediscovers and reinvents reality through a singular perspective. The artist’s singular reality can only be observed through her Work, which is also unique.

Aesthetics and Neurons

The Aesthetics of the Oppressed is based on the scientific notion that the neurons of our sensory perception build circuits. The neuronal networks enable us to remember, to relate and eventually to create, invent and imagine. You could say that imagination is memory transformed by desire. The neurons of the sensory networks meet in the Cortex and all messages received dialogue with each other, leading to decisions of the subject. The circuits are constantly modified, so the way we receive messages also is. Old words, concepts and values are confronted with new ones, and they can be modified, replaced or extinguished. Nothing is definitive in the human being.

Television creates a sad image of reality, especially through Hollywood-style movies. Not the violence they display causes damage, but the fact that it lacks reasons and motivation. Violence for itself is neither good nor bad. It is bad when it is reduced to objective punches without subjectivities. It can be didactic if it is rationalized, when it shows its ethics. Showing the same kind of scenes over and over is aimed at blocking the metaphoric intellectual development of a passive audience. The invasion of Brazilian TV by US commercial cinema is more dangerous than the invasion of the Amazons by greedy foreign powers. And it’s not only TV, but all the media that reduces reality to the minor problems of rich people, or the conformism of middle-class people. It’s also the political discourse in which words like Liberty and Democracy are transformed into just the opposite of what they mean. In the name of those words, one country invades another, kills and tortures its citizens saying that it is restoring order. What order? The one of the imposed power. All this is meant to destroy the metaphoric capacity of the citizens.

The Metaphor includes all symbolical languages, among others the Word and the Allegory. If the aesthetic neurons – those who process sensations, reasons and ideas - are activated by new stimuli, the creation of Metaphors is activated. Without an autonomous metaphoric activity, intelligence is paralyzed and the individual approaches the hominid, the one with which evolution started. Hominids and animals are unable to create metaphors. Unlike in the Greek Tragedies, cinematic globalization brings only action without reason. In the Tragedies, the action takes place off-scene, what we see is a ballet of words, ideas, concepts. In Hollywood films, we see violence and no ideas, we see the Good beating the Evil, the Evil being those who think differently or not at all. Even in films without any brutality, we are presented with how we are supposed to behave, to think and even to dress. This unhealthy consumerism creates unnecessary necessities, exemplified in the infernal shopping malls of the world. The same thing happens with young people who are raised in an environment dominated by drug-trafficking. Their brains receive only messages of death, torture, lack of scruples, in which human life is worth less than a penny. How can human Ethics arise out of a soil of misery and fear?

Wreaths of Neurocircuits, Resistant and Aggressive, But Not Indestructible
My hypothesis is that neurocircuits can build resistant, aggressive and destructive Wreaths, depending on the nature of the information and the circuits that receive them. Examples of those Wreaths are religious extremism, sports fanaticism, adulation of a person or institution, political sectarism or gangs and clans. The input into these Wreaths must be repetitive and constant. If football would only be played twice a year, there would be no hooligans, if gangs would only fight sporadically, no Wreath would be formed and dialogue would be possible.

Aesthetic Neurocircuits

Now some neurons in the brain are capable of transmitting complex ideas and emotions, words and symbols. I will call them Aesthetic Neurons, because that is the function of Aesthetics: to reveal reasons and emotions through sensory stimulation. Paraphrasing Dostoevsky, who said that “Only Beauty will save the world”, we can say: “Only Aesthetics allow for the truest and profoundest understanding of the world and society”.

Volume, Territory and the Insignia of Power

Every object or living creature occupies a space, a territory in this world. Inanimate objects occupy a space equal to their volume, animals mark a territory with scent and sound. Human beings also use their senses to extend the limits of their territory, the most important being the vision: and Image. Therefore, all human societies are visual spectacles. In the course of history, only the means of producing the spectacle vary. Being spectacular implies being based on the relationships of power, and power needs insignia and rituals. It needs to be recognized at first glance to be feared and respected. The royal carriage was not invented to be a more efficient means of transport, a popular car would have done better, but the royal carriage is a symbol of power, only in the second place it transports.

Not only the 15th anniversary feast, or the wedding ceremony, not only the launching of a ship are spectacular, but also the Sunday family lunch, following established rules like some sort of play. All are spectacles in which all places are assigned, protagonists, supporting cast, all dialogues are foreseeable. The media, being a source of information and of the valorisation of those who are shown in it, can convey status onto anyone appearing on a cover of a magazine or on a TV show. The stupidity and superficiality of TV shows is intentional and aimed at selling products and ideas through the insidious mechanism of empathy.

It’s the TV that turns into the only absolute truth, and reality turns into fiction or a lie, until it is referred to by the Late Night News. In the end of the past decade, there was an assault on a bus in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. Hostages were taken and it lasted for five hours. It was filmed for TV integrally and a young man confessed, when he passed by and saw what was happening before his very eyes, he ran home and turned on the TV to be sure that what he had witnessed was true.

Less technologically, the indigenous people of Brazil use colored feathers during feasts or when they prepare for war. They all dance respectfully, looking for a place in the structure of power that is offered by the landowner. The insignia not only dress the bearer with superiority and power. For those who don’t bear the insignia, they are also Images of Absence. The insignia display where the power lies and where it doesn’t.

The Three Levels of Perception

1. Information – the receptive level: the senses register a stimulus which is transported to the part of the brain where I can see, hear, feel, smell or taste. I receive a message. This information is not saved but related to other neurocircuits.

2. Knowledge and Decision-Making – the active level: the human being relates the new information to that already received and makes reactive decisions

In these two levels, humans and animals are alike. Some decisions are instinctive or biological. Rats raised in laboratories, who have never seen a cat, will flee when they smell one. With humans, knowledge is accompanied by a subjective evaluation, which can lead to errors. Suppose there is a tiger at my door, I receive the information, I know he is dangerous, but I don’t have to flee. I can invent another solution, like shooting the animal.

3. Ethic Conscience – the human level: on this level I question myself – it is the level of doubt and of the ethically justified choice. Should I kill the tiger? He may just be hungry, an economic crisis decreased his food. I could run away but he could devour the little boy next door. Should I call the Fire Department? Should I throw my computer on his head? Should I scream?

The third level is creative, it demands the invention of alternatives. It is on this ethical level that a Forum session should move: it is not sufficient to have good ideas, they must necessarily be ethically justified. It isn’t enough to work with ideas that already exist, it is necessary to invent. In our theatrical work, it is important to enlarge and amplify all the levels of perception, especially the Ethical one, so that our choices are conscious of the possibilities that exist or can be created. In every situation there is always a choice!

The Need for the Aesthetics of the Oppressed

The Aesthetics of the Oppressed, which CTO Rio de Janeiro is developing right now, makes people sensing and at the same time understanding social reality. Theatre is the oldest and most natural way of learning; children learn through theatre, jumping, interpreting characters, and through other forms of art, putting on make-up, painting, singing and dancing. Theatre of the Oppressed makes use of the social structures and moral values of each society, to avoid the passive acceptance of those values and structures. TO is subjunctive, not imperative.

Theatrical Games combine Discipline and Freedom. Every game is lesson of Life; every theatrical game is a lesson of Social Life. The Games of Theatre of the Oppressed are a lesson of Citizenship. Without discipline, there is no social life, without freedom, there is no Life. Like one of the peasants of MST (Movement of Peasants without Land) says: “TO is so wonderful, because people learn everything they already know!” Let us learn how to learn!

We have to enlarge our Method, predominantly theatrical. We have to conceive a project of Aesthetics of the Oppressed.(see below – the Prometheus Project), designed to stimulate the Aesthetic Neurons. The aesthetic perception includes reason and emotion, judgement and values, not only sensations. Just like sports expand the potential of the body, Art expands the potential of the soul.

The Aesthetics of the Oppressed is designed to learn what we already know about our own culture, the words, the sounds, the images and the ethics. If we don’t create our own culture, we will obedient and servile towards other cultures. The Aesthetics of the Oppressed is a proposal that tries to support the oppressed in discovering Art, discovering their own art and by that, discovering themselves; in discovering the world, discovering their own world, and by that, discovering themselves.

Subjunctive Theatre

Theatre usually conjugates reality in the present indicative: I do. TV uses the imperative mode: “Do!” Theatre of the Oppressed conjugates realty in the Subjunctive Mode: “…If I would? “or: “…if I will?” Everything will be “if”. Subjunctive Theatre must be accompanied by Legislative Theatre, so that the acquired knowledge during the theatrical work can divulge into laws and concrete actions. Or Invisible Theatre, so that we intervene in reality directly. Or a Concrete Action, which changes it in the short run.

The Prometheus Project

This project is a homage to the Titan, who taught the humans to make fire, which he had stolen from the selfish gods, who wanted to keep it for themselves. This project aims at developing, with the members of our popular groups, or of any other organized popular group, all the aesthetic forms of perception of reality. Its primary focus is the Aesthetic Process, which, hopefully, can lead to an Artistic Product that we can share.

The Project has four main branches:

The Word

Words are not identical with their meanings. Every word is loaded with the desires of the sender, every receiver translates the word according to his/her own structures. This section is about writing. Writing is a way of dominating the word, instead of being dominated by it. There are three exercises in this section:

The participants are invited to write a short narrative about a personal feat or about a feat of national importance. Instead of a Declaration of Identity, turned inwards, this is an opportunity to reflect a panoramic vision which everyone makes of the world, near or far.

Suggestion: Stick all the stories to a wall and let them be read. Then ask every participant to express which story was the most impressive and why. Not until then is revealed who wrote what story. Every author then gets the opportunity to react to the comments on the texts.

Every participant should declare, in a few lines, who she or he is, but every time the addressee should be different: a loved one, a neighbour, a person he or she depends upon in their work, a president or other authority or the people in general.
This exercise makes people discover the multiplication and the richness of their being.

Every participant should write a poem, according to the rules of her or his intuition. We can offer some very simple guidelines:
a) The participant chooses a theme that emotes him/her. Emotion is necessary, but it can be any theme, from the eyes of a lover to the prices in the supermarket.
b) She or he than should write a whole page about the theme.
c) In the next phase, all useless or less useful words are eliminated. In Portuguese, these are all words ending in “-mente” .
d) The participant tries to organise every sentence in such a way that a rhythm is created, a sequence of verses
e) Finally, the poet should replace every last word of a verse by another word (if necessary), to create a rime, if he or she wants to.
If these rules don’t work, we invent others. In Art, rules are suggestions and not imperatives.

The Image

The participants should develop their capacity to see and only to look. By making images they can study and restructure reality. Painters and sculptors feel somewhat deified, because they reshape and correct the work of the gods. The basic activities in this section should be:

First, every group should produce a collective creation under the title THE HUMAN BEING IN GARBAGE, using cleaned garbage from their communities or workplaces. Every sculpture should depict one or more human figures working, relaxing, loving, dialoguing etc. They can use all kinds of materials to fix and support the sculpture. They can also make paintings about the same theme. This is just the starting point; other themes from the circle of interest of the participants can be explored as well. They can be concrete or more abstract.

Every person in the group takes five photo’s of the hands of her/himself or of other members of the group, colleagues at work or people living in the community. The number of photo’s is limited to enable the group to explore the stories behind them: what are the hands doing? It’s the person photographed who decides what the person taking the photo has to do. The photo’s become a title, but more important is the dialogue that should take place about the images produced, the way in which every image can be perceived, the ideas that every images provokes, memories, desires…

Take well-known figure of say, a flag, a geographical landmark, the skyline of a city, a logo, anything recognizable at first glance, and the participants should remake it, transform it. They can color it, change the structure of its lines, cutting away parts or adding parts, showing their opinion about the figure and its meaning, the ideas and emotions that it awakens.

The Sound

Music is the way humans relate to the universe, it is the contact of the human being with his heart and the cosmos. Because of that, the economic powers have incarcerated Music in companies that produce only the rhythms they can control. Eighty percent of the music produced serves only to blur the mind of its listeners. In the Aesthetics of the Oppressed we look for the rhythms within us, rhythms of nature, of work and of social life.

Based on the known games “The Image of the Hour”, “Game of Professions”, “Masks and Rituals” and “The Work Dance”, the participants can choose any repetitive activity in their professional or daily lives and transform it into dance.

a) The start with showing silent repetitive moves, mechanized of their work or of a part of daily life
b) They extend the moves, eliminating the redundant details and enlarging those they believe to be essential, forming a sequence that contains all essential movements.
c) Gradually they transform the movement into dance, introducing rhythm
d) They themselves or other participants should compose music to go with the movements

The participants can create rhythms and melodies based on what their bodies perceive when it is resting or in different daily activities, as well as in the relationship between the body and the outside world. It is important to avoid well-known rhythms.
Objects from work can be transformed into musical instruments. Every musical instrument was constructed, you don’t find them lying around in nature; many more can still be invented.

The Ethics

Theatre of the Oppressed is ethical theatre, in which nothing can be done wsithout knowing why and what for. The ethic meaning of every action is just as important as the action itself.

Theory: Without giving lectures, there have been many ethical decisions with great social repercussions. Just think about the Iberian Invasions into Central and South America, leading to the genocide of dozens of indigenous civilizations; the treaty of Bretton Woods, that installed the dollar as global currency, the Gulf War of the Iraq War, compared with the Vietnam war.

Practice: Solidarity - The difference between the Fire Fighters and the Military Police, in Brazil, is that the latter learn to fight and destroy, the Fire Fighters, apart from extinguishing the fire, learn First Aid, learn to save lives and to lend services to the community. Therefore they are morally superior to the Military Police.

This part of the chapter should consist of practical lessons of solidarity, according to the real needs of the communities of the participants – and it should be really brought into practice, not just learned!!!

Every participant should actually collaborate in some collective act or achievement of his or her community

In India, many of the groups that constitute Jana Sanskriti after they performed in a community ask the people if they can help in any way. It is part of their way of making theatre.

Multiplication – Every group should organize one or more other small groups to which they can transfer the received lesions, in the spirit of “only he/she who teaches, learns”, looking for the Multiplication Effect.

This is real neurological science: by learning the individual mobilizes the necessary neurons to perceive and to retain what has been taught; by teaching, he/she mobilizes neurocircuits of many more different areas, expanding and fixating his/her knowledge, making the things learned available again and again.This is just an initial proposal. For its results to be available and its structure adapted, it is clear that –for years and years- we must work hard and make experiences in many different fields, cities and countries where Theatre of the Oppressed is active.


Hiren Mukerjee Lecture
at the Indian Parliament
11 August 2008


Amartya Sen


I feel deeply honoured by the opportunity to speak here at our parliament. It is a great privilege to give the inaugural Hiren Mukerjee Lecture, at the invitation of our distinguished Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, for whom I have very great admiration. However, for an academic used to lecturing merely to students, this cannot but be a frightening occasion as well. I had considerable trepidation in taking on this exacting task, but my anxiety has become even greater after seeing the very animated events in parliament last month during the trust vote debate. I remember Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister, and a very dear friend, had a much easier time lecturing to students at the Delhi School of Economics, when we were colleagues together many years ago. As I was preparing this talk to be give at the parliament, I was reminded a little of the publicity line of a horror movie called "The Fly" released two decades ago, which said, in an alarmingly hushed voice: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Well, afraid I am, and yet if that were to make me speechless, I would betray the lessons we have learned from Hiren Mukerjee's fearless oratory and his insistence that we must say what we have to say with forethought and self-scrutiny, but also with the confidence that should come from that forethought and self-scrutiny. Hiren Mukerjee has been something of a hero of mine for a very long time. When he was elected to parliament, to the first Lok Sabha in 1952, I was a student in Calcutta at the Presidency College, where Hirenda had studied earlier. Among his remarkable qualities and virtues, there were three things in particular that moved me greatly.

The first was his overwhelming sympathy for and solidarity with the downtrodden people of India - indeed anywhere in the world. The hungry, the deprived, the jobless, the exploited, the insecure, always had the powerful voice of this political leader speaking up for them.

The second feature is Hiren Mukerjee's foundational reliance on critical analysis and reasoning. He was immensely learned, but also uncompromisingly reliant on the power of reason. There was, of course, no infallibility in Hirenda's reasoning, but his basic approach throughout was to use his reasoning as best as he could with the information that he had. He did not hesitate to share the complexity of a difficult problem with the listeners, often here, in the Lok Sabha. He also had the courage to differ from the line of his own party, the Communist Party, despite his basic loyalty to it, on a number of occasions, for example in disagreeing with the party that India's independence in 1947 was "jhoota" or false (the Party itself would change that line in the early 1950s), and in the assessment of Jawaharlal Nehru in which his positive admiration remained in tension with the Party's adverse assessment.

The third characteristic that particularly appealed to me - and this is a bit more personal - was Hiren Mukerjee's passion for Sanskrit. Perhaps I am biased since I strongly share that fondness for Sanskrit. I remember being quite energized by Hirenda's apt citations from Sanskrit classics, in a great many of his Lok Sabha speeches, pointing out how old but powerful ideas can throw light on the new issues of the day.


These different priorities of Hiren Mukerjee were not always in spontaneous conformity with each other. For example, in the Lok Sabha session on 5th May 1959, when Hirenda spoke on the Report of the Sanskrit Commission, he opposed - sadly but firmly - the Commission's recommendation that Sanskrit be made a compulsory subject for study for all secondary schools in India. He spoke, on the one hand, of the importance of the Sanskrit language and literature, and he was eloquent on his pride in the "many-splendoured legacy which is the Sanskrit language and the literature of Sanskrit," describing Sanskrit as "a language of unrivalled richness and purity." And yet, on the other hand, he reasoned that the recommendation, if implemented, would impose an unreasonable demand on secondary school children. The burden would be too much for secondary school students since, he explained, "English, the regional language and Hindi have got to be learnt at the secondary stage." Instead, Mukerjee proposed much greater concentration on Sanskrit at a higher level of education and research, coordinated through an active Central Sanskrit Board, so that "we can combine the best of the past with the best of the present."

Despite Hiren Mukerjee's obvious love of tradition and heritage, he argued that the role that they should have in contemporary practice has to be based ultimately on careful scrutiny and assessment. In his insistence in relying on critical reasoning, Hiren Mukerjee was in line with an important precept presented with great intellectual force by Emperor Akbar, to wit, while we do have reason to be respectful of tradition, yet ultimately our decisions must be based on "the pursuit of reason," rather than on blind allegiance to what Akbar called, "the marshy land of tradition." Indeed, Akbar even claimed that his own religious belief in Islam was not independent of his reasoning, and was strong only because he could defend his basic beliefs through his own critical scrutiny.


In discussing the demands of social justice today, the priority of critical reasoning cannot but be central. But how do we analyze these demands? In probing the idea of social justice, it is important, I would argue, to distinguish between (1) an arrangement-focused view of justice, and (2) a realization-focused understanding of justice. Sometimes justice is conceptualized in terms of certain organizational arrangements - some institutions, some regulations, some behavioural rules - the presence of which indicates that justice is being done. The question to ask here is whether the demands of justice must be only about getting the institutions and rules right? Proceeding beyond them, should we not also have to examine what actually does emerge in the society, influenced by institutions and rules? The world that materializes is also affected by other features of the society (for example, how the institutions actually work and how fragile the accepted behavioural norms turn out to be). The basic argument for a realization-focused understanding, for which I would argue, is that justice cannot be divorced from the actual world that emerges. Of course, institutions and rules are very important in influencing what happens, and also they are part and parcel of the actual world as well, but the realized actuality goes well beyond the organizational picture.

I feel strengthened by the fact that Hiren Mukerjee's arguments about social justice were consistently realization-focused, and he did implicitly reject an arrangement-focused view. He spoke powerfully about the need for a social commitment to help produce a society that "enables all people to rise to the full stature of their being." In his convocation address to Calcutta University in 1995, he reminded the audience of Pericles's comparison - in Athens 2400 years ago - of youth with the spring of the year, but went on to hope that the students of today will be "inspired by love and guided by knowledge, fighting for our own people and all mankind to have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Justice is about the kind of world we have, not just about the kind of rules and institutions that are chosen.

As I will discuss presently, this is a critically important distinction in the history of theories of justice, including those in Europe and the West. But I begin with a demarcation that has a clear role in Indian intellectual debates. Two distinct words - "niti" and "nyaya" - both of which stand for justice in classical Sanskrit, actually help us to differentiate between these two separate concentrations. It is true, of course, that words such as niti and nyaya have been used in many different senses in different philosophical and legal discussions in ancient India, but there is still a basic distinction between their respective concentrations.

One of the principal uses of the term niti is organizational propriety or behavioural correctness. In contrast with niti, the term nyaya stands for a more comprehensive concept of realized justice. In that line of vision, the roles of institutions, rules and organization, important as they are, have to be assessed in the broader and more inclusive perspective of nyaya, which is inescapably linked with the world that actually emerges, not just the institutions or rules we happen to have.

To consider an example, early Indian legal theorists talked disparagingly of what they called matsyanyaya, "justice in the world of fish," reflecting the kind of society we see among the fish, where a big fish can freely devour a small fish. We are warned that matsyanyaya is exactly what must be avoided, and it is crucial to make sure that the "justice of fish" is not allowed to invade the world of human beings. The central recognition here is that the realization of justice in the sense of nyaya is not just a matter of judging institutions and rules, but of judging the societies themselves. Whatever the propriety of established organizations, if a big fish can devour a small fish at will, then that is a patent violation of human justice.

Let me consider a very simple example to make the distinction between niti and nyaya clearer. Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman emperor, famously claimed in the sixteenth century: "Fiat justitia et pereat mundus," which can be translated as: "Let justice be done, though the world perish." This severe maxim could figure as a niti - a very austere niti - that is advocated by some (indeed Emperor Ferdinand did just that), but it would be hard to accommodate a total catastrophe as an example of a just world, when we understand justice in the broader form of nyaya. If indeed the world does perish, there would be nothing much to admire in that accomplishment, even though the stern and severe niti leading to this extreme result could conceivably be defended with very sophisticated arguments of different kinds.







This distinction is also closely linked with the debate between Arjuna and Krishna in Mahabharata. It is on the grounds of the nyaya of the world that would emerge from the epic battle that Arjuna voiced his profound doubts about fighting in Kurukshetra. Arjuna does not doubt that theirs is the right cause, and that this is a just war, and also that his side will definitely win the battle given its strength - not least because of Arjuna's own remarkable skills as a warrior and as an extraordinary general. But so many people, Arjuna observes, will die in this battle. Arjuna also recognizes that he himself will have to kill a great many people, and further, many of the people who will be killed, on both sides, are persons for whom he has affection.

As the account goes, Krishna argues against Arjuna and convinces him that he must do his duty, no matter what the consequence of that might be. When that specific section of Mahabharata is separated out as a religious document, as it has increasingly been, in the form of Bhagavadgita, or Gita for short, Krishna's teachings are seen as the end of the argument (Arjuna, in this understanding, had doubts, but Krishna dispelled them). But as I have discussed elsewhere, in my book The Argumentative Indian, looking only at the end point of a debate is not an ideal way of understanding discussions in general, and it is particularly misleading in appreciating the rich Indian argumentative tradition.

I have pursued this interpretational issue further in my "Foreword" to the new 7-volume translation of Valmiki's Ramayana, in the Clay Sanskrit Library, which will be published shortly. I have discussed there why the social and moral contents of the epics cannot be understood adequately merely by noting who is supposed to have ended up prevailing in a particular argument - the intellectual content of the epics is much richer than that. Mahabharata gives both Krishna and Arjuna room to develop their respective arguments. Indeed, the tragic desolation, described towards the end of Mahabharata, that the post-combat and post-carnage land faces following the epic battle (with funeral pyres burning in massive unison and women weeping about the death of their loved ones), can even be seen as something of a vindication of Arjuna's profound doubts.

The point here is not so much to argue that Arjuna would have been definitely right to refuse to fight (there were many arguments against Arjuna's withdrawal from battle even other than the ones on which Krishna concentrated), but that there is much to weigh and balance here and that Arjuna's human-life-centred perspective is not dismissable by the mere invoking of some apparent duty to fight, irrespective of consequences. Indeed, this is a dichotomy with two substantial positions each of which can be defended in different ways. If my own understanding of the decisional problem is strongly influenced by the nyaya of the realized world and the importance of human lives (and to that extent I am sympathetic to Arjuna's focus on what actually happens to the people and the world), this does not indicate that I do not see the argument on the other side.


Let me now come back to the formulation of theories of justice. The subject of social justice has been discussed over the ages across the world, but the discipline received a powerful boost during the European Enlightenment, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in the rebellious thoughts closely aligned in many ways to the intellectual background of the French Revolution as well as the American Revolution. While the Enlightenment authors did not speak in one voice, there is something of a shared belief in the power of reasoning among most of the Enlightenment authors.

There is, however, a substantial dichotomy between the different lines of reasoning about justice among these leaders of thought. One approach concentrated on identifying perfectly just social arrangements, and took the characterization of the just institutions to be the principal - and often the only identified - task of the theory of justice. This approach, which can be called "transcendental institutionalism" (since it looks for an ideal blueprint of social arrangements that cannot be transcended), goes back in fact to the early invocation of an idealized social contract by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, and that general approach to justice was fairly thoroughly pursued by a number of Enlightenment authors, perhaps most powerfully by Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.

In contrast with that transcendental concentration, a number of other Enlightenment philosophers took a variety of approaches that shared a common interest in making comparisons between different social arrangements and realizations, and many of their arguments were particularly focused on removing cases of manifest injustice, without focusing on the nature of the perfectly just social arrangements. Different versions of such comparative thinking can be found in the works of the Marquis de Condorcet, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, among a number of other leaders of new thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even though they proposed very different ways of making comparisons, they were all involved, in one way or another, in making social comparisons that could identify how a society could be improved and terrible injustices removed. It is possible to argue that the focus of the second group of thinkers was on the comparative assessment of the world in terms of the nyaya of realizations, whereas the focus of the first group was on the transcendental assessment of just arrangements, in the sense of identifying some ideal niti of institutions and organizations.

The distance between the two approaches - transcendental institutionalism, on the one hand, and realization-focused comparisons, on the other - is quite momentous and large. As it happens, with the exception of utilitarianism (which continues to have some limited following but the grip of which is much weakened by philosophical criticisms in recent decades), it is the tradition of transcendental institutionalism on which mainstream political philosophy today largely draws in its exploration of the theory of justices. The most powerful and momentous exposition of transcendental institutionalism can be found in the works of the leading political philosopher of the twentieth century, John Rawls, but a number of other preeminent contemporary theorists of justice have also tended to take the transcendental institutional route. Indeed, the characterization of "the perfectly just rules" has become the central exercise in most of the modern theories of justice. I would argue for a radical change here, since the perspective of realizations cannot but be quite central to the very idea of justice. I should not go further into that philosophical debate here, but I have argued for a radical change in that direction in my forthcoming book, The Idea of Justice.


A realization-focused perspective makes it easy to see the importance of the prevention of manifest injustice in the world, rather than focusing on the search for perfection. As the example of matsyanyaya makes clear, the subject of justice is not merely about trying to achieve - or dreaming about achieving - some perfectly just society or social arrangements, but about preventing manifestly severe injustice. The dreadful state of matsyanyaya, in which small fish can be devoured freely by a big fish, is one example of the kind of wretchedness that has to be prevented.

For example, when people agitated for the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were not labouring under the illusion that the abolition of slavery would make the world perfectly just. It was their claim, rather, that a society with slavery was totally unjust. That much, they argued, was absolutely clear, even if it might be very hard to identify (not to mention, achieve) a perfectly just society. Abolition of slavery was a matter of prevention of severe injustice and a significant advancement of justice; it was not meant to be an answer to the transcendental question of identifying a perfectly just society, or ideal social institutions. It was on that basis that the anti-slavery agitation, with its diagnosis of intolerable injustice, saw the pursuit of that cause to be an overwhelming priority.

That historical case can also serve as something of an analogy that is very relevant to us today in India. There are, I would argue, similarly momentous manifestations of severe injustice in our own world today in India, such as appalling levels of continued child undernourishment (almost unparalleled in the rest of the world), continuing lack of entitlement to basic medical attention of the poorer members of the society, and the comprehensive absence of opportunities for basic schooling for a significant proportion of the population. Whatever else nyaya must demand (and we can have all sorts of different views of what a perfectly just India would look like), the reasoned humanity of the justice of nyaya can hardly fail to demand the urgent removal of these terrible deprivations in the world in which we actually live.

This is not only a matter for political philosophy, but also a central issue in political practice. It is easy enough to agitate about new problems that arise and generate immediate discontent, whether it is rising petrol prices or the fear of losing national sovereignty in signing a deal with another country, but what is to me amazing is the quiet acceptance, with relatively little political murmur, of the continuation of the astonishing misery of the least advantaged people of our country. There is something peculiarly puzzling about the priorities that are reflected in what seems to keep us awake at night.


Would it make a real difference whether we pay more attention to actual realizations of societies, rather that sticking to our favourite recipes about rules and institutions, be it free market, state enterprise, or support for or opposition to globalized economic relations? Is there a case for judging our favourite recipes through examining how they would influence the lives of people? And can we make the working of institutions and rules better in terms of their impact on social realizations? Let me devote the rest of the time I have in this lecture to examining just those questions, in the context of two specific institutions of rather different types: one, the social role of the trade unions in the enhancement of justice (especially for the very deprived), and two, the nature of democracy and its contribution to social justice in the actual world (two subjects in which Hiren Mukerjee himself was deeply interested).

Consider the place of unions of organized workers in the social fabric of the country. It is often pointed out that only a very small proportion of the working population of India belongs to any union, and it could be asked whether it is an important enough example for me to use as my first illustration in dealing with the distinction I am trying to discuss. The fact is, however, the lives of nearly all the people in the country are affected in one way or another by the activities of unionized workers, especially in the public services, from school education and primary health care to railways and postal services. What their rightful role should be in generating social realizations is, thus, a momentous issue.

However, one difficulty in getting to the right question arises from the fact that trade unions tend to excite two quite divergent reactions, neither of which is, I would submit, very helpful. Fierce critics of unionism very often have an unconcealed disdain for the unions as just a nuisance (the less of them, the better), while others less hostile to the unions, tend to treat them as being just fine - in no need of alteration - no matter how broad or narrow the goals are that they pursue. What is needed instead, it is my claim, is a kind of constructive partnership that gives the unions an integrated role as important partners in social and economic progress for people as a whole, not just to serve as watchdogs of sectional interest represented by the respective unions. At the centre of the question is the subject of the public responsibility of unionized labour linked with more rightful recognition of its constructive capacity.

One of the areas that call for urgent attention in India is the efficiency of delivery of public services. That there is a large lacuna here has been brought out recently by a number of empirical studies from different parts of India, including some that we have done ourselves for the Pratichi Trust - a charitable trust I had the opportunity to set up about a decade ago with the help of my Nobel money, which, among its other activities, have been conducting investigative studies in east India on the delivery of public services in elementary education and health care. While our studies indicate some reason for celebration, there is a remarkably high frequency of neglect and lack of accountability in the primary schools and health services.

Consider the working of state-run elementary schools. Even though a great many primary school teachers are extremely devoted to their work and to their students, we observed a shocking incidence of absenteeism and delayed arrival on the part of many teachers in other schools. The reliance on private tuition, which should be entirely unnecessary in primary schooling, is quite widespread among those who can afford it. The neglect of teaching responsibilities is particularly strong, we were distressed to find in our studies, when the students come mostly from underprivileged classes, for example from families of landless labourers and very low earning workers. And this has a profound effect on the schooling of poor and underprivileged children - sometimes first-generation school-goers unsure of their rights and unable to raise their voice.

The fact that the inspection system of schools has broken down fairly comprehensively in many parts of India makes the problem harder to tackle, and there are administrative reforms that are urgently needed. However, the problem cannot be tackled by administrative changes alone.

There is a similar picture of uncertain and disparate functioning in the delivery of primary health care. The reliance of even very poor people in India on private health care providers - some times even medical pretenders who combine quackery with crookery - is caused not only by the lack of enough public health institutions (and that is problem enough in itself, needing urgent expansion of facilities especially in the rural areas), but also by the poor functioning of existing public institutions for which government financing is actually available. In reforming the culture of work, and in cultivating responsibility and accountability, the unions can have a hugely positive and constructive role.

I recognise that bringing about the necessary changes across the board in public sector performance through active cooperation of the unions is not an easy task. But the need for such a reorientation and change is urgent and extremely important, and it calls both for greater recognition and respect of the place of unionized labour in society, and for more deliberated determination of the unions to play their part in the progress of the country. While it is often assumed that the only responsibility of the unions is to enhance the well-being of its members, and to look after their sectional interest, the union movement across the world has, in fact, been inspired time and again by broader objectives and commitments.

But is such a change really feasible in India? I would argue from my own experience, limited as it is, that it is very much a possibility. Indeed, the Pratichi Trust has been working very closely with the primary teachers unions in West Bengal. The Pratichi Trust has had several joint meetings with the ABPTA (All Bengal Primary Teachers Association), which is by far the largest union of primary school teachers in West Bengal (it is, as it happens, a CPM-linked union), including one just last week in Kolkata attended by representatives of primary teachers from every part of the state. I must confess that I am very encouraged by the fact that the leadership of ABPTA and also that of the smaller unions of primary teachers have been remarkably cooperative in trying to change the culture of work in the delivery of school education, emphasizing for example the need for guaranteed and timely presence, as well as the urgency of paying greater attention to the content and style of teaching and of regular discussion in parent-teacher meetings. There is still a long way to go, but over the last few years the signs of a radical and positive change in the functioning of primary schools in the areas involved are quite unmistakable and strong, as our on-going empirical investigations indicate.

Perhaps there is too much pessimism - indeed fatalism - in India about the alleged unalterability of the working of established institutions and of behaviour patterns. Despite our lapses, our ability to respond to reasoning can be strong.


I turn, finally, to democracy. We have reason to be proud of our determination to choose democracy before any other poor country in the world, and to guard jealously its survival and continued success over difficult times as well as easy ones. But democracy itself can be seen either just as an institution, with regular ballots and elections and other such organizational requirements, or it can be seen as the way things really happen in the actual world on the basis of public deliberation. I have argued in my book The Argumentative Indian that democracy can be plausibly seen as a system in which public decisions are taken through open public reasoning for influencing actual social states (I go more extensively into this question in the forthcoming book, The Idea of Justice). Something of the focus of nyaya has to rub on to the demands on democracy itself, not leaving it all only to the niti of having right institutional arrangements.

Indeed, the successes and failures of democratic institutions in India can be easily linked to the way these institutions have - or have not - functioned. Take the simplest case of success (by now much discussed), namely the elimination of the large-scale famines that India used to have right up to its independence from British rule. The fact that famines do not tend to occur in functioning democracies has been widely observed also across the world.

How does democracy bring about this result? In terms of votes and elections there may be an apparent puzzle here, since the proportion of the population affected, or even threatened, by any famine tends to be very small - typically less than ten percent (often far less than that). So if it were true that only disaffected famine victims vote against a ruling government when a famine rages or threatens, then the government could still be quite secure and rather unthreatened. What makes a famine such a political disaster for a ruling government is the reach of public reasoning and the role of the media, which move and energize a very large proportion of the general public to protest and shout about the "uncaring" government when famines actually happen - or come close to happening. The achievement in preventing famines is a tribute not just to the institution of democracy, but also to the way this institution is used and made to function.

Now take some cases of lesser success - and even failure. In general, Indian democracy has been far less effective in dealing with problems of chronic deprivation and continuing inequity with adequate urgency, compared with the extreme threats of famines and other emergencies. Democratic institutions can help to create opportunities for the opposition to demand - and press for - sufficiently strong policy response even when the problem is chronic and has had a long history, rather than being acute and sudden (as in the case of famines). The weakness of Indian social policies on school education, basic health care, elementary nutrition, essential land reform, and equal treatment of women reflects, at least partly, the deficiencies of politically engaged public reasoning and the reach of political pressure.

Only in a few parts of India has the social urgency of dealing with chronic problems of deprivation been adequately politicized. It is hard to escape the general conclusion that economic performance, social opportunity, political voice and public reasoning are deeply interrelated. In those fields in which there has recently been a more determined use of political and social voice, there are considerable signs of change. For example, the issue of gender inequality has produced much more political engagement in recent years (often led by women's movements in different fields), and while there is still a long way to go, this development has added to a determined political effort at reducing the asymmetry between women and men in terms of social and economic opportunities.

There has been more action recently in organized social movements based broadly on demands for human rights, such as the right to respect and fair treatment for members of low castes and the casteless, the right to school education for all, the right to food, the entitlement to basic health care, the right to information, the right of employment guarantee, and greater attention on environmental preservation. There is room for argument in each case about how best to proceed, and that is indeed an important role of democratic public reasoning, but we can also see clearly that social activities are an integral part of the working of democracy, which is not just about institutions such as elections and votes.

A government in a democratic country has to respond to on-going priorities in public criticism and political reproach, and to the threats to survival it has to face. The removal of long-standing deprivations of the disadvantaged people of our country may, in effect, be hampered by the biases in political pressure, in particular when the bulk of the social agitation is dominated by new problems that generate immediate and vocal discontent. If the politically active threats are concentrated only on some specific new issues (no matter how important they may appear), rather than on the terrible general inheritance of India of acute deprivation, continuing illiteracy, lack of medical attention for the poor, and extraordinary undernourishment (especially of children and also of young women), the pressure on democratic governance acts relentlessly towards giving priority to only those particular new issues, rather than to the gigantic persistent deprivations that are at the root of so much inequity and injustice in India. The perspective of realization of justice and that of an adequately broad nyaya are central not only for the theory of justice, but also for the practice of democracy.


I end this lecture with paying my tribute again to Hiren Mukerjee. We remember today not only his basic human sympathy, but also his reliance on critical scrutiny, his heterodoxy, and his reasoned priorities. His understanding of justice linked closely with the enhancement of human lives and improving the actual world in which we live, rather than taking the form of some transcendental search for ideal institutions. Engagement with reasons of justice is particularly critical in identifying the overwhelming priorities that we have to acknowledge and try to overcome with total urgency. A good first step may be to think more clearly - and a little more often - about what should really keep us awake at night.



Towards a Charter
West Bengal: December 2007

West Bengal and India by and large is witnessing a development paradigm which needs an impure democracy, authoritarianism. In the name of industrialisation the land of the peasants are being acquired by force. State is taking the side of the capital forgetting the welfare of the people without capital. Democracy is a part of our livelihood, how cum a society exist without it? To protect their land people in Nandigram received bullets of the police, sacrificed their life, farmers in Singur had to experience worst kind of repression. We feel this is a shame for the civilisation. Nagarik Mancha an organisation in their charter has raised some important questions.

The events at Singur and Nandigram have thrown up a number of issues. The roles of the State Government and a political party have been denouncedWaves and ripples have spread far and wide. Protests have been spontaneous and we too are a part of it.
Anti-Government and anti-party movements are breaking new grounds.
However anti-establishment movement is perhaps lagging behind.

Even non-party voices urging change of the Government are loud and clear.
However little is being said about the policies/politics of governance – both present and future.

Is changing the political parties in power really enough?
Will this change alone, prevent Singur-Nandigram like episodes in future?
Industrialisation, yes – but what sort of industries and where and at what cost?
What could be a viable alternative agricultural policy?
How are the toilers in factories, farmlands and elsewhere doing?
Are they a part of our present movement/agenda for ushering in change?
Livelihood, education, health, employment and price rise are, as if, lesser issues.
Protest against state- and party-sponsored terrorism and police atrocities are taking centre-stage.
What about the state-supported and capital-sponsored terrorism targeting the toiling millions?
Are we talking about workers and farmers when we talk about industry and agriculture?
Workers find their earnings decrease as organised sector move towards unorganised sector.

We too believe that changing the Government is an important Battle but it is not the War.

Angry and versatile orators can help pull down a Government but will that be really enough?

The National Policies on Agricultural, Environment, Rehabilitation and Resettlement and Special Economic Zone have been passed during 2007. Parties didn’t oppose them. Shouldn’t we resist the juggernaut?

Let us discuss about what we want. Let us compile a Charter on behalf of those who work to stay alive.



Faith and Reason versus Miracle-mongering

( The article below is the excerpts from a book called Science and Religion written by Swami Ranganathananda, former President of Ramkrishna Mission.)

The science of religion, based on faith and reason and experience, cannot thrive so long as people run after magic and miracles, so long as they cannot discriminate between a magic mango and a real mango. To associate magic with religion is to vulgarise religion, to kill religion. Modern physical science, also based on faith and reason and fact, developed only when it became disassociated from magic. The same is true with the science of religion. The true ‘magic’ and ‘miracle’ of the science of religion is character-strength, fearlessness, peace, love, service, and dedication, just as the true ‘magic’ and ‘miracle’ of physical science is clear thinking, all-round enhancement of the physical and social welfare of man, and technical marvels.

The great spiritual teachers of India were, like modern physical scientists, teacher of verified and verifiable truths. These are what we get from the Upanisads, the Gita, and from the books relating to teachers like Buddha, Sri Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekananda.

In fact, one great utterance of Buddha, which I wish to repeat before every audience in India or abroad, is the exhortation to rationally examine a teaching before believing in it. It is known in Buddhist literature as Address to the Kalamas. On the subject of secrecy also, Buddha has said something which I wish all students in India will keep in mind, both students of science and students of religion, so that we shall have a total scientific revolution in this country, both in the outer physical world and in the inner spiritual world. Addressing Ananda, Buddha said : Secrecy does not belong to the Tathagata (Buddha). Buddha’s teaching was open; it was ehi passa, ehi passa – ‘come and see, come and see’, as he himself described it. Buddha added : Secrecy belongs to three things, O Ananda; What are they? Secrecy belongs to priestly knowledge, to false doctrines, and to prostitutes! These are Buddha’s weighty words. If our people will assimilate the spirit of these two utterances of Buddha, we shall witness the flowering of true religion and true physical science in India.

Static Piety versus Dynamic Spirituality

In the light of such inner penetration achieved by Vedanta. India’s testament is that, whether it is physical science or the science of religion, sraddh?, or faith and yukti, or reason, need to co-operate with each other, and that they never conflict with each other, if the search is for truth and human fulfilment. The more you strengthen your reason, the better for your religious life. Any foolish and fitful imagination, any foolish and temporary emotion, is not bhakti. Bhakti is that emotion directed towards the object of bhakti namely, God Himself, who is of the nature of infinite love. Sri Ramakrishna said : be a bhakta(Bhakta means someone dedicated to something or to God. And Bhakti is dedication) but don’t be a boka! In Bengali, boka means a fool. Our country has too many bokas passing as bhaktas, for want of the strength of knowledge, or jñ?na, and reason, or yukti. It is such bhaktas that are cheated by pretentious gurus and miracle mongers. A true bhakti cannot be cheated by anybody. But, unfortunately, I find, in our country, many bhaktas becoming easy prey to such imposters. They are predisposed to be thus cheated because they have dispensed with all knowledge and reason in their religious life. They are not interested in truth, but only in a little sentimentality, or in some religious sensationalism. When our people understand religion correctly, that it is a science and, as a science, it is based on both reason and faith, just like any physical science, we shall see the flowering, more and more, in our country, of true religion as dynamic spirituality, and the withering away, more and more, of the current noisy, showy, and static piety, or piety-fringed worldliness, mistaken as religion by many people.



(The Indian People’s Theatre Association was formed in 1943. A large number of progressive intellectuals, writers, poets, dancers and actors came together at that time - in response to an urge to launch a cultural movement, to intensify the movement against imperialism and fascism. From its inception, the left parties played a dominant role within the IPTA. Gradually, IPTA helped the communist party to establish a base amongst the working class, especially industrial workers. By the late forties, however, the communist parties had taken over the IPTA completely and succeeded in making it a mouthpiece of the party. The IPTA is fifty years old now. A number of questions arise – regarding this to persons who where associated with the IPTA more or less from its inception. For an old issue of Sanskriti we spoke at length to Subhash Mukherjee about the IPTA movement

Subhash Mukherjee, born on 13.02.1919 in Rajshahi, in Bangladesh now, is best known as a poet. His first collection of poems ‘Padatik’ was published in 1940. He was given the academy Award in 1964 for his famous collection of poems Joto Durei Jai. 1977 saw him receiving the Lotus Award from the Afro-Asian Writer’s Association. The latest addition to the long list of honours which have been bestowed upon Subhash Mukherjee is the prestigious Janapith Puruskar. It was from being a member of the Anti Fascist Writers’ Association that he became a member of the Communist Party in the nineteen forties. He was also an integral part of the IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association) movement. Simultaneously with this communist party-controlled cultural movement, he was also associated with the Trade Union Movement. He also spent some time in jail between 1948 and 1950. He began to distance himself from the Communist Party from the early seventies when he began to question many things in the party. Though an ardent follower of communist ideology, he was not a blind follower of the party leadership. It must be mentioned in this short introduction to Subhash Mukherjee, especially for the benefit of our foreign readers, that he is a poet of extraordinary talent and originality

• We are interested in knowing what kind of role the communist Party of India had played in the formation of IPTA, because …
It is not that IPTA was born suddenly one day and the Communist Party ;took over as its guardian. There was a long series of events, a process, you could say, that ultimately resulted in the formation of the IPTA. The Communist Party had a very important role to play right from the beginning of this process. As far as I remember, we were in the Students’ Federation. We had a cultural squad at that time. This squad went to tour the districts, equipped with some songs, some posters plays – then the Youth Cultural Institute was formed. Jolly Kaul (former secretary, IPTA) was there, Nikhil Chakravorty (a veteran communist and editor Mainstream) was there. They had rented a room on Mission Row. There was a students’ squad – they created some songs and skits – the Youth Cultural Institute soon acquired a dynamic life of its own. After that Somen Chanda passed away. It was then decided that all writers must be brought together. The Anti Fascist Writers’ Association was formed with Ramananda Chattopadhyaya as president. Bishnu De and I were made Secretary. Though the association started off with writers, many artists also joined. Benoy Roy came from the trade union movement. Somnath Hor, Jamini Roy, Bijon Bhattacharya etc also joined. Then came the Bombay Party Congress. Bishnu De and I were invited as observers. Bijon Bhattacharya, Shambhu Mitra – all these people were also present. The Progressive Writers’ Association also organized a conference at that time; the Congress Socialists were with them then. They launched a determined attack on us. Dange faced the attack. (Dange was General Secretary of the Communist Party in its undivided days as well as after the split. A particular period in the history of the party is referred to as the Dange period). A cultural function was organized here. The play “Aagun” was staged. As there was a shortage of actors, Gopal Halder and I also joined the cast. That was when the decision to form IPTA was taken.

• You were a member of the Anti Fascist Writers’ Association – how much control did the Communist Party have over this association?
After Ramananda babu’s death, Saroj Dutta took the initiative and Tarashankar Bandopadhyay was made the President. Tarashankarbabu was already writing very well but none of his books had gone into editions then. After joining the Association he began to get invited to various meetings and seminars. One day, at an Executive Committee meeting, Tarashankarbabu said, “Subhash, tell us what your party cell has decided – we will get it passed here.” I found myself in a very awkward position. It suddenly struck me that day – why so we function like this? Al important decisions are taken in the party and then somehow passed here. What is the meaning of this?


• IPTA, by making N M Joshi (of the Congress Socialist group) its President, always tried to present itself as a broadbased platform – but was it ever able to come out of the Communist Party’s control and act independently to make it really broadbased?

I must tell you, when the central squad was formed…

• Wasn’t the central squad formed much later?
Yes, but the central squad was under the guidance of P C Joshi (the then Secretary of the Communist Party). Joshi gave them a lot of freedom. Here, in west Bengal, party members used to look down on cultural workers. They used to think – we are party leaders – they just sing some songs. The communist Party had always wanted to keep the IPTA firmly under control. So, even though IPTA had wanted to grow into a broadbased platform, it never received any encouragement to do so from the party.

• Has the Communist Party eve, along with addressing economic questions, addressed cultural questions in its movement?
Not at all. The cultural squad was merely for attracting crowds.
• What, according to you, is the reason for the central squad to break up so soon?
Gradually everyone (in the central squad) began to think – I am no less an artiste than anyone else here. I am just being used as an instrument to gain popularity for the party. Another thing was, P C Joshi was very fond of these talented artistes, he gave them a lot of respect. But other party leaders were not like that. They often forgot that these people were actually artistes. The more the party tried to control these artists, to dictate terms to them, the more they began to revolt. This was the man reason why the central squad broke up. Ravi Shankar left – gradually it began to disintegrate. Here Shambhu Mitra left and started his own team. Bijon Bhattacharya was left on his own … Besides, there was another reason. A conflict began – between the artiste and his art. Those who said, “You need an artiste to create art” were ignored. It was said sarcastically about them, “they have all become artists.”

• There are many artists who have used IPTA to become famous and have never looked back to see in which direction their organisation was going, how their former colleagues were faring – what is your opinion about this trend?
My opinion is that no one has looked back after becoming successful. I still remember – at the Peace Conference in 1951, Salil Choudhury was participating in a cultural function (he still had not left Calcutta) when suddenly we received news of his father’s demise. All of us went around collecting money for the funeral rites. And the funeral ceremony was held in a very ostentatious manner. I did not like it – what was the need for such an ostentatious ceremony? Of course, even today I do not know the financial status of his family. May be they were not very well off. This same Salil went off to Bombay after that and began to make a lot of money. Has he ever returned anything to his old organisation? Of course, initially he was very dedicated to the movement. I have known people who were wholetimers once and after they have launched into successful commercial careers, they have never come back to see the condition of their former colleagues. Take Samaresh Basu, for instance, we have gone around collecting money for him. But after he becomes a successful writer, he never looked back or made any effort for this organisation.

• Very few artists from poor families found space within the IPTA. The few who did were not given much importance – because we don’t hear their names anywhere, we don’t hear their names from persons like you. Nowadays, we come across just a handful of names – Dasrath Lal, Nibaran Pandit, Magan Ojha, Togor Adhikari. Today, there is no way in which we can find out about those artists who came from poor families and worked at the district level. On the other hand, for those who came from upper middle class families, IPTA gave them a lot of opportunities to make a name for themselves. And they taking full advantage of these opportunities, managed to establish themselves in the professional world. Most of their work has been recorded and documented. Don’t you think that – just like in the communist Party – even in IPTA, it was the elite who enjoyed maximum privileges?


Of course. Even I raised this question in the party. Why should all party documents be in English? As a result, all those who returned after receiving higher education in England were immediately included in the party. Gradually they were inducted into the Central Committee, even into the Politburo. It was they who constituted the party’s image then. When young men from aristocratic families joined the party, it was proudly said, “So-and-so of so-and-so family has joined our party.” There was a Brahminism in the party and these leaders were the brahmins. I have said this about the party – the same was true of IPTA.

• In this context, what we would like to know very clearly is, what was the status of the cultural workers within the party? After all, it was as a cultural worker that you …

Take for instance, my experience when I was in jail – I was reading ‘The Capital’ one night in bed and a party leader noticed me. He began teasing me and taunting me. I was surprised to find that I could understand what was written. Another instance – when I was with Janayudha (a journal of the Communist Party) – I decided to translate a resolution of the Central Committee into Bengali. Somnath Lahiri (popular communist leader and writer) informed me that only a member of the State Committee could translate such truth in the matter but I don’t think it was completely justified. I think cultural activists had to tolerate a great deal of contempt as well as neglect.

• Did you ever experience a conflict within yourself – between yourself as an artist and yourself as a party worker?
Yes I did. I have mentioned earlier too, that this conflict manifested itself in many ways. But initially, I did not understand what was happening. After I came out of jail I met Shambhu Mitra one day on my way. He spoke to me for a long time about the anomalies and deviations within the party. He had realized by then that it would be impossible for him to stay within the party and still remain an artiste. When I joined Janayuddha Somnath Lahiri had said to me, “You will not be able to remain an artiste if you stay on in the party. You will have to do as the party says.” But I did not turn back – because at that time I wanted it that way.

• You wanted it that way because circumstances at that time demanded it of you …
That is right. We had to go in for a token surrender at that time.
• Do you think it was right on your part to do so?
No, not at all.

• There were many artists who left IPTA for a career in radio or films – did that not go serious damage to the IPTA movement? Do you think this drain could have been avoided?

See, many artists went away and joined the professional world. They had to, they had no choice. Take Salil for instance, honestly speaking, he would not have become so famous, would not have cut so many records if he had not joined films. This was so even in the case of Kaifi Azmi, Krishan Chandar and Jaffrey. The party could have avoided this drain if it wished. The artiste who is a bachelor today can give himself unselfishly to the movement but tomorrow, he may marry, he may have children. With so many responsibilities he realizes that he can put his talent to use and earn money. So he leaves. This is only natural. The party never tried to create opportunities for these talented artistes and give them a chance to stay on. The party or the trade union could have recorded songs and sold them commercially. Both – the party as well as the artist – would have benefited form it. A writer like Manik Bandopadhyay (his writings have made him immortal in rural as well as urban Bengal today), for example, had to approach the National Book agency time and again with his manuscripts because he needed some money. All the National Book Agency had to say was – “we only publish political writing, we are not interested in literature. Besides, if we accept your manuscript, other party-members will also approach us.” See, what an unjust comparison. My question is, why did the Mational Book Agency not publish Manik Bandopadhyay’s book? If they had done so, both the Agency as well as Manik Bandyopadhyay would have gained from it. I had suggested at one time that the party should publish textbooks. The quality of textbooks would have improved greatly. One of the National Book Agency authorities had said then, “the moment money comes into the party, its members will become dishonest.” “Do you mean that if the party comes to power, a section of it will become dishonest and corrupt? In that case should the party not come to power?” was my question. He was not able to give me an answer. The party could have done so many things, but did it really try?



1933 – 1995

God lives in water
On some day – I will have to excavate

A tank in my garden for Him

I am alone –
Let God be close to me
That is what I want
Let Him live in water
It is my realisation
He wants peace in water

It is very difficult
To maintain good relationship with
Who are very close to us

He is above man
Besides, if He lives at the far garden
That distance also –
Will save our relationship
From being strained.

(Translated from Bengali
by Amulya Ganguly)