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'There is no such thing as apolitical'

February 18, 2010 01:45 IST

Balmurli Natrajan, anthropology professor at the William Paterson University in New Jersey, is one of the most visible campus activists in the country. He is involved with the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, which impacts public discourse in the United States.

He is also active in the Free Binayak Sen Campaign -- launched during Dr Sen's prolonged incarceration in India for allegedly being a Maoist sympathiser -- which has morphed into a broader coalition of groups across India, Europe and the United States focused on peace and justice issues in the mining belts of central and eastern India.

And he continues to combat what he calls "the politics of rightwing Hindutva in the US."

How did an engineer who worked in the merchant navy get into anthropology, and in the process went from being apolitical to a political person?

The journey has not been linear, although it is not that difficult to connect apparently disparate fields of study. For example, the fact that I worked on ships that brought iron ore from Goa to Belgium, or took back wheat from Texas back to Visakhapatnam or saw some hard-to-forget scenes in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war -- all made sense to me much later only when I reflected upon them in the quiet aisles of the university libraries in the US.

That colonial export of raw materials did not stop with the formal end of colonialism, that the Green Revolution was tied with the export of overproduced food grains from the US, and that the ordinary person in Iran or Iraq really did not quite know what the eight years war was all about, but paid the ultimate price for it.

I realised also that there is no such thing as apolitical, since what it means is assenting to the status quo, which normally is oppressive being built on inequalities.

I felt my growing interest in social issues would be better served by anthropology. I got politicised in landlocked Iowa where I met a number of inspiring activists involved in anti-apartheid and Latin American solidarity work, in feminist and anti-racist work, and in anti-war work and left politics.

From them I learnt to give language and form to my own deeply held assumptions about what was fair and just and what one needed to do in order to make a difference. Switching to anthropology was not easy because I had to endure financial distress and, of course, the skepticism and contempt of many.

But I can say after 20 years of being an anthropologist that I have never been happier having taken the path less trodden -- at least from the kind of social background that I came out of.

I actually think that I am now a much better scientist than I ever was as a practicing engineer. I have also got a healthier respect for engineering and also discovered the joys of software programming for a few years before coming back to teaching anthropology.

What are some of the political activities that make sense to you, and what are the activities you dislike?

I think the South Asian community is poised to come into its own very soon. What I mean by this is that we now have a growing number of second and even third generation young people who are carving out their identities and orientations to the world and life in ways that are significantly independent of their received ethnic 'heritage'. This is exciting because they now have a chance to not simply reproduce models of doing politics and relating to the world taken from their ancestral countries of origins. They could, in fact, combine the best of both worlds, which to me means the progressive parts of both worlds. There is a long tradition of activism from different parts of South Asia which has refused to think of provincial identities and fought for the right to imagine and realise just societies for all people. This tradition combined with the much younger but equally vibrant progressive traditions in the US, born out of struggles against racism and sexism and for freedom and liberty, await our youngsters.

Many of them are already doing excellent activist work -- many times working in solidarity with other non-South Asian groups -- on immigration issues, on health-care provision and justice, on fighting the rampant issue of violence against women within our own communities, on fighting for the rights of working class South Asians, and on daring to question and change received wisdom about what our religious mean and ought to be about.

The kinds of activisms that are problematic to me include the various ways that some groups in the US continue to blindly lend ideological and financial support to destructive forces in South Asia -- be it contributing to supporting (Gujarat Chief Minister) Narendra Modi and his allies in India, or to Islamist fundamentalist parties in Pakistan and Bangladesh, or a particular kind of inflexible Tamil politics in Sri Lanka.

There are some others too that insist on using 'heritage' in cynical ways to prevent any admission of the historical wrongs that are as much part of our histories from South Asia as are many other positive contributions from South Asia. This was seen in the infamous California textbook campaigns that sought to erase the history of caste-ism and patriarchy from ancient Indian history.

People connected to the Hindutva cause believe that activists like you do not respect Indian heritage and culture.

They are entitled to their beliefs. Their energies would be better spent if they became unhappy with oppressive parts of Indian heritage and culture. I can only share Nehru's observations while in Ahmednagar jail when he asked himself what his heritage was and commented that it was not exclusive but inclusive of all humanity's achievements and mistakes. Then he invoked Nietzsche who spoke of the burden of heritage and said that 'Not only the wisdom of centuries -- also their madness breaketh out in us. Dangerous is it to be an heir.'
Arthur J Pais in New York