Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Experience of All India Women’s Fact Finding Team

All India Women's Fact Finding Team

On 9 December 2009, at 10 a.m.,an All India Women’s Fact Finding Team consisting of 9 women reached Narayanpatna Police Station and requested to meet the Station In-charge. [They had gone to investigate reports of sexual assault on adivasi women by policemen and goons of big private companies.] Reproduced below is the statement they circulated at the subsequent press conference.

1. Sudha Bhardwaj, Advocate, Chhattisgarh
2. Mamata Dash, Delhi
3. Madhumita Dutta, Chennai
4. Shweta Narayan, Chennai
5. Rumita Kundu, Bhubaneswar
6. Pramila, Bhubaneswar
7. Kusum Karnik, NFFPFW
8. Ramani, New Democracy, Orissa
9. Durga, Chhattisgarh

We were told that the policeman was busy, and were asked to come in the evening. The person questioning us asked us for names and mobile phone numbers and names of organisations. We gave all of that. We noticed quite a number of uniformed policemen, and many people in plainclothes. None of the people in uniform (we assume they were policemen) had any name tags. We asked one of them who the people in plainclothes were, and were told that they were all policemen. We asked the man how many police were there in this area, and he said more than 2000 police. One striking thing is that none of the many people gathered there were adivasi.
About 20 adivasi men were huddled, squatting inside the police station premises. We asked the police man near us who they were, and were told that the adivasis were former activists of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh, who had come to surrender. This has been happening for a few days now, and many newspapers are reporting this.
By this time, the crowd of so-called plainclothes police were getting restless. We heard people commenting saying: “Ab aa rahen hain. Jab hamarey gaon jal rahe the, tho kahaan the?” (When our farms were being burnt, where were you? Now they show up.)
Madhumita felt the situation was looking troublesome, and suggested we leave. As we were stepping out of the police station, our driver was cordoned off and was being questioned in a very hostile manner and being threatened. We heard someone saying that he is a regular to these parts, and they enquired as to his antecedents.
We somehow managed to extricate the driver. One of the policemen in plainclothes, who we saw inside the police station premises, was taking photographs, and he said “Maaro Inko.” (Beat these people up). That is when more than 200 people surged ahead. The driver was being slapped repeatedly.
Madhu and 75-year old Kusum Karnik tried to intervene and that is when one man went for Madhu’s throat. Kusum was hurt too.
Rumita Kundu was verbally abused inside the police station. One man crudely said that all these women had come to sleep with the men there. Mamta Dash was hit on her back, and abused. One man attempted to strangle Madhu. When she moved to save herself, her jaw was injured. All this happened inside the police station premises.
The driver was the one that was being assaulted most, and we did all we could to extricate him and board our vehicle. By this time, the vehicle was being broken. The rear windscreen was broken. With great difficulty, we fled the area driving towards Bandhugaon. We were followed by the plainclothesmen who claimed to be police on bikes. Somewhere between Bandhugaon Police Station and the village itself, we were stopped by two men in plainclothes.
They said they were police, and they demanded to see the driver’s license. As he was enquiring, about 20 people gathered there. But nothing untoward happened here. We were scared nevertheless.
From there, we proceeded to Kottulpetta. Even before we got to this village, news seemed to have reached them about our visit. A road blockade had been organised, with a bullock cart blocking the road. There were no oxen. The people there, again all non-tribals, pulled out the driver and started assaulting him. They tried to pull down another male colleague of ours, Mr. Poru Chandra Sahu. and tried to beat them up. We intervened, and that’s when Kusum didi, the 75-year old activist, was hurt on her head. We were there for more than 15 minutes. More violence. More damage to the vehicle. More slaps for the driver. Our friends outside had been notified almost as soon as problems began, and phone calls must have been pouring into the Collector and SP’s office.
By this time, two bikes carrying one of the plainclothes “policemen” who had taken our names in Narayanpatna, and another plainclothes guy who was tall and burly, reached there and asked the youth to disperse.
We reached Bondapalli, the border village within Andhra Pradesh. Almost in no time, a jeep load of Andhra Pradesh police along with plainclothes youth (young boys) armed with rifles and bullets arrived on the scene. They demanded to know who we were. We were treated more like criminals than victims, and our vehicle was searched. Only after Madhu spoke to the SP of Vijayanagar, and the DGP were we allowed to go. The police who stopped us immediately changed the tune, and offered to help us with medical assistance etc.
Our experience with armed youth and police has left us clearly terrified, and convinced that the situation created by the police in Narayanpatna and this part of Orissa is extremely vitiated. We have the following concerns and demands which we conveyed to the media at a press conference in Parvathipuram, Vijayanagarm District, Andhra Pradesh.
1. The scenario of terror that we witnessed, and were subject to shows the kind of tense situation prevailing in the Narayanpatna area post November 20, 2009’s police firings in Narayanpatna.
2. There is no access for people to get in and out of the villages in Narayanpatna, with all routes blocked by armed goons.
3. There is no way to get information about what is happening inside, and no means of verifying the very disturbing accounts we are getting about abuses, molestations and violence against adivasi people.
4. The number of plainclothesmen who claimed they were police, and the comfort with which people outside the Narayanpatna police station were interacting with the police, and reacting to one policeman’s instruction to beat us up, suggests that there may be some truth to reports that there is a Salwa Judum style Shanthi Samiti in this area as well. This may either be sponsored or working in close complicity with the police and state.
4. If the Fact Finding team of prominent women has been treated with such violence, it is clear that there is absolutely no room for dissent inside the villages.
5. All the people who attacked us were non-tribals.
1. The officers at the Police Station should be suspended to create an impartial stituation and enable the carrying out of investigations into the firing of 20 November, 2009, and the subsequent reports of atrocities against tribal people.
2. The SP Koraput should be suspended.
3. The Government should constitute a high-level independent investigation team and not depend on the police, who are clearly biased, and are using the language of terror and violence to suppress dissent.

In Solidarity with Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila Protest Meeting 7 December 2009

Soma Marik

(Edited translation of a speech delivered at a Calcutta meeting organised by the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha to express solidarity with Irom Sharmila, on 7th December 2009)
Soma Marik delivering speech at Irom Sharmila Protest Meeting on 7 December 2009 
Irom Sharmila Chanu has been on hunger strike since early November 2000. We are gathered here to express our solidarity with her. To express solidarity with her means not merely to express solidarity with one courageous individual, but to support the cause for which she has been on hunger strike, under arrest for “attempted suicide”, and continually force-fed, sometimes in Manipur, sometimes in Delhi.

Chanu has been on a hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) since November 2, 2000, after soldiers of the Indian Paramilitary Assam Rifles killed ten innocent bystanders in Malom. We need to understand the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and state violence using ‘anti-terror laws’, as well as the use of women’s bodies. Such Acts now dot the country and are used extensively in various contexts. Yet the AFSPA holds a special position, because no other act has been used so systematically and for such a long time.

The Background

Manipur was a princely state, forcibly integrated into India in 1949, ignoring the democratic Legislative Assembly the Maharaja had agreed to set up. Indian attitude became even clearer, when Nagaland was granted statehood in 1963, while Manipur, which was annexed in 1949, remained a Union Territory till 1972. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act was initially promulgated in 1958. It has been used to establish martial law in a number of provinces, at first in Assam and Manipur, and subsequently in the entire North East, as well as in Jammu and Kashmir. According to the AFSPA, in an area that is proclaimed as "disturbed", an officer of the armed forces has powers to:
•    Order the shooting and killing of anyone “who is acting in contravention of any law" or has deadly weapons.
•    Arrest without a warrant anyone who has committed certain offences or is suspected of having done so.
•    To enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests.
•    In all such cases, the officers have legal immunity. They cannot be taken to a court for any action committed under the provisions of that law.
•    The government’s decision to identify an area as “disturbed” is not subject to judicial review.

In 1991, the United Nations Human Rights Committee questioned the constitutionality of the AFSPA under Indian law and asked how it could be justified in light of Articles 4 and 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 4 of the ICCPR limits the rights of states to curtail the civil liberties of people living in those states. Article 6 prohibits the taking of human life without due legal process. The AFSPA very obviously disregards that provision, making the UN complaint an extremely valid one. The Attorney General of India responded that the AFSPA is a necessary measure to prevent the secession of the North Eastern states. In other words, by using a political label, the government of India proclaimed that it would commit any civil rights violation.

But why should there be such a strong current of “separatism”? And what is the practice of the Indian state?
“Integration” of the North East into the “national mainstream” is based on a set of assumptions. First of all, it meant the imposition of capitalist exploitation, with little attention to the development of local economy. The traditional trade routes with South East Asia and Bangladesh were kept closed in the name of tackling secessionism. The development programmes of the first few Five Year Plans also gave the North East a miss. Manipur is 22% behind the national average for infrastructural development, and the entire North-Eastern region is 30% behind the rest of India. A study by Hanjabam Isworchandra Sharma, titled ‘Manipur’s Economy from 1949 to 1972: Birth and Nurturing of a Dependent Economy’ (published in ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES Volume II Issue I October-December 2006 published by the Centre For Alternative Discourse Manipur, Imphal) shows that the period when Manipur was a Union Territory governed from Delhi, was crucial for its deepening development as a colonial type economy, reinforcing and strengthening the tendency begun under the British, whereby a formerly self-sufficient agrarian economy was transformed into a dependent economy.

Secondly, the so-called mainstream is a misnomer. It is actually an attempt to impose customs and rules derived from a highly casteist Hindu society into an area, where society, while not absolutely egalitarian, was certainly less hierarchical than in the bulk of India.

The shifting demographic balance was another cause of tension. Labouring people from Bengal, Bihar, immigrants from Nepal and Bangladesh, have poured into the area, and in the absence of democratic politics, these migrations have heightened tensions. Given the treatment of Manipur as a kind of internal colony, locals have perceived such migrations tempts to drown their voices, rather than as the normal occurrence in a complex economy.

For the Government of India, the primary response in the North East has always been strategic and security centric. No democratic scruples have ever tied its hands. Thus, the AFPSA was initially promulgated as an Ordinance in 1958, only 12 days after the ending of the budget session of the Parliament. This clearly suggests the government wanted to present Parliament with a fait accompli, giving it less scope to modify or reject the proposal. A bill was introduced in the Monsoon session of Parliament that year. Merely, 3 and 4 hours discussion respectively in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, empowered the Parliament to approve the Armed Forces (Assam- Manipur) Special Powers Act with retrospective effect from 22 May 1958. As early as 1966, the operations under the AFPSA included the Air Force in Mizoram resorting to aerial bombardment.

The AFSPA: A Recipe for Military Rule

The AFSPA only requires that the Central Government and the Governor be "of the opinion that whole or parts of the area are in a dangerous or disturbed condition such that the use of the Armed Forces in aid of civil powers is necessary." The vagueness of this definition was challenged in Indrajit Barua v. State of Assam (AIR 1983 Del. 514) case. The High Court decided that the lack of precision to the definition of a disturbed area was not an issue because the government and people of India understand its meaning. So the government has full freedom to impose the AFPSA at will, and has done so, keeping it going for over half a century.

The crucial aspect of the Act is the State-endorsed license to kill with impunity, granted to any member of the Indian army. Moreover, the AFSPA says that after the military has arrested someone under the AFSPA, they must hand that person over to the nearest police station with the "least possible delay". There is no definition in the act of what constitutes the least possible delay. So several days can and do pass between arrest and handing over, at times the gap being enough to murder the person. Murders are common, as with Thangjam Manorama in July 2004. Section 6 of the AFSPA provides the army officers with absolute immunity for all atrocities committed under the AFSPA. A person wishing to file suit against a member of the armed forces for abuses under the AFSPA must first seek the permission of the Central Government.

In a report on the AFSPA to the UN Human Rights Committee in 1991, Nandita Haksar, a lawyer who has often petitioned the Guwahati High Court in cases related to the AFSPA, explained how in practice this law leaves the military's victims without a remedy. Firstly, there has not been a single case of anyone seeking such permission to file a case in the North East. Given that the armed forces personnel conduct themselves as being above the law and the people are alienated from the state government, it is hardly surprising that no one would approach Delhi for such permission. Secondly, court martial judgments are not published. The only, fragile remedy is the filing of Habeas Corpus cases. By a Habeas Corpus case, the state might be compelled to produce the arrested person in court and this might save her or his life. However, a habeas corpus case will not lead to the repeal of the Act nor will it punish particular officers who committed the abuses. Also, only people who have access to lawyers will be able to file such a case.

Using this law, the Armed Forces of India have carried on a five decade long brutalization of the people of Manipur, along with other North Eastern areas. Human Rights Watch, a civil liberties organization, put out a 16 page dossier chronicling how systematically the AFSA has been used to destroy rights of people. Sections of Manipur were declared disturbed areas after the 1958 adoption of the AFSPA, and the entire state of Manipur was brought under the act on September 8, 1980. Human rights violations by security forces engaged in counterinsurgency operations in Manipur have occurred with depressing regularity over the last five decades. Torture, which includes beatings, electric shocks, and simulated drowning, is common. Arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions continue. New “disappearances” stopped  after the Manipur government introduced a system for providing “arrest memos” but at least 17 people remain missing since they “disappeared” in the 1980s and 1990s.

Since it was imposed, by official admission alone, more than 20,000 people have been killed in Manipur. Rather than curb insurgent groups, it has engendered a seething resentment across the land, and fostered new militancies. In 1980, there were only four insurgent groups in Manipur. By the middle of the present decade, there were 25 on the government’s own watch-list. When ordinary people leave their homes, they are uncertain if they will return. There is no electricity. The countryside is dark. Everyone is fair game. The army on one side, rival insurgents on the other.

On November 1, 2000, an insurgent group had bombed an army column. Enraged, the 8th Assam Rifles retaliated on November 2 by gunning down 10 innocent civilians at a bus-stand in Malom. The local papers published brutal pictures of the bodies the next day, including one of a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. An enraged Irom Sharmila Chanu, then 28, began a protest fast. On November 6, she was arrested on charges of ‘attempt to suicide’. The administration began force-feeding her nasally, from November 21, confining her to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. Released as a part of the Government’s occasional carrot phase of policy, she went to Delhi and re-started her fast. This time she was arrested and put in the AIIMS. The arrests and force-feeding imply additional attacks. While in other parts of India, hunger strikes are met by government attempts at negotiation, her protest was not even given the recognition of a protest. So the arrest, on the charge of “attempt to suicide”, and the force-feeding.

Sharmila is not alone in her struggle. The state erupted in flames in July 2004, after the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, Thangjam Manorama Devi, by the Assam Rifles personnel. Manorama was a 32 year old woman, who sustained herself and her family by weaving. On 11 July 2004, she was arrested from her home by paramilitary forces of the 17 Assam Rifles. The arrest memo given to her mother stated no weapons had been found at her home. Her body was found some hours later, at about 5:00 PM, without proper clothes on, and shot at various places, including her vagina. The Assam Rifles version of the episode is the same as the one given out in all such incidents of the killing of "hardcore militants" while in the custody of the security forces. A statement issued by the paramilitary force stated that self-styled "Corporal" Thangjam Manorama, alias Henthoi, was gunned down as she made a bid to escape by jumping down from the vehicle that the force used. This of course did not explain why she was shot in the vagina. It was widely felt that had been done to cover up traces of rape. The heinous incident triggered an unprecedented form of protest by Manipuri women that briefly shook India. In an attempt to draw the attention of an insensitive and cold-blooded security and political establishment in Imphal and Delhi, (as well, one would suggest, as the bulk of civil society in mainstream India), Manipuri women, calling themselves Mothers of Manorama, turned to their bodies to give vent to their resentment. They stripped themselves in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal and challenged the army to rape them. “Indian Army, Rape Us,” said their banner, as they protested, naked. On August 15, 2004, India’s independence day, Pebang Chittaranjan doused himself in kerosene and set himself in fire. He died soon after. He too demanded the abolition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. A 32-organisation network called for further protests, to which Chief Minister Ibobi Singh responded by branding Thangjam Manorama a hardcore terrorist, following the lead of the Assam Rifles. Clearly, in Manipur it is the army and the paramilitary who dictate terms to the “elected” civilian governments.

Laws Helping State Violence Elsewhere in India

The violence in Manipur does not stand alone – not anymore, not after 62 years of independence. We have similar state violence everywhere. And as with the rape of Manorama, as with the brutalization of women’s bodies in Manipur, we have similar cases everywhere. As an all-India women’s meeting called to discuss state violence and its impact on women noted in Bhopal (24-25 October 2009):
•    In land acquisition, in privatization of natural resources and water, in clearing the country to suit national and multinational capital, new laws have been introduced to suppress any resistance, peaceful or otherwise.
•    There has been systematic violence on women in Manipur
•    There have been repeated cases of violence on women in Kashmir from Kupwara to Shopian
•    In a case where the atrocity is committed by a state agency, the accountability of the crime has to be broadened to encompass not just the rapist but all the other authorities as well as the state administration and the judiciary which is duty bound to protect the rights of women as citizens.
•    Presently, driven by aggressive corporatisation, sustained state violence in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal and other states has become the single mantra to evict people from their land and livelihood.
•    Tribal women in Bastar in Chhattisgarh have been subjected to the most extreme forms of violence since 2005, by Salwa Judum, a civil militia created and funded by the state, to counter the Maoists. There have been incidents of gang rapes, custodial rape, mutilation of private parts, murder and continuous sexual abuse in villages, police stations and the relief camps set up by the state government in the area. The extra-judicial murder in 2006 of a tribal for being a Maoist, and the subsequent gang-rape of his wife in front of her child for several days inside a police station in Sarguja by police personnel including the SP is one such documented case. There are not even official records and FIRs of the cases of sexual violence in Dantewada district. Despite more than 90 sworn affidavits filed in cases pending before the Supreme Court, statements made before the National Human Rights Commission, and letters to the Superintendent of Police, the police in Bastar refuse to register cases of rape by Salwa Judum goons. Finally when six women dared to file private complaints and make their statements before a Magistrate in Konta, there is inexplicable and inordinate delay of months together in registering the cases.

Sexual violence is a systematic weapon of the rulers to try and smash women's increasing participation in resistance movements and struggles. In many remote areas the security forces, operate with impunity, as if they have a “license” to rape women, especially those belonging to the tribal and dalit communities – in the AFPSA indeed they do have such a license. When the state directly does not inflict violence, it aids the upper class/caste forces etc who commit such violence.

This is the case not only in areas where there are so-called “insurgency” movements, but also in cases of non-violent mass movements. Since the neo-liberal turn of the 1990s there has been an increased onslaught by the state on the lives and livelihoods of large sections of the our population in the name of “development” projects such as mining and special economic zones, and large communities are being deprived of their lands, rivers, forests, and other common property resources. Pushed to desperation people are organizing in several ways to resist this large-scale displacement and dispossession (Singur, Nandigram, POSCO, and other cases). In several cases women have been at the forefront of these struggles. It has been seen that women are specifically targeted in such cases, and such political participation is being repressed by use of rape and other kinds of violence on women in mass movements.

And everywhere now, we have AFPSA-like laws. In Chhattisgarh, there is the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA).  Although this Act was ostensibly meant to combat growing Maoist violence, all the Maoist groups operating in Chhattisgarh were already banned and declared unlawful organisations after the 2004 amendment to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA). The CSPSA provides provisions that authorize the police to detain a person for committing acts, which among other things, show a “tendency to pose an obstacle to the administration of law”. The act also states any person whose actions “encourage(s) the disobedience of the established law” will be considered “unlawful”.

The present definition of “unlawful activities” imperils free exercise of fundamental freedoms set out under Article 19 of the Constitution and illustratively it appears to restrict the right to hold public meetings; organise public protests; and oppose government policies through the media.
Six organisations were banned under this act. Dr. Binayak Sen, General Secretary, Chhattisgarh PUCL, was detained under this Act on 14 May, 2007 allegedly for his linkages with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The Act also allows the government to attach the property of accused persons. This point was clearly highlighted by the PUDR in its analysis of the Act submitted to the President of India.

And finally we have the UAPA, as amended in 2008. By this Act, a terrorist act is defined as one that may use “bombs, dynamite… other explosive substances or inflammable substances or firearms or other lethal weapons or poisonous or noxious gases or other chemicals or by any other substances… of a hazardous nature or by any other means of whatever nature” (emphasis added). This last sentence means that any physical act could be deemed a terrorist act, if the government could satisfy the very low burden of proof threshold - that the act was likely to cause terror in the people. When coupled with the denial of the presumption of innocence, the 2008 amendment empowers the government to construe anything as a terrorist act. This last point needs to be stressed. By normal Indian law, any person is innocent till proved guilty in a court of law. Under the amended UAPA, this safeguard has been removed. Now the court is to presume guilt unless the accused proves otherwise. During the scant parliamentary debates, the Home Minister Mr. P. Chidambaram justified this reversal of the burden of proof on the ground that in the past, terrorists have evaded conviction because they were permitted to remain silent.
The 2008 amendment echoes POTA by specifying that a terrorist act is one carried out with the intention to “threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or… to strike terror… in the people”. The amendment in fact broadens the POTA definition by further specifying that any act “likely to threaten” or any act “likely to strike terror in the people” is also a terrorist act (emphasis added). In effect, any protest can be construed as terrorist action. The 2008 UAPA Amendment extends the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 180 days in place of the existing 90 days. Moreover, anyone arrested under the UAPA can be placed in police custody for up to 30 days, instead of the 15 prescribed in other laws, and even when placed under judicial custody, can be interrogated by the police any day.

Under the UAPA the Central Government has the power to “freeze, seize… attach” and prohibit the use of “funds, financial assets or economic resources” of individuals “suspected to be engaged in terrorism” (emphasis added). This provision essentially empowers the Indian government to exercise control over the finances or movements of an individual on the basis of mere suspicion. How the UAPA can be easily abused was seen in the case of the arrest of Chhatradhar Mahato. He was not produced in a court for hearings. The police finally submitted a charge-sheet after five months. Yet daily there were briefings by police officers or state bureaucrats, that he was in no position to deny, such as his ostensibly having an LIC policy of Rs 1 crore (which would mean he pays an annual premium of over Rs. 600,000 or US$12900 !!). He was supposed to have confessed to his Maoist links. But the widely known fact is, his Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocities had sought votes without police presence, whereas Maoists have always been calling for election boycotts.

And here too, the UAPA can be and is an instrument that falls so easily on women, can be used to inflict violence on them. In expressing our solidarity with Sharmila Chanu, we also condemn all such so-called anti-terror laws that in fact strengthen state terrorism and cause violence on innocents.

State Violence and Class Struggle

At the same time, I want to draw your attention to a news and its implication. On November 27, a demonstration was organized, (reportedly larger than the one organized by sugarcane farmers) which marched from the Ramlila Maidan to Parliament in New Delhi. It was a demonstration by women in the unorganized sector, demanding maternity benefits, higher pay for Anganwadi workers, equal pay for equal work, and an end to sexual harassment at workplace. The Finance Minister of India met a delegation, and told them that while the demands were just, it would be difficult for the state to do anything about it. So the state is willing to spend ever more money to crush popular resistance, but none for the basic rights of working women. And in this no state government is any different. In West Bengal too, the struggles in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh have shown the readiness of the state to use violence, and its unwillingness to spend comparable sums to improve living conditions. The military style operation, including the hiring of helicopters, cost crores of rupees. No comparable funds have been spent on basic amenities of the people. While shoot to kill, like the AFPSA, may not have been imposed, for years, violence on opponents, rape and sexual harassment of women, and all manner of repressive acts by the state apparatus and state backed party cadres have become routine. In West Bengal, no longer an ‘oasis of peace’ the UAPA is in force and the people are living under constant threat since the invasion of Lalgarh and regions adjacent to it by the joint forces from June 17, 2009. It must be remembered that the 2008 UAPA amendment was passed with support from all MPs, including the Left. And in West Bengal, no solution to hunger, lack of medicine, lack of schools, etc has been proposed for the areas where the most deprived tribals live. Yet the West Bengal government too has applied the UAPA without developing the areas. It is evident that as with other provinces, so with Bengal.

Bhopal disaster 25 years on — bring corporate killers to justice


Pierre Rousset


Twenty-five years after the worst industrial disaster in history, the people of Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, are still fighting for justice.

On December 3, 1984, a leak at Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory sent a barrage of toxic gases through the city. The streets were flooded with people desperately trying to flee the clouds of poison, choking, convulsing, vomiting and writhing in pain.

The poor suffered the worst casualties, with less ability to escape quickly in vehicles.

At least 8000 people died in the immediate aftermath and hundreds of thousands more were left with horrific injuries and severe lifelong health problems. Subsequent generations have also suffered the effects.

The Bhopal plant had employed sub-standard technology, far inferior to that in Union Carbide’s United States factory. In the years leading up to the disaster, Union Carbide slashed jobs at the plant, dramatically decreased staff safety training and cut costs from the maintenance budget.

A series of smaller leaks during that time hinted at what was to come. By that fateful day, the factory’s safety systems were all utterly dysfunctional.

Union Carbide, concerned only with avoiding any admission of liability that may have financial consequences, criminally refused to release information about the leaked gases.

This prevented hospital staff from being able to determine appropriate urgent treatment, escalating the number of fatalities and serious injuries.

The death toll now stands at more than 20,000 and rises almost daily.

Shana Ortman, US Coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), told Green Left Weekly that for many Bhopalis, “December 3, 1984 was just the beginning of a lifelong disaster”.

She said more than half a million people were exposed to the gases and more than 100,000 people remain unable to work due to exposure-related illness.

“Union Carbide may have abandoned their plant in 1984, but the toxic waste that they had been throwing into a breached solar evaporation pond has stayed and spread each monsoon season into surrounding neighbourhoods.

”More than 20,000 people have been forced to drink water contaminated with toxins like mercury, dichlorobenzene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and other persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.

“This has caused all sorts of birth defects and health problems for children and adults living in those neighbourhoods.”

In 2001, Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company. Ortman said: “Dow, according to its own public statements, made the decision to acquire the company with full knowledge of the criminal charges pending against Union Carbide and their status as a fugitive from justice.

“Despite repeated public requests and protests around the world, Dow Chemical has refused to make its new subsidiary appear before the Bhopal District Court to face the criminal charges pending against it.

“Dow also insists that Union Carbide corrected the situation when they settled the civil damages for [US]$470 million with the Indian government in 1989. However, this settlement did not extinguish the criminal charges against the company or its officials.

“The settlement only dealt with illnesses and deaths from gas exposure on December 3, but did not deal with the groundwater and soil contamination that Union Carbide left behind.”

The ICJB wants the US Congress to hold a congressional hearing into the ongoing contamination at the abandoned site in Bhopal and Dow’s liabilities, and has received support from some members of Congress.

Ortman told GLW that under the Bush administration, the US State Department refused to extradite Warren Anderson, Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster, to India to face criminal charges.

The ICJB is hoping that the new administration will grant any future request from India.

The Indian government has asked for more than $20 million from Dow as an advance payment towards cleaning up the abandoned site at Bhopal, including the poisoned groundwater and contaminated areas around the plant. But Dow has not been forthcoming.

Ortman said the Indian government “must begin clean up now to prevent further spread of the toxins” and should “use the legal system to force Dow to pay for it”.

The ICJB is also demanding that Union Carbide “show up in court to face trial in the ongoing criminal proceedings against them in India”.

Ortman said the Indian government also “promised to build pipelines to bring clean water to the communities that have been drinking, eating, and washing with water contaminated by the chemicals that Union Carbide left behind”.

She said that while construction began, it has stalled, and “needs to be completed urgently”.

In August 2008, the Indian government promised to set up an “empowered commission” to address the range of health, environmental, social and economic issues in Bhopal. The ICJB is calling for this promise to be fulfilled immediately.

Since the disaster, survivors and their supporters have been fighting for justice and reparations. In recent years the campaign has been successful in pushing a number of Indian universities to reject sponsorship from Dow. Last year, protesters prevented a Dow research and development centre from being built near Pune.

On November 19, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the disaster, hundreds of Bhopalis protested outside Dow’s offices in Noida, near New Delhi. The protesters vowed to continue their campaign to force Dow out of India until the company accepts its liability in Bhopal.

To mark the anniversary on December 3, Ortman said “survivors have called upon activists around the world to organise a day of action”. More than 100 actions globally are expected to take place, including “die-ins or protests, educational actions like vigils, film screenings or photo exhibits, and individual actions, like call-ins or hunger fasts”.

Kerryn Williams

For more information and to support the campaign, visit www.studentsforbhopal.org.

You can also donate to the campaign at www.bhopal.net/donate.

Copenhagen Plan B : “protect the rich”

A leaked text of the political declaration that could conclude the Copenhagen conference reveals back-room dealings that offer little to the Majority World.

Oscar Reyes Dec 9 2009


So the rumours were true. For the past week, it was an open secret that the Danish government had already drafted a “political declaration” that could form the major outcome of the UN Climate Change Conference now that a full-blown international agreement is off the cards. The draft text has now been leaked, sparking outrage amongst Southern delegates and civil society organisations.

“The Copenhagen Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” as the draft is titled, would introduce percentage-based emissions targets for all except the Least Developed Countries, fatally undermining the Kyoto Protocol, which draws a line between industrialised Annex 1 states and the Majority World. The text also suggests that financial and technological support measures in non-Annex 1 countries, an underlying principle of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), should now be made conditional to their ability to meet complex emissions monitoring requirements.

The UNFCCC quickly attempted to limit the damage, putting out a statement from Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer that declared that the draft was a “decision paper put forward by Danish Prime Minister,” while maintaining that it was not a “formal text” of the UN negotiating process.

But the leaked text met with an angry response from many Southern delegates. Lumumba Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairperson of the G77 plus China grouping of 132 developing countries, said that the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen had failed in his role as a neutral host and had instead “chosen to protect the rich countries.” The emergence of the draft text was also met by an impromptu protest from members of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, who marched through the Bella Centre chanting “Two degrees is suicide, One Africa, one degree.”

Democratic deficit

Concern stems not simply from the contents of the draft text, but also the secretive and biased way in which it came about. The COP Presidency, which is held by host country Denmark, is mandated to craft compromises based on painstakingly negotiated drafts. In this case, the Presidency stands accused not only of overstepping the mark, but of hopping, stepping and then jumping over it, pre-empting UN decisions with proposals lifted in part from text discussed at the Major Economies Forum, an initiative closely tied to the G20 grouping and chaired by US President Barack Obama.

As Meena Raman, Honorary Secretary of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, explains, “The leaked draft Copenhagen Agreement violates the democratic principles of the UN and threatens the Copenhagen negotiations. By discussing their text in secret back-room meetings with a few select countries, the Danes are doing the opposite of what the world expects the host country to do. The Danish government must stop colluding with other rich nations. Instead it must take as a starting point the positions of developing countries - which are the least responsible for climate change, but who are most affected by it.”

Raman Mehta from Action Aid India decried a “betrayal of trust” on the part of the Danish government.

More “hot air” on reductions

The draft text is weak and vague in its overall ambitions. In reiterating the goal of holding global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the text sets a global reduction target of 50 per cent by 2050, of which 80 per cent should come from the industrialised world. These figures look distinctly unimpressive when tracked back to existing per capita emissions, however, with one estimate suggesting that they would allow Northern industrialised countries to continue outpolluting the Majority World by a factor of 3:5.

The short-term proposals are ostensibly more ambitious, with a suggestion that global emissions should peak by 2020. But the same passage of the text misleadingly claims that this peak has already been reached in “developed countries collectively.” This is based on the latest UNFCCC figures, which show that Annex 1 countries are now on track to meet their Kyoto Protocol commitments, but a closer look reveals that this is achieved on the basis of “hot air” emissions resulting from economic collapse in the former Soviet bloc in the early 1990s. Emissions elsewhere in the developed world have continued to rise. The projections for 2020 are further massaged by counting a large volume of “emissions savings” from carbon offsets made in the global South as part of Annex 1 emissions figures.

Strings attached

Whereas the Bali Action Plan emphasises that developing country actions will be “supported and enabled” by technology, financing and capacity building, the draft suggests that these measures would be “subject to robust measurement, reporting and verification.” This inversion implies that the support measures could be withheld unless monitoring is externally approved. Instead of placing an obligation on industrialised countries to repay and restitute their climate debt, this makes any support measures conditional to a series of complex technical asssessments.

Just as significant is what the text does not include. There are no numbers on long-term financing, and there is no suggestion that these will be forthcoming in Copenhagen. The only figure offered is a projection of $10 billion per year of “fast start finance”, a scaled-down version of a plan first presented by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in late November. But Lumamba Di-Aping was dismissive : “Ten billion dollars will not buy developing countries’ citizens enough coffins,” he said.

A growing market

The flip side of this lack of financial commitments is a commitment to scale up carbon markets as part of any agreement. The cap and trade proposals currently passing through the US would allow up to 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon offsets per year to displace the need for domestic emissions reductions, a demand that is over seven times larger than the existing supply of offsets through the UN’s Clean Devopment Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation scheme.

Although the language on carbon markets remains vague, talk of “an effective and orderly transition from project based to more comprehensive approaches” signals a framework that would introduce a broad range of new offsets, from “sectoral crediting” through to measures aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

“With developed countries offering so little by way of public finance, developing countries are being sent a message that support for offsetting mechanisms is their only real choice to access funds” says Payal Parkeh, a climate scientist with International Rivers.

A coalition of the unwilling

What the “Copenhagen Agreement” leak signals, above all, is a lack of ambition on the part of industrialised countries to make emissions reductions at home or meet their financial and other obligations to the South. “Despite the hype, the talk of ´Hopenhagen´, the supposed political will to ´get it done´, this set of negotiations might be no different than anything that has come before” concludes Rhiya Trivedi, a member of the Canadian Youth Delegation to Copenhagen. “It could be just another round of the North-South divide and power struggle.”

Business as usual, in other words.

Oscar Reyes
Team member of Carbon Trade Watch


* The article appears in the Climate Chronicle newspaper published at the Copenhagen climate talks..

* Oscar Reyes (London, 1977) works on TNI´s Environmental Justice project, is environment editor of Red Pepper magazine, and is co-author of Carbon Trading : how it works and why it fails. From 2005-2008, he was TNI Communications Officer and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine.

He has a BA from Somerville College, Oxford University and an MA in Politics (Ideology and Discourse Analysis) from the University of Essex. Before joining TNI he was a lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of East London ; a lecturer in European Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London ; and co-presenter and producer of a weekly radio show on London’s Resonance FM.

He was also writer and presenter of World Week Watch, a round-up of global news on Press TV. He was a TNI Young Fellow in 2005.

From Europe Solidaire sans Frontieres

We demand effective commitments for fighting climate change

Alianza Social Continental

Between the 7th and 18th of December, 2009 during the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP15) in Copenhagen, world governments will attempt to make commitments for reducing carbon emissions and lay out policies for mitigating climate change. In the face of the urgency and the growing recognition of the dangerous consequences of this phenomenon, the whole world is awaiting the decisions that will be made.

Nonetheless, the transformation of the climate is advancing faster than the negotiations, given the lack of political will of the industrialized nations and their hurry to transform the need for solutions into business opportunities. These are the principle obstacles to the adoption of policies that truly contribute to avoiding climate change and counteracting the environmental damages that the current production model has created. In the face of such obstacles social and popular movements and organizations, environmental groups, unions, indigenous communities and women’s organizations from the entire American continent raise the flags of climate and ecological justice, demand from our governments a real commitment and urge the whole of society to recognize the need to change our patterns of consumption and production.

In recent years it has been more and more evident that the climate is changing due to global warming. This is reflected in, among other impacts, the increase of extreme climate events that affect disproportionally the so-called developing countries. This is a grave problem that humanity faces, heightening other existing problems like poverty, hunger, violence, social inequality, problems of gender (women make up 70% of poor people), the control of land, food sovereignty, access to water and sanitation, among others.

Who is responsible?

We the social organizations of Latin America believe that it is necessary to seek solutions through the search for Climate and Ecological Justice, which should be based in the recognition that each human being has the right to climatic and environmental space and that nature, as a whole, has rights that should be respected. Although climate change requires global actions, the historical responsibility for emitting the majority (80%) of the greenhouse gases in the last 250 years lies on the countries of the North. Cheap energy has been the motor for their rapid industrialization and economic growth, while the countries of the South have assumed the economic, social and environmental costs of extradition, transport and production of fossil fuels. The countries of the North should recognize the existence of an ecological, social, financial and historical debt to the countries of the South and to nature.

The unprecedented crisis that the world is currently living reveals the failure of the capitalist system and its neoliberal model, whose ideologues believed – and still believe – that the laws of the market are more important than life, converting natural resources into merchandise and removing the State from is role to regulate, protect and promote, converting the State into a mere manager. The climate crisis is the result of a development model that promotes production based upon the use of fossil fuels; deforestation; monoculture; industrial agriculture and cattle farming; and the intensive, chaotic and massive extraction of natural resources from the earth, all with the aim of exportation and of strengthening in the countries of the North and in the upper classes patterns of exaggerated consumption, which have contributed to the generation and concentration of greenhouse gases, the direct cause of climate change.

The major corporations and their accomplice governments are therefore those principally responsible for the emission of CO2 and the exhaustion of the planet’s natural resources, and at the same time are those promoting an accelerated and limitless rhythm of consumption that is closing the circle of the debilitation and destruction of Mother Earth. In the words of Evo Morales, “‘climate change’ has placed humanity in the face of a grave dilemma: continue on the path of capitalism and death, or embark on the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”

The liberalization and deregulation of international commerce and the investment and protection of intellectual property (imposed via the WTO and Free Trade Agreements) contribute to climate change because they guarantee and promote the continuation of the production, consumption and commercial model and deepen the international division of labor that has destroyed the economies of the South, provoking great migratory waves. In addition, the illegitimate indebting of our countries, imposed to favor the policies and projects that have generated enormous ecological and climate debts, continue being a heavy factor in these unequal and submissive relationships. It is imperative to change the rules of the world economy, currently governed by transnational corporations. Additionally, it is very important to guarantee access for the countries of the South to existing technology and to at the same time develop new technologies with low carbon emissions that are appropriate to national realities without becoming the source of financial or technological dependence.

Our demands

In the context of this exportation and extraction model that prioritizes economic benefits and the rights of transnational corporations over human rights and the rights of nature, those responsible have proposed some solutions to climate change that instead of addressing the true causes, maintain the unsustainable production and consumption structures and project onto the backs of the people and the most-affected countries the costs of mitigation or adaption.

Developed countries have not fulfilled the greenhouse gas emissions reduction agreements of the Kyoto Protocols, and have created an emissions trading system instead of eliminating carbon encourages practices that don’t actually reduce it, reproducing the speculative logic of the financial system and allowing companies and governments of the North to evade with money the assumed obligations to reduce emissions.

Biofuels do not constitute a real solution to the environmental problematic. The change in the use of land for cultivating palm and cane puts at risk food sovereignty, forests, biodiversity and the territorial relationships of native and rural communities. The purpose of biofuels is to maintain the patterns of energy consumption of industrialized countries.

Market mechanisms are based upon manipulation and business lobbying, incentivized and even financed by the World Bank, the International Development Bank and other development banks, investors and lenders. They are slow and complicated mechanisms that exclude local and indigenous communities from the decisions that affect their territories. These instruments don’t solve the climate crisis, but instead allow the North to transfer its obligation to reduce emissions and the problem itself to the people of the South.

The recent negotiations in Bangkok and Barcelona, preceding the meeting in Copenhagen, have served as the stage for the countries of the North to align their agreements on the reduction of emissions with the commitments of the countries of the South, who they blame for the lack of results and agreements. We demand the participation of all countries in the search for solutions to climate change, but recognizing that in order to be effective, the starting point should be the respect for and compliance with the commitments and diversified obligations agreed upon by industrialized countries more than 15 years ago, in agreement with their historic obligation. Even if there are advances in the commitments of the South, there is no guarantee that the mitigation of the countries of the North will be effective (and not using false market solutions, as has occurred until now).

The International Financial Institutions, co-responsible for the current global financial, economic and climate crisis, promote market solutions through credit programs that allow them to maintain the status quo and continue intervening in the political and social economy of the countries of the South. We therefore demand the immediate end of this conduct of the International Financial Institutions, which only contributes to the imposition of a speculative logic in the management of climate issues. No resource destined to the mitigation or adaption of climate change should be converted into debt.

We demand from the industrialized countries a commitment to the restitution and reparation for the peoples and countries of the South, through mechanisms and alternative flows of funds and the transfer of technologies in order to assure the life of the planet. The necessary reparations should be based on the autodetermination of communities and with the guarantee of no repetition.

All governments should promote alternatives that contribute to the mitigation of the effects of climate change. Similarly, it is essential to discuss current proposals, like the REDD program (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which prioritize monocultures of trees instead of the protection of tropical forests, offering industrialized countries a way to compensate for increased emissions of greenhouse gases without committing to reducing emissions.

Alternatives from the Americas

As social organizations we demand that our governments prioritize the strengthening of local and regional economies; peasant agriculture; and the recognition of the rights of working men and women, indigenous peoples, peasants, and fishermen to protect their territory and natural resources. The governments should promote the transition to sustainable societies that are not based on hydrocarbons. Public policies that guarantee a just transition to another economy are necessary so that it won’t always be the same ones picking up the bill.

The international climate negotiations can’t be based on market mechanisms, but instead should contribute to the reversal of the development model based on unrestricted export-oriented growth. The negotiations should look to a new model of production, consumption, distribution and consumption, based on the sovereignty, solidarity and integration of peoples. We demand that those responsible for climate change transform the consumer lifestyle and the economic system that they have imposed on society.

For the indigenous communities, women, peasant and afro-descendent communities of our countries, the defense of projects that sustain life has been very important. Along with other social movements they have been constructing a different vision of territory, development, and economics that emphasizes biodiversity and the sustainable use of resources. It is necessary to recognize and appreciate the community knowledge and the traditional practices bases on coexistence with Mother Earth and respect of her rights.

Our continent is heterogeneous. From dense urban populations to tiny villages that promulgate the Good Life. We should nourish ourselves with these realties in order to formulate alternatives, demand effective commitments from governments and advance in the struggle of the people for sovereignty and social and climate justice.


8 December 2009


Courtesy CADTM website


The Politics of Surrealism

Amanda Armstrong

Morning Star:
surrealism, marxism, anarchism, situationism, utopian
By Michael Löwy
University of Texas Press, 2009, 174 pages,
44 line drawings. $55 hardcover.

IN THE FIRST notebook of his Grundrisse, composed in 1857, Marx predicted that the “romantic viewpoint” would “accompany [capitalism] as its legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end.”(1) He believed that romanticism, with its celebration of the richness — real or imagined — of pre-capitalist life, would remain a perennial reaction to the reification of social life under capitalism.

While some of Marx’s more famous predictions on overcoming of capitalism have not yet been fulfilled, as Michael Löwy shows in Morning Star, 20th-century history has vindicated Marx’s confidence in the durability of romanticism.

In the ten essays that make up Morning Star, first published here in English as part of the University of Texas Press Surrealist Revolution series, Löwy argues that the “romantic viewpoint” found its most fitting, and most insistently anti-capitalist, 20th-century guise in the transnational and multi-generational movement of Surrealism.

Three early chapters of this attractively designed book offer broad reflections on the political and philosophical entanglements of the movement, while later essays provide political biographies of an assortment of Francophone surrealists (Breton, Cahun, Bounoure, Saban), as well as a few of their more prominent interlocutors on the Left (Naville, Debord).

The final chapter attempts a comprehensive review of international surrealist activity post-1969, closing with a message to would-be 21st-century surrealists.

Löwy reminds us that we should not be indifferent to surrealism’s past —“Anything that cannot find a spark of hope in the past has no future” — even as he insists that, if it is to have a future, surrealism must remain radically open: “The old ways, the paved roads, and the beaten paths are in the hands of the enemy. New ways must be found — the wanderer makes the path.” (116)

As this closing exhortation makes apparent, Morning Star is a committed text, written by a participant in the movement it chronicles. This provides the book with a satisfying coherence, as Löwy’s constructive project enables him to glue together into a single, multilayered image what might otherwise appear to be unrelated historical and biographical vignettes.

At times, however, Löwy’s commitment seems to discourage him from raising thorny questions about the history and politics of the movement — questions that must be worked through if we are to find new paths to surrealism and socialism in the 21st century.

Romanticisms, Left and Right

That the broad tradition of romanticism has cross-cutting and mercurial political impulses is something of a commonplace observation in critical discourse, and one that Löwy reiterates in Morning Star. As he notes, the romantic banner has been carried by both left-wing utopians from Fourier to Bloch, as well as a menagerie of reactionary cultural nationalists — agitated men who could be found skimming their copy of Herder when they weren’t busy railing against suffragists and socialists.

While a few surrealists, most notably Dalí, wandered over to this conservative camp, the vast majority allied for most of their lives with Left movements (particularly Trotskyism and anarchism), and in their works heaped scorn on the reactionary romantic fetishes of family, race and nation. One of Löwy’s projects in Morning Star is the reconstruction and explanation of these relatively consistent political commitments.

He presents two arguments for how surrealists sidestepped the conservative strains of the romantic tradition. First, Breton et al. were highly selective when drawing inspiration from the past: while they were inspired by Gothic literature, alchemy, American Indian art forms, and the rebellious verses of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, any past cultural traditions that reeked of religious hierarchy or national chauvinism drew their ire.

Surrealists were searching the archive for art forms that would shatter, rather than confirm, imperial bourgeois culture — a culture in which traditional patriarchal and religious ideals were utilized in order to sanctify hyper-modern forms of social control.

Second, Löwy suggests that the influence of Marx, a critical inheritor of the Enlightenment, channeled surrealists’ romantic passions in socially emancipatory directions. As his historical chapters make clear — particularly on Pierre Naville’s The Revolution and the Intellectuals — surrealists have widely embraced the Marxian critique of capitalism and have consistently moved in the same circles as revolutionary socialists.

While these circles were often riven by polemics and personal animosities, including those between Naville and Breton, Löwy suggests that the severity of such clashes has been overstated by historians of the movement.(2) To demonstrate the point, Löwy reveals that Naville, shortly before his death in 1993, sent an enthusiastic letter to Breton's supporter Franklin Rosemont, of the Chicago Surrealists, expressing his hope that “your Surrealist movement will renew what we tried to do so long ago.” (62)

By taking up Marx’s critique of capitalist modernity, surrealists have generally been able to avoid some of the destructive political and aesthetic shortcuts that are characteristic of conservative romanticisms. While conservative romantics idealize the traces of earlier, hierarchical social formations in such a way as to put a human face on inhumane social conditions, surrealists seek to expose the cracked lineaments of contemporary systems of exploitation.

Walter Benjamin's Surrealism essay explains how these competing political aims manifest themselves at the level of aesthetic form:

“Here due weight must be given to the insight that in the Traité du style, Aragon’s last book, required a distinction between metaphor and image, a happy insight into questions of style that needs extending. Extension: nowhere do these two — metaphor and image — collide so drastically and so irreconcilably as in politics. For to organize pessimism means nothing other than to expel moral metaphor from politics and to discover in political action a sphere reserved one hundred per cent for images …. Only when in technology body and image so interpenetrate that all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation,(3) and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge, has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto. For the moment, only the Surrealists have understood its present commands. They exchange, to a man, the play of human features for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds.”(4)

Benjamin's somewhat enigmatic analysis here provides the scattered fragments of a political-aesthetic diagnosis of surrealism which would sharply differentiate this movement from conservative romantic traditions. While such traditions trade in “moral metaphor” and the “play of human features” — idealized human forms which are meant to serve as soothing allegories of the supposedly homogenous and unified social body — surrealists circulate what Benjamin elsewhere terms “dialectical images.”

Such images split the putrid air of our petrified world, rendering uncanny and untimely the dazzling spectacles and dancing commodities that everywhere captivate our senses.

Dialectical images perform this defamiliarizing and activity-generating (“innervating”) task in a variety of ways: by juxtaposing idealized forms with images of the violence required to produce and sustain these forms, by showing the aging of industrial wonders such as railroads in a way that reveals the historicity of the present, by transfiguring marks of capitalist drudgery into signs of revolution (i.e. Benjamin’s alarm clock), by tearing objects out of their conventional contexts in order to reveal their unexpected possible uses, and by offering hints of the marvelous freedoms that could materialize in a post-capitalist world.

The black-and-white images reproduced in Morning Star, many of them surrealist montages, are compelling examples.

A number of these montages, particularly those made by Albert Marencin, deform and render uncanny conventional images of women and/or bourgeois domesticity. In one image, the nude torso of a woman is superimposed over the scene of a shipwreck, while in another, a couple of Victorian women converse with birds in a room crammed with stately public buildings.

Undoing Gender: Claude Cahun

These montages open up questions about the gender and sexual politics of surrealism — questions that Löwy addresses, though somewhat indirectly, in his lengthy chapter on Claude Cahun. Cahun, whose works have recently been rediscovered by a cohort of younger queer and feminist artists, was a prominent early surrealist who worked, like Man Ray, in the medium of photography.

Her best known pieces are self-portraits, which scramble conventions of gender and expose the violence underpinning normative heterosexual relations. Even as these photographs have had an energizing effect on a new generation of radical artists, however, her written contributions to socialist and surrealist theory are at risk of falling into obscurity.

Löwy’s chapter on Cahun does an admirable job of outlining and contextualizing her theoretical essays, while also recounting Cahun and her life partner’s courageous and creative opposition to Nazi occupation.

In presenting Cahun’s theoretical work, Löwy focuses particularly on a polemical essay she wrote in 1934, entitled Les Paris sont ouverts (Bets Are On). In it, Cahun takes aim at the instrumentalization of art for ideological ends, directing most of her ire at Louis Aragon, who by this time had begun writing canned poems in celebration of the Soviet Union.

According to Cahun, ideological poetry invokes moral ideals and utilizes soothing formal devices such as predictable rhyming schemes in order to neutralize its readers, whereas emancipatory art brings social contradictions to the surface, and thus provokes its readers to critical reflection and action.

In providing examples of ideological art, she references state and corporate ad jingles, such as “Every elegant woman is a client of Le Printemps,” and “Your Fatherland is the USSR, one-sixth of the planet” — lines of patriarchal pseudopoetry that, like Aragon’s latest works, enable little more than “revolutionary masturbation.” (70)

Ironically, in distinguishing ideologically deformed art from authentically emancipatory works, Cahun echoed Benjamin’s aforementioned arguments about dialectical images, which were themselves inspired by Aragon’s pre-Stalinist works. Her essay supplemented Benjamin and the early Aragon’s arguments, though, as it added a psycho-sexual dimension to their more narrowly political and aesthetic reflections. It also broke new ground by aligning an emergent Stalinist culture with earlier, conservative forms of romanticism, thus setting in motion the surrealists’ decisive break with Stalinism.

Shortcomings on Sexuality

Cahun’s essays, when read alongside her self-portraits, issue a defiant surrealist response to sexual and gender oppression — a response that, unfortunately, was not always embraced by other participants in the movement. While Bets Are On was generally well received by Breton and his collaborators (in part because it explicitly criticized Aragon), Cahun’s gender nonconformity and queer sexuality met with a sometimes hostile reception, according to Löwy. (73)

Nor were the surrealist movement’s false steps around gender and sexuality simply confined to interpersonal settings; a number of surrealist images, for instance, depict women’s bodies in ways that are less than emancipatory. From Man Ray’s photographs, which, while sometimes raising critical questions about sexuality and violence, too often simply present women’s bodies as eroticized fetish objects, to a number of early surrealist montages, which convey “shock effects” via the depiction of dismembered female body parts — so many fishnet-clad legs and made-up faces — early surrealist images, particularly those produced by men, often confirmed normative heterosexuality rather than disrupting this formation.

Of course it would be possible to pass over this failure by ascribing it to a residual “influence of the times,” or to reorient the discussion by pointing out that surrealist women produced an extensive corpus of pre-second-wave feminist art, and in this way helped spark the 1960s international movement for women’s liberation.(5) While these are no doubt legitimate responses, it seems to me that we might still have something to learn by thinking through this particular failure.

One way that we might make sense of the use of dismembered female body parts in surrealist montages is to see these images as misguided attempts to shatter the symbolically charged figure of “the woman” — a figure regularly employed by imperialist myth-makers in the form of the “national woman” or “national mother.”

The mistake of the surrealist producers of these montages was twofold. First, they assumed that this figure was nothing more than a false image which could be overcome by literally being shattered, rather than seeing it as an oppressive ideal that daily molded women’s bodies and psyches and that could only be overcome through a sustained struggle to demonstrate that women were other than this oppressive ideal.

Second, they assumed that depictions of the death and dismemberment of women were unconventional and shocking, when in reality they were both an integral element of national allegories that treated women’s deaths as sublime acts of sacrifice, and potentially complicit in the naturalization of violence against women. In this way, images that might have appeared subversive actually bore within themselves a reactionary kernel.

Only through critical feminist reflection, performed in part by surrealist women, could this kernel be exposed and overcome. This is an important lesson for the present, since, as Jacques Rancière argues in The Future of the Image, artistic processes that may have been counter-hegemonic in the past have recently been recaptured by an emergent neoliberal cultural establishment.(6)

Rather than exposing social contradictions, montage today more often sacralizes our global commodity culture by suggesting that all people and objects partake in a seamless, universal system: the montage practiced in MTV studios as well as leading art galleries invites us to revel in the exchangeability of all things, rather than work to exchange our current social order for a less damaging world.

In the face of this challenge, much critical and historical reflection will be required if we want to reconstruct an emancipatory artistic and political practice in the 21st century. For those interested in taking on this task, Löwy's Morning Star is essential reading.


  1. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin and New Left Review, 1993), 162.

  2. For a traditional interpretation of the Naville/Breton split, see Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 291.

  3. Innervation is a keyword Benjamin also employed in his famous essay on Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility. It means, more or less, the opposite of enervation. While many early 20th-century cultural critics thought that technology had an enervating effect on the masses, Benjamin saw the possibility for technology to be employed in ways that would stimulate revolutionary energies — a possibility that the surrealists also saw.

  4. Walter Benjamin, Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, Trans. Edmond Jephcott (NLR I/108, March-April, 1978).

  5. For an extensive compilation of surrealist women’s theoretical and artistic compositions, see: Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas, 1998).

  6. Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007).

 Courtesy, ATC 143, November-December 2009

On Darwin's 200th Anniversary

Ansar Fayyazuddin

THE YEAR 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his celebrated book On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Darwin left an indelible mark on our understanding of the world we live in and our place in history.

Darwin is the subject of vast amounts of scholarly research, including much writing appearing in this anniversary year. Here I want to touch on a few aspects of Darwin’s life and work that I find interesting.

Darwin was born in 1809 into a wealthy family headed by his medical doctor father and his mother, the daughter of Josiah Wedgewood — the industrialist who made his fortune manufacturing fine china. Darwin’s mother died while he was still quite young. Charles’ father Robert, and grandfather Erasmus, were freethinkers, who rejected Christianity and, in the case of Erasmus, openly sought a materialist understanding of the natural world.

Indeed, Darwin’s grandfather believed in the interconnectedness and common origin of all species. In fact, the idea that species were related was an idea with some currency even before Charles Darwin made his contributions to the subject. The Linnaean taxonomy of the living world, in which the similarities of different living forms were used to classify them hierarchically as belonging to different kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, families, genera and species was already in place.

The taxonomy posed — in retrospect at least — the question: if each species was created separately, as a literal reading of the Bible would imply, why were there structural similarities across species, genera, classes etc? Why was Linnaeus’ classification sensible?

While the interconnectedness and common origin of species, as a general idea, predates Darwin’s work by many years, what was lacking was a compelling mechanism for affecting the transformation of one species into another. Lamarckism was the one exception — it provided a way in which incremental changes could accumulate to give rise to the bigger differences that separated one species from another.

Lamarckism was based on the idea that physical changes accrued over the lifetime of an organism can be inherited by offspring. While I cannot dwell on this subject, I want to note that Darwin did not reject out of hand Lamarckian mechanisms in evolution, even in his later writings. (The genetic mechanism for evolutionary change wasn’t understood till much later.)

Careful Study, Brilliant Insight

Darwin presented a mechanism for accumulating incremental change based on a series of brilliant extrapolations from his own detailed factual knowledge of the natural world. Darwin’s reliance on knowledge acquired through careful study of nature distinguished him from the majority of his contemporary theorists of evolution, whose motivations were at times more ideological than scientific.

Darwin acquired this knowledge first as a boy and a young man avidly collecting beetles, an interest he shared with a burgeoning population of young naturalists who collected, sorted and displayed with pride the myriad varieties they had collected in the British outdoors. He went on to develop his knowledge of the natural world at Edinburgh and Cambridge.

At the end of his undergraduate years at Cambridge, Darwin had the great fortune of spending five years aboard the Beagle as a naturalist sailing all along the South American coast and further to the Galapagos Islands and Australia. Samples of animal and vegetable species, which he diligently collected and shipped back to England, ensured that on his return he was already a celebrated naturalist.

Later, in developing his theoretical ideas, Darwin undertook serious experimental work at home, breeding pigeons, conducting experiments on plants and, perhaps most importantly, enlisting the help of farmers and domestic animal breeders to learn about a subject that provided him the key metaphor for his work on the origin of species.

Darwin’s insight was based on a brilliant leap. He observed that within domesticated species there exist varieties. Dogs come in many varieties, commonly known as breeds, as do pigeons, cows and other domesticated species. Darwin connected the existence of varieties to the existence of species where in the latter, the differences are significantly greater than in the former. He made the point explicitly in the Origin:

“...varieties are species in the process of formation, or are, as I have called them incipient species.”

He went on to develop a parallel with the creation of varieties through selective breeding to the emergence of new species in nature. Selective breeding allows one to create specific varieties that would normally not exist if domestic animals were allowed to mate freely. If an analogous mechanism existed in nature to enhance particular qualities in the offspring through selective breeding, then that would explain the development of specific varieties at first that could then eventually develop enough to be called separate species. The differences further up the Linnaean hierarchy would simply be the extrapolation of this mechanism to create large enough differences.

The mechanism of selection that Darwin called “Natural Selection” was based on the differential ability of organisms to survive environmentally imposed constraints. These constraints could restrict the pool of a particular species to only those of its members with an enhanced ability to survive them. Breeding within the restricted pool, combined with random variation in the offspring, would then develop the variations that conferred advantages with respect to the environmental constraints.

Two competing yet complementary ideas informed the mechanism of selection — on the one hand, the heritability of traits; on the other, the random variation of traits in the offspring.

These necessary elements of Darwin’s mechanism verge on contradicting each other. The stability of species is based on offspring inheriting traits from their parents. Yet if offspring only inherited their parents’ traits, the transition from one species to another would not be possible. Thus random variations in traits must exist. These random variations would not accumulate in the absence of particular selective environmental pressures.

England in the first half of the 19th century was locked in a three-way struggle for class supremacy. The landed aristocracy with its increasingly precarious position in English society, the rising industrial bourgeoisie gathering economic and political strength, and the working class emerging with its first stirrings of class consciousness, fought for their interests in that particularly charged historical moment.

The Social Context

The overturning of the protectionist corn laws, in place to help the aristocracy against the capitalist market, and the brutal defeat of the workers’ Chartist movement,were significant moments marking the eventual victory of the English bourgeoisie. In front of everyone’s eyes, England was being transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society. History was not a cycle of birth and death but of change, and not random change but with a direction.

This is the world in which Charles Lyell, the geologist, and Darwin lived. Britain at that historical moment provided the metaphors of change, struggle and competition that informed that generation. The ideas of Thomas Malthus on natural constraints on humanity due to the incommensurate rates at which populations and the food supply increase, were popular and exerted a decisive influence on Darwin.

Lyell showed that mountains, oceans and all elements of the geological world are not static but changing. Small changes accumulate to transform one geological formation into another. And most importantly, that there is a history with a chronology that can be determined from observations today.

Darwin did the same for the living world. With the help of Lyell’s geology, he was able to propose the existence of a chronology of animal and plant life that could be recovered from fossils and the geological record.

Before Lyell and Darwin, the fixed laws of the physical sciences were their defining feature. When you perform an experiment in classical physics or chemistry, the outcome is independent of the starting time: that is, time is only relevant within the confines of a particular experiment and can be reset at will.

Darwin posed a serious challenge to this way of thinking about scientific knowledge. Two historical moments in natural history are not equivalent and the evolution's outcome cannot be predetermined. After all, natural selection relies on random variation and the particular “solution” to nature’s constraints is impossible to predict.

In addition, unlike physics and chemistry, where changing a few parameters are enough to adapt one situation to another similar one, the details of a given evolutionary natural history are central aspects of it, much like in ordinary history. The details and their causal relationships are the content of the scientific theory itself. Darwinian reasoning thus significantly expanded the scope of scientific inquiry.

The Origin and Today

The Origin of Species is a remarkable book. Unlike most classic works of science, Newton’s Principia for example, The Origin is relatively straightforward to comprehend. Even in relation to modern introductions to evolutionary theory, Darwin’s book stands out in its commitment to being understood. Darwin wrote no parallel book for the experts. The Origin was meant to serve both audiences. If there is a democratic purpose to science, if it is to make the world intelligible to ordinary people, then The Origin shows how one might achieve that purpose.

The democratic spirit evidenced in the stylistic simplicity of The Origin is also a central aspect of the content of Darwin’s theory. Evolutionary theory is not a “theory of progress.” A set of species that evolved later in time, for example, are not “superior” in any meaningful sense to their predecessors. Most evolutionary transformations are spurred by specific environmental challenges that do not change the level of complexity of the species or confer some absolute ahistorical and a-contextual advantage.

Nevertheless, both in popular depictions of evolution and in pseudoscientific racist theories, humans, and more specifically Northern Europeans, are often viewed as the endpoints of a linearly progressing evolutionary trajectory. Nothing could have been further from Darwin’s intent.

Darwin, at times at his peril, spoke out against rational justification of societal inequalities, particularly in the form of slavery, which he found completely abhorrent. Yet “scientific” metrics of ordering humanity into hierarchical schemes are constantly invented to give biological justification to the inequalities of society. These theories of race, gender, and class are based on a twisted sensibility that quite unjustifiably claim evolutionary theory as their basis.

Darin's influence permeates a far wider sphere than natural history itself. Although Darwin was not particularly mathematically inclined, central elements of his theory — variation and heritability — led to the first introduction of statistical thinking in the sciences and its rigorous foundation in mathematics. Statistical thinking is a mainstay not only of science, but of the way we often conceive problems of everyday life.

Nevertheless there are contested territories of the Darwinian legacy that often reflect the ideological commitments of the debate participants. These include the relative importance of natural selection and adaptation to other mechanisms of evolutionary change (random drift in populations, for instance), as well as the importance of non-genetic mechanism of inheritance.

Humans are not simply biological organisms; we live in societies that change our relationship to environmental pressures. Short-sighted people today, thanks to the social production of eyeglasses, are not subject to the unmediated consequences of their would-be handicap. More generally, culturally inherited knowledge impacts our ability to survive.

Darwin continues to excite debate, both among those who embrace his ideas and those who reject them. These debates are after all about what it means to be human and about our future.

Further Reading

I highly recommend reading The Origin of Species. While easy to understand, it may require a bit of persistence to wade through some of the more detailed explanations. But these details are of interest in their own right — a testament to the 20 years of thought that Darwin put into fleshing out his initial insight, and refuting his own doubts as well as those of his closest confidants.

Darwin’s Autobiography, written originally to provide a sketch of his life for his grandchildren, is a slender and very readable volume. In addition to an outline of his life, the book provides portraits of some major contemporary figures in British intellectual life, an account of Darwin’s loss of religious faith, his thoughts on the nature and acquisition of scientific knowledge, among other observations, making it an altogether delightful read.

Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (W.W. Norton and Company, 1994) is a tour-de-force biography putting Darwin’s life in the context of the larger unfolding of British history in that transformational political and intellectual period.

On evolutionary theory, I am fond of the treatment of evolution and creationism presented in Niles Eldredge’s book The Triumph of Evolution: and the failure of creationism (W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000), which is not only an excellent introduction to evolutionary theory, but is also a damning substantive debunking of “creation science” in its many guises.

ATC 143, November-December 2009