Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Heed the echoes of June 4

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The story of Monica Felton, Rajaji, Mandela — and history’s call to today’s democratic forces to rally together

This is about two June the 4ths, both of which bear a message for Indian politics today. The first is sited in Madras, 1959. The second, again, in Madras, 1964.

An Englishwoman, Marxist by conviction, an authority on urban planning and a passionate advocate of the World Peace Council, Monica Felton, had settled in India’s ‘southern capital’. Why, or for what combination of reasons this long-time London County Councillor representing St Pancras South West for the Labour Party should have chosen, of all places, Madras to settle in is not very clear. But a person from a very different, in fact, totally contrastive politics had made a powerful impression on her. She had little in common with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari’s political views. And yet there was a certain intellectual chemistry between them, love of English literature being certainly high on that shared list. She had even begun working on a biography of the octogenarian. And Swarajya, the English weekly that CR wrote for and was the soul of, was open to her to write in.

A party is born

On June 4, 1959, Felton went, at Rajagopalachari’s casual suggestion, to a public meeting in Madras’s Vivekananda College called by the All India Agriculturists’ Federation (AIAF). It was to be addressed by AIAF’s leader N.G. Ranga and the Parsi ex-Marxist and urbanite intellectual from the Right, Minoo Masani. The meeting was supposed to voice general dissent from the ‘statist’ politics of the Nehru government. But the audience, including the Englishwoman, was surprised to see CR and Jayaprakash Narayan arrive at it. And even more surprised when CR said, “This morning a new political party was formed. And the name of the new party is Swatantra Party.” The audience broke instantaneously into applause.

The party belonged to the Right, professedly and proudly so. The veteran socialist JP who was at the meeting did not join it, giving his good wishes to the idea of a democratic alternative to the Congress. Nor did the distinguished scholar-administrator C.D. Deshmukh, to whom CR offered its leadership. But Swatantra with CR being its powerhouse and Swarajya, his platform of expression, were to become a democratic force at the time, receiving respect from a cross-section, even if not active participation. Swatantra rallied non-Congress sentiment across the country.

Did CR’s new political avatar from the Right distance him from the ardent Leftist, Monica Felton? It did not. She found the octogenarian’s fervour quite fascinating. And Swarajya’s column space remained available to her, her politics, her world view.

This had much to with the liberal political atmosphere of the times, notwithstanding CR’s accusations of ‘totalitarian’ and ‘megalomaniac’ tendencies in Jawaharlal Nehru. Speaking at a public meeting in Madras, Nehru responded to CR’s opposition typically: “May I perhaps venture to say one word to him with great respect; and that is, a little charity in his thinking may sometimes not be out of place.” Felton asked CR, “Can’t you two work together?” He demurred but without retreating an inch from his opposition to “one party rule”, CR said of the equation between Nehru and himself: “We are positive friends and love each other.” Swatantra was to collapse in 1974, after CR died, but it had made a point: democratic opposition to a democratic party in power is a democratic desideratum.

Over in South Africa

Five years on, the world watched with some wonderment one man create another democratic history. Served by very conventional, slow and ponderous technologies of news transmission, it observed this 46-years-young South African, said to be ‘non-Marxist, but close to South Africa’s communists’, well on his way to becoming the anti-apartheid resistance’s utmost charismatic leader.

Nelson Mandela was a prisoner and being tried for inciting strikes and trying to overthrow the government. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, it was said, had played a role in the apartheid regime’s pursuit of Mandela and five others for suspected collaboration between them and South African communists, particularly Joe Slovo.

In what came to be known, celebrated in fact, as the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64, Mandela made major political statements in the course of his defence. At the opening of the trial, he made his celebrated ‘I am prepared to die’ speech with the lines:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But… if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Among those ‘listening’ to Mandela’s scorching words, and watching the creative interaction between the African National Congress and South Africa’s communists, was Felton.

Another June 4

On June 4, 1964, the Madras-based Swarajya carried an article by her about Mandela. It is a felicity that one of the early articles on him should have come in an organ of India’s political Right written by a figure from the Left. Titled ‘A Man Ready To Die’, her article said: “In this country, Mandela, whose ideas have been deeply influenced by India’s freedom struggle, is still not much more than a name.” She went on to say: “Although influenced by Marxist thought he did not become a communist. But there has often, he has said, been close collaboration between the African National Congress and the Communist Party.” And then she quoted Mandela directly: “Theoretical differences among those fighting against oppression are a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals… Because of this there are many Africans today who tend to equate freedom with communism.”

Felton’s article showed the importance of opposition unity in fighting oppression. South Africa’s liberation was still some three decades away, a period which would see Mandela jailed. It was night time for South Africa but somewhere its future ‘rainbow’ had been born.

Felton’s astonishing foresight helps us look back from these two June the 4ths and look ahead from them.

If that democrat of democrats, Nehru, could be faulted by seasoned democrats for fostering one-party rule, then, today, when a supremacist seeks to dominate Indian politics, the duty of democrats is clear. The pre-election example set by the Congress in backing Jignesh Mevani’s independent candidature in the Gujarat Assembly elections and that adopted by the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in the Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar by-elections won by them last week demands replication.

And if that leader of leaders, Mandela, could find it necessary to team up with South Africa’s communists to fight the racist oppression of apartheid, then, in India today all democratic parties must see the criticality of reaching out to that time-tested challenger of sectarianism — namely, the Left. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain if, in Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala in particular, they fight communal divisiveness in an alliance with India’s communist forces.

To borrow a Mandela phrase, India should see, in 2019, a truly rainbow outcome.

Courtesy The Hindu

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