Commemorating the Indian Journal Frontier During These Times

Commemorating the Indian Journal Frontier During These Times

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As the piece makes clear, Frontier is a democratic-socialist journal that was founded 50 years ago. This piece is written for the commemorative issue. Its founding editor, Samar Sen (1916-1987), was a major Bengali poet and journalist who influenced me greatly, and my contact with the journal continues. I often regret that the journal does not have a greater global circulation.



In 1968, as the liberal plans made immediately after Independence seemed well and truly gone, and in the shadow of Naxalbari, Samar Sen founded Frontier, a journal for socialism and democracy.

Samar Sen died in 1987.  Timir Basu had already started working at Frontier before that date.  After Sen’s death he has kept Frontier going almost singlehandedly.  We celebrate Sen and Basu as we celebrate Frontier.

Today, times are also bad, and in a way that we perhaps could not have predicted in 1968. The state supervises every corner of the citizen’s life.  Islamophobia has reached such a level that 4 million Muslim citizens of Assam were disfranchised last month.  There is a proposal to deport Rohingya refugees as terrorists.  An ancient religious dietary restriction is masquerading as the law of the land, a law that can de facto justify lynching and de jure destroy curricula.  Greed, rape, and bribe are the prime movers of society.  Jurists, law enforcers, and the state are no exception.

Frantz Fanon had predicted our predicament: “the leader will unmask his inner purpose: to be the CEO of the society of profiteers intent on getting the most that constitutes the national bourgeoisie. . . .  The leader . . . constitutes a screen between the people and the grasping bourgeoisie because he lends his support to the entrepreneurship of this caste and turns a blind eye to its insolence, mediocrity, and fundamental immorality. He helps to curb the growing awareness of the people. He lends his support to this caste and hides its maneuvers from the people, thus becoming its most vital tool for mystifying and numbing the senses of the masses” (The Wretched of the Earth, tr. Richard Philcox, p. 112-113; translation modified).

Such leaders use the so-called democratic structure to preserve the patrimonial state, running on patronage.  They rule over a “hybrid that includes aspects of a modern state. The machinery of the state expands enormously particularly in public welfare and in the economy, but patrimonial relationships and reciprocities remain significant while the rule of law central to bureaucratic authority [is] shallow” (Miguel Angel Centeno, “Max Weber and the Latin American State” Max Weber: una mirada iberoamericana (Fondo de Cultura Económica y el Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE): Draft: March 2013), p. 12.; translation modified).

Frontier is more than ever needed now.  Yet it suffers from material difficulties – housing, subscriptions – that we cannot ignore.  Such things can perhaps be remedied.  But the real problem is the mindset of a new readership, and of a new group of writers.  For the disastrous postcolonial consequences described in the passages quoted above (Fanon and modified Weber) can only come about if the largest sector of the electorate – proletariat, sub-proletariat, and the rural poor – are kept miserably educated.  I am not now speaking of income-producing education, but rather the kind of education, training in the intuitions of democracy from childhood on up, in which Gramsci, Fanon, and Paulo Freire were passionately interested that my friends the mechanical Marxists invariably dismiss as individualist.

Paying membership dues to a party does not produce a mindset that might undermine greed and want to use capital for social purposes; or understand that democracy is other people; or yet that leaders follow.  Putting other people first can remain comfortably confined to women and servants.  The vanguardism that undertook to produce class consciousness among the masses came into place largely because organized opposition from Europe followed immediately after the success of the Bolsheviks.  In the sixties “consciousness raising,” now called “awareness,” were and are shortcuts in the name of more liberal “revolutions.”  We must come to terms, learning the bitter lessons of failed revolutions, that intellectual labor cannot be saved or dismissed as bourgeois.

Another bitter lesson is the shortcut represented by Human Rights, an unavoidable stopgap sprung up as a consequence of the unavoidable “norming” of both state (neo-patrimonial) and revolution (state capitalism run by a vanguardist sector).  In the face of the extraordinary violence and cruelty of our world – greed, rape, bribe – this shortcut must continue to be used.  But it cannot, indeed must not be forgotten that democratic freedoms are abstract structures of rights and responsibilities (freedom from in order to exercise freedom to) that must be bound to the textuality of life in order to be exercised.  Do not fault me for using the word “textuality.” For 40 years now, we have been explaining that “text” comes from weaving, as in textile and that it is one of the many “truism”s (Chomsky) produced by deconstruction that our lives are woven with many strands.

They are not just a collection of facts. And this characteristic of democracy, that all freedoms had to be bound in order to be exercised require so much more imaginative training than the simple access to something called human rights, organized and supervised by the benevolent members of the ruling class upon those who have no way – in the current travesty of “education” — of understanding and internalizing the revolutionary historical burden the words “human rights” carry.

Here, too, saving intellectual labor leaves the largest sector of the electorate incapable of not succumbing to the tyrants’ gifts to win votes and of distinguishing them from the gifts of the international civil society working with self-selected domestic public interest litigators – called human rights.  Feudality within a neo-patrimonial social formation. Here too we must learn a bitter lesson: however much the bourgeois ideologues of the left idealize the “concrete” (itself an abstraction), the withdrawal of the right to intellectual labor from the masses did not allow them to learn the mysteries of abstraction and generalization, their vulnerability to the concrete, without which neither democracy nor socialism can survive.

The theocratic impulse in the country today calls for an education that takes into account that privatizing religion cannot be a shortcut to secularism.  One of the most startling discoveries if one engages in attempts to think through a democratic primary pedagogy is that the children of the extremely poor may have had their epistemic machines seriously damaged by deliberate neglect, but the imagination remains strong.  We must take advantage of this by forging a pedagogy that relies on the fact that imaginative “dialectal continuity” (borrowing vocabulary from linguistics) among religious varieties in the underclass is available in the longue durée ready to be tapped without sermonizing as a remedy to the genocidal viciousness fomented by the polity in power.  This is a hands on longterm teaching effort which tries to move the religious into the strongest mental capacity – the imagination – away from the narrowest and most restrictive: belief.  As it is described, it seems vague, wordy, and complex, but in the doing it is full of effortful joy, learning from mistakes.

We are celebrating a journal in this issue. Therefore, let me close with a story about the failure of journalism. For the last four or five years, three of us have been trying to interest important Indian journals in the fact that Ekal schools establish voting bases by opening gram [village] committees of 10 members consisting of the bottom rung of leaders of the opposition party. Since on this level access to computers as sources of online investigation is unavailable, these committees do not know the connection between the Ekal schools and the BJP.  In Birbhum, a district that I happen to know, there were 65 such schools. In the country 57,000+ last year, and today (according to Surya Parekh) 73,527.  If you include Nepal, 75,559.

That this had not much to do with the establishment of Hindutva – on the village level that was not a significant contribution – and everything with the securing of votes – was first of all difficult to explain. Our request was for a bit of simple investigative work to find out the numbers and investigate if the Birbhum structure was the structure of operation in all of India. No one did anything about it at all. We had all the easily available numbers to hand. A month or so ago I read a news item in Ananda Bazar Patrika which actually said that the Ekal schools were for securing votes.

Not just too late but also too little, for it was still not mentioned that the headquarters of the entire enterprise is in California. In fact Ben Baer and I went to this office and discovered how quickly California could access a village school in India and also how totally incapable they were of understanding anything that was actually going on in the village. This particular detail, that the entire thing is controlled from the IT sector run by Indians in the United States is still not something that we are aware of. End of story for the moment.

Preparing a new readership for Frontier is thus a metonym for a broad long-term project – about breaking class lines, using available imagination against prejudice, stop romanticizing the “concrete,” a project involving country and town. It is a project that should address the question of the mindset also of the readers and writers of those who learn to write in English in India.  And here Frontier is a unique phenomenon that continues to combine foreign and Indian English with absolute political confidence that preserves the highest of standards.  Claiming the right to our English, affirmatively sabotaging the class-contemptuous cultural distance usually promoted by “English medium” education.

Frontier zindabad.  Work forward to the next 50 years.



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