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Human rights movements in India: State, civil society and beyond


Though, since its origin, the human rights movement (HRM) in India

has made significant interventions in the shaping of democratic politics,

there has been, rather surprisingly, no serious reflection on the various

shifts that it has gone through and the emerging trends, phases and discourses

within it. In fact, a pertinent question, given the various new

shifts, is: is there a single HRM at all in India today? Or, instead, are

there multiple movements that either run parallel to each other or continue

to work on mutually exclusive assumptions? It is equally significant to

ask if there has been a gradual growth or decline of the HRM in terms of

its overall impact since various organisations have been pulling the movement

in different directions. This article attempts to trace the various

phases and assumptions underlying each in terms of the inter-relationships

between the state, civil society and democracy, along with locating the

possible directions that the HRM might take and its implications for politics

in general, and other radical social struggles in particular.

The first organised initiative, perhaps, to form a civil liberties organisation

was taken by Jawaharlal Nehru on 7 November 1936, with the

founding of the Indian Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) with Rabindranath

Tagore as its president. Rights were articulated not only as guarantees

against the arbitrary state action that was so much a part of British colonial

rule, but also as the means necessary to achieve a more just and egalitarian

socio-economic order. It was this two-pronged strategy that formed the

basis of the anti-colonial struggle and the various instruments it set up,

including the Motilal Nehru Committee of 1928 and the Karachi session

of the Congress in 1931 which adopted the resolution on fundamental

rights. The strategy was a derivative of the conceptual distinction between

the natural rights tradition and the positivist tradition of articulating rights.

In the former, rights are envisaged as inalienable, having their origins in

nature, while in the positivist tradition ‘rights not only originate in the

action of the state, but are also entirely dependent on it for their existence’

(Singh 2005: 32). The state is the source and arbiter of rights and can

therefore legitimately even take them away in certain rare and wellspecified

situations. The civil liberties phase of the HRM movement in

the 1970s was primarily engaged with the state and was followed by the

democratic rights phase around the natural rights tradition. The latter was

looking to carve an autonomous civil societal sphere to locate and enlarge

the scope of the language of rights.1

1 See Aswini Ray (2003) for a more detailed historical narrative, as well as the collection

of papers submitted to the Indian civil liberties conference held in Madras on 16–17 July

1949, titled ‘Civil Liberties In India’, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

I am thankful to Ujjwal Kumar Singh for suggesting this important collection.

Human rights movements in India / 31


The history of the post-independence HRM in India can be traced back

to the early 1970s. The movement of the 1970s was located in a liminal

zone, between the shift from the Nehruvian era to Mrs Indira Gandhi

coming to power and the emergence of an authoritarian state on the one

hand, and the continued expectations from a welfarist state responsive

to the popular demands of the polity and its marginalised, on the other.

More than opposition to the state and the constitutional framework, it was

the everyday misuse of institutions and the violation of procedures that

formed the context for the beginning of the post-independence HRM in



State–civil society complementarity

In a meeting of Sarvodaya workers held in Bangalore in July 1972,

Jayaprakash Narayan advocated that a broad-based organisation should

be formed for the preservation and strengthening of democracy in India

and that the organisation should consist of all those who cherished democratic

values, but were not interested in power politics (Tarkunde 1991:

303). In an all-India conference convened in Delhi on 13–14 April 1974,

a non-party organisation called the Citizens For Democracy (CFD) was

formed with the objective of ensuring independence and autonomy, for

purposes of democratic and constitutional functioning, of various institutions

such as the judiciary, press, radio, bureaucracy, the office of the

President, the Election Commission and the Planning Commission,

among others. This experiment of building a pressure group for the more

effective and responsive functioning of state institutions was abruptly

cut short with the imposition of Emergency in the country on 25 June

1975 under Article 352 of the Constitution on the grounds that the ‘security

and integrity of India was in grave peril due to internal disturbance’.2

Jayaprakash Narayan and many of his followers were placed under preventive

detention. After his release, there appeared to be a need to expand

the scope of the CFD in order to protect the civil liberties or fundamental

rights of the citizens. In a well-attended conference held in New Delhi

2 Bipin Chandra (2003) completely ignores the role of JP in building the civil liberties

movement, and therefore reaches a one-sided conclusion that ‘Total Revolution’ had fascist




in October 1976, J.B. Kriplani, in the absence of Jayaprakash Narayan,

inaugurated the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) (Tarkunde

1991: 305).


The focus of the PUCL, given the immediate context of the Emergency

and the recent memory of the larger legacy of the Nehruvian era, was

limited to (a) the restoration of the rights curtailed or eliminated during

the Emergency (undoing the preventive detention law, curtailment of the

jurisdiction of the courts, censorship of the press, and so on); (b) punishment

for those responsible for excesses, through available legal recourse;

and (c) safeguards against taking arbitrary recourse to Emergency provisions

out of mere subjective considerations (Ram 1986: 91).

The PUCL was constituted by political figures and sections close to the

Janata Party, apart from the Radical Humanist Association and the professional

bodies of lawyers, academics and a few independent Gandhians.

More than activism and mass mobilisation, the thrust was upon drawing

in eminent personalities who could exert pressure, moral or otherwise,

on individuals and institutions. The issue of civil rights, which had political

connotations, was considered essentially legal and therefore legal

action was often considered the most effective method for making institutions

responsive and for protecting the rights of the common people,

the citizens of the country. State institutions like the judiciary were considered

effective representatives of both civil societal concerns and public


On 23 March 1977, the Janata Party came to power after the Emergency

was lifted. Subsequently, the HRM temporarily lost its direction as

most office bearers of PUCL who had played an important role were also

members of the Janata Party. Ostensibly there existed no clear and effective

distinction between the state and civil society. And since it was institutional

reforms and the restoration of fundamental rights alone that was

the focus, the need for an independent human rights organisation was

no longer felt. In fact, ‘at a national convention held in August 1977, top

Janata leaders, like Krishna Kant, declared that there was hardly any need

for a civil liberties movement as democrats had come to power’ (CPDR

1991: 284). After a gap of a few years and with the return of Mrs Gandhi

to power, the PUCL was revived in November 1980. A national convention

of civil rights workers converted the PUCL into a membership

organisation. V.M. Tarkunde took over as president, while Arun Shourie

became its general secretary and Professor Rajni Kothari was elected as

president of the Delhi unit. Their immediate concern, following the earlier

focus on institutions, was to draft a new Prison Act and Jail Manual.

This was in many ways the first phase of the HRM—the civil liberties

phase—working within the framework of state-civil society complementarity.

Organisations such as the PUCL perceived themselves as harbingers

of the emerging link between the state and civil society in a newly

formed nascent democracy. They were of the firm belief that:

the link works both ways: on the one hand, these groups [such as the

PUCL—my addition] breed ideas and give impulse to the system; on

the other hand, the political system sets and modifies the frame of

action for civil society. There is a constant flow and exchange between

the two spheres (Frevert 2005: 68).

Civil society was being mobilised, not to stand outside the state, but to

make the state more responsive and recognise its constitutional obligations

towards its citizens. It was understood that while a vibrant civil

society is necessary to make the state accountable, it was equally important

to recognise that the state and its policies legitimately determine how

far the self-organising powers of the citizens would reach. In other words,

the state’s constitutional framework guaranteed certain basic freedoms

and they needed to be effectively and progressively realised. It is due to

this implicit understanding that the PUCL never emphasised mass mobilisation

as much as it did recourse to available legal means.3

The state-civil society complementarity was to be pursued and further

achieved around two conjoined programmes of first, (re) establishing

the autonomy and independence of institutions of both the state and civil

society, and second, entrenching and strengthening the project of citizenship

by effectively realising citizens’ civil, political and social rights.

3 See Balagopal (1987). He argues that even during this period: ‘Extensive use was

made of the Preventive Detention Act, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the

Defence of India Rules; over wide areas the army was employed and the promulgation of

“Disturbed Areas” was effected. But all these were mainly against the tribal nationalities

of the North East and the communist-led peasants and workers in the rest of the country.

This did not spoil the state’s reputation for constitutionality very much’ (1987: 41).


The various initiatives taken by the PUCL to restore the autonomy of

institutions such as the judiciary by protesting against the curtailment of

the jurisdiction of the courts, were considered the precondition for the

presence of a rule of law necessary to curtail the arbitrary use of power

and democratic transgressions. No meaningful equality before law could

be presumed without the necessary neutrality, accountability and openness

of the intermediary institutions. In turn, however, it needs to be recognised

that the PUCL believed that ‘institutional autonomy of the judiciary

draws sustenance from the axiomatic assumption that the state alone can

guarantee essential freedoms to the individual’ (Gupta 2004: 232). Similarly,

it emphasised the autonomy of civil societal institutions such as

the media and educational institutions, by protesting against the censorship

of the press to make way for informed political participation that

could put an accountable and responsive state in place. It was precisely

for this reason that the PUCL had, fairly early, stressed the importance

of electoral reforms as the right to vote was an extremely potent tool

with which to fight discrimination, specially for the most vulnerable and

marginalised social groups. However, in a highly segmented society like

India, mere institutional autonomy was thought to be insufficient for

either guaranteeing social equality or even augmenting public welfare.

Institutions could be greatly efficient and autonomous; however, precisely

for this reason, they might deny entry to disadvantaged groups. Thus,

the PUCL, along with emphasising the autonomy of institutions, also

struggled to recover a ‘rights based civil society’, where all citizens could

have access to fundamental rights.


The PUCL mobilised itself not only against draconian provisions such

as the preventive detention law, in favour of safeguards against arbitrary

recourse to emergency provisions or for a new Prison Act, but also for

positive social rights (such as the right to education) so that all individuals

and social groups, as citizens, could achieve equality of status. Recognising

all individuals, irrespective of their caste, class, gender and regional

identities as citizens would initially give them legal equality, eventually

pull them out of their specific disadvantages and duly accommodate them

as part of the developmental goals of the state. Thus, in the first phase of

the HRM, the PUCL believed that ‘civil society as an ethic of freedom

manifests itself in the modern democratic constitutional state by creating

citizens and by upholding institutional autonomy’ (ibid.).

Human rights movements in India 



State versus civil society


The nature of the state under Mrs Gandhi underwent a dramatic transformation

with the authoritarian impulses of Nehru’s statist model of nation

building becoming more pronounced. Notwithstanding the welfare

orientation under Nehru, the state was also developed as a highly centralised

instrument to negotiate the different conflicts in civil society. Commenting

on this process, Bhikhu Parekh (1995: 44) observes that:

The state was the only conduit through which various parts of the society

related to one another and was a party to all disputes and conflicts.

It therefore became the sole centre of all political ambitions and energies

and an arena of powerful ideological passions.

It was this inherent trend of centralisation that Mrs Gandhi intended to

strengthen when she initiated a process of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ by

undermining intra-party elections; offering dubious concepts such as

‘committed bureaucracy’ and ‘committed judiciary’; encouraging a topdown

approach in order to hand pick chief ministers in various states;

and misusing Articles 356 and 352. More importantly, Mrs Gandhi was

using the idea of welfarism, the foundation of the state-civil society complementarity,

to further authoritarian and centralising tendencies. Centralised

planning, the use of modern technology and the role of ‘experts’

and technocrats became integral to governance. These methods, in the

name of maintaining efficiency, achieving ‘developmental’ goals and

preserving the ‘unity and integrity’ of the nation, increasingly created a

wedge between politics or popular participation and the government.4

This process was evident in the way a welfarist ‘20 point programme’

was announced during the Emergency. Welfarism was the new mode of

enhancing state control and disengaging the masses from popular participation

in the decision making process. Further, this was the period

when there was a fall in industrial growth. There were incidences of severe

drought and a sharp rise in food prices. The social base of the state

shifted to a newly emerging neo-rich or lumpen class, born largely out

of the leakages of the first phase of development. This class included

contractors, real estate dealers, liquor traders, rentiers, gamblers, speculators,

cinema producers and actors (Haragopal and Balagopal 1998: 360;

Sethi 1975: 25). The rise of the new classes was accompanied by a coercive

state which became increasingly evident in the use of force and rampant

manipulation of legal procedures. For instance:

those set free from preventive detention were brought back to prison—

often arrested outside the court premises or at the doorstep of the

prisons, on specific charges. A favourite device of some of the state

governments was the implication of individuals in a number of interlocking

cases. There was horizontal as well as vertical interlocking

(Ram 1986: 93).

In this period, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was used in Assam;

the National Security Act was put on the statute books and then amended

twice to make it even more draconian and a Terrorist and Disruptive

Activities (Prevention) Act was enacted and employed widely all the

way from Punjab to Andhra Pradesh.5

This, broadly, was the social and political context for the shift in the

HRM from its earlier state-civil society complementarity framework to

its second phase—the democratic rights phase—during the 1980s, marked

by a new state versus civil society framework. The split in the PUCL and

the formation of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in

Delhi signalled the beginning of this phase:

A section of activists felt that the usage of the terms ‘civil liberties’

by the PUCL leaders restricted itself to (these) codified safeguards.

The more radical activists used the category ‘democratic rights’ as a

critique to the term ‘civil liberties’. It implied the freedom to claim

even non-codified rights, or, in other words, rights which citizens were

not endowed with under the existent legal system (Dutta 1998: 283).

5 See Balagopal (1987: 42). Balagopal notes that there were a host of lesser enactments

like the Postal Bill and the amendment to the Commissions of Enquiry Act which also

surfaced during this period. See Sumanta Banerjee (1987), also Kothari and Sethi (1991).

Human rights movements in India / 


This was the phase when the Association for Protection of Democratic

Rights (APDR) was revived in West Bengal which later split with the

formation of the Association for the Establishment of Democratic Rights

(AEDR) on the issue that there are no democratic rights to ‘protect’ in

India. This radical perspective also marked the revival of the Organisation

for Protection of Democratic Rights (OPDR) and the Association for

Democratic Rights (AFDR) in Punjab, the Committee for the Protection

of Democratic Rights (CPDR) in Mumbai and the formation of the Manab

Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti (MASS) in Assam. In Andhra Pradesh, the

Andhra Pradesh Civil and Democratic Rights Association (APCDR) was

the first organisation to come into existence. It later split into the Andhra

Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) and the OPDR, broadly

representing two different factions of the Communist Party of India

(Marxist-Leninist) [CPI (ML)], but both working within the new ‘democratic

rights’ framework. Most of these organisations began working in

close proximity with different radical-militant struggles in their states

such as the armed Naxalite movement and the militant nationality struggles.

In its struggle for democratic rights, the APCLC initially focused on

organising fact finding committees on ‘encounter deaths’ and lock-up

deaths, providing legal assistance to the arrested activists of various

Marxist-Leninist parties and protesting for the right to organise public

meetings, processions and dharnas on behalf of the various mass organisations

of the Naxalite groups. In its second state-level convention, held

in Warangal on 4 May 1980, it adopted its manifesto and declared that its

central concerns were the protection of people’s right to struggle and

protest, opposing the atrocities of feudal landlords, capitalists and the

state machinery, condemning police excesses and also fighting for the

abolition of capital punishment (APCLC n.d.: 23). This was the activist

phase of the HRM, which went beyond looking for mere legal remedies.

Its members included leading lawyers, academics, artists, poets, journalists

and students, apart from several full-time activists. Paradoxically, in spite

of the shift to an activist phase, human rights organisations, contrary to

building a vibrant, independent and separate movement, were more concerned

with projecting themselves as a ‘platform’ or a ‘forum’ to ‘shield’

the radical political movements and struggle on their behalf to protect

their ‘right to protest’ and extend legal and constitutional safeguards to the

activists and leaders of these movements. The HRM was more than willing

to play second fiddle to the militant democratic, or the Marxist-Leninist


movements and was convinced of the urgent need to use militant ‘transformative

violence’ or ‘counter-violence’ against the state in order to bring

about a grand structural transformation. The HRM felt that in building a

militant civil society it had a very limited, although significant, role to

play by maintaining proximity with the radical militant organisations

and their struggles. The proceedings of the APDR, after self-introspection,

reached the conclusion that the ‘civil liberties organization (was) mainly

characterised by acting as a shield of the democratic struggles carried on

by the common people. In a sense, this role though limited (was) very

important’ (APDR 1991: 6, emphasis mine). The role was also ‘secondary’

in terms of its capacity to mobilise people numerically, as ‘the movement

(was) limited to few individuals and limited sections of people’ (ibid.).

However, as the 1980s was also a phase which saw the emergence of

various other social movements—women’s, Dalit, regional, minority and

environmental movements—apart from the Naxalite and nationality struggles,

human rights organisations began to gradually extend their scope

to protect the rights of the activists of these movements as well as their

political concerns. Various types of discriminations came to articulate

themselves in the democratic rights language. The PUCL and the PUDR,

in 1984, investigated and published a booklet titled ‘Who Are The Guilty’

on the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. It directly named some of the culprits who

belonged to the ruling Congress Party. Some felt that with its publication,

‘groups fighting for civil liberties and democratic rights acquired a national

legitimacy’ (Desai 1991). It was true that no other organisation

had dared to openly record and reveal the names of those involved in

massacres, despite it being public knowledge. In Andhra Pradesh, the turning

point came with the gruesome Karamchedu massacre of Dalits in

July 1985. The APCLC investigated, again revealed the names of some

upper-caste landlords who had been involved and, working in tandem

with Dalit organisations, kept the issue politically alive till some of the

culprits were physically eliminated by armed squads of the then Peoples

War Group.6 Thereafter, the APCLC began to enlarge its scope and investigate

atrocities against women such as dowry deaths and domestic violence,

6 In October 2004, after their merger with the Maoist Communist Centre of Bihar, the

People’s War Group (PWG) was renamed the Communist Party of India (Maoist), prior to

the peace talks with the government of Andhra Pradesh.


as well as famine and hunger deaths in various districts and issues related

to environmental pollution. However, what is pertinent in this expansion

of the HRM into various other social and political issues is the fact that it

approached these issues strictly through the state versus civil society prism,

an approach born out of the HRM’s proximity to Marxist-Leninist groups.

For instance, it was the role of the ruling Congress Party that was stressed

by the PUCL and the PUDR in its report ‘Who Are the Guilty’, completely

undermining any dialogue on the growing communalism within civil

society. It was the caste (in this case Kamma) nexus, which actively

operated in various state institutions (the assembly, judiciary and the

police), that was the focus of APCLC’s investigation. This is not to say

that these issues, or for that matter the perspectives, were unimportant;

however, the HRM was not in any immediate sense concerned with highlighting

the existence and replication of power relations and forms of

discrimination at the civil societal level such as growing communalism

and rigid caste hierarchies. It did not consider the possibility that all forms

of human rights violations need not necessarily have emerged directly

from the state, although the state might have actively encouraged them.

This issue of human rights violation at the civil societal level became

starkly, and rather poignantly, evident with the accidental deaths of innocents

or common people in the course of military operations carried out

by the Naxalites against the police.7 In response to such incidents, human

rights organisations took recourse to the argument that ‘a civil rights

organisation was concerned only with state violence’ and the concern

for ‘private violence does not fall under its purview’—a stand initially

taken in an open letter written by leaders of the APCLC to the chief

minister in July 1985 and thereafter repeated ad nauseam whenever

questioned about their concern and responsibility vis-à-vis the victims

of ‘private violence’. Some of the leading activist-intellectual representatives

of the democratic rights phase, defending the actively ‘biased’

position, argued that:

The reason is very simple. Whereas, in a law-based state like India,

there exists an elaborate code, an entire ensemble of laws, procedures,


7 Common people also lost their lives sometimes, or rather most of the time, when

they were deliberately used as ‘shields’ by the police. For instance, the police continue to

opt to travel in public transport that common people use rather than their official vehicles

when they visit remote areas as part of their combing operations.


institutions and enforcement agencies to deal with private violence

or lawlessness, there is nothing comparable, no genuine checks or

controls, to take care of peaceful or violent lawlessness of the state,

which is potentially, and often in actual practice, the most powerful

violator of democratic rights in society (Singh 1993: 82).

However, this position stood in contrast to the interventions that the

APCLC, on more than one occasion, made to mitigate ‘private violence’

that erupted in the inter-group rivalry and killings between the various

factions of the revolutionary movement. These interventions were more

a result of the APCLC’s proximity with the revolutionary parties rather

than any sustained self-reflection on the issue. Despite growing criticism

from various quarters of civil society, as well as the deliberate and

manipulative use made of this hiatus on the part of the HRM by the state,8

the democratic rights organisations refused to critically reflect on their

state versus civil society framework.

This initial reluctance could be understood in the immediate context

of a repressive state which, to counter the growth and expansion of the

HRM, was by then arresting, or physically attacking and kidnapping,

leading civil rights activists all over the country. To cite a few instances,

in Assam, Parag Das, who had political and organisational proximity with

the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), was with MASS and was

a popular editor of a leading Assamese daily, was shot dead by the SULFA

(‘Surrendered ULFA’) with the active connivance of the state police. In

Andhra Pradesh, Gopi Rajanna, Narra Prabhakar Reddy and, more recently,

Purshottam (all office bearers of the APCLC), were brutally killed by

the police; K. Balagopal was attacked, assaulted with knuckle-dusters

and kidnapped by an outfit calling itself Prajabandhu (August 1989),

and V.M. Tarkunde (the then president of the PUCL) and K.G. Kannabiran

(the long-term president of the APCLC) were assaulted at a public meeting

in Madurai. A subsequent president of APCLC, Laxman, was also kidnapped

in November 2003 by surrendered Naxalites operating as private

mercenaries, again with the active involvement of state police (APCLC

1985: 77). Such increasing physical attacks only reinforced the human

rights organisations’ understanding of the state as the primary, and perhaps

8 State officials, bureaucrats and the police often argued that this entailed ‘double

standards’, and also exposed the proximity HRM had with ‘outlawed’ organisations.

Human rights movements in India / 


the sole, violator of human rights and thereby vindicated their state versus

civil society framework. These attacks, coupled with the sacrifice and

resolution of the activists, provided them with a ready ‘moral’ reasoning

of the correctness of their politics. Thus, the HRM was not prepared to

reflect on the ‘conceits of the civil society’ or let go of their singular focus

on the state, which only meant weakening civil society and the movements

it constituted, and strengthening the state. The implicit fear was that by

equating and conflating the various types of violations (whether carried

out by revolutionary movements or the state), the state would be let off

the hook. Interestingly, while in the first phase of the HRM, it did not

want to absolve the state by overlooking its constitutional responsibilities

to its citizens, in the second, it did not miss any opportunity to dismantle

and delegitimise the state.

Thus, the 1980s marked a rupture in the HRM with efforts to construct

civil society as a pure ‘realm of freedom’ that stood squarely outside the

state and consisted of various militant and radical social movements.

They consciously worked, as much as possible, outside formal institutions

such as courts, in an attempt to delegitimise and minimise the arena of

state control. Civil society now signified political action, rather than a

mere site for forming public opinion.9 Organisations such as the PUDR

and the APCLC strongly believed that what brought the various social

movements in civil society together was:

their shared perception that the state is the repository of coercive force

which is frequently directed against the citizens. The fact that the

state is a potential and actual transgressor of individual liberty and

that its might must be collectively challenged gives coherence to the

otherwise diverse units of civil society (Mahajan 2004: 181).


9 Within the liberal tradition, civil society was envisaged as a ‘space where citizens

could meet in order to socialize with their fellow-citizens, to exchange ideas and discuss

issues of common concern, to form political opinion. It was not a sphere where those

opinions translated into political action and decision-making’ (Frevert 2005: 63, emphasis

mine). Such a distinction between thought and action emanates from the classical liberal

formulation of J.S. Mill, granting ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects,

practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological’ (Levi 1963: 138), coupled

with elaborate restrictions on the ‘freedom to act’. The earlier phase of HRM was close to

this kind of liberal articulation and therefore left the action to the state, which combines

legislative and administrative powers.


They, therefore, worked relentlessly to expose the state on the one hand,

and protect the coherence of civil society on the other. Everything else

came later.

The rigid state versus civil society framework, however, became increasingly

untenable with the beginning of the 1990s. The context this

time around was provided by the simultaneous unfolding of multiple

contradictions manifested in the growing conflicts within and between

various social movements. The HRM was, in a sense, caught unawares

and the radical articulations by the Dalit, women’s and regional movements,

not only against the state but also vis-à-vis each other, escaped its

rigid binaries and neat totalities. An important starting point for this can

be traced to the Koyyur kidnapping on 30 January 1993 in Andhra Pradesh,

when a tribal MLA was kidnapped from Vishakapatnam district by the

PWG. Various Dalit organisations, the most prominent among them being

the Dalit Maha Sabha, raised serious objections to Dalit leaders (who in

any case were few and far between) who were weak and vulnerable being

picked up as ‘soft’ targets and used as hostages in exchange for fulfilling

of demands with which they had nothing to do. They raised pertinent

ideological and political questions on what they referred to as ‘casteblind

politics’ of the far-left groups.10 The state, too, took its own time to

react, allowing the new growing conflicts to brew. What was brought out

was the fact that mere anti-state activity neither exhausted nor addressed

the concerns of the other social struggles; neither did it provide for unifying

them unproblematically in a ‘coherent civil society’.

The APCLC intervened to resolve the ‘crisis’ and demanded the release

of the kidnapped. Refuting their earlier position on ‘private violence’,

perhaps for the first time, the then president of the APCLC wrote:

The practice of taking as hostages persons unconnected with the specific

issue between the government and the PWG is a practice we in

APCLC never approved of. We have been as human rights activists

against this type of political practice. Whether the police hold people

in illegal custody or the Naxalites kidnap and take as hostages persons

unconnected with the specific issues involved our stand has been the

same (Kannabiran 1993: 495).11


10 For a detailed debate between the Dalit and Marxist-Leninist groups in Andhra

Pradesh and their changing perception of each other, see Gudavarthy (2005).

11 See also Haragopal (1993).Human rights movements in India / 


The break from the rigid state versus civil society framework was

further strengthened with new questions:

For human rights activists, Koyyuru (and earlier Gurthedu) (raised)

issues regarding the concepts of human rights itself, the advisability

of expanding the concept and thereby enlarging the field of operation

of human rights work. What should be its relations with radical and

democratic movements? Has it any transforming role while operating

the institutions available within a democratic set up? Should it merely

confine itself to maintaining a crime audit of the state? All such and

related questions need to be debated (Kannabiran 1993: 498).

This trend of problematising power dynamics and human rights violations

at the civil societal level was expressed and took centre-stage through

the series of questions that the young activists of the APCLC raised in

their state and district-level meetings. During the Kurnool convention in

1993, they began by raising a sensitive issue—pointing out that a large

number of those killed by the Naxalites as ‘informers’ were from the SC,

ST and OBC communities and who, due to the absence of any form of

social networking, failed to return to the so-called ‘mainstream’ life, and

often succumbed to police pressure and passed on (sometimes very

crucial) information after surrendering. Similarly, accusations of ‘silent’

discrimination and violence against women were levelled against male

members active in the various social movements which could not be ignored

as either a ‘personal’ or a ‘private’ matter. Discussion papers carrying the

old perspective—that is, reinforcing the state versus civil society framework

while arguing that there cannot be an independent ‘human rights

perspective’ that was different and autonomous from and, more importantly,

critical of the ‘revolutionary perspective’—and the new perspective

which brought into relief a more critical approach to civil societal

violations, were printed and circulated among the members, and the

debate continued at all district-level meetings for over a couple of years.

A national convention on ‘Democratic Movements and Human Rights

Perspectives’ was organised in Hyderabad in June 1996, with the aim of

making the debate public, as well as gathering the views of other nationallevel

democratic rights organisations. Later, during the Guntur convention

of the APCLC towards the end of 1997, they voted on the two contending

perspectives, as a result of which APCLC split and a new organisation

called the Human Rights Forum (HRF) was formed.




Civil society versus political society

The formation of the HRF marked the beginning of the third phase of the

HRM—the human rights phase—which now worked within a new civil

society versus political society framework.12 The immediate focus of the

new framework in identifying and constructing the new political society

was to stress the importance of locating and condemning human rights

violations at the civil societal level including those committed by radical

social movements, thereby politicising a larger array of social issues.

The new approach also highlighted the inadequacy of maintaining or

striving for the unity of various social struggles around an anti-state activity

without recognising the independent sites and methods of discrimination,

the possible areas of mutual conflicts between them and thereby

the need for autonomous movements along different axes of discrimination.

The HRF, in its inaugural pamphlet, explained its differences

with the ‘democratic rights perspective’ as against the new ‘human rights

perspective’, which had foregrounded the adverse impact of human rights

violations at the civil societal level. The pamphlet stated, ‘We believe

that unjust and unfair use of violence even by a popular movement must

be openly condemned, not because it is violence but because it is unjust’

(Human Rights Forum 2000: 4). It further made a plea for treating all

discrimination independently and at par, and argued that:

The political structure of the state and the social-economic structures

of caste, class and gender have received some recognition as oppressive

structures, but are yet to assume equal importance, in the eyes of the


12 The concept of political society used here does not refer strictly to the way it has

been recently conceptualised by Partha Chatterjee and instead refers to a broader process

of politicising a larger array of social issues and practices. However, it cannot be denied

that there are overlaps in terms of a critique of hegemonic practices in civil society, a

mapping of civil society as a site of power relations and a recognition of the need to politically

negotiate with the choices, radical or otherwise, of subalterns. For Partha Chatterjee’s

idea of political society, see Chatterjee (2004).

Human rights movements in India


rights movement. The state–class framework continues to dominate

for no cogent reason. But both caste and gender are major sources of

not only violent suppression but also routine and insidious denial of

rights. There is no scale on which their effect can be adjudged less severe

than that of state and/or class (HRF 2000: 1)

Finally, stressing the inadequacy (and perhaps the impossibility) of a

solidarity based around just anti-state activity, it further argued:

The state–class framework that unconsciously guides our thinking of

rights has come from militant-leftist movements and the problems of

suppression they have faced from the state and the exploiting classes.

But if we are ready to learn equally from the dalit movement and the

women’s movement and the politics of various minorities, religious,

ethnic or linguistic groups then these movements have mostly sought

to empower themselves by making use of and enlarging the democratic

political space and the political and civil rights available in the present

state and the political system (ibid.: 2).

At almost the same time, an independent organisation known as the Committee

of Concerned Citizens (CCC) came into existence. Its vision constituted

a ‘search for a democratic space’, initially between the state and

the radical political movements, but also between the various conflicting

interests within civil society. Interestingly, it drew its members largely

from the various civil rights organisations in Andhra Pradesh which had

professed to be handicapped at the stalemate that had ensued between a

repressive state and the civil rights organisations working within a rigid

state versus civil society framework. In the foreword to the first report

the committee published, it made it a point to proclaim that:

The group which came to be known as the Committee of Concerned

Citizens (Puara Spandana Vedika) was not formed at the instance of

any authority or organisation. It emerged on its own, open to reflect

the voice of large democratic sections of the society which is tired at

being reduced to a mute spectator in the game with peoples lives played

by the state and the revolutionary parties (Committee of Concerned

Citizens 1998: 1).


Unlike the previous phase, in this one the HRM began by looking for a

space between the state and revolution. It is from this independent vantage

point that it wished to raise a series of questions at the behest of a political

society. Perhaps the single most important concern for the CCC was how

to privilege and preserve the choice of political participation for the subaltern

masses and prevent spiralling violence between the government and

naxalite groups, leading to an escalating suffering of the most vulnerable.

This concern led the CCC to raise pertinent points regarding the

possible ways of understanding the relation between the ‘people’ and the

(Marxist-Leninist) ‘party’. Can the Naxalite groups claim that all their

actions were actions by the people? Can all actions (read excesses) of the

party be condoned because they were carried out in the ‘larger’ interests

of the people? In what ways is the party responsible, and what ought to

be their response to the growing suffering of the people under conditions

of ‘circular violence’? Similarly, they also stressed the need to engage

with the available ‘democratic’ institutions of the state and civil society,

for instance by recognising the opportunities the 73rd Amendment provided

for Dalits and women in local governance institutions and therefore

the need for periodic elections without violence. It is also in this context

that the CCC re-emphasised the need to protect principles such as the

‘rule of law’, instead of delegitimising them as either bourgeois principles

or a mere ‘juridical illusion’ (Meszaros 1985: 196–211). Finally, the CCC

unequivocally condemned the brutality of the Naxalite groups when

dealing with the people ‘as no less abominable than the third degree methods

used in police camps’ (CCC 1998). Such violence not only further brutalises

society, but also reduces the space for the fearless expression of

opinion and political action for the masses at large, thereby robbing people

of the experience necessary to take control of their lives, crucial for both

existing and post-revolutionary societies.13 The revolutionary parties, on

the other hand, also lay claim to representing the concerns of a political

society by engaging with the conflicts in civil society as well as the issue

of free political participation by the people themselves. They argued


13 The growing significance of the shift in HRM could also be felt in the response of

PWG to these observations of CCC. In their reply, PWG observed, ‘though there are

some shortcomings in the report of the concerned citizens, we feel that the Committee of

Concerned Citizens has exhibited an essentially democratic approach’ (Committee of

Concerned Citizens 1998: 18).

Human rights movements in India 


that the revolutionary parties did recognise the conflicts in civil society

and, therefore:

It is exactly here that the masses should be guided by the revolutionary

leadership to understand the contradictions among the people and the

united front that they have to forge in order to make the revolution

successful. When they understand these two things then the excesses

in people’s courts, the occupation of land of even some middle class

peasantry on some occasions and other wrong ways of dealing with

contradictions among the people will get automatically solved (Ravi

1993: 1471).

Similarly, the revolutionary process is engaged with encouraging mass

participation. However, the human rights groups need to realise that in

the course of such a process, there are bound to be mistakes and excesses,

and it is undialectical to imagine the process to be otherwise. It is therefore

important to understand that:

When the leadership itself deals with the village-level contradictions

it is likely to reduce the excesses, but when the initiative is left to the

masses then such anarchy is bound to be there in an anti-feudal struggle,

but their experience will leave in them a higher level of consciousness.

The first option is absolutely impractical and even if it is practical,

which is preferable ... which is the correct mass line? Which is centralizing

the power? Which will guarantee the future egalitarian society?

The initiative of the masses or the superimposed directions from the

leadership? (ibid.).

It is against these claims and counter-claims to political society that the

CCC initiated the process for peace talks between the state and the revolutionary

parties. The talks between 15–18 October 2004 centred around

the basic premise that both the state and the revolutionary movements

should strive to reduce the perpetual fear and uncertainty that the common

people were labouring under and that it is their choice and voice that

needs to be prioritised over everything else.14


14 For a detailed account of the recent peace talks between the government of Andhra

Pradesh and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) see Committee of Concerned Citizens



The third phase of the HRM was an attempt to expand its scope by

locating the power relations and the consequent human rights violations

in civil society and gradually moving towards a political society that engaged

with the complex micro-processes of social transformation.15

Therefore, political society had a democratising effect in terms of politically

negotiating the different social issues that had been hitherto neglected

by the rights movement, as also the differences and conflicts between

the various movements. The HRM, however, was struck with a difficult

question: ‘what prevents political society from splitting into warring

factions or degenerating into a congeries of inward-looking particularistic

“interests”’? In other words, ‘is there a viable distinction between the

multiple “special interests” of the political society and the common “public

interest”’? If yes, how, and by whom, will this public interest be safeguarded

around certain “common principles”’?16 The HRM quickly grasped

the difficulty of foregrounding the new broadened ‘human rights perspective’

solely around the issue of preserving one’s interests and identity.17

It had to relocate itself in making an effort, in whichever way possible,

to ‘bring the dialectic of self-transformation and self-reflection to the

very heart of identity formation itself’ (Giri 2005: 220). It is this issue of

negotiating with the conflicting implications of the ‘human rights

perspective’ of pursuing interest-based politics and radical politicisation

that located the HRM in a liminal space, which it wished to overcome to

avoid stagnation.



The contemporary moment: Beyond the political?

The contradictory implications of a political society marked by empowerment

through the protection and politicisation of interests on the one

hand, and a process of fragmentation of political struggles with their


15 For an elaborate argument on how, after the collapse of the East European socialist

regimes, western political theory has constructed the arena of civil society as an alternative

political space which is devoid of any conflictual power relations, see Chandhoke (2001,


16 For a series of similar questions being discussed, see Foley and Edwards (1996).

17 It is this issue of the inadequacy in explorations of the limitations of interest-based

politics that we focused on in our critique of Partha Chatterjee’s notion of ‘political society’;

see Gudavarthy and Vijay (2007). It is also for this reason that I place emphasis on differentiating

my use of political society in this article.

Human rights movements in India /


self-arrogating discourses on the other is sought to be overcome in the

contemporary moment of the HRM by, ironically, moving beyond the

domain of the political that constituted the core character of political

society. The HRM seems to be reformulating its civil society versus political

society framework through the underpinning of a new ethical

dimension.18 As a significant departure, it seems to be hinting at recasting

the ‘human rights perspective’ by arguing that ‘primarily rights are ethical

norms and any attempt to treat them as primarily or explicitly political

can only lead to sectarian divisions and stagnation in the human rights

movement’.19 In such a framework, the HRM itself is not a political movement.

Instead, the ‘political movement and human rights movement as

such exist in two planes: the planes of interests and values’ (Balagopal

forthcoming). This relocation of the HRM in an ethical domain is being

sought in order to rethink the way social transformation has occurred in

history during struggles of the oppressed, where ‘what they have fought

is not oppression as such but the oppression of the Other that has hurt

their interests’.20 The struggle against oppression as such happens, or is

possible, only in the realm of ethics or morals, and:

18 The following position is being articulated primarily by Dr K. Balagopal (a leading

human rights activist and theoretician and office bearer of the HRF), with a few members

and activists of the HRM and other social movements gravitating towards a position that

reflects the possibility of a new political society versus an ethical society framework.

However, it is yet to take a definitive institutional form, though again there are hints that

the HRM is being implicitly driven by this new shift. I, therefore, prefer to refer to this

new framework as a moment, rather than a definitive phase, of the HRM.

19 Balagopal (forthcoming). For a brief summary of the contents of this forthcoming

book, see Gudavarthy and Vijay (2004). Upendra Baxi also seems to agree with the essential

moral underpinnings of HRM, and argues that: ‘The social theory of human rights, of

necessity, has to find bases for ethical judgment concerning “good” and “bad” social

movements .... It does seek to provide a “predetermined directionality” in human social

development by articulating an ethic of power, whether in state, civil society, or the market’

(Baxi 2002: 120–21). It is, however, not clear as to how he places this ‘ethical judgment’

vis-à-vis the political moment in social movements in general, and the HRM in particular.

He seems to agree with the idea that there is some essential distinction between the way

the HRM relates to the idea of (political) ‘power’ and the way other social movements do,

and it is therefore ‘then understandable that most contemporary social theory and history

of new social movements does not focus on human rights movements as social movements’

(ibid.: 121).

20 Balagopal (1995: 59). Similar ideas of emancipation going beyond the achievement

of immediate interests can be located in a large array of writers. 


this rebuilding has wrongly been seen as a direct continuation of the

struggle against injustice. This notion that the force that is necessary

to destroy unjust social structures will by itself lead to the reconstruction

of society on a just basis ... has been sufficiently proved an illusion

by the happenings of this century (Balagopal 1995: 60).

The struggles in the ‘material’ or political realm do not have a direct impact

or a necessary continuity with ‘moral evolution’.21 Thus, while the

HRM is the embodiment of the human struggle to restore (universal) ethics/

values, political movements protect the (particularistic) interests of various

social groups. The HRM, therefore, has the difficult task of standing

at a distance while working in tandem with political movements. It needs

to retain its autonomy in order to generate a discourse of ethical praxis,

and maintain proximity in order to effectively cut across all political


This attempt to de-link the political and the moral and locate the HRM

exclusively within an abstract ethical domain comes as a response to

the subterranean divide between the moral and political dimension, in

the discourses of various political movements including the Dalit and

frameworks. For instance, Paulo Friere, the famous Latin American philosopher and educationist,

argues that in order for radical social struggles ‘to have meaning, the oppressed

must not in seeking to regain their humanity become in turn oppressors of the oppressors,

but rather restorers of the humanity of both ... this then is the great historical and humanist

task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well’ (1972: 31).

Gandhi argued that the oppressed need to hate oppression, such as the practice of

untouchability, and not the oppressor, and therefore there is no place for violence, and

there is a need to incorporate into our struggles the necessary efforts for the ‘change of

heart’ of the oppressor. See Iyer (1978).

21 This idea of a separation between the ‘material’ and the ‘moral’, which has emerged

in the context of the present-day HRM locating itself vis-à-vis the various radical struggles,

seems strangely to have parallels with the way the anti-colonial national movement

perceived itself vis-à-vis the colonial rulers. Partha Chatterjee observes: ‘Anticolonial

nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it

begins its political battle with the imperial power. It does this by dividing the world of

social institutions and practices into two domains—the material and the spiritual’ (1993:

6; emphasis mine). It was this separation that was later superimposed on the ‘political’

struggle against colonialism. For a critique of such a separation and its dualistic implications

(which is perhaps relevant in the context of the present-day HRM too, and the new direction,

marked by its ethical dimension, that it seems to be taking) in a graded society like India,

see Aloysius (1998).

Human rights movements in India 


the Naxalite movements.22 Ironically, in responding to the already existing

moral essentialism of the political movements, the HRM seems to slip

into an obverse moralism of its own by condemning political movements

to a delimited struggle for interests and arrogating to itself the larger

task of entrenching abstract ethics.23 The contemporary response of the

HRM could be traced to some of the variants of moral essentialism that

it had to face in its interaction with the various political movements. The

more existentialist reason for such a shift can be traced to the fact that

socially (caste, class and gender-wise), most activists who seem to be

gravitating towards such arguments for a bifurcation between the political

and the ethical belong to the more ‘privileged’ upper echelons. They often

face a serious sense of isolation, as political movements around them are

demanding exclusive organic linkages with those who wish to lead them,

or even be part of their struggles.24 This self-valorisation (or moralisation)

of identities is perceived by the HRM as a shift on the part of political

movements into an insular mode which is fraught with pragmatic responses

to and within the emerging political dynamic, and, most importantly,

bereft of a moral dimension. The HRM, therefore, now wishes to

superimpose and externally inject its own variant of an abstract ethical

22 In fact, constructing the political society, as opposed to civil society, was an attempt

at critiquing moralisation, which is, for instance, evident in the self-valorisation of each

movement or, for that matter, the valorisation of the arena of civil society as against the

state. HRM used the concept of political society to critique abstract moralising as against

contextualising the choices available to subalterns. However, here, having initiated the process,

there seems to be an apparent retreat, only to reintroduce the moral-political divide.

23 This divide, therefore, lets political movements off the hook by reconciling their

struggles with the realm of interests. Some scholars have suggested in response to this

formulation that what is called for, instead of the divide between the moral and political

dimensions, is ‘transforming the moral self into the political self and moral questions

into political ones. This certainly does not call for super-imposing an arrogant moral discourse

on the politically disunited people’s movements’ (Patnaik 1995: 1202). Also see

Gudavarthy (1996).

24 For instance, the Dalit Maha Sabha makes it a point to emphasise that ‘only dalits’

shall occupy the dais in all their meetings, and that no upper-caste activist, however sympathetic

and radical she/he might be, will be allowed to do so. This process of ‘othering’

makes all others permanent ‘outsiders’ to the movement. This indeed is a variant of moral

essentialism in the Dalit movement. However, the question as to why political movements

take this route to find a space for themselves in the existing political domain needs to be

historicised, and is predominantly a political question. For a more detailed account, see

Gudavarthy (2005).


dimension which will open the way for a democratic dialogue and space

for all those not organically linked to these movements.

The nature of the social base of the HRM was always suspect. The

militant left movement always characterised it as ‘petty bourgeoisie’ in

a derogatory sense, and often referred to it mockingly as the ‘middle

class wing of revolution’. Many activists in the HRM themselves shared

this perception. This anecdote sharply highlights the ambiguity:

At a discussion in Delhi (under the auspices of the PUCL) the problem

of ‘legitimacy’ of human rights activism, astonishingly surfaced and

there was even some talk of the need for human rights communities

to ‘woo the middle classes’ back to the value /mission ... (n)ot long ago

many leading human rights communities critiqued, rightly (prescinding

the question of moral opportunism in practice of politics) the middle

class support to the anti-Mandal agitation (Baxi 1998: 349).

In another context, a long-term vice-president of the APCLC and now

member of the CCC argues, ‘In fact, the middle class becomes spineless

and loses the nerve against a repressive state. Some liberal activists shift

their stand very fast. They not only compromise but also gradually degenerate

into a self-seeking and self-aggrandizing class of individuals’

(Haragopal and Balagopal 1998: 367). This perceived inherent moral

weakness never allowed the HRM to articulate itself as an independent

and credible political movement, apart from the other related reasons stated

earlier.25 The HRM, therefore, now feels the need to pose issues in explicit

moral/ethical terms, both as a response and as a means to overcome this

perceived handicap. This compulsive tension within the HRM will persist

as long as it is not prepared to carry out an independent (as it continues

to share this perception with militant left groups) and a more positive

25 Further, whenever individuals within HRM raised questions that were uncomfortable

for radical left struggles, they juxtaposed the sacrifice of the militant underground activists

against the comfortable ‘middle class lives’ of human rights activists. The level of sacrifice

thereby settled the authenticity and correctness of their political positions. Often, in private,

human rights activists expressed discontent over what they referred to as a silent ‘moral

blackmail’, while those activists in HRM close to the radical left valorised such arguments.

There is a different kind of moralisation operating here, as compared to the previous

point. There is a (de)moralisation of the middle class which stands accused of a permanent

lack of morality.

Human rights movements in India / 


Raymond Williams critiquing the conventional position of radical

left groups on the role of the middle class argues:

The significance of predominantly middle-class leadership or membership

of the new movements and campaigns is not to be found in some

reductive analysis of the determined agencies of change. It is, first, in

the fact of some available social distance, an area for affordable dissent.

It is, second, in the fact that many of the most important elements of

the new movements and campaigns are radically dependent on access

to independent information, typically though not exclusively through

higher education and that some of the most decisive facts cannot be

generated from immediate experience but only from conscious analysis

(1983: 254–55).

The HRM is definitely a movement that is dependent on ‘available social

distance’ and involved in constructing a refracted ‘political culture’, which

at times (though not always) is difficult to ‘generate from immediate



Finally, a moral/ethical resolution to avoid ‘stagnation’ in the HRM

is sought due to the moral ad hocism within both Marxist theory and

radical left movements, as well as the latter’s refusal to develop consistent

political principles around the means-ends issue. Steven Lukes, in his

interesting study on ‘Marxism and Morality’, argues that:

On the one hand Marxism has treated morality as ideological, historically

relative, shaped by social and class determinants and so on,

26 ‘Thus, at its core CRM (the Civil Rights Movement) is a movement for a specific

kind of “political culture”—a culture that socializes a society with democratic temperament.

A belief in the possibility of institutionalization and protection of norms and practices

that govern the state-society relationship is central to the efforts of the CRM .... This is

both the strength and weakness of the movement .... It is (also) a weakness in the sense

that it imposes severe constraints on the mobilization potential of the CRM. Vast masses,

who have to struggle for their basic daily-bread, cannot be mobilized into the fold of the

CRM. Even if the CRM could mobilize the masses against a background of severe repression,

it would be more an ad hoc type of mobilization .... Thus owing to its objective—

generating democratic culture—the CRM, at least the core of it, is, bound to be, oriented

towards the middle classes’ (Kakarala 1993: 415–16).


purporting itself to reject any moral or moralizing discourse ... on the

other hand Marx’s and Marxist writings abound in moral judgments,

implicit and explicit (1985: 4).

This unexplored continuum between ethics and politics re-emerges as

moral ad hocism mostly on the basis of ‘consequentialist reasoning’.

For instance, Herbert Marcuse argues for limitations on revolutionary

violence by establishing ‘general norms’, and E.P. Thompson recommends

humanist attitudes ‘whenever and to the degree that contingencies

allow’, so that they do not negate the very end for which the revolution

is a means.27 Beyond such contingent moral advocacy, Marxist theoreticians

were hesitant to suggest the means of converting moral principles

into political norms, and vice-versa. For instance, radical left movements

never conceptualised exactly what constituted ‘revolutionary violence’.

Some attempts on the part of the HRM to engage with issues of permissible

or impermissible ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ were unsuccessful. It is

this loss of such historical moments in concretising values that re-emerges

as the eternal wait for the moment of pure morality (very like the ‘last

instance’ in Althusser). Strangely, the radical left movement (which the

HRM accuses of an absence of the explicit recognition of morality) was

27 See Geras (1990: 29, 34). Here, while ‘general norms’ can become abstract moralism,

contingent attitudes can slip into pragmatism. The challenge really is generating political

principles that emerge into moral norms, which are in turn open to political practice. How

do we combine the self-belief and certainty required for political praxis with the openendedness

necessary to avoid abstract moralism? In the powerful memoir of a communist

revolutionary from South Africa, the author writes, ‘In 1975 I was a young, very idealistic

revolutionary, and I was prepared to die for my beliefs. I felt a strong connection with all

those who had gone before me, and with all those who had faced similar tortures; and

I felt a responsibility to the traditions of our liberation movement. That is what gave me

strength. That is what made my resistance possible. And that is why I did not simply

succumb to torture or lapse into despair. Writing this now, 24 years after my arrest, I don’t

seem as single-minded as I was back then. I now tend to see myself as having been rather

naïve. All the same, it remains true that single-mindedness was the weapon that got me

through (Suttner 2001: 3).

In other words, how do we generate activists who fight for socialism with certainty

and yet are open-ended about its success? For an initial discussion (by no means exhaustive

or sufficient) on this issue, see Geras (1994). Further discussion on this point, though necessary,

is beyond the scope of this article.

Human rights movements in India /


accused of pure moralism by feminist writers during the Telangana armed

struggle. They argued that the Communist Party could not evolve a policy

on problems of childbirth, unmarried women and sexuality etc. Women

comrades were forced to give away children after they were born and

single women were considered a problem. While most cases were settled

as and when they arose, the underlying issue they posed was ‘diluted

into a moral problem, a guilt at having violated family happiness. Once

again there is no analysis on it as a political issue that had to be addressed

if the movement was serious about women’ (Stree Shakti Sanghatana

1989: 27, emphasis mine). As absence of morality is a problem now, the

presence of morality was a problem then.


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