May 18, 2021
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B.G. Verghese (1927-2014)

B.G. Verghese (1927-2014)
B.G. Verghese (1927-2014)

Boobli George Verghese, as Inder Malhotra pointed out, while reviewing the former's memoirs, First Draft, wrote "more books than many of his fellow-professionals might have read":

Any praise for Verghese’s book is well-deserved but one can’t agree with everything he says. Some of his best friends have often said that being an activist for many good causes, Verghese could sometimes be a “bleeding-heart liberal”. On some of the issues—such as his rose-tinted view of Pakistan and even of Zia-ul-Haq or his staunch opposition to the Indian nuclear arsenal—he eventually changed his mind because of rude ground realities. But on several other matters of this kind, including Sikkim’s merger with the Indian Union in the mid-’70s, he remains adamant. Indisputably though, Verghese can argue his case or analyse a complex problem with the utmost thoroughness.

In the 1977 general elections—the “new dawn” they ushered in was sadly short-lived; Indira Gandhi was back in power in 30 months flat—Verghese contested as an Independent from his home state of Kerala with the full support of the CPI(M). He lost but refused a nomination to the Rajya Sabha. What he doesn’t reveal is that of the donations made to him by friends, admirers and strangers, some money had remained unspent. Dividing it proportionately, he returned the money to every donor.

But this "bleeding heart liberal" also took his role as a centrist public intellectual seriously, challenging other activists and partisans on positions he did not agree with, among them, most notably, Arundhati Roy, in 1999:

THE poetry was charming; the facts wrong; more rhyme than reason. Arundhati Roy, the poet laureate of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), allowed poetic licence to run away with her in writing about the ssp or the Sardar Sarovar Project (The Greater Common Good in Outlook, May 24). Having denuclearised herself in an earlier article, she is here at the barricades as 'Big Dams are to a Nation's Development' what nuclear arms are to its Military Arsenal...both weapons of mass destruction ' . The Indian state/democracy is a pestilential 'poverty-producing machine '  made to order by rich urban elites to grind down the rural poor.

This 'state secret '  unearthed, Arundhati sounds a clarion call to the wretched to 'break faith '  with the system that has operated Big Dams to 'devour ' , displace and devastate 50 million of them. She would 'unscramble '  the 'malignant '  conspiracy, 'Bomb by bomb; Dam by dam... begin(ning) with the Narmada valley ' . Strong stuff, this.

Arundhati denies any neo-Luddite impulse or arcadian, pre-industrial, anti-development dream. Yet this is what appears to drive her argument. Let's unscramble it.

Dams displace. So does acute deprivation, as in the Narmada Valley, but in a far higher ratio. The ssp displaced are a charge on the project with a generous plan, budget and organisation for their rehabilitation. The distress migrants are just damned.

Read the full piece: A Poetic Licence

More than a decade later, he took her on again, this time questioning her distorted Maoist idyll:

The CRPF massacre in Dantewada was brutal though avoidable, with two beheadings thrown in for bestiality. The Rammohan inquiry will tell us more about what happened. It was done, Arundhati Roy informs us (Walking with the Comrades, Mar 29), by “Gandhians with a gun”, with the timely reminder that there is no humbug about her Maoist Gandhians. They fight to protect beautiful tribal homelands against the state, which is an ‘Enemy of the People’, and corporate predators intent on ruthlessly realising their militarised, state-supported dreamland of mines, industrial plants and big dams. She will stand and fight against these “crimes against humanity”.

The Maoists have said, through Arundhati, and directly, that they seek dialogue. What is the Maoist notion of dialogue? Let’s listen to spokesman Azad, recently interviewed in The Hindu: “We want to achieve whatever is possible for the betterment of people’s lives without compromising on our political programme of new democratic revolution and the strategy of protracted people’s war.” Further, “talks will give some respite to the people who are oppressed and suppressed under the jackboots of the Indian state....” But the government must “release some leaders. Or else, there would be none to talk to since the entire party is illegal”. So the Maoists want the ban on the party lifted, detained leaders released, and respite for the “oppressed” (cadres) while planning to pursue “protracted war” with greater vigour. Is that a reasonable precondition that any state can accept without abdicating.

The Maoists pose as Robin Hoods but rule by fear and authoritarian command over cowed camp-followers. Many comrades have broken rank in disgust over the Maoists’ brutality and hubris. Arundhati speaks of exploitation and corruption in, and neglect of, tribal India. She is right. But it is preposterous to talk of “genocide”. The tribal population of India was 19.1 million in 1951, rose to 84.3 mn according to the 2001 census and is estimated to be just short of 100 mn (8.1 per cent of the population) today.

Read the full piece: Daylight At The Thousand-Star Hotel

 Read: The Complete Outlook Archive on B.G. Verghese 

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