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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

D R Chaudhry - an organic socialist intellectual of the Haryana peasantry | Pritam Singh

Friday 16 July 2021

by Pritam Singh*

Daulat Ram Chaudhry (1935-2021) — a teacher, public intellectual and social activist — spent his whole life articulating progressive ideas and building socially transformative organisational structures and movements in Haryana. This illustrious life came to an end on June 2 due to health complications caused by Covid-19. He breathed his last at Rohtak in his room with all his family by his side.

He was born in a farming family in the village of Chautala in Haryana and was inspired by his rural and regional roots in fashioning his progressive vision and practices. He was truly an organic intellectual of the Haryana peasantry who came from the peasantry, understood the peasantry, criticised many aspects of the life and practices of the peasantry but never abandoned his links with his community. Throughout his life he continued to think of ways to convert the peasantry to the vision of socialism. He was inspired by Marxism but never viewed Marxism in a dogmatic manner; rather he considered it as a guide to seeking creative engagement with the society he lived in.

DR, as he was affectionately called (aptly pronounced DEAR), spent three decades (1969-2000) as an English lecturer at the Dyal Singh College (Evening) of Delhi University. He was one of the founding members, along with the late Professor Randhir Singh and others, of the Left Teachers Association in the University in the 1960s which emerged later as the Democratic Teachers Front in 1979. Pedagogically, he played a leading role in transforming the teaching of English literature from purely an aesthetic pursuit to a critical engagement with emerging social issues by placing the English language in the context of India’s colonisation and the post-colonial culture of class hierarchies.

I met him first when he had moved for a few years from Delhi to take the Chairmanship of Haryana Public Service Commission (HPSC) in Chandigarh and I had left Delhi for Chandigarh to take up lectureship at Panjab University’s department of economics. At our very first meeting we talked for hours, and the feeling that we shared a vision about the societal need for egalitarian transformation became the basis of a life-long friendship. In a long bus journey once from Shimla to Chandigarh, he explained to me in fascinating detail how his family had given shelter to Chaudhry Devi Lal (1915-2001) when he was a fugitive sought by the police for his militant peasant activism (see also Singh 2021, 2021a). Devi Lal became the chief minister of Haryana and persuaded DR to head HPSC; Lal later became Deputy Prime Minister of India. DR had a relationship of mutual respect with Devi Lal but found it difficult to work with the brand of politics practised by later political leaders in Haryana. He resigned from HPSC when Bhajan Lal, the new Chief Minister of Haryana, tried to interfere in the autonomy of decision-making DR had enjoyed during Devi Lal’s tenure. DR decided, instead, to devote his energies to raising critical awareness of issues such as casteism, gender discrimination and patriarchal culture in Haryana. He launched a Hindi weekly Peeng as a platform for disseminating progressive ideas. He also wrote regularly for several English and Hindi dailies and weeklies including the Mainstream. He articulated his views and reflections as a progressive and critical modernist with socialist orientation. Due to his robust understanding of Haryana’s rural society, he was free both from romanticism about the purity of village life and from the snobbery about rural ‘backwardness’ which some urban-based intellectuals are prone to display in their approaches to rural society.

He believed in the cultural renaissance of Haryana, especially in relation to the deep ruralism which impacted even its urban spaces — which were poverty-stricken culturally, socially and intellectually. This perspective led him to propose the creation of a capital city for Haryana. He was critical of Indira Gandhi for her opportunistic, messy and ‘absurd’ decision to designate Chandigarh as joint capital of Punjab and Haryana after the linguistic reorganisation of Punjab in 1966. For him, a capital city was a culturally lived space (following Henri Lefebvre’s seminal work The Production of Space, 1966) and not merely a set of buildings and bureaucratic offices. He argued eloquently: ‘Both Punjab and Haryana have been unfortunate in the matter of the state capital, but Haryana’s case is more pathetic. The forced pace of modernisation of Haryana without a corresponding cultural advancement has brought in several serious distortions and has given rise to a strange ethos in Haryana society. The instruments which enrich the cultural content in social life — quality newspapers, the film industry, a theatre movement, cultural and literary organisations, metropolitan centres, an enlightened middle class to name the most important ones — are either missing or in their incipient stage in Haryana. It is here that the question of Haryana’s own capital assumes added importance’ (Chaudhry 1994: 409). Echoing DR’s views and applauding his vision, I argued much later that a capital city ‘is supposed to be the nerve centre of the culture and life of the people of the state where people belonging to different zones of the state come together with a common identity. The capital city is a space of cultural identity and flowering of that identity. It is a creative venue for collective exploration and celebration of the songs, dances, paintings, sculptures, architectural experiments, theatre, films, museums, the collection of memory of the people through historical narratives — all relating to the people of the state and their relationship to the wider world.

‘Chandigarh has the administrative offices as the capital of Haryana, but the city has no organic link with the people and culture of Haryana. The people of Haryana, their language and culture are viewed with contempt by the Punjabi-hegemonic culture of Chandigarh. Chandigarh may not be de jure capital of Punjab but culturally, it is de facto the capital city of Punjab.

‘For the cultural renaissance of Haryana, having a capital city of its own, perhaps a new one, in an area of Haryanvi culture is of critical importance. One intellectual, DR Chaudhry, has had the wisdom to articulate this position once in these words: “Haryana badly needs a capital of its own and Chandigarh is the least suited for this purpose. It is a dead albatross around its neck. The earlier it is shed, the better it will be for Haryanvis.”’ (Singh 2018, the quoted lines are from Chaudhry 1994: 410).

DR kept a close critical eye on the social, cultural and political life of Haryana peasantry, and on the position of Haryana in India’s ‘national’ politics. He supported inter-caste marriages, including intra-gotra marriages, and criticised the Khap Panchayat institution in Haryana’s rural society which opposed such marriages. He wrote an influential book entitled Khap Panchayat and Modern Age (2014). I dare say, however, that given his dialectical mode of thinking which embraced contradictions, he would have been very pleased with the Khap Panchayats’ crucial role in building massive solidarity among farmers against the BJP government’s June 2020 farming laws, which were brought in to bolster the role of agro-business in Indian agriculture.

Combining the art of seeing micro-trends with a view of the wider macro framework, DR was able to read under-currents in Haryana society that were truly extraordinary. Once he shared with me his reading of the Haryana peasantry’s attitude towards Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (1947-84), the rebellious Sikh preacher who became an agitator in the early 1980s. This was a time when the mainstream media, especially the English-language and Hindi-language media, had so constructed the narrative of Bhindranwale as a blood-thirsty anti-Hindu terrorist that all right-wing institutions (led by the Congress and BJP) echoed and amplified this narrative for a variety of reasons. Most left-wing institutions (led in particular by the CPI and CPM) had succumbed to this narrative. In a sharp contrast, DR’s view was that the farming community in Haryana did not view Bhindranwale as a Sikh opposing the Hindu-dominated Centre but as a farmer opposing the money-lending classes who occupied power in Delhi. He told me that a middle-level civil servant in Haryana with social roots in the peasantry used to express this contrarian view of Bhindranwale in private gatherings by praising him for his defiance of the money-lending classes. It is only an organic intellectual of a class who can synthesise ordinary-sounding social conversations to identify an undercurrent which is totally invisible to an outsider.

Equipped with this knowledge, DR was also able to explain why there was almost no anti-Sikh violence in the farmer-dominated areas of Haryana after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in October 1984 (when she was shot by two of her Sikh security guards because of her action in sending the army into the Golden Temple in June 1984). After the assassination, Delhi and many other Hindu majority towns in the Hindi belt had seen genocidal mob violence against Sikhs, while Haryana’s farming community stood in solid defence of their Sikh neighbours when non-farming groups tried in isolated cases to whip up hatred and violence against the Sikhs.

When I saw the Haryana peasantry welcoming the Punjabi farmers who led the recent protests against the pro-agro-business farm laws, I remembered the strength of DR’s observations made in the 1980s. It helped me to understand that it was not only the issues of Minimum Support Price and state-protected marketing arrangements that lay behind the solidarity between Haryana and Punjab farmers, but also the strength of deeper cultural and social ties between the peasantry of the two states. It also helped me to understand the reasons behind the high esteem enjoyed by the late Chhotu Ram (1881-1945), the legendary farmer leader of Haryana, in today’s Punjab.

In 2007, DR wrote a fascinating book entitled Haryana at Crossroads: Problems and Prospects which is, undoubtedly, the best critical reflection on the Haryana region and outlines his progressive views on the multi-dimensional aspects of Haryana’s thwarted development and social structure. Based on his long experience as an educationalist he also wrote a book entitled Education and Social Development (1998).

In the last years of his life, he collaborated with like-minded and public-spirited friends to launch the Haryana Insaaf Society to fight for justice for those who were marginalised, ignored and discriminated.

DR was a committed socialist, whose thought was influenced strongly by Marxism. He had persisting ties with the CPM, but he was free from sectarianism, relating to other Indian Marxists who were critical of CPM politics and even relating to non-Marxist socialists.

He also showed openness of mind in dealing with the issue of religion and was free from the dominant Indian Marxist concept of religion as ‘the opium of the masses’ or more absurdly as ‘false consciousness’. In the last years of his life, he showed keen sympathy towards Buddhism, travelled to areas of Buddhist influence in India and involved himself fully in practising Buddhism.

In my long friendship with him, he only once seemed perplexed about my views when he asked me if I had become an environmentalist and abandoned Marxism. I respected his straightforward question, and took some time to explain to him that it was my interest in environmentalism that had strengthened my agreement with Marx’s view of capitalism as a socially and environmentally destructive economic system. I simply felt it was necessary to further enrich Marx’s analysis by giving centrality to nature in understanding the current ecological, economic, social and cultural crises of capitalism. He seemed more than satisfied when I summed up my thoughts by describing myself as an ecological Marxist and eco-socialist. His own interest in ecology grew and he wrote several articles on Bhutan’s model of development that critiqued Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of human wellbeing and gave primacy to nature and to the wellbeing of non-human as well as human living beings.

In a vast and diverse country such as India, a meaningful civilisational shift away from the current consumerist culture and obsession with monetised income growth to a vision geared towards equity, social care and ecological sustainability is only possible if public intellectuals rooted in the regional cultures and languages can inspire social mobilisation for such a transition.

D R Chaudhry practised in his daily and family life that which he believed and preached. This is reflected in the rich intellectual and political legacy he has left which is being furthered by his talented children Kamla Chaudhry and Bhupinder Chaudhry (and his wife Rajshree Dhali) as academics, and Ashwani Chaudhry (and his wife Kumud Chaudhry) as film directors. I am sure that family and friends will come together to create an institutional framework as a platform to carry forward the progressive vision of this great son of Haryana.

*(Author: Prof Pritam Singh, Professor Emeritus of economics of Oxford Brookes Business School in UK)

References

Chaudhry, D. R. (1994). ‘Punjab- Haryana Disputes’ in Gopal Singh (ed) Punjab: Past, Present and Future. Delhi: Ajanta Publications, pp. 400-11.

Singh, P. (2018). ‘Punjab’s relation to Panjab University’, The Tribune, August 1.

Singh, P. (2021). ‘Baudhik Bulandi: D. R. Chaudhry’ (Intellectual Eminence: D. R. Chaudhary), Punjabi Tribune, June 5.

Singh, P. (2021a). ‘D. R. Chaudhry: Haryana Ke Samajik Punarjagran Ke Agardoot ’ (D. R. Chaudhry: A Messenger for Socio-cultural Renaissance of Haryana), Dainik Tribune, June 5.

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