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The Politics Of Petitions

Very distinguished persons like Noam Chomsky are routinely asked to sign hundreds of petitions. In most cases, they are compelled to react in terms of prima facie plausibility based on quality of content, personal acquaintance, previous knowledge, an

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The Politics Of Petitions

In my open letter to Noam Chomsky I have tried, among other things, to raise the issue of responsibility of organisers of petitions with special reference to a petition recently organised by Sanhati. This is particularly serious when signatures are sought from distinguished individuals who are not likely to know the background well enough to give an informed consent. Very distinguished persons like Noam Chomsky are routinely asked to sign hundreds of petitions on a regular basis. In most cases, they are compelled to react in terms of prima facie plausibility based on quality of content, personal acquaintance, previous knowledge, and the like. In some cases, it’s just ‘gut feeling’. But the bottom-line is that, once someone signs a petition, he/she must take full responsibility for the contents of the petition. It is, therefore, perfectly justified for the objectors to a petition to direct their objections to the signatories themselves—especially the very distinguished ones whose consent counts so much. 

Hence, it is all the more crucial for the organisers to supply as much background information as possible to ward off uninformed consent and embarrassment to the signatories. Inadequate and distorted information in fact defeats the very cause a petition is designed to address. The point is illustrated by a fiasco over some statements on the struggle at Nandigram. 

In response to my open letter, several respondents have pointed out an alleged contradiction between Chomsky’s support to a largely pro-CPM petition on Nandigram in November 2007 and his current support to a petition which at least indirectly exonerates the ‘maoist’ actions in Dandakarnya, Lalgarh and elsewhere. This is not the place to delve on Chomsky’s political thoughts to examine whether in fact there is a contradiction. But the facts are as follows. 

When the Nandigram struggle erupted, the anti-CPM activists approached Chomsky with their view of facts which did not include the growing involvement of ‘Maoists’, Trinamool Congress and the Jamat, and the flow of arms from both sides in the area. Not knowing much about the issues, Chomsky offered his general solidarity in a short e-mail in which he expressed his “concern” at the worrying turn of events. This line about his concern was flashed prominently in an anti-Govt. rally on 14 November, addressed by Medha Patkar among others.  

To counter, a petition was drafted and circulated by a pro-CPM lobby consisting of noted leftist intellectuals. The petition said almost nothing about police atrocities and the operations of the CPM-controlled harmad vahini.  People like Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Akeel Bilgrami and a few others, who relied on the views and presentation of things by their leftist friends, signed the petition. The CPM-led Govt., in turn, used this statement in various ways including reproducing it in the party journal People’s Democracy

The storm that this petition created can be felt even today. In response, many individuals, including myself, and groups protested to Chomsky and other signatories for signing this stuff. Notice that the protests were directed principally at Chomsky, one of the signatories, because the opinion of Chomsky matters. A formal protest, signed by several people, including myself, some people at CSDS, Sumit Sarkar, Arundhati Roy, etc. was sent to Chomsky and others. This was also prominently advertised by the anti-Govt. protesters. 

In response, as the protests were going on, Chomsky and others decided to issue another more balanced statement. It was not signed by the earlier pro-CPM signatories. The statement was released via The Hindu on 4 December, 2007.

Very few people noticed this statement. In the chaos generated by the earlier statements and counter-statements, mostly revolving around the name of Chomsky, the significant last word from Chomsky and others was lost to the struggle in Nandigram. Did it help the struggle in Nandigram? Also, one cannot fail to notice the deep embarrassment caused to our distinguished friends abroad who depend entirely on what information we furnish concerning our struggles here. 

With respect to the Sanhati statement signed by a very impressive list of international scholars, my complaint is that the statement and its background note did not furnish adequate information on the very complex issue of Operation Greenhunt. In particular, it did not mention the operations of the CPI (Maoist) in the concerned area for many years, and the Government’s plan to use the Operation Greenhunt ostensibly to flush out the ‘naxalites’ in that area. Now, whether this information is relevant for the general protest against the sinister Operation Greenhunt is something that is currently under debate. But the point is that the signatories to the petition, especially the foreign scholars, are not likely to be aware of the debate.  

For example, Sanhati could have attached the rather comprehensive and sensitive study of the issue in Shoma Chaudhury’s recent piece Weapons of Mass Desperation: Operation Green Hunt, the offensive against Naxals, might blow up in our faces, which contains a very timely discussion of the views of K. Balagopal, the noted human rights lawyer and an erstwhile sympathiser of the Naxal movement himself. I wonder how many would have agreed to sign the one-sided petition with its sweeping, undocumented generalisations if the signatories were given the opportunity to examine the complexity of the issue. 

revised at the author's request at 10:30 PM on October 28, 2009

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