The following interview was conducted by Rana Bose in 2004 for the publication Montreal Serai:


(Dr. Daya Varma, Professor of Pharmacology and Medicine at Montreal’s McGill University, was recently interviewed by Serai’s editors. Dr. Varma, who hails originally from India, has been a stalwart for several decades in Montreal as an anti-war militant, from the time of the Vietnam War and an inspiring activist and supporter for progressive movements worldwide in the post-colonial period. Dr. Varma has always looked beyond the pedestrian thought processes in radical frameworks and his responses to Serai’s questions only reinforce that. Ed.)


MS : Daya, How do you react personally to events in the political arena today, in the world and in South Asia? Do you find ideological rationale for events that unfold? Do you draw parallels with the past or do you search for new paradig ms ? Can you give some examples of either, as you feel necessary?


DV : Very soon after coming to Canada in September 1959, I started looking for any progressive movement with which I could associate. I got somewhat involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement not so much because it was a war of aggression by the US but more so because it was against communists. In the midst of all this came the news of the Naxalbari peasant revolt (a rebellion of landless peasants in the North Bengal district of Darjeeling in 1967.-ed) and the division in the communist movement, in what was then the Chinese and Soviet line. Perhaps because of the Chinese support for Naxalbari and armed struggle, I became a Maoist. As a result I got linked to crazy or less crazy Maoists. Even after realizing that many of these outfits were opportunists or reflected juvenile enthusiasm rather than a commitment to revolution, I remained a Maoist. In retrospect I think all this was emotional and not based on a serious understanding of world situation, the prospects of success of Naxalbari or the two lines in the communist movement. I wonder how any one can be drawn into a movement by its superficial expression without really critically examining it. I now see many people have changed and are reexamining their previous stands although most of them do not like to admit errors in their past thinking.


I am sorry for this long background but I need to let you see my responses in a certain context.


I do find ideological rationale for events that unfold. If I take liberty with the term “ideological rationale” I see three main ideologies that direct the action of progressive left circles.


First, the most important or preponderant one reacts to injustices largely from a humanist viewpoint. These people are not averse to communists or Marxism but they propose an alternate path, most of the time single-issue activity. Take for example, Narmada dam movement led by Medha Patkar. A commendable woman who dedicated her life attempting to prevent the building of the dam, then opposing the specific height of the dam and so on because the dam was going to displace hundreds of thousands of indigenous people living in the adjacent area. The Narmada Bacchao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) achieved partial success and yet many villages have been drowned and thousands of people displaced. Does it have a positive long enduring lesson? I think not. Similar is the thinking behind antiwar movement, antinuclear movement, anti-racist movement, movement for the support of Palestinian people, Bhopal disaster issue and so on. In some of these movements, especially anti-war movements (perhaps because it is more clearly anti-imperialist) Communists are active but their participation is lukewarm or symbolic.


The second trend is reflected by revolutionary communists like the Communist Party of Nepal -Maoists) or its Indian equivalent, the People’s War Group, which has recently transformed into the Communist Party of India (Maoists). These are commendable organizations with dedicated cadres but with little understanding of the current forces and not cognizant of the social and political changes that have taken place since the Chinese revolution, especially in agrarian relations. I assume that their agenda is somewhat similar to that of Mao although their principal demand is replacement of Monarchy by a Republic, which to my mind needs mass mobilization and not armed struggle. Given the utter feudal backwardness of Nepal, it is easy to perceive why they are much more successful than any similar movement including the Shining Path in Peru. Repression invariably leads to rebellion but rebellion does not necessarily lead to building a just society. I earnestly believe that the Soviet brand of socialism died because of internal causes inherent in the system, which did not have enthusiastic support of the masses and which stifled rather than unleash popular initiative.


Because of changes in the agrarian relations, organizations like PWG (Peoples’ War Group) are bound to remain confined to marginal areas of India such as the tribal belt in Andhra, Bihar, and Orissa etc. For the Indian government, they are a nuisance and not a threat and the peace talks between them and the present government are aimed at eradicating or minimizing this nuisance. The peace talks will most likely fail but it will weaken PWG.


In retrospect, I think Naxalbari had no future. It was a revolutionary outburst and a glorious chapter in Indian people’s struggle but destined to fail, nonetheless. It failed because the times had changed.


The third trend is still reflected by the traditional communist parties, which in India is the Communist Party of India (CPI). In my opinion it is least stuck with the baggage of a failed doctrine and its approach is closer to what is possible. It is weaker than CPI (Marxist) or CPM because of several mistakes but CPM is a temporary aberration, neither here nor there.

Another trend is reflected by ethno-nationalists, LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka, ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) in Assam, JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) in Kashmir etc and several in Africa. They too have grievances but overall these are regressive forces without vision and future. In their case, gun commands politics and not the other way round and ultimately generates bandits and anti-social elements.


I do search for a new paradigm. Its full shape is elusive. Briefly, I envision a socialism that can be developed in a society, first without resorting to arms, and second with mass support and participation. I think genuine social democratic parties will evolve into organs of socialism that will coexist with capitalism.


MS : Daya, I always found you as a wistful person who reminisced a lot about good political times, many old battles and struggles and who also got angry a lot about events from the past and the present. In the past several years, what single event enthused you about the political times we live in? And by corollary what are the events that you feel put the clock back, in terms of progressive politics? What did you do about these events, knowing that you have always been an activist and organizer for progressive causes?

DV : Although I am emotionally much more tied to India than to any other place, I feel more depressed about the situation in Africa than anywhere else. Unlike Palestine, they are not facing mighty Israel. It is like the demise of indigenous Australians who are being made extinct by providing them with money and liquor. The mighty continent of Africa that created the modern wealth of practically all industrial nations, especially of the US, is struggling to survive repeated attempts at suicide.


In the Indian context, the emergence of Sangh Parivar (the main conglomeration that describes the attempts of Hindu fundamentalists to come under one umbrella) as a formidable force has been most upsetting to me. The resistance to the US by various forces and means, not the least of which is the Iraqi resistance, has been the single most heartening event. The anti-US feeling, in my opinion, is much stronger than we see on the streets.


What has been most depressing or rather disheartening to me has been the realization of a lack of vision for the future. Working for socialism would have been fine if one was sure what is should be and would be like. I think Cuba has been more socialist than any but even that I do not find as a path setter. I cannot reconcile to the fact that there is so much scarcity in Cuba and I cannot attribute lack of food and other minor daily amenities to US blockade.


MS : What single most transformation, in your opinion, is necessary to change the direction of what is happening in the world today? Is it the creation of an independent and secure Palestine? Is it the need for a contending superpower to deal with the absolute hegemony of the United States? Is it simply the crude (!) pursuit of oil and energy interests by the US and its allies and how to prevent that from being the central issue in world politics? Is Iraq the lesson that the US never learned in Indo-China?


DV : In my view, the political, economic and military defeat of US is the single most change necessary for the good of every one including American people. Americans must accept that they are not superior to others, which they refuse to do.


Creation of an independent secure Palestine is wishful thinking. Most of us including me do not examine the issue critically and carefully because we only respond to the injustice done to the Palestinian people. Israel should not have been founded but it was done by a politically mature Zionism confronted by naïve protests. But there now is an Israel and its survival cannot be attributed to US but to the ingenuity and political foresight of the Jewish people, both reactionary and progressive, in building a militarily strong and disciplined Israel, getting support of the US and building a modern state challenged by disorganized suicide bombers led by politically corrupt or imbecile leaders. I may sound absolutely absurd but a secure and independent Palestine is possible if it is friendly to Israel and this will be done by Israel, may be Sharon, but not by Hamas.


I think the US, as a superpower, is a curse to humanity and it must be defeated but not by another superpower but by creating a world without superpowers or two rival superpowers. Not in mine, may be not even in yours but at least in the times of your children. US will cease to be a superpower. Its economic hegemony is already a myth. Its attempt to make up its diminished economic clout with military might is not sustainable; it will not collapse like the Soviet Union but rather like the once mighty British Empire.


It would be better if the decline of the US were not because of the emergence of another mightier power. On the other hand it is very likely that China, which see ms to match or overtake the US economically, may be the next superpower. How will China act as a superpower is quite unpredictable given the way it looks at its national interest.


MS : In the Latin American countries a lot of governments are coming to power or moving into serious platforms as contending forces. In Brazil, in Venezuela, in Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and a few others. Many of the governments in the other countries are definitely distancing themselves as much as they can from being subservient to US interests. These are governments of Social Democratic or left-of center praxis. They have their critics from the further left. Do you think similar forces can coalesce in India? Do you think that indigenous peoples’ movements, environmental issues, urban slum-dwellers issues should take center stage as the rallying force or should issues of land, bureaucracy, union rights, corruption, fighting Hindu fundamentalism and fighting goon politics remain the focus of political struggles in India?


DV : The attempt of several Latin American governments to distance the ms elves from the US is very heartening. Their social democratic orientation is important in this respect but I do not think this is the primary reason for their anti-US stand. The economic status of most countries on the world, perhaps with the exception of those in Africa, has improved. This has altered the political base in these countries so that they are less willing to abide by the US dictates than has been the practice in the past. The interesting thing is that two oil-producing countries, Venezuela and Iran, are in rebellious mood; despite all the recent changes, Libya too is outside the US servility. The conflict in Nigeria’s oil producing region also has some anti-US element. The US is unable to control Iraq and the emerging dissent in Saudi Arabia may also force it to take a more cautious view of its pro-US policies. In short, contrary to the general thesis that globalization has tied nations states into a bondage, most countries, in my opinion, are trying to assert their independence.


I think India is trying to emerge as a significant international force. It tried to do this by allying with the US as during the BJP (the recently defeated right-wing Hindu nationalist party of India, Bharatiya Janata Party) rule; the situation has not changed during the few months of Congress-led government but still with some difference; the present government is trying the same with a greater degree of independence somewhat like China. I really do not think that movements concerning indigenous people, environmental issues, slum dwellers, corruption etc can coalesce into a unified force to force a shift in government policies. They are good developments and generally raise social consciousness but there is no evidence that they lead to emergence of left politics. Occasionally they are divisive. The land question and Hindutva are different issues. Even the land question is no more a general all-India issue with the emergence of capitalist farming as a significant issue replacing land as a source of subsistence. The land question is more important in Bihar and UP than elsewhere.


Hindutva (the autocratic movement that attempts to declare India as a non-secular Hindu homeland) is altogether a different issue. It deals with a vision of India. I do not see Hindutva as a simple anti-Muslim issue; this is a sideline. The question is this: can India be ruled as a united country on the basis of a federal consensus or should it be united by making Hinduism as the rallying point. Essentially it is a struggle between democracy and autocracy. For this reason fighting against Hindutva is fighting for a democratic federal India with as little as possible the dominance of Hindi belt.


MS : Do you feel that there is any fundamental cultural issue in the polity of the Indian subcontinent, which prevents unification of a broad progressive platform? More specifically, are religious beliefs, custo ms , caste issues, rituals etc an impediment to developing the bonds that give strength and maneuverability to popular resistance?  


DV: I do think that cultural issues are an impediment to emergence of a popular resistance; more importantly to sustaining popular resistance. The most successful approach was taken by Gandhi. I will not deal with this in any detail. Suffice it to say that he raised the issue of independence as an all-comprehensive national issue and provided a method for popular participation; yet his approach only pushed cultural issues to the background for a certain period but made a very small dent in overcoming the lasting divisive aspect of religion, caste and nationalities. Even the Sangh Parivar’s attempt to unite backward castes (Bajrang Dal), middle castes and classes (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Adivasis and the real elite (Rashtriya Swaya ms ewak Sangh) – all as Hindus- will ultimately lead to division on the basis of the very policy on the basis of which they were united. Shiva Sena is a bit different because it is a movement to replace Hindi belt domination of India by a Maratha-based domination.


Only economic uplift and transformation of India can in the long run reduce caste-, religion-based differences into relatively innocuous practices.


MS : Are Indians, as a people, open to radical transformation at the street level, which will unite Hindus, Muslims , minorities, the poor and the weak into any single platform that transcends party affiliations and overcomes cultural barriers? As an associated question, did you realize that while the capitals of the world’s largest nations were rocked by demonstrations against the Iraq war, last year, the Indian population could not put together a single demo of size? During Vietnam, the entire Brigade Parade Ground in Calcutta was a sea of people, when McNamara wanted to land. He had to be helicoptered from the airport to Raj Bhavan. Today not much happens when Colin Powell visits. Why? 


DV: Latin American people are the only ones amongst the relatively less well-off people who respond to international or national issues of injustice with fervor and anger. People from no other poor country do; India is amongst them. Even the Arab population did not rise against Iraq war nor does it do much on the Palestinian issues. In contrast, people of the industrialized countries put up a major protest. Why it is so, is difficult to answer. It is the same issue why workers of another establishment do not have a symbolic strike when their comrades in another industry are on a prolonged battle. I think political consciousness on issues, which do not directly affect a group, is a matter of enlightened attitude, which is not born out of life experience but cultural consciousness. The Indian protest against McNamara was a special case in the backdrop of revolutionary upheaval.


MS : Going back to the world scene in general, do you think it makes any sense to re-invigorate the concept of a third force of countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an independent block, outside the WTO, free of the IMF, WB, with their own parallel development Bank, with their own lending policies, based on their own reserves and perhaps a partially pegged currency? Is this feasible?


DV: The earlier concept of a Third World block, and the Bandung effort before that, was still in the phase of real or perceived national liberation struggles. In that sense, I think the possibility of a Third World block against WTO, IMF, WB etcetera is unrealistic. On the other hand the relatively developed of the developing countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa and so on will oppose these institutions. The key question is China. Its balance against the US is big enough to make a difference. Yet unless dollar is replaced by another currency, may be Euro, not much can be expected about lending policies or internal debts.


MS : Daya, you are busy with a lot of people, much younger than you, in various organizations that you have supported, built up yourself.  A few are your age. But most are much younger. How do you feel about the issues that you have to deal with…. the new mannerisms and expressions that you have to deal with. Do you feel just the way you did in the sixties, when you were known as an important radical activist on McGill Campus, with known Marxist affiliations? Are the NGO organizations that you are affiliated with today, able to deliver what it takes, better and with more punch, than when there was no finds in the past and no thoughts to get funded for various activities


DV: Frankly I am not able to cope with the younger generation in a satisfactory manner. I some times feel that activism of the type I find these days among many people is somewhat linked with some sort of careerism. It took me some time to realize that. Most people I now associate with do not have high ideals that direct their activities. Almost every one in the NGO world makes a living through activism or benevolence. There are other monetary considerations and desire for rewards.


In 60’s I was inspired by revolutionary politics and consequences did not matter. May be now I am in organizations like CERAS, (Centre d’études et de ressources sur l’Asie du Sud (South Asia Research and Resource Centre) as a habit, searching for something new. In retrospect I think IPANA (Indian Peoples’ Association In North America) was able to generate activists, many still remain active. CERAS is another matter.


MS : Daya, is the Peoples Republic of China something to hold out for, for the people of the world, as an ideal for social change and development? Or should nations like Cuba, some of the Latin American countries and even Mozambique, Angola and perhaps even Venezuela and Vietnam, become the basis for solidarity and rallying around? 


DV : Chinese revolution was the best thing that could happen for the people of colonial and neocolonial countries. I do think when Chairman Mao said in 1949 that China has stood up, he did say something important. It has been proven correct. However, the meaning has changed. It is a country of the new century but is it a country that will help others stand up? The answer is no. May be Cuba? May be India? One thing seems more plausible than Cuba or Vietnam. The leaders of the new are governments; the task of popular resistance is to put pressure on the governments rather than bypass them.


MS : Daya, Islamic fundamentalism has grabbed the mantle of being the bogeyman for US imperial might.  What will happen to this trend? Is it here to stay? Or will popular secular movements come to the forefront later?


DV :I think there is such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism. I do not think the US has any real dislike for Islamic fundamentalism, notwithstanding the fact that it does serve as an excuse. Even if it is true that Islamic fundamentalism is a rebellion against internal or external domination, its main thrust is against the Muslims. Lots of people emphasize that the Holy Koran does not preach this or that bad practice by Muslims. This may be true. On the other hand, religion is an organization that has little to do with holy texts. As expressed Islamic fundamentalism is incompatible with progress and as long as it remains dominant, Muslims will remain subservient. Other religions are either not as codified or have readjusted to modern needs. Sufism was the first rebellion against Islamic orthodoxy. It was suppressed. In some way intellectuals like Salman Rushdi, Taslima Nasreen and others in Egypt are becoming the nucleus of rebellion. The demand for reform is there but the non-resolution of the Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan questions is a hindrance.


MS : Daya, what do you like to listen to in terms of music these days? You have a lot of involvement in some local Music groups. Tell us about that…


DV : I am really not a music fan. I wanted to encroach upon the musical circle in Montreal. I succeeded in taking performances out of the basements to public places. I wish the emergence of Kabir Cultural Center as a secular institution in the hope that it will generate secular atmosphere within the South Asian community. It is being run by others. Now I have no direct role in it other than making suggestions from time to time, suggestions like programs of local talents, discussion on Kabir and Sufism etc.


MS : Daya, we wish to thank you for giving us this opportunity to reflect together. Many of us have shared and held your dreams close to our hearts… 

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