Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lokavidya Jan Andolan: Inaugurating a dialog

With this post we are starting an online dialog which, it is hoped, will prepare the ground for the first international conference of the Lokavidya Jan Andolan to be held in Varanasi from 12-14 November, 2011. During the course of the dialog we look forward to hearing from many different people and perspectives. This is not a discussion that is intended to come to a conclusion. Rather, it aims to broaden the voices within the movement and create new avenues for a politics based on lokavidya. It is undertaken in the spirit that at this stage of movement-building, breadth of views is to be preferred to cut-and-dry formulations.

In this first post, I address the following questions in brief. What does it mean to stake a claim for lokavidya in the public discourse? What could be the content of this claim and why is it a contemporary political statement? The tone of my remarks is assertive but this is only a strategy adopted to make the focus clear. The points made below should be taken as points of debate and departure.

The majority of the people in India and across the world have been told that they are ignorant and in need of education before they can participate fully in society. Politically, even when they constituted the mass-base, they have been sidelined in intellectual terms. And often they ended up fighting someone else's battle. But the people know that they are knowledgeable and that they can construct a new world based on their knowledge. Peasants, adivasis, artisans, shopkeepers, students, women, ordinary people are on the move everywhere in struggles and movements across the world. They form not just the mass base of these movements, but also the intellectual base, they supply not only the bodies but also the brains. Gandhiji claimed that before we begin a struggle, we must examine our own sources of strength, which form our starting position. We cannot begin a struggle that moves in our favor if we base it on a foundation which is not ours and that we do not understand. This is Marx's claim also.  The lokavidya position is that the people's own knowledge is the source of their strength. The Lokavidya Jan Andolan (LJA) consists of people rising up to say so. 

The various people's struggles against displacement from lands, forest, and livelihoods, struggles for environmental justice and food sovereignty, and many more, are all fraternal struggles which are unified in the yet unspoken claim that across class, caste, tribal, religious and gender divisions, the majority society is coming together to shed the stigma of being "uneducated." LJA is the realization that only if politics is based on the people's own knowledge can it be on their initiative, can it serve their interests. This does not mean that gender, caste or class struggles are unimportant. But it does mean that these struggles must also be based on lokavidya, that is they must be driven by peoples’ perspectives on what oppresses them and what the solutions of that oppression are. No longer can “educated” women claim to speak for all women or “educated” workers for all workers.

The time is ripe to put forth such a knowledge claim because the hegemony of Science and the University are being challenged everywhere, creating new opportunities. Disillusionment with capitalism and with the Science-society which have together brought unprecedented suffering to the majority world is strong today. So is disillusionment with the old politics of change. We make no grand claims for a new politics, but we do strive to bring such a politics into existence. No longer is it possible to have the faith in Science and the University that characterized 20th century political thought across the political spectrum. This loss of faith has tangible political manifestations today. Across Europe students have risen to liberate knowledge from the University. Declarations such as the Right of Mother Earth (Bolivia) openly state that the solutions to ecological problems lie not with Science, but with the indigenous peoples of the world.

But the politics of lokavidya is not a repetition of the 20th Century battle of tradition versus modernity. That battle was lost by tradition and resulted in a pyrrhic victory for modernity. Lokavidya is ever-contemporary knowledge of contemporary communities who create and sustain life today. Until the political position is staked that peasants and artisans lay claim to knowledge traditions in no way inferior to any other, struggles against displacement will appear to be resistance to “development.” A Lokavidya Jan Andolan is born when a peoples’ movement declares that the peoples’ knowledge and way of life is not inferior to those in the cities or in the corporate world. That it does not only fight to save livelihoods, it fights to build a new society.

Finally, does speaking of lokavidya mean being “against education” or conspiring to keep the majority out of colleges and universities? No. The lokavidya claim is that as long as education is synonymous with the system currently in place, this education can only grant a small number of people a government or corporate job. The others, the vast majority, will forever be kept "in the waiting room of history." But if the claim is staked that knowledge exists with the people too, they too can design education systems, run schools and universities, and absorb any knowledge that benefits them, on their own terms, then the basis of the present system will collapse as will its monopoly on the good life.

The foregoing is intended to stake a few claims, perhaps in provocative and controversial terms, to get a dialog going. The lokavidya perspective eschews political blueprints or general prescriptions. A lokavidya-based struggle in Bolivia can and should take shape very differently from one in India. There is no insistence on a single party, movement or institution.

In the next ten weeks or so, we hope to discuss:
-        what is understood by the terms lokavidya and lokavidya jan andolan,
-       what is the significance of taking a knowledge perspective on the struggles presently going on,
-       have there been such things as people's knowledge movements in the past,
-       can movements over issues of language, identity, caste, be thought of as knowledge movements,
-       how do the international struggles over production of knowledge relate to the people’s struggles against displacement, etc.
-       what should be the strategies of the LJA

And this is by no means an exhaustive list. We invite you to participate in the dialog either my commenting on the scheduled posts or contributing your own post.

Amit Basole

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