VOL. 29 . NO.03. march 2016
journel of socialist thought and action

George fernandes
Hope And Despair

All of you are aware of contemporary Indian history. The World Council of Churches (WCC) was to play a notable part in that history. I must mention Dr M M Thomas, former moderator of the Central Committee of the WCC here. It was in this city of Bangalore that in August/September 1975 I was to meet him, always under cover of darkness, to exchange notes with him, to be briefed by him, and to interact with him in a common struggle to restore democracy in this country.

The Nairobi Assembly of the WCC was then a few months away, and I was aware of the work the WCC was doing from Switzerland, the work that helped us in our movement. Some of the letters which the WCC sent to the authorities in India were a source of great strength to all of us who were fighting underground. When Rev. M A Thomas mentioned to me some months ago about this meeting, perhaps the most compelling reason which prompted me to agree to spend this afternoon here with all of you was the role that the WCC played in the struggle we went through to restore freedom and democracy in India.

In March 1977, after 20 months of struggle, the people of India achieved what was till then considered impossible. In fact, I was one of those who believed that it was impossible, because never before in history had a people voted out an autocratic or authoritarian regime. It happened for the first time. Some of us were committed to overthrowing the authoritarian regime by any means. A few days ago in Parliament we were discussing khadi, the handspun and handwoven cloth we wear in this country, and Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy. Someone, from the Opposition, which 16 months ago was the ruling party, said that a man, who operated with dynamite during 12 months of the Emergency when he was underground, had no right to speak about Gandhi who was the apostle of non-violence. My only reply was that, in order to overthrow any fascist regime, all means were justified. Gandhi himself said: "I shall risk violence a thousand times, rather than risk the emasculation of any race." But we went through this exercise, violent on the part of some, non-violent on the part of many others.

Some 2,50,000 people were imprisoned during those 20 months - more than the population of quite a few countries in the world. But every year we produce a nation of the size of Australia - about 15 million. And finally in March last year, through the ballot, the people succeeded in restoring democracy and the values for which. another generation of men and women of my country had fought under Gandhi's leadership - the democratic values, and along with them certain spiritual values. As a government, I believe that our task is not only to govern in the sense of looking after the economy, managing the politics of the country and generally administering the country; we also have the task of protecting and preserving democratic values and freedoms. And it is my belief today that if anything should happen to the party which the people of this country returned to power, it would be disastrous for the people. Therefore, even when one tries to reconcile, one has also to fight. There is a struggle even in the effort of reconciliation. This is the point we have just been discussing before my speech - the whole concept of hope, which is the theme of your meeting.

The Depth of Poverty in India

1 am neither qualified nor competent to speak on subjects of philosophy or theology. I left the seminary 30 years ago when I was studying for the priesthood. I was born in a Roman Catholic family in Mangalore, about 250 miles west of Bangalore. I studied in this city from 1946 to 1948 at St Peter's Seminary. I was disillusioned, because there was a lot of difference between precept and practice where the Church was concerned. The Church said: "The priest is an alter Christus." But somehow the life of the priest was nowhere near the life of a Christus. And this created a problem for me, a personal one, which no one could help me resolve at that time. The only course open to me then was to leave the seminary voluntarily. So I am not competent to discuss or to speak on the philosophical or theological aspects of the question that you are discussing here. I know you are all distinguished people, and I know the learning and the experience which you are applying to this subject. But we were discussing hope in another sense : in the sense that someone's hope is somebody else's despair. The hope of the nations of the North is the despair of the nations of the South. For the last five years, the North-South dialogue has been going on, and someone's hope is someone else's despair.

I do not want to discuss wide economic questions. I don't think you would have the taste for that kind of discussion either. But I would certainly like to present some of the problems we face today, what our hopes and aspirations are, what is it that we are trying to do in this country, and why is it that we need today to try to reconcile and not divide. We have been a free country for 31 years now, for India became free in 1947. We inherited a devastated economy. We inherited a nation which had a political unity of sorts, but which had been robbed of most of its economic strength over 150 years. In the last 31 years, we pursued a certain pattern or system of reconstructing our country. People like me were not reconciled to that pattern or system. We opposed it. We believe that the pattern which was followed was not solving the problems, but in fact was creating them. For instance, on 15 August 1947, India had 350 million people. In 1977, thirty years later, India had 420 million illiterates living below the poverty line. And what is the poverty line in India?

I remember entering into an argument in 1974 with the then Prime Minister. I would not call it a debate because she never debated these issues. When she got on to a discussion on poverty and said that there was poverty in the United States of America also, and so no one should complain about poverty in India. I was to tell her that the poverty in the USA was at a certain level: whether one should have one car or two, or whether one should have a holiday or not. But of course, there is poverty in the United States of America. These are people who are deprived socially and economically; there are slums and there are problems. But equating the poverty in the USA with the poverty in my country is not merely a demonstration of ignorance, but also a vulgar exercise, because poverty in my country means, with the present value of the rupee being what it is, not having even Rs 2.50 to spend per day. Now, Rs 2.50 means two bottles of soft drink, as one carbonated drink costs Rs.1.25. In an ordinary roadside café, it would mean three cups of tea, or at best four cups. In a posh restaurant it would not fetch even half a cup of tea. That is the size of poverty in my country. I am not trying to frighten you. But I want people to understand the problems and what our hopes are in regard to the resolution of these problems.

That is perhaps the size of our problem - we have 420 million who live below the poverty line. In the abstract, from a distance, it does not make much sense, but when you get down to the personal level where you start interacting with the people, where you start dealing with. their problems, the size and magnitude of this problem overwhelms you sometimes. I have been returned, for instance, to the Indian Parliament from a constituency of north Bihar called Muzaffarpur. Half of it has been under water for a fortnight. My constituency has 12,00,000 people, and there are 6,50,000 voters, of whom 3,96,000 voted for me while I was still in prison. I was released from prison 48 hours after I was elected. Muzaffarpur has 650 villages. Of the 650 villages, 350 have no linking roads of any sort, not even a bullock-cart track, no drinking water facilities, no wells. Now, this is just to concretise this poverty of 420 million people not affording Rs 2.50 per day.

Unemployment Despite Planning

At another level, the problem is unemployment. We have at the moment 40 million able-bodied people who want to work, but have no work available to them. We have gone through five Five Year Plans and three One Year Plans in 28 years of highly centralised planning, during which we spent 1,00,000 crores of rupees (1 crore = 10 million) on developmental activities. And at the end of it all, you have 40 million unemployed. This year, another six million will be joining the queue for employment. We fought against this. Well, we have a Planning Commission of which the Prime Minister is invariably the chairperson. Ever since the Planning Commission was set up in 1947, it has been located in what is known as Yojana Bhavan. Yojana in Hindi means Planning; so it is the planning house, with able, intelligent, patriotic men and women. But we still do not have a woman member in our commission. This commission has worked over the years, and at the end of every five years it has successfully created more unemployment. This is not to say that the number of factories did not go up. Of course, they did. Bangalore, where industry is concerned, is the fastest growing city in our country. More industry has come up here in the last 20 years than perhaps in any other city in the country. Bombay was saturated long ago. We have in Bangalore a factory which produces modern aircraft. We have a telephone industry there which produces all the telephone equipment the country needs and also some for export. We have the Hindustan Machine Tools which is one of the ten largest machine tool companies in the world, and exports machine tools to such countries as Switzerland and the USA. We have a great number of other large and small industries here.

So we did set up factories. There was investment in the rural and urban areas. But somewhere along the line, the thinking was that investment is for the sake of investment. People never mattered. If the whole concept of planning is to solve the problem of unemployment and other problems of the people, then the individual becomes the centre of attention. When people are not the centre of developmental activities, you set up the factories and, in the process, you create more unemployment.

Any solution not related to the problem of poverty or of unemployment is no solution. In fact, if anything, the problem gets aggravated. That is why I said that compared with population of 350 million in 1947, we now have 420 million below the poverty line, who are utterly, totally illiterate. They are educated, but they are illiterate. There are large numbers of literates, but they are totally uneducated. It is these illiterates who restored democracy in this country, while the educated sang songs in favour of the dictatorship and justified it inside and outside. And that is why I was to tell people in Europe .a month after I came out of prison, at a meeting of the leaders of the Socialist parties of the world at Amsterdam, that a lot of people were led to believe in Europe and elsewhere that freedom and bread do not go together. But it is those people who had neither freedom nor bread who finally demonstrated that freedom and bread are equally important and that they must go together.

The point is that, over the years, first they denied bread, then they denied freedom also. Today, we are concerned with these problems. I do not want to go into the micro levels of these problems. It is not important. But the mere fact that there is this colossal poverty, that there is this colossal unemployment, and that these are the problems any government of this country must deal with, is where our hopes are centred.

More Jobs Needed in the Rural Areas

I would like to mention one or two wider issues. We need to create jobs very fast. In fact,
my party before it was returned to power, told the people that we will create jobs for 100 million people in the next 10 years, that is 10 million jobs a year. We know that these jobs need to be created where the people are, not with a conventional concept of industrialisation. We need to create these jobs in agriculture, in small industries, in cottage industries, and in rural industries.

The new thrust is to move. away from the cities, away from the machines and into the rural areas. One of the positive decisions we took, among many others, was to freeze the capacity of our organised textile industry. We have 280 composite mills which produce cloth in India. There are some here in Bangalore. We have about 690 textile mills, of which 280 are composite and the rest are spinning mills. But where the loomage is concerned, we have frozen the capacity and have decided, as a matter of policy, that from now -on there will be no additional loomage in the textile sector. What we already, have in the mills and powerlooms, we operate to optimum capacity and efficiency, but no more looms. We need much more cloth than we are using now; our per capita use for last year was 12.5 metres per annum, which is what most of us have on our body at any given moment. Twelve years ago it was 16.5 metres, a steady decline year after year. Our plans are to increase it to 14.5 metres in five years and increase it still further. The looms will be in the rural areas, and they will be handlooms, not powerlooms, not in the automatic mill sector; machine spun, but hand-woven.

We have at the present time also hand-spun and hand-woven cloth. But it is not much, really. I refer to this because ultimately in this world we have to depend on trade. In the last 12 months, we have been trying to persuade the countries of the European Economic Community and the USA to buy some of our handloom cloth. 'There is so much protectionism; they are so much concerned primarily with their industry and also with their investments in industry in Singapore and Hong Kong that their hope has become our despair.

We have 10 million people employed in the handloom sector in our country; that means 50 million mouths. We need to expand this, because 80 per cent of our unemployment is in the rural areas, and 80 per cent of India lives there. So we intend to create jobs in the rural regions. We do not want to create any more jobs in the cities. They area social liability, among other things. When I say this, I am not talking only of pollution or crime. When I was at school, I used to take pride in the fact that Bombay was the fourth or fifth largest city in the world. I would now like to dismantle Bombay as soon as possible, and send people out there where the green is, where life is, and not one maddening race.

We Need a Market Outside

So in the villages where the traditional weavers lost their jobs - for generations they have been denied their bread and butter - we want to recreate these jobs out there. But we need a marke. The domestic market is there, but we also need a foreign market. We are running into trouble, because someone's hope is someone else's despair. We tried to persuade the President of the USA when he was here. We tried to persuade the EEC, and almost every Prime Minister in Europe. I went to Luxembourg, visited all the capitals of Europe and said: "Please, we have only 4 per cent of the European market. Only 4 per cent ... Out of a total import of cloth and garments into Europe, India, which has 10 million weavers and spinners in the rural areas, has only 4 per cent of the market. Hong Kong, with a population of three million, has 40 per cent of the European market for cloth and garments. India has 10 million -weavers - the people who live on weaving and looming number 50 million - and we have only 4 per cent of the European market. Singapore has 30 per cent; South Korea has the rest.

The reason is that European money is invested in these areas. European capital is free of all the tax problems, all the tariff problems of the home countries. It goes out, produces cloth and brings it back to Europe. The money, of course, can be spent anywhere. And here we are: 630 million people this year and 643 next year, with 50 million mouths depending only on handlooms, wanting a slightly larger share in the European market, wanting to live on our own. I am not talking of aid, assistance or grants. I am talking of a fair chance, just a fair chance for India which produces the most beautiful garments and cloth. I would, in fact, suggest that you visit some of our textile centres, in the city or elsewhere in the country if you have an opportunity.

This is the problem and this is how our hope is related to our problems. This is where I thought some of you could help us, by relating our hopes to the hopes of people elsewhere and perhaps trying to reconcile them - reconcile, not in terms of the abstract contradictions, but in terms of the concrete problems that we have at all levels. I believe that there are problems whose solutions are not merely related to what we are going to do in terms of our trade and our relations with other countries. I also believe that these are the problems whose solutions will have to be found in creating a more just and equitable society in our own country. This is a much bigger battle. It might be difficult to get into the European market, but it is more difficult to deal with the large houses which control not merely the wealth, but also the media. This is an uphill task and I should know it as Minister of Industry of this country. Not that those who control the wealth own it themselves; they just control the wealth. Wealth is ultimately of the people. No industrialist of this country owns more than 2 per cent of his assets. Ninety-eight per cent of the assets are public funds, most of them from the financial institutions, which are, again, publicly owned. But there is a concentration that has partly been responsible for this social and economic injustice one sees here; for the imbalance one sees in the urban and rural areas; for the wide gulf between the rich and the poor; for the development of a culture which, for want of a better definition, I have been calling the "five-star culture" and which has been trying to coexist with the vast slums in my country.

How One's Hope is Another's Despair!

There are little islands, little islets of affluence in this huge ocean called India, an ocean of poverty. The other day, I was engaged in a debate with a great man of my country called Baba Amte. He runs a leper asylum. He lives near Nagpur. He is a great man, a lawyer by discipline who defended the Ashti-Chimur (Vidarbha) victims' at the time of Mahatma Gandhi; and then, I do not know what reasons motivated him, he went to work among the lepers and has spent a lifetime among them.

He was honoured recently by my country. He told me: "Poverty is vulgar." I disputed that in my country riches were vulgar, not just vulgar but obscene, because you have a five-star hotel where the standard tariff is Rs 490 for bed and breakfast only. The per capita income of my country last year was Rs 1,080. In other words, for one night's bed, breakfast and a meal, and perhaps the cocktails that precede it, the cost would equal the per capita income of my country. If that is not obscene, what is?

Our problem, then, is not only rooted in our relations within the context of the rest of the world, the North and South, the rich and the poor, but must also be seen in terms of the need to reconcile these contradictions within my own country. And this is a big fight, much bigger than that on trade and the tariff and the protectionist policies of others. It is easier there; it is more difficult here. But that is a part of the struggle and that is again where hope and despair are constantly at war. On both sides there is hope, except that one's hope is the other person's despair.

I hope, and I really want to hope, that all of us together in this country and outside who are concerned with social values (call them Christian values if you wish; we are at the Ecumenical Christian Centre where we discuss not only in terms of Christian values, but also human values) will put our heads together, not at the abstract, but at the -concrete level, to realize those values.

A Problem of Contradictions

This is not a battle of "isms"; not a battle of the East and the West. But there are contradictions, the primary contradiction being between the rich and the poor, between the haves and have-nots, between the five-star hotel and the slum. This is the fundamental and primary contradiction where one man's hope of making a fast buck is the other man's despair of being for ever condemned to a life of poverty. This is the fight in which I am involved today as a member of the government. If we run into political crises sometimes, and try to keep things still going, and still cling to hope, it is because of the size of this problem. We have been through this experiment in development for 30 long years, and that experiment has brought us to where we are. I do not want to see a situation where bread has to be denied again, which will lead to freedom being denied. For once, it is not a fight against something. It is a fight for something. That is where I hope the world will also try to understand what we are going through.

In the plane on my way to Bangalore, I was reading a talk by Dr Bruno Kreisky my very dear friend, who is partly responsible for keeping me alive today. The day they arrested me, 10 June 1976, in Calcutta in my hideout, someone in the police thought it proper to let the world know, So, even before my country knew that I had been arrested - we had a censorship of the kind which was never witnessed in the world, at least in the so-called free world the rest of the world knew. Three men sent a cable to the lady who was then in power: one was Willy Brandt, the other Olof Palme, who was then Prime Minister of Sweden, and the third was Bruno Kreisky. That cable which said in so many words: "If anything should happen to George Fernandes' life, we shall never forgive,"saved my life. I was reading Bruno Kreisky's speech on detente, which was sent to me a week earlier and which he had delivered in London the preceding month. In it, he speaks of the 400 billion US dollars being spent in the current year alone on armaments. That is more than one billion dollars a day, or 1,000 crores of rupees a day.

My country's gross national product last year was only Rs 80,698 crores. Some of us have been telling the leaders of the world that we do not want to be whistling in the dark; we do not want to be idealists to a point where we look ridiculous. But we have been telling everyone in the world, particularly the countries that have resources: "Why do you not earmark two per cent of your gross national product for the development efforts in those countries where there is great poverty? Why not use your technology, your know-how, for developmental activities? Why not'look at the world as a place where at least on certain fundamental issues there can be no division? It is not enough to say that freedom is indivisible. If we believe that, then there can be no division in tackling the problems of poverty, unemployment, ignorance which have been accumulating for decades, if not for centuries."

Our Hopes and Outside Happenings Intertwined

But somehow these words make no sense. The United Nations is one of those places where, I suppose, everyone acts in a certain ritualistic manner, where you have your say and set your sights, perhaps, in the smoking rooms. But in terms of coming to grips with these problems, in terms of creating a better world where someone's hope does not become someone else's despair, one does not really see anything substantial happening. If I am making this comment and this observation, it is because I am in a hurry. We are in a hurry because we also know what it can mean to the world if some of us lose. If we lose this fight against poverty, against the colossal problems that plague us here in this country and elsewhere in the world, in the countries of Africa, in other countries of South-east Asia, in parts of Latin America, then I do not know who is going to survive. I do not want to sound hopeless; I am full of hope; I am an optimist. I am only trying to present and to put into focus some of the problems that we face, to say what our hopes are and how the solution to our problems and the attainment of our hopes are invariably intertwined with what happens elsewhere in the world. I refuse to accept that Christianity is only concerned with piety and life after death. 'I refused to accept it 30 years ago in 1948, in the Seminary, when I grappled with these problems alone, without anyone to help me. Finally, I decided to leave.

I, therefore, want to hope and to believe that the World Council of Churches and the entire Christian world, interacting with all those who are concerned with mankind and with its future, will be able to relate the fundamental values of Christian belief to the resolution of the problems and act in concrete ways at the grassroots.

From George Fernandes Speaks published by Ajanta Books International, Delhi 1991.

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