Mainstream, VOL LII No 37, September 6, 2014
Tribute: Balraj Puri
Saturday 6 September 2014, by
As Bipan Chandra (86) was, and will remain, to the history of anti-colonialism and communalism in India, Balraj Puri (86) was, and will remain, to the history of anti-feudalism and non-discriminatory justice in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. And both, primarily, were, and will remain, untiring and undetered voices on behalf of democracy, where democracy is not understood merely as the periodic ritual of a peaceful governmental change but as an idea inseparable from the raison d‘etre of human existence and the exercise of human choice and freedom at every level of social and state organisation, overriding all denominational hurdles.
At a time when our political confusion over the “Kashmir Issue” grows from a habitual to a potentially fatal severity, I am convinced that the way the Committee supported by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah and headed by Balraj Puri had suggested as far back as the early 1950s remains the only viable and just option available to all parties to the “dispute”, namely, a devolutionary political structure where the three region of the State might have their own Assemblies with negotiated rights and responsibilities, and where the prerogative of socio-economic planning at the grassroots would flow down to Zillas, Blocks and Panchayats, again within agreed and negotiated rights and responsibilities, legitimated by a principle of Autonomy suffusing all regions of the conjoint State left over after the exit of the Princely order. It is a remarkable fact that at the time even the then Praja Parishad had been persuaded to assent to these proposals. Alas that the subsequent dithering should have allowed the Parishad to back out of that assent once it was confronted with the new government policy under the Naya Kashmir Programme to acquire surplus lands without compensation. Yet, the fact that the idea and structure of Autonomy worked out by the Balraj Puri Committee still seems the one just and workable answer to what has been one of the most intractable problems attending India’s emergence into independent nationhood must be recognised as a monumental tribute to the work of the man who forged that idea and structure.
In speaking of Balraj Puri’s passion on behalf of the principle of devolutionary democracy, it is worthwhile noting that long before the Mandal Commission, indeed perhaps Lohia as well, Balraj Puri was to be a sentient advocate of the rights of social and ethnic groups—as distinct from classes. He understood the strength of these collective identities and the positive ways in which they sustained a democratic/federal order against temptations of totalitarian homo-genisations, as well as individual lives, much before many others did. And in that respect his interventions into a rather simplified Marxian understanding, although contentious at the time, speak to us today as having been ahead of their time. Even as he was one with the Marxists in endorsing the analysis that communalism was always the preferred politics of the ruling groups, calculated to drive out the consciousness of class oppression and everyday livelihood issues, he was an early one to see that sometimes communal assertions could not be easily separated from class aspirations, a classic case being that of Kashmiri Muslims who—as a religious community—were also the most oppressed class in Jammu and Kashmir for a century or so after 1846. Much as Dalits and other lower caste Indians till today simultaneo-usly comprise the oppressed class in vast measure. His vision of secularism thus was not a superficial fad, but one deeply rooted in a concomitant understanding of the need for economic equity and historical social justice.
Balraj Puri was one of the last (remembering that Agha Ashraf Ali, Ved Bhasin, Mohammed Yusuf Teng, Farooq Nazki and a few others are, thankfully, still with us) in the line of erudite public intellectuals that embellished the life of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from about the beginning of the anti-feudal movement in the second decade of the twentieth century—a legacy less known to the world outside the State than it ought to be. My own memories of conversations with Balraj Bhai will remain indelible—memories of a man whose dedication to scholarship, to a profound immersion in a rigorously historicised understanding of issues, to a principled commitment to the culture of argument, and to the search for a humanism which refused to be shamed by shibboleths or imprisoned by self-regarding considerations are paramount and priceless.
As Balraj Puri leaves us, we have his work on Kashmir especially, and it is still upto us to return to what he has said to us over some six decades of far-sighted wisdom. Even on sick bed, he would not give up finding the answers.
The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.