‘Crisis In Civilisation’

Samar Sen Memorial Discussion

Sohini Sengupta and Sourav Chattopadhyay

In recent years, a range of lectures and seminars by various collectives have commemorated the legacy of Samar Sen. The annual lectures organised by the Bengali quarterly Anustup have been the earliest of such efforts, with the first lecture being delivered in 1989. For 2024, the Anustup Samar Sen memorial discussion was held on 12 February, the form of panel discussion causing a transition from the tradition of the Samar Senmemorial lecture. The discussion was held at the P C Mahalanobis Auditorium, Presidency University, with a focus on the theme, ‘Crisis in Civilisation.’ The speakers for the event were author and former civil servant Anita Agnihotri, historian DipeshChakrabarty, and cultural critic SamikBandyopadhyay. The discussion was moderated by Uttam Kumar Biswas, associate professor of Bengali at Presidency University.

SandipanSen from Anustup introduced the speakers, followed by Anil Acharya, editor of the AnustupPatrika, who delivered a brief speech on the tradition of Samar Sen memorial lectures. Acharya spoke of the persistent importance of Samar Sen’s legacy of resistance in the present era of social crisis. Samar Sen was ever unflinching in the face of power, both during his years of involvement with Now and Frontier, and his absence in the current times of sociopolitical upheaval only reminds people of how necessary his presence was, and would have been even today.

The theme of the discussion was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s 1941 public address of the same name. The central thematic was argued and discussed by the speakers across three overlapping domains—the economic-political, the socio-cultural, and the planetary.

Anita Agnihotri addressed the exploitation of women’s lives and labour by the state in an age of capitalist accumulation. Agnihotri began with the larger issue of how the citizen is turned into a subject by the capitalist state through its web of surveillance. Presently, the state demands an increasing amount of personal information from its citizens—from Aadhaar card linkages to the recent facial scans in airports. This all-encompassing surveillance state signals the degeneration of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. Agnihotri demonstrated, through examples of the highly contested SardarSarovar Dam, and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s exploitative employment of janitors and manual scavengers, how promises of progress in India have brought about only a pretense of equality, and indifference towards the growing inequality. In the broader context of an increasingly authoritarian regime exerting control over the state, women find themselves doubly marginalised through the exploitation and devaluation of their labour. A majority of women are employed in informal and care-giving sectors, which fail to provide them, job security, social security, or any basic recognition of their contribution. Agnihotri spoke of the poverty faced by women-headed households, driven fundamentally by lack of maternity or childcare leave, job security, and pervasive domestic and workplace violence. Women’s presence in some of the most critical sectors—as Asha workers, Anganwadi workers, or midday meal providers, goes unnoticed and unrewarded. Further, an oppressive environment, exemplified by incidents like the rape and violation of women in Sandeshkhali, underscores the systemic nature of the issue. The silencing of resistant voices is not only an insult to those fighting for their livelihoods but also perpetuates a cycle of exploitation. The disparity between doubled subsidies and stagnant wages further exacerbates the situation—for instance, Lakshmi-r Bhandar, a domestic ration scheme, was raised in value, while salaries of female mid-day meal workers remained stagnant even after prolonged protests—revealing the broader pattern of exploitation in profit-driven regimes. This system not only fosters economic inequality but also reinforces patriarchal structures, perpetuating the subjugation of women.

Following Agnihotri’ssociopolitical critique of an exploitative capitalist society that doubly oppresses women, SamikBandyopadhyay brought the discussion to the more cultural domain of theatre. Reading out a declaration issued to the leading theatre groups of the country by the National School of Drama concerning participation in the Bharat Rang Mahotsav (a lavishly funded cultural gathering for theatre groups across India, held every year in Delhi), Bandyopadhyay pointed out how authoritarian language had percolated into civil declarations. He showed how the words ‘required’, ‘directed’, and ‘mandatory’ were repeatedly used in the declaration, and how this signalled the slow but steady curbing of social freedom. Bandyopadhyay argued that the mechanisms of organising the Bharat Rang Mahotsav—which included mandatory submissions of a skit performance based on one of three assigned topics, to be performed by theatre groups on the same date and submitted through the same government portal was an example of the culling of cultural autonomy. In contrast, he reminisced about the culture of plurality that was fostered by the Nehruvian establishment of the SahityaAkademi, the SangeetNatakAkademi, and the Lalit Kala Akademi, and with events such as the Shanti SanskritiUtsav organised at Md Ali Park, Kolkata. Bandyopadhyay stated that the erasure of this atmosphere of cultural dignity and plurality to build the present condition of all-encompassing capitalism and state surveillance leaves hardly any space for doubt whether people are on the cusp of a civilisational crisis; India has, in fact, already entered a state of cultural destitution.

As the final speaker, DipeshChakrabarty’s address spoke to both of the previous speakers and expanded the central question of the lecture from the ‘crisis in civilisation’ to the ‘crisis of a future’. Chakrabarty brought into conversation a historical perspective on the civilisational crisis with the present concerns of global warming, thus signaling that the crisis was in fact of humans as geological agents on a planetary scale.

At the outset, Chakrabarty discussed the common association of the idea of ‘sabhyata’ with etiquette; yet, the idea of sabhyata as entrenched in the politics of etiquette, which was prevalent in feudal systems and courts, and in many non-Western societies, transformed with the European Enlightenment. This evolved idea of civilisation—which Tagore also draws on—was from the moment of its genesis perceived as one that was filled with the possibility of crisis. Throughout history, the 'crisis in civilisation' has recurred, with various epochs seen as periods of upheaval. The idea of civilisation itself is an intellectual battleground, Chakrabarty argued; at any point, who is ‘civil’ or ‘sabhya’, who is uncivil or barbaric, and what is civilisation defined by, are questions that have repeatedly debated across history. Chakrabarty argued that the idea of crisis is deeply intertwined with the concept of civilisation itself, as notions of progress and decline are central to how societies understand themselves and their place in the world. He elaborated on how different societies have experienced and interpreted crises differently, often based on cultural, political, and economic factors; what may be a crisis for some is viewed as opportunity and advancement by others. Perceptions of the present and time itself vary greatly between those who claim civility and those labeled as uncivil. Raising the example of the Bengal Renaissance, Chakrabarty demonstrated how the impact of a historical transition is variously judged across time. From the time of Samar Sen, Chakrabarty noted, there was an inheritance of the notion of the Hindu Bengali middle class as a declining social group. Such histories of decline are written across different periods—from Parsi history in the 18th century to European history after the World Wars, to Bengali perceptions of the social present in the post-partition period.

Yet, all such perceptions of civilisation crisis are enmeshed with an idea of the future as open: where civilisation must move from its dystopic present to a better future. All ideas of social change carry with them a vague, indefinite sense of the future, and it is the incalculability of that future and the hope it offers that enable the promise of revolution. Presently, however, the rapidly escalating global warming represents a profound challenge to the very idea of civilisation, as it exposes the interconnectedness of human societies and the natural world. Chakrabarty explored how climate change disrupts ecosystems, displaces populations, and exacerbates social inequalities, particularly impacting marginalised communities and developing nations. He emphasised the need for collective action to address climate change, transcending national boundaries and political divides, and also debated the ethical dimensions of climate change, highlighting the responsibilities of wealthy nations and individuals who have disproportionately contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. The present crisis, he argued, is not simply one of civilisation but a ‘crisis of a future’ —a state in which the future ascribed to and imagined for themselves by humans shrinks to a definite, limited scale. He demonstrated how climate crisis will only exacerbate differences between powerful, developed countries and developing ones, between wealthy communities and margina-lised groups, and argued that the impending crisis of the future requires concerned people to open up the definition of ‘civilisation’ itself, to speak out against otherisation and oppression in the face of a larger crisis. Chakrabarty’s address inspired numerous threads of comments and discussion from the audience, with areas of discussion ranging from the uses of technology to the connections between majoritarian-ism and power in an era of climate change.

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Vol 56, No. 36, Mar 3 - 9, 2024