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How this hardcore Marxist-Leninist turned into liberal humanist, 'upholding' civil rights

By Harsh Thakor* 
On October 9 we commemorated the 13th death anniversary of Dr K. Balagopal (1952-2009), a mathematician and a civil rights activist rolled into one, and one of post-independent India’s most creative thinkers. who gave revolutionary humanism a new perspective. Born in Bellary, he grew up in Andhra Pradesh completing his education in the state, finishing up with doctorate in mathematics from the Regional Engineering College, Warangal.
Following a brief period of time in the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, where he was a post-doctoral fellow, he returned to his home state and taught at the Kakatiya University until 1985. He relinquished his teaching post following a threat to his life by the police and turned to full-time civil rights work, first with the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) as its general secretary for 15 years, and then with the Human Rights Forum (HRF), an organization that he helped found in 1998.
Balagopal belonged to a generation that was crystallised or nurtured during the Indian Emergency of 1975. Arbitrary arrests, detentions without trial and mysterious deaths characterised the authoritarian state. His critical mind made him explore Marxism, analyse the militant Left in Andhra Pradesh, which claimed to represent the backbone of the movements of Dalits and Adivasis.
Balagopal would undertake critical ‘fact-finding’ – enquiring into diverse forms of state violence, including so-called ‘encounters’, tortures in detention, and criminalization of democratic protests. As civil liberties activist, we went around different parts of India. He led frequent fact finding missions to Kashmir, giving a fitting reminder to the Indian state of the alleged crimes committed in that part of the subcontinent in the name of the sovereign nation.
As an APCLC activist, he enquired into instances of violence against Dalits. Arguing that the caste system was a defining form of inequality, he insisted that civil rights groups ought to not only address specific instances of caste violence, but portray caste inequality as a human rights question. 
That is, it is not the state that is the sole culprit in violation of democratic rights, but social relations and institutions too are responsible for caste and gender injustice. He suggested that the history of civil rights ought to be re-evaluated, insisting, the roots of civil rights must be traced within the long legacy of rights struggles that posed a threat to the constitutive inequality of our social systems.
If early Balagopal, as Marxist-Leninist, was an advocate of the ‘new democratic revolution’, later he turned into a ‘liberal humanist', posing questions to the so-called ‘bourgeois’ character of rights. He argued that a right cannot be classed merely as a postulate that is granted by the state to stir popular discontent, but is a norm, defined, affirmed and upheld through people’s struggles for equality and justice.
Such views made him antagonistic with the ideology APCLC, and he left the organization. This was when he and others founded the Human Rights Forum (HRF), a rights organization that understood equality to be an idea “that originated in the fight against Brahminical society that began in the middle of the first millennium BC and continues till today”. He insisted: the philosophy for rights movements cannot be reduced to the views of movements or political actors.
Balagopal took up cases of the most marginal sections, including those related with land rights and right of access to resources. Dedicated to the very core, defending the rights enshrined in the Constitution, he harboured no illusions about the ‘lawless’ nature of the Indian caste society, and pointed towards the dangers posed by the penetration of Hindutva philosophy. He adhered to the view that rights movements must consistently cope with violations that have roots within civil impunity as with those that have state impunity.
Balagopal took up cases of the most marginal sections, including those related with land rights and right of access to resources
In addition to being a civil rights activist, Balagopal was a notable writer in Telugu and English. He innovated a new format of writing, grounded in local details and histories, but which projected the larger picture of the class and caste divisions of a society in regressive transition. He analyse events in immediate as well as historical contexts, and in terms of transforming social and political relationships, amongst classes and castes, and between the Indian people and the Indian state.
Memories always flash in my mind of his laborious work in exposing the stage managed encounters of Naxalite groups. Once he exposed an encounter after facing severe head injuries in Warangal. He would work in the most intense areas of state repression, inviting the police wrath.
No civil liberties activists with such intensity in such a methodological manner defended the mass work of the Naxalite movement, especially that of the erstwhile CPI(ML) Peoples War group in his speeches and writings. With polemical mastery he illustrated the dynamics of a neo-fascist state and how it symbolised oppression of the poor. In journals like the "Economic and Political weekly" in the 1980s and 1990s with incisive Marxist analysis he probed state repression on Naxalite activists, Dalits, minorities and workers.
At the same time, he found how the Maoist groups were turning the civil liberties platform into a party front. He asked activists to come within the fold of the civil rights movement nation wide.
In his ‘Understanding Fascism and Class, Caste and the State’ he portrayed the fascist ascendancy of the Hindu right and of Brahmanism. In ‘Civil Liberties Movement and Revolutionary Violence' he made an analytical dichotomy between the work of the Marxist-Leninist groups with that of the Dalit movement or democratic movement in general. In his ‘Perspective of Rights Movement’ he probed humanism in deep depth, rejecting the Marxist approach. Here he placed class ideology into museum.
It is very hard to analyse what caused Balagopal’s rejection or departure from Marxism. In his last 10 years he attacked the Marxist ideology at the very core. He dwelled on the failure of socialist systems in USSR and China and described the Maoist groups of giving scant respect to the individual.
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*Freelance journalist who has covered mass movements around India and conducted extensive research on civil liberties movement in India

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