Mumbai: Faced with tectonic shifts in the narrative of our socio-political life, Anupam Guha, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Policy Research at IIT-Mumbai, tweeted one morning in January 2020 if anyone wanted to join him. Review some basic political theory texts. He didn't expect more than "five or six people to show up, read a few books, have a few conversations." To their surprise, around 40 people joined on January 28 of the same year, 20 of whom logged in virtually.
By March 2021, members dubbed the group "The Kosambi Reading and Analysis Circle," named after physicist and mathematician Dr. DD Kosambi, also known as one of the first Marxist theorists in India to systematically analyze historiography and played a major role in building both the social sciences and statistical mathematical natural sciences in India. Eventually he took over the chair of mathematics at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR).
On January 28, 2023, the Circle celebrated its third anniversary with over 1,000 members and held the second Circle Congress to refine its vision.
Here's the backstory that sparked an idea.
For a decade, between 2009 and 2019, Guha was in India and abroad, first pursuing higher education and then working. However, he was unaware of what was happening in the country, particularly from 2016 onwards, most notably the death that year of Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula and the ensuing demonstrations, the killing of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, the student protests over fee increases, reduced funding for research grants and fellowships, community violence in Delhi, and nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that began in December 2019.
Unchecked by anti-CAA/NRC protests, Guha, through his interactions with movements on the ground and academia, recognized that many progressive forces, both liberal and socialist, in India lacked theoretical clarity as to why they were fighting. which often led to damaging strategic decisions.
"For example, many civil society leaders, and by that I mean all kinds of progressives, be they liberals, Ambedkarists, communists, socialists and even feminist groups, felt comfortable opposing the NRC, albeit not the existing in Assam. , due to a genuine ignorance of the history of the state. This was detrimental as the material impact of the NRC on the rest of the country was hypothetical and might never materialize, but it affected Assam where it was happening at the time,” says Guha. "That kind of opportunism was unbearable."
Guha did not give up the cause of progress, but at the same time kept aloof from electoral politics and activism, and decided to start an organization dedicated to theoretical refinement through reading texts by thinkers from Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg to Goldman, VI Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, BR Ambedkar and DD Kosambi focus on Emma and question existing ideological thought patterns through discussions and debates.
For two hours each month on two Sunday evenings, a motley crew from different cities and towns in India and abroad come together via zoom link to sharpen political theory by reading authors from across the political spectrum who understand historical contexts and she classifies the current scenario.
Namgyal, 50, joined the circle to place his work in a larger social context and to stay informed about the underlying political theory and philosophy.
The Bangalore resident who has worked in the field of AI says it's difficult to work in this field without thinking about the ethical issues (such as those raised by ChatGPT) or its broader impact on unemployment.
"The discourse on AI and ethics is very superficial and is usually driven by a company's needs," says Namgyal. “I also had the opportunity to reflect on the alienation experienced by temp workers (employees with taxi aggregators or app-based meal delivery systems) as their only colleagues or forms of interaction are cards, and the mental health impact in India crores in the face of sharing Economy will contribute significantly to job growth.”
The vast majority of Circle members are students, city employees, casual workers, freelancers, blue-collar workers, academics, entrepreneurs, and seniors.
Shreya, who is pursuing a master's degree in public policy in the US, recalls feeling hopeless during the anti-CAA/NRC protests and whether understanding the theory could help understand political reality.
“How does right-wing nationalism work in India and elsewhere? What lessons do we draw from other contexts to understand what happened? What does history tell us about our present? I felt that political theory could sharpen our understanding of the present and also point a way forward,” said Shreya, who expressed her solidarity at the Azad Maidan during the anti-CAA/NRC demonstrations.
After three years at the Circle, the 25-year-old says she has a better understanding of how state works under capitalism, and as a public policy student she understands the motivations of state actors to disappoint different systems.
For Shachi, who works in the fields of citizen technology and public policy, and whose job it is to normalize public consultation and democratize legislation, the circle helps her better connect with government and events around her. “All draft amendments, laws or circulars have a massive impact on everyday life. When the Telecommunications Act came up for public consultation, we discussed it in our group," says the 28-year-old. “We have received hundreds of well thought out and informed responses, many from the Circle. This is what Kosambi does: to create informed citizens, especially young people and professionals”.
THE JOURNEY AND THE PATH
Shortly after their first three physical meetings before the pandemic, the circle began brainstorming about its identity and defining areas of access and non-access.
“Even before our charter was written, it was clear to us that the Kosambi reading circle is not a political party, indirectly affiliated with one, or an activist group. Kosambi is an educational organization that focuses on reading political theories over time, observing what's happening around them, and then analyzing them,” says Guha.
By January 2021, between 900 and 1,000 members began attending bimonthly meetings and the circle held its first convention. “Our circle welcomes you if you are a person committed to humanity and progress. You can be a liberal, communist, anarchist, ambedkarist or feminist, but your ideas are not right just because they exist. Every idea can be questioned and discussed in a circle. But we have some limits that cannot be crossed,” says Guha. A red line is said not to tolerate essentialism, particularly bioessentialism (including transgender-exclusive strands of feminism) and ethnic essentialism (ideas that certain people are sincerely attached to certain terrains), which the coven sees as hostile to human dignity.
Currently the circle is working to establish physical chapters with hundreds of members in major cities like Bangalore and Delhi, smaller Indian cities and outside of India. Last year he launched his magazine “La Rosa” in honor of the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. "We found that most of the magazines published by progressive or left-leaning organizations in India inform readers about their achievements or are journalism magazines," says Guha. "'The Rosa' accommodates theory, analysis, or theorizing of concepts, as well as general plays, including fiction and poetry."
Within the circle there are internal focus groups called caucuses. "One of the biggest focus groups is the history group because we believe that political history, whether it's socialism, communism, feminism or the anti-caste movement, is being forgotten," says Guha. "We have methodically located sources of political movements and created bibliographies of specific political stories that we use as reading, disseminating and analyzing material."
Other focus groups include science and technology, caste, art, gender, law, nutrition, political economy, writing, and physical education, among others.
THE MEANING OF THE CIRCLE
The group seeks to refute the notion that the working class cannot engage in grand ideas. As Guha says, there is a general anti-intellectual culture within progressive spaces, an ivory tower that the circle firmly disagrees with.
“So many bills have been passed in the past few months that will have a tremendous impact on the citizens of this country. Attempts to redefine telecom, what should and shouldn't be licensed, trying to control expression, dissent, etc. are major issues for the masses,” says Guha. "As long as debates in air-conditioned rooms don't move and are discussed in the masses, practically nothing becomes politicized."
Three years meant a lot of learning, say the members of the circle. “Not all metrics may have immediate utility or value. But it's like fiction books. As you read them, you understand yourself and things around you better in unexpected ways,” Shreya concludes.
- ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Snehal Fernandes is Senior Assistant Editor at Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He writes on science and technology, environment, sustainable development, climate change and nuclear energy. In 2012 he received the Press Club Award for Excellence in Journalism (Politics category) for his coverage of the mining fraud in Goa. Before HT he wrote about education and transportation at the Indian Express.