K Balagopal (1952–2009) didn't start out as a writer or commentator on contemporary politics. Like that other great modern Indian thinker, D. D. Kosambi whom he read avidly, admired and wrote about, his training was in mathematics, a subject he taught at Kakatiya University, Warangal, from 1981 to 1985. The political culture of Warangal—home to the Naxalite left and resonant with debates around questions of class, justice and revolution—proved decisive in Balagopal turning away from an introspective life of the mind. Instead, he came to train his acute intellect to identify, comprehend and critically examine key political and social concerns.
He joined the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee in 1981, and became active in civil rights work centred at that time around extra-judicial killings of militant left cadres. Arrested under TADA in 1985 on trumped-up charges relating to the murder of a police sub-inspector, he spent three months in Warangal prison. In 1989, Balagopal was kidnapped by a vigilante group called ‘Praja Bandhu’—believed to be a front of the police, and in 1992 was beaten up badly by the police in Kothagudem. Balagopal trained to be a lawyer late in his life and enrolled in the Bar Council of Andhra Pradesh in 1998, representing a wide variety of litigants whose lives, lands, status and employment were threatened. In fellow-traveller K. G. Kannabiran’s words, ‘Balagopal showed himself as the only lawyer of the poor of his generation with a reputation for competence.’ Owing to differences of opinion on the use of violence by Naxalites, Balagopal left APCLC in 1998. He was one of the founder-members of Human Rights Forum in which he was active till his death.
Balagopal was too self-effacing to put together his writings into a volume. But it is through his writings that his legacy lives on, giving us a roadmap for future struggles and these are collected in Ear to the Ground: Writings on Class and Caste, published by Navayana.
Balagopal’s writings, from the early 1980s till he died in 2009, offer us a rare insight into the making of modern India. Civil rights work provided Balagopal the cause and context to engage with history, the public sphere and political change. He wrote through nearly three tumultuous decades: on encounter deaths; struggles of agricultural labourers; the shifting dynamics of class and caste in the 1980s and thereafter in Andhra Pradesh; the venality and tyranny of the Indian state; on the importance of re-figuring the caste order as one that denied the right of civil existence to vast numbers of its constituents; the centrality one ought to grant patriarchy in considerations of social injustice; the destructive logic of development that emerged in the India of the 1990s, dishonouring its citizens’ right to life, liberty and livelihood. This volume comprises essays—largely drawn from Economic & Political Weekly to which he was a regular contributor—that deal with representations and practices of class power as they exist in tandem with state authority and caste identities.
Inspired by Naxalism in the late 1970s, intellectually indebted to D.D. Kosambi’s writings on Indian history and society, and politically and ethically attentive to the politics of feminist and dalit assertion in the 1990s, Balagopal refused dogma and shrill polemics just as he refused theory that did not heed the mess of history and practice.
From an essay in EPW, 1990: ‘There is perhaps no issue on which we are such hypocrites as caste; nor any other which brings out all that is worst in us with such shameful ease. The moment V. P. Singh announces the decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations… an avalanche of obscenity hits the country. Caste will undoubtedly be the last of the iniquitous institutions to die out in this country. It will outlast everything else.’