Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
Raised in poverty, Govind Pansare was fortunate to go to school, where he encountered Marxist ideas. In 1952, at the age of 19, Pansare joined the Communist Party of India (CPI). While in college in Kolhapur, Pansare could often be found at the Republic Book Stall, where he devoured Marxist classics and Soviet novels that came to India through the CPI’s People’s Publishing House. When he became a lawyer, Pansare worked with trade unions and organisations rooted in poor neighbourhoods. He read avidly, researching the history of Maharashtra to better understand how to get rid of wretched customs such as the caste system and religious fundamentalism.
Out of his world of struggle and his world of books emerged Pansare’s commitment to culture and to intellectual liberation. Along with his comrades, he set up the Shramik Pratishthan (Workers’ Trust), which not only published books but also held seminars and lectures. One of the most popular programmes organised by the Trust was the annual literary festival in honour of the Marathi writer Annabhau Sathe. In 1987, Pansare wrote a book called Shivaji Kon Hota? (Who Was Shivaji? in the LeftWord Books English edition). He freed the 17th-century warrior Shivaji from the manipulations of the far right in India, which had falsely portrayed him in their books as a Hindu warrior who battled Muslims. In fact, Shivaji was reported to have been benevolent to Muslims, which is why Pansare rescued him from their clutches.
Justice for people such as Govind Pansare is elusive, just as it is for Chokri Belaïd (Tunisia), Chris Hani (South Africa), Gauri Lankesh (India), Marielle Franco (Brazil), Nahed Hattar (Jordan), and far too many others. These were all sensitive people who took the dangerous step to fight for something greater than our present world.
Pansare’s daughter-in-law, Dr. Megha Pansare, sent a message to Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research: ‘The space for free expression is shrinking in our country. There have been regular attacks on journalists and artists, intellectuals and farmers. We have been compelled to fight to expand the public sphere. It is extremely worrying to see the state patronise religious fundamentalist forces. We must raise our voices to stop the silencing of our voices by guns’.
A few years after the murder of Govind Pansare, LeftWord Books in New Delhi began to float the idea of Red Books Day. This would be a celebration of radical books and the people and institutions that make them. Knowing Pansare, he would have been aware that the day after his death was a significant anniversary. On 21 February 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto just months before revolutions swept across Europe, which would later be called the Springtime of the Peoples (Printemps des peuples). The manifesto is not only one of the most read books in our time, but in 2013, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted this book in its Memory of the World Programme. This initiative by UNESCO is intended to preserve humanity’s heritage against the ‘ravages of time’ and ‘collective amnesia’. So, LeftWord Books–along with the Indian Society of Left Publishers–decided to issue a global call for Red Books Day to be held each year on 21 February.
In the aftermath of Red Books Day, a group of publishers–invited by the Indian Society of Left Publishers–began to form the International Union of Left Publishers (IULP). Over the course of the past two years, the IULP has produced four joint books: Lenin 150, Mariátegui, Che, and Paris Commune 150. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, twenty-seven publishing houses released a book on the same day, 28 May 2021, in almost as many languages–an unparalleled feat in the history of publishing. This year, the IULP will publish two more books which collect key texts of Alexandra Kollontai (May) and Ruth First (August). The Union is meanwhile developing its principles of exchanging books between publishers and standing together against the attacks against authors, publishers, printers, and bookshops.
Up in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro and his comrades spent long periods in the evenings reading whatever they could find. When they boarded the Granma from Mexico, they brought guns, food, and medicine, but not many books. They had to circulate what they had: Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin (1949) about the Nazi occupation of Naples and Émile Zola’s terrifying thriller, The Beast Within (1890). They even had a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), which was almost the cause of Che Guevara being killed during an air raid.
One of the guerrillas, Salustiano de la Cruz Enríquez (also known as Crucito), composed ballads in the old Cuban guajira style. He would sit by the campfire and sing his poems as he played the guitar. ‘This magnificent comrade had written the whole history of the Revolution in ballads which he composed at every rest stop as he puffed on his pipe’, wrote Che Guevara in his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968). ‘Since there was very little paper in the Sierra, he composed the ballads in his head, so none of them remained when a bullet put an end to his life in the battle of Pino del Agua’ in September 1957. Crucito called himself el Ruiseñor de la Sierra Maestra–‘the nightingale of the Sierra Maestra’. This Red Books Day, I am going to imagine his ballads and hum his forgotten tune in honour of people like Crucito and Govind Pansare, who keep trying to make the world a better place for humans and for nature.
PS: my red book to read this year is Võ Nguyên Giáp’s Unforgettable Days (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975).