In the early morning hours of 23rd of December, Bastiaan Wielenga, 79 years of age, died in his sleep. He was a renowned liberation theologist, an erudite scholar of Marxism and other philosophies, a committed social activist and above all, a beloved teacher to a wide range of people. His journey through life, along with his partner, is an inspiration to an idealist as well as to a romantic.
Born in 1936, in Netherlands, he suffered the ravaging effects of Second World War, and the tyranny of Nazi Germany, early in his life. In the height of Cold War in Europe, he embraced liberation theology and critically expanded his knowledge of Marxism, thus bringing together theology and Marxism in service of his ideal for a just social order. Together with his partner, Gabrielle Deitrich –who herself was from West Berlin and suffered through Nazi tyranny, cold war conflicts and Stalinist regimes – he decided to travel through the third world to gain an experiential understanding of the politics they espoused. They arrived in India in the early 1970s and after a few trips back and forth, made India, particularly Tamilnadu, their home. Here, based out of Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, they began to pursue their ideals through engagement with numerous social movements, discourses and teaching. Along with Gabrielle, Bas, as he came to be called, set up the Center for Social Analysis, offering course in Social Analysis, a pioneering experiment in inter-disciplinary, out in the field, learning experience. He also began having regular discussions and colloquiums that interrogated the many aspects of social life in India, and critically examined the distinct social stratification and inequalities in this society. Many a social activist had passed through these sessions in their intellectual journeys.
Understanding early on the ‘Human – Nature’ relationship through a clear Marxist perspective, Bas lectured about it and wrote a book, ‘Towards an Eco Just Society’ that was published in 1999. But he went beyond, making his personal life and his collective life at TTS reflect some of the sensitivities we need to cultivate in our engagement with Nature. Thus he was a cyclist, public transport user for the best part of his life, and worked towards making TTS segregate waste at source and compost waste, ideas that we are yet to catch up.
Bas, has also written extensively in both journals and books, examining Marxist philosophies in the light of the events in this country, while also commenting on the many turns that socialism in the world was going through. In the foreword to his ‘Introduction to Marxism’, he states that if at all his politics need to be labeled, let it called a politics of ‘leftist unity’, rather after the many theoreticians of Marxism. This he believed was possible through informed discussions and objective views emerging from our analysis of the events of the times. Through his life’s work, he endeavoured to bring together, not just socialists but people who shared a wider range of left-liberal ideologies in the pursuit for a more just world order. As we pay homage to this great scholar and educator, we rededicate ourselves to his cherished goal of ‘Leftist Unity’. In honour of Bas, we have compiled here, tributes from those who had known him well since the early years in India.
V. Geetha, Feminist Historian
I had the occasion to spend time with Bas in the 1990s – during the perestroika and glasnost phase in the Soviet Union. He was very excited by these developments and felt they bode well for a more open, and democratic socialism. During this time, he traveled widely in Central Europe and spoke and wrote of the alternative left groups and movements in the former east bloc. I remember a fantastic conversation I had with him about Rudolf Bahro, who wrote the important books, The Alternative in Eastern Europe and From Red to Green. Bas knew Bahro, who spent a lot of time in East German prisons, during the Soviet period, and was sympathetic to his vision of an ecologically sensitive Marxism.
Bas also felt at that time that with the Soviet stranglehold on socialism lessening, more localised forms of socialism, which took into account particular historical and cultural circumstances, would emerge. He thought that in the Indian context, this would give an impetus to dialogue between various social movements – the farmer’s movement, the dalit movement, the ecological movement – and left parties and formations.
Bas set great store by ethical and philosophical thought, and for him socialism was part of the great tradition of emancipatory thought that included the utopian socialists, anarchists and various other non-traditional Marxists. At the same time, he was a great believer in communist organising and the importance of the revolutionary movement.
R Geetha, Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangh
In the period of 70 through 75, in emergency days, I used to travel to Madurai as it was my home town and I had the opportunity to interact with Bas.And He had published lots of materials, articles and books on Marxism, in a very simple language. That was what attracted me basically. He would conduct training programs and classes for activists continuously. He was very emphatic about working class’ role in social issues and organizing working class for revolution. Later, he was very involved in the environmental issues – anti nuclear, narmada and very importantly, he was very interested in the issue of water – water for people and water for life. That was his main slogan and important in the context of Madurai which was water starved.
He made a tremendous impact on youth and students. As a teacher for TTS, Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, he and Gabriele were instrumental in setting up Centre for Social Analysis. He was a great authority on Liberation Theology and she was on Feminist Theology and they integrated dalit issues and environmental issues into theological discourse. Organic farming was his great interest. He promoted organic farming through Rural Theological Institute and was the push factor for bringing in organic farming to practice in theological seminary. This was 30 years ago when no one was talking of organic farming.
He always felt that marxism must be suited to Indian context that is integration of caste, class, gender and environment in articulation of social issues. That is why he lauded the role of Gandhi in India. He was a Marxist Gandhian Theologian and had a lot of affinity with Ambedkar. He could draw from every body on what was needed. His theory emerged from the New Left of 60s and 70s’ in Europe and his theory was grounded in practice. He moved from theory to practice and back in what is marxist dialectic sense.