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A new political consciousness in India

Rohit Revi

January 27, 2020

In the past few weeks, a series of political demonstrations have taken place in India in response to three popular issues. Firstly, we are witnessing an organic coalition between the civil society, various faith-based groups and the Ambedkarite constitutionalist groups - against a new Islamophobic legislation that was passed by the Modi regime to selectively disenfranchise migrants of the Islamic faith, namely the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Secondly, students at public universities have come together in resistance after an unprecedented tuition hike in Jawaharlal Nehru University – a public university known for its historically critical and anti-capitalist academic space. This is only one among the numerous waves of revitalised student movements across the country that have been ongoing since the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula – a Dalit scholar at a public university who took his own life in 2016 after facing severe caste-based oppression. These movements have been brutally suppressed by the Indian state, most recently in Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI) and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

Thirdly, a coalition of 10 central trade unions called for a general strike on January 8th against the longstanding economic policies of the Modi government that have brought about hostile labour laws, historic rates of unemployment and stagnant minimum wages. Close to 250 million workers participated in this successful one-day strike, which was a display of the continued organizational strength of trade union coalitions in the country. The tentative convergence of these political currents is historic and finds precedence only in the mass movements of the 70s which led to the ultimate resignation of the Indira Gandhi administration. As the future of this renewed political consciousness continues to be hopeful but uncertain, socialists are faced with important questions.

Tensions within the constitutive base of the BJP 

The historical ascension of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it exists today is the political result of a new consensus struck between three major political forces of contemporary India: the new bourgeoisie that emerged post-Independence, the fascist organization of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founded by Hindu nationalists in 1925, and sections within the aspirational middle-class that grew post the liberalization period of the 1990s. What has resulted from this consensus is a political concoction that simultaneously accelerates the neoliberal tendencies of the previous governments, while also developing a political voice for the fascistic currents of RSS and allied organizations (together known as the Sangh Parivar). Today, as the Indian economy slips deep into a historic slowdown, this consensus has shifted in its balance towards the Sangh Parivar, significantly strengthening the fascist strands within the constitutive base of the BJP and moving the overall government towards authoritarianism.

As this shift intensifies, the second term of the Modi-regime continues to be marked by a further movement towards unabashed Islamophobic populism, increase of aggressive and expansionist foreign policies as an extension of this Islamophobia, the further demonization of socialists and communists as “anti-national terrorists”, and a further increase in communal violence that has taken the lives of many Muslims in these years. The Citizenship Amendment Act is the most recent political expression of the fascistic spirit of the RSS that has been historically latent but present within the BJP. A founding ideologue of the former, MS Golwalkar, once infamously identified Muslims, Christians and Communists as the three threats to a Hindu nation.

The two tendencies that uphold the BJP today – that of crony capitalism and cultural fascism, also explain its fundamental strength in electoral politics. The combination of enormous donations from the capitalists with the cadre strength of the fascists has resulted in the formation of a powerful electoral campaign machinery. Over the last few years, BJP has become the richest political party in the world and subsequently has made legislations that obscure the sources of its electoral funding. As a thank you note to this enormous capitalist support, the BJP has overseen and implemented numerous austerity cuts – especially to public education, has exacerbated the agrarian crisis which has been the reason for numerous farmer suicides in the recent times, and has systematically weakened labour laws in the country. This tendency, however, runs formally counter to its appeal as a populist party, whose constitutive base also includes the economically backward sections, some of whom are also affiliates and cadres of the Parivar. To address this contradiction, the party has struck a weak compromise - offering ineffective and token welfare measures which have been amplified through the disproportionate voice of the corporate big media. The whole picture offers an enormous electoral success which is, however, not politically sustainable in the face of the growing crisis of capitalism in India.

At this particular juncture, there are two possible directions that lie ahead. It is either the fascistic tendencies of the BJP that will solve the crisis for the bourgeoise, or the working class of India will have to be the vehicle for a new future. It is either barbarism or socialism. In the second term of the Modi-regime, we already witness the germination of the former. The question is: from the waves of demonstrations that have erupted in response, can we also excavate the potential for the latter?

Radical left in India

India has a strong history of communist movements which were decisive particularly during the anti-colonial period. Faced with both state repression and ideological crises, much like their European counterparts, the Communist parties took a turn towards radical parliamentary politics in the post-colonial period. While the unions and peasant organizations remained relatively strong and organized, there has been a consequent recession in the capacity for revolutionary organizing. The parties committed themselves towards building regional social democracies in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, and resisting the neoliberal pressures of the central governments. Although in the last decades, the communist parties have lost power in both West Bengal and Tripura, they remain strong in Kerala and continue to resist Hindu nationalism to their limited capacities. Despite being reduced to the position of a regional pressure group within parliamentary politics, the strength of the communist parties continues to be sustained in their relatively undiminished organizational capacity at the level of trade unions, student unions and farmer organizations – as we were able to witness in the historic strike of January 8th, as well as the farmer marches and student movements of the recent years. This strength, however, is yet to find a revolutionary political voice.

Today, especially with the rise of Hindu nationalism, the question of ongoing class exploitation cannot be addressed without also absolutely centering the issue of caste-based oppression and religious persecution – a program that needs to be at the heart of any growing socialist movement in India. The historical overlap of caste oppression and class exploitation remains to find a popular mass response that puts forward an economic system capable of annihilating the caste oppression. However, the movements for annihilation of caste and the emancipation of the working class have not seen eye to eye - especially in the recent times, and this divide remains the biggest impediment to overcome today.

Caste is Class: Insurrectionary Dalit politics, CAA and socialism

Over the last decade, there has been a consistent growth of autonomous politics of the oppressed in India, especially in university campuses, led by people belonging to the marginalized Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities. DBA autonomous politics inherits the political legacy of Dr BR Ambedkar - the radical constitutionalist, socialist and caste-abolitionist leader of the Indian anti-colonial movement, and remains largely suspicious of the capacity of the parliamentary Left to create meaningful social transformation in India, especially on issues of representation of oppressed minorities. Though often derided by sectarian elements within the Left as mere “identity politics”, the political growth of this new wave of Ambedkarism can be seen to mount incremental attacks on the politics of Hindu nationalism of the Modi-regime, by bringing to the foreground several questions about the persistence of caste-based oppression and stratification within the Hindu society, religious persecution of Muslim minorities, as well as that of severe material inequalities that continue to intensify resulting from years of liberal and neoliberal economic reforms. 

Although the label of “identity politics” is often used in the West to denote the presence of multiple class interests within a movement, such frames do not apply to Ambedkarite politics. The largest section of the Indian working class, rural poor and landless labourers continue to be from backward castes, whose experience of economic exploitation is compounded and intensified by the experience of social oppression. While the Ambedkarite method remains to be radical constitutionalism and parliamentary representation as a means for social liberation, the new wave of Ambedkarism has also become a formidable space that articulates anti-Islamophobic and anti-capitalist politics with a broader agenda. Thus, we find one of the central faces of the anti-CAA protest today is Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ – the insurrectionary leader of Bhim Army, one of the numerous Ambedkarite groups that have proliferated in the country in this decade. Prior to this, in 2016, another mass movement was led in Gujarat by Jignesh Mevani – a public lawyer who identifies as an Ambedkarite-socialist, who explicitly targeted caste oppression through demands for a radical redistribution of land to the benefit of oppressed castes and the abolition of manual scavenging as a caste occupation.

While there are ongoing tensions between the different Ambedkarite thinkers and positions – sometimes about the nature of the relationship to be had with the Left (given that Dalit representation within Communist parties has been historically low) and with Maududist organizations (which do not necessarily share the class interests of the Dalit communities), there is also a strong consensus within this new wave of autonomous politics, which is drawn from the radical constitutionalist, democratic socialist and secular legacy of Ambedkar himself. Therefore, the Citizenship Amendment Act, when framed rightfully as an attack on the secular values of the Indian Constitution, naturally finds a powerful response today in form of a defense of the Ambedkarite constitutionalist legacy. It remains to be seen whether this defense can merge with the interests of class emancipation or evolve dialectically alongside an organized form of revolutionary labour politics.

Prospects: Hopeful but Uncertain

As the fascistic tendencies of the Modi regime continue to strengthen, the Indian working class and oppressed castes find themselves in want of a revolutionary political voice. Today, the Sangh Parivar has simultaneously tightened its grip upon the political and administrative apparatus of the country, while also unleashing violence upon students and religious minorities. This is time for the working class to reveal itself as the tribune of the oppressed. While the organizational deficiency of the left remains to be a crucial impediment, the present period of political revival is also a period for new organizations to develop – as was the case with the movements of the 70s which were, however, to later turn reactionary.

At the intersection of a centrifugal mix of two emancipatory projects - the radical constitutionalism of the oppressed castes and the revolutionary drive of the working classes - lies the hope for a radical transformation of this society, which has long suffered at the hands of colonial occupation, caste oppression, majoritarian religious persecution and capitalist exploitation. As the world continues to be shaken by global uprising and revolts, the Indian working class – a sleeping giant - is going through a renewal of its political consciousness, at a period where everything is at stake.

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January 26 protest against Modi's racist Citizenship Amendment Act

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