The Ayodhya outburst, a show of strength by Hindu fundamentalists
December 1992 saw the development of a wave of rioting throughout India. The official death toll for the six weeks of violence is now said to be over 2000, while 80,000 people have been injured. In the major towns, whole districts, usually among the poorest, have been burnt down leaving tens of thousands of families homeless. And although Bombay, the second largest industrial conurbation in the country, saw the worst and longest riots, with over 500 killed over six weeks, the whole country has been affected in a similar way, according to a similar pattern.
Not that such riots are exceptional in India. This latest wave may be one of the worst since India's independence, but by no means the most murderous, nor the longest. What is special about it, however, is the way in which it was triggered, if not organised, by the Hindu fundamentalist organisations throughout the country. What may well turn out to be of particular political significance is the fact that these organisations chose to take to the streets at a time when, after decades of political marginality, they have at last reached an electoral weight which makes them the main rivals of the Congress party which has had 46 years of almost continuous power. What is really at stake behind the latest developments is whether the Hindu fundamentalist current will succeed in ousting the Congress party from power.
The spark that set the fire alight was a rather symbolic event - the mob destruction on 6 December of a disused mosque at Ayodhya, a small town of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Symbolic, but not accidental. For a number of years now, Ayodhya has been the rallying cry of the Hindu fundamentalists, and as a result a major political issue, on the grounds that back in the 16th century, Muslim invaders built the mosque on the alleged site of birth of Rama, a Hindu mythological figure.
The news of the destruction of the mosque spread like wildfire throughout the country. By the next morning rioting broke out in the main Northern towns and spread within 48 hours to the rest of the country. To all intents and purposes, this rioting took the form of an anti-Muslim pogrom. Its initiators were in most cases either the Hindu fundamentalist groups themselves or the local police, which in these circumstances proved deeply influenced, if not infiltrated, by Hindu fundamentalism. And the targets, at least in the beginning, were poor Muslim areas.
The example of Bombay is significant of how the riots developed. In one instance, the police broke into a suburban street shanty town mostly inhabited by Muslim "pavement dwellers". For no obvious reason, the police went on the rampage, beating up people, occasionally shooting at random and eventually burning down the flimsy dwellings. At least twelve inhabitants were reported killed. Elsewhere in town, police squads opened fire without warning on small groups of Muslims gathered in the street. In fact, more than half of those reported killed in Bombay, were officially killed by police bullets and most of them were Muslims.
Another pattern was that of a gigantic shanty town in the northern suburbs, which stretches partly on marshland and partly on a municipal refuse dump. Gangs of a local Hindu fundamentalist organisation, Shiv Sena, penetrated the area from every direction, in a well organised fashion. They were armed with knives, petrol bombs, acid bulbs and a few guns. Inhabitants were chased out of their huts while those who resisted were sprayed with acid or stabbed. Finally, there again, the whole shanty was set alight, while dozens of dead bodies were left on the ground. This time though, most of the shanty dwellers were migrant workers coming from the poor central regions of India and many of them were Hindus.
These examples in Bombay sum up the patterns which were more or less followed throughout the country. The intention of the Hindu fundamentalists to make a massive show of strength is obvious. Their choice to point at the Muslims as scapegoats and to direct the frustration of the discontented against them is blatant.
Yet, were it not for the fear of violence spreading into British inner-cities, after petrol bombs were used against Hindu temples in East London and Leicester, very little would have been heard here about these events in India. Even so, only a handful of papers devoted more than a few lines to the riots.
Not surprisingly. In Britain today, the official credo remains that, among former colonial countries, India is a success story, a model democracy and an emerging economic power. Yet, far from introducing the subcontinent to the joys of democracy and modern industrial development, the British bourgeoisie created a time bomb, equipped with many different kinds of triggers. And the Indian bourgeoisie to whom Britain handed over power under the guise of decolonisation, only nurtured this time bomb and increased its explosive potential. Religion is one of this bomb's triggers, apparently the most powerful at the present time, but by no means the only one.
Whether this latest wave of riots, and the recent growth of Hindu fundamentalism mean that the time bomb is getting closer to the point of exploding is impossible to say. But it indicates the form that such an explosion might take, the forces that would be in the driving seat and the interests that would be served thereby.
How colonialism deepened India's divisions
It was Britain's "divide and rule" policy in India that reinforced the existing religious, ethnic, regional and social divisions. This allowed them to rule but at the same time they were stoking a powderkeg which finally blew at the time of partition. This shaping of Indian society during the colonial period laid the basis for the ever-present conflicts which keep simmering below the surface today.
As the British bourgeoisie extended their plunder to larger and larger areas of the subcontinent they were increasingly faced with the problem of imposing their looting on a population many times larger than that of Britain itself, they British consciously played up ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, setting communities against each other, as a means of enforcing their law. For example, mercenaries were recruited into the army in one region and then sent to repress unrest in another. Thus were created the Nepalese Gurkha and Punjabi Sikh regiments in the Indian Army. Similar but ultimately more devastating tactics were used to enforce British rule over Sri Lanka: because the Sinhalese were unwilling to bow to colonial rule, the British deported large contingents of Tamils from Southern India into Sri Lanka to work on plantations. Many decades later, this resulted in today's unending and bloody civil war in Sri Lanka.
Likewise with the caste system. The castes reflected a social division of labour which had prevailed centuries before. When the British arrived, the caste system was already in the process of breaking down. They destroyed the traditional village economy by breaking the craft-based Indian textile production. Therefore the material and social basis which defined each caste ceased to exist, leaving caste a more and more abstract division based on traditional prejudices. The British, however, saw to it that land ownership fell into and remained in the hands of the higher castes, just as they ensured that promotions in the colonial army reflected the caste hierarchy. As a result caste divisions became, if anything, more pronounced.
With religion, the British applied the divide and rule tactic in the crudest way. For instance, in 1909, the colonial state brought in a separate electoral college for the Muslims. At the same time their electoral franchise was extended: while Muslims were allowed to vote provided their taxable income was at least Rs 3,000 a year, the threshold for non-Muslims was set at Rs 300,000. This time again, the British were trying to buy out the favours of the Muslim middle-class while making it so blatant that it could only be strongly resented by the non-Muslims. Later on, after World War I, with the rise of trade-unions and industrial unrest, the British authorities were to use yet another tack, by resorting systematically to anti-Muslim pogroms as a means to undermine strikes.
The emergence of India's political and religious parties
In 1885, a former top civil servant, A.O. Hume, conceived the idea of setting up a political party which would be the political voice of this Indian elite. His initiative was actively encouraged by the Viceroy. In the words of Ananda Mohan Bose, who was soon to be elected Congress president, «the cultured classes are England's friends, not its enemies». The purpose of Congress was therefore not to fight for independence, nor was it to end the appalling exploitation of the Indian people by the British. It was to secure status and positions for the «cultured classes», something the colonial state was willing to yield, at least within certain limits. However, the more positions they were offered, the more taste of power they were allowed, the more of it they wanted. And by 1908, Congress' official policy shifted to demanding a self-governing dominion status for India.
In this context, the setting up of the Muslim League in 1906 was an Allah's given gift for the British, although not quite coincidental it must be said: the British had more than one finger in this pie, in an attempt to drive the Muslim middle-class away from Congress. And the institution of a separate electoral college for Muslims in 1909 created a political space for the Muslim League to exist.
Then, in the wake of World War I, ther was a shift to the left within the nationalist intelligentsia together with demonstration of growing power by the poor urban masses who were, by the same token, getting rid of the traditional caste and religious divisions and hierarchies - these were probably the main motives behind the emergence of Hindu counterparts to the Muslim League. The most prominent among those, which is still today the backbone of the Hindu fundamentalist movement, was set up in 1925 under the name of RSS (National Self-Help League).
However, unlike Islam, Hinduism was far from being a well-defined religion, with an established dogma and a codified tradition. So the founders of the RSS took the opposite approach. One of the RSS's early leaders, V.D. Savarkar, defined Hindus as anyone who loved the land stretching from the Indus river «to the sea on the east» and considered it as both fatherland and holy land. This definition was vague enough to include almost anyone born in India, except Muslims. In other words, right from the beginning, the RSS defined itself in opposition to the Muslim minority rather than in support of any particular set of ideas or beliefs. It must be said that, later on, the RSS and its future allies were to become more sophisticated and to reinvent a so-called historical Hinduism by simply rewriting history. Thus a Hindu mathematician by the name of Bandharyan was claimed to have discovered Pythagoras' well-known theorem - 450 years before the Greek mathematician...
Politically, the RSS was much clearer as to what its aims were. M.S. Golwater, who was elected life president of the RSS in the 30s and is still considered today as the spiritual father of the movement, was very straightforward about it: «I believe that the RSS ideology can act as a corrective to the Communist mode of thinking in India». In addition to being anti-Muslim, the RSS was therefore anti-communist. And whether using the word «corrective» was an intended pun or not, this was exactly what the RSS proceeded to do - to administer a corrective treatment to all communist, and more generally working-class, activists.
Despite its claims to tradition, the RSS proved quite willing to borrow the example of Mussolini's "Black Shirts", organising its members into military units, called "shakas", whose main activities involved staging drills and parades in uniform - that is when they were not involved in "correcting" those who objected or in acting as union-bashers or strike-breakers.
Thus the RSS emerged as a fundamentalist organisation in so far as its stated aim was to shape the Indian society according to religious principles which it had reinvented to this end. But as is the case for all fundamentalist parties, religion was nothing but a demagogic pretext to turn the Muslim minority into a scapegoat and to rally the most backward and desperate layers of the Hindu population behind the most reactionary policies.
As to its attitude to the colonial state, the RSS had nothing against Britain. As was said in the founding statement of the Punjab Hindu Youth League, a subsidiary of the RSS set up in 1933: «We feel that time has now come for unity, not so much between Muslims and Hindus as between the British and Indians», which was another way of saying to the colonial authorities that, unlike Congress, the Hindu fundamentalists were willing to be reliable and loyal partners in the colonial system.
Partition - the powder keg blows up
The question of India's independence was considered by Britain much before 1947, in the form of a process of progressive devolution of power to the Indian bourgeoisie. The only problem for the British governments being to make sure at each stage that British interests would be preserved.
The 1935 Constitution was the first step taken in this direction. The introduction of autonomous elected provincial governments was carefully balanced by the institution of a whole range of separate electoral colleges for Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, Indian Christians, Untouchables, Europeans, landowners, etc.., so as to limit the resulting influence of the Congress party and to make space for all sorts of religious and separatists groupings like the Muslim League and the Southern Christian parties.
While World War II suspended this process, the end of the war saw an explosion of anti-colonial feelings, particularly among the urban poor. Not unexpectedly, as the war had resulted in increased hardship for the population, in particular the last large-scale famine which killed 3 to 4 million people in 1943 alone. Strikes broke out throughout India, from the sailors of the Indian Navy to cotton-mill workers, mixing economic and anti-colonial demands. In such a context, the British had no other choice than to speed up the process started in 1935. The deadline for India's independance was set for 1948 and negotiations started involving all Indian political groupings.
The real negotiations, however, were taking place in the streets. Each party proceeded to boost its own profile and to show its strength in order to back its bid for a larger share of power after independence. The religious demagogues, who were already busy whipping up religious tensions to undermine the strike movements, redoubled their efforts. So that in 1946, a campaign launched by the Muslim League in Calcutta triggered a wave of anti-Hindu pogroms in Bengal. In retaliation anti-Muslim pogroms spread throughout Bihar. Overall 18,000 died in this first wave of religious riots. And the British government, rather than having to face more widespread confrontations, advanced the deadline for independence to 1947.
While the religious organisations did their utmost to inflame feelings for their own benefit, it was the British government who really pulled the strings and made the final decisions as to the shaping of the new India. What came out of it, the "Mountbatten Award" as it was called, split the colony into two countries. On one side was today's India, although its borders were to be slightly altered later on. On the other were today's Pakistan and Bangladesh, two territories one thousand miles apart, both packaged into one single country called Pakistan.
There was nothing in common, apart from religion, between these two regions of the new Pakistan - neither their language, nor even their ethnic background. But probably, at least on the British side, no-one was really worried about this. Nor were they worried about the fact that the new borders were cutting straight across linguistically homogeneous regions like the Punjab and Bengal. As to how rational the new borders were even from the point of view of common sense, it only takes to look at a map of India to see for instance that strange corridor, less than 30 miles wide, which is the only means of communication between mainland India and its Eastern states.
Religion was the official justification for such an unviable setup. Pakistan was meant to provide the Muslims with their own land, while India was meant to welcome Hindus. Yet, two years later, 9 million Hindus remained in Pakistan and 40 million Muslims chose to stay in India rather than to move to Pakistan, making India host to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world... While this justification was, to say the least, a cynical fraud, it set alight religious tensions. Riots broke out in Punjab and Bengal, the main casualties of this partition, and then spread to most of Northern India. Altogether the casualties were estimated to be somewhere between 180.000 and half a million dead. And over ten million people had to leave their homes, some by choice, most under physical pressure.
It was therefore the British officials who, from the cosy comfort of the London-based Colonial Office, chose to throw two sections of the former India's population at each other's throats. Their sole purpose in doing so was to ensure the existence of a regional counterweight to India's enormous economic and human potential, so that imperialism could play one against the other as circumstances required. Whether that resulted in hundreds of thousands dead and an almost unbrigeable gap for at least several generations between the Muslim and Hindu communities, was immaterial to them.
And indeed, for generations, the memories of the 1947 massacres were to remain a bone of contention between Pakistan and India. They were to overshadow social relations in India itself, isolating the millions of Muslims who had remained there. And of course, these massacres were to provide a ready-made banner for religious fundamentalists of all descriptions.
The Congress Party in power, crushing the aspirations of the poor classes
The British bourgeoisie was not forced out of India. They left India in trusted hands, which could take care of the interests of imperialism in the region and above all which would make sure that the aspirations of the poor masses would be kept in check. These hands were those of the Congress Party.
The preparation for the transmission of power started very early on. The 1935 constitution gave Congress the possibility to appear and act as a potential alternative to the colonial authorities by coming to power in 6 of the 11 provincial governments created by the constitution. And Congress did not disappoint the British. When faced with a rise of working class militancy in Bombay's textile mills, it was the newly-elected Congress-led government of the Bombay province which restricted the right to strike much further than the colonial state had done so far. Later on, after World War II, when Congress was put in charge of the interim government set up by the British, it was again the Congress leadership which introduced, in 1946, a legal straightjacket aimed at turning the trade-unions into the policemen of the working class. By leaving power in the hands of Congress, the British bourgeoisie was therefore leaving it in the hands of politicians they knew well and whose loyalty to the interests of imperialism they had tested.
Of course, socially, the Congress Party had right from its very beginnings been the political expression of the high caste Hindu elite. India's two richest business families, the Tata's and the Birla's, provided funds from its inception and professionals, landowners and businessmen, remained tighly in control of its organisation. But had Congress remained solely based on the high caste elite, not only would it have been unable to put any pressure on the colonial state, but the British themselves would never have considered Congress as a potential partner in running India.
It was not until Gandhi came onto the scene in 1917, that Congress began to extend its social basis outside the privileged layers. Of course, the aim of Congress was not to mobilise the poorer classes in defence of their own interests, let alone to raise their social consciousness. They only wanted foot soldiers that they could use to back up the demands of the social elite. To achieve this, Gandhi used some of the same methods that the Hindu fundamentalists are using today - he skillfully played upon Hindu traditions to back his "non violent" campaigns of non-co-operation against British institutions. Nor was his choice of standing up for the rights of the Untouchables, thereby recruiting to his side millions who had nothing to lose, ever made in terms of social justice, but always in terms of religious charity.
Gandhi's methods left no room for the poor to take any initiative nor have any say. Their role was to be arrested in their thousands while demonstrating and to fill the jails. The poor inevitably acted as cannon fodder in his hands so that their own interests could be subordinated to those of Congress and the propertied classes they represented, under the guise of a quasi-religious crusade against British rule.
Through these mass mobilisations, the Congress Party did manage to build the image of a party that was determined to take on the colonial order and that would stand in the future for the interests of the poor. Of course this was an illusion that the poor masses of India were to pay dearly for in the years following India's independence.
Less than a year after independence, Nehru launched an offensive against the most militant unions and against the Communist Party. In West Bengal first, and then in Madras, the Communist Party was banned, elsewhere it was forced underground by systematic harassment. Shooting of demonstrators in the streets became the rule just as in the colonial days. According to the government's own figures, between August 1947 and August 1950, the army and the police opened fire on 1,982 occasions, killed 3,784 people and jailed over 50,000. And these figures only took into account what was branded "civil unrest" and not the large-scale repression of land occupation by poor peasants during the same period.
The stoking up of regional backlashes
The carving up of India's border through partition left much more than the backlog of hatred between the Hindu and Muslim communities. It also destroyed the existing fragile cultural balance in regions like Punjab, Assam, Kashmir and Bengal, which were directly affected by the new borders. In addition Britain's departure, as well as the illusion that Congress had itself created among the population, had the effect of boosting the expectations of many ethnic and language groups who had up until then been forcibly included in British India.
This situation prompted the emergence of genuine nationalist currents but it also prompted aspiring politicians to try to whip up support for regionalist feelings as a means for them to make their way to power.
The Congress Party resorted to the same methods which had been used by the British colonial regime - forcible repression of dissent. In some regions they proved even more oppressive in their handling of opposition than the former colonial state itself. Such was the case in Nagaland and Kashmir.
In 1950, Nagaland, a small mountainous region in North-east India on the Burmese border was denied the right to self-determination. This resulted in a guerilla war. By the end of the fifties there were 100,000 Indian troops trying to pacify a total population of only 350,000 Naga people. After 9 years of war, a ceasefire was declared. Nagaland was made an independent state within the union after the Indian airforce saw to it that as many guerilla bases as possible had been bombed into the ground. However the separatist movement has not been extinguished and to this day a guerilla war continues sporadically.
In Kashmir, prior to partition, a secular Kashmir National Conference led by Sheik Abdullah, had stood for a separate Kashmir against Britain. But after the partition of India, the new Congress government suppressed this movement and Abdullah was jailed. A section of this movement proceeded to get help from the neighbouring Pathans and their brothers on the Pakistani side of the border to free the rest of Kashmir. Nehru's response was to send in the army which in turn led to a year-long battle with Pakistan. The result was another partition, that of Kashmir, between India and Pakistan. Kashmir remained a kind of Indian colony and a permanent bone of contention in the relationship between India and Pakistan.
Throughout India itself, all sorts of regionalist demands were raised as a result of the setting up by Congress of 28 largely artificial separate states. At first, Congress responded by ignoring all demands in the name of an all-Indian national identity which very soon took the form of a Hindu national identity instead. For instance, despite its claim to secularism, Congress encouraged Hindu extremist organisations who conducted a Hinduisation and Sanskritisation campaign in areas like the Tamil and Malayalam-speaking Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
By 1956 however, Nehru was faced with intense agitation throughout the country for autonomy based on language groups. This led to a re-drawing of state borders, with 14 states and 8 small so-called autonomous territories being created. So for instance, in 1956, Bombay's state was split into Maharashtra and Gujarat, on a language basis while Punjab was split to form Hindi-speaking Haryana, but always creating yet another new minority which felt excluded.
The state props up industrial development on behalf of the capitalists
It is fashionable nowadays, in the Western financial press, to hail the current measures of denationalisation in India and to blame India's poverty on Nehru's "socialism" and "planning". Yet those who benefited from this "planned" economy were the Indian bourgeoisie, the very same social layers who are falling over themselves today to act as financial go-betweens in the selling of state properties in order to make hefty profits.
After India's independence, the construction of India's economy followed the same pattern as in many of the ex-colonial countries. The state made up for the poverty of the country and the weakness of its bourgeoisie, mobilising the resources of the population as a whole, in particular of the huge poorer layers, to finance the development of a heavy industry which hardly existed.
In fact, the Congress's industrial policies followed almost to a "T" plans drawn by the British! During the war, British officials had drafted a policy for after the war, proposing the state ownership and control of most of the main industries. Then, in 1944, a committee set up by some of India's wealthiest capitalists, including representatives of the Tata and Birla families, had issued a revised draft which became known as the Bombay Plan. These were the guidelines eventually followed by Nehru, although in a rather watered down form.
Nehru's plans involved the state taking over a few "strategic" industries like arms, energy and the railways. J.R.D. Tata, whose airline company was nationalised to become Air India, did not have much to complain about: not only did he get a good price for his shares but he was appointed chairman of the new company! In addition a measure of state control was introduced in some important industries to coordinate development plans.
But by 1956, it was obvious that the private sector was not forthcoming with the investments needed in capital intensive industries like coal, iron, steel mining, oil etc. So the government had to include these in the state-owned sector so that the whole capitalist class could rely on more modern basic industries. Joint stock companies were set up between private shareholders and the state and their expansion using public funds resulted in boosting their pre-tax profit by 37%, of which the former shareholders took a large share - hardly a bad deal for them!
These new measures, however, did not bring the capitalists to invest more in the basic production sphere. By the late 60s, the state of the industry was going from bad to worse and the financial system was in havoc, cluttered with bad debts. Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who had succeeded her father as prime minister, then decided to nationalise the banking system, which was just another way of writing off the huge debts of the Indian bourgeoisie by means of public funds. But as Indira Gandhi said herself in the same period, «We spoke of socialism because that is what went down well with the masses». And it was probably in the name of socialism too that, under her reign, a large number of so-called "sick units" were taken into state ownership, thereby writing off the debts of the private owners of these factories and relieving them of having to pay the price of many years of under-investment.
In the end, the whole state economy set up by the Congress party was just an enormous machinery aimed at allowing a crippled and tiny bourgeoisie to milk the resources of the whole country.
Much the same happened in the countryside. The Congress party had promised a land reform. In theory, according to the law passed after independence, all land privately owned above a ceiling of 15 acres per property should have been surrendered to the state in order to be redistributed among landless peasants. In reality, the landowners used every possible trick in the book to conceal the exact amount of land they owned, including of course that of bribing local officials who proved all too willing to turn a blind eye.
Social inequalities in the countryside were further increased by the introduction in the mid-60s of what was called the "Green Revolution". A state programme was introduced encouraging farmers to use a combination of high-yielding seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and controlled water supplies. The government undertook to subsidise fertilizers and pesticides to keep prices down. But as the bank loans needed to finance the required investments were only accessible to the richer farmers, this resulted in the development of a form of capitalist agriculture and forcing more smaller farmers out of business. It must be said that in this case, the richer farmers were not the only ones to benefit from this intervention of the state. Others did too, like the Tata family who owned a significant chunk of the Indian fertilizer business, as well as the large multinationals specialising in pesticides and fertilizers and the Western banks who lent the funds required by the Indian state to carry out this grandiose project.
Hundreds of millions forced to live on the brink of destitution
In an article published by the British Financial Times, a journalist was comparing the average surface area of a family flat in India, Egypt and Italy. According to his figures, the average Indian family was not much worse off than in Italy. And the journalist concluded by celebrating the enormous progresses made by the Indian economy under the enlightened reign if Rajiv Gandhi. The only slight problem with this assessment is that a large section of the Indian populatio does not have a family flat or house in the sense we understand it in the rich countries. For the pavement dwellers of Bombay, the surface area of their family flat is a rather unsteady notion: their hut can be kicked down at any time. But this is probably too crude for the sophisticated understanding of western journalist eager to show his enthusiasm for capitalism!
27% of India's nearly 900m are squeezed into huge cities, the largest of which is Calcutta, where only 20% of the population have a self-contained flat or house. The rest live in official or unofficial slums or simply in lean-to's on the pavements. In Bombay, the second largest and reputedly the richest city accounting for over a third of the country's tax revenue, 5m people, that is half the population, live in slums or on pavements.
If one lives on the pavement or in a slum shanty, in Calcutta or Bombay, this does not mean not paying rent. Slum landlords elicit payments even for a few square feet of pavement. And just to make life even easier, in 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that slum dwellers could be evicted if it was considered that the land they were occupying could be used for something else. This led to forced and overnight removals of slum-dwellers from many established slums in Bombay, like in Dharavi, where some people had been living for more than twenty years and had even managed to build brick houses.
Without a whole range of parallel economic activities which are never reflected by any statistics but account for most of the income of millions of people, survival would be in fact impossible. Employment as we know it is unfrequent among pavement and slum dwellers. But thanks to this molecular black economy, there is a lot of work going for them - like recycling of rubbish, checking the quality of small containers, putting lids on bottles, trimming toothbrushes, etc... The product of this work is sometimes sold in the slums but more often it is sold to small factories working as subcontractors for multinationals like Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson!
As to the peasantry, their "legal protections" amount to nothing. Tenancy rights have been introduced so that no-one can be evicted if they have been cultivating a piece of land for 12 months or more, and a sharecropper does not have to give more that 20-25% of his produce to a landlord. The problem is, that to enjoy these rights, tenants have to be registered by the land revenue official who does not have to give any reason for turning down a registration. Most tenants have been barred from registration. This has meant that instead of there being greater numbers of tenants remaining on the land, the number of landless peasants has shot up.
The response of the Congress Party to poverty and starvation in the mid-seventies is quite instructive. They introduced a mass sterilization campaigns which amounted to trying to vasectomize as many men in the rural areas as possible. The incentive was £4 or a cheap radio. But when this did not work, raids were carried out and all the men in a village carted off by force to have a vasectomy in order for the local officials to reach the quotas which had been set. These officials even forced their own employees to have a sterilisation on the threat of forgoing their bonus or even their jobs. When the population of Muzaffarnagar and Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh rose up against this, 70 demonstrators were fired upon and killed.
The reign of corruption
Those who talk admiringly in the West of India's "democracy" choose conveniently to turn a blind eye on the blatant political corruption both in the political field and the economic field.
In the economic field, bribery and corruption are the rule especially when it comes to avoiding taxation. Just like in any Third World country, poorly paid state officials use their positions to improve their earnings and they do it all the more easily as it is the case right to the top of the administrative hierarchy. Bribes are given to excise staff who are based at factories. The wholesaler continues the chain by selling to retailer half in cash and without records and so does the retailer himself. The laundering of all this black money can be done in real estate or through buying smuggled gold. Every year, 250 tons (one fifth of the total world production) was being smuggled into India in the seventies. It has got to the point where all industrial houses employ full-time "liaison men" whose job it is to see that the right people from tax and excise get bribed at the right time.
Political corruption is even more blatant. The biggest scandal was exposed in 1987 when Congress was found to have financed its election expenditure with money obtained from a Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors, as a bribe for a contract to buy Howitzer canons. In March 1992, the foreign minister in the Congress government was forced to resign over this issue. And Rajiv Gandhi himself would probably have come under pressure to do so had he not been killed by Tamil terrorists in 1991.
But if corruption is the rule rather than the exception in central government, it is even more so at local state level. Devi Lal, who along with his family occupied all the chief positions in Haryana till 1991 and was once a senior cabinet minister, was found to have used his position to systematically and illegally evict tenant farmers from the land, often at gunpoint. He now owns, by fixing prices and registering land deeds under the names of various family members, hundreds of acres of prime property.
The whole political system is rotten to the core. Politicians are prepared to use any means available to keep their positions, because without it they would be nothing. So, particularly in rural areas, election campaigns always involve physical threats, and more often than not murders, as well as extensive vote buying which makes up a significant, although undisclosed, part of the parties' electoral expenditures.
Of course, none of this corruption is special to India. It is the trademark of poor countries in which the poor are so poor that their lives and their votes can be bought with a few coins, and in which state funds are, legally and more often illegally, the main source of income for a large section of the privileged classes.
The 70s: The Congress Party's regime in crisis
For over 25 years, Congress ruled over India without being ever really challenged. Its hold on society was too strong for potential rival parties to stand a real chance. This did not mean however that the Congress leadership remained unchallenged and that ambitious politicians refrained from bidding for power. But they did it within Congress itself, behind closed doors so to speak. And while, inside, Congress was a permanent battleground between rival factions and cliques, it appeared from the outside as monolithic. But this came to an end in the seventies.
What triggered the crisis was a combination of economic problems, both internal and external resulting in a disastrous famine in 1972/73 and a sharp increase in food prices in December 1973. Mass protests in Gujurat and Bihar occurred and were brutally repressed. Then early in 1974, railworkers went on strike for higher wages throughout India. The repression machine went into motion again and the strike was broken after three weeks. But from the mass demonstrations in 1973 a strong anti-Congress populist movement had started behind J.P. Narayan (who was a strongly anti-communist founder of the Congress Socialist Party). This movement was based in the states worst affected by the crisis, namely Bihar and Gujurat, and included in its ranks a whole spectrum of forces, from right-wing parties to reformist socialist groups, and even one of the communist parties. Despite its left leanings, the coalition was controlled by the Hindu party Jan Sangh. It agitated around slogans like "total revolution" aimed at exposing the corruption of the state and the growing poverty and proposed to replace the parliamentary system with a «democracy without parties». Though it was probably unclear to most people what this in fact meant, to Narayan this meant a populist dictatorship along the lines of that under Bhutto in Pakistan.
In 1975, Indira Gandhi, in a final bid to save the Congress' hold on to power, had the President sign a decree declaring a state of emergency from the 25th June 1975. Within one week, 3,000 political opponents were in jail. She banned the RSS, the Jamat e-Islami, Anand Marg, the Communist Party(M-L). However the brunt of the bannings and jailings were aimed at the right-wing parties who provided the majority of the political prisoners during this period. Twenty-six organizations ended up banned. By June 1976, 125,000 people were in prison.
Measures were ostensibly taken against corruption and speculation, but the main attack was against the working class. A wage freeze was imposed throughout the country. Wage increases which had been won as a result of previous agreements were converted into forced savings. The right to strike was removed. In the largest companies, the yearly bonus - which was an extra month's wages - was cancelled.
This allowed a massive restructuring of industry, and in the first six months of the Emergency, nearly half a million workers were laid off. As a vote of confidence, the World Bank offered $1.6bn extra aid.
The State of Emergency continued until the 1977 general election, when Indira Gandhi having pushed her power to the limit, was ousted from government. The State of Emergency had probably prevented political instability from escalating throughout India, at least for the time being. But in the long term, its consequences were less clear. Congress had lost part of its credit among the population and part of its authority among politicians, its monopoly on state power was over and its ability to guarantee political stability in India could no longer be taken for granted.
The regionalist and nationalist explosions
The political crisis of the Indian political system had in fact an almost immediate consequence among the many ethnic and cultural minorities whose demands had been suppressed so violently in the previous period. The ousting of Congress from government was indeed seen as a proof of weakness on the part of the state and a possible opportunity to take revenge. Soon autonomist and separatist groups started to re-emerge and to agitate more or less openly. Inevitably their growing influence had to lead to some confrontation with the central power. And where these groups were able to build a substantial following, as in Kashmir and Punjab in particular, these confrontations created a state of virtual permanent civil war.
In Kashmir, in 1988, following a strong re-emergence of separatist guerrillas, all attempts at maintaining an appearance of democratic rule were abandoned. Since then the state has been under president's rule. Actual power is exercised by the local commanding officers of the occupying units of the Indian army. To all intents and purposes Kashmir lives under a permanent unofficial state of siege.
Kashmir's capital, Srinagar, is dotted with bunkers permanently manned by Indian soldiers equipped with machine guns. Following a frequent pattern, at any time of the day districts of Srinagar are locked off by the army and passers by are made to sit on the pavement for hours at gunpoint until each of them has been questioned by security officers - this is known as an identification parade. When people are arrested, often at random, they often disappear for several months into one of the public buildings of the town, now turned into interrogation centres. "Custodial deaths", as the official phrase is, in other words death under torture, are frequent, running into hundreds every year.
Because of the strategic situation of Kashmir, next to the Chinese border, its nationalist movement has attracted the interest and the subsidies of various countries, resulting in a mushrooming of rival guerilla groups, some linked to Pakistan, some to Iran, some to factions within the former Afghan resistance and even to Saudi Arabia. This, in addition to the Indian army's deliberate and vicious anti-Muslim attitude (the Kashmiri are 98% Muslim), have made Muslim fundamentalism the dominant political current in Kashmir thereby isolating the Kashmiri population from many who could be sympathetic to their cause in India itself.
Unlike Kashmir, Punjab was one of the richest agricultural regions of India. Its wealthy landowners benefitted from their belonging to the Union which provided them with a large market for their products. There was therefore hardly any basis for the emergence of a separatist movement in Punjab. Except that, historically, Punjab had been dominated by a Sikh majority who still made up 61% of the population in 1971. And the Sikhs had their own political party, Akali Dal, which stood out as a successful rival to Congress in Punjab.
To counter this, Congress played a dirty double game. On the one hand, it created fears among the Hindu minority by spreading rumours about Akali Dal preparing plans to close down Hindu places of worship. At the same time, behind the scene, Congress encouraged rival factions within the Sikh community and even provided weapons to Sikh radical groupings. Soon these groupings engaged in terrorist activity on a separatist basis. This gave Congress the pretext they had been looking for. In 1983, the Akali Dal state government was deposed and president's rule was imposed on Punjab. The following year armed guerrillas occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, openly defying the authority of the union government. Indira Gandhi's response was "Operation Bluestar" in which the army stormed the Golden Temple, leaving 1000 dead including 400 pilgrims. Shortly after, following the murder of Indira Gandhi by one of her Sikh bodyguards, 4,000 Sikhs where killed in pogroms organized jointly across the country by Congress and Hindu fundamentalist activists.
Since then, repression by the police and retaliations by the separatists have claimed several thousands lives every year. Too much blood has been shed by now for the separatist movement to give up fighting. And the blatant rigging of the 1991 election, the first in five years, which brought a Congress government to power in Punjab, can only act as a powerful recruiting argument for the guerilla groups.
Hindu fundamentalism rises out of the Congress Party's demagogy
Traditionally the Hindu fundamentalists drew their influence from the most backward layers of the middle-class, particularly from among urban small businessmen. However this social basis was far from being large enough to provide them with the springboard they needed to develop into a real force on the political scene.
Today's political wing of Hindu fundamentalism, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party - Indian People's party) was set up in 1980 as yet another attempt to break from political marginality. At first the BJP did not do much better. In its first all-India electoral test, in 1984, in the wake of Indira Gandhi's murder, it scored 7% and only managed to win two seats in the Union's Parliament, due to India's "first-past-the-post" system, another legacy of British colonialism. Then, in a matter of five years, things took a dramatic turn. From 11% and 88 seats in the 1989 general election, its vote soared to 20% and 119 seats in 1991. This time the BJP rose to being India's second largest parliamentary party. It took over control of governments in four states - including Uttar Pradesh with over 120 million inhabitants, Madhya Pradesh with half this number and Rajasthan with 40 million inhabitants - and shared power with other forces in another large state, Gujarat.
What made this rapid growth possible was primarily the political crisis which affected the Congress Party's rule, leading it to launch into a systematic game of crafty manoeuvring, resorting to all sorts of demagogic gestures designed to appeal to one section or another of the electorate. The main lever they used, although not for the first time, was that of Indian unity, but as a scaremongering device, flattering the most reactionary prejudices, reinforcing communal apprehensions and whipping up fears of what Indira Gandhi called the «anti-Indian» activities of separatist movements - in other words along much the same lines as Hindu fundamentalists. To the extent that the RSS felt compelled to support Indira Gandhi publicly.
After Indira Gandhi's murder in 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi was called in to take over. The Congress Party's demagogic orientation was taken one step further, but without the political cunning of Indira Gandhi. Thus, in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi wooed the Muslim vote in Uttar Pradesh by re-opening the Ayodhya mosque. Another year, another U-turn: in 1986, the same Rajiv Gandhi, this time seeking to woo the Hindu vote in Uttar Pradesh, demanded that the state government should re-open Ayodhya to Hindu worshippers. At the same time, no doubt to balance the damaging effect of his pro-Hindu demagogy on Muslim voters, he endorsed the Muslim Women Protection Of Rights on Divorce Bill which banned women divorced according to Muslim law from claiming alimony beyond a three-month period.
All these so-called "concessions" to the Hindu and Muslim communities had in common to be in effect concessions to the most reactionary trends within these communities. In the long-term, they only helped promote these reactionary ideas to respectability.
Hindu reaction shows its muscle in the streets
The drift of a section of the Congress' social basis towards the fundamentalists was undoubtedly reinforced by the increasingly splintered, corrupted and paralysed image offered by Congress throughout the 80s. And the electoral gains made by the BJP provide a measure of the extent of this drift. But this growth of influence is not solely confined to the electoral field. The fundamentalists have also proved their ability to mobilise in the streets various sections of the population among whom which they had a limited influence only a decade ago.
For instance, in Autumn 1990, the student organisations linked to the RSS were able to take the leadership of a massive protest by higher caste students against a proposed increase in the numbers of jobs reserved in the public sector for members of the lower castes. The proposal was nothing but pure demagogy because it included so many exceptions that these reservations could not threaten the near monopoly of the higher-castes over reasonably paid jobs and would have concerned only unskilled manual and low-paid clerical jobs, the kind of jobs high-caste students would never even consider taking. But the demagogy of the fundamentalists, whipping up both the real fears fuelled by the growing unemployment among graduates and caste prejudices, turned out to be stronger than the government's demagogy. In the event the fundamentalists managed to turn this protest into a reactionary movement in support of traditional values and caste privileges which was deep enough to result in a wave of suicides by fire among the protesters.
The fundamentalists' ability to mobilise in the street is not confined to high-caste youth. It also extends to sections of the poorer classes. Shiv Sena, a Bombay Hindu fundamentalist organisation, provides a telling example. Its name means the "army of Shivadji", after a Hindu warlord who fought the Moguls in the 17th century. Shiv Sena was set up in 1966 along lines close to those of the RSS, seeking in addition to capitalise on the regionalist aspirations for a language-based Maharashtra around Bombay. For a long time it remained a relatively small organisation of thugs who shared their time between military drills, Hindu cultural events and helping the textile bosses to break strikes. Occasionally they also indulged in organising pogroms against Muslims and murder squads against communist and trade-union figures.
But in the wake of the failure of the 1982-83 textile strikes with the tens of thousands of sackings which followed, Shiv Sena started developing fast. They shifted their language to speak of the need to defend workers' interests, to expose the corruption of the official unions and the greed of the large companies. What they meant by defending workers' interests, however, was to demand and even organise the deportation of migrant workers coming from outside the state. But in the absence of credible political alternatives, the apparent radicalism of Shiv Sena did strike a chord among sections of workers. So that in 1985, Shiv Sena took over control of Bombay's local council with the support of the BJP. Today, Shiv Sena, who played a prominent role in organising the recent pogroms, claims 200,000 members and 20,000 activists in Bombay, and its largest stronghold is the Thane-Belapur-Pune suburban belt where over 75% of all workers in state-owned industries live.
Social degradation, a breeding ground for Hindu fundamentalism
In the mid-80s, Rajiv Gandhi launched the "liberalisation" policy. This involved primarily opening the Indian economy to the world market - the very same policy which was being imposed in the same period to most Third World countries by the international financial institutions.
India, however, with its nearly 900 million inhabitants, is rather different from most Third World countries. The tiny but immensely rich Indian bourgeoisie has had a sizeable market of its own. It could rely on the considerable resources of a state which protected the internal market from outside competition, made up for the lack of private investments in the economy and handed out massive subsidies to boost capitalist profits. But with time India's internal market has become less and less attractive for the Indian capitalists who would rather, now, expand their trading activities with the rest of the world and, more importantly, get its share of the world financial market and of the enormous profits it seems to offer. This is what the "liberalisation" policy is really about.
So, under the guise of "liberalisation", the Indian state has been busy privatising its most profitable operations and closing down the others. At the same time loans and subsidies to the private sector have been increased, in the name of the need for modernisation. To the extent that, in 1987, the various state subsidies paid to the private sector added up to 15% of India's GNP or 20 times as much as all state expenditures on health and education!
The result of this policy has been to take India from being among the least indebted Third World countries in the early 80s to ranging third among the most indebted countries today, just behind Brazil and Mexico. And like in most other Third World countries, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have stepped in under the pretext of seeing to it that their loans are put to good use. While the closure of unprofitable state and private operations is expected to result in 4 to 8 million job cuts before mid-1995, the IMF has issued a recommendation to scrap all minimum wage legislation and all protections against factory closures.
Before the "liberalisation" many basic commodities were cheaper in India than on the world market. But since controls over exports have been lowered, Indian prices have increased to close the gap with world market prices. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the higher price of cotton has resulted in the re-emergence of starvation among the hundreds of thousands of self-employed weavers, who have to pay more for the cotton they use. Likewise, while production of rice and wheat, which are both too expensive for most people, have increased for export purposes, production of lentils, the staple food for most, is going down. Meanwhile a spokesman for Tata Exports was quoted boasting, in December 1991, «we expect to be able to increase our sales of rice on the world market by 60%».
The IMF and the World Bank, together with the Indian capitalists, are quite pleased with the new situation. They are looking forward to the prospect of a free Indian market which, they reckon, represents 290 million potential consumers. However, what they mean by "consumers", according to their own definition, is people living in a household which can spend £300 a year in addition to daily expenditures. In other words almost nothing, even compared to the purchasing power of the average Western working-class family. At the other end of the social spectrum, the World Bank admits however that 420 million Indians live on less than £4 a week.
All this adds up to a drastic social degradation, where whole social layers are or will be reduced to complete deprivation, including some which have not experienced such poverty for several generations. It also means a growing despair among large layers of the population, the kind of despair that could make these layers easy prey for demagogues who trade in illusions and fake radicalism, such as the Hindu fundamentalists.
The urban proletariat, the only force of progress against Hindu reaction
In view of the growing economic and social crisis, for all their demagogy about past values, the Hindu fundamentalists have nothing to offer the labouring and poorer classes of India. Both the BJP and RSS have always been very discreet as to their aims in the sphere of economics. BJP MPs in the Union Parliament have supported wholeheartedly the "liberalisation" measures put to the votes by the Congress government. All in all, the fundamentalists have been very cautious not to whip up feelings against internal or external exploiters. Understandably, from their point of view, there are demagogies which are safe and others which are not.
Indeed, class antagonisms in India are much too clear-cut, tense and bitter to offer a safe playground for demagogues. The industrial working class, small as it is compared to the overall population, includes over 40 million workers and probably almost double this number if "irregular" industrial workers are included, and it is enormously concentrated: its overwhelming majority is located around little more than a dozen large conurbations. And within these large cities, the industrial working class is part of the even larger masses of urban poor, who have always been intimately tied to its fights.
In India as elsewhere, the forces of progress are not in the universities nor in the the well-off suburbs, they are in the slums and the pavement dwellers' shacks of Bombay, just as they are here in Thamesmead's tower blocks. Because there can be no real progress for humanity without social change opening the way for it. To disregard the urban proletariat of India today is to be blinded by social prejudices. Because this urban proletariat has, even in the recent decades, an impressive and powerful record of fighting which is unparalleled by any other social layer in India.
For example, in 1974, 1,700,000 railway workers went on all out strike over wages, against the opposition of the main union confederation, the INTUC, and by and large left to their own devices by the others. They held out for three weeks, but at what cost: «Organised brutality, spearheaded by the minions of law and order; the vicious bayonet thrust at bodies of the striking railwaymen waylaid by the police; the bundling into prison of thousands who refused to act as blacklegs; the deployment of hired goons to beat up workers and their families; the harassment of women and children; the summary dismissals» (Economic and political weekly ). It took the arrest of 30,000 strikers and unions activists and the murder of unknown numbers of strikers to force the railwaymen back to work. This is how tense and determined class conflicts can be.
Or again, in 1982-83, when 200,000 textile workers in Bombay staged a 17-month strike over wages and against casual status. Once again this happened against the overt opposition of the Congress-led INTUC. But it attracted the active support of hundreds of thousands from outside the textile industry, both in Bombay's shanty-towns and in the surrounding rural areas. Even the Bombay police took to rioting in the streets over its own demand, 7 month into the textile strike. One of the favourite weapons used by Bombay workers during this strike was what they call "Jail Bharo Andolan", literally "fill the jails day", when tens of thousands demonstrated in the streets against police ban on demonstrations, until the jails were so full up that the system was blocked. In the end, the strike was ended but never settled formally. Although 50,000 strikers were eventually sacked, the textile bosses were cautioned and workers' condition did improve in many mills.
So there can be no question as to whether there are forces available which could counter the present economic and social degradation and the resulting growth of reaction under a religious guise. The social forces are there, that of the working class, of the urban proletariat. The question, the only question, is rather what policy, what objectives, what future are the working class and the urban poor offered by the existing political forces that would provide them with the weapons needed to face today's threats?
The trade-union movement corrupted and paralysed by reformism
Among the working-class organisations, the trade-unions are by far the largest and the oldest. So, where do they stand today?
To begin with, the second-largest union confederation, the BMS (Bharatya Mazddor Sangh - League of Indian proletarians), was set up in 1955 by Hindu fundamentalists and organises today over two million workers, mostly in public-sector white collar jobs. More than a union, it is a fundamentalist front among the working class which advocates class "harmony" and strict respect of caste divisions.
Then there is the Congress-controlled Indian National TUC (INTUC), the largest union confederation in India, with over four million workers. One may wonder, given the Congress' forty years plus in power and its ruthless treatment of the working class, why it should still retain such an influence in the trade-union movement.
The answer is partly that in some public sector sections, particularly in administrations, which are under tight Congress control, membership of the INTUC is almost compulsory and certainly the only way to get a promotion. Likewise, in some industrial sections, such as the Bombay textile industry, the INTUC is the only recognised union which has certainly helped its recruitment. But it may be also that despite everything, the continuing strength of the INTUC still reflects the past prestige of Congress due to its role in fighting colonialism.
Besides the INTUC and BMS, six other national confederations are linked to one of the existing communist or socialist parties. All put together they probably organise as many workers as the INTUC and, unlike the INTUC and the BMS, they tend to have more strength in the industrial working class than among white-collar sections. And one way or another, these unions still claim, at least in words, to stand for the interests of the working class against those of the exploiters.
But this trade-union movement is deeply bureaucratised. It is as corrupted as the sphere of politics to which it is linked. Union activities are entangled in a maze of legal constraints. In exchange the "recognised" unions are given a few crumbs, primarily funds to finance their full-time apparatus and positions within various state bodies. Today, it is for instance almost impossible to take strike action within the law. The union machineries happily adapts to this and is closely integrated in the operation of the state, particularly at local level.
The only perspective the unions have come up with, in terms of fighting the current attacks, has involved token days of action and unending law suits in the labour tribunals. It is significant that the largest strike in this period, the 1982-83 Bombay textile strike, was led from beginning to end by a political adventurer while the union confederations were looking on if not actively opposing the strike. In any case there is not one section of the trade-union movement which seems prepared to take upon itself the task of preparing a radical fightback by the working class.
The communist movement, from radicalism to respectability
There are also political parties which are active in the name of the working class, of the class struggle and even of communism. The communist movement, although never dominant in the Indian working class, has a significant record of radical fights, at least in the past. It was for instance the Communist Party which was instrumental in organising the Bombay textile workers from the late 20s till the 60s.
More recently, the CPI's refusal to support the new Congress regime set up after independence led to its banning and to the jailing of many of its militants. In Telengana, a north-eastern province of Andhra Pradesh, the CPI took the leadership of a rebellion among poor peasants against the feudal power of the big landowners. At its peak the movement involved up to three million, organised around village "soviets" and armed militias. In this period the CPI proved it was prepared to lean on the mobilisation of the poor masses, at least in the peasantry, and even to organise them in an armed struggle against the repression of the state. In the end, the movement collapsed after Nehru sent in 60,000 troops, killing 4,000 communists and peasant militants, and arresting 25,000.
The mid-50s brought another of Stalin's U-turns. Taking opportunity of the USA's support for Pakistan, Stalin seized the chance to establish trade relations with Nehru. Once again, in the CPI's statements, the Congress party became a progressive force and working with it was hailed as a means to «combat imperialism abroad and monopoly capitalism at home>».
In Kerala, a small mostly rural south-western state where the CPI had maintained some following since the war, it used the opportunity offered by its new favour with the state to express regionalist feelings which were widespread among the petty-bourgeoisie. This together with the prestige acquired through the Telengana movement enabled the CPI to lead the governement which came out of the 1957 state election. Once in power, the CPI soon forgot its radical, although largely verbal stand for the poor peasants, to avoid antagonising the powerful lobby of the landowners.
A similar fate was that of the communist movement in West-Bengal. This time, it was the CP(Marxist), who split from the CPI in 1964 over the CPI's slavish support to Moscow and to the Congress against China. Rather than being maoist, the CP(M) was setting itself the aim of becoming a rival of the Congress party instead of being doomed to live in the shadow of Congress as a result of Moscow's policy. In fact, behind its apparently more radical language, the CP(M) was only shaking Moscow's grip in order to become a "normal" parliamentary party, much like the Italian CP for instance which initiated the "Eurocommunist" trend in the same period.
The CP(M) first came to power in West Bengal, from March to November 1967, jointly with the Bangla Congress (which was to merge into Congress), supported by the CPI. Eventually, after a long period of minority participation in various coalition governments, the CP(M) succeeded in securing an absolute majority in the state election and have retained this up to now.
But, just as the CPI in Kerala, the West-Bengal CP(M) was quick to forget its election commitments to the poor. Though in the 1977-81 period over 50% of sharecroppers were able to register and to secure legal tenancy rights, this did not go further due to pressure from the better-off peasantry which the CP(M) chose not to take on. On the other hand, the CP(M) "sells" itself to the middle-class with a promise of better and safer industrial relations through tight controls on the workers' organisations.
The two CPs' record show that their preoccupations go first and foremost to preserving the positions they have gained through the election process. During the period of the State of Emergency, when tens of thousands of political and trade-union activists were jailed, the two CPs chose to keep their heads down rather than try to organise a fightback, in order to protect the positions they had in the machineries of various states and municipalities. They repeatedly sacrificed the interests of the poor who had elected them in order to keep the rich happy. They took part in convoluted coalitions which they used to remain in power, sometimes against Congress, but sometimes with it, often accommodating to their reactionary temporary allies, including the Hindu fundamentalists. With such a record, what sort of perspective can the two CPs offer the working class and the urban poor?
And in fact, today, the response the two CPs have come up with against the reaction is in line with their record - an electoral front, aimed at keeping the BJP away from power, involving everyone from the two CPs to the Congress party itself, in other words including the main culprit for today's growth of Hindu fundamentalism!
The urban proletariat needs a radical policy, that of a revolutionary party
As far as we can see in any case, no political force is putting forward a perspective that would allow the working class and the urban proletariat to defend themselves against those responsible for the pogroms and against the increasing social and economic degradation. It should not come as a surprise therefore if the fake radicalism, however reactionary it may be, displayed by the fundamentalist demagogues finds some support among the proletariat. After all, unlike the existing political parties and unions, including those who claim to be on the side of the exploited, the fundamentalists don't seem to be paralysed by a slavish obedience to a law that strangles the poor. Nor do they seem afraid to upset a corrupted so-called "democracy" which was never anything else than a convenient front for a tiny minority of exploiters. And the fact that the radicalism and determination displayed by the fundamentalists are only a cover for their reactionary objectives can only remain concealed by the absence of any other choice.
No, it is not the proletariat that should be blamed for not using its numerical strength and social weight to crush the rise of reaction. What should be blamed is the fact that no party, no political force, is offering a policy which is radical enough to be credible in front of today's attacks and threats. Because when it comes to defending themselves against the rise of reaction, only a radical counter-offensive of the working masses can be effective and therefore credible.
What the working masses of India are lacking, is a party. A party which has already proved its determination and its ability to defend the interests of the proletariat. A party which would try today to rally the proletarian masses behind the perspective of launching a radical fightback and which would be bold enough to spell out the fact that such a fightback can only be effective if it is aimed at the root of the disease, in other words against social exploitation and against the exploiters, all the exploiters. The emergence of such a party would be the only way for the enormous strength and resources of the working masses to become a decisive factor in the shaping of the future. For the working masses to play such a role requires the development of a social consciousness of their place and weight in society as well as of their interests. And creating this social consciousness by getting the working classes to act for their own interests is precisely the role of such a revolutionary party.
India is a powder keg, a social, religious and ethnic powder keg. And it can explode at any time. But as long as the social forces at work don't intervene as such openly, as long as the social conflicts remain hidden behind the disguise of religion for instance, as long as the oppressed are lacking the indispensable instrument of social consciousness which a revolutionary party is, the risk of the explosion taking place along religious or ethnic lines rather than social lines, will remain a damning threat hanging over the poor masses of India. The recent developments may be the first warnings that such an explosion is in the making.