sacw.net | April 1, 2005
Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar On Politics in India
[ Originally published in Left Hook - March 30, 2005 ]
Snehal Shinghavi of UC Berkley recently interviewed Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar on a broad range of Indian political issues, including the rise of the Hindu Right, weaknesses of leftist parties, role in Iraq, and relations with Pakistan. Until his recent retirement, Sumit Sarkar was Professor of History at Delhi University, India, where he began teaching in 1976. His most recent publication is Beyond Nationalist Frames. Tanika Sarkar is Professor at the Department of Modern History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Q: What are the features of Hindutva in India and do you think that it is fair to describe it as a kind of Indian fascism?
TS: It has very strong features of that, but so far as it is still operating within an electoral, democratic framework, and insofar as India is a very huge, large country and the Hindutva forces are very unevenly spread out and there are many countervailing factors, I don't think that it has all the marked features of fascism.
It doesn't have a very formed, organized left enemy that it contends against. That's a major difference. I also think that the fascistic efficiency levels are also missing. Their governance has been unlike the fascist governments, you know. Their governance is terrible, absolutely atrocious. So in some ways the potentialities are weak. I think that the aspirations are very similar.
Then again, I'm not very clear, and I might be wrong, that genocide, complete genocide of the fascistic sort, is actually an intention.
SS: You see, it's such a big population of Muslims that you can't really finish them off in the sense that it was more or less possible to finish off the Jews in Germany. The attitudes are similar. And they are also rather different, in the sense that fascism rose in Germany, obviously, but to some extent even in Italy in the postwar situation, in a situation of near-total economic collapse. Massive unemployment and so forth. We have a lot of economic problems in India - we have unemployment. But in comparison, in Germany it was a sudden development in a way, a sense of tremendous crisis, where the alternatives seemed very stark in the perceptions of a large section of the people there, whether in reality or not is a different matter. So either a socialist revolution or Nazism. I don't think that it is quite like that in India.
But, as you say, the attitudes, the kind of temper, as well as some indications of sympathy for Nazi or fascist ideologies, if you look in history, you find that. You find it just now, because what's the point of that. But there is that famous statement by Gowalkar, which he never disowned, in his We, or Our Nation Defined (1939) when he described precisely in November 1938, shortly after kristalnacht, that's when it was written, that the way Hitler had dealt with the Jews should be an example for us. So there is a sympathy.
And you may have seen also this bit of data that this Italian historian - Marzia Cassolari - she wrote an article based on archival research in India on the contacts between Moonje, an associate of the RSS, active in the RSS, one of its founders actually, and he had come to Italy and had developed quite good relations with the fascists, and possibly Mussolini, though I'm not quite sure of that. And so there are certain articles that came out in RSS papers and so forth.
TS: Two differences, also. I think, more than the fear of class revolution what activated the RSS and its wings into a kind of mass movement was the fear of caste uprisings and the change in the caste situation especially after the Mandal Commission recommendations went through. And the other thing is that fascism was energized by a mass phase, a fairly egalitarian vision before the compromise with the high bourgeoisie was made. There is no such thing in our Hindutva movement.
Q: What then do you understand to be the features or the project of the Hindutva movement in India?
TS: The most obvious and the most dangerous is communalism. Making India into a Hindu nation-state. That is their USP, so to speak. That is how they define themselves: that India is a Hindu nation in its civilizational essence. Everything else is an add-on. Everything else is not just extraneous but subversive of that Indian essence. They in their definition exclude Muslims, Christians, and Communists as antithetical to the Hindu civilizational essence. So that is one.
So immediately it leads itself to a vision of exclusion of what is not Hindu. But one wonders, you know: even though the Muslims are a substantial population, the Christians are not, and they are being attacked with equal ferocity. And both Muslims and Christians are educationally extremely very weak, vulnerable, not a competitor in any sense, not like the Jews of Germany. So that is missing. So what are they scared of vis-à-vis the Muslims. Is there an agenda behind it? What would the Hindu nation be doing for this kind of group? Why is there such an urgency to declare itself a Hindu nation?
So, it makes one wonder if the real targets are not the fault lines within the Hindu community in India - that is caste. So caste, inasmuch as caste is allied to class, in our country, very strongly allied to class. So this continuous exclusionism and this continuous emphasis on redefining India as Hindu in its essence actually is to unify Hindus while blanking out the internal caste-caste, class, and gender problems.
But that doesn't mean that the Muslims or the Christians are simply an aside or simply an excuse because for a hundred years there had been tension, conflict, violence, mutual violence. This is something that also carries a weight of its own. It's not simply a cynical excuse for something else. It has a reality of its own. But the deeper need for this kind of focus on excluding what is not Hindu is meant to continuously keep Hindu as one on their guard and to forget about their internal conflicts and differences.
SS: Just one more point, about using the category of "fascist." I think that both of us have been suggesting that it's not very precise and in any case historical parallels are always tricky sorts of things. What it helps to do perhaps is to highlight the fact that Hindutva is not just a right-wing movement. It is a particular kind of right-wing movement, if you like, conservative movement. So it is from that point of view that maybe playing with the category of fascist as distinct from just conservative or right-wing helps. Hindutva is different, distinct from other broadly right-wing, religious-oriented political groups like the Christian Democrats in Italy or their counterparts in Germany or at one time in France. That is different. They didn't represent, however corrupt, however right-wing, a kind of a threat to the very existence of the Italian Republican constitution or the German Republic or whatever. This does. It is in that fundamentally different.
Q: So how do you explain the electoral alliances between the lower caste and depressed caste forces and the BJP?
TS: Precisely because of this anxiety of ruptures. The RSS is still pretty brahminical and upper caste. The leadership remains very brahminical, brahminical more than upper caste. But in post-independence India the upper caste just cannot rule by itself.
You know what happened since independence is that the transition to electoral democracy and full adult franchise necessitated Ö even just after independence Gowalkar quite openly said that India is not meant for electoral democracy. And he was extremely unhappy. And it took them a little while to develop an electoral wing that would be able to contend in the electoral field. So a new compulsion appeared on the horizon. Between 1925 and 1947 the RSS could happily be brahminical and depend on and rely on an inherited authority, a social authority, a prescriptive authority. After independence, if they want to get anywhere in a situation of full franchise, and in a situation where the left was the dominant opposition to the Congress in the first elections, in that context you cannot abide by the old and much more honest framework. After 1947, it's forgotten how open the RSS had been about the need for a monarchical India, the need for a brahminical India, because that language had to be dropped. And somewhere between the 1950s and 1960s, Deendayal Upadhyay made that kind of rhetorical shift. And the BJS was formed and a more democracy-friendly rhetoric was developed.
But what did not develop was a recognition that India is a poor country and there are social contradictions, that there is great exploitation. That never entered into RSS discourse or into the discourse of any of its allies. But nonetheless, in order to prevail in an electoral situation, they have to look for caste allies. Either they have to develop an agenda to hegemonize the lower castes themselves. Or they have to function through lower-caste electoral partners. And I think [Christophe] Jaffrelot has suggested that initially they tried the first and tried to restore or relocate their brahminical prerogatives, their social leadership prerogatives on the plane of a new kind of leadership on the electoral field. That didn't work out and hence the turn towards lower-caste partners was a tacit admission of failure - that they can't do it on their own. Nonetheless, what is more dangerous is not that they are looking for lower caste partners, but that they are finding them.
SS: And that is a difficult problem to explain. But maybe here you come across some of the problems with powerful, significant, at the same time pretty limited affirmations of lower-castes and Dalits in our country. Because what has developed particularly in this last fifteen or twenty years -- partly different from the situation under Ambedkar or under Periyar in Tamil Nadu or Phule in Maharashtra - is a series of pretty narrow forms of identity politics. And insofar as the rallying cry has been reservations - while that was both necessary, indeed indispensable, and up to a point certainly a valid demand - but movements which have tended to confine themselves to that have run the risk and face the reality indeed of repeated splits. So conflicts between various types of lower-caste formations have manifested themselves on an increasing scale, which allows the BJP to make its selections, so to speak, playing one against the other. And that playing is not just something the BJP is doing out of cleverness. There are real tensions. The tensions between Dalits and the people called the OBCs [Other Backward Castes] - the OBCs include very poor people but also include some relatively landed groups. And insofar as the Brahmins or upper castes are often pretty thin on the ground in many parts of the country, in the rural areas, the immediate enemy for the Dalits, the immediate oppressor becomes the landlord [usually an OBC] or something like that. So these are the kinds of tensions that the BJP is making use of.
Q: What of the other far-right formations?
TS: The Shiv Sena is a strong ally. The Shiv Sena has some differences. It's a very localized, Marathi chauvinist organization right now. It's very urban, mostly urban. It's in some ways more expansive because it has really worked with OBCs certainly and occasionally with segments of Dalits in the slums. It has got a much more active slum-based program. It's much more integrated with Bombay city politics than the BJP is. The BJP has not been able to develop an urban profile of its own, very markedly, nor a rural profile. So in some ways it is more ambitious in its scope. But again it's very, very localized and it's not internationalized.
SS: And it's also criminalized in the sense of running protection rackets. It's a little bit like a mafia with some of the protective functions that mafias normally discharge. And that gives it a lot of strength. I don't think the BJP has quite that kind of activity.
TS: And it's also turning out increasingly to be a one-leader party. Thackeray was the founder and it seems to be going down with him.
SS: It has an enormous cult of personality, which again the BJP does not quite have. They try to project Vajpayee and Advani, but it's not quite on that scale. They switch their leaders pretty easily.
Q: How do we understand the role that Congress plays in its sometime opposition, sometime complicity in the Hindutva project?
TS: I would say sometimes more than soft Hindutva. The Congress is very cynical. So far the Congress has tried to play the Hindu card whenever it felt that the BJP is gaining because of that. It's only in the last election and it's only really Sonia Gandhi and a few other people around her who projected a strong secular alternative. Up to Rajiv Gandhi, then, in fact Indira Gandhi in 1981, the tendency had been to be more of the same thing and contest them on their own ground instead of setting up another ground.
In Gujarat, its record had been abysmal. It's very, very bad. Some of the Congress actually rioted. The Congress leaders did nothing to give any protection to the Muslims. They completely turned their face away. And in their next election campaign, Waghilad played the soft Hindutva card and nothing else. They did not organize any relief. They completely failed to organize any relief in Gujarat. Even in UP and other places, a lot of rank and file Congress people have been shaped by the shakha (branch) ideology, and maybe even go to the shakhas for all we know. I found out to my horror from the work of a Japanese anthropologist that a pretty strong RSS wing, a front organization, in Madhya Pradesh is actually funded by the Rajiv Gandhi foundation. So there all sorts of overlaps and so on.
The only thing is that the Congress plays the Hindutva card, the soft Hindutva card, opportunistically. It has no actual attachment to it as a party. It's not something that it stands or falls on. It's not its USP. It's cynical about it, it can use it, and it has of course unleashed one of the biggest and most terrible anti-minorities rioting in 1984. So it's there. But it's not what makes the Congress the Congress. What makes the Congress the Congress is difficult to spell out. It's extremely elastic. It's extremely flexible. It's extremely opportunistic. But that itself is a bit of a resource, you know, because it can also accommodate. When it sees it's necessary, it can also play the secular card.
And historically, that had been the Congress's agenda, you know, from 1885 onwards, when they could have defined the nation as Hindu, because the Congress was a very Hindu organization, it did have an open and multicultural perspective on the nation.
SS: Also a certain kind of economic policy and a certain concern for poverty. In a capitalist nation, though it may, but still, improvement. And perhaps the Congress historically has had all of the weakness but at the same time some of the strengths as well as so to say the unavoidabilities of a centrist formation. That is what it is. So it's historical method, so to say, for tackling alternatives, whether on the left or on the right, has usually been to, depending on what is the greater pressure, move a bit towards that.
You see that for instance in the 50s and early 60s when the left still united before the China thing, seems to be coming up because definitely the united Communist Party was the biggest party in the opposition, it was the main opposition party, and the Nehruvian Congress effectively spiked its guns and forced the Communists to moderate their policies by moving a bit to the left. Nehru for instance just before what the Communists had hoped would be a great triumph for them, the first Andhra elections in 1955, announced at Abadi that Congress also stands for a socialist pattern of society. And that is the peak period of Nehruvian radicalism. You have the second five-year plan, a strengthening of the planning commission, in effect a virtual alliance with the Soviet Union to build a powerful public sector, pursuing a pretty problematic but still real economic development through the public sector.
Then, as the left declined or stagnated, got split and various things happened, by the 70s with signs of the Hindu right coming up, the Congress in the later phase of Indira Gandhi Ö Indira also initially carried on some time more aggressively the Nehruvian policy, but during the last phase of the emergency and particularly after the emergency started flirting very openly with a kind of soft Hinduism. So it is that kind of thing.
Even culturally. Historically, the Congress has had, it still has but to a much diminished extent, element of some phases of slight kind of common language with the old left. Still has it. It had it much more in the 30s, when some of Nehru's writings and speeches in the 30s seem almost indistinguishable from what the communists would be saying, apart from loyalty to the Comintern, which he didn't have. But apart from that it was very similar.
On the other hand, probably a bigger section would have a common language with the Hindu right or whatever. So it is that kind of open-ended situation, a lot depends on interventions on the left.
TS: You know the Congress communalism has to be very sharply watched out for, because they have been responsible for so much. The Neogi Commission, which practically forbade conversion, that was the Congress's doing. The opening of the lock of the Babri Masjid in 1986, again the Congress did that. And also in a sense playing up to Muslim communalism - with the Shah Bano case - and of course the 1984 riots. It has to be watched very carefully.
SS: At the same time you can't in the foreseeable future do without Congress, because the left is just strong enough Ö and even when it was strong it has also suffered from bouts of extreme sectarianism, which hardly helped.
Q: What role does the organized left play in these developments? What do you think are real activist strategies that might break the movement for Hindutva?
TS: What the left did in the 1989 elections was unforgivable. Because the signs were very clear. Bhagulpur had happened. Meerat Maliana had happened. The VHP was well on the streets. They just did not watch the signs. They did not follow the tendencies at all. They moved like illiterates.
That was a big shock. After 1992 the left got a very big jolt, and I don't think that is going to happen at all in the near future, or even in the remote future. They are far more careful now, though not careful enough I would say. We were both very shocked. Because just after Gujarat in July 2002, Praveen Togadia of the VHP went and ran an armed combat training camp in [Communist controlled] West Bengal. He was forbidden to enter into Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which were under Congress rule then, and the West Bengal government allowed him to run a combat training.
But nonetheless in its national policy certainly the left is very anti-BJP. The kinds of economic policies it recommends also. It's not only opposed to its communalism but more so the opposition is on the BJPs drastically curtailing and selling off the PSUs [the Public Sector Units], letting foreign multinationals enter, and so on. So it's a very comprehensive opposition now.
But I would say that the left is just not following what the RSS is doing. And nobody is actually tracking RSS movements and activities. The way in which AWAAZ has been keeping track of how they function, what they do, what exactly are their modes of activities and mobilization, there is absolutely no sense of it on the ground. And the left is content and most secular forces are just content to say that they are terrible, they are atrocious, they are hands off, people have nothing to do with them, and that's that. They have no idea of the beast that they confront. And that is a very, very major weakness.
You know, Teesta Setalvad, in the six months before the Gujarat riots broke out warned of exactly the same thing. She talked of Trishul Diskha. She talked of arms distribution. Nobody was interested. No one was following it. In our country this is the problem of the secular forces. And if you do want to talk about the RSS, if you do want to report on what they are doing, there is a great resistance. You know, it is almost as if they are untouchables. And by talking about them you are adding to their force. I remember being told by secular feminists when I did some work on the women's front that if you talk about them, if you cite what they are saying, you are doubling the space that they have. They compared it to the anti-obscenity campaigns. That you do not recycle the obscene materials into the public domain. So that would be doubling their space. So this is a very major failure.
SS: I think historically the left has had two major failures. I mean lots of failures, but two very staggering failures in India. One is its inability for a long time to recognize the dangers of communalism. I mean both Hindu and Muslim communalism, but in the last couple of generations it is Hindu communalism which is of course the bigger force. The other has been the failure till [the] Mandal [Commission] hit us all to recognize the significance of caste. And in both cases, a somewhat vulgar, orthodox Marxism reduced all other tensions too easily, too speedily, in a real reductionist manner, to class. So the usual kind of assumption, not usually often stated but in the back of the minds of the old generation of Marxists and even in the present generation sometimes quite often, that if you can develop the class struggle these things would take care of themselves. And that has been a terrible failure. So, with the result that the dangers as well as sometimes the opportunities, so far as lower caste formations are concerned, which this situation, the specifics of the subcontinent offered or posed, were not really taken account of. It's quite remarkable how little communalism and caste except in the context of major crises like partition and so on, how little they have figured in Communist Party documents or Comintern documents for that matter, throughout the whole period. If you look through them you won't find it. A third area of failure is gender also, but of course this is not peculiar to India. That is one of the major problems with the old left.
TS: But nonetheless the left-organized women's organizations are flourishing. And the RSS women's organizations are not. So it's a failure but it's also one of their strongest areas of work.
SS: In fact, the CPM Women's Front, that is the AIDWA, All-India Democratic Women's Association, is probably the one broad front associated with the CPM that is going from strength to strength. At its last congress it claimed a membership of 8 million. That is slightly exaggerated, I don't know, but it's a remarkable figure. And it has expanded a lot. And it takes up and intervenes in a whole gamut of situations where sometimes I at least feel surprised. One would have expected the Communist Party leaders themselves to go there, but it's always the women's leaders who go.
TS: In the anti-communal struggles also it has been the women's organizations of the left that have been the most active. Not the trade union front. The trade union fronts could not offer any real help.
SS: Well, trade unions are in a bad way, I would say, throughout the world. But even then, they couldn't really, because trade unions have been really very much immersed in corruption, that is there also, and you need to understand that also given the present situation also of overall crisis, the post-Fordist flexible accumulation, the disintegration of factories and so on, are all maybe too much for it, but that is there Ö
TS: I wouldn't say that, you know, because the AIDWA in Delhi, the Janwadi Mahila Samiti (the Socialist Women's Congress) organize precisely among the working class women. The wives of the people who are losing their jobs, are thrown out, and doing piecework and so on - and not just the JMS but other women's organizations, and these women have been extremely effective in firefighting operations.
The left is still by far the most organized and committed force, and instinctively we look to the left for support. But in 1992, we felt the left was waffling. The left was nowhere Ö they had their protests but they were just taken unawares. You know like homing pigeons, we who do not belong to the organized left on December 1992 just rushed to the party office to see what they were doing and they could give us no lead. So on the spot certain independent initiatives were formed which proved to be very effective for the time being. They withered away, but in 1993-94 they did produce a broad platform that proved to be very effective. And the left was not really the leading anti-communal force and they did certain ritualistic things. So, what are these kinds of independent anti-communal initiatives which do investigations among them? I would consider Teesta Setalvad and Communalism Combat to be the most effective, the most vocal, and the most informed. That's the most important thing. There's no one who's been tracking the RSS that closely. And there are some other women's organizations - the radical and left women's organizations - have been extremely active. Very, very active. Certain cultural organizations like SAHMAT and so on. But that's one leg so to speak.
The other leg should be the social movements. Because the RSS got where it has got through leading mass movements. And the left, the organized left, seems to be incapable of doing that. And its greatest value lies in the states where it rules, because if there is a riot, they would send the army in on the first day. We can depend upon that. But not because they can actually fight communalism. West Bengal is one of the most communalized places. They wouldn't allow riots. They don't know how to tackle communalism but they wouldn't allow a riot. They know how to tackle a riot. But the organized left is not leading mass movements. There are very major mass movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, for years and years, the CMM, the Chattisgadh Mukti Morcha, which virtually controls part of Madhya Pradesh. They are declining. But there are all sorts of movements which are sort of coming up and going down. At any given point of time there are vast mass movements. And they might decline a few years hence, but they would be replaced by something else. So there are these. And through the WSF there has been some amount of coordination for the first time. There is a very conflict-ridden and tense relationship between the organized left and these movements, but it's something that is happening. For the first time they are moving together and at least working together.
SS: And several issues have been pioneered by these - I mean they are called by various names, none of them very accurate, grassroots movements, at least one section of the NGOs Ö NGOs as everywhere come in all sizes and shapes and characters. But we are talking about the better NGOs. For instance, environmental issues, problems of development, destruction of livelihood caused by big dams, water policy and so on, historically the left has been pretty terrible on that, because it, I think even now though they are beginning to shift a bit, is stuck in that old kind of Stalinist project - the more big dams the better - and it is just development and science without any qualification that is the solution, which is quite absurd in today's world. And so, I think it was a major failure that for a long time something like the Narmada Bachao Andolan got no formal support from the left. Now, I think that it is changing, and one of the biggest positive developments in recent times has been, in that context, in the internal Indian context, the World Social Forum, and its Mumbai session and so on, which did bring together for a variety of motives this large and very variegated world of social movements, activist groups of various sorts, grassroots movements, some big, some small, and the traditional left. And one can only hope that as the cooperation continues despite all the tensions that are there Ö
TS: The elections made it very clear that wherever globalization has worked in a particular way, that government has been thrown out. The Congress government in Karnataka and Chandrababu Naidu's government in Hyderabad. So those success stories are not going to sell electorally. And I think that Congress has got the message quite clear. So I hope that Congress will follow through with the Common Minimum Program that they came up with, which even if a fraction of it is realized it would be a countervailing force of a very major sort.
Q: And neoliberalism in India? And the left's complicity in neoliberalism in the state governments?
SS: This is a situation which is worldwide. As you see in a country like Brazil. Venezuela might be a little different, but that is because Venezuela is sitting on oil. So strategically the situation is very different from the time of say Nehruvian planning, with the end of that kind of socialism and so on. So that is there, and of course, the world domination by the US. But the turn goes deeper. It is also connected, probably, not just with political groups, whatever their color, but also with a very significant section of so to say the upper classes or upper middle classes of India, not just the businessmen, I'm not talking primarily of the businessmen, but the bureaucrats, officials of various sorts, who have become very much a part of the globalized scene. I mean, there sons or daughters might be studying in the US or hoping for jobs in multinationals and all that. All these rather specific factors can also operate because it's quite remarkable how again throughout the world governments come and go and social democratic type regimes have been elected in country after country but policies don't change. Sometimes they even get worse, it seems. So there is a world kind of drive towards that. The countervailing force so far only comes form the popular movements and the anti-globalization movements but they haven't been able to change policies, so far. Or even maybe some might even say cynically that they haven't been able to offer anything in the way of a detailed alternative. Protest is one thing. But what could governance do - that is another.
In the Indian case there is the further problem, perhaps, that unlike many of the Latin American countries and certainly unlike most African countries, the decision of the dominant groups in India to go in for an open door to multinationals and so on - I don't think it was a forced decision. I don't think that there is very much an alternative for many of the Latin American countries and not at all for Africa in the present situation unless something changes in the metropolitan countries - their policies change. In India, the bourgeoisie is not like in Africa. It is a very well developed bourgeoisie. It is profiting from this - let's be sure of that. It's not a sell out in that sense to America Ö they are a junior partner. And it's quite a profitable partnership by and large. There are still tensions. Even a section of the RSS seems troubled by this, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, and so on. The old kind of RSS base among the smaller villages and so on, they are probably getting hit and they are not liking it and so on. So it is a pretty difficult situation. And it's not very clear whether given financial resources and their inadequacies and the lack of an alternative investment source as Nehru had - and even then in the 50s, the US tried to starve out India by refusing loans for state plans and so on. Those policies also had major problems, but still they did allow India to build up an independent economic base. That's become extremely difficult now.
So it's not a situation which is easily resolved perhaps.
TS: 8% growth is a bit mesmerizing. First of all, it had no major droughts. Nature had been fairly kind and all that, so there was nothing that the BJP had to contend with in that sense. Secondly, growth is countered by indices which are extremely odd in themselves and which are really based on middle class and upper middle class consumption habits. And the upper middle class and middle class in India might be poor in relation to the first world, but they do constitute a fairly significant first world within the third world. And it's because of the size of India - it's huge - so what it consumes can give a very illusory picture. Now they are doing fine; they were been doing fine. The media completely sold out to this notion of growth and problem-free development based on a neoliberal economy and so on. The election therefore was a huge shock to the media. The media was really caught with its pants down and it has to reckon with that. So for the next few days after the election results came out the media was actually startled and looking at itself. How come the people who made all the difference in the elections never appeared on our columns? In that sense I think our elections were very different from the American elections where questions of health, public welfare, do not register as electoral concerns. In India, they still do, despite the way in which the media had blanked out these concerns. Farmers' deaths ultimately made some difference. They didn't die entirely in vain, one hopes. I mean, one doesn't know what's going to happen in the future. But, the message has been very clear.
SS: It also reflects one of the still positive features in the Indian situation and means the continuing or latent strength in Indian democracy, despite everything, that it is the poor who come to vote in election, whereas here one hears quite often the absolute poor don't really turn out because they become rightly utterly cynical - that nothing will change. The poor don't really get much of anything from the elections. But they feel that this is the only time that they get a certain sense of political power. And that is all that is meant by this so-called incumbency factor. They can throw out a government. And repeatedly they have done that. And this time they have done it well.
TS: So they are not very cynical. Unlike the United States, it's the very poor who have always changed the face of politics. So that has some sort of power and weight still.
Q: What does the Indian ruling class imagine its role to be in the war in Iraq?
SS: I think the Indian ruling class has internal differences. Because this is one issue in which the BJP did add something new. I wouldn't say so much just a tilt to America, that had started earlier, and again from the narrow point of view of ruling class diplomacy the argument would be, sometimes honest sometimes less honest, "what alternative do we have?" The nonaligned movement is no longer there; the Soviet bloc is no longer there. We have to come to such terms as are possible with the US. But what is very significant is the alliance with others, the virtual attempt at an alliance, including military alliance relating to military know-how, with Israel. Even though in sheer realpolitik terms it just doesn't make sense. But they tried to do it. Hopefully these extreme changes are going to be reversed. I think that they are being reversed - as shown by India coming on the stand when Arafat died, and so on. I think that is fairly easy to reverse.
Well, the other kind of danger was revealed in a flash when the first thing that the BJP government did in 1998 was to go openly nuclear. Again there is both a continuity and an element of change with Congress policies. It was the Congress which exploded the first bomb in India. But there is this kind of nationalism. A dream of India as a great power, a nuclear power, and so on, which is by and large shared between the BJP, but the BJP being more extreme in that way, the Congress, and I'm very much afraid that the awareness of the dangers of this have only belatedly become widespread in the Left. Because I remember that one section of the Left very warmly welcomed the explosion of the first nuclear bomb in 1975. And then it changed. But it has never been very consistent. So that is a major problem on which again it is some independent intellectuals and groups, there is a movement that has become fairly significant - the anti-nuclear movement. It has its ups and downs. It includes people like Achin Vanaik and Praful Bidwai who have been contending for years on this with little support. One fears that in 1998 if it had been the Congress or some kind of United Front, which had ruled earlier, if they had exploded the bomb, the left wouldn't have had much objection. But since the BJP did it, of course, it was natural for even the Congress to, I wouldn't actually call it protest.
TS: The left didn't have a principled objection to nuclearization. It wasn't committed to it, but it didn't have a principled objection. It developed one because it was the BJP bomb. I don't know if Israel had been a very major departure, but I don't think that is going to be a permanent feature.
It has been really interesting, because in the Afghan War and the Iraq War, the BJP did not supply what the American government asked them to supply. We had the impression that the RSS was not very happy about either war.
SS: And the urban middle class wasn't either. It also resents this. I don't know whether Bush is a popular figure, here Ö
TS: Of course, in Iraq they used the excuse of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. I suppose the RSS feared that what if someday America makes the dame demand of us. The other thing is the war on terror, the global war on terror, and the BJP behaving like America's junior partner. There is a wide level of consensus within India and all sorts of things go on in the name fighting terror. But this government [Manmohan Singh's Congress-led coalition] did remove the POTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act] which was a very significant step. And I have a feeling that Manmohan Singh does intend to do something in Kashmir, I don't know. He might be defeated by forces internal to the Congress, but there are certain, a certain new language that is being spoken when he was in Kashmir. And that is something that reflects a problem within Indian handling of Kashmir and it is not something simply done by Pakistan or terrorists employed by Pakistan. There are some, a few gestures in that direction. Indian does have very strong potential and ambition of being, I mean it does see itself as being the dominant force in South Asia and wants to go beyond that, build on that. And the war on terror is a tool in that.
SS: The whole mood has certainly helped the BJP and the Sangh Parivar a lot. They have been crying themselves hoarse about the danger from Islam and now the whole world is talking about Islam as it pertains to terrorism. It was a godsend for them. As it was a godsend for Bush.
TS: I don't think any regime can get rid of it or will want to get rid of it. It is a very ingrained and very deep-seated thing. And the power and the charisma that the Indian army enjoys in the country, means that no body wants to hold it accountable, and the recent Manipur events showed that. That the army just refused to come and give evidence.
SS: And I'm afraid that the left virtually kept quiet about that, apart from some sections, the CPM in particular kept quiet.
TS: It's a huge army, it's a very bloated army, it's a very cruel army. The Northeast and Kashmir are being held like Ö they behave like an army in occupation. It's very clearly not part of India. And there's no reason why they should be unless they want to be. And we look at these countries, you know, these states, like they are forced into a non-consensual marriage, and they have no right to divorce.
SS: The army remains a kind of a holy cow, so much so that it is really impossible to think of a single really anti-war or anti-militaristic Indian film. There will be variations - some are jingoistic and others not. But even the kind of film which at one time would make fun, with a Colonel Klemp kind of character, with soldiers that might be foolish and even funny Ö Now there are films that are financed by the Indian army, which are allowed to film in high0fisk areas like Kargil.
These are the very areas in which between a fairly secular nationalism and Hindutva there have been overlaps. And we on the left haven't been sufficiently aware of these overlaps. Or sometimes we go to the other extreme of thinking that they are the same. One has to keep in mind both the distinctions which are real and the overlaps which are on nuclear weapons or the army as a holy cow or this whole language of national integration. National integration is an ambiguous concept - why should everyone be forcibly integrated? How much integration?
Q: What social movements in India do you think hold the most promise?
TS: It's not so much a particular movement that looks like a very durable movement and has a lot of future potential but the very fact that there are multiple movement and that they are just going on and on. They virtually don't exist because the media does not report on their activities at all. But nonetheless they keep working under unimaginably difficult situations. The Narmada Bachao Andolan was perhaps the largest of such movements and it has had some success, not in relation to the Sardar Sarovar Dam but in relation to a broad front Ö the National Alliance of People's Movements, it's a kind of coordination. In size, you know, they are pretty large. And some of them work in a very limited sphere and they are preoccupied with that. But in that sphere they come up against forces of global capital and multinationals and so on and the Indian state. And they do fight them very courageously, but they do not do enough of the ideological work among their own cadres. There are some which are more aware of that, like the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha used to be. So in a sense, I am not very clued into this, because it is difficult to get sufficient news, information about them, sitting in Delhi, because the media does not Ö unless you happen to know someone who is making a film or participating or happen to know someone.
That's how you get to know about these movements, practically speaking. And because Medha Patkar used to come to Delhi University to mobilize students and was able to mobilize a fair number of students we got to a now a little about them and the CMM and so on. But it's the fact that they rise to a peak and they go out of action, but at any given point of time there are many. And some of these NGO's, so called, even with foreign funding, which are generally detested by the left, they are actually challenging at least the local structures of power. In giving education to the panchayat, to illiterate members of the panchayat, or to women to hold their own, or to challenge the local structures of power, even without meaning to, you know. Even the very moderate micro-credit operations do enable rural women, because these credit facilities are given to women, village women. And that sets up a chain reaction in some sense that enables them to challenge domestic violence. It enables them to challenge the indiscriminate granting of liquor contracts by which the local labor force is tamed by the government. They just simply swamp them with drinks, free drinks. That leads to domestic violence Ö so this chain can be broken. Or at least there can be counter forces. So that is going on all the time but the net effect of all that, in what direction Ö
There are also sustained movements against Singaporization of cities: eviction of hookers, of pavement dwellers, of squatters, of clearing of urban slums. There are continuous movements against that. In the south, which do not get sufficiently reported. What one pins one's hopes on is that there is a multiplicity of these movements.
SS: In these movements there has been an interesting coming together of some of the best elements of Gandhism, you know the old kind of Gandhians. They've gone in two directions. One section has really landed in the Hindutva camp. The others have come here. Along with these ex-Gandhians you have a significant number of ex-Naxalites, who have been disillusioned about armed struggle. By the way, I should mention there are armed struggles going on, often quite heroic ones, but it's difficult Ö and the more effective of these would be those which combine armed struggle with a certain amount of work not qualitatively different from this kind of work. And that -- there are pockets in several parts of the country. The only problem is that a) these have very sharp indeed violent internal differences and b) groups which carry on with an armed struggle perspective for x numbers of years tend, and there are examples of this all over the world - the Shining Path movement is the classic example - to get corrupted, really being subsidized by one gang of warlords. And that certainly has happened in Bihar and some other areas. And c) perhaps most centrally, the Indian state is a very strong state.
These movements I don't think worry the state too much in fact it often provides them opportunity to justify POTA or the war on terror. Because, it is difficult given the high development of communications and the strength of the Indian army to think about these movements being able to overthrow the state. And so far the army hasn't been involved at all in suppressing these movements. A few other groups have been involved and the police. Whereas in Telangana in 1948, it was a much more serious challenge, not just because the movement was strong, it was, but also because the Indian just after independence was a pretty weak state. It's very different now.
Q: India-Pakistan - what motivates the rivalry between these two countries and what are solutions?
TS: For the moment the US would not like Indo-Pak tensions to escalate into any major war, that is one check. It puts pressure, and where it puts its pressure, it's hard for India and Pakistan to go beyond a point. Minor wars, but not more than that. In a sense the ruling classes and the ruling parties of both countries need this situation. Need this kind of threat perception to keep themselves going, to strengthen the army, to shove class issues out of sight, and so on. On the other hand, even the BJP did make certain gestures, did lead to an opening up. What their economic thinking is, I don't know, because that is a mutually profitable area potentially. The coming together of the two countries or at least the easing of tensions between the two countries. And that's possibly happening from the BJP onwards, a certain amount of commercial flow. It's very significant that in this opening up of borders to a certain extent the initiative was taken by concerned citizens. Cultural organizations, who actually began the flow to and from Ö
I don't know beyond that, because I haven't been to Pakistan. It's said that people there feel friendly towards India, not towards the government, but towards the people of India. Indian people don't feel friendly towards Pakistan at all.
SS: I'm not so sure of that. There was excessive media hype when Musharraf came. I think that there is a rather complicated situation where there is great mutual tension but also mutual attraction, particularly also in the two parts of Punjab. And so it's rather complicated. It's very emotional. And that emotion, depending on the situation and political intervention, can lead to extreme confrontation or something else. For the moment it seems to be leaning towards something else.
TS: Pakistan went through a second partition. So I think that Ö the whole historical memory about seceding from India, or whatever, that has become rather dim. But Indians especially in Punjab are still living with that and refurbishing the memory and the bitterness of the 1947 partition. And that's going on. So there's a lot of anger in India.
SS: The other thing is that the situation is not just India-Pakistan. Not at all. I suppose that Muslims, their aspirations, and a significant section of half a billion people throughout this region would have been not becoming integrated into India but not to get integrated or absorbed into Pakistan. But some kind of alternative. And it's here that the Indian government under Nehru made a very bad mistake, when Sheik Abdullah was moving that way. Instead of striking a bargain, which would have been quite possible given Sheik Abdullah's history, his excellent personal relations over a long period with the Congress and particularly with Nehru, I don't think there would have been a terrible disaster if an autonomous Kashmir had come under some kind of international guarantee, demilitarized and so on. But at the time, the Indian government and I think the Soviet Union also, which was very close and almost an ally at that time, felt that this would be an American base and so wasn't going to allow this to happen. And the other factor has been this rather cynical argument that Kashmir cannot be allowed to leave India because immediately a very strong secular argument will go, which is rather tough on the Kashmiris frankly. That for the cause of Indian secularism they have to swallow this bitter pill.
TS: And since Indian secularism has done remarkably little for Kashmiris Ö There should be a plebiscite. And India has no claim as far as I can see. And no one has done anything.
(Snehal Shingavi is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley.)
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