The following, necessarily brief, reflections have been sparked off by two recent posts on Kafila – one by Biju Mathew published on 16 April, and the other by CP Geevan, published today. These reflections should not be seen as a response to the positions taken by Biju and/ or Geevan; they are, in fact, more in the way of addressing the central question raised by Biju Mathew’s piece – that of despondency and pessimism that has followed the UP elections and more importantly, the stealthy manner in which Adityanath was installed as the chief minister in the state. Stealthy, because after all, it was amply clear even to the decision makers in BJP, from the very beginning that if they had entered the election campaign with Adityanath as the chief ministerial face, it might have yielded very different results. It was too big a risk to be undertaken.The real stroke of Modi-fascist genius lay precisely in keeping not just the electorate but also the organizational machinery in the dark and turning it into an advantage.
As it happens, despite the sharpness of Geevan’s comments, my sense, on reading the two pieces, is that there isn’t really as great a divergence on most issues as might appear at first sight.
The key point that is at issue in Geevan’s intervention is the role of political parties and the role they could possibly play in the struggle. I really do not think any one really believes that this fight can be carried out by sporadic movements – or even sustained ones – by writing off political parties altogether. After all, in the electoral arena, where the challenge has to be eventually posed, it is the parties which will be the deciding factor. My reading of Biju Mathew’s piece is therefore, very different. As I see it, the point really is that if we were to simply leave things to the good sense of political parties, then there is little that any one else – ‘people like us’ – can do. Individuals or movements then can only sit back and mourn their fate. I am sure this is not what Geevan has in mind – that much is quite clear from his piece which focuses on the urgency to act, if need be, sup with the Devil. If that be the case, then the key question is what can everybody else, people who do not belong to any political party, do? It should be clear from what I have said that ‘we’ are really nobody to decide whether political parties have any role in this struggle or not. And if they do, what precisely? They select or de-select themselves, entirely of their own accord. But we are certainly entitled to have our own opinions.
I do not want, at this stage, to enter into a hypothetical discussion of possibilities but would like to state my own position here in the light of the experience of the last 27 years. That is to say, from the time that the first rathayatra to demolish Babri Masjid took place and perhaps the last time, some political forces, largely representing the new bahujan upsurge, took a strong stand: Laloo Yadav’s government arrested LK Advani, VP Singh staked the very existence of his government and Mulayam Singh stood tough in preventing the kar sevaks from wreaking havoc.
All that was in 1990. By 1992, and from then on, we have seen the complete collapse of the political parties’ will to fight. The Babri Masjid was demolished with everyone looking on as passive bystanders: the Narasimha Rao government danced tango, while the parliamentary left stood trembling at the fury of the resurgent right; the Supreme Court, like a toothless old patriarch, watched helplessly as the solemn pledge made before it was blown to pieces. The entire system watched the demolition, not just of the Babrri Masjid but of the Constitution along with it. It was in those dark days that we saw the emergence of a whole range of citizens’ groups coming into action. The People’s Movement for Secularism (PMS) was formed on 7 December by many of us in Delhi who had come to join a self-mobilized protest only to discover it being taken over by the CPI(M). No one was averse to joining hands with the CPI(M) or any other force but no one was prepared for the hijack, even at that moment of unprecedented crisis. The PMS had had important precursors in the Nagarik Ekta Manch formed during the 1984 riots and the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan – formed on yet another occasion of total paralysis, if not abdication by the political class. It was the post Babri Masjid scenario that brought the Movement for Secular Democracy in Gujarat and and similar outfits into being in different parts of the country. Through the 1990s, we were witness to citizens’ groups coming into action, in whatever limited a way they could, in resisting the onslaught. I remember a convention and rally organized by Anand Swarup Varma (formerly of CPI(ML) Liberation and editor of Samkaleen Teesri Duniya) in Lucknow, in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid. After the rally, we even met a range of Congress leaders in Lucknow and Delhi, in order to impress upon them the need to act – of course, to no avail. Groups of socialists and former activists of the JP movement’s Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini became active in Bihar. All the while, the attempt was to build pressure on political parties as well. It was a time of despair but equally, it was a time of regrouping of forces everywhere, alongside unprecedented churning, accompanied by an intense self-examination as well. Everywhere, there was a serious attempt re-assess the limitations of secular discourse and practice as well but that is another story. From the side of the political parties, on the other hand, all we got were indications of cautious calculation and nothing more.
It is important to recall here that in 1996, when the United Front was cobbled up after elections and repeated efforts to get the CPI(M) to agree to Jyoti Basu taking up the prime ministerial offer, there was nonetheless a centrist government with the Left playing an important role in it (CPI also had ministers in the UF government). Not one new idea, not one new programme was initiated that could have actually built serious bridges between the Left and the new bahujan forces and set a new agenda for the years to come. In late 1996, the issue of workers rights became entangled with the question of environmental pollution and the Supreme Court ordered the relocation/ closure of thousands upon thousands of polluting industrial units. The issue of negotiating the two questions together rather than in opposition to one another, was undertaken by coalitions like Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch, not by the government of the day and the parties which comprised it. For them, it was business as usual – mutual bickerings and power hungry calculations. Within two years the NDA came to power, under Vajpayee’s leadership, with a seemingly more principled platform as far as popular perception is concerned.
The political bankruptcy of the period led to the new alignment and it was under that dispensation (NDA I) that the Gujarat 2002 massacres took place. Once again, in 2002, there was a complete prostration of political parties, across the board. That the NDA could be formed and that it could survive though the Gujarat carnage with constituents like TDP, JD(U), TMC, BSP, DMK staying on, was indication enough that there was something seriously wrong with the ‘party’ system itself. That those who were opposed to Hindutva and the carnage – the Left being a substantial component of that lot – were overcome with complete paralysis was another indication of the same malaise. Once again, it was citizens’ groups in different parts of the country that swung into action. Coalitions like the Aman Ekta Manch emerged in Delhi and other cities – organizing demonstrations and campaigns, and engaging in relief work. Right from the work of helping run relief camps, collecting relief material, helping people rebuild their lives to fighting their cases and taking on the regime – paying immense costs in the bargain – they had to do it all by themselves. One thinks of individuals and groups like Mukul Sinha’s in Gujarat and Teesta Setalvad’s in Mumbai. All through political parties were approached, their help sought but most often, my impression was that they saw these people as intruders into what they considered ‘their’ domain. Basically, the struggle of these citizens’ groups has been a fight on an everyday level, unspectacular and thankless, with political parties stepping in only when the tide had decisively turned. The NDA’s defeat in 2004 took all parties on both sides by surprise. It wasn’t as if the anti-communal activism of the citizens’ groups and social movements had by itself turned the tide; it was the combined effect of literally thousands of molecular interventions that helped produce that effect. Perhaps, a significant section of Hindus too was disgusted enough by what had been unleashed in their name. An analysis of the 2004 CSDS survey data showed that the BJP had lost significantly among two types of voters: dalits, tribals and lower OBCs, on the one hand and a section of its middle class globalization-oriented supporters, on the other. In any case, the very fact that the UPA government had to create a special space for social movement representatives (in the form of the National Advisory Council) and went in for innovative new legislations – Right to Information, Forest Rights, NREGA – had to do with the recognition of the role of social movements in the NDAs defeat and the charting out of a possible new direction in policy.
In the present context, I think there is a new element that was not there in 2004 and the years preceding it. Biju’s piece refers to the Pinjra Tod campaign but this really forms a part of a much larger new burst of youthful energy that has arisen over the past few years. The anti-corruption movement and the December 16 gang-rape protests were two immediate precursors but really this energy draws from a whole range of other sources including the sexuality movements, new era feminist mobilizations, as the ‘Hokkolorob’ movement in Kolkata or the ‘Kiss of Love’ in Kerala or the Pinjra Tod in Delhi clearly show. Side by side with with these movements, we have seen the emergence of struggles in universities in different parts of the country – FTII, Hyderabad Central University, JNU and lately Panjab University. The issues are different in each case, but their edge is directed against rigid attempts by the government and the RSS/ Hindutva forces to control everything in people’s lives ranging from love to food habits (thus the beef and pork festivals) and worship (thus Mahishasur as a symbol of lower caste/ tribal identity). The emergence of the slogan ‘Jai Bheem, Lal Salam’ as an index of the new synergies – despite continuing allergies – between left and dalitbahujan students groups and powerful Dalit protests after Una, point towards the arrival of certain powerful new political/ discursive currents. They do not speak the language of nationalism or Hinduism. They have a different take on key issues before us. These may have retreated a bit but they have not died down, waiting for the proper moment to make their appearance again. If anything can challenge Hindutva’s power in coming months, it is these movements. Whether political parties can do their bit by coming together to offer common resistance, at least during elections, remains to be seen.