Thursday, April 30, 2009

Neoliberalism and Popular Resistance in India

This was a draft for a speech to be delivered at Toronto, during the South Asian Peoples' Unity Conference, 23-26 April, 2009. I spoke only about SEZs, and I talked about Lalgarh, not covered here).

Comrades and friends,
I am glad that I can speak here, in a gathering that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Nepalis. In South Asia, internationalism is a very necessary sentiment, with most of our governments doing their best to turn our attention away from class conflicts to patriotism and hatred of the enemy outside the border, or the internal enemy (the Muslim in India, the Tamil in Sri Lanka). Yet the neoliberal attack has been a devastating one for us, our economies, especially for our workers and peasants. The Indian economy, touted as far better than the economies of the neighbouring countries, gives ample evidence of the destructions caused by neoliberalism. The overall attacks of neoliberalism have been disastrous, and I can speak about only one small corner of it. Today, we read that we had a socialist economy that had slowed down our growth. Well, what we really had was a state-aided capitalist development, necessary because Indian capitalism did not have enough resources and did not want the profits to go to foreign capital. But it is true, that certain concessions had to be given to workers and peasants, for a complex of reasons. In the name of getting rid of outmoded socialism, those few gains of the toilers are being steadily destroyed. I could provide statistics. Let me instead make just a few points. Malaria has been staging a big come back. Famines are back and the general PDS has been replaced by targeted PDS that leaves a large part of the population in total food insecurity. Fighting the dead socialist past has meant reducing the tax burden of the rich and the super rich, (one estimate of such cuts is, a loss of 1.7 trillion rupees due to tax cuts for SEZs).
The years 1989-91 saw a disoriented left, shaken by the crisis and collapse of the bureaucratized regimes of East Europe, the Tien An Men Square massacre, and the crisis of the USSR, failing to resist this turn strongly. While a number of mass organizations led by left parties did come together, to resist the onset of neoliberalism, this was brought to a halt by the end of 1992 using a line of political argument that is often called popular frontism. Resisting fascism after the Babri Masjid destruction, we were told, means prioritizing secularism over anti-neoliberalism. This ended up in disorienting the workers and peasants and could not halt the growth of Hindutva forces, who were the dominant partners in the NDA, ruling till 2004.
The 2004 elections saw not only a decline of the BJP votes, but defeats for many of the most fervent advocates of neoliberalism, whether the TDP in Andhra or the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. The left, not so much for what it did but for what it said – that it would oppose neoliberalism – received its highest ever number of seats in the parliament: 61 out of 542. After the elections, however, once more in the name of stopping fascism, the left agreed to support a Congress led government, the United Progressive Alliance, and it finally broke with the UPA not over its economic policies, but over the Indo-US nuclear deal.
One aspect of the neoliberal offensive in the present decade has been the push for Special Economic Zones or SEZs. This has three significant dimensions for India’s working people, and the environment. Ever since globalization began, there has been a clamour for changes in labour laws, so that hiring and firing can be a smooth process. This is supposed to help the workers too. Resistance by trade unions and the left parties has made it difficult to enforce as ‘”radical” a set of changes as the employers would like. SEZs are one way of tackling that.
The name and the concept were borrowed directly from the Chinese.
An SEZ is a development zone with state guarantee for the infrastructure, a series of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives, removal of bureaucratic hassles. The SEZ will be a duty free enclave, treated as foreign territory for the purposes of trade operations and duties and tariffs. The state government must commit that the area of the proposed SEZ is free from environmental restrictions, that water, electricity and other services would be provided as required, that the units would be given full exemption in electricity duty and tax on sale of electricity for self generated and purchased power; that there would a wide range of exemption of state level taxes on the supply of goods from Domestic Tariff Area to SEZ units; and that the units will be declared a Public Utility Service under Industrial Disputes Act, which makes calling a strike all but impossible. The union government will allow 100% Foreign Direct Investment, massive income tax benefit for any block of 10 years in 15 years, exemption from Service Tax/Central Sales Tax; and granting a series of further facilities. According to government propaganda, the 130 SEZs notified so far will provide an additional 17,43,530 jobs. In fact, with the exception of SEZs in the IT sector, basically there will be, and is being, a transfer of jobs from industries outside the SEZs. Relatively better paid workers lose the jobs, and the same job then migrates to the SEZ, where there is greater exploitation, no union rights, and often oppression comparable with early industrialization. The violence at Gurgaon, where a CEO was killed, was widely reported, especially in the English language press, which is the voice of India’s ruling class itself. But the background is, trade unionism is practically banned, trade union activists are beaten up, in fact on that day, in the name of negotiation the workers leaders were being beaten up, and when the news went out to the massed workers outside this inflamed them.
An added dimension is the employment of women at terrible wages in the SEZs. Nirmala Banerjee’s studies show that women workers are willing to put up with worse conditions, because many of them feel they will not be working all their lives. They are trying to save up money for a dowry, and are therefore willing to put up with the additional burden. Employers’ unwritten conditions for hiring women workers often include the terms that they have to be young and unmarried. Marriage or pregnancy often leads to immediate sacking.
It also means taking over land from peasants. To give you one example, in West Bengal, thousands of industrial units have shut down over the years. This land, in what has often become prime urban area, is being redesignated as land for housing, fuelling the housing boom till recently. On the other hand, the SEZ Act specifies that unless it is a single item SEZ, its size must be at least 1000 hectares. So agrarian land is being targeted. To take another example, the government is not concerned about helping peasants to shift to organic farming, nor is it interested in resisting Genetically Modified seeds etc. But it has included agriculture among its list of SEZ industries. And we have Reliance Fresh announcing that it wants to set up its SEZ for organic farming, which will then be marketed. This also ties up with the shift to monopoly in retail. The aims of the Indian and foreign large retail concerns, whether Relaince or Wal Mart, add up to a target of about 20% of the retail market within the next decade. So from production to distribution through these monopolies will mean a tremendous loss of jobs. Yet the government of India in its various websites keeps issuing assurances that SEZs will lead to the creation of millions of new jobs.

The BJP-led government started the SEZs, and immediately began giving away land across the country at throwaway prices to big industrial houses. Critics were silenced by the refrain: China had done the same in the 1980s, look at it now. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government pursued the same policy.
I want to talk about West Bengal, not because that is the only place where there has been such attempt at land take over, nor because it is worse there than elsewhere, but because it is a tragedy that a left front government has been pursuing the policy there.
It is possible to mention a whole series of efforts at taking over agrarian land. Rajarhat New Town is coming up on agrarian land taken over at a pittance. And if you look at websites, you can see wealthy locals and NRIs being invited there.
The first large scale resistance came in Singur. The Tatas wanted to set up a private sector enterprise to build the $2000 US nano. But they are not ordinary mortals like you or me. They chose prime agricultural land at Singur.
* The government must procure the land for them. This will cost it Rs 140 crores. But the Tatas will
pay only Rs 20 crores, after five years.
* They will pay no stamp duty.
* They must have a contiguous plot of 997 acres (almost 400 hectares, or 40 lakh square metres). No
Indian car factory has anything approaching this area. (Even Tata Motors's giant Pune factory has only 188acres, including housing for employees.)
* The factory proper, said the Tatas, will have a built-up area of only 1.5 lakh sq m, or under 4
percent of the land acquired.
* The land must be fenced off and protests suppressed. The Tatas mendaciously accused their
"competitors" of fomenting the protests, but couldn't name them when challenged.

That's not all.

* The Tatas demanded "compensation" for "sacrificing" the 16 percent excise duty exemption
offered by Uttarakhand for locating the car factory.
* This means "upfront infrastructural assistance" worth Rs 160 crore on a Rs 1,000-crore project.
Besides, the hyped-up "Rs 1 lakh car" will probably cost a fair bit more. It be must be "cross-
subsidised."
Therefore the government also gifted the Tatas 250 acre further land in Rajarhat New Town and Bhangar.
According to the government, Singur has poor land, identified as capable of producing only one crop a year. In fact, development of irrigation, road networks, and land reforms have combined to produce a multi-crop area here. The government used a 19th century colonial era act that allows the government to take away agricultural land for a compensation in cash, and for public need. In Singur, the “public need” was to give land at throwaway price to the Tatas. The total drain on the state exchequer was estimated to be several hundred crore rupees. The motor car factory is not a labour intensive factory. It was to come up by displacing not only peasants who, willingly or unwillingly, were going to be given cash compensation, but also share-croppers, agricultural labourers, transporters who moved agricultural products, and a range of people who were not going to be compensated at all. The peasants were not anti-development. Rather, they wanted development to suit them. In 2006 a small plot of land of as little as 5 cottas could encourage a sharecropper to send his kids to school nourishing an aspiration for a better future. This was what was brutally destroyed on 2 December 2006 through massive violence, even though despite all government and CPI(M) efforts, peasants in half the area had refused to even take the compensation cheques. Resistance continued. So did state and party violence. On 8 December, Tapasi Malik, a young woman (18) leader of the resistance struggle, was strangled, and then burnt to death. The CPI(M) in India, and some intellectuals in the US, claimed that Tapasi’s father and brother had killed her (PD 7 May, counterpunch). After a protracted fight, including a campaign to have not the state criminal investigation department but a central body, the Central Bureau of Investigation, look into the murder case, a CPI(M) leader and a CPI(M) activist were arrested. A lower court has found them guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment, but the case is going on in a higher court.
Peasant resistance also created a major upset. In the rural self government bodies’ elections, the district was won by the rightwing opposition Trinamul Congress, as its leader Mamata Banerjee had supported the peasants. Banerjee had been a partner in the BJP led coalition that had initiated the SEZ projects in India, so her role is purely opportunistic. But that she changed positions shows the degree of popular anger at the land acquisition policy. And in the end, the Tatas pulled out. But an adamant government refuses to hand the land back to the peasants.
Singur was followed by bigger plans. A huge SEZ was to be set up in Nandigram, in East Medinipur district. A traditionally strong left base, Nandigram also has a record of militant fighting. On December 29, 2006, Lakshman Seth, the CPI(M) strong man of Haldia, a nearby town, held a public meeting where he announced that land would be taken for a chemical hub, to be set up by the Salim group of Indonesia. They are not any ordinary group, but cronies of Suharto, and accomplices in the mass murder of communists in Indonesia in 1965. For this SEZ and associated work, the total area to be acquired was to be just under 18547 acres. Over 15,000 families would have to be evicted. 137 schools (mostly primary, but also some secondary), and 3 health care units were to be shut down. 16,652 water bodies would be filled up.
To resist this, Nandigram peasants dug up roads, cut down wooden bridges, and prevented government personnel from coming into the areas between January and March. There were clashes, and some local CPI(M) leaders, attempting to fire on peasants, were counter attacked. One of them was killed and his house was burnt. A large number of CPI(M) supporters left the area, claiming they were unsafe. The CPI(M) retaliated by organizing an economic blockade of Nandigram. CPI(M) camps on the road to Nandigram searched vehicles. Peasants set up a committee, the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee(land eviction resistance committee). Between 11 and 14 march they were sending telegrams and appeals saying they feared an attack. On the 14th, police and CPI(M) goons attacked, killing at least 14. Hundreds were injured. Some of us went there in a relief team. We saw attempts at resistance, but no trace of “outsider” Maoist guerillas, who, according to the government, were fomenting trouble.
Finally, in April the government stated that an SEZ would not be built in Nandigram, but they refused to pay any compensation for those killed, injured and raped on March 14. No attempts were made to arrest and punish the guilty. So called peace talks were held, but the BUPC was never called for peace talks at the state level. The CPI(M) claimed that the BUPC had ejected 3500 of its supporters from Nandigram area. But civil liberties groups trying to meet those people were not allowed to do so. The APDR estimated that the real number of people ejected were around 300. From late October the CPI(M) again stepped up armed threats, culminating in a mass attack in early November. On 6 November, several villages were torched. Two days prior to this, CPI(M) all India leader Brinda Karat had called for public violence on the people of Nandigram. By 7 November 25000 people had been rendered homeless. Medha Patkar, travelling in a car that also had one of my colleagues, Prof. Amit Bhattacharya, was not allowed to proceed to Nandigram.
Nandigram was taken back by the CPI(M), but at a high price. In East Medinipur too, the party lost in the rural elections. More important, the left political culture in the state received a severe jolt. On 14 November, between 60,000 and 100,000 people took part in a citizens’ demonstration condemning the party-state violence in Nandigram. For the first time, this was a demonstration not called by any political party.
The environmental dimensions of SEZs are less discussed, because the position of all mainstream political parties is a contemptuous one towards environment. Broadly, there are three kinds of impacts that SEZ can have on access to water for the people in the SEZ area. First would be due to the diversion of water for use within the SEZ. Second impact would be the impact of release of effluents from the SEZ. Here the situation at locations like Ankleshwar in Gujarat and Patancheru in Andhra Pradesh, among scores of other places is illustrative. At these places, the release of untreated effluents from the industrial estates has created a hell for the residents of the area. Thirdly, the conversion of land to SEZ would mean destruction of groundwater recharge systems. SEZs even in relatively small areas can pump out huge quantity of water, drying up the wells of the surrounding area.

In the 13 000 ha Mundra SEZ in Kutch in Gujarat, 3000 ha area is covered by Mangroves, which are already being destroyed for the SEZ. Mangroves are also facing destruction at a number of other locations in Gujarat due to industrial expansion along the coast in Kutch, Saurashtra and South Gujarat. Potentially the largest SEZ in the country, the Mundra SEZ will destroy fisheries and livelihood of large number of fisherfolk and they are protesting against the SEZ.

By now, across India, over a hundred have died resisting the SEZs. The tragedy is that the major traditional left parties have swung to wholesale acceptance of SEZs where they are in power. This gives rise to a major problem. Unless a left wing response can be developed, it seems likely that the right wing may benefit, as Mamata Banerjee is showing in West Bengal.

New (and not-so-new) realities of our time

(Presentation at the Left Forum, New York, 18 April, 2009)
I am glad to be able to speak here, at the Left Forum, about the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest. What is not so new, of course, is the attempt by socialists to be internationalists. That is indeed one of our oldest and proudest traditions. In 1871, the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association received a letter from Calcutta, which wanted to open a branch of the International there. The identity of the author of the letter is not known. But the response proposed by Marx included a suggestion that Indians be included, indicating that the correspondent from Calcutta was probably a European. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, militant socialists from India or other colonial and semi-colonial countries could only keep sporadic contact with their fellow fighters in the developed countries, or with the Soviet Union. An international effort meant chiefly the work of people and organizations in Europe and North America, with perhaps Japan added. Asia and Latin America, to say nothing of most of Africa, were very marginally represented. Capitalism itself has changed that. And at the same time it has made closest international collaboration ever more imperative.
The newest reality we face right now is of course, that there is a massive crisis of capitalism. This was supposed to be finished. With 1991, history had come to an end. I remember all too well (as who does not, who was old enough to be a leftist in 1991 and still remains one) the queues of repentant leftists who were busy acknowledging that it had all been an illusion. Those who refused to give up their Marxist politics were derisively labeled “dinosaur”. Capitalism had supposedly triumphed, something proved by the collapse of the bureaucratic regimes calling themselves socialist. For a number of years, only small groups, barring in a few countries, were willing to stand up and call themselves revolutionary socialists or Marxists. Small numbers were willing to argue that capitalism would again face crises. That is of course what a part of the new reality is about. The initial attempts at saying that the system faced no trouble, only the rotten elements were being weeded out, had to be given up by September 2008. Not only that, but for the first time in two decades, bourgeois political leaders across the world were talking about policies that meant ending the neoliberal consensus. When the Republicans call Obama socialist for talking about some degree of state control, and the accusation does not cut much ice with US public opinion, we need to realize that there have indeed been great changes. If the US President can talk about state control, we are much better placed today, to talk about control over the economy by working people, and get a hearing, than we were for a very long time.
What is not so new is the continuing reality of imperialism. In the happy utopias of free trade theorists, there is no war, only people peaceably trading. There, the hidden hand of the market ensures that the aggregate of millions of different, self-interested decisions appears, magically, as in everyone’s best interests. States are hardly visible either: they just protect property and enforce contracts. What an irony then that the most enthusiastic free marketeers are also the most warlike. The free market, pushed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was about as peaceful, as Joseph Stiglitz, no socialist, said, as the Opium Wars, which too imposed the “free market” on China. The so-called Washington Consensus meant that debtor countries trying to borrow from the Bank were forced to comply with the structural adjustment policies set by the IMF. The resulting cuts in government spending, the dismantling of tariff restrictions on imports and a shift in agricultural policy away from food production towards exportable cash crops, the earnings from which could be used to service the debts, have resulted in a global tide of starvation, misery and environmental damage. Countries already desperately poor are forced to service debt they will never be able to repay and hand their economies over the international banks. It has been estimated that the South had paid to the North, by 1997, via debt servicing, 6 Marshall plans. By 2006 this had gone up to 20 Marshall Plans. The ultimate irony is that aid and cancellation of debt is ever more tied to ‘good governance’ preconditions when the main cause of bad government was and is the same structural adjustment policies associated with debt.
There have been arguments to the effect that imperialism in its classical sense is of little or no use in understanding the current realities of the world. While it is true that modern imperialism is not presently in a stage of warlike rivalry between national states, this does not mean that inter-imperialist competition could not in the future lead to such rivalry. Though in recent periods competition between capitalist powers has been institutionalized within bodies such as the G8, the crisis of 2008 saw big business run to national governments for protection. Globalization has meant the growing importance of trade between local branches of the one hundred transnational corporations that dominate global trade. This means that protectionist pressures (and therefore imperial rivalries) are lessened because raising trade barriers would also damage branches of transnational companies located within the protectionist state’s own borders. Conflicts of interest between transnationals are also negotiated within bodies such as the G8/G20, the IMF or the World Trade Organisation (WTO). There are 63,000 transnational corporations worldwide, with 690,000 foreign affiliates. Three quarters of them are based in North America, Western Europe and Japan. Ninety-nine of the 100 largest transnational corporations are from the industrialized countries. 51 out of the world’s 100 largest economies are transnationals. This shows clearly the domination of the same small group of countries, with the TNCs closely linked to the governments of those countries. In the last analysis the power of transnationals in organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank comes not from market dominance but from the ability of their states to protect their interests, if necessary, by military force. We have seen, in connection with the Iraq War, how powerful imperialist states have an agenda that meets the requirements of many of those transnationals. Indeed, ultimately market dominance and state power are closely linked, thereby providing a major contradiction of capitalist globalization.
So we now have a global crisis of capitalism, with even the political representatives of the ruling classes are compelled to call for state action. And we are doing so, when a new generation has grown up, that is not burdened by memories of past defeats and that cannot be halted or defused by pointing the finger at a now non-existent Soviet Union as the only alternative. We are in a period when the degeneration or collapse of many of the old left parties are no longer the sole reality. In Nepal, a Maoist party combined armed struggles, mass struggles and elections with great flexibility. Certainly, they have problems, the biggest being that Nepal is a small country, very poor, and no party can hope to transform it rapidly, while precisely such an expectation will be building up among the masses. In country after country in South and Central America, a left swing is visible. Not all these are equally radical, but this swing reflects a profound stirring at the base.
But a part of the new reality is also the tragedy that in many countries, the younger generation comes to these militant struggles without adequate revolutionary continuity. It is only the sectarian, for whom if his or her organization does not lead the revolution then the revolution should be postponed, that the collapse and degeneration of left wing parties can be a cause of glee, an opportunity to say I told you so. In his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Victor Serge tells us what a disaster the break with our historic continuity can be. The Old Bolshevik Ryzhik, a Trotskyist who has accidentally survived the three purge trials, is reflecting on the Bolshevik Party. “each hieroglyphic was human: a name, a human face with changing expressions, a voice, a portion of living history…. If he had credited himself with the slightest poetic faculty, Ryzhik would have allowed himself to become intoxicated by the spectacle of that powerful collective brain, that brain which brought together thousands of brains to perform its work during a quarter of a century, now destroyed in a few years by the backlash of its very victory, now perhaps reflected only in his own mind as in a thousand-faceted mirror”. The revolutionary party, not as a bureaucratic machine, as Cold Warriors, above all in the USA, have constantly warned us, but rather, as the collective brain of the vanguard of the working class.
In its humble way, the encyclopedia that is the starting point of our gathering here today, will be seeking to contribute to overcoming that disaster. For decades, we have had aggressive right wing attacks on the ideas of revolution, even of enlightenment and progress. We have had Schapiro, Pipes, Figes, (for example) tell us that the Russian Revolution was nothing but a coup, a plan for a dictatorship. We have had Furet, Simon Schama and others tell us that terror and mindless violence was built into the very origins of the French Revolution. We have had historians like Ramachandra Guha or Rudrangshu Mukherjee in my country debunking the communists in the cause of neoliberalism. The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest is, or can be, a very important tool for radical activists. It restores, in a form accessible for those who cannot go through piles of books, the memory of revolutions and struggles. For example, David Mandel and Paul le Blanc respond to the campaigns against the Russian Revolution. Soma Marik explores the historiography of the French Revolution and the popular aspirations behind the Terror. And the encyclopedia has an ecumenical position. The perspectives from which the essays are written are many, not one. Not monolithism, but an engagement between anarchism, environmentalism, feminism, radical nationalism, and of course a very plural Marxism is what marks these volumes. And it is, above all, truly international. All too often we find that a Eurocentric bias is built heavily into histories written in the North. This is not the case here. Struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America are extensively covered.
I am particularly happy to be speaking at the Left Forum about this, for the forum, too, is an attempt to bring together the diverse voices of the left. To strengthen political consciousness, notably class consciousness, these are important initiatives. Certainly, mass radical movements are the essential ingredients. But movements do not automatically generate class consciousness to the full extent, nor do workers get the full picture of the totality of world capitalist oppression and exploitation simply through workplace experience. Certainly, a book, any book, including the encyclopedia, cannot take the place of the living collective brain. But this too is the product of a living collective, reflecting on our new realities while writing about the past, and it can have good value for working class militants and social movement activists.
From the late 1930s to the 1970s, for about forty years, there was a rich left wing political culture in much of India, certainly in West Bengal, where I live and work. Bengal/West Bengal had seen general strikes of hundreds of thousands of jute workers. Bengal had a massive radical student upsurge, not once but four times within this period – demanding the release of political prisoners in the late 1930s, sparking off the post-war upsurge of 1945-47, fighting, in East Bengal/East Pakistan for the Bengali language, and fighting for food and for democratic education in West Bengal, between the 1950s and the late 1960s. India’s most massive women’s movement was developed there, in the 1940s, where the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity mobilized over 40,000 members by 1944, combating a government and capitalist made famine that left half a million dead in Bengal in 1943. In 1946, at the crest of the post-war upsurge, P.C. Joshi, the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, told a group of prominent intellectuals of Calcutta that for the next generation, the best intellectuals of Bengal would be Communist, as indeed they were. The splits in the communist movement, the smashing of the original Naxalbari movement, the class battles of the 1970s and 1980s that saw major defeats by the working class, the orthodoxy that silenced women’s autonomy within the communist movement, and the rise of aggressive communalism, all combined to weaken and partially to break the continuity. But new struggles are breaking out there too. Struggles against Special Economic Zones have taken place, in West Bengal, in Gujarat, in Uttar Pradesh. Struggles have developed against communalism, going beyond merely contesting it in the parliamentary terrain. Young people are contesting the destruction of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. As the participants in such struggles try to make sense of the world, rather than just their corner of it, they will be looking at history. This Encyclopedia will be making its own contribution to all such attempts at recomposition of ideologies and political and organizational outlooks.

Communalism and Indian History

(Text of a talk given at the University of Pittsburgh in April 2009)
Communalism is the term used in India, and more generally throughout South Asia, to denote the politics of religious sectarianism. Communal politics in India and Pakistan are premised on one fundamental assumption: that India is a society fractured into two overarching religious communities – Hindus and Muslims. These communities are not only supposed to be separate and distinct, but also irreconcilably opposed. Their cultures, values, social practices and beliefs have little in common. Their histories are histories of discord, of mutual hostility, hatred, conflict and battles for domination. The boundaries of the communities are categorically drawn by a century of mutual antagonism.
This is not a matter of one academic perception contesting another. Two incidents from the past quarter century should warn that it goes well beyond that. Between 1987 and 1992, the Bharatiya Janata Party, affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, and allied to other constituents of the Sangh’s network of organizations like the Viswa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, campaigned for the destruction of a four and a half century old mosque on the spurious claim that it had been built by destroying a temple on the exact spot where Rama, a mythic hero, had been born. This campaign was the centerpiece of their struggle for power. Flouting court orders and constitutional obligations, on 6th December 1992 they did gather a massive mob, and with a provincial government controlled by them, they had no difficulty in destroying the mosque. This campaign moved the BJP, a party that in 1984 had a handful of members in the Indian parliament, to the centre stage, and riding its Hindutva wave, by the second half of the 1990s it was in power as part of a rigthtwing coalition.
In 2002, some unidentified people set fire to a coach in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, Gujarat province. A number of kar sevaks, or Hindutva volunteers to build the Rama temple at Ayodhya, were killed in the fire. Within 24 hours, a systematic pogrom broke out. Using voter lists and sales tax records, houses and shops of Muslims were attacked. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were issued, showing weeks of advance planning. A report of how Hindu women had been dragged into a Madarsa (Muslim educational institution) and raped before being killed was reported (the Press council of India later reported that it was a false news). Using these techniques, over 2000 Muslims were killed and tens of thousands forced into camps for months. A very larger number of Muslim women were gang raped.
There was a great similarity between Nazi racism and this communal politics. When one enraged Jewish youth shot and killed a Nazi in France, Hitler and Goebbels unleashed the krsytallnacht. The same logic was used by the Hindutva brigades. Every Indian Muslim was held responsible for the crimes committed at Godhra, supposedly by some Muslims. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, an RSS man, declared that the pogroms were merely Newton’s third Law.

Communal politics relies above all on a historical narrative to gain legitimacy in the public domain. So the struggle over history is one of the vital struggles in present day India and the battle for secularism and democracy. It is significant that whenever the RSS and its affiliates have been close to power in any province, or the county as a whole, radical and secular historians have been among their principal ideological targets. While India has a good many very accomplished radical economists, sociologists or political scientists, they have never been so directly targeted. The RSs campaigns have indeed been international, as when Romila Thapar’s appointment in 2004 as the First holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South by the library of Congress was met by a ferocious campaign, including an online petition to bloc her and large volumes of hate mail.

So we need to trace the history of communal historiography in some detail. British colonial rulers were the first in the field, and they operated in a number of ways. There were two currents of British writings about India – the Anglicists or the Utilitarians, and the Orientalists. James Mill, the Utilitarian, attempted to justify British rule by presenting the early period of Indian history as rude and barbarous. He denied that ancient India had produced anything of lasting social or cultural value. For example, he denied that Aryabhata had produced significant mathematics, denied that zero and the positional numbering system came from Indian mathematics. He wrote that the Hindu, like the Eunuch, excels in the quality of the slave. And he proceeded to divide Indian history into three periods – the Hindu period, the Muslim period and the British period. The other school, the Orientalists, presented a romanticized picture of a great Indian past, ruined by racial intermixing between Aryan Hindus and Semitic Muslims. Colonial administrators, such as Sir Henry Elliott, wanted to respond to the rising demands for civil liberties by producing histories that showed how blood-stained was Muslim rule in india, so that the Hindus would accept British rule as good. Elliott made his purpose explicit in his introduction to the book The History of India as Told By its Own Historians. He selected those narratives that would create an image of a murderous Islamic horde, an image that also suited the viewpoint of 19th century Christian conquerors, steeped since the Crusades in an anti-Islamic standpoint. Other British administrators followed similar lines, fixing these voices from the past that showed Hindus and Muslims as antagonists, particularly after the revolt of 1857, in which Hindus and Muslims did unite to try and overthrown British rule.
Emergent Indian nationalism had different possible strategies. But I am going to describe only one – the one that would eventually give rise to Hindutva.
The British ridicuked the Hindus as cowardly, effeminate,and so on. Indira Chowdhury and others have described the nationalist responses to these. Here, I just want to say that one response was to turn to the past and find freedom fighter ancestors. Naturally, this meant finding Hindus who had fought Muslims (there had been no British to fight, before the mid 18th century). Moreover, many of the early writers were Bengalis, so when they identified Rajput kings or Marathas, relion based identity alone could provide a link between the author and the “national’ hero. Hindus thus began to be seen as the original nation and the others as interlopers. While I cannot discuss the individuals in detail, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda, and Aurobindo Ghosh were three crucial figures. A more aggressive Hindu identity was built up by Swami Dayanand and his Arya Samaj, stressing the Vedas as the source of Indian ethos, campaigning for a ban on cow slaughter (the occasions for many a communal riot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
While Indian nationalism was not systematically communal – it looked at the British as the opponents, not the Muslims – it did have a Hindu tinge, till Nehru and diverse socialists and communists arrived, much later, on the scene. As a result, Muslim modernization also followed a similar path and produced a Muslim tinge in nationalism, which would eventually give rise to aggressive Muslim communalism.
It was an aggressive Hindu communalism that emerged first, though. In the 20th century, two important organizations were founded – the Hindu Mahasabha by V. D. Savarkar, and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh by K. B. Hegdewar. Both were organizations following a fuhrerprinzip, both had fascist links in the 1930s, and both developed a communalist view of history very similar to Nazi racism. This ideology was very distinct from an Indian nationalism with a Hindu tinge. It clearly saw the Muslims, rather than the British, as the enemies. The RSS, for example, was to tell its members to stay away from the anti-colonial struggles, including in 1942, when the massive Quit India movement was launched. As for Savarkar, an approver identified him as having been a co-conspirator with Nathuram Godse for the Gandhi assassination a few months after independence. Godse was convicted and hanged, but Savarkar got off, because by the Evidence Act, the word of one approver was not enough to convict him.
The sharp anti-communal backlash after a Hindu communalist had assassinated Gandhi checked the aspirations of the Hindu communal forces for several decades. But a “soft Hindu” viewpoint continued, drawing in inputs from aggressive Hindu communalism, both its openly political spokespersons like Savarkar and Golwalkar (Hedgewar’s successor as the chief of the RSS), and the foremost communalist historian of the age, R. C. Majumdar.
Savarkar’s Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, along with his earlier works Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, and Hindu Rashtra Darshan laid down certain basic paramenters, summing up ideas he had been developing over half a century.
· Vedic Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. They were the Hindus. They had created Indian culture and civilization, and had inspired other civilizations.
· The definition of Hindu was not religion as much as nation (Savarkar was a self-proclaimed atheist), but only those who had their punyabhumi (Holy Land), as well as pitribhumi (Fatherland), in India, were true members of the nation.
· Muslims were portrayed as the eternal Other of the Indian nation, their permanent enemies, seeking always to harm them.
· The Muslims aimed to reduce the Hindu population by all means, including murders, abduction of Hindu women on a large scale, and forced conversion.
M.S. Golwalkar followed the same line of arguments. In his 1939 book We, or Our Nationhood Defined, he extolled the Nazis, particularly the Krystallnacht, and suggersted that Hindus should follow the Nazis. Savarkar also advocated retributional rape of Muslim women.
While the more extreme positions remained the property of the then small current, a dilute version was widely propagated. A number of conservative historians played a role in this. A. S. Altekar, for example, argued that women had a very high status in ancient India, and it was Islamic invasion and the designs of Muslims on Hindu women that led to their domestic confinement and lack of equality. But it was R. C, Majumdar who rendered heroic services to Hindutva. An indefatigable worker, he edited and also wrote the bulk of the eleven volumes History and Culture of the Indian People, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with ample government subsidy. This gave the book a stamp of authority, making it the standard general reference for Indian history for two decades or more. Majumdar put into the academic domain many of the key arguments of Hindu communalism. The fantastic claim that Indo-Europeans originated in India and went out from here to civilize the world, now so much in fashion among academic circles close to the VHP, found its articulation in serious literature in vol.I, of the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan series. Majumdar also legitimized communal identities in the academic sphere, by talking about Muslim rulers, instead of Turks, Afghans, and Mughals. For the colonial period, he rejected the view that the revolt of 1857 constituted a freedom struggle, claiming that real freedom struggles began in 1905 with the anti-Bengal partition movement (which was led by Calcutta based Hindu upper caste leaders, and in course of which they alienated Muslims). For Majumdar, only the Muslims were communalists. Yet the two-nation theory is present, implicitly, through his volumes.
How successful Majumdar was is something that came home to me about a decade back. After the BJP dominated national Democratic Alliance had come to power, they launcherd a very sharp attack on secular history and historians, reconstituting the Indian Council for Historical Research, trying to take out a series of school text books written by Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra and others and replacing them by shoddy, communal books. At that time, while fighting this agenda, my wife and I, both professional historians, decided to examine text books from West Bengal, where the Marxist left has been strong both intellectually and in politics (a CPIM led government has been in power since 1977), to bring out a contrast between secular and communal writings. What we found was that while secular scholars, whether nationalists or Marxists, might have done a lot of research, text books still toed a communal line. Out of about a dozen school and a dozen college level text books written in Bengali, we found the majority writing only about Muslim communalism and not about Hindu communalism in talking about the colonial era. We found comments such as “Muslim rule in its early centuries was established by sword and by blood” liberally sprinkled. Of course, rulers have often been conquerors. But did medieval India have Muslim rule? Were all or most Muslims part of the ruling elite? Was the ruling elite fully Muslim? Did Hindu rulers not establish their rule by the sword? This image, then, was intended to create a picture of Muslims, collectively, as fanatically violent, whereas others were not so. For example, the same text books did not use the same kind of language to describe the British conquest of India, the extremely brutal mass killings after the Santal Rebellion or the Revolt of 1857.
In fact, the text books were marching hand in hand with the courses taught. A study of about 15 years of question papers on the colonial rule and the freedom movement, for undergraduate students of Calcutta University, West Bengal’s biggest University, showed that practically every alternate year, there is a question on either “Muslim Politics”, usually from 1906 (formation of the Muslim league) to 1940 (the year of the Lahore Resolution) or on whether Sir Syed Ahmed was the father of the two nation theory. No question has ever been set on Hindu communalism.
In other words, even many professed leftists, people who vote for the left parties in election times and are active in leftist teachers’ associations, do not think there is anything wrong in absorbing a dose of Majumdar.
The Hindutva agenda therefore has the great advantage of being present as part of the national common sense in a diluted form. However, having said this, I would also argue, that just as Nazism was not simply one more version of pre-existing racism and anti-Semitism, so present day Hindutva and its intense hate propaganda against Muslims cannot be reduced to communal elements in other types of history writing. So let me take up in a little more detail a few of the major concerns of the Hindutva forcers.
I. India was the original homeland of the Aryans. The Aryans were Hindus, and they spread out from India to educate and enlighten the world. This leads to a narrative structure that involves a whole series of denials and rewritings. It has to deal with the urban Indus Valley civilization (now mostly in Pakistan). So the Vedas are pushed back from about 1500-1000 BCE to 5000 BCE. The so-called Sarasvati civilization, supposedly located in Rajasthan and Haryana, is claimed to be older than the Indus Valley civilization. Also, by making the Aryans the sole original inhabitants, Dravidian culture of South India is erased, and the adivasis of much of western, central and eastern India are just wiped out.
II. Since the Rama Janambhumi movement was the core of the Hindutva mobilizations, it means that the Ramayana or the story of Rama is turned from a myth into history. While numerous variants of the Rama katha exist in reality, only one version is privileged and turned into authentic history that cannot be challenged. While Gutpa kings of the fourth asnd fifth centuries CE renamed Saketa as Ayodhyas because they were creating a Hindusim, in opposition to Buddhism, and patronizing Brahmanical domination, this Ayodhya is now claimed as the real birthplace of Rama. It is claimed that a Rama temple was first built there by Maharaj Kush (son of Rama) and another one built by the Gupta rulers. It is further claimed that Babar’s general Baqi Khan destroyed that temple to build a mosque over it, so that the war cry of the mobilizations was “mandir wahan i banayenge’ (we will build the temple just there). In RSS run schools, the Vidya Bharatis, booklets are given to students to learn by heart. History is taught, not critically, but as something to be remembered as true, without reference to sources. Some of the questions and answers are like this:
Q. Who was the first foreign invader who destroyed Sri Ram temple? A. Menander of Greece (150 B.C.)
Q. Who got the present Rama Temple built? A. Maharaja Chandragupta Vikramaditya (A.D. 380–413).
Q. Which Muslim plunderer invaded the temples in Ayodhya in A.D. 1033? A. Mahmud Ghaznavi’s nephew Salar Masud.
Q. Which Mughal invader destroyed the Rama Temple in A.D. 1528? A. Babur.
Q. Why is Babri Masjid not a mosque? A. Because Muslims have never till today offered Namaz there.
Q. How many devotees of Rama laid down their life to liberate Rama temple from A.D. 1528 to A.D. 1914? A. Three lakh fifty thousand.
Q. How many times did the foreigners invade Shri Ramajanma-bhumi? A. Seventy–seven times.
Q. “Which day was decided by Sri Ram Kar Sewa Samiti to start Kar Sewa? A. 30 October, 1990.
Q. Why will 2 November 1990 be inscribed in black letters in the history of India? A. Because on that day, the then Chief Minister by ordering the Police to shoot unarmed Kar Sewaks massacred hundreds of them.
Q. When was the Shilanyas of the temple laid in Sri Ram Janmbhumi? A. 1 November 1989.
Q. What was the number of the struggle for the liberation of Ram Janmabhumi which was launched on 30 October 1990? A. 78th struggle.
III. The aim of all Muslim rulers in India was to finish off the Hindus. A Belgian named Koenraad Elst in his book Negationism in India claims that every new invader made literally hills of Hindu skulls. In Afghanistan the entire Hindu population was slaughtered. The Bahamani sultans in the Deccan made it a rule to kill 100,000 Hindus in a year. Elst’s source is K. S. Lal’s Growth of Muslim Population in India. Lal, without providing any statistical evidence, comers to the conclusion that between 1000 and 1525, the Hindu population decreased by 80 million, making it the biggest genocide in history. Not surprisingly, when the RSS tried to set up an alternative academic association, in opposition to the staunchly secular Indian History Congress, Lal was chosen as one of its patrons. Interestingly, Lal’s writings, as well as the entire RSS arguments about how Muslims are bent on killing non-Muslims, got a new life after Western politicians and scholars started talking about Jihad as a permanent feature of Islamic politics, and so on. However, here, as in the Ram Janambhumi case, contemporary issues are linked to the assessment of the past. Since the early 20th century, there has been a recurrent theme often called “the dying Hindu”. Hindu population is supposedly declining, and Muslims are supposed to be overtaking the Hindus rapidly. In 1980, the Viswa Hindu Parishad launched an aggressive campaign about how by 2000 the Muslims, permitted polygamy, were going to overtake the Hindus, who were monogamous. A little digression at this point will be necessary. Hindu polygamy was not illegalized till the 1950s. But the claim that Muslims are going to overtake the Hindus has been in existence since the early 20th century. A second point to note is that when Hindu polygamy was banned, Hindutva forces in parliament and outside it campaigned shrilly against it. They had two arguments. One was that parliament did not have the right to change Hindu laws, only Hindu pundits and holy men could do it. The other argument, made in parliament, no less, was that banning polygamy would lead to an increased in prostitution.
IV. In the same way, Hindutva forces attempt a wholesale rewriting of the freedom struggle. For Savarkar, the entire period from the Arab conquest of Sindh, or at least from the Turkish conquest of North India, was a period of freedom struggle. One of the most important stumbling blocks to such a picture is of course the Mughal era. The Mughals built a stable empire, because they were able to create a composite ruling class. Rajputs, Marathas, and other Hindus formed part of the Mughal elite, and sometimes crack Mughal generals, not only under Akbar, but even under the much reviled Aurangzeb. This has been ably demonstrated by many scholars, notably Athar ali in his The Mughal Nobility Under Aurangzeb and The Apparatus of Empire.
V. Another aspect of the Hindutva use of history as a central weapon to spread poison is the claim that destroying temples was an essential aspect of Muslim rulership. I want to look at the cases of two temples that really were destroyed, in part or in full, by two different rulers. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, who raided India rather than trying to conquer any part of the country, was supposed to have attacked the Somnatha temple many times because of his fanatical Islamic outlook. A college text book in Maharashtra, examined by Communalism Combat magazine, took the opportunity of writing about Mahmud and Somnatha to attack Islam generally. Here, secular historians have taken two approaches, both valid, but taking up different dimensions. The great historian, Muhammad Habib, in his book on Mahmud, was critical of Mahmud. But Habib pointed out that there was a clear possibility that what attracted Mahmud to Somnatha was its wealth, rather than religion. A very different line of study was followed by Romila Thapar. In her book on the Somnatha temple, she showed that there had been a variety of narratives, those of the conquerors, local products, and so on. The event was perceived and represented in a number of ways. Thapar’s object was not to find out the “real” motive of Mahmud. Rather, she sought to understand how his raids entered historical imagination. What are often considered facts about the raid, argued Thapar, are in fact the products of a long process of historical fashioning and encoding of memories. From among various versions, the colonial rulers se,lected and fixed the narrative of Muhammad Ibrahim Ferishta, because this account underlined the violence and fanaticism of Muslims. Canonised bythe writings of Alexander Dow, this colonial story of Somnatha entered the nationalist as well as communalist writings.
VI. The other temple is the Keshav Rai temple of Mathura, destroyed by Aurangzeb. Once again, there are different ways of looking at this. Historians like Satish Chandra have pointed out that Aurangzeb attacked the temple because it was part of a Jat rebellion. The nationalist historian B. N. Pande had a different approach. He collected a substantial number of firmans (imperial decrees) of Aurangzeb to argue that in a large number of cases, Aurangzeb had granted tax-free land to Hindu and Jain temples and Sikh Gurdwaras so that they could be maintained.This does not deny the destruction of a particular temple, but indicates that the course of history was rather more complicated than communalists would like.
As my discussions suggest, secular responses to communal history have varied. Many secular historians have found reason to celebrate the emperor Akbar. He sought to marginalize the orthodox elements (as did Alauddin Khalji and Muhammad Tughluq during the Sultanat). More than that, he built up, as I said, a composite ruling class. He undercut the powers of the theologians, and put forward a concept, sulh-i-kul, which saw different religions as paths to the same God, and emphasized the need for the state to be impartial. Communal historiography has responded by arguing that Akbar was at best an exception, and temple destructions and bigotry began returning from the time of his son Jahangir, culminating in Aurangzeb’s systematic anti-Hindu policy. Secular strategy here has been to deny this, using a variety of facts, and even to show that Aurangzeb’s anti-Hindu policy was dictated more by political necessity than religious fanaticism, and was restricted to a small phase of his half century long reign. Iqtidar Alam Khan has argued that the main trend in medieval Indian statecraft under the Mughals was a tendency to secularism, without which modern Indian notions of secularism cannot be understood. Another secular scholar, Neeladri Bhattacharya, has seen in this a secular teleology that is inadequate. Bhattacharya correctly points out that the sources from the past speak with many voices, and we cannot arbitrarily decider that one is right and the others wrong. The capture of the Maratha king Sambhaji was followed by a debate over what to do with him. Eventually Aurangzeb decided to have him executed. Satish Chandra cites the contemporary author Khafi Khan to argue that it was a political decision, and Aurangzeb referred the matter to theologians just to get a religious gloss over it. Bhattacharya argues that Chandra’s decision to accept Khafi Khan’s version, and to treat the consultation of the theologians as in some way inauthentic, shows how facts are emplotted within structures of narratives, how conflicting evidence is negotiated, how causal connections are made through narrative strategies, and how the narrative truth emerges in the process. I do not wish to debunk Chandra. But the existence of conflicting voices suggest that we cannot always reconcile them into a simple and coherent narrative. Confronted with communal stereotypes, and aware of the urgency of countering them, secular historians have too often framed their arguments within problematic binaries. Muzaffar Alam’s The Languages of Political Islam in India, c. 1200-1800, in fact shows us that there was not a single narrative of assimilation overcoming all hurdles, but a diversity of voices, ranging from assimilation to orthodoxy.
The more recent works, whether Thapar on Somnatha or Alam on political Islam, are extremely important. Secular histories have always been intimately connected to the politics of the public sphere. Over the last quarter of a century, a very different type of communal historiography has emerged – not published in peer reviewed journals or as books by formidable publishing houses with well known academic credibility, but in popular magazines, in tracts put out by local groups or by ‘social and cultural organisations’ that are fronts for the RSS, or by publishing houses that do not care for academic norms even when claiming to publish scholarly books. Tracts like Rama Janambhumi ka Rakta Ranjit Itihas by Ram Gopal Pandey, or Pratap Narain Misra’s Kya Kahati Hai Saratyu Dhara? Claim to be based on authentic history. The latter pamphlet does not have the author speak. It is the river Saraytu that is bearing witness. Obviously, these do not conform to our historical methods. Equally obviously to a secular historian living in India, these carried much more weight than the secular books, articles and pamphlets we turned out by the hundreds back in 1987-92. The point is not that these are palpably wrong. It is not difficult to prove that to any serious academic audience. The point is that people, and not merely illiterates or semi-literates, believed in these, at times even while they accepted many claims of academic historians. Certainly, we need to challenge communal ‘facts’, as these ‘facts’ often make up the constitutive ingredients of a narrative, so that debunking false facts, such as the date of composition of the Vedas or the claim that the Aryans originated in India, can puncture the whole narrative of Hindus being the original inhabitants of India and therefore being alone fit to be considered the Indian nation.
But challenging communal history has to go beyond challenging the authenticity of communal facts. The communal tracts produce a social imagination of a very different kind. It is necessary to comprehend the premises of popular understanding, to ask why even now, after nearly half a century of high quality secular historiography, it is R.C. Majumdar and even Savarkar and Golwalkar who should influence the common sense of popular and school and undergraduate history? We have to see how specific conceptions come to be accepted as true, look at the production of the stories and the politics of that production. But we also have to look at how the popular and the academic interact. Historians may not have to provide “correct solutions” for the present, but political practices of the present cannot be easily delinked from the questions of memory and history. Reconstitution of identities is premised on reconstitution of the past. If we think that communal politics of the RSS type is leading India to increasing sectarian violence and an authoritarian state, regardless of whether we agree with the “fascist” label, we have to understand the centrality of history for this political project. And we have to contest it by, among other things, putting forward secular history in ways not restricted to academic terms.