India rising

In an India characterised by deep social cleavages and the forward march of globalisation, social struggles have taken many forms, writes Ashok Kumar

August 27, 2013
7 min read

india-protestA mobilisation by Ekta Parishad, a land rights movement originating in Madhya Pradesh

The maxim that India is ‘a land of contrasts’ has become increasingly evident as the global economic slowdown snakes its way through Asia. It’s 20 years since global capital travelled over the Hindu Kush, entering India and overtaking labour, the state and the commons like a conquering horde. And it is not just the already-rich who have benefited from economic liberalisation – many more no longer live in abject poverty as a result of the growing economy. But far from all have seen improvements and class divisions, intensified by the still-present caste system, have deepened.

Yet, the dominant narrative of modern India played out in the daily news obscures these growing inequalities, opting instead for Manichaean melodramas more befitting of a Bollywood plot — a conflict between a villainous, corrupt state and the bold capitalist saviours. This pantomime is occasionally punctuated with chatter of ‘terror plots’, or ‘trade union disturbances’ and ‘the Maoist menace’ as the background music, like crickets in the wilderness.

But there is another story of India, one that is welling up from below. For instance, on 28 February 2012, organised labour mobilised the largest one-day strike in history – 100 million workers from every union federation – only to be surpassed in February this year by the largest two-day strike in history. The strikes were a direct challenge to the core neoliberal reforms of the 1990s: against flexible labour contracts, against contracted employees and for a liveable income. Importantly, these movements constitute a break from the once powerful Indian communist parties, which, through electoral defeats and institutionalisation, have diminished in relevance to the working classes.

Class chasm

In the sprawling metropolises the class divide is unavoidable, bursting from every corner. New malls are paved where militant workers once toiled in textile mills; modern apartment buildings tower over slums whose dwellers eke out an existence on less and less land; glossy billboards hang over polluted dusty streets next to beggars and street urchins. The cities now belong to what Gandhi called ‘the monster-god of materialism’. Even the much-touted ‘burgeoning middle-class’ is not wholly included in this new materialism, even though it is defined far less restrictedly in India than in Britain, as a city-dweller with a solid roof over their head.

The urban middle class of India has generated high-profile movements in recent years. The anti-corruption movement represented by Anna Hazare was called a watershed moment for India. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and it is clear that it fitted quite snugly into the logic of capital accumulation. It opened up a space for private capital to continue to pilfer from the public trough, to dispossess, to depress wages, to put blame squarely on a corrupt state. It was an escape-hatch for the creamiest corporate layers of Indian society to go on profiting –the legal form of corruption – that not only reinforced and fuelled state corruption but dwarfed it in both scale and size.

Similarly, the anti-rape movements led by the youth in the universities were inspirational but also exposed the class chasm. The violent rape and subsequent murder of a well-off woman by poor migrant workers that provoked the protests was particularly horrific, but took place in the context of thousands of reported rapes in Delhi alone. Rapes by the rich against the poor, the powerful against the powerless, the high caste against the low caste, the military against ‘insurgents’, received no such attention.

A common saying in India is that you can go to a city and get the best medical treatment in the world, but go an hour outside the city and you’ll be lucky to find an aspirin. The struggles of those outside the bustling urban centres are of a forgotten India. Yet protests here, as elsewhere in India, happen on a colossal scale. Gandhian socialist organisations of landless peasants and small farmers include the Karnataka Raitha Rangha Sangha (KRRS). One of the largest such groups, founded in 1980 in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, it uses militant nonviolent tactics and broad-based organisational methods.

The KRRS is in the frontline of resistance to the ‘green revolution’ that saw a shift towards high-yield farming practices and the proliferation of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. At its height in the late 1990s, the organisation had 10 million members in a state of 60 million people and led a campaign called Operation Cremate Monsanto against the biotechnology giant. Though the KRRS has weakened in recent years both in numbers and political power, it remains a powerful force and some GM crops remain restricted in India.

Maoist resurgence

Meanwhile, the corporate and military encroachment of land in recent years has led to the resurgence of the Naxalites, a Maoist-influenced fusion of different armed struggles. The army makes almost daily announcements of more insurgents killed, with 2,000-plus deaths a year in the past decade. The overwhelming majority of these deaths are of villagers who may be sympathetic to the Naxalites, their bloated and visibly tortured bodies dumped near their villages by the military as a warning to others.

Support for the Naxalites should not be underestimated. Numbering maybe 120,000, they are active in a ‘red corridor’ that bifurcates India from the top of West Bengal in the north east to Kerala in the south west. Some reports claim that they control up to a third of India’s territory at a given time. These areas are the poorest, most neglected areas, with the most oppressed communities atop the richest mineral lands in the country.

This is where the nexus between corporate India and the state becomes clear. It is the land that capital covets. The mining industry giants Tata and Essar Steel went as far as to create their own armed militia, known as the Salwa Judum or ‘Purification Hunt’, in the state of Chhattisgarh in 2006. The counter-insurgency militia went settlement-by-settlement, killing, raping and burning 644 villages, internally displacing more than 150,000 people. The purpose was clear: the land had prime resources to be exploited. It was not until 2011 that the Supreme Court finally disbanded the Salwa Judum, declaring it illegal and unconstitutional.

‘Disturbed areas’

Due north and east of where the Naxalites first began their struggle are the states of Manipur, Assam, and Nagaland, where a different militant separatist movement has been brutally suppressed by the Indian state. Born out of geographic, cultural, and economic marginalisation in the early days of independence, the conflict was exacerbated by the introduction of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958.

This applies to specially designated ‘disturbed areas’ such as the northeast and Kashmir, giving the military the right to shoot and kill anyone without fear of prosecution and arrest without warrant. The Act has led to a military occupation of the northeast, in which systematic state torture, murder and rape are part of people’s everyday experiences. Most notably, the Act has received wide attention because of the 12-year hunger strike by Manipur activist ‘Iron Sharmila’, who has been detained and forcibly fed through a tube by the Indian state throughout.

In the northwest there is a higher profile insurgency. The struggle for Kashmiri self-determination can trace its roots to 1947, to independence, a Kashmiri people and nation torn into three parts and gobbled up by Pakistan, India and to a lesser extent China. The right of a people to decide its own destiny was sidelined to placate competing newly independent states. The year 1989 marked the beginning of the armed struggle for independence against Indian colonial rule, which has claimed 70,000 lives, 10,000 disappearances, and another 100,000 tortured. Today, despite Indian Kashmir being the most densely militarised zone in the world, the struggle for Kashmiri self-determination continues.

All of these struggles remain largely atomised. As the euphoria of ‘India Shining’ is dampened, it remains to be seen whether any of them will find common ground to open up space for confluence and solidarity against the common enemies of capital and the state that bolsters it.


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