India falls into turmoil

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A series of political and economic crises, plus the effects of Covid-19, have opened huge opportunities for socialists to rebuild their strength. Barry Pavier asks if they will seize them.

India ended 2020 in political turmoil. On 26 November around 250 million people were on general strike against three pro-employer labour laws. Immediately after this the capital Delhi was surrounded by tens of thousands of farmers protesting against another three pro-corporate agricultural ‘reform’ laws.

The year began with the Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of prime minister Narendra Modi being put under immense pressure from mass protests against a new anti-Muslim law, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

In the interim, the Covid-19 pandemic happened. By mid-December almost 10 million cases were confirmed and 140,000 people had died from the virus.

After a lockdown on 24 March — announced with only 12 hours’ notice — an estimated 121 million people lost their jobs in April alone. Among this number were around 91 million migrant day labourers, many of whom had to walk hundreds of miles home. Three out of four of these had no work at all during the ineffective lockdown, which was lifted during May and June, with no relief from the pandemic, according to surveys.

In November other research indicated the number of long-term job losses may have been as high as 58 million, 21 million of these in salaried employment (25% of that sector). Farmers also suffered, with two-fifths reporting being unable to reap or sow harvest on time.

Yet just a year earlier, in November 2019, Modi seemed to be at the crest of a wave. A stunning general election victory in May had given his BJP an overall majority for the first time. In August 2019 Modi achieved a major objective by ending the special constitutional status of Kashmir — the only Muslim majority state in India — and by dividing it into two lower-status union territories. Despite widespread protests, he seemed to have got away with it.

The BJP introduced the CAA in November of that year. This legislation gave fast-track citizenship to Hindu and Sikh refugees from neighbouring states. Muslim refugees were specifically excluded. The BJP thought it would easily follow its Kashmir success, further marginalising Muslims.

Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — the BJP’s ally in the eastern state of Assam — was utterly opposed to the CAA. The AGP’s whole reason for existence is to prevent any Bengalis, Hindu or Muslim, to migrate into Assam. It immediately launched mass protests against the legislation.

These opened the way for much more progressive and anti-sectarian mass protests across India, especially in Delhi, with the main focus being a permanent, peaceful sit-down protest at the Shaheen Bagh (a major traffic junction) led by Muslim women from 19 December 2019 until lockdown began on 24 March 2020.

The BJP reacted violently, using both the police and its own militias. The worst attacks were on 23-25 February after a

provocative speech by Kapil Mishra, a BJP member of the Delhi Assembly. Gangs attacked Muslim homes, businesses and mosques, leaving 53 people dead (two-thirds of whom were Muslim).

The Delhi police are under the direct control of Amit Shah, the national home minister (Modi’s right-hand man). They took no serious control measures around the city until 26 February, with reports of some officers cooperating with the anti-Muslim gangs. The police arrested 2,200 people afterwards, most of whom were Muslim.

Modi used the lockdown and suspension of parliamentary sittings to introduce a series of so-called reforms. The most important ‘labour’ law extended the notice period for strikes from 14 to 60 days, raised the threshold for registering redundancies from 100 to 300 workers and made union recognition much more difficult.

Many BJP state governments also suspended other labour laws, increasing the working day from 8 to 12 hours and the working week from 48 to 72 hours.

The BJP took advantage of the lockdown hiatus to launch conspiracy cases against civil rights activists, especially those involved in anti-CAA protests. These cases feature two longstanding BJP obsessions. The first is the imagined threat from an anti-Hindu Islamic plot. The second is the fictional threat of “urban Naxalites”.

This narrative concocts a set of pro-terrorist networks linked to the Communist Party (Maoist)-led resistance by tribal peoples against corporate mining destruction of forest areas in east India. Dozens of activists have been caught up in these sweeps.

This repression has been largely ignored by most left-wing parties and trade unions in India and elsewhere.

Another Islamophobic attack has been spearheaded by two important BJP state governments, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh.

They have introduced laws relating to a favourite BJP anti-Muslim conspiracy theory: the “love jihad” which claims Muslim men are seducing Hindu women into marriage and then inducing them to convert to Islam.

In UP the law enables police to increase harassment of the families of Muslim men who have married Hindu women, and their families.

In September the UP police were complicit in yet another case of caste and misogynistic oppression. A teenage Dalit (‘untouchable’) girl was raped by four men from the dominant Hindu caste in her village, Hathras. She died in hospital two weeks later, having named her attackers in a statement.

But police produced an autopsy report claiming no rape had occurred and cremated the teenage girl’s body in the middle of the night against her family’s wishes. The UP government then began a campaign claiming the rape allegation was merely a subversive plot to create caste tension.

The BJP also faces a major risk in forcing a confrontation with organised farmers over three agricultural measures. Two of these make contract farming much more attractive to agribusinesses and enable them to vastly increase their stocks of commodities. The third and most important allows agribusiness to bypass established wholesale markets and intermediaries and deal directly with farmers.

The farmers see this as an attempt to overturn the ‘minimum support price’ paid for agricultural products, which stabilises incomes both in years of crop failure and bumper harvests.

Despite the dominant section of protestors being conservative and small-capitalist farmers in the Punjab, Haryana and UP states, they recognise the system only works if the state is the main purchaser. These changes would reproduce the situation in Bihar state where, after similar changes in 2006, farmer income collapsed by 50%.

The two biggest agribusinesses are the Ambani and Adani groups, both massive corporations. The farmers’ organisations have called for boycotts of these two companies’ products. This puts the farmers in direct conflict with the leaders of Indian capitalism, and most of their media, who claim the measures are necessary in order to modernise India to be able to compete with China.

Many of these farmers were allies, or sympathisers, of the BJP. Indeed, the party’s parent organisation, the mass membership paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has the classic fascist profile of a petit-bourgeois and small-capitalist membership. On the face of it, this would be a natural home for small farmers. Strangely, the problem is Modi.

Although a lifelong RSS functionary, Modi has always been an outlier. Since becoming chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002 he has sought a strategic alliance with corporate capital. This is why, despite his electoral success in Gujarat, the RSS hierarchy went to extraordinary lengths to stop him being their prime ministerial candidate in the lead-up to the 2014 election. But they ran out of alternatives and had to let Modi stand.

Despite his electoral and political successes, the farmers’ dispute shows why Modi is still regarded with suspicion by the RSS hierarchy. His strategy for promoting Indian capitalism as a global power necessitates taking on many of the people who historically have been part of the RSS support base.

Strategically, this means a big opportunity for the left. There is incredible social and economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 public health disaster and the BJP’s failure to get a grip on the economic and social consequences.

There is a real chance for the left to win over significant sections of unorganised workers and the petit bourgeois away from their conservative leaderships and away from the entire politics of the Hindu chauvinist right. These challenges are thrown into sharp relief by the past year.

The Indian left is huge, energetic, frequently well rooted at local levels, incredibly brave but hopelessly fragmented. The general strike highlighted this. It was called by eight party-affiliated trade union federations of the social democratic and radical left, plus unaffiliated local or enterprise-based unions. Their seven demands, including calling for important relief measures, the abandonment of the ‘reform laws’ and privatisation of public assets, do not translate to an alternative to the BJP regime.

Not only do the demands ignore Islamophobia, caste and women’s oppression, they also omit the threat of climate change and environmental degradation caused by corporate mining. In 2019 the Indian Space Research Organisation estimated that 25 percent of India is undergoing desertification — a profound threat to all farmers.

These public health, economic, sectarian and climatic crises are all reflected in the strategy of the BJP regime and the interests of Indian capitalism. The fighting strength of workers and farmers has the ability to defeat them if they can unite around a comprehensive response that addresses all of the issues.