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Rohini Hensman

Platypus Review 32 | February 2011

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THE BLOODSHED IN KASHMIR beginning in June 2010 gave rise to a heated debate in India concerning the causes of and possible solutions to the conflict. A meeting on 21 October in Delhi organized by the pro-Maoist Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners was entitled “Azadi (Freedom)—the Only Way.” Interpreting “azadi” as shorthand for “the right to self-determination,” the keynote speakers—writer-activist Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat—argued that the only solution to the dispute in Kashmir was freedom for Jammu and Kashmir from India.[1] Others at the conference, such as Varavara Rao, speaking for the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its sympathizers, concurred. But Kashmiri members of the Hindu Right invaded the conference, staging a protest and later bringing charges of sedition against the speakers. At around the same time, a parliamentary delegation was sent to Kashmir, followed by the appointment of three civil society “interlocutors” by the Indian government to speak to and obtain the opinions of all sections of the population in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

Is “Azadi” indeed the only way to resolve the dispute over Kashmir? It is imperative that socialists should have a clear position on this issue, challenging all the various contending nationalisms with politics that offer the most scope for a socialist movement to develop.

azadi-arundhati-geelani-300x205

Panelists at "Azadi (Freedom): The Only Way," including Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Geelani, held in Delhi in October, 2010.

Lenin and Luxemburg on the right to self-determination

The debate between Lenin and Luxemburg on the right to self-determination erupted in the first decade of the twentieth century, with Luxemburg questioning the inclusion of point #9 in the program of the Social Democratic Labor Party of Russia, which granted all nationalities the right of self-determination, including secession. While approving of point #7, which granted full legal equality to all citizens without distinction of sex, religion, race, or nationality, and point #8, which granted the various ethnic groups the right to schools conducted in their own languages at state expense and the right to use their languages at assemblies and in all state and public functions, she insisted that the attitude of socialists to nationality questions should depend on the concrete circumstances of each case, which would also change with time. She pointed out that all ancient civilizations were extremely mixed with respect to nationalities, and quoted Kautsky to the effect that the great Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim cultures were not national but international; therefore, stating that all “nationalities” had the right to form their own states was impractical. Most important, she pointed out that, “In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights’… There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner,” and in cases where the interests of the proletariat were directly opposed to those of the "nation" (for example, Jewish workers versus Zionist nationalists), the formula could result in imposing on workers the will of the ruling class.[2] However, she conceded that socialists were duty-bound to oppose all forms of oppression, including that of one nation by another.

In 1914, Lenin responded by claiming that, “Carried away by the struggle against nationalism in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg has forgotten the nationalism of the Great Russians, although it is this nationalism that is the most formidable at the present time. It is a nationalism that is more feudal than bourgeois, and is the principal obstacle to democracy and to the proletarian struggle.” He continued, “Whether the Ukraine, for example, is destined to form an independent state is a matter that will be determined by a thousand unpredictable factors. Without attempting idle ‘guesses,’ we firmly uphold something that is beyond doubt: the right of the Ukraine to form such a state.” Yet at the same time he conceded to Luxemburg that, “the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. For the bourgeoisie it is important to hamper this development by pushing the aims of its ‘own’ nation before those of the proletariat. That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation." [3] In other words, the proletariat recognizes the right of every nation to self-determination, but does not guarantee to support the exercise of that right in any particular case, especially if it happens to be at the expense of another nation. Surely Luxemburg’s formulation, that the attitude of socialists to nationality questions should depend on the concrete circumstances of each case, is clearer and more sensible!

Lenin’s confused (and confusing) formulation was made worse by his implicit acceptance of Stalin’s later monocultural definition of a “nation”: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” [4] Such a formulation suggests that socialists should support the right of any group with a common language, territory, economic life, and culture to secede and form a separate state. This is the confusion that led many socialists, including Trotskyists, to support the right of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to form a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, regardless of the fact that it led to massacres, the  ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Sinhalese, the murder of socialists, and tore apart workers who had successfully put up a united resistance to a predatory state in 1953. [5] It is also what prevented Indian Communists from mounting a principled campaign against Partition, as we shall see.

In Lenin’s more mature formulation of 1916, he linked the right of self-determination to the struggle for democracy and against colonialism and national oppression. He explained,

[J]ust as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy…. The proletariat of the oppressing nations… must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that “its own” nation oppresses…. The Socialists of the oppressed nations, on the other hand, must particularly fight for and maintain complete, absolute unity (also organizational) between the workers of the oppressed nation and the workers of the oppressing nation…. [And in the case of ] the semi-colonial countries, like China, Persia, Turkey, and all the colonies… the bourgeois-democratic movements have either hardly begun, or are far from having been completed. Socialists must not only demand the unconditional and immediate liberation of the colonies without compensation—and this demand in its political expression signifies nothing more nor less than the recognition of the right to self-determination—but must render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movements for national liberation in these countries and assist their rebellion—and if need be, their revolutionary war—against the imperialist powers that oppress them.[6]

Luxemburg did not realize the importance of supporting bourgeois-democratic revolutions in the colonies, but she did agree it was necessary to oppose the oppression of one nation by another. Lenin, initially preoccupied only with counteracting nationalism in oppressing countries, eventually took on board Luxemburg’s fear of the danger of supporting reactionary, anti-socialist, and anti-democratic forces in oppressed countries, and conceded that unity between workers of the oppressed and oppressor nations must be maintained.

Is this debate at all relevant today, in a largely decolonized world? There are still countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine where socialists must demand immediate and unconditional liberation, but even in these countries, support should be given only to the “more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois-democratic movement for national liberation.” As for secession from a bourgeois-democratic state, one might speculate that where a community is being persecuted in such a state, the preferred option for socialists would be to wage a united struggle against the political forces perpetrating that persecution, supported by socialists internationally; only where such a struggle is impossible might it be necessary to support the right to secede, and even then, support should be given only to a group that stands for democracy. Both Luxemburg and Lenin would have been aghast at the thought of socialists supporting the nationalism of a fascist group like the LTTE. Let us not forget that both were opposed to all forms of nationalism, which posit a false unity of interest between workers and capitalists, while inducing workers to kill and die fighting workers of other nations in the interests of their own ruling class. Nationalism that is linked to a particular ethnic, linguistic, or religious group is even more reactionary, because it destroys solidarity between workers within a country as well. Its forcible homogenization of those within the group and “othering” of those who are different make it a fertile breeding-ground for fascism.

The most important conclusion is that interpreting “the right to self-determination” as the right to form a separate nation-state, and then converting support for it into a timeless imperative, valid for all time and in all circumstances, is completely un-Marxist. At a certain point in history, around a hundred years ago, it was proclaimed—and challenged—as a way of combating nationalism among the workers of oppressor nations. The common ground shared by Lenin and Luxemburg, which socialists can still stand on today, comprises opposition to nationalism and oppression, and support for all those struggling for democracy and workers’ solidarity.

Independence and partition

The Kashmir issue cannot be adequately addressed without grappling with the Left’s own history, since at critical junctures key fractions of it more or less actively supported the demand for partition of British India into two states, India and Pakistan (later divided into Pakistan and Bangladesh), and it is from this that the question today derives. A detailed analysis of the causes of Partition is beyond the scope of this article, but some observations can be made. Initially, leaders of the dominant anti-imperialist organization, the Indian National Congress, allowed dual membership with the Hindu Mahasabha or Muslim League. Only in December 1938 did it reverse itself and characterize these organizations as “communal.”[7] Both the Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League believed that Hindus and Muslims constitute separate nations, and eventually both helped organize the bloodbath that preceded Partition. While Congress ideology was secular, it neither recognized the danger nor did enough to combat it. Indeed, Gandhi’s ambiguous attitude towards mixing religion and politics might have contributed to it. Using images like “Ram rajya” (the mythical golden age during the reign of the Hindu god/king Ram) to rouse the Hindu masses, and support for Khilafat (a movement led by reactionary clerics for restoration of the Sultan of Turkey as Caliph following Turkey’s defeat in World War I) to rouse Muslims, he might have reinforced the fascistic forces that still plague India and Pakistan to this day. Such politics conspired with the British attempts at encouraging communal divisions.

What about the Communist Party of India? It rejected the reactionary “two-nation” ideology, but got fatally confused by the “right to self-determination.” In the resolution passed by its Central Committee in September 1942, it declared that:

Every section of the Indian people which has a contiguous territory as its homeland, common historical tradition, common language, culture, psychological makeup and common economic life would be recognized as a distinct nationality with the right to exist as an autonomous state within the free Indian union or federation and will have the right to secede from it if it may so desire…. Thus, free India would be a federation or union of autonomous states of the various nationalities such as the Pathans, Western Punjabis (dominantly Muslims), Sikhs, Sindhis, Hindustanis, Rajasthanis, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Assamese, Biharis, Oriyas, Andhras, Tamils, Karnatakis, Maharashtrians, Malayalees, etc….

Such a declaration of rights in as much as it concedes to every nationality as defined above, and therefore, to nationalities having Muslim faith, the right of autonomous state existence and of secession, can form the basis for unity between the National Congress and the League. For this would give to the Muslims wherever they are in an overwhelming majority in a contiguous territory which is their homeland, the right to form their autonomous states and even to separate if they so desire. In the case of the Bengali Muslims of the Eastern and Northern districts of Bengal where they form an overwhelming majority, they may form themselves into an autonomous region in the state of Bengal or may form a separate state. Such a declaration therefore concedes the just essence of the Pakistan demand and has nothing in common with the separatist theory of dividing India into two nations on the basis of religion.[8]

Thus a dogmatic application of Lenin’s confused formulation regarding the right to self-determination combined with Stalin’s definition of a nation led the CPI to praise the “just essence of the Pakistan demand” instead of resolutely opposing the formation of a nation on the basis of religion.

The Kashmir dispute

At Independence, there were hundreds of Princely States that were given the option of joining either India or Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir, which was contiguous with both, was one of them. Soon after the formal declaration of independence on August 14–15, 1947, tribesmen invaded and started looting and killing non-Muslims. Since the majority of its population was Muslim, it was expected to join Pakistan, but its Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed an instrument of accession to India. This allowed the Indian army to enter the state to chase out the invaders. In 1948, the UN called for an immediate ceasefire and a plebiscite under its own auspices to allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be part of India or Pakistan. The plebiscite never took place, at first because Pakistani forces did not withdraw, later—and repeatedly—because India refused to cooperate. So hostile military forces of the two countries remained facing each other across the Line of Control [LoC], and the state of Jammu and Kashmir has remained occupied and divided, with blatant violations of the democratic rights of its people by both occupying powers. From the late 1980s, the security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir have had a shameful record of rape, torture, and murder. The impunity imparted by laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act and the Disturbed Areas Act has encouraged such criminality by making it all but impossible to prosecute security force personnel who commit these crimes, while the high density of these forces on the ground also increases the likelihood of human rights violations.

hindustan-times-Oct-28-1947-300x153

The front page of the Hindustan Times from 28 October, 1947.

One response by Kashmiris has been to fight for a separate state, independent from both India and Pakistan; for example, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front was formed in 1977, with the agenda of creating a secular, democratic, federal, independent state of Jammu and Kashmir.[9] But this movement in general, and the JKLF in particular, are badly divided, with allegations that its leaders are flirting with or even controlled by the intelligence agencies of Pakistan and India.[10]

Indian nationalists, most vociferously represented by the Sangh Parivar but also present among sections who claim to be more liberal, are undoubtedly a major part of the problem.[11] Their assertion that Kashmir is an integral part of India—as though India’s national boundaries are god-given and any questioning of them is blasphemy—serves to mask from view the horrific atrocities committed against Kashmiris by the Indian security forces. Their allegation of sedition against speakers at the Azadi meeting for questioning this dogma, and their hysterical outburst against the government-appointed interlocutors for suggesting that any solution to the problem requires the involvement of the government of Pakistan, make it clear that they are not open to argument.[12] Pretending that Kashmir is not disputed territory and simply breathing fire and brimstone at anyone who acknowledges the conflict is a manifest, if semi-conscious, strategy of those who seek to perpetuate that conflict.

The Pakistani nationalist stance mirrors the Indian nationalist one. Thus Kashmiri separatists of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir “were kept away from the process of elections by a stipulation of Act 74, which states: ‘No one can contest elections of any kind in AK without taking oath of allegiance to Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan’… Because of this clause nationalists of Azad Kashmir were kept away from the elections and Pakistan has built a strong pro Pakistan structure which aims to minimize the influence of nationalists in all walks of life.”[13] As in the case of the Indian nationalists, there appears to be little concern for the democratic rights of Kashmiris.

Kashmir and the Indian Left

The Left itself in India has no unified position on Kashmir. This became clear in the course of the debate that followed the meeting on “Azadi.” The keynote speaker invited to represent the Kashmiri people at this meeting was Syed Ali Shah Geelani, whose politics has all the elements of ethno-religious nationalism. As Yoginder Sikand points out in a recent article on Geelani's book, Kashmir: Nava-e Hurriyat, for Geelani "Muslims are a community/nation (qaum) wholly separate from the Hindus." Sikand continues,

[Geelani] equates India with Hindus, overlooking the fact that India’s Muslim population outnumbers that of Pakistan. He projects Muslims (as he does Hindus) as a monolithic, homogeneous community, defined by a singular interpretation of religion, and bereft of cultural, ethnic and other divisions. He depicts Muslims as radically different from Hindus, and as allegedly having nothing at all in common with them.[14]

This is an extreme right-wing ideology, which, as Geelani himself recognizes, shares the "two-nation" theory with Hindutva.

This reactionary authoritarianism is underlined by the activities of another member of this tendency, Asiya Andrabi, and her organization Dukhteran-e-Millat, members of which have thrown acid and paint in the faces of women to force them to wear the veil. Andrabi warned separatist leader Abdul Ghani Lone of dire consequences for asking foreign Islamist militants to stay out of Kashmir, and urged militants to take action against him.[15] When Lone was murdered by Pakistan-backed militants,[16] it is not surprising that his son Sajjad blamed the ISI[17] and Geelani was chased away from his house.[18] Other Kashmiri separatist leaders were terrorized into silence. Only very recently has this silence been broken, with open admissions that separatist leaders who were earlier claimed to have been killed by the Indian state were actually murdered by militants.[19]

How could anyone on the Left provide a platform to someone with such a reactionary agenda as Geelani’s (a mirror image of Hindutva), or even share a platform with him as Arundhati Roy has done? Why should he be considered a leader of the Kashmiri independence struggle at all when he colludes with one of the states (Pakistan) occupying Kashmir, given that just across the LoC, the main enemy of Kashmiri nationalists is the Pakistani state? Indeed, in the statements of the pro-Maoist section of the Indian Left, there is not even an acknowledgement of the Kashmiris on the other side of the LoC fighting for freedom from Pakistan, nor is any attempt made to extend solidarity to them or to Pakistani socialists fighting against Islamism. This is what allows them to associate the slogan of “Azadi” with someone like Geelani, who, from the standpoint of Kashmiris across the LoC, stands for their continued enslavement.[20] Roy, questioned about sharing a platform with someone implicated in killings of other separatists, justified it with the bizarre argument that even Nelson Mandela, who was serving a 27-year jail sentence imposed by the Apartheid state when in 1977 that same state murdered Steve Biko, was somehow responsible for the latter’s death![21] It did not occur to her that silencing by murder and terror those whose views are different is the hallmark of authoritarian politics. Nor does this writer recognize the Orwellian aspect of killing leaders protesting against foreign interference in the name of “freedom” and “self-determination.”

The premise of the section of the Stalinist Left that associates itself with Geelani is unconditional support for all parties fighting for the right of nations to self-determination in the sense of secession, regardless of their politics, and acceptance of Stalin’s definition of a nation: “The root of the Kashmir conflict is not oppression but identity. Kashmiris don’t see themselves as Indian.”[22] Thus “nation” is defined in terms of “identity,” presumably encompassing a common language, territory, economy, culture, and history, as in Stalin’s definition. According to this view, the people of Kashmir constitute a nation, and are therefore entitled to self-determination, defined as the right to form their own nation-state. The desire and right to fight for a separate nation-state are given in their feeling that they are different from Indians, and this would be so even if they were not oppressed by the Indian state and enjoyed all democratic rights (which, of course, is not the case at present).

However, even in terms of a dogmatic application of Lenin’s formula, there is a problem here. Minority communities in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, who constitute around one third of its population, wish to remain with India,[23] and some of these, like the Ladakhis, would themselves constitute “nations” according to Stalin’s definition. So Kashmiri “self-determination” would come at the expense of another “nation” or entail further partitions on ethnic lines. It is revealing that supporters of a Kashmiri state do not even ask themselves why Ladakhis—who belong to an ethnic and religious (Buddhist) minority, and cannot therefore be accused of Hindu majoritarianism—so emphatically reject “freedom” from India. This suggests that these communities feel safer in secular India than they would in a separate Kashmir that they fear would be Islamist. Surely this calls into question the monolithic Kashmiri “identity,” as a result of which “Kashmiris don’t see themselves as Indian”?

Left supporters of Kashmiri Azadi reply that Geelani would probably shift over to support for an independent Kashmir under popular pressure, and this is conceivable. What is not conceivable, however, is that he would abandon his Islamist vision for Kashmir, which is shared by many others, as the slogans chanted in demonstrations suggest.[24] But he is only one current out of many, the answer goes: “Let a Constituent assembly decide what the people want!”[25] This is dangerously naïve, not least because theocrats do not believe in constituent assemblies. When the Left in Iran (the largest in the Middle East) jumped on Khomeini’s bandwagon, they no doubt had the same illusion. But Khomeini used a broad-based popular movement against the Shah to come to power, and then proceeded to decimate the Left. As Maziar Behrooz, the author of Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran, points out, the loss of women’s rights was the most palpable consequence of the Islamic Revolution.[26] A similar outcome in Kashmir cannot be ruled out if a section of the Left in India insists on jumping on the Islamist bandwagon by inviting Geelani to be the spokesperson of “Azadi” and describing him as “the tallest, most respected leader of the Kashmiri independence struggle."[27] If this is true, what does it say about the Azadi movement?

Another position on the Left rejects identity as a basis for secession and sees democracy as the only justification for it. By contrast with the first tendency, which provides unconditional support to any group claiming to fight for the right to national self-determination, the second group provides support that is highly conditional and selective. Conditional on the premise that a separate state is demanded by the vast majority of the population in the territory claimed, and on the promise that it will result in less oppression and bloodshed, and in greater freedom, equality, and democracy. Selective in the sense that even where the vast majority want to be free of foreign occupation, as in Afghanistan, reactionary, authoritarian groups like the Taliban would not be supported. “Self-determination” should mean the right of people to determine their own lives, and the Taliban most emphatically does not stand for that. There are groups in Afghanistan like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which have chosen the courageous option of fighting against both the U.S./NATO occupation and the Taliban, and it is such groups that should receive support. Tamil democracy activists decided they had to oppose both the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE: a difficult and dangerous option, but the only one that allowed them to fight for democracy and workers’ solidarity.

The requirement that socialists of the oppressed country maintain complete unity between organizations of the proletariat in the oppressed and oppressing “nations” has been complied with by hundreds of thousands of workers in the Jammu and Kashmir Trade Union Centre, which is affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative, an independent Left trade union federation with its headquarters in India. The NTUI, in turn, supports the demands of Kashmiri workers.[28]

Moving forward

While Indian socialists are under no obligation whatsoever to support Kashmiri “self-determination” based on appeals to “identity,” there is a more elementary meaning of “azadi” expressed in numerous fact-finding reports and the better newspaper reports from Kashmir—namely, freedom from oppression by the Indian state—and they are duty-bound to support this demand. One atrocity after another without any justice in sight is a recipe for barbarism.[29] The heart-rending appeal to the people of India by the father of one of the boys killed by Indian security forces recently—“Please feel our pain”[30]—should lead to a broad-based campaign demanding the repeal of legislation that allows the security forces to commit human rights abuses with impunity. The Left should spearhead the campaign in India for the punishment of security force personnel who have committed such crimes, including those with command responsibility. Such a campaign must also press for a drastic reduction of the presence of security forces, the release of political prisoners, and freedom of movement and trade across the LoC.

The campaign should include the demand for the demilitarization of Kashmir on both sides of the LoC. Demanding demilitarization on the Indian side alone is neither realistic nor even desirable, if it facilitates the activities of foreign militants like those who killed Lone. Such a campaign would require working with socialists in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Pakistan itself as demanded by the principle of internationalism. If it is successful, and the military and militants on both sides of the LoC back off, the people of Jammu and Kashmir would have the space and opportunity to discuss, debate, and negotiate among themselves to see if they can agree on a vision of Kashmir that is accepted by the overwhelming majority.

To sum up: The section of the Indian Left demanding unconditional support for the right of the Kashmiri “nation” to self-determination, in the sense of secession from India, remains narrowly India-centric (although anti-India, not pro), and fails even to acknowledge that Kashmir will not be “free” if India withdraws because it is also occupied by Pakistan. Moreover, such unconditional support requires that Islamist elements also be seen as worthy of support, ignoring their extreme right-wing character, or the fact that they stand for a Kashmir as oppressive as the present dispensation.

By contrast, a more internationalist section of the Left sees that the imbroglio in Kashmir is part of the tragic legacy of Partition, and cannot be resolved unless that whole legacy is addressed. It rejects “identity” as the basis for state-formation, and insists that a viable Kashmiri state must convince its minorities in advance that they will enjoy security, equality, and democratic rights; sacrificing democracy to "self-determination" is surely a contradiction in terms. Undoing the damage done by Partition would involve a sustained drive to eradicate Hindutva, Islamism, and communalism in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir; it would include the difficult and dangerous struggle to establish a secular, democratic state in Pakistan. In addition it would require a critique of nationalism and militarism throughout the subcontinent. A South Asian Union with open borders, based on equality and democracy both within and between its constituent states, would create a context more conducive to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute than the current situation, and this is a goal that socialists throughout the region can work towards.[31] |P


[1]. "Minutes of the seminar on Azadi: The Only Way." Kafila (27 October 2010). <http://kafila.org/2010/10/27/minutes-of-the-seminar-on-azadi-the-only-way/>.

[2]. Rosa Luxemburg, "The National Question," in The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Horace B. Davis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976). Originally published in 1909. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1909/national-question/ch01.htm>.

[3]. V. I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972) vol. 20. Originally published in 1914. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch01.htm>.

[4]. J. V. Stalin, "Marxism and the National Question," in Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954) 2: 303. Available online at <http://www.marx2mao.com/Stalin/MNQ12.html#c1>.

[5]. I have taken up this issue at greater length in my article "The Role of Socialists in the Civil War in Sri Lanka," Platypus Review 13 (July 2009). </2009/07/01/the-role-of-socialists-in-the-civil-war-in-sri-lanka/>.

[6]. V.I. Lenin, "The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination," in Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974) vol. 22. Originally published in 1916. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jan/x01.htm>.

[7]. Sucheta Mahajan, Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2000), 207. "Communal" is used here in the Indian sense of using religion as the primary marker of identity, with varying degrees of hostility to people of other religions.

[8]. A transcript of this resolution is available online at <http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=46661742857&topic=12204>.

[9]. See <http://www.jklfworld.org/jklf%20history.html>.

[10]. See, for example, Shabir Choudhry, "Why I said Good Bye to JKLF?," (24 July 2008). <http://k4kashmir.com/?p=281>.

[11]. The "family" of right-wing organizations around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which includes the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is known as the "Sangh Parivar." I shall also use the term "Hindutva" for the right-wing political ideology espoused by these organizations and "Islamism" for the political ideology of similar organizations in Pakistan, in order to distinguish these ideologies from Hinduism and Islam.

[12]. "BJP slams Kashmir interlocutors for Pakistan remark," <http://headlinesindia.mapsofindia.com/burning-issues-news/kashmir/bjp-slams-kashmir-interlocutors-for-pakistan-remark-66389.html>.

[13]. Shabir Choudhry, "Jammu and Kashmir National Democratic Alliance – a step in right direction," (15 November 2010). <http://drshabirchoudhry.blogspot.com/2010/11/jammu-and-kashmir-national-democratic.html>.

[14]. Yoginder Sikand, "Jihad, Islam and Kashmir: Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Political Project," Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 40 (2 October 2010): 125-134. <http://beta.epw.in/static_media/PDF/archives_pdf/2010/10/SA100210_Jihad,_Islam_Yoginder_Sikand.pdf>.

[15]. Kavita Suri, "Painted Veil," The Statesman (17 July 2002). <http://www.jammu-kashmir.com/archives/archives2002/kashmir20020717d.html >.

[16]. Rasheeda Bhagat, "Abdul Ghani Lone: A moderate, rational voice silenced," The Hindu Business Line (23 May 2002). <http://www.hinduonnet.com/businessline/2002/05/23/stories/2002052300080900.htm>.

[17]. Prem Shankar Jha, "With Us, Or Not At All," Outlook (3 June 2002). <http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?215873>.

[18]. D. Suba Chandran, "Assassination Of Abdul Ghani Lone What Lies Beneath" (29 May 2002). <http://www.ipcs.org/article/terrorism-in-jammu-kashmir/assassination-of-abdul-ghani-lone-what-lies-beneath-760.html>.

[19]. “Militants, not govt. forces, killed top separatist leaders, admits ex-Hurriyat chief," Daily News and Analysis (3 January 2011). <http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_top-separatist-leaders-killed-by-our-own-people-admits-former-hurriyat-chief_1489980>.

[20]. Shabir Choudhry, "'I have faced Pakistani oppression and intimidation': Shafqat Inquilabi" (27 November 2010) <http://drshabirchoudhry.blogspot.com/2010/11/i-have-faced-pakistani-oppression-and.html>.

[21]. Shoma Choudhary and Arundhati Roy, "An independent Kashmiri nation may be a flawed entity, but is independent India perfect?," Tehelka 7, no. 44 (3 November 2010). <http://www.tehelka.com/story_main47.asp?filename=Ne061110CoverstoryII.asp>.

[22]. Shivam Vij, "Dilemmas of 'Right of Nations to Military Occupation': A Response to Rohini Hensman," Kafila (17 November 2010). <http://kafila.org/2010/11/17/dilemmas-of-right-of-nations-to-military-occupation-response-to-rohini-hensman/#more-5572>.

[23]. Sikand, "Jihad, Islam and Kashmir," 131.

[24]. See, for example, Arundhati Roy’s article "Azadi: It’s the only thing the Kashmiri wants. Denial is delusion," Outlook (1 September 2008). <http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?238272>. Here she at least has the honesty to admit that some of slogans disturbed her.

[25]. Vij, "Dilemmas."

[26]. "30 Years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran," Platypus Review, Supplement to Issue 20 (February 2010). </2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/#_open>.

[27]. Vij, "Dilemmas."

[28]. See, for example, the report in the NTUI’s journal Union Power (November 2009): 2. <http://ntui.org.in/files/newsletters/Union_Power_November_issue_.pdf>.

[29]. See, for example, Bela Bhatia, Vrinda Grover, Sukumar Murlidharan and Ravi Hemadri, "Report No.1: Attack and killing on Pattan hospital premises," Kafila (15 November 2010). <http://kafila.org/2010/11/15/report-1-pattan-hospital-attack-kashmir/>.

[30]. Nirupama Subramanian, "Feel our pain, say Kashmiris," The Hindu (24 November 2010). <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article907795.ece>.

[31]. There has been a movement—variously called People’s SAARC, South Asian People’s Summit, and, most recently, the South Asian People’s Assembly—committed to creating a South Asian People’s Union free of all forms of discrimination, exclusion and domination both within and between countries, opposed to militarism and with freedom of movement within the region. Such a development would help to create a context in which the Kashmir dispute could be resolved, and would also facilitate cross-border workers’ organizing in the South Asian region. See "Special Report on Assembly Toward Union of South Asia," Union Power (April 2010) <http://ntui.org.in/union-power/april-2010/>.

An interview with Jairus Banaji

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 26 | August 2010

[PDF]

Given the considerable international interest in the progress of Naxalism on the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the wake of the 2008 Maoist revolution in Nepal, we are pleased to publish the following interview with Marxist and historian Jairus Banaji conducted on June 28, 2010.

Spencer Leonard: The immediate occasion for our interview on the Naxalites or Indian Maoists is Arundhati Roy’s widely read and controversial essay, “Walking With the Comrades,” published in the Indian magazine Outlook. There Roy speaks of “the deadly war unfolding in the jungles of central India between the Naxalite guerillas and the Government of India,” one that she expects “will have serious consequences for us all.”[1] Is Roy’s depiction of the current situation accurate? If so, how have events reached such a critical state? How, more generally, does Roy frame today’s Naxalite struggle and do you agree with this framing? Does the “main contradiction,” as a Maoist might say, consist in the struggle between the Naxalite aborigines on the one side, and, on the other, what Roy refers to as the combination of “Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism”?

Jairus Banaji: There certainly is a Maoist insurgency raging in the tribal heartlands of central and eastern India, much of which is densely forested terrain. The tribal heartlands straddle different states in the country, so at least three or four major states are implicated in the insurgency, above all Chhattisgarh, which was hived off from Madhya Pradesh in 2000. To the extent that there has been a drive to open up the vast mineral resources of states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa to domestic and international capital, there is the connection Roy points to. As a definition of the “conjuncture” that has dominated the conflict since the late 1990s, she is clearly right.

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A Naxalite guerilla army in central India

But the Naxal presence in these parts of India has little to do with the factors she talks about. Naxalism, or Indian Maoism, goes back to the late 1960s. What distinguishes it as a political current from other communists in India is the commitment to armed struggle and the violent overthrow of the state. It is not as if the perspectives of Naxalism flow from the circumstances one finds in the forested parts of India. The question is why, after its virtual extinction in the early 1970s, the movement was able to reassemble itself and reemerge as a less fragmented and more powerful force in the course of the 1990s. To account for that we have to look to different factors than those Roy identifies.

The Naxalites have always seen the so-called “principal contradiction” as that between the peasantry or the “broad mass of the people” on one side and “feudalism” or “semi-feudalism” on the other. They have never abandoned this position since it was evolved in the late 1960s. The revolution has always been seen by them as primarily agrarian, except that now “agrarian” has come to mean “tribal,” since their base is on the whole confined to the tribal or adivasi communities.

Sunit Singh: Please explain the confluence that led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004, which united the Naxalite splinters, the People’s War Group, and the Maoist Communist Center? What explains the dramatic revivification of Naxalism after its decimation in the early 1970s and how do we understand the CPI (Maoist) as a political force today? To what extent has today’s Naxalism changed from its predecessor, the original CPI (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI (M–L))?

JB: The key fact about the Naxals in the late 1990s and 2000s is that they began to reverse decades of fragmentation through a series of successful mergers. The most important of these was the merger in 2004 between People’s War, itself the result of the People’s War Group fusing with Party Unity in 1998, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). That 2004 merger, which resulted in the formation of the CPI (Maoist), reflected a confluence of two major streams of Maoism in India, since People’s War was largely Andhra-based and the MCCI had its base almost entirely in Jharkhand—the southern part of Bihar which also became an independent state in 2000. To explain the successful reemergence of Naxal politics in the 1990s, we have to see the People’s War Group (PWG) as the decisive element of continuity between the rapturous Maoism of the 1960s–70s, dominated by the charismatic figure of Charu Mazumdar, and the movement we see today. The PWG was formally established in 1980 after some crucial years of preparation that involved a unique emphasis on mass work, the launching of mass organizations like the Ryotu Coolie Sangham, which was like a union of agricultural workers, and a “Go to the villages” campaign that sent middle-class youth into the Telangana countryside. Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, its founder, was able to attract the younger elements because he was seen as more militant because, among other things, he refused to have anything to do with elections. Following a dramatic escalation of conflict in Andhra Pradesh from 1985, PWG was able to build a substantial military capability and a network of safe havens for its armed squads (dalams) across state borders, in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, directly north of the A.P. border, and in the undivided region of Bastar or southern Chhattisgarh to the north and east. Regis Debray in his Critique of Arms points out that no guerrilla movement can survive without rearguard bases, by which he means a swathe of territory which it can fall back on with relative security in times of intensified repression.[2] This is exactly what happened with the squads that had been trained and built up in Andhra, or more precisely in Telangana, the northern part of the state, in the 1970s and 1980s. The recent flare up of conflict in Chhattisgarh is largely bound up with the intensified repression of 2005 that drove even more fighters into the Bastar region.

SL: In “Walking with the Comrades,” Roy sidesteps the question of Naxalite politics in favor of siding with a marginalized group, in this case “the tribals.” Thus she states that “[some] believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists… [they] forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.” But she also wants to have it the other way around. For instance, this is what she says of the Naxalite leader and theoretician who first founded the CPI (M-L): “Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” What do you make of this curious political ambivalence respecting the actual Maoism (and the Marxism) of the Maoists? How do you understand Roy’s anti-Marxist, tribal revolutionary romance?

JB: The idea that the tribals and the CPI (Maoist) share the same objective is ludicrous! What the tribals have been fighting against is decades of oppression by moneylenders, traders, contractors, and officials of the forest department—in short, a long history of dispossession that has reduced them to a subhuman existence and exposed them to repeated violence. A large part of the blame for this lies with the unmitigated Malthusianism of the Indian state. By this I mean that the adivasis have been consigned to a slow death agony through decades of neglect and oppression that have left them vulnerable to political predators across the spectrum, including the Hindu Right. As Edward Duyker argued in Tribal Guerrillas, the Santals whom the Naxal groups drew into their ranks in the late 1960s “fought for specific concessions from the established rulers, while the CPI (Marxist–Leninist) fought for a new structure of rule altogether.”[3] There is a big difference between those perspectives! The tribal aim is not to overthrow the Indian state but to succeed in securing unhindered access to resources that belong to them, but which the state has been denying them. The tribal struggle is for the right to life, to livelihood and dignity, including freedom from violence and from the racism that much of India exudes towards them. The massive alienation of tribal land that has gone on even after Independence was something the government could have stopped if it had the will to do so. Today the huge mineral resources of the tribal areas are up for grabs as state governments compete to attract investment from mining and steel giants. But whatever the CPI (Maoist) might think, the vast majority of the tribals in India have no conception of “capturing state power,” since the state itself is such an abstraction except in terms of harassment by forest officials, neglect by state governments, and violence from the police and paramilitary.

SL: In online comments on Roy’s article posted on kafila.org, you responded to the preoccupation with tribals and Naxalites with a series of rhetorical questions:

Where does the rest of India fit in? What categories do we have for them? Or are we seriously supposed to believe that the extraordinary tide of insurrection will wash over the messy landscapes of urban India and over the millions of disorganized workers in our countryside without the emergence of a powerful social agency… that it can contest the stranglehold of capitalism… without mass organizations, battles for democracy, struggles for the radicalization of culture, etc.?

To this you add, “in [Roy’s] vision of politics, there is no history of the Left that diverges from the romantic hagiographies of Naxalbari and its legacies.” Thus you contend that Roy’s thinking is impeded by a kind of amnesia. How precisely does Roy’s lack of awareness of and confrontation with the history of the Left compromise her ability to think through what it would mean to stage an emancipatory politics today? How does awareness of the history of the Left in the sense you intend differ from simply knowing the Left’s past? What are the consequences we face because of the Left’s widespread failure to work through its own history, a failure of which Roy is but a recent and prominent instance?

JB: Roy lacks any grasp of the history of the Maoist movement in India, which is why she can make that silly statement about Charu Mazumdar being visionary, when the bulk of his own party leadership denounced his “annihilation” line as pure adventurism and a whole series of splits fragmented the movement within a year or two. Mazumdar also played a disastrous role in splitting the movement in Andhra through a purely factional intervention. Roy’s background is clearly not the Left or any part of it, including the Maoists. What she does reflect is the disquiet generated, beginning in the 1990s, by the opening up of India to the world economy and the drive to create a globally competitive capitalism regardless of the costs this would inflict on workers and the mass of the population.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the campaign to halt the project to build a hydro-electric dam on the river Narmada, was the best example of the kind of “new social movements” that emerged in India in response to issues that the party left simply failed to take up. It was not led by any party, was related to a major single issue, and had roots very different from those of the organized left. It involved large-scale mobilization of the communities uprooted by the dam, but the NBA of course was eventually defeated in the sense that it failed to stop the dam from being built despite massive resistance. The defeat of the NBA generated a profound disillusionment with the state of Indian democracy, which is strongly reflected in Roy’s worka kind of “democratic pessimism.” The most extreme expression of this is the idea that India has a “fake democracy,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

But, let’s get back to Roy’s bizarre reference to Charu Mazumdar as a “visionary” who “kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” The fact is that the “annihilation” line had led to such disastrous results by the end of 1971 that the majority of his own Central Committee denounced him as a “Trotskyite” and expelled him from the party! Indeed, the majority of a twenty-one member Central Committee had withdrawn support from him by November 1970, and Satya Narayan Singh, who was elected the new general secretary, described his line as “individual terrorism.” Even when the AICCCR (All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries) transformed itself into a party in April 1969, leading figures of the early Maoist movement in India were unhappy with the decision and many stayed out.

SS: Elaborate, if you will, on the exact form of struggle that Charu Mazumdar is associated with. What was the “annihilation line,” exactly?

JB: Like all Maoists, Mazumdar believed that the key social force in the revolutionary movement in India would be the peasantry. He adhered to the strategy mapped out in the deliberations between the CPI leadership and Stalin at the end of 1950, one product of which was a document known as the Tactical Line, which spoke of a two-stage revolution starting with a People’s Democratic State that would be ushered in by an armed revolution. Of course, by then Liu Shao-ch’i was already recommending the Chinese revolution as a model for all colonial and “semi-colonial” countries in their fight for national independence and people’s democracy. This would have to be an armed revolution based on the peasantry and “led by” the working class. The reference to the working class was purely rhetorical, since the leading class force in the revolution was the peasantry and the leadership of the working class existed in the more metaphysical shape of the party. The distinctiveness of Mazumdar’s politics was that he seriously believed it would be possible to arouse revolutionary fervor among the “masses” by annihilating “class enemies” such as the jotedars or larger landowners of Bengal, by forming small underground squads that would selectively target landlords, state officials, and other representatives of the exploiting class and state apparatus. Such shock attacks, he felt, would create a decisive breach and unleash a mass response. Mazumdar believed that the revolution in India could be completed in this manner by 1975! The idea was that the masses were simply bursting with revolutionary zeal and only needed a catalyst. As I said, the line generated considerable dissent, not least because it abandoned any notion of mass work.

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Charu Mazumdar (1918–1972), first General Secretary of the CPI (M-L)

SS: So, when the Mazumdar faction constituted itself as the CPI (M–L) in April of 1969, what followed? Were other factions loyal to Peking folded into the new party? What happened to Mazumdar’s Maoist critics, those who argued that their M–L comrades had substituted terrorism for mass organizations such as trade unions and kisan sabhas?

JB: The Chinese Communist Party backed away from the Naxals pretty early when they realized that they were talking about different things. There was a distinct loss of enthusiasm from Peking, and Mazumdar faced increasing criticism. Parimal Dasgupta, a prominent union leader, advocated the building of mass organizations among workers, and criticized the neglect of urban work by Mazumdar’s followers. He disapproved of the idea of a clandestine party organization because it would mean abandoning any effort to build broader class-based organizations. Another leading figure, Asit Sen, split on similar grounds. T. Nagi Reddy, the leading communist in Andhra Pradesh, disagreed with squad actions that were isolated from any mass struggle and simply substituted for it. He wanted a period of preparation and mass work before the armed struggle, but the group around him was disaffiliated from the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR), the body that transformed itself into the CPI (M–L) in April 1969. Even people who were otherwise close to Mazumdar like Kanu Sanyal and [Vempatapu] Satyam, a leader of the Srikakulam Movement, disapproved of individual assassinations based on conspiratorial methods by small underground squads. As Manoranjan Mohanty shows in his book Revolutionary Violence (1976), a unified M–L was already in decline by the middle of 1970, roughly a year after the party was proclaimed.[4]

SS: How should we view the embrace of revolutionary violence as a tactic by the Naxalites, both in its moment of inception in the late 1960s and in the present day by groups such as the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army? Does this zealousness signal radicalism, or helplessness? Can it be seen as the outcome of the defeat of the Left in previous decades, the consequence of the abandonment of a politics seeking to abolish alienated labor or, indeed, the abandonment of any explicitly labor-based politics?

JB: When the CPI (M–L) was formed in 1969, its key function was seen as “rousing” the peasant masses to wage guerrilla war. Mazumdar believed that the killing of landlords would “awaken” the exploited masses. This, classically, was what Debray calls a “politics of fervor,” a politics in which revolutionary enthusiasm substitutes for ideas rooted in mass struggle and for the class forces that conduct those struggles.[5] But there were tendencies in Andhra that rejected this line and even went so far as to argue that, if the armed struggle were waged as a vanguard war, the people would become passive spectators. One writer quotes Nagi Reddy as saying, “Their [the people’s] consciousness will never rise. Their self-confidence will suffer.”

Today we can see that this is a vanguard war trapped in an expanding culture of counterinsurgency, and the most the CPI (Maoist) can do is flee across state boundaries and regroup in adjacent districts. What they have not been able to do and cannot do, given the nature of their politics, is consolidate enduring mass support in their traditional strongholds. In Andhra, where the fight against the Naxals has been most successful, from the state’s point of view, the backlash has been ferocious and beyond all legal bounds. The state there has institutionalized “encounter” killings, India’s term for extra-judicial executions, on a very large scale, and trained special counterinsurgency forces to hunt down the Maoists. In Chhattisgarh the state has sponsored (armed and funded) a private lynch mob called the Salwa Judum, or “Purification Hunt” in Gondi, the local language, that has emptied hundreds of villages by forcing inhabitants into IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where they can be easily controlled. In Chhattisgarh both sides have recruited minors. Both states have seen staggering levels of violence, with a pall of fear hanging over entire villages in Telangana, and the atomization of whole communities in Dantewada. We should remember that it was successive waves of repression in Andhra Pradesh that drove the PWG squads into regions like Bastar and southern Orissa in the first place.

One consequence of the massive escalation of conflict from the late 1980s was a substantial weapons upgrade, a major increase in lethality. The Naxals have used land mines on an extensive scale, using the wire-control method, and inflicted heavy losses on the paramilitary. The crucial result of this conflict dynamic is a wholesale militarization of the movement, a major break with the pattern of the late 1970s when they built a considerable base through mass organizations, in Telangana especially. The civil liberties activist K. Balagopal, who saw the movement at close quarters, became progressively more disillusioned as the military perspective took over and reshaped the nature of the People’s War Group. In 2006, a few years before he died, he described the CPI (Maoist) as a “hit and run movement,” underlining precisely these features.[6]

SS: What kinds of affinities do the Naxalites share with other militant New Left groups?

JB: I would hardly call them “New Left.” I think the best comparison for the CPI (Maoist) is Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Abimael Guzmán’s idea that the countryside would have to be thrown into chaos, churned up, to create a power vacuum, is a mirror image of the CPI (Maoist) strategy. Guzmán called it Batir el campo—“hammer the countryside.” The idea was to generate terror among the population and demonstrate the inability of the state to guarantee the safety of its citizens. That is how Nelson Manrique has described the strategy.[7] In the end it meant the assassination of village heads and increasing violence against the peasantry (from the Senderistas) that brought about their rapid downfall. A key element of the Batir el campo strategy was the systematic destruction of infrastructure with the aim of isolating whole areas of countryside from the reach of the state. The idea was that, effectively, these would become “liberated zones.”

The CPI (Maoist) have been pursuing a very similar strategy. The role they played in sabotaging the movement in Lalgarh bears a striking resemblance to the Sendero’s interdictions against all forms of autonomous peasant organization. The drive of the CPI (Maoist) to isolate the areas under their control from the rest of the country, to impose an enforced isolation on the tribal communities, is similar to the way the Senderistas worked in Peru. This is the deeper meaning of forced election boycotts. During elections the threat of violence is palpable. Sabotaging high-tension wires, goods trains, railway stations, roads, and bridges is simply the physical analogue of the election boycott. Interlinked with this is the continual execution of “informers,” a kind of exemplary punishment that is clearly designed to bolster a culture of fear in the CPI (Maoist) “base,” which breeds the kind of resentment that creates more informers. Balagopal was a powerful critic of these practices that, I suspect, were largely a product of the new leadership that took over the PWG in the early 1990s, when Kondapalli Seetharamaiah was driven out of the party.

A movement like this will obviously tolerate no dissent. There have been repeated instances of the different armed struggle groups murdering each other’s cadre, sometimes over the course of years and on quite a large scale. Indeed, at least one reason for the merger between the PWG and the MCCI was the turf war between them in the years before 2004, when on one estimate they killed literally hundreds of each other’s supporters. Left parties like the CPI (Marxist) have also seen their party activists being murdered, as if this is what the People’s Democratic Revolution needs and calls for! I should add that the CPI (Marxist) is hardly blameless, either, since they have their own vigilante groups or terror squads called the “harmads.”

SS: It seems to me that the perspectives of the Maoists do not arise from the circumstances of those they claim to represent, but are rather static in and of themselves. Party documents and Maoist “theorists” seem capable of little more than the recycling of desiccated fragments of ideology.

JB: Maoist theory has a timeless quality about it. It deals with abstractions, not with any living, changing reality. The abstractions stem from the debates and party documents of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the agrarian line emerged as an orthodoxy for the Left in countries like India. The Chinese Revolution was an incorrigible template and everything about India had to be fitted to that. Within India itself this generated what were called the “Andhra Theses.” As I said, the deliberations with Stalin generated a series of documents that all factions of the undivided Communist party accepted to one degree or another. The Tactical Line mapped out the outlines of a strategy that flowed straight into the Naxalism of the late 1960s. Some of the terminology was changed, such that “People’s Democracy” became “New Democracy,” but these shifts in rhetoric marked no crucial differences. So there is a sense whereby the Naxalite split from the CPI (Marxist) did not represent a total break with orthodoxy within the Indian movement. It was the CPI (Marxist) that was poised ambiguously between the USSR and China.

SL: Embedded in this refusal of reality, this insistence upon rehashing empty abstractions, there seems an unmistakable retreat from the very project of Marxism. Am I wrong to see an elective affinity between Roy’s insistence that the tribal people’s impetus to resist comes from outside of capitalism, on the one hand, and on the other, the rhetoric popularized by Charu Mazumdar, which identifies the peasantry as the primary revolutionary class? Roy and Mazumdar seem to share the idea that the old anti-feudal struggle was and remains viable. Both exhibit a lack of interest in the question, What dynamics within capitalism point beyond themselves? While I agree that Arundhati Roy lacks any grounding in the history of the Left, there does seem to be common ground between the Naxals’ nihilism and her romantic anti-capitalism.

In earlier comments you argued that Roy’s “democratic pessimism,” as you referred to it, has led her to argue that the ongoing Naxalite insurgency “is the best you can hope for.” Similarly, with respect to Maoists, you have suggested that, at bottom, they view those whom they claim to represent as “cannon fodder,” so that “it is not hope but false promises that will lie at the end of the revolutionary road, aside from the corpses of thousands.” To begin to understand what has brought together these two political streams­—the new social movements and late Stalinism—is it fair to say that both, as expressions of political defeat and despair, are equidistant from what you have called “the vision of the Communist Manifesto,” in which Marx argues that the task of the Communists is, as you put it, “not to prevent the expansion of capitalism but to fight it from the standpoint of a more advanced mode of production, one grounded in the ability of masses of workers to recover control of their lives and shape the nature and meaning of production”?

India's Red Army

Adivasis and Naxalites

JB: There are different strands here. One is Roy’s tendency to see Maoism as the passive reflection of a tribal separatism that is rooted in decades if not centuries of oppression of the adivasis. The trouble with this is that it makes the Maoists purely epiphenomenal. It is a reading that has little to do with politics in any sense. More to the point, Maoism simply is not a continuation or extension of tribal separatism. It is a political tendency committed to the armed overthrow of a state that is both independent (not “semi-colonial”) and democratic in more than a formal sense. Millions of ordinary people in the country have immense faith in democracy, despite the devastation that capitalism has inflicted on their lives—and when I say capitalism here I include the state as an integral part of it. The other strand relates to the way the Left has reacted to “globalization” and the isolationist stances that have flowed from that. This is not peculiar to the M-L groups—it is the soft nationalism of the whole Left and stems from the inability to imagine a politics that is both anti-capitalist and internationalist in more than purely rhetorical ways. The rhetoric of anti-globalization, which opposes the reintegration of India back into the world economy, forms the lowest common denominator of the entire Left in this country. The Indian Left today cannot conceive revolutionary politics apart from national isolationism. Everything is reduced to defending national sovereignty against the forces of international capitalism. But modern capitalism is not an aggregation of national economies, however much the working class is divided by country and in numerous other ways. It is hard to see how the movement in any one country, even one as big as India, can overthrow capitalism as long as it survives in the rest of the world. Paradoxically, it is the smallest countries, like Cuba and probably Nepal after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) takeover, that survive best in these conditions!

SS: In its 1970 program, the CPI (M-L) claimed that “India is a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country…. the Indian state is the state of the big landlords and comprador-bureaucrat capitalists…. and its government is a lackey of US imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism.” What are the limitations of such a vision of anti-imperialism and of what might be referred to as the “semi-feudal” thesis of capitalist development in India?

JB: The Naxalites haven’t substantially modified their positions except to the extent that they realize that the forces they are up against today have more to do with capitalism than feudalism. So, if you read any of the interviews that they give to various publications like Economic and Political Weekly, there are more references to capitalism than there used to be back in the 1970s. Back then it mattered much more whether you defined the social formation as mainly “capitalist” or mainly “feudal.” Today it doesn’t seem to matter as much, since it is obvious to everyone that India is capitalist. Perhaps this wasn’t so obvious forty years ago.

Most Naxalite groups still accept the four-class bloc, and the “national bourgeoisie” is part of that alliance. This position derives from the “semi-colonialism” line, and its only practical function today is that it can help the Naxalites justify a whole nexus of relationships necessary for the party to fund itself, largely by means of the tax imposed on traders and contractors. For example, in Jharkhand it is said that the Naxalites demand (and are paid) 5 percent of all large, government-funded projects in the rural areas. If “national bourgeoisie” is supposed to refer to the smaller layers of capital, those are of course among the worst exploiters of labor, as the appalling conditions in small-scale industry and so much of the caste violence in the countryside show. As for “semi-feudalism,” the irony is that the Naxalites’ survival in the late 1970s and 1980s depended precisely on creating a base of sorts among the dalits and adivasis, the vast majority of whom have always been wage laborers. Indeed, the bulk of the population in India comprises the wage laboring and salaried classes, and a political culture that does not start from there—that does not start from the right to livelihood, the right to organize, and the aspiration to control resources and production collectively—is not going to make the least bit of difference. To keep referring to the land-poor and landless as a “peasantry” shows how much one’s political thinking is defined by dogma as opposed to reason.

SL: Earlier you spoke of how the Naxals, like the Sendero Luminoso, created a kind of ghetto around themselves. Is this the endgame of the politics launched in the 1960s and 1970s, which itself represented an inadequate response to what had become an increasingly bureaucratic and opportunistic Stalinism in India? How can the left politics that now trails this long legacy of failures reconstitute itself? But what about the larger question of intersecting the Naxalites, since many of these groups have been attracting some of the brightest young minds in India and, in this respect as in others, they represent a major impediment to the reemergence of the Indian Left? How do we break the appeal of political nihilism?

JB: As I said, the vast mass of India’s population are wage laborers. They work in very different sorts of conditions from each other. So it’s not as though we are dealing with a homogenous or unified class. One way forward as far as I can see is through the unions. Unions have been a stable feature of Indian capitalism and always survived despite repeated attacks. As a small but significant example of the kind of left politics we should be concentrating on, the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), which was formed around 2005, is an attempt to organize a national federation of all independent unions in the country, regardless of which sector they belong to. This started as an initiative of the unions themselves and it has seen slow but steady expansion all over the country and includes, for example, the National Federation of Forest Workers and Forest Peoples. There is also a great deal of rethinking on the Left, both against the background of the public relations disasters of the CPI (Marxist) in Singur and Nandigram and of course the violent internecine conflicts within the party left. There is a whole layer of the Left in India that can be called “non-party,” which is for that reason both more dispersed and less visible perhaps. It includes numerous organizations active in areas like caste discrimination and atrocities, communal violence, civil liberties, women’s liberation, child labor, homophobia, tribal rights (e.g., the Campaign for Survival and Dignity), the Right to Food Campaign, campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and many others. Dozens of Right to Information activists have been murdered, and there are numerous movements against displacement throughout the country. All of this reflects a different political culture from that of the left parties, more specialized and professional, also more autonomous, and the true agents of the churning of democracy that India is currently witnessing.

SL: How do you imagine the potential political expression of that? Does this take a party political form? How does it intersect parliamentary politics?

JB: If India could establish a workers’ party on the Latin American model, then much of this non-party left would gravitate to that as its national political expression. But the culture of such a workers’ party would have to be radically different from the sterile orthodoxies of the old left parties. It would have to be a massive catalyst of democratization both within the Left itself and in society at large, encouraging cultures of debate, dissent, and self-activity, and contesting capitalism in ways that make the struggle accessible to the vast mass of the population. The fact is that the bulk of the labor force still remains unorganized into unions and a workers’ party could only emerge in some organic relation to the organization of those workers.

SL: What you are arguing then is that the Naxalites constitute a major impediment to the reinvention of the Left?

JB: Absolutely! That would be an understatement. The militarized Maoism of the last two decades is a politics rooted in violence and fear. Those in positions of leadership refuse to do any “hard thinking” in Mao’s sense. You cannot build a radical democracy, a new culture of the Left, on such foundations. The recent beheading of a CPI (Marxist) trade-union leader who refused to heed the bandh (strike) call of the CPI (Maoist) is a spectacular example of how profoundly authoritarian the Naxal movement has become under the pressure of its overwhelming militarism. When actions like that damage their credibility, they are explained away as “mistakes.” But these continual “mistakes” fall into a disturbing pattern. As a friend of mine wrote in Economic & Political Weekly, “the CPI (Maoist) is as little concerned about the lives of non-combatants as is the state.”[8] |P


[1]. Arundhati Roy, “Walking With The Comrades,” Outlook, March 29, 2010, <www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738>.

[2]. Regis Debray, Critique of Arms: Revolution on Trial, Two Volumes, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Penguin Books, 1977-78).

[3]. Edward Duyker, Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[4]. Manoranjan Mohanty, Revolutionary Violence: A Study of the Maoist Movement in India (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1977).

[5]. Debray, Critique of Arms.

[6]. K. Balagopal, “Public Intellectuals in the Chair 7: ‘All the News we get is Killing and Getting Killed,’” interview by Vijay Simtha, Tehelka, January 21, 2006, <www.tehelka.com/story_main16.asp?filename=hub012106inthechair_7.asp>.

[7]. Nelson Manrique, “The War for the Central Sierra,” in Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995, ed. Steve J. Stern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 193–223.

[8]. Nivedita Menon, “Radical Resistance and Political Violence Today,” Economic & Political Weekly 44, no. 50 (December 12, 2009), 16-20.