India in the politics of the 20th century

Print edition : March 03, 2001
A Reflection on Our Times - VI. Frontline

AS was previously suggested in this series, it was really in the second decade of the 20th century, notably with the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, that the century took its specific, unique form, so that by the 1960s, roughly a third of h umanity was for some years freed from the capitalist system. The second momentous aspect of the century was the outbreak of national liberation movements across the Third World, leading to the dissolution of the great colonial empires of the 19th century and a crisis, right into the 1970s, which threatened to undo even the new imperialism led by the United States. Alongside these struggles for socialism and national liberation, there was also immense expansion of all kinds of democratic demand. It was o nly in the 20th century that mass struggles for the dissolution of monarchical and autocratic regimes, and similar struggles for constitutional governance, representative democracy and fundamental rights, gender equality, protection of the minorities and so on, became universal, erupting in all parts of the globe. Historic forms of organisation well known to 19th century Europe, such as the trade union and the peasant league, got gradually universalised throughout the Third World and now exist on an unp recedented, global scale.

1957: E.M.S. Namboodiripad being sworn in the first Chief Minister of Kerala.-

On the other side of the ledger is the capitalist offensive, which has gone through different phases. Latin American countries had been decolonised and then assimilated into the imperialist system as dependencies in the early decades of the 19th century. Colonial empires in Asia and Africa nevertheless remained key pillars of the system, well into the first half of the 20th century, when those empires were liquidated in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Far from weakening the system, however, the dissolution of the colonial empires created an unprecedented unity among the advanced capitalist countries, under the leadership of the U.S. This unity put an end to the inter-imperialist rivalries that had led to the two World Wars. Advanced capitalism then experienced its longest wave of prosperity during the quarter century after the Second World War. By the time growth rates began to slow down in the early 1970s, the material superiority of the core capita list countries over the socialist countries as well as the Third World had been established decisively.

This power of the new imperialism was demonstrated in several spheres. The combined output of all the socialist countries never reached even a quarter of that of the core capitalist countries, which then reinforced the latter's technological superiority. The military power of countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was such that even modest attempts to match it broke the back of the Soviet economy while the U.S. felt free to invade or otherwise intervene in dozens of Third World countries.

A handful of countries outside the Western bloc achieved relatively high standards of industrial production and prosperity, and in many other countries there arose new bourgeoisies which commanded much higher levels of accumulation than ever before. This meant that the gap increased not only between the core countries and the Third World as a whole but also between the newly industrialised countries and the rest, as well as between classes in individual industrialising countries. This increased differen tiation accounts for a structural disunity in the Third World.

India was also a part of this world system and could not escape those wider trends, even though each of the trends took a specific form here. It was the largest of the colonies, and one of the oldest. The colonial enterprise began here roughly at the sam e time as in the Americas and the decisive battle, that at Plassey, had been fought in the mid-18th century. The last great anti-colonial uprising of the traditional kind had been broken in 1857, when most of the African mainland and the Arab world still lay unoccupied. Local resistances continued and some economic nationalism had surfaced toward the end of the 19th century in a small section of the newly emergent professional strata.

On the whole, however, India entered the 20th century with extensive experience of colonisation but with hardly any organised anti-imperialist movement of the modern type; the Congress, which had been founded in 1885, was a deliberative body of individua ls who registered limited dissent against specific colonial policies but virtually no opposition to colonialism per se. It was really in the aftermath of the First World War that a mass movement of anti-colonial resistance emerged.

Until then, different parts of India had rather tenuous social and political links. As late as 1911, less than 1 per cent of Indians worked in what came to be called 'organised industry', 40 per cent of which comprised employment as indentured labour on tea plantations. In the same year, literacy figures were 1 per cent for English and 6 per cent for the vernacular languages. There was, in other words, neither an industrial bourgeoisie outside such enclaves as Bombay's textile industry, nor much of a pr oletariat or a widespread educated middle class. So, as colonial modernity began taking roots without even creating classes of a modern type, protest organisations emerged typically along the poles and fissures of caste, community and denominational loya lty. This was fully reflected in the reform movements which preceded the mass anti-colonial movement.

These were of several types. There was a westernising elite which sought to adopt some superficial aspects of European society but was too deeply entrenched in the very system of colonial patronage and property to be able to change radically the system a s such. Other reform movements tended to be led by those sections of the traditional strata which were losing their positions in the new system and for whom reform was deeply connected with revivalism and social conservatism.

Most initiatives for reform and development tended to be rooted in particular castes, communities and religious collectivities. Muslim reform movements were distinguished by their distance from comparable movements among non-Muslims. Numerous caste socie ties came into being with little cross-caste sympathies and affiliations. Linguistic assertion tended to solidify the positions of the literate minority against the rest. Development of vernacular literatures tended to take a competitive edge, as was not oriously the case between Hindi and Urdu. All this greatly reinforced the colonial policies of divide and rule. The result was that national, sectoral and communal ideologies were frequently propagated from the same platforms, often by the same groups an d even individuals.

ALL this bequeathed to Indian anti-colonial nationalism, when it emerged as a mass movement toward the end of the First World War, very special flavours and ambivalences. First, the leadership remained in the hands of essentially the same so-called "educ ated middle class", with its deep roots in property and privilege, which had founded the Congress in the first place. The national movement certainly included some very radical, even revolutionary, trends and it mobilised an immense mass of peasants. "Th e educated middle class", ultimately representing not the peasant but the bourgeois interest, nevertheless remained dominant. Equally notable was the fact that although the Congress had been established in 1885, it remained for some 40 years a mere delib erative body and an umbrella organisation for competing regional, communal and class interests. Even after 1919, nationalism remained for it something of a corporate idea that was held together by the powerful personal role of Gandhi himself who presided over an amorphous body of pressure groups. Colonial rule had obstructed the emergence of a nation held together by the unity of modern equal citizenship. The class character of the Congress, the central organisation in the national movement, precluded t he unity of the working classes as the driving force of Indian nationalism.

In this context, then, a vicarious kind of fictive national unity emerged through a policy of ideological accommodation, communal compromise and efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable conflicts of caste and class, not to speak of instrumental use of wom en who were mobilised and restrained at the same time. Secularism became not a creed of radical separation between religion and politics but of spiritualising politics itself, which often took the form of mutual accommodation of orthodoxies.

Thus it was that Indian nationalism failed in some of its key undertakings. It had succeeded in mobilising a large part of the peasantry, essentially on the promise of radical redistribution of agrarian property and power. The most oppressed sections of the peasantry also occupy the lowest positions of the caste hierarchy, so they saw the promise of liberation from landlordist exploitation as a promise of freedom from caste oppression. In reality, the bourgeois-landlordist state that the custodians of t he national movement created was capable of only such half-hearted land reforms that it led not to the liberation of the landless and the poor peasant but to the rise of a new bloc of landowners and rich peasants, while retaining the old quasi-feudal set -up in considerable parts of the country.

For all the policies of accommodating the Hindu Mahasabha within the Congress and all the rhetoric of Hindu reform, sanatan dharm and ram rajya, the Congress leadership failed to prevent the emergence of far-Right Hindu communalism outside its ran ks and the great permeation of those ideas within its own ranks. It was by no means responsible for Partition but its intransigence on possible constitutional frameworks undoubtedly contributed to it. The only answer it offered to the demands of justice and equality on the part of the oppressed castes was a paternalistic one; it urged the upper castes to include the oppressed ones into the Brahminical fold, at appropriately lower rungs, of course!

SUCH have been some of the failures. What have been the achievements? The most important was the mass mobilisation itself, for political ends. For the first time in India's history, the downtrodden became active historical actors in struggles over power, even though they were shackled by bourgeois dominance. Second, it did inculcate the ideology of national independence, even to some degree an anti-imperialist consciousness, among wide sections of society. The first generation of communists included an impressive number of individuals who were drawn into politics initially by the anti-colonial movement and who graduated to communism only when they understood the class limitations of the Congress. The great anti-caste movements of the 20th century arose not only out of their own autonomous histories but also in a dialectical relationship with the anti-colonial movement, where they were energised by the promise of liberation and then disillusioned by the politics of caste compromise.

India was one of the few countries in Asia and Africa which adopted the politics of constitutional governance, universal suffrage, representative democracy and civic freedoms on the morrow of Independence, despite its unwieldy size, its internal diversit ies and tensions. In bourgeois social science this is portrayed as a special gift of the great enlightened leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru. But good intentions of enlightened leaders can always be undone if structural conditions do not allow their fulfi lment. It is better to think of Indian democracy as a very special kind of class compromise, mainly between the peasantry and leaders of the national-bourgeois project, on the morrow of Independence. In this the popular masses (mainly peasants), who had made the anti-colonial movement the great force that it became, received not much land, not much protection against exploitation by the landlord and bourgeois classes, but did gain juridic equality and at least formal rights of equal citizenship.

To the extent that the democratic state was created by the success of the anticolonial movement, to that same extent this democracy is an achievement mainly of the masses who ensured that success. Marx's famous dictum that "socialism is the most complete form of democracy" should be read to mean not only that liberal democracy is so very much less than socialism, which is of course true, but also that the achievement of democratic freedoms is itself a step in the more tenacious struggle for full emancip ation from the rule of property.

What about the periodisation we have established previously for the century as a whole? The first thing to be said here is that, as in most other parts of the globe it is really with the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution that politics of the 2 0th century here begins. The brief period of 1919-1922 in which the Indian national movement came into its own was an extraordinary period in large parts of the world. Coming in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, this period witnessed a number of prol etarian uprisings in Europe, notably in Italy, Hungary and Germany. capitalist country in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Closer to home, it witnessed the May 4th movement in China, the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and the emergence of the three re gimes of Amanullah Khan in Afghanistan, of Reza Shah in Iran and of Ataturk in Turkey which even Lenin hailed as progressive and to a degree nationalist.

The founding of the Communist Party in India in 1925 was similarly not only a part of a new militancy in the working class movement in the country or the move of a certain section of anti-imperialist intelligentsia toward communism but also a part of the rise of a large number of communist parties around the world, making the Communist International (Comintern) something that was much more than a European phenomenon.

The founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during the same year was surely a domestic response to the emergence of a militant working class movement and the transformation of secular anti-colonialism into a mass movement. It was also part of a powerful international trend. Because fascism was able to capture state power only in a couple of European countries, notably Italy and Germany, one thinks of it now as a very special kind of phenomenon restricted to those countries, and one forgets tha t fascism was at that time a generalised phenomenon enveloping, to a lesser or greater degree, virtually every European country and numerous countries around the world, from Japan to Argentina, and from South Africa to Lebanon and Syria. The RSS was part of this global trend.

Key figures in the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, such as K.B. Hedgewar and Moonje, are known to have been inspired by Mussolini personally and by the Nazi phenomenon more generally. As elsewhere, this fascist Right never participated in the anti-colonial movement and actively opposed both secular nationalism and communism; as elsewhere, the communists were an integral part of the anti-colonial movement and were more consistent than the bourgeois nationalists on the question of the fascist current within Indian politics. Gandhi and Nehru, themselves incapable of a communal thought or action, kept the Hindu Mahasabha in their own counsels as long as they could, in the vain hope of taming it; no less a figure than Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was a member of Ne hru's own Cabinet. Sardar Patel did what he could to ease things for the RSS after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, and it was during his watch as Home Minister that idols of Ram were mysteriously installed in - and never removed from - Mir Baqi's antique little mosque in Ayodhya, otherwise known as the Babri Masjid.

THEY were the best of their kind. We need not recount how, in the last two decades, the pragmatic communalism of the Congress has, inadvertently or not, facilitated the programmatic communalism of the RSS. We need merely note that it was Indira Gandhi wh o first played the "Hindu card" in Jammu and Kashmir; that it was Rajiv Gandhi who opened his electoral campaign from Ayodhya with slogans of ram rajya; that it was P.V. Narasimha Rao who colluded with the RSS to make possible the destruction of t he Babri Masjid, in defiance of the Supreme Court. As for the more illustrious figures among those who left the ranks of the Congress, one need only recall Jayaprakash Narayan who did so much to bestow respectability and democratic credentials upon the R SS during the Emergency, relying on it for organisational skills for his rag-tag following. Or Morarji Desai who became Prime Minister at the head of a parliamentary majority in which the RSS constituted the largest bloc. Today a whole host of regional p arties with all kinds of anti-communal claims find it perfectly possible to be part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

No fascism ever took power anywhere in the world without the active support of a part of the liberal establishment. Mussolini became Prime Minister with his party occupying roughly 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament; Hitler first came to power comman ding roughly a third of the Reichstag. India has been no exception to this rule. The BJP commands less than a quarter of the national vote. Even so, the RSS continues to make significant inroads into state structures thanks to the past and present collus ion of the liberal establishment, which is itself divided in such a way that different sections of it make deals with the RSS on tactical grounds, with little regard for the consequences.

A right-wing politics which seeks sanction in religious or racialistic claims and pursues a politics of violence and hysteria is by no means specific to India in the global politics of our time. Already in the early 1970s a Gallup Poll had shown that the Evangelical Far Right accounts for some 27 per cent of the U.S. electorate. Powerful fascist movements exist now in such advanced countries as Austria, France, Italy and Germany, utilising race much as the RSS uses religion, and similar movements are in tegrally a part of the kind of capitalist orders that have arisen in Russia and the former Yugoslavia. Fundamentalist politics of various kinds have arisen during this same period all over the Islamic world, ranging from Sudan and Algeria to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan and India are fast becoming, in this respect, two faces of the same coin, though their modes of travel to that same destination have been very different. This too can be put in the perspective of the periodisation we have s uggested for the post-War world as a whole.

The 30 years between the end of the Second World War and the revolutionary victory in Indochina were years of a general anti-imperialist upsurge around the world, and that upsurge had important consequences in India. In 1957, Kerala became the first plac e in the world to elect a communist government within a republic of the bourgeoisie; roughly a decade later, West Bengal became the first place where communists participated in a United Front government, which in turn became the prelude to the Left Front government which is still in power there after almost a quarter century of unbroken rule. During that same period, India emerged as one of the key leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement and an active supporter of wars of national liberation around the worl d, from Algeria to South Africa to Indochina. The policy of non-alignment was used to gain great favour with the socialist bloc and help from there was used, in the economic sphere, to drive more advantageous bargains with imperialism as well as for deve lopment in key areas such as oil, steel, petrochemicals and military hardware.

Domestically, India carried out the largest and most complex experiment of planned development within predicates of backward capitalism. A policy of relatively independent capitalist development was pursued under the heading of 'socialistic development', which used protectionism and public sector investments to nurture ("hothouse-fashion", as Marx once put it) a powerful Indian bourgeoisie while also implementing some land reforms.

In the political sphere, too, India had a singular achievement to its credit: nowhere in Europe or North America was a stable constitutional republic, based on universal franchise, established with such dire levels of illiteracy and poverty as we managed to do in India. This created pressures for democratisation in many other spheres: a political culture with a prominent place for communist and socialist currents, protections for the religious minorities, language-based reorganisation of States and the making of a multi-lingual polity, anti-caste movements and reservation schemes based on right of historical redress, and so on.

The global trends began to change, then, during the 1970s. Schematically speaking, we could say that if the victory of the Vietnamese revolution in 1975 heralded the great victory of the forces of socialism and national liberation, the Central Intelligen ce Agency-inspired coup of 1973 in Chile, which overthrew the great experiment in democratic socialism there, had already heralded the beginning of the defeat of the Left. Not that no more victories were then possible; the revolution in Nicaragua and the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa were shining examples of the tenacity of the Left. But, as the subsequent defeat in Nicaragua and the full assimilation of the new South Africa into global corporate capitalism was to demonstrate, the ti de had turned.

In India, too, where the older system had already entered into a crisis phase some 20 years after Independence, the real shifts came during the 1970s, and the declaration of the Emergency then introduced distortions and pathologies in the state and civil society in India from which institutions of liberal democracy are yet to recover. The fact that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) fought against the Emergency while the CPI supported it meant that the Left was irreparably fissured, and it was the R SS which emerged as the main beneficiary of the anti-Emergency agitation. Having remained aloof from the anti-colonial movement, complicit in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and opposed to the Left/liberal majority in the country, the RSS had until then remained a marginal and largely despised force. It was in that crucible of the anti-Indira agitation that the RSS first obtained its democratic credentials, thanks to its alliance with Jayaprakash Narayan and others.

The founding of the Communist Party in India in 1925 was not only a part of a new militancy in the working class movement in the country or the move of a certain section of anti-imperialist intelligentsia toward communism but also a part of the rise o f a large number of communist parties around the world, making the Communist International something much more than a European phenomenon.-

By the late 1980s, when the Soviet system began to unravel and conditions were obtaining for a new phase of imperialism, many things in India had already changed. India no longer had a governing coalition with even a shred of economic nationalism. Thanks to the extensive protectionism and various forms of state subsidy to the private sector in previous decades, India now had a full-fledged bourgeoisie, headed by its monopolistic fraction, which had reached a level of accumulation where it felt secure en ough to forego much of that protection and strive to become, instead, one of the local and junior partners in the system of global capital. This was backed by a techno-managerial class, with the state bureaucracy itself at its epicentre, and which too ha d been a major beneficiary of the Nehruvian model but had been trained entirely in the ways of the imperialist knowledge systems. No longer having to serve a governing caste which once forced it to uphold non-alignment and relatively independent economic development, this fraction too was ready to implement the most extreme kind of neo-liberal policy.

"Globalisation" was the name given to this new offensive for re-colonisation, and there is no credible opposition to it outside the Left because all sections of the liberal bourgeoisie are agreed on it; Yashwant Sinha is only taking forward what Manmohan Singh began. The time had come also to redefine the meaning of nationalism itself. Democracy and secularism in India had been deeply tied to issues of internal social reform and anti-imperialist economic nationalism. The forces that were now ready to ab andon fully anti-imperialist nationalism were also forced to define a new kind of nationalism: irrationalist, market-friendly, quasi-fascistic, religiously defined, aggressively majoritarian and therefore highly divisive. Political parties that were oppo sed to that majoritarianism had no ideology they could pose against it because they had abandoned the alternative of anti-imperialist unity and therefore had no ideology but that of the pragmatics of power. Communal fascism is thus logically what we get when we give up anti-imperialism. If globalisation produces a society of mere aliens, it was logical that, having surrendered to it, we too would become communalised aliens to each other, immersed now not in a fight for equality but in the savage war of identity.

Thus it is that the century ended for us well before it ended on any calender, in 1997, when, on the 50th anniversary of Independence it was a veteran of the RSS who addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort as its Prime Minister.

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