Towards Lok Sabha 2014: Putting The Concerns Of
People's Movements Back In The Frame
By Kavita Krishnan
24 July, 2013
The recent years have been years of sustained democratic struggles, intense people’s movements and people’s assertion. There were massive waves of protest against corruption, corporate plunder and the policies that promote it, against rape and rape culture and for women’s freedom. Pitched battles have been waged at Nagri near Ranchi and against the Koodankulam, Jaitapur, POSCO, Vedanta projects, that threaten to grab land and livelihood and endanger safety. Workers have held unprecedentedly successful mass scale all-India strikes, and have struggled against crackdowns on labour laws and industrial democracy, most notably at the Maruti’s Manesar factory. Firing by police or Army/paramilitary on peaceful protests have claimed lives in several parts of the country – everywhere, people have struggled for justice. The struggle to free Binayak Sen spurred the widespread demand for abolition of the sedition law.
Sustained campaigns to expose and demand justice in fake encounter and custodial torture and custodial death cases and against witch-hunt of Muslim youth are taking place – in the Batla House, Ishrat Jahan, Malegaon and Mecca Masjid cases, at Azamgarh and Darbhanga, to name just a few. Efforts of activists have yielded results in exposing extrajudicial killings under cover of the AFSPA in Kashmir and Manipur, and Irom Sharmila’s heroic fast has drawn enormous support in her crusade against the AFSPA. Even as perpetrators of Dalit massacres in Bihar were set free, campaigns against the judicial massacres have emerged with new determination. We have seen the struggles of adivasis for justice against massacres masquerading as fake encounters in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and against the atrocities of the Salwa Judum. And in the face of all odds, brave women like Zakia Jafri (wife of Ehsan Jafri, butchered during the Gujarat 2002 massacre) and Bibi Jagdish Kaur and other women who survived the Sikh massacre of 1984, are keeping the struggle for justice alive.
Will these people’s movements find any political voice in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls of 2014? As the Lok Sabha elections draw closer, the ruling parties and the mainstream media try to narrow the focus and define the agenda in a way that leaves almost all of the above movements and concerns out of the frame.
The discourse of the ruling parties and the mainstream media offers the voter – the Indian citizen – a choice between ‘governance’ and ‘secularism’. It is implied that if we want ‘governance’, we should concede that communal violence or fake encounters or corporate land grab are irrelevant questions. And it is implied that if we want ‘secularism’, we must likewise agree to overlook massive corruption, open plunder, opportunism, and outright repression. Must we resign ourselves to this ‘choice’? Or must we assert that such a ‘choice’ is an affront to the tough questions posed by the people’s movements?
What we urgently need to do, is to unpack the official, superficial discourse of ‘governance’ and ‘secularism’, which empties these terms of any democratic content – and define it in terms that are compatible with the highest, most consistent democratic norms, with the goals for which people’s movements are striving.
‘Governance’, Democracy and Accountability
In the corporate media’s newspeak, ‘governance’ and ‘development’ have always meant neoliberal, pro-corporate policies (supposedly ‘good for the economy’), insulated from the compulsions of ‘populism’ (newspeak for democracy). And if people protest against what’s ‘good for the economy’ but bad for their rights to land, livelihood, labour rights etc, ‘good governance’ is supposed to be the ability to control and suppress protests.
It is important to recall that, until the Radia Tapes and revelations of multiple scams spoilt the story, Manmohan Singh too was feted by the corporate media as a model leader representing ‘good governance,’ because he supposedly stood for what was ‘good for the economy,’ overriding people’s protests!
Similarly, we can recall that until very recently, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar was the media darling, hailed for changing the old ‘feel-bad’ Bihar script, and ushering in an agenda of ‘development’ and ‘growth.’ It has taken the recent Mid-day Meal tragedy, and the shocking toll of 27 children’s lives, to burst that bubble, and expose the fact that corporate pats-on-the-back and neoliberal policies have absolutely nothing to do with people-friendly development even on the most basic fronts of education and health.
Today, the new corporate-backed superman of ‘governance’ is supposed to be Narendra Modi. The corruption, corporate plunder, and sorry social indicators of India under Manmohan Singh and Bihar under Nitish Kumar have, over time, become more widely recognised. Today, we can take some time to examine the claims being made on behalf of Gujarat under Modi – by those who are suggesting that Modi-fying India is a panacea for all the ills of the corruption and failures of the Congress regime.
The Modi ‘Development’ Myth
What, if anything, is special about the development model of Gujarat under Modi?
As we sift the facts from the hype, we can see that Gujarat’s performance on all criteria has not been in any way better than that of other states, and moreover, Gujarat’s neoliberal development model has displayed all the distressing effects on people’s lives and the economy that have been felt in the rest of the country.
Even on the count of economic growth rate, Gujarat in the past five years was outstripped by Maharashtra, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Odisha. In terms of per capita income, in 2011, Gujarat ranked 6th among major states, and has higher per capita debt than UP or Bihar. And, Gujarat’s social indicators too tell the same sorry story that has marked the neoliberal model in the rest of India. Jobless growth has been the norm - NSSO data shows growth in employment for the period 1993-94 to 2004-05 was 2.69 percentage per annum, whereas for 2004-05 to 2009-10 it came down to zero. In 2011, Gujarat ranked 11th in the Human Development Index. When it comes to crucial indicators like education and health, Gujarat has witnessed a decline in ranking to 9th and 10th positions respectively in a group of 19 major states. Education, health and nutrition indicators are dismal, especially for women and children. In the Global Hunger index, Gujarat is part of the bottom 5 states in India, and globally, performs worse even than states like Haiti. 80% of children below 4 years and 60% of pregnant women are anaemic in Gujarat (a virtual anaemia epidemic that Modi laughs off as a case of ‘beauty conscious girls’ starving themselves!).
45% of urban children and 60% of rural children are not immunized, and in rural areas, 60% of child deliveries do not happen in institutional conditions. What about the Gujarat Government’s priorities? In social sector spending as a proportion of public expenditure, Gujarat ranks a lowly 19th among India’s 21 major states.
What about corruption and corporate plunder? A CAG audit reveals that Modi’s Government has done in Gujarat what Manmohan Singh’s did at the Centre: extend undue benefits to corporations at huge costs to the public exchequer and loss of livelihoods.
So, the ‘Modi model’ is no different in its economic essentials than the Manmohan model. Why, then, is Gujarat a preferred destination for the corporations? When faced with peasants’ protest in W Bengal or workers’ protests in Haryana, why do corporations threaten to take their business to Gujarat instead?
Is it because working class unrest is less in a state governed by Modi? Atul Sood, in a recent collection of him, Poverty Amidst Prosperity: Essays on the Trajectory of Development in Gujarat, notes that Gujarat “witnessed not merely jobless growth but also the lowest share of wage income in total income, one of the highest use of contract workers in organized manufacturing and rising trends of casualisation of workforce. Not surprisingly, Gujarat topped the list as the ‘worst state’ for labour unrest in the Economic Survey 2011, witnessing the maximum incidences of strikes, lockouts and other forms of unrest on various financial and disciplinary grounds (wage and allowances, bonus, personnel, discipline and violence) at a time when these were actually declining in the rest of the country.” (from a review of Atul Sood’s volume of essays, Shipra Nigam, May 23, 2013, Kafila)
The corporations’ preference for the Modi model, argues Sood, rests on his authoritarianism. We could qualify this to say that the Modi ‘magic’ lies precisely in the mix of pro-corporate policies, authoritarian governance, and ‘consent’ manufactured on a communal plank. It is this mixture that is the specific form of communal- corporate fascism represented by Modi.
Hatred and violence against minorities is a key ingredient of the ‘consent’ Modi has achieved for his pro-corporate, repressive governance model. Modi’s success lay in his ability to craft a ‘Hindu’ political constituency (as different from voters who happen to be Hindu), by setting up the straw figure of Muslim ‘enemies’ to Gujarat and the nation, and then by enacting the spectacular defeat and subordination of the ‘enemy’. The communal pogrom of 2002 was planned and enacted to achieve precisely this effect. The series of fake encounters in Modi’s Gujarat were different from equally heinous fake encounters in other states. In most other states, the ‘encounters’ are faked by trigger-happy cops, to falsely claim to have ‘solved’ a blast case or to achieve a promotion or a medal, rather than being knit together by a political design. In Gujarat, a series of fake encounters were scripted to build up Modi’s image as a ‘Hindu nationalist’ hero being targeted by Muslim terrorists. Each fake encounter reinforced the idea of Muslims as the supreme threat to the social/national order, who are ritually vanquished by Modi’s police force, over and over again.
Communal violence and hate-speech, then, is not an embarrassing aberration, it is at the heart of the Modi model of governance. When he uses the analogy of ‘kutte ka baccha’ (the English ‘puppy’ cannot convey the abusive connotation of this Hindi phrase, a more apt translation would be ‘sons of bitches’) for victims of the communal pogrom of 2002, or derides secularism as a ‘burqa,’ it is not a ‘gaffe’ as some of his corporate media apologists have claimed. This is the language he has always used: recall his infamous speeches equating Muslims with five wives and overpopulation (‘ham paanch hamare pachchees’); attacking the Election Commissioner with taunting reference to his Christian name (‘James Michael Lyngdoh’); and brazenly celebrating custodial killing by asking an audience “What should be done with a man like Sohrabuddin?” and hearing the response: “Kill him.” Modi’s image-managers claim he is a hero of ‘development’, far above any communal politics. But Modi has brazenly affirmed that contempt, hatred, and violence towards the Muslim minorities is inextricable from his imagery, his metaphors, and his politics.
What the corporations hope is that this model would be able to avert the kind of popular mass protests that the Manmohan regime has, much to their dismay, failed to avert. The ‘authority’ conferred by the US bosses on Manmohan Singh failed to insulate him from outraged people’s protests, and a public unraveling of the sordid story of the nexus of corporations and politics that led to a haemorrhaging of the country’s resources and assets. It is in moments of crisis that capitalism seeks a fascist resolution, exemplified by an authoritarian leader and a ‘hard’ state. And so the corporations hope that Modi’s ‘Hindutva hero’ image combined with the ‘governance superman’ image crafted by the media, will suffice to get him to power and to diffuse the political crisis of a State beleaguered by people’s protest movements.
Secularism and Democracy: Essential Components of Pro-People ‘Governance’
The prevailing mainstream discourse on secularism also calls for urgent challenge.
Modi’s Open Derision for Secularism
On the one hand, we have Modi’s offensive, derisive usage of communal imagery and explicit equation of ‘nationalism’ with the Hindu religion. Modi has openly affirmed that the question of justice in communal violence is of no importance whatsoever, and the Gujarat 2002 massacre can be trivialised by comparing its victims to ‘kutthe ka baccha’ under the wheels of a car.
The BJP’s defence – that this analogy actually affirms Modi’s compassion and concern for all living creatures – is rather laughable. After all, would Modi have gone to Uttarakhand and referred to the flood victims in similar terms, as dogs crushed under cars? Modi has proclaimed that he is a Hindu nationalist; and this, he claims, follows from being a Hindu and a nationalist. This is a complete fallacy. In the history of India’s freedom struggle and since, there have been many Hindus who have been Indian nationalists to the core, but have expressly rejected any notion of ‘Hindu nation.’ The ‘Hindu nation’ was always a figment of the fascist imagination of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which Modi is a proud product. And the RSS’ model of political action from its inception was against anti-colonial nationalism, and only obsessed with fanning up hatred against Muslims.
On the heels of his ‘puppy’ analogy, Modi used the ‘burqa’ metaphor in a speech, saying that the Congress is hiding its failures behind the ‘burqa’ of secularism. Again, the use of the ‘burqa’ (rather than the word ‘purdah’ which is used by Hindus and Muslims alike, or ‘ghoonghat’) metaphor is a very deliberate jibe aimed at the Muslim minority. It is a metaphor calculated to provoke contempt for ‘secularism’ by equating it with Muslims. Modi’s ‘sadbhavna’ and ‘India First’ posturing just can’t hide the fact that for him, the very thought of ‘Muslims’ and ‘secularism’ are associated with ‘kutte ka baccha’ and ‘burqa.’
In Modi’s model of ‘Hindu nationalism,’ it is anti-national to demand justice for victims of fake encounters and communal violence – if those victims are from the Muslim (or Christian) minorities. To even demand the truth of what happened to Ishrat Jahan is to be anti-national.
Clearly Modi considers secularism to be a dispensable veil, but India needs it as an essential ingredient for survival and progress.
‘Secular’ Must Mean More Than ‘Not Nakedly Communal’
In response to Modi’s ‘burqa’ barb, the Congress said the ‘burqa’ of secularism is preferable to naked communalism. The Congress thus concurs with the BJP that secularism belongs to the realm of form and not essence. For all democratic people, however, secularism must be a non-negotiable aspect of the essence of modern India.
For Congress, Nitish Kumar, for Mulayam Singh, Mayawati, or Mamata Banerjee and for most other ruling class formations, ‘secularism’ has become nothing much more than rank opportunism, whereby the goalposts of ‘secular’ and ‘communal’ can be changed according to convenience. The Congress claims to be ‘secular’ on the strength that its politics does not require its leaders to compare Muslims to ‘kutthe ka baccha.’ But when it comes to a positive atmosphere of ensuring equality, dignity and security of minorities, the Congress’ record is a dismal one (as it that of the other non-BJP ruling class parties).
Manmohan Singh himself has, offensively, equated anti-imperialism with ‘Muslim communalism’, accusing opposition to his Government’s anti-Iran vote under US pressure at the IAEA of being an attempt to ‘communalise foreign policy’! Rahul Gandhi’s father Rajiv himself tried to cash in on the ‘Ram Mandir’ sentiment by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid and starting his election campaign from Faizabad (twin town of Ayodhya) with the slogan of ‘Ram Rajya’. The failure to implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee, the complete betrayal of the efforts to secure justice against perpetrators of communal violence (ignoring the Sri Krishna Commission or the Liberhans Commission) are just a few more of the Congress’ opportunist compromises with communal forces.
Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘When a big tree falls, the earth shakes’ metaphor for the anti-Sikh pogrom following Mrs. Gandhi’s killing isn’t much better than Modi’s ‘Newton’s laws of motion,’ as a shameless attempt at justifying a Congress-sponsored communal pogrom.
And the ‘secular/democratic’ claims of Congress and other ruling class parties crumble entirely when it comes to fake encounters, custodial killings, police firing and witch-hunt of Muslim youth in the name of ‘fighting terror’.
Should We Vote for Killers of Innocent Citizens?
Atif and Sajid (killed by police in fake encounter at Batla House), Khalid Mujahid in custody of UP police, 19-year-old Ishrat Jahan, political science teacher Manzoor Ahmad Shan (among those shot dead by BSF at Ramban in Kashmir), Khumbongmayum Orsonjit (killed by Army in fake encounter in Manipur)... should the murder of these innocent citizens not be a political issue?
The ‘normalisation’ of custodial/extrajudicial torture and killing is frightening. Not only the BJP, but most ruling class parties and the mainstream media discourse tells us that in ‘real’ politics, when we cast our votes, the cold-blooded murder of citizens by men in uniform ought to be kept out of consideration, and even condoned as a necessary price to pay for ‘national security.’
Fake encounters claim the lives of petty criminals, police informers, adivasis branded as Maoists, Manipuris and Kashmiris, Muslims said to be ‘terrorists.’ And when the Indian rulers’ campaign of fake charges of terror and fake encounters combines with the US imperialist agenda of ‘war on terror’, it is a huge boost in the arm for the ideological climate of communal fascism. This is all the more so because it isn’t linked to one party – the BJP – alone. In most Indian states, regardless of which party rules, Muslims (and any other section of people – adivasis/’Maoists’, Manipuris, Kashmiris - painted as ‘enemies of the nation’) can be arrested, tortured and eliminated at will - no questions asked – in the guise of ‘national security’ and ‘war on terror.’
Communal violence per se does not command the degree of acceptance in the popular imagination that the witch-hunt of Muslims dubbed as ‘terrorists’ does. Modi’s ‘kutthe ka baccha’ comment may meet with outrage, but when prominent and respected media commentators argue that ‘law’ should be sacrificed for ‘order’; that the Indian spy agencies should be allowed to conduct ‘controlled killings’; and that the IB and national security cannot survive unless exempted from obligations to the Constitution and the various sections of criminal law; there are fewer outraged cries, and these opinions are not described as ‘fascist.’ But these are the insidious ways in which the fascist consensus is created.
When ruling class parties do raise these issues of custodial killings, there is often a cynical opportunism involved, whereby positions vary depending on the constituency being addressed. Salman Khursheed will shed tears for Batla House at Azamgarh during an election meeting, or will apologise - in Kashmir - for the Kunan Poshpora mass rape by the Army – at the same advising Kashmiris to forgive, forget and move on. But the UPA Government will resist any judicial probe into the Batla House encounter, and has consistently protected Army personnel accused of rape, be it in Kashmir or Manipur! The JD(U), between 2004 and 2013, never once recalled that Ishrat Jahan was ‘a daughter of Bihar’ nor was concerned about any of the sons of Bihar (Darbhanga) who have been falsely implicated in flimsy charges of terrorism! Their crocodile tears for Ishrat were shed only after they broke up their long alliance with BJP.
In Delhi, as the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party’s election campaign unfolds, similar concerns arise. The AAP did issue a statement on the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter. A letter by Arvind Kejriwal addressed to Muslims in Delhi raises the issue of the witch-hunt of Muslims in false terror charges, and reminds them that AAP leader Prashant Bhushan is an advocate active in the struggle for justice in the Gujarat 2002 pogrom, Ishrat Jahan and Batla House cases. Faced, then, with a Sangh offensive and opposition even from many of his supporters about ‘appeasement of Muslims’, Kejriwal issued a clarification, defending the party’s stance of initiating dialogue with various sections of society.
But simultaneously, AAP leader Kumar Vishwas, a singer with a considerable following, has been taking public positions pandering to quite another – right-wing, chauvinist - constituency. These positions are shared literally by thousands on Facebook and Twitter. On the Ishrat Jahan case, he commented on Facebook: “Is Ishrat Jahan’s death bigger than the death of 50000 innocents of Uttarakhand?”, going on to lament the “conscience-less politics that slyly knots up the country’s major problems in irrelevant questions to pit people against each other.” Unmoved by the AAP’s statement on Ishrat Jahan fake encounter that was subsequently issued, he again went on to weigh Ishrat Jahan against the children killed in the Mid-day Meal massacre in Bihar. Referring to the JD(U)’s ‘Bihar ki beti’ remark about Ishrat, he tweeted, “Any takers for the 27 ‘Bihar ke Bete n Betiyan’ killed by midday poison, who were ‘unfortunately’ not a part of ‘communal’ nor ‘secular’ politics?”
On Twitter, Kumar Vishwas was asked, “would (you) like to have Ram mandir at the site or not?? My question is to Kumar not AAP member”, and Kumar Vishwas replied, “Every Indian wants Ram Mandir at its site except BJP because then they will lose an issue of making people fool”. Again, the notion that ‘every Indian’ wants a Ram Mandir where the Babri Masjid stood at Ayodhya is a communally loaded one, but Vishwas seems free to pander to these sentiments without being contradicted by the AAP party.
If one believes that a 19-year-old girl drugged and killed in cold blood by police is an ‘irrelevant’ issue, and that, because she is a Muslim girl accused in death of being a terrorist, she should be contrasted as the ‘guilty’ and ‘irrelevant’ Other of the ‘innocents’ of Uttarakhand and children of Bihar, one should not presume to speak of ‘democracy’, where the life and freedom of each citizen is of equal value irrespective of their identity.
Kejriwal’s letter to Muslims, and his letter of clarification to sceptics, strangely, mentions Kashmir only in the context of the ‘Hindus’ (Pandits) who faced atrocities there. There is complete silence on the custodial killings and mass graves in Kashmir, and on the firings on peaceful protesters by Army/paramilitary that take place with monotonous regularity. At Ramban in Kashmir, peaceful protesters were killed in BSF firing just a few days ago. When protesters face lathicharge or water cannons in Delhi, we all, including the AAP, rightly describe it as police brutality. How come bullets that take the lives of peaceful protesters in Kashmir don’t even merit a mention in Kejriwal’s letters or AAP’s statements? We wonder – why, indeed, should the Batla House issue figure only in the AAP’s letter to Muslims? Isn’t it even more important to sensitise the non-Muslims on these issues? Wouldn’t a letter by AAP to its own leader Kumar Vishwas himself be more in order, to correct his outrageous positions that are pandering to communal and chauvinist sentiment?
For the forces of people’s movements, the challenge has to be to challenge the ruling class terms of the debate, and to ensure that each and every issue of people’s movements – issues at the heart and soul of democracy – are raised loud and clear in the elections, just as loudly as we raise them on the streets.
Those who defend scams, corporate plunder, destruction of people’s livelihood to appease imperialist economic policies, fake encounters and custodial killings; those who violate labour laws and trample on industrial democracy, those who defend rape and prescribe Lakshman Rekhas for women, those who protect perpetrators of massacres of Dalits, minorities, and adivasis, those who justify impunity for Army personnel who rape and kill in the North East and Kashmir – all must face the music in the elections and be forced to recognise that there’s no reprieve. Votes are about democracy – and questions of democracy cannot be suppressed and shunted aside when votes are cast.
Kavita Krishnan is Polit Bureau member of CPI(ML) and Editor, Liberation. She tweets @kavita_krishnan
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