The Allure of Violence and the Decline of the Organized Left in India: An Interview with Himani Bannerji (Part 3)

The Allure of Violence and the Decline of the Organized Left in India: An Interview with Himani Bannerji (Part 3)

Salmaan Khan:To what can we attribute the all-time low for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as well as for other “left” parties that ran in West Bengal under the coalition of the “Left Front?” Aside from the allegations of “widespread rigging, violence and intimidation” cited by the Left Front, what is the basis for their lack of support among the masses, especially in the states of Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal where they have historically had a strong presence? What does this lack of support tell us about peasant and rural populations who have traditionally acted as a base for left politics in these states? 

Himani Bannerji: Like everything else in politics, it’s conjunctural. The reasons for the left decline are to be found not only in the left itself; and by left, since you mentioned 1964, we mean the CPI(M) – that itself has to be contextualized and placed within certain circumstances and changes developing in India. A couple of important things come to my mind: 

One, that the changes in neoliberalism that have happened in India since, let us say, the late 1980s, and the highly accelerated development of it in the last two decades, created a disarray that is difficult for any political party to adequately respond to strategically toward organizational action. That is, there is a tidal wave of privatization that has thrown the trade unions into both a crisis and a decline. 

Competitive desires for acquiring business has changed the focus from jobs to entrepreneurialism from the lowest to the highest level. There is the flooding of the market with massive amounts of consumption goods, the eviction of people from land and the general dispossession in the countryside and their destitute arrivals into the city. None of these developments have any easy political solution, especially in a polity of nearly one and half billion people. 

The Communist Party that has existed for the last many decades assumed the existence of a more organized kind of capitalism that connected directly to the state and industrialization. It assumed a working class, factories, a manufacturing population; it assumed a more stable form of state with a big administrative bureaucracy; it assumed a continuation of agriculture as an occupation, and it assumed self-supportive middle class professionals. Now, in the last 20 years, all of this has come to a crisis. 

The countryside of India is absolutely deranged. Agriculture is being torn out by the roots. What is happening is a merger of the farming classes with industrial capitalist farming steadily drawn into the orbit of foreign corporations. The incursion into the market by GM and biotech companies; the withdrawal of subsidies for the peasantry, and the masses of loans that farmers are taking, have all led to tens of thousands of farmer suicides over the past two decades. 

So any communist party that assumes some structural stability and an industrial model of capitalism supported by a nation state with a degree of autonomy from foreign governments and capital has no structural ground for it to root itself in. How can it now serve the needs in the present time? The traditional idea of the working class has vanished along with the welfare state. 

For these left parties the conception of class depended on gradations of types of work and trade union belonging. The model of communism we have now is based on that earlier experience. Now you have new political subjects. They are not workers or peasants in the old sense. The average professional middle classes are also unsteady. Not much actually gives you a solid ground to stand on as a left organizer or party. 

So how do you become close to these new social subjects? It’s being assessed that mass fronts should have been better worked with, that the CPI(M) lost their popular connection and so on. But the question is where are you going to go and connect with people when infrastructural spaces for such social relations as existed have been eroded? 

What you’ve got instead is a desperate, fleeing, destitute population, a kind of transient information technology type of workers or contractual workers at all levels of the economy, and shantytowns and starvation both in the city and the villages. What is steadily arising is small entrepreneurialism or predatory gangs, groups of gangsters who are preying on whatever is around them. 

So, I don’t know what party that has a democratic or communist basis can actually sustain itself through this. The situation reminds me of the 1920s Germany when a desperate German political and economic world produced volunteers for Nazism, the Freikorps. And what I have seen in the four months I spent there recently was the daily presence of volunteer fascist groups. They are not cardholding fascists. 

They are relatively young, endowed with the power machine called the motorbike, and parading their masculinism regardless of the police or any legal restrictions. They rely on techniques of terrorizing the left and the so-called decent middle classes, and feel that they can snatch whatever they want. Many possess handguns and other armaments. 

SK: Do these groups of armed men have any associations with political parties? 

HB: In West Bengal they are associated in particular with the Trinamool Congress (TMC), literally The Grassroots Congress. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – National Volunteers’ Association) have the same support base who are eager participants in attacks against muslims. 

I saw four or five months of this terror, and was terrorized myself. And their ability to terrorize people, unless you actually see it, is unthinkable. So, there is much truth in the news of people fleeing villages and poll booths being destroyed, and in people being physically harmed for voting for the left. For example, a woman who voted for the CPI(M) and publicly acknowledged it was attacked the next day by TMC supporters who cut off one of her breasts. 

These people are not rooted in anything. They have no stake in social life. They are often not married, and even if they are, they don’t give a damn for their families. They don’t have any jobs to aspire to or promotional levels to rise through. They know that having a BA, which many of them do, or even an MA will not get them anywhere, so why not at least seize the power that being local bosses provides? 

The invasion of neoliberalism, consumer seduction and political cynicism has now produced these disbanded terrifying groups who can intimidate and kill for hire. They create riots. These are not violence involving two equal sides, but a pogrom by one group of people, namely hindus of a certain kind, against muslims. These political subjects are not predictable or calculable within our conventional notions of class – this is the type that created the Freikorps and TMC’s volunteer army of terror. 

There is a culture of terror developing in India. For example, something happens in a railroad station, someone accuses someone of having touched their sister, and immediately ten men start beating a man unconscious without asking any questions. The police rarely interfere, even when they are near or at the site. You have to be in it to see it. 

Every day Howrah station houses thousands of transients, maybe a million people. The crowd is densely packed. There are men wandering around with nothing to do. They are unemployed. They cannot go home. Many have no home. Maybe they go in for a meal or a bit of work, they scrounge some money and eat something in a food stall. This is their life. 

The atavistic, teleological nature of violence becomes really evident in these places. Millions in India have lives of no money, no arrangement to live, the heat in their hovels is 40 degrees or more, there is no water or clean air. This human degradation has created a situation that really needs to be seen to get a sense of how violence can become a palpable existential mode. 

Everything is about violence. Not just the beating-up kind of violence, but a violence of deprivation, a general destinationlessness of violence. The hunger with which children and women roam about wanting something to eat is violence. The social ambience is violent. These are the disposable people of India. If half of India’s population were wiped out, even then perhaps, given the political economy, violence would reign. 

But right now most of these people are detritus – they’re debris of primitive accumulation of the turn in Indian and neo-imperialist capitalism. They only look like people, children in particular. They look like human children. Concentration camps probably could provide as an example of how people live or work. 

The emaciation of children, their tiny twine-like thin muscles, eyes stuck in their sockets, the hopelessness, come swirling at you. The indifference of women sitting and gazing at nothing can only be the manifestation of this violence. The BJP with its fascist agenda can actually maneuver this violence. It suits its agenda of riots, pogroms and rapacious development projects. 

Yet you see decencies in the interstices of this devastation. You go to the streets of Calcutta and you see families living there with children, mainly mother-headed. And the mothers are cleaning their children from broken hydrants and with laundry soap. They make these children glistening clean, try to clean their little section of the sidewalk, to roll up their bedding in a corner, and cook. And the kids sit around their mother and she feeds them. Suddenly you see that it’s a peasant family, the peasant family that does not live in the village anymore. 

SK: Peasant families that are dispossessed and forced to move into the cities… 

HB: They keep coming to the city as villages and agriculture die. And you can see on certain ritual days they have drawn little chalk patterns on the sidewalk, and lit a little lamp as they did in their village homes, and you just sort of want to die. You watch this and you think, why? Even if you know the rational, social analytical answer, something human inside of you refuses to, is unable to grasp this violence. 

These are the problems, the reality that the Communist Party has to face. What it faces, what is in front of it, is unthinkably large. It has to get re-done atom by atom, molecule by molecule. It’s not only a question of massive organizing. Our actions can range from cleaning sewage to cooking public meals. 

That’s why I find it very cruel that people should talk dismissively about “mere” economy, because they don’t know what economy means. It means food, shelter, cleanliness, medicine. They just don’t understand it, that the human needs some basic life-sustaining things through which we become “human.” 

And I think that’s what the work of the Communist Party is. I don’t know whether we’ll be able to do it, how we’ll be able to do it. But, there is no other way except to persist, however imperfect the attempts of persistence might be. 

SK: Some folks would point to the Indian Maoist movement as an example of effective resistance to state oppression. Do you think the situation would be different today if the Communist Party pursued a similar – some would say more militant – path of struggle? What do you think they could have done differently had they the chance? 

HB: For us [the CPI[M]), we tailed our government. And we could not even give a bowl of rice to a person and instead became completely absorbed in parliamentary politics. Instead of identifying as a communist party, it should have identified more as a social democratic party. It lost the revolutionary game and instead engaged in extremely well-meaning social democratic enterprise of elections, and won time and time again. 

And in fact, many good laws came through that. But we could no longer talk about revolution because we were part of this system. On the one hand, you might say change is incremental and therefore we should have just kept doing it and got more people on side. 

But the reality is that a real social world continued to unfold in which capitalism in class struggle wasn’t the winning side. Instead we became adjunct to the story of capitalism. 

Now, that puts us in a very strange mode, because it’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. What could have happened in India if we didn’t join the government? I don’t know. Would we have had another China? I have no idea. 

But we didn’t. We just kind of merged our self-definition into a good bourgeois party. And those who took up the standard of struggle outside of that turned out to be thoughtless, gun happy, sensational, and in fact creating a situation in the countryside that made thousands of villages vulnerable to the army. 

So I have no decisive answer to any of what we talked about. I just know that something is being tried out by communists in India, though the reflection on the tasks of communism is inadequate. As they say, the Owl of Minerva flies after dark, but I haven’t seen any big owls yet, though the dark is here. And I think that my friends and comrades are trying to fulfill these needs.

For Part 1 of this interview, click here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Himani Bannerji is the author of Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology, among other books. She lives part-time in India engaged in research on Indian politics.