by Ruwan Munasinghe, Published on Socialist Action, June 19, 2019
On May 25, the day of the swearing-in of incumbent Prime Minister of India Nahrendra Modi, a 30-year-old man from Bihar, Mohammad Qasim, was bedridden in a hospital in Begusari. A bullet had to be removed from his back. Qasim was one of many victims of a wave of violence against minorities and lower-castes in India following the reelection of the Prime Minister.
According to Qasim, his assailant stopped him and upon learning his name shot him and told him to go back to Pakistan. “Apart from the bullet, what hurt me is that I had no connection with Rajiv, yet he shot me just because I’m a Muslim,” he told the London Telegraph from his hospital bed. He lamented that many like him are living in a state of fear.
Millions in India have little or nothing to gain from another term of Modi. The struggles of workers on strike, farmers, tribal people evicted from their lands, the people of Kashmir, and many others have demonstrated this to be true.
In what is often described as “the world’s largest exercise of democracy,” the Indian general election was held from early April to late May. It saw Modi’s party (the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP) spending more money on the campaign than any other party in the history of India. His supporters, formally or otherwise, launched a truly massive effort. Efforts included such things as a flood of clandestine campaigning on the App WhatsApp. The whole affair has been described as a “campaign run on slogans,” centering on a larger than life figure who is, perhaps, more popular than his own party.
His election and the gains of the BJP were a dramatic loss not just to the Indian National Congress (INC, the ruling party for most of India’s post-independence history) but also independent political parties in parliament. Communist parties and parties representing minorities are at a low in parliament. This is the country’s first consecutive single-party parliamentary majority since 1984.
Modi emboldens attacks on ethnic minorities
Nahrendra Modi is a far-right Hindu nationalist. He previously served as chief minister of Gujarat; during his tenure he oversaw the mass slaughter of Muslims in the 2002 riots. Modi is a lifelong member of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh)—the parent organization of the BJP, largely seen as a semi-fascist organization. The RSS operates in an interesting legal manner: it is not a political party but rather a “cultural organization” with camps across the country that arm and train people (especially young people) in ideas of Hindu Supremacy and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva).
Modi is seen as being a part of the global rise of right-wing nationalism, including the rise of certain figures such as Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Donald Trump, and so on. Much like the spike in right-wing violence in the U.S. following the election of Trump, Modi’s rule in India appears to have emboldened attacks on ethnic minorities (like the attack on Mohammad Qasim). Within the duration of the first term there seems to have been an endless stream of senseless attacks—towards people suspected of dealing in or eating cattle, Dalits, and so on. The Modi administration has turned a blind eye to these attacks.
Islamophobia on a macro scale is reflected by Modi’s policies towards Kashmir and the immigration status of people in the Assam region in the East near Bangladesh. In Assam, the Modi government oversaw the construction of detention facilities; nearly 50,000 (mostly Muslim) Indians were made eligible for deportation in 2018. This stance is reflective of the ruling party’s right-wing anti-Muslim and inherently nativist ideologies.
In Kashmir, Modi’s first term has seen an escalation of tensions to heights not seen in decades. Kashmir is a Muslim-majority area widely celebrated for its beauty. It is disputed between Pakistan and India. A large section is administered by India. A slightly smaller and less significant section is administered by Pakistan. Kashmiris have never been able to voice their opinion on how their land ought to be governed.
Kashmir has been systematically denied self-determination. During flares of violence in Kashmir—which saw the Indian government brutalize protesters, the Obama and Trump administrations increased arms sales to India in tandem with suppression of Kashmiris.
Earlier, the killings of Indian security forces in Pulwama on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway led to a conflict between India and Pakistan. Part of India’s response was an airstrike in Pakistani territory (at Balakot). Many commentators spoke openly about the threat of nuclear war.
Similar cases of injustices have been seen throughout India under Modi. The BJP has banned women from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Millions of Adivasi indigenous people face eviction from forests. Striking workers face repression.
Unemployment and grinding poverty
Economically, Modi has been disastrous. Unemployment is at a 45 year high despite promises of tens of millions of new jobs. Modi led a rushed “demonetization” scheme in which many cash banknotes were no longer valid for exchange. This basically happened overnight and burdened the poor who were not able to navigate the sudden change as well as the rich.
Modi has embraced large corporations and privatization. The BJP is largely supported amongst the business classes and mass media (especially television). The party is seen by capital as a stabilizing force. Modi has done nothing to challenge outside economic influence on the country. His leadership in India has not raised any hostilities from China, Russia, or the global economic institutions. India under Modi has seen Chinese firms make partnerships with Indian ones. Of course, Modi is close to the U.S. administration.
Lal Kahn, editor of the Asian Marxist Review, described Modi and the BJP in the following terms:
“This election result has transformed one aspect of Indian politics: that the BJP appears to have become the traditional party of the Indian bourgeoisie, just as Congress was in the first few decades after the partition-induced independence. Tycoons and stock exchange manipulators were jubilant as results poured in, with the share index rocketing. The BJP’s manifesto pledged abolishing labour protection laws and ordaining extravagant incentives for the capitalists to boost their profits and guaranteed protection to the elite’s plunder.”
It is important to put all of this into context. India is an immensely unequal country. There are hundreds of thousands of millionaires, yet there are more poor people in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. The richest nine Indians own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the population. Many Indians survive in some of the worst living conditions. The social environment is unique in the world due to the presence and permeation of caste into ways of life for Indians.
India’s federal politics have historically been dominated by the Indian National Congress, which has been centered on the Gandhi family (no relation to Mahatma). This party has gradually ushered in neoliberalism over the past decades and has overseen the withering away of “socialist” and secularist ideas and Mahatma Gandhi-inspired principles.
(The Congress Party has made major mistakes in recent years. It remains centered around the Gandhi family despite a new climate in which dynasty is called into question. In fact, after the elections, Rahul Gandhi wished to resign as head of the INC but the rest of the leadership wished otherwise and he capitulated. The INC’s main proposal to the masses of India if elected was an economic welfare program known as Nyay, in which poor families would receive cash from the government. However, polls revealed that the majority of the poor were not aware of the program.)
The political left in India is at a low point. The Communist parties (Maoist and Stalinist) have lost most of their seats in government. The heavily Maoist left has taken a disparaging attitude towards unionization. Only about 5-7% of the working class is unionized.
There is a serious threat that assaults on the working class will not only continue but will expand—especially now that the reelection of Modi and his party can be used as a mandate. What defense does the Indian working class have at its disposal? The main tools at the present time have been mass mobilizations.
During the Modi years there have been countless social mobilizations of oppressed groups of India. From farmers marching in the capital from across the country to protest high debt and low returns, to environmental protests, to mobilizations of women, the oppressed are fighting back. In the short-term, these grassroots movements are the main weapons against the anti-working-class policies of Modi. The long-term problems are, of course, more daunting.
Problems across the region
South Asia is an incredibly diverse region—many ethnicities, many languages, many cultures. Countries in the region have varying types of governments, from a “failed state” to a “democratic-socialist republic.” Nevertheless, working people in all South Asian countries largely share similar perils and obstacles—principally, the lack of organization of women workers, the decline of a principled left wing, and tribalism.
Female labor accounts for most of the value of exports of South Asia (as well as Southeast Asia]. Women face many forms of oppression, such as gender-based violence at work, sexual discrimination in society at large, and the burdens of household work. The only appropriate way forward is building an anti-capitalist “feminism for the 99%” that takes root in the labor movement.
Across the region, minorities are suffering. The days and weeks following the Easter bombing attacks in Sri Lanka saw a security state clampdown that unnecessarily targeted Muslims. The attacks led to mob violence by Buddhist extremists. The situation on the island is one of heightened ethnic tensions in an already fragile setting recovering from the Civil War (which saw conflict between the majority Buddhist/Sinhalese state versus Tamil separatists). Modi has referenced Sri Lanka in regards to anti-terrorism measures; he mentions the terror attacks whilst simultaneously making rhetorical questions about what other leader could “stand up” to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, people standing up for the rights of minority Pashtuns are persecuted. In late May, comrade Ali Wazir (a Trotskyist and Pashtun activist) was abducted by security forces and was jailed following an incident in which security forces fired into a sit-down protest in Waziristan. In Bangladesh, the ruling government consistently refuses to grant amnesty to Rohingya migrants who are persecuted in Myanmar. As the South Asian masses are pitted against each other, the ruling class gets away with endless oppression.
In the wake of a declining left, South Asians are being wooed by the only ideological alternatives that the national bourgeoisie of these semi-colonial countries can produce—populism and nationalism, often with an appeal to ethno-religious mythology. Such a populist government has already taken power in India, and it is not unlikely that Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Pakistan could see similar developments.
However, nationalist ideologies and actions—much like the nationalism of many years ago leading up to independence—are not nearly enough to overthrow the system that oppresses working people and the rural poor in those countries. It is precisely these conditions that make the role of principled revolutionary socialists all the more important.