Articulating the Past at a Moment of Danger: Remarks at the Book Launch of 'India after Naxalbari'

This is the full text of the remarks made by the author at the book launch of India after Naxalbari: Unfinished History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018, republished in India by Aakar Books, Delhi), organised at the Mumbai Press Club on 18 September 2018.

I’ll begin with what inspired me to write India after Naxalbari: Unfinished History. In the mid-1980s, I was part of an informal collective that used to write editorials and occasional journalistic pieces for the Kolkata-based radical-left weekly Frontier, edited then by the post-Tagorean Bengali poet, Samar Sen. During a visit to the countryside in Gaya district in Bihar to understand the peasant movement, I was leaving a village on my way to the next one, when an elderly man under the care of his grandson insisted on accompanying us (me, a companion from the Frontier collective, and our local guide) right to the outskirts of his village. When the time came to say our goodbyes and lal salaams (red salutes), I told the aged man that he should not have taken all this effort to come so far with us. He replied: “You have come all the way from Kolkata to learn about us, our struggles, our concerns. You care about us.” 

Another memory of this trip was meeting comrade Vikas, a prominent leader of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti (worker–peasant militant struggle organisation) and the then Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (Party Unity), one of the predecessors of the CPI (Maoist). What particularly struck me about Vikas was how he related to the poor and landless peasants, in an utterly egalitarian and democratic manner. He seemed to have earned their affection, loyalty, and respect by his deeds. 

At the time, in academia and in radical-left circles in Kolkata, historian Ranajit Guha’s 1983 classic, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, was making waves. If taking the perspective of the exploited, the oppressed, and the dominated by listening to the “small voice” of Indian history was so essential to understanding the truth about colonial India, I felt the same approach must be adopted in unravelling the fact of the matter about India after Naxalbari. 

What the elderly peasant had told me; the impression comrade Vikas had made on me; residing in the Dalit tolas of the villages; meeting and interacting with the guerrillas of the armed squads—all this grounding had a profound effect on me. I knew there was a lot to learn, from the “field” and from the “library,” and in the classrooms, even as I turned from student to teacher and journalist. The more I immersed myself in my studies, the further the field trips I made to understand India’s economy, polity, and society, the more I was convinced that knowledge too is a struggle, and a deep one at that. The more I came to know, the more I realised how little I knew. There are some things I might get to know, but there are a lot of things I might never know. 

Hundreds of millions of people have been the victims of Indian capitalism’s irrationality, brutality, and inhumanity, and it is the actions of those who could not remain unmoved and were compelled to revolt against this state of affairs that have fired my imagination to write this book. India remains among the most poverty-stricken countries of the world, with most of its population still inadequately fed, miserably clothed, wretchedly housed, poorly educated, and without access to decent medical care. Its deeply oppressive and exploitative social order is crying out for revolutionary change. 

The book begins with the revolutionary armed peasant uprising in 1967 in Naxalbari, at the foot of the Himalayas in north Bengal, which was crushed with brutal state repression, but stimulated insurrections in other parts of the country, only to be cruelly dealt with likewise by the Indian state. I view these rebellions as part and parcel of a (then) contemporary, world-wide impulse among radicals embracing the spirit of revolutionary humanism. The uprising was global; liberation was in the air. In the United States, it was the internationalism of the anti-war movement; the struggle for civil rights and then, black liberation to end racism; and women’s liberation too. In France, it came after the Tet Offensive of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam, student internationalism at Nanterre, and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, the setting up of the barricades in the Latin Quarter, followed by working-class revolt, general strikes and factory occupations. Elsewhere too, there were acts of defiance in other parts of the world. All these uprisings were a part of the “1968” decade—a world historic turning-point—when revolutionary humanism came to the fore, but was sought to be extinguished by extraordinary state repression. Besides the Naxalite revolutionary uprising, India’s “1968” witnessed the civil liberties and democratic rights movement; the “Chipko” ecological movement; the Dalit Panther movement, inspired by America’s Black Panthers; the evolution of the women’s movements; militant movements of workers, for instance, in the 20-day, all-India railway strike; and so on. 

I view the movements of the “1968” period (Chapter 2 in the book) in India (as part of a longer process, from colonial times to the present) in terms of a series of rebellions for justice and well-being by ordinary people who incurred the wrath of the state and were crushed by brutal repression. What followed was reform, with laws to that effect, accompanied by encouragement of a reformist strand among the political elite. The latter’s dependability was gauged by the extent to which it went in condemning the rebels/revolutionaries and expressing faith in the establishment’s will to bring about gradual, progressive change. Opportunist to the core, the political elite took advantage of the persistence of militant struggles to enhance their own bargaining power vis-à-vis the ruling classes. Their omissions and commissions guaranteed the failure or the falsity of progressive reform, and rebellions recurred, in newer forms, like the many Naxalbaris in three phases (covered in Chapters 1, 4, and 7) over the last 50 years. 

In different ways and in changed contexts, India’s “1968” is still with us, in the questions it raised about the future, and in its quest for an egalitarian, democratic India. Without the Naxalite/Maoist insurgency and the other progressive movements that were kindled in the “1968” period, capitalism in India would have by now turned barbaric. Revolution did not happen but it forced reform; one can think of what it takes to grab a chunk of meat from the mouth of a tiger. 

The interpretation in Chapters 1 and 2 takes a “voluntarist” view of “the present as history,” focusing on the will power of the protagonists, propelled by their respective collective memories of India’s modern past. But when I come to analysing the process of “unequal development”—the tendency of the socio-economic system to generate poverty as well as wealth, misery as well as luxury, degradation as well as civilisation—and the evolution and consolidation of the Indian big business–state–multinational capitalist ruling bloc (Chapter 3), I take a “determinist” view of “the present as history,” focusing on the ways in which history and the given conditions existing on the ground have determined what has been happening. The two views, the “voluntarist” and the “determinist,” have to then be intelligently synthesised to gain a fuller understanding of “the present as history,” which I try to do in what follows in the book. 

In terms of structures, what is exceedingly important is the emergence of an “overdeveloped state” in the colonial period, overdeveloped in relation to the economic base in terms of the state’s powers of control, regulation, and repression. The bureaucracy, the police and the military, and the polity in independent India had a vested interest in continuity rather than change on this score. This was also true of the services sector of the colonial economy relative to the physical commodity-producing sectors. Indeed, in independent India, a bloated services (tertiary) sector relative to the primary and secondary sectors became a systemic necessity, essential for the realisation of the surplus generated in the latter sectors. 

My analysis (and conviction) is that capitalist development will not be able to overcome underdevelopment: mass poverty, misery, and degradation stemming from super exploitation, oppression, and domination; technological backwardness; and economic dependence. The process of unequal development has, however, led India from peripheral underdevelopment to semi-peripheral underdevelopment, evident in the greatly enhanced power of the Indian state and the burgeoning wealth of Indian big business, but with the extreme backwardness of the periphery remaining in large parts of the country.               

In the book, I view what has been unfolding in India after Naxalbari chronologically in two phases, beginning with India’s “1968,” as already mentioned, and followed by, what I call, India’s “1989.” The “1989” period—another world historic turning point, a sharp reactionary counterpoint to “1968”—that unfolded with the opening of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has been a reactionary phase of capitalist triumphalism. India’s “1989” has led to monstrous income and wealth inequality, and the emergence of a “financial aristocracy” (Chapter 5), a fraction of big business that has been increasing its wealth more from pocketing the already available wealth of others, including public/state wealth, than from the appropriation of surplus value (and the surplus product) in production. This “accumulation by dispossession” has led to the proliferation of practices akin to what Marx associated with the “original” accumulation of capital during the rise of capitalism. Truly, the history that has affected us since colonial times is world history. 

As part of my account of India’s “1989,” I throw light on the state’s handover of scarce natural resources, including land, and other public assets cheap to the financial aristocracy, assets that have then been commoditised, and have become the source of huge capital gains. In the specific context of the natural resource grabs in the tribal areas of central and eastern India, I unravel what has been driving the economic process, and bringing on the unbridled greed of the financial aristocracy, the political violence, the contests for political power, the fraud, the looting, the incapacity to recognise the value of older, nature-revering cultures, and the resistance of the victims. 

The other dimension of India’s “1989” that I focus on is the rise of Hindutva “nationalism,” the Indian version of Nazism, and with this, the “secular” state going rotten at the heart (Chapter 8). I discern a strong manifestation of semi-fascist and sub-imperialist tendencies (Chapter 9), especially following Narendra Modi’s assumption of the prime minister's office in 2014. Semi-fascism in the making in India has encompassed an “authoritarian–democratic” regime and a sub-imperialist power, with the regime maintaining a close nexus with big business, nurturing and supporting the Hindutva-nationalist movement (to the extent of being complicit in its criminal acts), and insisting on controlling its “necessary” enemies through the use of terror. I use the term semi-fascism and not fascism because, in the latter, the political opposition to the regime in power is liquidated or made illegal. But where liberal–political democracy has turned “rotten” (Chapter 6), the regime does not consider liquidation or illegalisation of the entire political opposition strictly necessary, and it is in this setting that I consider the use of the term “semi-fascism” as more appropriate.   

As regards sub-imperialism, I emphasise its regional geopolitical–military dimension following India’s strategic alliance as a junior partner with US imperialism. I expect a regional escalation of militarism following the signing of the Indo–United States (US) Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and Washington’s designation of New Delhi as its major defence partner in 2016. The notions of Akhand Bharat (undivided India, geographically as it existed prior to Partition in 1947) and “Greater India,” (Hindutva–nationalist, aspirational definitions of the nation’s geographical and ideological frontiers) respectively, are assuming increasing importance in the formulation of India’s foreign policy. 

Let me then come to my analytical approach to the subject matter of the book. It is interdisciplinary, with a historical perspective throughout. I focus on the class struggle, even as I try not to lose sight of caste, which, with the persistence of its very slowly moving structure over the longue durée (the first of Fernand Braudel’s three notions of historical time) continues to significantly define the culture of exploitation and oppression in India. As regards the conceptual and analytical framework, I must mention, in particular, the influence of Samir Amin, Hamza Alavi, Nirmal K Chandra, Paul A Baran, Paul M Sweezy, Harry Magdoff, Ruy Mauro Marini (the Brazilian radical-left scholar and activist), Immanuel Wallerstein, Barrington Moore Jr, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, and Mao Zedong. At the heart of the book is a comprehension of “the present as history”—the way Sweezy understood this important intellectual task—for the present is still at hand and so we have the power to shape it and influence its outcome.

The book draws on existing knowledge and analysis from “the library” and “the field,” and puts them together in new and different ways, to raise questions and offer some conclusions which, hopefully, might help other writers to advance their own researches on India. If there are a few rich insights, these eye-openers might inevitably be accompanied by strands of incredible blindness. 

As I have been emphasising, the historical process permeates and significantly affects the narrative throughout the book, but in the final chapter (Chapter 10), I allow memory and dreams to play their part. The revolutionary process, even though it finds itself in an impasse, unable to progress in accordance with its internal logic, has nevertheless, been unleashing dreams and radical social demands. With the future, as yet unachieved, I re-imagine “New Democracy,” the revolution’s initial aspiration, as part of a truly democratic, human needs-based “political transition period” on the long road to a communitarian basis for socialism. 

The question as to where India is going, however, persists. Will what remains of India’s continuing “1968” bring 21-century “New Democracy” to the collective agenda? Or will the ongoing regression of “1989” lead the way to full-blown semi-fascism and sub-imperialism? 

All through the period that my book covers, the rulers have been winning. One of the tasks I set myself has been that of calling into question every such victory. I have been, following Walter Benjamin’s pointers in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940),  highlighting aspects of the past that ought to be recognised by the present as among its own concerns. I seem to have recalled aspects of the past that have appeared precisely because of a realisation that in the wake of the rise of semi-fascism and sub-imperialism, we are now at a moment of great danger. It is not out of the blue that the revolutionary humanism of the “1968” period and the people’s resistance to state repression at the time are the unique aspects of the past that have appeared in my book. I realise that if the ruling class wins, this time around too, our dead will not be safe from ideologists in the pay of the rulers. Arundhati Roy has got (the content of) my book spot on, as a “thread of Indian history that mainstream historians have tended to either ignore or misrepresent.” So too has the cover image of Sanjay Kak’s Red Ant Dream, depicting the political assertion of the “small voice” of Indian history, on the march in India today.     

As for the prospects of “New Democracy,” frankly, they are very dim—and I will end with a reading from the last paragraph of the book:

“unless at some point, the soldiers and armed policemen in the employ of the state reckon that the people might win, and so they join the masses in revolt. I hope to live to witness the times when those hundreds of millions of Indians relegated to irrelevance, heeding the ‘small voices’ of history and ‘the present as history’ decide to enter history on their own terms. Society, after all, is a human creation subject to human influence, and so, a society of equality, cooperation, community, and solidarity is still possible.”

 

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