The Left: Rising from the Ashes
The Left is no longer left behind. A new radical rainbow coalition of Left assertion is shining like a red star in India. New barricades, alliances and scaffoldings are being enacted. The times they are changing
Amit Sengupta Delhi
Change is once again in the air. In Bengal, the unexpected Left-Congress alliance, despite allegations of ‘opportunism’, has destroyed the dream sequence of the BJP, which is hoping for a Trinamool Congress victory. They understand that the Left-Congress victory will have massive implications at the Centre and rest of the country both in terms of power politics and grassroots shifts all over India, especially after the drubbing Narendra Modi and Amit Shah got in Delhi and Bihar. With the close contest in Assam on an edge, even if the Left loses in Bengal, its huge revival from the ashes in the state, and its possible victory in Kerala, will decisively shift the opposition discourse in the days to come. The Left-Dalit coalition in Tamil Nadu with other parties, with no party joining hands with the BJP, and the BJP’s predictable wipeout in Kerala, is fraught with interesting possibilities at the Centre.
The Left revival itself is surprising, given the demoralisation within, but this resurrection is resonating all over the country. The Left has found a new voice, new slogans, new life-affirmations and strength, a new high moral ground. The pro-poor discourse, the fight against corporate globalization, and the secular campaign against communal xenophobia has carved radical contours under the shadow of fascism which has created its own historical contradictions. The Left is no longer left behind, and the slogans of Azaadi from the campus of JNU has struck a chord across the spectrum of India’s ravaged landscape, crushed with poverty, injustice, brutality and despair, and the continuous betrayal by the ruling classes.
Indeed, history, and fascism, backed by the corporates, has provided a golden opportunity to the Left to redefine itself, make non-sectarian alliances, and discover fresh trajectories of the ‘New Left’ challenge. Students and intellectuals, the finest in the land, are showing the way; Dalits and workers are showing the way; the women’s movement is showing the way. Will it choose to follow the epistemological rupture, or, will it yet again retreat, like a stick-in-the-mud?
This resurgence is the reaction to the war designed and manufactured by the RSS and implemented by the BJP regime. The way the events unpacked, it turned out that the hyped up Make in India was really a war against students and their critical young minds. The new generation’s desire to debate and dissent and their fight to preserve intellectual freedom and university autonomy was scoffed at. It turned into a relentless and vicious war, which was diabolical and remorseless, that promised to damage and ravage pluralist democracy and its secular fabric. And this is being played out despite the heat, the thirst, the parched earth and drought stalking 330 million people in this country, despite mass hunger and mass suicides of farmers in rural India. The ad-campaign of ‘Achche Din’ seems at once and at last, truly ghastly and ironical, in its bitter realism.
When Nitish Kumar speaks of a ‘grand national coalition’ with the Left and the Congress against the BJP, to save the nation from destruction at the hands of communal forces, there are signs of political shifts on the ground. When a politician like Sharad Pawar predicts that Mayawati will make the next government in UP, that the decline of the Modi regime is rapid and inevitable, and that both Nitish Kumar and the Congress are crucial factors in the a new regrouping of forces, you can sense the slippery ground shifting beneath the feet of BJP. Nitish Kumar talks of JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya’s popularity, he wants him to travel across campuses all over the country, he is convinced that injustice has been done to him. Laloo Yadav praises Kanhaiya after his meeting with him in Patna (even while Kanhaiya is fasting), and says that RSS wants to grab a great university like JNU. And, when Pawar says that Kanhaiya’s visit to Mumbai and Pune created a huge buzz with a massive response, and that it reflects mass discontent, the signs are in the air of a radical shift in ground politics.
As the repressive apparatus hit JNU, ‘Jai Bheem and Lal Salaam’ became a collective synthesis, as did Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. A new, eclectic, open-ended synthesis of political struggle was becoming a dynamic force in this country
The social media has become a battlefield of thousands of blooming flowers across the rainbow coalition. Every little detail is recorded: the tear drops of Rohith Vemula’s mother, the killing of a young cricketer in Kashmir, the chemical attack on Soni Sori’s face, the latest poetry written by Irom Sharmila, a white horse in the hill state of Uttarakhand, his leg smashed by a BJP MLA, Jadavpur University students and teachers in Kolkata barricading against ABVP activists, the campaign for justice for Jisha. Add to this, the daily campaign for women’s rights and women’s liberation, reclaiming spaces and discourse, the people’s movements from Niyamgiri to Jagatsinghpur against POSCO, the series of massive all night protests in Paris, the labour and students demonstrations in London, the black people’s movements in America for fundamental rights in a racist state, the radical Left debate in Greece and Spain, the fightback by Dilma Roussef in Brazil, the mass displacement of Syrian refugees across Europe, and the resurrection of the progressives and the Left with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the US and UK with mass following amongst the youth, women, Afro-Americans, minorities and immigrants -- and you know that the world is not only ‘Trumped’ by Neo-Nazis, it is also celebrating a new turning point of a deeply sensitive, humane, humanist, secular, pluralist, liberal and Left discourse.
In India, a methodical Rightwing and communal assault started soon after the BJP regime took over in May 2014. Since then, it has been two most testing years in the history of Independent India, and there has not been a moment of pause. Yes, not a moment of retreat by different manifestations of the Sangh Parivar with backing of the government. Suddenly, India has been overwhelmed by a perverse quagmire of negative energy.
Now that their promises have been exposed as ‘jumlas’, the support for the BJP and its leader is falling rapidly. The TRP of the dear leader has crashed, and the great betrayal of the Gujarat model is apparent. The fudged growth rate, the mass rural distress, the inflation and unemployment, the black money magic -- everything points to stark failure. That is why Sharad Pawar is saying that people laugh when they say that those who can’t recite ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ should go to Pakistan. It’s all becoming starkly raving fake, including the repeated rock shows abroad with a fawning NRI Gujarati audience. Fake it is, like a wax statue.
The continuous attacks on the minorities in India, the daily go-to-Pakistan diatribe, the crude ‘Raamzaade and Haramzade polarisation, the beef ban and invasion of private spaces, the lynching at Dadri, the hanging at Latehar, the apparent patronage to the accused in the fake encounters in Gujarat -- have created an opposition discourse of sanity and secularism compelling the minorities and the dispossessed to look for a political alternative. Indeed, the campaign against intolerance led by eminent academics like Romila Thapar and writers and artists from across regions of India, had already compelled the Left-Liberal-Secular kaleidoscope to rethink their stagnation and rigidity. This was no time for retreat. There was no option but to regroup and resist.
With the close contest in Assam, even if the Left loses in Bengal, its huge revival from the ashes in the state, and its possible victory in Kerala, will decisively shift the opposition discourse. The Left-Dalit coalition is also fraught with interesting possibilities at the Centre
And, then, arrived what was inevitable. The direct attack on FTII, the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and JNU. This was followed by attacks on students, minorities and Dalits, the subversion and appropriation of institutions and academic spaces by Rightwing bigots and the diabolical discourse of a brazenly partisan and uneducated regime. These concerted attacks pushed the Left and its contradictory spectrum of multiple forces into a sudden, strong and stunning coalition. They realised that India’s plural democracy is in danger of being co-opted into the sinister project of the xenophobic Hindu Rashtra of ‘one culture, one religion and one nation’.
JNU was yet another testing ground of this agenda. It fought back like an outraged animal. As vice president of JNU Students Union (JNUSU), Shehla Rashid, who led the movement in JNU with a calm, fearless and resolute demeanour, said, in a speech at the Constitution Club in Delhi: We are not saying that there are no differences, or that there should be no differences. We are not saying that differences have been resolved. We are saying that let the differences be, and, yet, we have to stand together, fight together, resist together.
One of the myths of the manufactured consent and media propaganda created by the Narendra Modi campaign in 2014 was that this is a government which stands for the young, which will stand on merit, and which will make India and its next generation stand with the economic superpowers. This turned out to be totally fake. And this was proved first by the 139 day peaceful struggle at the prestigious Film and Television Students of India (FTII). Their demand was simple. In an institute which has a legacy of the finest names in Indian cinema, and where students and teachers find their way through the greatest figures in world cinema -- Godard, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Fellini, Herzog, Kurosawa, Ghatak, Fabri, Ray, among others -- the BJP government found its most illustrious loyalist. A third-rate, C-grade TV actor called Gajendra Chauhan, with a legacy of cheap soft porn films.
Despite the long strike and appeals by almost the entire spectrum of the film industry – from Amol Palekar to Girish Karnad to Dibakar Banerjee -- the government refused to budge. This was their first declaration that they cared two hoots for merit or brilliance. The next generation can go get damned.
In Hyderabad, the BJP regime thought they could crush the struggle after Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide. His death is called ‘institutional murder’ because a series of complaints were pushed by the Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani and another central minister Bandaru Dattatreya at the behest of the ABVP. As in JNU, the ABVP has played the agent provocateur for the sinister game-plan of the RSS and the government. They could not crush the movement; it reverberated across towns and villages of India. Gradually, as the repressive apparatus hit JNU, ‘Jai Bheem and Lal Salaam’ became a collective synthesis, as did Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. A new, eclectic, open-ended synthesis of political struggle was becoming a dynamic force in this country.
Nitish Kumar wants Kanhaiya to travel all over the country, he is convinced that injustice has been done to him. Laloo Yadav praises Kanhaiya and says that RSS wants to grab a great university like JNU. And, when Pawar says that Kanhaiya’s visit to Mumbai and Pune created a huge buzz, and that it reflects mass discontent, the signs are of a radical shift in ground politics
Thousands of people, teachers and students marched in JNU, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and other places in India. Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya became symbols of liberation, and so did Umer Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, PhD students of JNU’s famous Centre for Historical Studies – both jailed on fake charges based on doctored videos manufactured by brazenly pro-BJP channels. Indeed, teachers in JNU are convinced that the entire ploy of doctored videos, lies and sedition cases was pre-planned and hatched to terrorise, brutalise and destroy JNU once and for all.
The ploy did not succeed. StandwithJNU and FightbackJNU became a national upsurge. Parliament was rocked. Jai Bheem and Lal Salaam reverberated day and night in the Freedom Square in JNU. Top political leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, and the finest academics addressed the open-air sessions with thousands in audience. The students refused to succumb. The government lost the first round.
As I write this, Kanhaiya, a popular Leftist youth icon drawing huge crowds across the country, jailed on fake charges with no evidence, lies half-conscious at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), as the hunger strike enters the 10th day on May 7. Several others have been hospitalised even while other students, brilliant scholars all of them, are braving the heat and the insensitivity of a ruthless regime and an equally ruthless administration, even as the indefinite hunger strike continues. The Vice Chancellor of JNU, M Jagdeesh Kumar, disconnected and isolated in his air-conditioned chambers, seems to have turned into stone, with complete disregard for the academic, aesthetic and political ethos of this unique centre of excellence. A former IIT professor, it is obvious that the VC is operating devoid of any links with the multiplicities of knowledge systems in JNU.
However, JNU is not a dream which can be crushed. It will fight back, resurrect and resist, and spread its wings of desire across the expanse of the political firmament in India. If this is a historic movement, it bound to become a flower which will bloom into a thousand schools of thought.
New barricades and scaffoldings are being enacted. The theory and praxis, the philosophy and literature, the history and memory of rebellions and resistance are being resurrected. New coalitions are being reframed. Dogmatism is being buried in the garbage can of history. The Left has resurrected, but, without the rat-trap of sectarian dogmatism.
Multiple new rainbow coalitions have spread their wings, celebrating the resistance with a stoic and stubborn doggedness. New alliances are being stitched, often, impossible to achieve or imagine in the recent past. The vicious onslaught by the RSS-backed BJP regime has galvanized multiple forces in an unprecedented unity
On May 7, JNU alumni from across Delhi collected for a day-long fast and a human chain in JNU’s Freedom Square in solidarity with the student hunger strikers. Earlier, the faculty of JNU joined the hunger strikers. Indeed, the faculty, perhaps as brilliant as the best in the world, with a new generation of teachers who were trained in the 1980s movements in JNU, has played a dynamic role in sustaining and legitimising the historic struggle.
Every day of the hunger strike has been marked by several groups performing, singing, playing music, reciting poetry. Ska Vengers did a rocking anti-establishment show, others sang and read out Faiz, Nazim Hikmet, Habib Jalib, Sahir and Sufi recitations, while others resurrected revolutionary songs of the Indian Progressive Theatre Association (IPTA). One can hear the strains of legendary Leftist poet Shailendra’s immortal song: Tu zinda hain to zindagi ki jeet mein yakeen kar… agar kahin hain swarg to utaar la zameen par…”
There has been a stream of solidarity protests across the country in support of JNU, from DUTA to Hyderabad Central University to Jadavpur University. Doctors, writers, academics, actors, musicians, workers, Dalits, adivasi leaders, filmmakers – they have all poured in to the site of the struggle. The protracted and hard movement has struck a chord across campuses. Surely, there is no doubt, it is going to mark a turning point in the political unconscious of this country, and reshape the contours of the Left in the days to come.
It is still too early to say, but a Red Star is slowly rising over India. And, as of now, it is Left Foot Forward.