By Amit Sengupta
The buoyant and confident reassertion of the red flag in Bihar in the recent assembly polls has come as a moment of both collective revelation and political life-affirmation for the united Left parties in India. It has triggered a wave of optimism among the party cadre and its supporters, and the larger progressive, liberal and secular spectrum of the Indian society, reeling under a relentless fascist onslaught since 2014, especially in the Hindi heartland.
Undoubtedly, the rising Red Star over Bihar, and especially the huge victory margins of the Left candidates, especially from the CPI-ML (Liberation), a majority of them coming from incredibly humble backgrounds and representing the poorest and working classes in the caste and social hierarchy, has uplifted the ideological morale of the Left. It has resurrected a brand new discourse of hope and assertion in Indian politics, especially because grassroots Bihar has shown how robust it has been in countering Rightwing communal politics, in the last assembly elections, as much as now.
The NDA’s rather convoluted victory has been widely controversial and too close, with allegations hurled by RJD and Left leaders of last-minute fudging, while the drubbing and humiliation of a thoroughly opportunist and ideologically unethical Nitish Kumar has been transparent – surely, the days to come should mark his further downfall. It is reflective of a simmering tectonic shift on the ground where caste hierarchies, semi-feudal and feudal tendencies, and archaic, regressive values still rule the roost, with the upper castes steadfastly backing the Lotus.
In the same vein, the protracted and hard grassroot struggles, especially by the CPI-ML (Liberation), over many decades, including against the armed private armies of the landlords backed by the Indian State, is testimony to their staying power against all odds, and their solidity and resilience.
In a state where the CPM never had a presence despite its close historical and geographical proximity to Bengal, and where the CPI held sway in certain areas for considerable years, it is the CPI-ML which has doggedly and stoically led the resistance on the margins, even when it was underground, against the brutish, infinite and nasty landlordism entrenched in the hinterland, with the poorest, the landless and the lowest in the caste and social hierarchy, facing the burnt. It has been a long struggle, led by the sarvahara and landless as vanguards, as much as political and social struggle for empowerment. This has been especially so after the late 1960s, and the second major split in the Indian communist movement after the first split of the undivided communist party in 1964.
The Naxalbari movement, which broke out in the fiery fields of North Bengal from within the ranks of the CPM in Bengal, led by Charu Mazumdar, Jangal Santhal, Kanu Sanyal, among other ‘revolutionary leaders and organisers’, and with its core base of struggle among the adivasis, the landless peasantry and students and intellectuals, as in Calcutta, inflamed the Bihar countryside as well. Vinod Mishra, a brilliant and charismatic theoretician and tactician, along with several underground comrades, created the original mass base of the CPI-ML (Liberation) in the difficult terrain of Bihar, after years of hard work and strategic organization and mobilization, including real time and protracted struggles with the formidable and armed might of the feudal classes and the Indian State.
The great and democratic experiment of the umbrella formation of the Indian People’s Front (IPF), as an overground coalition of struggle led by the poorest of the poor, marked a celebration of the original political strength and ideological power of the CPI-ML. The IPF is still cherished as a remarkable experiment by old comrades, as a historical open-ended platform of democratic, non-sectarian and progressive forces.
The massive rally by the IPF at Boat Club in the capital after the Mandal Commission report was publicly attacked by aggressive and belligerent upper caste forces will be etched in the minds of all those who witnessed it, including urban-centric students and journalists, with an ocean of the poorest descending on the streets of the capital with the slogan which is still remembered: Daam bandho, kaam do, varna gaddi chor do.
Indeed, the railway stations in Delhi became a kaleidoscopic cinematic realism of thousands of ordinary, humble and weather-beaten faces of the hardworking masses and landless peasants, as slogans rent the air of what was surely a most disciplined rally in Delhi, like all disciplined rallies of the Left thereafter, including the massive long marches of the farmers with red flags in recent times.
The CPI-ML, as a radical Left party, came overground and chose parliamentary politics in the 1990s. Before and after that, it has made a series of sacrifices on the ground in Bihar, with scores of its revolutionaries and supporters martyred, including former JNUSU president Chandrasekhar and CPI-ML leader Shyam Narain Yadav, and a local hawker, Bhuteli Mian, in Siwan in Bihar on March 31, 1997, while campaigning on the streets. He was allegedly killed by mafia don Mohammad Shahbuddin, which led to massive nation-wide protests and militant road blockades for weeks by students, especially in Siwan and Delhi, including repeated and brutal lathicharges and serious injuries inflicted on JNU students in Delhi.
Indeed, Chandrashekhar, popular among friends and comrades as Chandu, has been honoured by the people of Siwan who have erected his statue at a public square. This reporter witnessed ordinary and poor people, many in a worn-out, old lungi and torn baniyan, greeting JNU students and journalists with intense warmth and affection – because they had been invited by the CPI-ML to Siwan to mark the inauguration of Chandu’s statue. It was a deeply sensitive and emotional moment of bonding across two different landmarks of India. Truly, it marked a historical synthesis between the common folk of Siwan and the students of JNU.
This reporter saw scores of portraits of the fallen heroes of the party who were killed in the party office in Siwan. The painful memories of those killed (including in the massacres by the private armies of the landlords), and the protracted struggles of the poorest against ruthless, powerful and armed forces, have become part of the ‘red folklore’ of Bihar.
The rise of its students’ front, All India Students Association (AISA) in JNU, and in the campuses in Uttarakhand, Allahabad University and BHU in the early 1990s, marked yet another radical rupture of the rise of a new, refreshing and revolutionary young force in Indian campuses, with its roots deeply embedded in the peasant and working class struggles of the rural hinterland, while celebrating the ‘revolutionary legacy’ of the ‘Naxalbari peasant uprising’. This mix of the past, without the strategic, tactical and theoretical mistakes of the past, and the renewal of a new, non-violent and militant discourse of democratic, intellectual and progressive campus politics, resurrected an attractive genre of radicalism among the young.
This was especially so in campuses like JNU, which had been struggling with the abject stagnation and defeatism ushered in year after year by the mainstream Left students organisations, especially the SFI, the student’s wing of the CPM. The party was then calling the shots with obvious arrogance and one-upmanship in Bengal (and Tripura), and, alternatively, in Kerala.
Indeed, this reporter wrote an Op-Ed in the newly launched daily,‘The Pioneer’ after the first decisive victory of the AISA office bearer’s panel in the JNU Students Union polls in the early 1990s: it was headlined, ‘Idealism wins in JNU’.
Since then, many bridges have been crossed and there has been decisive paradigm shifts. AISA has basically won continuously in JNU, since then, and has expanded in other parts of the country, though it too has been criticized of ‘SFI-sation’ by its opponents. Criticism apart, all the Left students organizations across the spectrum have been decisively at the forefront of multiple, relentless and fierce struggles in contemporary times. They have made sacrifices and have faced brutal and violent attacks and police repression, and they have been the solid scaffolding in protecting and fighting for the inherited and academic, political and intellectual inheritance of campus life, especially in JNU, along with other students and forces in the ‘united rainbow coalition’ against fascism.
In the current context it is significant that two former JNU student leaders have been elected in the Bihar polls with big margins. Dr Shakeel Ahmed Khan has yet again been elected from Kadwa on a Congress ticket in recognition of the exemplary work he has done for the locals over the years as sitting MLA, during the floods especially and during the migrant workers crisis. And young CPI-ML activist Sandeep Saurav from Paliganj. Shakeel is a former president and Sandeep a former general secretary of the JNU Students Union. Shakeel then belonged to SFI, and Sandeep is still actively involved with AISA.
In this effort, they have been part of the fight in campuses like Hyderabad Central University which exploded after the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in 2016, and where students under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association played the role of vanguards, along with the Left students, including SFI.
Certainly, the protracted, hard and infinite struggle led by the united students of JNU, including in FTII, HCU, Jadavpur University, among others, since 2014, when the campuses have been under siege by the Hindutva regime and its hydra-headed octopuses, is historic. When all other opposition forces seem to have succumbed, or were fledgling, it was the students who were showing the vision for a radical and resilient upsurge against the onslaught by the Hindutva forces, which has been obsessively anti-intellectual, anti-science, communal and undemocratic. The violent attacks on JNU and Jamia students, with the police as tacit and overt allies, are evidence.
Since then, the Left parties and its students, farmers, trade union and other wings have joined in a larger front to forge an united Left and progressive platform. This front is against what they perceive to be the one-dimensional, communally polarizing totalitarianism of the BJP-ruled regime in Delhi, along with organized State repression against peaceful dissenters, writers, academics, intellectuals, PhD scholars, feminists and human rights defenders, including two critically ailing citizens above 80 who are in jail.
Civil society and Left organisations have repeatedly pointed out that draconion laws and fabricated charges have been used to put scores of citizens and young dissenters and scholars in jail without bail or trial, with the judiciary coming under serious criticism for its partisan response to the question of impartial justice. This is being described as a state of ‘undeclared Emergency’.
So much so, intellectuals across the globe have repeatedly asserted that all institutions seem to be under attack in contemporary India, including universities and independent media, especially the Indian Constitution and its preamble.
THIS WAS the principle which marked the paradigm shift in Bihar with the Mahagathbandan shifting the discourse decisively on the question of mass unemployment, democratic rights, the universal plight of migrant workers, the idea of underdevelopment and development, and secular pluralism. the mass rallies of Tejesvi Yadav were a pointer to the upsurge, as much as it was reflected in the massive and vibrant red flag mobilizations in the interiors of Bihar, despite the media propaganda that Narendra Modi is still the star shining eternal in the horizon.
CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya has yet again emerged as an articulate, scholarly and rooted leader with his eyes and ears firmly on the ground. His observations usually make practical sense and journalists have lapped them up during the Bihar polls. For instance, he said that the CPI-ML victories were basically because of the prolonged ground work and struggles waged silently and stoically in very difficult conditions among the poorest for decades, though it did score victories in few constituencies in earlier assembly elections. He said that the top BJP leaders attacking his party with three MLAs, only pointed to the fact that they were politically scared, while the CPI-ML’s profile was definitely changing. He also said that the Congress was always walking on thin ice in Bihar and both the Congress and Left should have got 50-50 seats each in the alliance, instead of the Congress getting 70. The Congress, as is known, botched it up badly in the final instance winning only 17 seats.
The CPI-ML has repeatedly stressed that this electoral mobilisaiton was a continuation of a relentless movement on the ground, a long and hard struggle, a sharpening of grassroots contradictions, a forging of progressive alliances, and a clear and decisive political position that the main political enemy are the fascists.
Since then, Dipankar Bhattacharya has asserted that the BJP should be considered as political and electoral enemy number one, and the Left should unite with other democratic forces to defeat it. He has frankly said that in Bengal, where elections are slated to happen next year, his party has little presence, but the CPM should change its static position and tactics.
The CPI-ML leader believes that BJP and its communal bandwagon has to be stopped in Bengal, and this can only happen if the Left declares it as its political and electoral enemy number one, while keeping its opposition to Trinamool Congress intact.
In other words, the CPM just cannot continue with its hackneyed and unconvincing line of equating both the parties in the same vein, considering that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool is a formidable and successful scaffolding against the rise of the BJP in Bengal in the current circumstances.
However, political observers believe, in the case of the Trinamool weakening or breaking up in the days to come, or with many more of the fragile Left support base moving to the BJP, as has been the case in recent years since its ouster from power after three decades of rule in Bengal, the Hindutva forces might become a major force in the state.
The Left, especially the CPM, just cannot allow that to happen, hoping that its mythical support base will one day ‘return’ to its fold, which has really not happened. Once entrenched, it will be difficult to get rid of the BJP in Bengal, and the stupid slogan of ‘Pehle Ram, Phir Bam’ is uncanny and in bad faith — a dark, unhealthy joke.
Dipankar Bhattacharya has said, “I would clearly state that the TMC and the BJP can’t be put in the same bracket. The BJP should be identified as the principal political enemy in West Bengal… If you go by this theory that to counter the BJP, the TMC has to be defeated first, then there is no need to oppose the central government for now. One has to wait for the BJP to come to power in all the states and then start opposing it. It’s an impractical proposition… A BJP government in West Bengal will be a bigger threat for the Left and the entire democratic set-up…”
Seemingly, the CPM in Bengal, as has its been dominant and unrelenting narrative over the years, does not agree. In another doomed alliance yet again with the Congress which has lost its moorings in Bengal, and with its rapidly and consistently depleting support base, with no clear ideological battle-line either in theory or praxis drawn against the communal forces on the ground, and its erstwhile cadre strength usurped by the Trinamool and BJP, it is only paving the mainstream opposition space to the BJP’s communal polarisation.
Surely, being a stick-in-the-mud in such difficult and bleak times, when India’s secular democracy is itself at stake, makes little historic or political sense. Indeed, Bihar has a few hard lessons for the secular and Left forces in Bengal – only if they are prepared to learn, especially the CPM.