Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami, a review

Vijay Prashad, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today

New Press, 2012

That south Asians in the US face Islamophobia and racism was made clear on August 5th of this year when Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist who was being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, entered a Gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI and killed 7 people, most of them Sikhs.  While the media went into overdrive trying to convince everyone that this was a “mistake,” that the real targets were Muslims and not Sikhs, as if this was supposed to be some consolation to anyone, it was quite clear that the problem was in fact the long and persistent demonization of Islam and the omnipresent xenophobia to which all immigrants are subject.

Sikhs were attacked not because Page mistook them for Muslims, but because Muslims, in general, are seen as a fifth column in the US.  As a result, anyone who happens to look like them becomes necessarily a casualty of the racism that has been mobilized against Muslims in general.  Even though the media attempted to portray this as the consequence of individual ignorance or misrecognition, the events of Oak Creek are better understood as the result of widespread propaganda which cautions fear by arguing that all Muslims are possible terrorists.

But Sikhs in the US are victims of Islamophobia in different ways than are Muslims, and that was at least part of the reason that the massacre at Oak Creek happened.  So desperate are non-Muslim immigrants to prove their American loyalty that they repeat the humiliating refrain over and over again—“But we are not Muslims!”—in the hopes that this will relieve some of the pressures that they face.  South Asians become mascots of Team Docile Immigrant and then are pitted against Arabs and Muslims (even though many South Asians are Muslims) in the never-ending process of racializing “terrorism.”

The production of “good” or “model” minorities in the United States has always been connected to a process of isolating the “bad” or “criminal” races.  If from the 1970s to the 1990s South Asians were seen as the ideal immigrant population (hardworking, law-abiding, upwardly mobile), it was because that depiction of them was convenient as a stick with which to beat African Americans and Latinos in the US.  Today, it is convenient for the Global War on Terror.

One more thing went unnoticed, though.  Unlike Muslims and Arabs who are subject to intense scrutiny by law enforcement and are asked to make themselves available to intelligence agencies all the time, Sikhs have not been subject to state surveillance.  Law enforcement agencies have undergone countless hours of training in learning how to deal with Muslims and the issues that surround Muslim communities (not all of this learning has been salutary, one has to add), but this has not extended to learning about or reaching out to the myriad other communities that are affected by the twin problems of Islamophobia and anti-terrorism.

One of the strange consequences of this is that while most mosques have video and security equipment installed outside and have direct lines to law enforcement agencies, most Gurudwaras do not.  In some ways, then, the attacks on Gurudwaras and Sikhs are not mistakes: they happen because Sikhs are vulnerable and visible in ways that most Muslims have learned not to be.  One needs to add, though, that countless mosques are routinely attacked and vandalized with almost no media attention; the singular and exceptional focus on Oak Creek is one more indication of how much Islamophobia is tolerated in the US.

But understanding the complex and contradictory ways that many south Asians have both suffered from and been cheerleaders for Islamophobia requires having a historical understanding of the divide-and-rule racial politics of American society.  This is the task that Vijay Prashad sets out in his new book, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, a survey of many of the important trends and issues facing South Asians in the US since 9/11.  In it, Prashad elegantly captures the contradictory pressures on South Asian Americans as they navigate the crucible of domestic racial politics, India-US political and economic relations, and internal divisions with the South Asian American communities in the US.

This book picks up where Prashad’s previous book, The Karma of Brown Folks, left off.  In that book, Prashad demonstrated, in part, how many South Asians were recruited in the United States to participate in the discourses of anti-black racism in exchange for ethnic inclusion into larger public spaces.  At the same time, Prashad showed, smaller groups of South Asians became involved in important community organizing campaigns in the US and developed as important leaders in anti-racist and international solidarity work.  A deep sensitivity to the push-pull forces that affect South Asian immigrants as well as an understanding of transnational movements of peoples into and out of the Indian subcontinent marked some of the best features of the earlier book.

But the new project is best understood as one of comparative racial formations in the US.  He argues, “In my own earlier work I argued that the fear factor of ‘blacks’ created the conditions for the construction of the Indian American as the model minority, whereas I will now argue that this is insufficient.  It is the terror factor of the ‘Muslim’ alongside antiblack racism that provides the political space for Jewish Americans and Hindu Americans to mitigate their cultural differences from the mainstream, but crucially to put themselves forwards as those who, because of their experience with terrorism, become the vanguard of the new, antiterrorist Battleship America.”

That integration of Indian (Hindu) American identity with antiterrorist politics has taken a number of different but parallel tracks in the US.  The first is the creation of the “India Lobby,” which explicitly argues for the interests of Indian capitalism within the halls of American power.  Two simultaneous processes helped to grow the India lobby and the India caucus within the American Congress.  The new opportunities opened by India’s economic liberalization beginning in 1991 meant that India was seeking new partnerships with the US and American capitalists were looking for ways to penetrate Indian markets.  The resulting convergence of interests paved the way for the lifting of sanctions on India and for closer military collaboration.

The second is the construction of a South Asian (more precisely, Hindu and Indian) identity as victims of terrorism, and so like the Israelis and the Sri Lankans, natural allies in the Global War on Terror.  Military connections and arms trades between India and Israel were already extensive when Indian Americans also launched the US-India Political Action Committee (explicitly modeled on AIPAC).  But the myth of “American-Israeli-Indian” victimhood was predicated on another myth of a singular “Islamic” enemy launching terrorist attacks on all three nations.  Despite the fact that the groups and organizations that each nation is organizing against are all different, this mythology has been convenient at creating the impression of a global jihad launched by a monolithic Islam.  It has also meant that India has not had to answer in the US for its ongoing occupation and brutalization of the people of Kashmir.

The third has been the transformation into celebrities of certain right-wing Indians who have risen to important political posts.  The likes of Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Sonal Shah, and Dinesh D’Souza have all been lionized in the Indian American press as signs of Indian American accomplishment without ever interrogating the political content of their vision.  At the same time, the fact that the majority of South Asian Americans are a part of the Democratic Party and usually left-of-center gets overlooked in the ways that certain Indians have been used to advance a neoliberal agenda in the US.

The most nefarious aspect of all of these processes has been the mainstreaming of a right-wing Hindu chauvinist ideology (called Hindutva), which has both been used against Muslims in the subcontinent as well as against linguistic, ethnic, and caste-based minorities.  In the US, the Sangh Parivar, the coalition of the Hindu right in India, uses American multiculturalism to its advantage to advance a particularly narrow understanding of Hinduism, one which whitewashes its long legacy of sexism and caste chauvinism, in particular.  This process, what Prashad calls “Yankee Hindutva,” has allowed for the growth of right-wing organizations in the US in exchange for Indian cover for American aggression abroad.

Prashad’s book is an important contribution to the understanding of how race and ethnicity are always tied up in a larger understanding of the historical flows of capital across national boundaries and the devastating effects of imperialism on people all over the world.  If there is one place that the book falls a little short it is in its call for an ethics of compassion, modeled around Gandhi in the concluding chapter, rather than fleshing out a politics of solidarity modeled around internationalism in the working class.  Indians have, as Prashad shows, participated in spectacular movements of international solidarity, and the growth of these tendencies inside the working class in the subcontinent and in the US will play no small part in challenging the American imperium.  By drawing our attention to the politics of race and ethnicity in the US, though, Prashad’s book serves an important function by highlighting just how deeply connected the fights against racism and imperialism are.

City of Irreverents

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Penguin Press, 2012, 304 pp.

It’s difficult not to like Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, not the least because the novel irreverently does what few in Maharashtra (or in India) are able to do without bringing down the ire of certain political supremos: it defies the unofficial ban on calling the city by its more cosmopolitan moniker, “Bombay.”  This is, incidentally, the first and last word of the novel.

And the irreverence continues, in ways (and with words) that would make a Mumbaikar cringe.  The novel takes such pleasure in describing the proper way to consume opium in a long pipe (“The length is very important, it cools the smoke as it travels”), what sex is like for a hijra (“I feel pleasure but not, what’s the word?, relief”), and the pleasures of random acts of violence (“what he was unprepared for the joy that shuddered up from his hands into his brain”) that it is nigh on impossible not to follow it wherever it turns.

In fact, what is so thrilling about the irreverence of a novel like Narcopolis is the sheer audacity of attempting to understand the dramatic changes Bombay undergoes since independence by tracing the history of the city as a node in the global traffic of opium.  This also helps to explain the novel’s (and our) enduring fascination with a performance like Zeenat Aman’s “Dum Maro Dum” in Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. Bombay’s transformation from colonial port to decadent cultural capital, in Thayil’s rendering, is a story of the rise and fall of certain kinds ofnasha, before they lose out to their faster, harder cousins: heroin, cocaine, and the synthetics.

In this telling, Bombay becomes a city populated by characters that could be taken straight from Sa’adat Hassan Manto’s world and rendered sensitively in a modern light: a Chinese dissident fleeing Communist Party rule with his traditional opium pipes; a lapsed Muslim who owns an opium den; a religiously ecumenical hijra (dare we say Amar, Akbar, Anthony); a wife-beating middle manager; a Bengali babu who manages the accounts; and a thinly veiled surrogate for the author, a Keralan Christian addict and artiste who spends substantial time abroad.  It is also a portrait of Bombay in which Mumbaikers are not at the center.

As a result, the novel is able to do things with language and form that are definitely innovative.  The soporific style and the narcotic haze in which the plot of the novel is delivered (and it’s important to say that this is a novel with the thinnest of plots) are remarkable in their distance from the expected formulas of Mumbai noir or Filmfare glitterati speak.  But it is also able to do this by linking Bombay up to the global traffic in narcotics as it stretches from China, through Southeast Asia, and into Pakistan and Afghanistan, making the story of Bombay an international story spoken in international English.  In every sense, Thayil’s Bombay has not yet been written, and even perhaps seen.

The book has been much in the news in the past several days because it made the long list for the Man Booker Prize, the unacknowledged kingmaker of contemporary Indian fiction in English.  But even here, the novel is supposed to be irreverent, flouting the longstanding tradition of historical allegories, wordplay, and leftist politics which have characterized the blockbuster novels in English.  I say “supposed to” intentionally—despite the stylistic and thematic differences from the Rushdie-Roy-Ghosh trimurti, there are plenty of similarities, as well (“Satan/Shaitan/Shat On”).

The problem with the novel’s impious attitude towards literature and politics (and it’s fetishization of irreverence in general) is that it mistakes novelty for insight and titillation for drama.  The novel’s greatest strength, it bears underlining, is its sensitive rendering of characters that are rarely deemed deserving of ink, and it brings a deeply humanist skill at portraiture to bear in giving flesh to otherwise caricatured types.

But one of the pitfalls of such an approach is that the novel is also mesmerized by the aphoristic nuggets produced by these characters in their drug-induced stupor.  So what is supposed to be philosophical (in the way that hallucination and religious revelry are kins) turns out to be clichéd and underwhelming, the drug at the end of its high, not at its height.  So we learn that “women are more evolved biologically and emotionally” than men are or that “childhood was a kind of affliction, certainly physical and possibly mental” as if these were quotable truths suspended in the fog of the narrative.

The other pitfall is that the novel misses the important role drugs played in transforming the economy of the city.  The characters in Narcopolis are more victims than agents, and so by the end of the novel almost all of them are (spoiler alert!) dead as the narrator nostalgically hopes to recreate the world that was centered on opium in his distaste for the world that is built on cocaine, a world of cheap shimmer and dead surfaces.  But opium was not a victimless indulgence, especially not for the owners of the opium dens, whose children become in the new Bombay the inheritors of a vast criminal operation.

Narcopolis, though, is definitely worth a read, despite some of these shortcomings, because it attempts to make sense of Bombay from the margins, from the transformations taking place in the brothel and the opium den, as opposed to from the Ambani skyscraper or the Imperial Towers.  It’s a reminder of both the seductions and the dangers inherent in all acts of irreverence, and why understanding the libertarian utopia of the addict (“are addicts free? Are they in fact the freest of men?”) is not, ultimately, sustainable or durable, even as it is preferable to some of the darker realities of Mumbai.

Pamphlet on Maruti-Suzuki workers (translated from Hindi)

Long live the revolution!

Long live workers’ unity!

Stop the repression and harassment of the Maruti-Suzuki workers!

Stop declaring workers criminals with one-sided, incomplete inquiries!

Bring charges against the agents of management for stoking the violence!

Comrades,

The events of July 18th at the Manesar plant of Maruti-Suzuki are representative events that reveal the condition of workers in today’s age.  These events have brought forward [revealed] the suffocating atmosphere of the nation’s factories and the smoldering anger of its workers, but it has also stripped the mask from the real face of the government, the Indian Administrative System [IAS] and the police machinery [apparatus].  These events have also exposed the vast [vicious] anti-worker character of the capitalist media and at the same time rather than being unbiased and independent as they greatly claim they are really the mouthpieces [megaphones] of the ruling classes.

And just as the electronic media has conducted one-sided reporting, they too have gotten down to the business of characterizing the workers as a mob bent on violence, anarchy, and murder.  Ignoring all established procedures [rules] of law, the police made all 3000 workers suspects and has begun rounding them up.  At the same time, not a single member of management has been interrogated.  There is a growing sympathy for the members of management who were injured in the scuffle, but there is no concern for the injured workers.  The workers have repeatedly insisted that management brought in thugs, but neither the police, the administration [IAS?], nor the media have not found it relevant to look into that.  Just as in the incidents at Graziano in NOIDA or Allied Nippon in Sahibabad, here, too, there has been a one-sidedness before any investigation, meaning the workers have been charged as criminals.

Certainly, the events that took place at the Manesar plant on July 18 were neither coordinated nor could they have been part of any strategy of struggle [resistance].  It was an explosion of long-brewing anger among the workers whose fuse was lit by the mischief [plotting] of management.  From the media to the government, no one bothered to learn why the workers’ anger unleashed itself in this manner.  Last year, during the campaign [movement] of three long waves of actions from June to October, there was not a single incident of violence on the part of the workers.  The workers were inside the factory for thirteen days in June, and then outside the factory for 33 days in September when they held an encampment, and once again in October when several parts of the plant were under workers’ control.  Despite being goaded by management, there was not a single incident of property destruction or violence.  The same workers that conducted a long campaign with uninterrupted nonviolence—why did these very workers become violent [fierce]?

Looking at the condition of Maruti-Manesar over the course of the last several months makes everything clear.  Last October, when the management used the filth of bribes, government intimidation and false promises to force a compromise and destroyed the Maruti Suzuki Employees Union by buying off its leadership with bribes, it proved that it did not have good intentions.   In order to stop the never-ending stream of losses, they wanted to put an end to the strike by any means, but they had no intention of fulfilling the workers’ demands.  The course of events over the last eight months has demonstrated that this is true.

 

{PARTIAL TRANSLATION … I will update this throughout the day}

INCACBI Appeal to Academics: Boycott Collaboration with Israeli Academic Institutions at the Indo-Global Education Summit & Expo 2012, Hyderabad, September 7-9, 2012

New Delhi,
4 July 2012

Dear Colleague,

We, a group of academics, activists and artists in India, came together in June 2010 to campaign against yet another apartheid regime by extending support to the international campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

The Israeli state daily tramples on the academic freedom and cultural life of the Palestinian people, and continued association with the instruments of such a state is unconscionable. We believe that academic life is rooted in the values of democracy, equality and justice. The pursuit of excellence in the fields we work in has meaning only if imbued with conscience. When Palestinian students and teachers are not allowed to reach their universities because of permit laws and checkpoints, universities and schools are leveled by bombs and tanks, food, textbooks, and medical supplies are prohibited from entering Gaza, and artistic events are closed down in Jerusalem, none of the foundational principles on which academic and cultural contact are based can ever be fulfilled.

Indian academia has historically played a crucial role in the liberation of our people, and to this day supports those who struggle against colonialism and foreign domination. We appeal to you, as Indian academics to join us in firm opposition to India’s strategic, scientific, military, and economic relations with Israel. We appeal to you to speak and act in solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for self-determination. Please visit http://www. incacbi.in for further information on how to join and what you can do.

This letter is to bring to your attention to yet another instance of India’s complicity in Israel’s brutal occupation and human rights violations in Palestine. Hyderabad is soon (September 7-9 2012) to host the Indo-Global Education Summit & Expo 2012at the Taj group of hotels, to which a number of Israeli Universities have been invited. This meeting seeks to facilitate academic partnerships between Indian and foreign Universities towards “collaborative research programs, joint/dual degree programs, twinning and transfer programs, faculty and student exchange programs, study abroad in India programs, distance education programs, and vocational education programs”.

Although ostensibly hosted by a private organization, The Indus Foundation, which purports to be an “American organization of professionals working as authorized representatives and promoters of American universities in the Indian sub-continent”, the mission statement of this organization has been “firmly” endorsed Kapil Sibal, Minister of Human Resource Development, in the interests of the needs of globalization. The summit itself has been blessed with his good wishes, and MHRD and Ministry of Home Affairs clearance has been given to the event. All this indicates that the Indian state’s recent assurances of commitment to “the restoration of Palestinian land and the assertion of Palestinian sovereignty” (Shri E. Ahamed, Minister of State for External Affairs, on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, January 28, 2011) are nothing but platitudes. Otherwise the GoI would have been appalled by the track records of Tel Aviv University, Technion, and Hiafa University, the three Israeli Universities invited to participate in the Summit.

All three institutions further the practice of institutional discrimination against Palestinian students (who are citizens of Israel) by severely restricting their freedom of speech and assembly and access to scholarships and student housing

1. Tel Aviv University (TAU):

Israel’s premier academic institution Tel Aviv University (TAU) is deeply invested in the facilitation and prosecution (at both the material and conceptual level) of what amount to war crimes.

  1. It has played the leading role in developing an explicit military doctrine of “disproportionality” calling for the targeting of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and civilian infrastructures, and is at the forefront of the development of technological support to the Israeli military and arms industry. Indeed, many of the TAU faculty are also leading officials in these establishments – for example, a lecturer in the Law Faculty at Tel Aviv University, Colonel Sharvit-Baruch was also the former head of the International Law department at the Israeli Military Advocate General’s office. Similarly, another professor, Yitzhak Ben‐Israel, holds the rank of an air force General and is head of Israel’s Space Agency, as well as Chair of the Knesset’s Lobby for the Defense Industries.
  2. TAU’s research Centre, the Institute for National Security Studies, is heavily involved in military planning, and hosts seminar, workshop, and lecture programs jointly with the National Security College, IDF Command, and National Security Council. It is a key venue in advancing what it terms the ‘redesign of the IDF’ into a force capable of achieving ‘the proper balance between the three threat arenas: classic, non-conventional, and low‐intensity.’ In early January 2009, TAU’s quarterly Review offered a special cover story focus on TAU’s ‘major role in enhancing Israel’s security capabilities and military edge.’ It celebrates ongoing high‐level military and surveillance research being ‘conducted in rooms and laboratories protected by barred windows, multiple locks and office safes. Amongst other programs, the Review celebrates:
  3. New explosives research being conducted in the Organic Chemistry Department;
  4. Electro‐optical missile defence research in the Faculty of Engineering (funded by ELBIT);
  5. Laser and radar air defence systems being developed in the Faculty of Exact Sciences;
  6. Electronic eavesdropping and transmission tracking developments in the School of Electronic Engineering;
  7. New algorithmic email surveillance and data‐mining techniques being pioneered in the Fleischman Faculty of Engineering;
  8. Biometric and genomic sorting and surveillance techniques developed in the Chemistry Department;
  9. Aerodynamic and flight control mechanisms for unmanned aerial vehicles being advanced at the School of Mechanical Engineering;

2. Technion

The scientific research institution Technion has long been known to be complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and the rights of Palestinians, specifically by designing military weapons and developing technologies used to drive Palestinians off their land, repress demonstrations for their rights, and carry out attacks against people in Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. Technion’s record of complicity in Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights is too long to reproduce here, but here are some highlights:

  1. It has a partnership with Elbit Systems, which is one of Israel’s largest private weapons manufacturers. Elbit manufactured the drones that Israel used in its crimes against civilians in Lebanon 2006 and Gaza 2008-09. This partnership has played a leading role not only in the construction and surveillance of the apartheid wall in Palestine, but also along the U.S.-Mexico border through its subsidiary, Kollsman.
  2. Technion trains its engineering students to work with companies dealing “directly in the development of complex weapons in the process of researching their academic theses.” In one example with Elbit Systems, the reward has been the funding of research grants in upwards of half a million dollars to Technion’s students conducting research.
  3. One of the institute’s most notorious projects resulted in the development of a remote-control function on the Caterpillar’s ‘D9’ bulldozer “used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian houses and farms and the development of a method for detecting underground tunnels, specifically developed in order to assist the Israeli army in its continued siege on the Gaza Strip.”
  4. Technion has deep relations with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, one of Israel’s largest government-sponsored weapons manufacturers famous for its “advanced hybrid armor protection system” used in Israel’s Merkava tanks. The institute has developed an “MBA program tailored specifically for Rafael managers” which further solidifies its relationship between academia and Israel’s military-industrial complex.

3. Haifa University

  1. Haifa University sponsors scholarships for army veterans and those who took part in the 2008/9 military attack on the Gaza Strip; and, as its former Rector, Professor Yossi Ben Artzi, has remarked through a 2010 press release “is proud to continue being the academic home for the security forces and to teach the IDF leadership a large number of different and diverse perspectives.” Professor Ben Artzi made this announcement following Haifa University’s winning of an Israeli army tender to continue training students at the army’s College for National Security for MA studies in the next five years.
  2. Another prominent professor at the University, Arnon Sofer, the Reuven Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy, in a speech on 15 December 2011, raised the alarm about the supposed invasion by Bedouins and other undesirable non-Jews and urged the government to act, presumably to expel them and retain the land for the exclusive use of Jews.

We hope this brief summary of the role played by these ‘academic’ institutions in the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian lands and people has underlined the need for a complete boycott of any academic relationship between Indian and Israeli Universities. There is no doubt that there may be many right-thinking individuals in these institutions as well; but continued or newly instituted educational ties with Israeli academic institutions, are exploited by the Israeli state as a means to legitimize its occupation. As Judith Butler has written, with regards to her visit to Israel years ago, “the rector of Tel Aviv University said, ‘Look how lucky we are. Judith Butler has come to Tel Aviv University, a sign that she does not accept the boycott,’ I was instrumentalized against my will. And I realized I cannot function in that public space without already being defined in the boycott debate.”

We appeal to you to publicise the information in this letter, as well as the boycott call. We seek your cooperation in exerting pressure on the institutional authorities of your University/institute to boycott any consultations\collaboration with Israeli academic institutions, both at the Summit and outside. In addition, we request you to mobilise your colleagues in our protest to the Indus Foundation (indus@indus.org) and the HRD minister (hrm@nic.in) against the invitation of Israeli academic institutions at the Summit.

For The Indian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (INCACBI)
Upendra Baxi (Delhi University, INCACBI Patron)
Ayesha Kidwai (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Convenor)
Mohan Rao (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Convenor)
Gargi Sen (Filmmaker, Convener)
Githa Hariharan (Writer, Convenor)
Kamal Mitra Chenoy (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
Anuradha Chenoy (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
Achin Vanaik (Delhi University)
Janaki Abraham (Delhi University)

  1. G. Arunima (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  2. Anand Chakravarthy (Delhi University)
  3. Uma Chakravarthy (Delhi University)
  4. Rupa Chanda (IIM Bangalore)
  5. C.P. Chandrasekhar (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  6. Roma Chatterji (Delhi University)
  7. Anuradha Chenoy (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  8. Kamal Chenoy (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  9. Satish Deshpande (Delhi University)
  10. Rohan D’Souza (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  11. Vasanthi Devi (Former VC, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamilnadu)
  12. Jayati Ghosh (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  13. Meena Gopal (SNDT Women’s University)
  14. Mushirul Hasan (Director, National Archives of India)
  15. Zoya Hasan (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  16. T. Jayaraman (Tata Institute of Social Studies)
  17. Mary John (Centre for Women’s Development Studies)
  18. Kalpana Kannabiran (Hyderabad University)
  19. Nuzhat Kazmi (Jamia Millia Islamia)
  20. Farida Khan (Jamia Millia Islamia)
  21. Vina Mazumdar (Former director of CWDS)
  22. Nivedita Menon (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  23. Aditya Nigam (Centre for the Study of Developing Studies, Delhi)
  24. Rajni Palriwala (Delhi University)
  25. Prabhat Patnaik (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  26. Prabir Purkayastha (Delhi Science Forum)
  27. Nina Rao (Delhi University)
  28. Kannamma Raman (University of Mumbai)
  29. Rahul Roy (Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi)
  30. Madhu Sahni (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  31. Sumit Sarkar (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  32. Tanika Sarkar (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  33. Nandini Sundar (Delhi University)
  34. Vikram Vyas (Delhi University)

And 100 other INCACBI members

May Day Appeal from Jan Sansad


Our Labour ! Our Strength ! Workers Power Zindabaad !
Labour Day : An Appeal from Jan Sansad
Dear Friends,
Zindabaad !
Every year the May Day is celebrated by millions of workers around the world commemorating the the hard earned workers rights after years of struggles. It is a celebration but also a time to remember the victories, defeats and challenges infront of the workers movement even as we move ahead. Workers of the world unite ! The slogan has assumed much importance and the meaning of work and labour has also gone through significant changes over years. Today nearly 93% of the workers are in the unprotected and unorganised sector who are still having to fight for their basic rights : social security, job security, pension, health and education facilities, eight hour working day, mandatory leaves, fair wages, minimum wages, right to unionise and others.

A hard fought right to form independent unions by the workers is under threat and so are other rights in the era of global capital pushing for maximum exploitation of labour and complete privatisation and contractualisation of work in neo liberal reforms era. Millions of agricultural workers, NREGA workers, construction workers, fish workers, forest workers, hawkers, and many other non-traditionally recognised forms of workers remain outside the social security net and face problems with the authorities in forming their own unions across the country. In the same way millions of workers working in manufacturing sector face the same problem most recent being Maruti factory in Gurgaon, Rockman and Satyam in Dehradun and elsewhere.

Various studies, surveys and reports have accepted the fact that this group of workers contributes more than 60% to the GDP. From road construction crews to domestic help, they work long hours for less than the minimum wage, receive no compensation for work-related injuries; and they receive no social security. About 44% of all unorganised urban workers are construction workers but they have no social security or job security, most of them migrants who stream in from remote villages where agriculture can no longer support their growing numbers. It is unfortunate that even though nearly 60% of the population is engaged in the agriculture, fishery and forestry but their total contribution to the GDP has come down to nearly 16%, indicating worst agrarian crisis fuelling large scale farmers suicide and migration.

These issues and others were discussed at Rashtriya Jan Sansad held in New Delhi (March 19 – 23), attended by nearly 7,500 people from 20 States over five days. Member’s of People Parliament agreed that time has to demand rights and justice for the working class people who are running the economy today but remain unprotected and unorganised. Some of the significant resolutions from the discussions on the subject are following :

• The honest producers of this country – workers, artisans, fisher folks, hawkers, and others in unprotected and unorganised sectors continue to be oppressed and often victimised. The 93% of workers who have been denied social security pensions should be given protection equivalent to the organised and secured sectors. There should be access to food, water, shelter etc. to everyone equitably. Every service, every resource or development benefits should be equitably distributed.
• The Provisions for pension must be extended to the 93% workers in the informal and unorganised sector workers, the current provisions are not at all adequate. The inequality in various pension schemes in different states must be removed.
• There should be an end to inequality in the country. The politicians are working only for the interests of a handful of people, not for the interests of the masses. There shouldn’t be a difference of more than 1:10 in the income of the people and a ameeri rekha should be determined. Tax should be levied on property and assets, not on small productions or incomes.
• Right to Unionise is a fundamental right and it must be respected irrespective of the sector, work, etc.
• All forms of forced labour must be stopped effectively. There is need of comprehensive social protection for all unorganised sector workers and fair wages must be given to them. The minimum wages must be raised to a living wage level and it must be ensured that these are remitted on time. Minimum wages should be as such that the whole family is provided for by the income of one. The below poverty line families list should be enumerated by the members of the gram sabha or the electorate of the urban areas.
• There must be provisions for Rain Basera (shelter homes) for daily wagers and migrant workers. The migrant workers in cities who have faced eviction must be duly rehabilitated.
• Under NREGA, work must be provided throughout the year. Corruption must be stopped in NREGA and different pension schemes must be introduced.
• The ambiguities and contradictions in central and state labour laws must be removed. The labourers must be adequately represented in the labour boards.
• The use of machines in PMGSY must be stopped and manual labour be implemented so that the employment can be provided to workers and their skills can also be upgraded.
• There is a need for changes in the hawkers policy and provisions must be made for them to be allotted shops and given rehabilitation as per requirement.
• The domestic workers must be brought under the sexual harassment act and be provided protection and security under various acts.

Many other issues were discussed during the Jan Sansad which will take forward the struggle for the development with justice and equity. The programmes emerging from the Jan Sansad will be carried forward in coming days by the movements and community groups in their regions and areas through struggles, moblisations and advocacy.

On this Mazdoor Diwas on May 1st our constituent groups organise to demand the rights, dignity and security for the 93% of the working force of this country and pave the way forward for a most just and humane society. We hope you all will join us in taking forward the struggle for a life and livelihood of dignity for millions of working class people of the country.

In Solidarity,

Medha patkar, Prafulla Samantara (Orissa), Sandeep Pandey (Uttar Pradesh), Dr. Sunilam (Madhya Pradesh), Gautam Bandopadhyay (Chattisgarh), Suhas Kolhekar, Vilas Bhongade, Subhash Lomate, Sumit Wajale (Maharashtra), Shaktiman Ghosh (National Hawker Federation), P Chennaiah, Ramakrishna Raju (Andhra Pradesh), Gabriele Dietrich (Tamilnadu), Vimal Bhai (Uttarakhand), Rakesh Rafique, Manish Gupta, Rupesh Verma (Western Uttar Pradesh), Prof. Ajit Jha, Rajendra Ravi, Bhupendra Singh Rawat, Vijayan M J, Madhuresh Kumar (Delhi), Gurwant Singh (Punjab), Anand Mazgaonkar (Gujarat), Mahender Yadav (Patna, Bihar), Nizam Ansari (Bokaro, Jharkhand), Geo Jose (Kerala) and others
(Jan Sansad Coordinating Committee)

Jai Bhim, Comrade — a film by Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan‘s new film “Jai Bhim Comrade” took 14 years to complete. Beginning with an incident at Ramabai Colony in Mumbai where 10 Dalits were shot dead by the police in 1997, the film goes on to explore the music of protest of those who were treated as “untouchables” by a caste hierarchy that has ruled the Indian sub-continent for thousands of years.

Free Soni Sori!

Adivasi teacher in jail in India on charges of being a Maoist sympathizer.  She’s currently in jail in Chattisgarh, and this video is part of an international campaign to win her freedom.

Wednesday, March 8, 2012
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Press contacts:
Vinay Bhat
Cell: +1 412.527.7985
Kamayani Bali Mahabal
Cell: +91 98207.49204
Reading Soni Sori’s Letters from Prison

Video Montage Marks International Women’s Day
In a global show of solidarity marking the International Women’s Day, concerned citizens from around the world today released a video documentary based on letters written by imprisoned  adivasi school teacher Soni Sori, currently held in the Central Jail in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. The video is available for viewing and sharing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWnCrB1qwE4.

Soni Sori was arrested in New Delhi on October 4, 2012 and accused of being a Maoist supporter. Despite her appeals to courts in New Delhi, she was handed over to the Chhattisgarh police and taken to the state where she was beaten, sexually assaulted and given electric shocks by the police. Sori documented her torture in letters she wrote to her lawyer.

“On Sunday October the 9th 2011, I bore the pain quietly, all by myself. Whom could I tell? There was no one on my side out there,” she wrote in her letter which was read in the video. A subsequent independent medical examination found two sizable stones lodged in her vagina and another in her rectum.

Participants in this video project joined hands to draw attention to Sori’s case by reading from Sori’s letters on camera, supplementing the video with additional materials including photographs, news footage and Sori’s medical reports. As Sori said in one of her letters, she is only one of dozens of women in her prison who say they have suffered torture and sexual assault in police custody.

Sori’s lawyers have filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of India to transfer Sori to Delhi or another state where she would not be under the control of the Chhattisgarh police. Despite the severity of the torture, the hearing on the final decision on her appeal has been repeatedly delayed. Today marks the completion of five months since Sori was tortured.

Amnesty International has termed Soni Sori a Prisoner of Conscience (http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA20/047/2011/en) and demanded that she be freed immediately and the charges against her dropped. Human Rights Watch has appealed to the Prime Minister to investigate Sori’s case (http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/03/07/india-investigate-sexual-assault-police-custody).

Sori is in urgent need of medical treatment for the injuries that resulted from her torture. In another letter to her lawyer, she stated that the doctors in the Raipur jail have denied treatment, on grounds that she is a “Naxalite prisoner.” Protesting this, Sori went on an indefinite hunger strike.

The video documentary also highlights the need to hold the responsible police officials accountable. Instead of investigating the police officials involved in Sori’s torture, Ankit Garg, the Superintendent of Police who ordered and oversaw the torture according to Sori, was given a national award for gallantry last January 26, the Indian Republic Day.

Review: Kashmir: The Case for Freedom (Tariq Ali, et al)

In the summer of 2010, protests erupted throughout Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim part of what India claims to be its northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmiris have always asserted their independence from India).  Throngs of young men and women defiantly hurled rocks at Indian security forces and set tires on fire to prevent armored vehicles from entering into neighborhoods.  Their chants were bold—“Go, India, Go!” and “Azadi (Independence) for Kashmir” and “Quit Kashmir” (the last being a reference to the slogan of the Indian movement against British colonialism: Quit India).  The rare media outfits that did cover the protests began calling the movement, the Kashmiri Intifada, drawing explicit comparison to the other longstanding occupation in Palestine.  For fear of having international opinion turned against it, the Indian government quickly clamped down on all media coverage of the resistance in Kashmir and opened its playbook to its favorite page: the rock-throwers in Kashmir were quickly dubbed Islamic terrorists.

At the same time, the repression in Kashmir against the population was brutal.  Protests were met with shootings, lathi (baton) charges, the firing of tear gas, curfews, mass arrests, shootings, disappearances, and torture.  The viciousness of the crackdown has its basis in the suspension of any legal oversight or consequence for the Indian security apparatus; since 1990, Kashmir has come under the purview of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which allows, among other things, any soldier or officer to fire upon any group of five or more people or anyone suspected of having a weapon, arrest anyone without a warrant and conduct home invasions. It also gives military personnel full immunity from prosecution for their actions.  Additionally, Kashmir is also one of the most heavily policed and militarized places in the world, with estimates of Indian security forces in the region at well over 700,000 (the Government of India refuses to release official numbers).  It bears underlining that the population of Kashmir is approximately 5.5 million, which means that there is one security personnel for every eight Kashmiris, a ratio which beggars Mubarak’s Egypt.  The carte blanche given to the police and military and the constant rhetoric of Islamic insurgency have proven to be a deadly and humiliating mix for ordinary Kashmiri civilians.  In one shocking video that was uploaded to youtube, Indian soldiers were seen parading young Kashmiri men naked through their village en route to a military camp.

Kashmir: The Case for Freedom, with contributions by Tariq Ali, Hilal Bhatt, Angana Chatterji, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy and selections of poems by the 16th-century Kashmiri poet, Habbah Khatun, comes at an important time, as new political and economic realities put the resistance of the Kashmiri people back on the map of global protest.  The book is essentially a handbook for human rights activists across the world, who have seen the protest movement in Kashmir grow but who have been left confused by the obfuscations which pass for journalism and the lies which are official politics in India, Pakistan, and the United States.  The overwhelming conclusion that any reader can come to after reading the book is the simple and straightforward one that Arundhati Roy arrives at: “Does any government have the right to take away people’s liberty with military force?  India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much—if not more—than Kashmir needs azadi from India.”

Kashmir has long tradition of religious syncretism, cultural innovation, and political resistance, but an equally long legacy of feudal, colonial, and now sub-imperial conquest.  The crux of the contemporary problem stems from the opportunistic way that the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent was carried out and the vicious way that those terms are enforced on the population.  When British rule was established in Kashmir in 1846, Kashmir (recently conquered by the Sikh invader Ranjit Singh in 1819) was sold off to Dogra royalty (the Hindu rulers of neighboring Jammu) for 7.5 million rupees, 6 pairs of shawl goats, and 3 shawls (under the absurd Treaty of Amritsar).  Dogra rule was economically ruinous for the population who were reduced to a condition of absurd poverty; the few young people who could, escaped to other places in India, where they were radicalized and returned to raise slogans of freedom, justice, and land reform.  Before the partition of India, the dominant politics of the movement for Kashmiri independence, led by Sheikh Abdullah, were a heady mix of socialism and nationalism, not political Islam as is often claimed by more contemporary analysts.

When the British left India, the 565 prince states which had maintained a degree of political autonomy through treaties with the British were given the choice of acceding either to India or Pakistan or remaining independent.  Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, still hadn’t decided; leaders of the Muslim League were attempting to woo him to Pakistan, while his Hindu sympathies seemed to incline him in favor of India.  Leaders in Pakistan decided not to wait and planned an invasion.  Hari Singh, worried about being deposed militarily, quickly negotiated an accession to India in exchange for military support.  But under the terms of the agreement, Kashmir was to be allowed a referendum to determine the will of the people on the question of accession.  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, despite publicly proclaiming his support for the plebiscite (as Arundhati Roy’s excellent collection of excerpts of his speeches shows), ultimately reneged on his promise.  The Indian army was able to repel the Pakistani invaders only up to a point; the current Line of Control which divides Kashmir more or less marks the results of that confrontation.  Since then, Kashmir has become a pawn in the cynical and deadly game between India and Pakistan.  India uses Kashmir to claim that it is a democratic society (but does so by rigging elections, importing pliable Hindu rulers, imprisoning elected leaders, brutally oppressing the population), while Pakistan claims that it is interested in Kashmiri independence (despite having flooded the Valley with guns and an intolerant variant of Islam and denying independence to its other occupied territory, Balochistan).

The book makes two important contributions to our understanding of what has happened in Kashmir since that point.  The first has to do with the form of the resistance, which has shifted over the years from secular nationalism to Islamist politics and back again.  The period between the 1940s and the early 1980s was dominated by the secular, nationalist forces in Kashmir organized under Sheikh Abdullah who initially sought some kind of compromise with the Indian state for greater autonomy within a larger federation.  When even democratic dialogue broke down and India reneged on promises, a few groups (like the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front) broke away from the dominant nationalist coalition and began waging a guerrilla struggle.  At the same time, Pakistan flush with arms and militants it was recruiting and training for the American-sponsored resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, began both recruiting Kashmir youth to jihadi outfits and began to send Islamist groups into Kashmir as well as providing weapons and training to secular groups as well (though they eventually stopped backing these groups all together).  The devastating effects of that policy on ordinary Kashmiris are documented in Hilal Bhatt’s personal essay in the collection.  But by the late 1990s, Islamist organizations had exhausted whatever appeal they may have had as their social policies came into conflict with Kashmiri ideologies and their inability to produce a military solution meant that ordinary Kashmiris were the ones suffering for the barbaric Indian crackdown that followed those terrorist activities.  The last decade of resistance has been characterized by secular, democratic opposition to the policies of the Indian state, a reality which goes against all of the mainstream propaganda that Kashmir is another front in the war on terror.

The second has to do with the staggering scale of violence that the Indian state perpetrates against the Kashmiri population (the condition of the Pakistani administered section while poor, is not nearly as bloody).  As Angana Chatterji puts it, “Kashmir is a landscape of internment, where resistance is deemed ‘insurgent’ by state institutions.”  [Chatterji and her husband, Richard Shapiro, have been targeted by the Indian government for their views on Kashmir and were both recently fired from their jobs at the California Institute of Integral Studies, in part, for their outspoken political advocacy.]  Part of the reason that Kashmir is so brutally repressed is because the Indian state is now governed by an ideology which requires the fiction of a massive security threat in order to justify exorbitant expenditures on its military and police forces.  This fiction is propped up, as Chatterji argues, by an ideology which amalgamates Hindu chauvinism, neoliberalism, and authoritarian statecraft.  The result has been the wholesale criminalization of even the mildest form of public protest.  Most recently, the police filed sedition charges against Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education for showing a man in blue carrying a stick under the Urdu letter “zoi” for “zaalim” (oppressor).  The police have charged everyone affiliated with the book with criminal conspiracy, defamation, and provocation with the intent to breach peace, since the innocuous depiction was assumed to be a police officer.  In another instance, an English professor, Noor Mohammad Bhat, was thrown in jail for administering a “provocative” examination assignment.

Despite making the case for an independent Kashmir and offering a brilliant indictment of the Indian government’s claim to being the largest democracy on the planet, the book falls short on one important point, namely in pointing out a strategy by which that independence can come about if armed struggle, mass protest, and even political compromise have all failed in turn.  The unfortunate reality in Kashmir is that it is extremely similar to Palestine, where the indigenous populations lack the necessary social force to repel the violence of occupation forces and then are forced into taking part in the opportunistic diplomacy of larger states around them.  But like Palestine, the Kashmiris have allies in both Pakistan and India who have no interest in the occupation of Kashmir, in fact whose lives would immediately be improved if both Pakistan and India were to stop spending Himalayan sums on security personnel and instead spend money on eradicating poverty.  The Indian and Pakistani working classes have common enemies—their own states—and the end to the occupation in Kashmir will only be the result of their unified struggle.  This though is only the slightest of criticisms; the spirit if not the explicit argument of the Arab Spring runs throughout this entire book.

[Special thanks to Huma Dar for suggestions and edits.]

JOINT STATEMENT ON POLICE ATROCITIES AND STATE REPRESSION ON ANTI-POSCO STRUGGLE

MARCH 6, 2012

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We strongly condemn the attack on and illegal abduction by the Odisha police of Umakanta Biswal, a famer belonging to Dhinkia village of Odisha, and an active member of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), that has been engaged over the last six years in resisting the forcible acquisition of their land by the Odisha government for handing over to the South Korean multinational corporation POSCO. This incident, which occurred on 2nd March 2012, is the latest in the series of atrocities inflicted by the Odisha government and by hired goons associated with the government and the POSCO company, on the people of these villages. Umakanta Biswal, who was engaged in agricultural activity in his paddy field at the time of his abduction, was pursued by a group of armed plainclothes policemen on a motorbike, and shot at when he tried to escape. He has reportedly been kept in Paradip prison, and has not been produced in front of a magistrate within 24 hours of his arrest, as is required under law. We have cause to fear that he is being tortured in police custody, and are gravely concerned about his safety. This highly irregular, and illegal, form of detention of a citizen, amounting to a kidnapping by the police, is emblematic of the situation in which the villagers of the POSCO-affected area are living for the last six years, just because they have tried to protect their lives and livelihoods from being devastated by corporate greed. Numerous villagers have multiple false cases lodged against them by the police, and people are in danger of being abducted and detained by the police while being engaged in day to day activities such as farming. There have also been incidents where a villager taking his sick child to hospital has been arrested by the police. This continuing victimization and violation of basic human rights of a whole community of people is intolerable, and goes against all tenets of constitutionality and humanity. We condemn this brutal and illegal action by the Odisha government and demand that Umakanta Biswal be immediately produced in court and released. We request the National Human Rights Commission to take cognizance of this illegal detention and violation of rights of a citizen, which is symptomatic of the violation of rights of the entire community of villagers in the area of the proposed POSCO project.

Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty POSCO Pratirodh Solidarity Samittee, New Delhi
Prafulla Samantara NAPM and Lok Shakti Abhiyan
Prof. Ajit Jha Samajwadi Jan Parishad
Partho Sarathi Roy SANHATI Collective
Kiran Shaheen Media Action Group, Delhi
Aarti Chokshi Secretary PUCL, Karnataka
Students for Resistance Delhi University and JNU
Amit Chakrabarty Research Scholar, JNU
Mamta Das NFFPFW and POSCO Pratirodh Solidarity, Delhi
Subrat Kumar Sahoo POSCO Pratirodh Solidarity Samittee, New Delhi
Kamayani Bali Mahabal Lowyer Activist, Mumbai
Asit Das POSCO Pratirodh Solidarity Samittee, New Delhi
Nayan Jyoti Krantikari Naujawan Sabha
Shankar Gopal Krishnan Campaign for Survival and Dignity
Mayur Chetia Research Scholar JNU
Arya Thomas Krantikari Naujawan Sabha
P.K. Sunderam Research Scholar JNU
Bhanumati Gochhait POSCO Pratirodh Solidarity, Delhi
Ranjeet Thakur Journalist, Uttarakhand
Rajni Kant Mudgal Socialist Front
Rita Kumari Pravasi Nagarik Manch
Pushpa Achanta Women against Sexual Violence State Repression Karnataka

The politics of general strikes in India

General Strike in India 

On February 28th, India’s major trade union federations declared a general strike, with early estimates of workers participating in the one-day industrial action in the tens of millions, making it the largest strike in India since the nation’s independence in 1947.  This is the first time that the trade union federations (which are all affiliated to one or another political party) have come together to protest against “neoliberal economic and labor policies” pursued by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party) government; the action was also supported by more than 5000 independent unions.

This reveals two important things about India that are usually forgotten by the western media.  First, that India is not merely a seething mass of desperation composed of peasants and the abject poor; it has a massive working class with some real organizations that are capable of bringing out their own forces.  And second, that the economic realities of neoliberal growth do not go unchallenged indefinitely.  Even in the places where the vice grip on workers has been tightened to extreme levels, people still find a way to fight back.

Among the demands that the unions made were the establishment of a national minimum wage, the ending of temporary employment (what are called “contract laborers” in India) in favor of permanent jobs, more effort to curb runaway inflation (hovering at around 7.5%), guaranteed pensions, and an end to the privatization of publicly owned companies.

The banking and insurance sectors were hit the worst by the strike, but other workers including dockworkers, postal workers, and transportation workers were heavily hit.  The coordination of a national strike of this scale marks the beginning of a new stage in the confrontation between labor and capital in India, as the benefits of India’s boom have produced a sclerotic economy, with benefits accruing to the few at the top.

Despite threats from the central government and a last minute offer to negotiate, the strike proceeded and brought out millions.  In places like Kerala, the state government threatened workers with a “dies non” order (no work-no pay), while in other places like Delhi, the government attempted to enforce the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to force workers in industries like power generation back to work.  In West Bengal, cadres of Mamata Bannerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) also attacked and injured strikers.

Slumdogs, Millionaires, and Manmohanomics

For the past decade, India has been the darling of the economic pundits globally, with massive growth rates and a burgeoning middle-class whose consumptive powers have fuelled the national mythology of “India Shining.”  According to current estimates, the Indian economy grew at around 7% last year and is projected to grow again at a similar rate in 2012.

At the same time, the benefits of that growth have been massively skewed.  As Katherine Boo’s new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, demonstrates, the growth of the Indian economy has happened at the same time as the growth of its underclass.  Mumbai, the symbol of India’s new economic power and famous for its massive film industry, is now commonly referred to as “Slumbai”; more people live in slums in Mumbai than not, where they work in the hyperexploitative informal economy (if they work at all).

Agricultural reforms implemented in the past twenty years have immiserated people in the countryside.  Last year alone there were more than 15,000 farmer suicides as a result of indebtedness and bad harvests.  Desperate farmers then migrate to the larger cities and towns where they form the massive reserve army of the unemployed which drives down wages.

At its core, the national strike is a response to these conditions and the pinch that workers are feeling throughout the country.  Last year there were some spectacular job actions at places like Maruti-Sazuki in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, where workers fought a pitched battle for wages, and occupied the factory for almost two weeks.

At the same time, the official line of the Congress Party-led Government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that neoliberal economic policies are going to continue.  At the heart of the fight with the unions is the controversial Pension Bill in Parliament currently, which would tie the pensions to market-driven financial instruments and put employee retirements in jeopardy.

But also at issue are Singh’s plans to sell off major state holdings in order to finance repayments on international loans and budget deficits.  Singh did, after all, cut his teeth as the economic architect of India’s neoliberal reforms which began to be implemented when he was the Finance Minister under PV Narasimha Rao.

It is the twin pressures that workers in India feel, both from the immiseration into which they are sinking from below (from inflation and from a growing underclass which they are trying desperately to unionize) and from above (in the form of neoliberalism and attacks on union rights) which has produced the conditions for greater militancy in India.

The Official Trade Unions

There are two reasons though that this confrontation between labor and capital in India will not be decisive, which are also the reasons that the unions have only put forward a tentative one-day strike with a rather long and vague list of demands.  First, the official trade unions are all connected to various political parties, and these massive days of protest are usually connected to political gamesmanship that the parties play against one another.

The unions at the head of the strike were dominated by the official left in India, which is still dominated by Stalinist and Maoist political organizations.  So in India there is the All-India Federation of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML-Janashakti), All India Central Council of Trade Unions (run by the CPIML), All India United Trade Union Center run by the Socialist Unity Center, the All India Trade Union Congress (run by the CP), Center of Indian Trade Unions (CPIM), United Trade Union Congress (run by the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

Now since many of these parties are no longer revolutionary parties in the long run, they tend to play a dampening rather than developing role on class struggle.  Which is not to say that workers don’t fight back, they do, but that their fights are limited from the top.  In 2006, there was an attempt to form a federation of Independent Trade Unions called the New Trade Union Initiative, which holds out some of the best possibilities for an independent trade union movement in India.  Many of their unions also participated in this one-day action.

Second, there are also reactionary trade unions like the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sabha [this was corrected thanks to a comment below -NRI] run by the right-wing BJP and the Bhartiya Kamgar Sena, run by the ultra-right Shiv Sena which brought out their members.  Both of these unions also participated in the strike, largely because the leftist unions kept the slogans vague enough that the right-wing could use the one-day strike as cover for the purported populist politics.

Part of the reason that the right and the left were able to come together (as they have in the past, as under the Janata Party government in the 1970s) is because they are both now in the opposition to the Congress Party’s UPA coalition which runs the central government.  In fact, despite agreeing early on to support the strike, the Indian National Trade Union Congress (run by the Congress Party) withdrew, after the party leadership put substantial pressure on it.  “The strike is politically motivated and illegal.  We will oppose it on Tuesday,” said Ashok Chaudhary, the national president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

But this alliance can only be temporary and opportunistic, as the BJP and Shiv Sena are both pursuing neoliberal policies (in Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively, where both of them play much larger regional roles).  It also sets forward a danger, since the right wing has not been shy about stoking up ethnic and communal hatred in times of economic contraction.

Communist Party and West Bengal

Part of the reason that the strike took place in as spectacular a way as it did was because of the routing the official left received at the polls in the last elections.  While they were in power in places like Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, they were able to play a dampening role on industrial actions.  Once they were removed from office, they have found it possible to release the discontent that their members face, in order to embarrass the current government, but only up to a point. Too much worker militancy threatens their own ability to contain mass anger, which is the only real thing that they have to offer in exchange for capital investments in their economically impoverished states.

It was also in those places where the strike was strongest and was able to do more than simply industrial work-stoppages but actually stop much traffic and business throughout major cities.  In other places throughout the country (Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka) the effects of the strike were not as strongly felt.

But the most significant showdown in the strike was clearly in West Bengal, where Mamata Bannerjee attempted to flex against her muscle against what she called “the politics of bandhs” (shutdowns of cities).  Having recently beaten the Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the polls, Bannerjee is now in the position of having to do the bidding of large capital, despite having organized strikes and bandhs herself in the past.

In Kolkata, the police were out in droves attempting to get people back to work, while Bannerjee’s TMC sent many of its members to break up rallies and pickets throughout the city.  Bannerjee came to power on the basis of a negative referendum on the CPM, when it tried to raze entire villages in order to make way for a manufacturing campus in the countryside for industrial giants like Tata Motors.  Bannerjee’s opportunistic about-face (now doing the work of the same capitalists that she claimed to oppose) will only expose her to greater challenges.

What the general strike reveals is the simultaneity of ordinary working class anger at the economic and political system in India as well as the inability of the major left groups to deliver anything but symbolic and token changes in their lives.  The general strike revealed that the working class in India is quite large and has the muscle to topple capitalism, but it will require new forms of political and union organization than the ones that are currently on offer.