Journal des Alternatives

Social Movements in India

At the Crossroads

Feroz Mehdi, Pierre BEAUDET, 1 December 2003

India’s governing party, the BJP, is a master at the tactical game of dancing between seduction and blackmail, governance and repression. Prime Minister Atel Behari Vajpai’s and Interior Minister Lal Kishan Advani’s are promoting a profoundly reactionary vision of India that threatens a long-term cycle of war and oppression. But the opposition, weakened by internal quarrels, provides little hope as its own legitimacy is being called into question by the emerging social movements.

At the beginning of the 1980s, after three decades of Congress Party rule, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or Indian People’s Party) took advantage of the decline of Ghandi’s once mighty party with a series of electoral advances. Little by little the Right became the dominant force in the country, in power on the federal level, and in a number of India’s 28 states. Through this rise to power, the BJP is attempting to eradicate Ghandi’s heritage while simultaneously stamping-out the Left.
But now, faced with the prospect of potentially losing power, the BJP is pulling out all the stops. Among other things they are polarizing opinion against Pakistan, a country India has been in a state of perpetual conflict with since 1948, which threatens catastrophic consequences if tensions continue to rise between these two nuclear powers. Sewing the seeds for an uprising in South Asia is being seriously considered by the BJP as a means to consolidate their political power. To enable this they are counting on the support of the United States as Washington lets its traditional ally Pakistan fall by the wayside, leaving India to play the role of the regional cop.

The BJP’s domestic strategy is equally menacing, as it attempts to marginalize the opposition, by reinforcing divisions within Indian society. According to the BJP, the 150 million Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities are responsible for the misfortunes of the majority Hindu population. "It’s ironic," says Jawed Naqvi, a New Delhi based journalist, "Indian Muslims have become the Jews of the new millennium." Last year in the north-western state of Gujarat, the BJP incited fanatic mobs to assassinate and torture defenceless Muslims. The Premier of Gujarat, Narenda Modi, whom many believe coordinated the massacre, has become the poster-child for the BJP as it prepares for federal elections sometime in 2004.

Political Impasse

A significant minority in the bastions of the North and the West of India, yet a marginal voice in the South and the East, the Indian Right rules by default thanks to the weakness of the opposition. The Congress Party, which many claim is an integral part of the State since independence in 1947, has become a machine of old power and hereditary politics. Despite her lack of charisma, Sonia Ghandi, has inherited the political dynasty that has passed from Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) to his own daughter Indira Ghandi, and finally on to Sonia (Indira’s daughter in law). In the states where Congress Party is currently in power, it is ignoring its origins, becoming "a little party like the others" according to Siddharth Varadarahan, editor of the major national daily The Times of India.

The Marxist Communist Party, the largest of India’s leftist parties, is holed-up in its fiefdom of Bengal holding sway over the state’s 70 million people. After transforming itself and following the demands of the IMF, the Party Chief and Premier of Bengal, Buddhaditya Mukherjee, has spoken out against agrarian reform arguing that it is old-fashioned and he has not supported political inclusion for the most neglected echelons of society (specifically the Dalits - or untouchables - who in India are the most oppressed of the oppressed). He also argues that hope for the future lies in privatization, reduction of public spending in education and health, and the rapid development of multinational agro-business, which includes liberalising investment markets. India’s new entrepreneurial class claims that India must compete with China over who will be the principal partner of corporate globalization. For the over one billion Indians, these plans mean that some will gain but most will lose, especially India’s 500 million impoverished peasants.

The Rise of Social-Political Resistance

Whether peasant or bureaucrat, Dalit from the Indian hinterland or resident of one of Mumbai’s (Bombay) immense shantytowns, every Indian is under the gun. But faced with the assaults of the extreme Right and the passiveness of the traditional Left, new social-political movements are emerging. A vast coalition of peasants, urban-dwellers, environmentalists, intellectuals (such as the writer Arundhati Roy) came together to fight the Narmada Dam project, which would have resulted in the flooding of thousands of villages in the north-west. Pressure from this movement forced the World Bank to abandon its pharaoh-like plans which, to the benefit of a couple of industrial sectors in need of water, would have made already poor regions even poorer. The public sector came to life last spring, organizing a national strike with the Congress of Indian Trade Unions (8 million members) against the government’s IMF-inspired pro-privatization policies and the forsaking of the public sector.

Other social movements, notably the women’s movement, are starting to question their leftist political partners who are refusing to defend their policies. Brinda Karay, Secretary General of the Association of Indian Democratic Women argues "the time has come for the Marxist Communist Party to start listening to social movements." Squeezed by the Right on one side, and failing to make links with the new social movements, the Left risks becoming irrelevant on India’s ever shifting political terrain.

The Clock is ticking

Isolated from the rest of the world by the Nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru, and with access to relatively strong institutions like the Communist Party, social movements are only now realizing the scope of the work that lies before them. "Culturally conservative, neoliberal on the economic front, movements on the Right are using everything at their disposal to create a new arrogant, authoritarian, pseudo-modern elite that is nevertheless very old when we realize that the same thing was done 70 years ago by Hitler and Mussolini" explains Vinod Raina of the popular education organization BGVS.

For many activists, the priority has to be countering this "Made in India" fascism that would use war and internal strife to solidify its political strangle-hold. But as long as the Left and the emerging social movements fail to offer a consolidated political counter-weight, the Right will continue to call-the-shots. Tapan Bose, founder of the Indo-Pakistan Peace Forum, is convinced that "there is very little time to avoid a war without end with Pakistan and ethnic purification à la BJP."

Pierre Beaudet and Feroz Mehdi


The authors are respectively executive director and South Asia project officer at Alternatives.

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