On September 28, Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary, Kanhaiya Kumar announced his decision to leave the CPI and join the Congress party. He joined Congress along with Congress-backed Gujarat MLA and Left-leaning Ambedkarite leader of the Dalit movement Jignesh Mevani.
Kanhaiya acknowledged he was “born in the CPI”, but that he felt the need to leave it and join the Congress since the Congress is the only party that can “lead in the ideological war to save the idea of India.”He said that today’s India needs Bhagat Singh’s courage, Mahatma Gandhi’s unity, and BR Ambedkar’s quest for equality, and implied that it was in the Congress that these three essential elements could unite and find a home.
We wish Kanhaiya and Jignesh nothing but success in the political careers of their choice. But the political arguments about fighting fascism offered by Kanhaiya beg several questions and call for closer scrutiny.
First: Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, and Ambedkar were all, indeed, freedom fighters. But there was never a time in history when they were all at home together in the Congress party. Rather, Bhagat Singh is Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, Ambedkar, because they chose to embrace revolutionary paths and goals (the cause of socialist revolution in the case of the former and that of Dalit liberation and the annihilation of caste for the latter) beyond the confines of the Congress. In the last phase of his life Gandhi too had distanced himself from the Congress as a political party, choosing to spend his days on riot-torn streets, or striving to ensure peace and justice for Muslim minorities in India. When he was assassinated for this social and moral cause by Hindu-supremacist forces who today rule India, it was not as a political leader of the Congress party. It is simply not possible to reinvent history today and artificially describe the Congress party today as the home for those three figures. One can only seek to do so by reducing them to one superficial dimension each, emptied of the specific ideas and contradictions that are their true gift to us.
The more important and urgent question, however, is this: which forces in India are currently “fighting the ideological war” against the fascists? Can that ideological war be fought better from a Congress platform rather than a Left one?
The main feature of fascism, that distinguishes itself from other authoritarian or anti-people forms of politics and state, is majoritarian tyranny and violence against minority communities as well as ideological adversaries, organised and orchestrated by the State in close collusion with a whole range of non-state forces. In India, fascism is Hindu-supremacist ideology and politics, which systematically employs the mainstream media as well as social media and grassroots organisational networks to spread its ideology. This ideology that comprises Islamophobia and the Manuvadi social hierarchies of caste and gender packaged as “social harmony”, and that brands all intellectual, ideological, and political challenges to religious, caste, and gender hierarchies as traitorous attempts to break up the “harmonious Hindu nation.”
The fight against fascism requires us above all to boldly and with all our might resist this fascist ideological and physical offensive against oppressed identities and revolutionary ideologies. It requires us to stand in bold defence of those being victimised as “anti-national” or even as “infiltrators”, rejecting and challenging the claim of Hindu-supremacist ideology to represent “Indian nationalism.”
It also requires us to reach out to help organise those sections of people affected by the policy offensive (in economy, education, health, and so on) unleashed by the fascists in service of their crony corporate funders. We must take up this challenge, even and especially when those who bear the brunt of this offensive are still in the fascists’ thrall. As the poorest Indians (who lost loved ones to Covid-19, lost livelihoods, lost hard-won labour laws; and are now losing the last bastion of survival – agriculture) recognise that they too are victimised by fascist policies, we need to stand by their struggles.
But no anti-fascist movement worth its name can shy away from the responsibility of confronting the hateful Hindu-supremacist or Manuvadi-patriarchal ideologies that have made deep roots within these very poor and exploited classes. As long as the workers and farmers, Dalit and adivasi and desperately poor communities, devastated as they are by the Modi regime’s policies, feel at best indifference and at worst, satisfaction in the humiliation and subjugation of Muslim minorities, or hate the idea of love between a daughter from one of their homes and a Muslim man, even their strongest movements against the current regime will fail to rise to the level of a successful anti-fascist resistance.
It is on this question that I think Kanhaiya’s own ideological understanding diverged with Left politics long before his formal break with it, and came much closer to that of the Congress and many other centrist political formations and their ideologies. The latter have as a rule given the persecution of minorities and of activists defending those minorities a wide berth. They argue that if they speak up against such persecution, Hindu voters will be alienated from them. Better to appeal to Hindu voters on the “safe” issues – of economic hardship, corruption, farmers’ rights, and so on, they say. Dalit or adivasi issues could figure here since these too are considered “safe”, as could issues of “women’s safety” – i.e rape; but issues of inter-faith or inter-caste marriage fall firmly in the politically unsafe and unpopular category. In September-October 2020, on the eve of the Bihar Assembly elections, Kanhaiya also argued much on the same lines.
In an interview with the Indian Express1 exactly a year ago (22 October 2020), Kanhaiya argued that the Opposition should set its own agenda - farm laws, labour laws, Ambani-Adani’s wealth in contrast with people’s unemployment and poverty, India’s worsening position in the hunger index and so on. He described the communal agenda set by the BJP (mandir-masjid, Hindu-Muslim) as purely intended to divert from the above-mentioned issues of substance. The interviewer - seasoned journalist Manoj CG – pushed him to elaborate, asking, “So the Opposition should avoid reacting to divisive issues?” Kanhaiya replied, “If there is a Hindu-Muslim (issue), as a political party you have to give a response. Give a response but consistently raise issues of farmers, unemployment, security of women, atrocities.”
The problem with this position, in my opinion, is that hateful agendas are not merely diversionary for the RSS and BJP. These agendas serve a dual function for India’s fascists. They push popular common sense towards the would-be “Hindu-supremacist Nation”, making Hindu-supremacist politics appear more and more “normal”. At the same time, these agendas serve as tools to mobilise large sections of the people to identify with a sense of Hindu victimhood and Hindu supremacy, rather than as oppressed Dalits or adivasis or women; or exploited workers or farmers; or unemployed and homeless poor. This is not mere “diversion” – it is pretty central to fascist politics, and there simply is no way to sidestep it. And for anti-fascists, these are not “Hindu-Muslim” divisive issues; they are issues of justice. The fascist propagandists brand all issues of justice as “Hindu-Muslim issues”, as Hinduphobia and Muslim appeasement – how can anti-fascists accept this characterisation?
The world’s best known anti-fascist poet was the Marxist Bertolt Brecht, who well knew that as long as exploited workers and peasants felt no solidarity for oppressed Jews, defeating the fascists was impossible. He wrote: “The compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable. It is the world’s one hope.” His poem, ‘Song of the SA Man’ is aimed directly at workers who fall for fascist propaganda and as members of the rank and file of the fascist brigades, kill Jews. One such worker sings, “They told me which enemy to shoot at/So I took their gun and aimed/And, when I had shot, saw my brother/Was the enemy they had named…./ So now my brother is dying/ By my own hand he fell/Yet I know that if he’s defeated/ I shall be lost as well.”
Kanhaiya, gifted with the power of simple, persuasive, and eloquent speech, could play an invaluable role in persuading the Indian people to recognise issues of justice and human rights violations as urgent, just as issues of bread and butter are. Instead, he seems to have decided that one must just issue a “response” – a press release – on “divisive” and “controversial” issues like the witch-hunt of Muslim minorities, and go back to stressing the bread and butter issues and the ‘safer’ issues of social justice. He articulated his stand in theory in October 2020 – but he had already done so in practice the previous month. On 16 September 2020, Kanhaiya had agreed to speak at a press conference we organised in the immediate wake of Umar Khalid’s arrest. But he failed to attend. Instead, later that day, he issued a response in the shape of a long-winded post covering the range of bread and butter issues on which the Modi Government had failed; and then used the ploy of fabricated cases, arrests, jail etc to divert from its failures. Buried in the six-para long litany of these failures was a curated list of some political prisoners, including Umar. At the time, Kanhaiya’s critics and his friends alike explained his avoidance of the issue, as a compulsion of electoral politics: specifically, the Bihar Assembly elections.2
Asked about his absence from the PC, Kanhaiya retorted, “Why am I being personally held accountable for not attending a press conference? Are such questions asked of members of other Opposition parties?” He had a point. If he, Kanhaiya, was silent on his student politics comrade Umar Khalid’s arrest, other Opposition leaders too were likewise silent. Congress has been silent on the unjust arrest and incarceration of its councillor Ishrat Jahan, as RJD has been silent on the arrest of its student leader Meeran Haider, in the same fabricated case in which Umar has been framed.
I would argue, however, that defensively ignoring issues of justice is a recipe for defeat not success for anti-fascists, even when it comes to real politics, electoral politics. If one has already conceded that one lacks the vocabulary and skill to persuade Hindus among one’s own (potential) voters to recognise and oppose injustice against Muslims, then surely one has conceded defeat to the fascists even before the elections have begun?
In the Bihar elections, the CPIML’s excellent performance drew a lot of attention. A key factor in that victory was the fact that the CPIML had been equally consistent in its sustained response to issues of the migrants crisis and hunger during lockdown; of unemployment and vacant government posts; of the rights of every section of workers and peasants in the state; of social justice and defence of reservations – and equally, on every issue of justice ranging from CAA-NPR-NRC; communal lynchings, arrests, and abrogation of Article 370. These issues – and the names of Umar, Sharjeel, Ishrat, Gulfisha, Safoora, Natasha, Devangana, Sudha Bharadwaj and others - figured in every CPIML election meeting. Predictably, BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath attacked the CPIML by linking it to “Naxals, Shaheen Bagh, JNU’s Tukde Tukde Gang, Kashmir” and so on in every rally.3Yet, the CPIML did well, and even outperformed its more defensive Opposition allies (the Congress performed especially poorly). Being bold rather than furtive about taking up issues of political injustice4 not only helped rather than hindered CPIML candidates – it gave the entire Opposition alliance campaign the energy and credibility it needed.5
It is apparent to all that the most effective and challenging Opposition to the BJP regime is found on the streets in the powerful and spirited ongoing movements – and of all the political trends, it is the Left that is most essential to, and most at home in those street struggles. The enemy recognises the Left’s credibility as a threat – which is why it tries (in vain) to tarnish this credibility: by branding every voice of ideological opposition as “urban naxals”. None of this propaganda has managed to oust the red flag from taking its place among the green, blue, yellow, white, and rainbow flags in the diverse people’s movements. No effective anti-fascist political and electoral coalition can be imagined without an energetic and bold Left as its beating heart and its ideological spine.