Nathalène Reynolds: Communist Party India, Left Movement, West Bengal, Naxalites

Nathalène ReynoldsIntroducing Nathalène Reynolds

Dr Nathalène Reynolds is Associate at the Pakistan Security Research Unit of Durham University, Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and member of the Banque d’Experts at the Réseau de recherche sur les opérations de paix (ROP) of the Université de Montréal.

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Interview

1. Why and how did the Left Movement emerge?

Before replying to this question, I would like to make a short digression. When the term ‘the Left movement’ is used in India, it most often refers to the Communist movement, as well as the various factions of the Left, which today have only marginal support. The Indian Left, moreover, rightly regrets the Communist hegemony in whose shadow it has been since the end of the 1930s. In any case, in the space available, I will have to limit myself to speaking of the two parties that are – albeit weakly – represented in the upper and lower houses of parliament: the Communist Party of India, and, above all, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which enjoys (despite the electoral setbacks of 2011) considerable support in Kerala, West Bengal and the tiny state of Tripura.

Returning to the emergence of the Indian Communist movement, one must first emphasize that determining the date of its birth has stimulated considerable debate. As worrying border incidents raised tensions between the Indian Union and the People’s Republic of China, the original party, the Communist Party of India (CPI), came to examine once again its national identity, all the more since it was the target of accusations made by the rest of the Indian political class that seized the opportunity to dismiss the party once more as a foreign party. The CPI was preoccupied with the question of the place of its birth. Was this in Kanpur, a city today in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on December 26th 1925, or in Tashkent on October 17th 1920? In August 1959, the Central Committee of the CPI decreed that the party had been founded in Kanpur, underlining that it would have been a (legal) impossibility to create an Indian CP outside of the Sub-continent; half a dozen revolutionary Indian expatriates could not, it added, speak in for the people as a whole.

In 1964, the Indian Communist movement underwent a first split. It left wing took the name of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and proclaimed its founding act to have taken place in Tashkent. It argued that communists existed as a coherent group well before 1925, since they had circulated, during the annual conference of the Congress Party in 1921, a resolution calling for struggle to attain the independence of the Indian Sub-continent. The CPI also referred to this event with pride, declaring that the communists had been the first to put forward such a document. It added, however, that the meeting in Kanpur had taken place at the initiative of communist groups from within the country, with a notable role played by S.A. Dange, who had been in prison at the time. This trade union leader from Bombay wrote that during the Kanpur Conspiracy Case (1) in March 1924, communists like him – who were under trial and later convicted – invited those still at liberty to hold a conference and form a communist party on the national territory.

As soon as the party had been founded, the CPI(M)’s leaders planned to define policies tailored to Indian society. Not fearing accusations of being foreign agents – the new party received neither funding nor ideological support from the ‘fraternal parties’, the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties, they implicitly honoured a man who had left a deep imprint on the Indian Communist movement: M.N. Roy (2), who, following the founding of the Tashkent party in which he had participated, called for the creation of communist groups in the major cities of British India. Developing this argument, the CPI(M) noted that the original CPI had joined the Komintern as early as the start of 1921.

In any case, Indo-Chinese ideological differences (3) and the very short border Indo-Chinese conflict of October 1962, as well as the ideological split between the Soviet Union and China that followed the revelations of XXth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (4), pushed the Indian Communist movement to take action to a decision. But this was to mean the breaking up of the original party. In 1967, the CPI(M) itself split; its left wing stressed the necessity of revolutionary means of which the peasant insurrection, which began in May of that year in the Naxalbari District of West Bengal was to be one a catalyst. Two years later, a section of this same left wing would form the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – the CPI(M-L) – whose unity, in turn, was not to last long. In the space available to me here, I will have to leave this aspect to one side, and I will only make brief mention of a worrying Maoist armed movement (Naxalite (5) that has been active in a number of Indian states (6).

2. What are the main political objectives of the movement?

If the collapse at the beginning of the 1990s of the Soviet Union and the Bloc it had led, deeply shocked the CPI and the CPI(M), the latter parties were not worried about their future existence. On the contrary, they could thereafter boast of their exemplary role compared to other Marxist movements that had grown up around the world; both had swiftly managed to integrate themselves within the legal Indian democratic system. As one of the founders of the Marxist party, Harkishan Singh Surjeet (March 23rd 1916-August 1st 2008), who was Secretary-General between 1992 and 2005, declared:

“The resilience of the Indian communist movement can be seen from the fact that it was able to withstand the crisis resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, when imperialism was triumphantly declaring the ‘end of history’ and many communist parties around the world responded by repudiating their pasts and even changing their names” (7).

Denied all ideological and, apparently, financial support, the CPI owed itself to reconquer the confidence of the masses, all the more since its standing had been tainted by the support it had offered to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after she had declared a state of emergency (June 1975-March 1977). As for the CPI(M), it could by this time congratulate itself for having chosen a separate path, all the more so since it was in possession of two communist strongholds where its support seemed to be durable; Kerala and West Bengal.

Two issues were of particular concern to both parties: the phenomenon of communalism (8), the increase in which worried observers; and the economic liberalisation for which the Indian government had opted at the start of the 1990s. While manipulating the statistics, Delhi boasted of the progressive reduction in poverty; the Left asserted its role of defender of the growing number of those left to fend for themselves and who would doubtless not benefit from the globalisation that India was welcoming.

All components of the communist movement rediscovered the merits of the Nehruvian economic model that had – and I simplify – protected the internal market, allow the development of national industries, while inflation was contained. The Left was particularly alarmed by the special economic zones that tended to dispossess significant parts of a population that would soon number one billion and the majority of whom depended on agriculture of fertile land. The Naxalite movement, enjoying only marginal support at the time, reasserted itself through drawing on the resentment felt by populations who saw themselves as marginalised, especially in the tribal areas whose natural resources (notably a soil often rich in minerals) attracted industrialists.

In any case, the Left as a whole continued to denounce the slogan of ‘Shining India’ which contributed to the fall in 2004 of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the coalition led by the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Party of the Indian People). A Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance-I (UPA-I) took over, in turn replaced by the United Progressive Alliance-II, a re-jigged grouping after the withdrawal of Communist support. The policies of the new government, which despite its lasting choice not to employ self-congratulatory slogans such as ‘Shining India’, nonetheless tends, similarly to its NDA predecessor, to pay little attention to alarming national realities, such as the significantly high level of suicide among small farmers.

Lastly, one should note that the Indian communist movement, faithful to the Marxist tradition, has opposed what it continues to call ‘American imperialism’. After the agreement on civil nuclear power which India and the United States ground out, communist parties, as well as the Left Front led by the CPI(M) withdrew from the UPA-I; the CPI(M), true to its tradition, had never agreed to more than support the government ‘from outside’ (9).

3. What explains the popularity of the movement?

It is clear that the scission of 1964 and then that of 1967 harmed the slow advances that the communist movement, after a short revolutionary phase that provoked harsh repression, had been making within the parliamentary framework since 1951. The recent legislative elections of 2011 brought to an end the long reign (34 years) of the Left Front led by the CPI(M) in West Bengal. In Kerala, where it is the norm that incumbent governments are voted out, it was, in a way, the United Democratic Front (UDF), a Congress-led coalition, that took over the mantle of the Left Democratic Front (10). The state of Tripura, at the time of writing, is preparing for elections.

If the Left, and in particular the communist movement hoped – following the 2004 elections (11) – for a renaissance, in parliament they currently enjoy but marginal influence. The CPI and CPI(M) have 4 and 16 seats respectively in a Lower House (Lok Sabha) of 545, and 3 and 11 respectively in the 245-member Upper House (Rajya Sabha). The two parties nonetheless assert that the ‘masses’ continue to offer them their confidence; the weak level of electoral success is traditionally explained by a combination of factors: the division of Indian society by caste rather than by class; the respectability attained by those deemed Hindu nationalists; and lastly the rise since the 1990s of regional parties.

4.How are they treated by other political parties?

As I have already mentioned, the Indian communist movement, whose detractors earlier considered that it worked to spread a foreign ideology, has managed to shed this burden. The socialist groups of the Indian Left, for their part, benefitted in a sense from a positive prejudice: as early as 1934, the Congress Party, at the time a forum of varying pro-independence opinions, included a socialist group, the Congress Socialist Party. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (August 1947-May 1964) (12) chose an economic path for his country that India deemed to be a socialist one.

5. Is there a possibility that the Left Movement would become influential at the national political stage?

The Left as a whole is today at a crossroads; forgetting its ideological differences and rivalries, it owes itself to unify its forces, at the very least at the regional level, which would allow it to enjoy better representation at the Centre. The situation is favourable for such an attempt: corruption has invaded the political domain; financial rewards have seduced most of actors, including those parties that claim to defend the lower castes. If the CPI(M) has largely ensured that this phenomenon has not tainted its cadres, it will nevertheless be a hard task to manage the difficult legacy of thirty-four years of reign in West Bengal, as it works to reconquer that state.

Footnotes

(1) The British intelligence services organised the so-called conspiracy cases in order to demonstrate the existence of a communist conspiracy that threatened state security.

(2) The CPI(M) was making a show of its independence in honouring Roy, who had been excluded from the Komintern (the international communist movement) at the end of 1929.

(3) At issue – to simplify – was the peaceful transition to socialism that India – according to Moscow – was undergoing.

(4) Which condemned the crimes of Stalinism.

(5) Naxalite: from the name of the district – Naxalbari – in which the armed movement was first active.

(6) One can also note the existence of a ‘Naxalite Belt’ stretching across central India, comprising Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and even parts of Tamil Nadu. In the East of the country, bordering Bihar, the districts of Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia of West Bengal are also affected by this.

(7) History of the Communist Movement in India. Volume 1. The Formative Years 1920-1933, New Delhi, CPI(M) Publications in association with LeftWord, 2005, 248 p., p. 2.

(8) In Indian usage, the term ‘communalism’ refers to violence between Hindu and Muslim (and more rarely Sikh or Christian) communities.

(9) Such is the phrase generally used in India. Its representation in parliament too weak to give it much influence, the party refused to identify itself too closely with decisions taken by ‘bourgeois governments’ that it deemed went against the interest of the working-class and the peasantry.

(10) One may note that the margin of victory of the Congress-dominated United Democratic Front (UDF) was very small. It garnered 72 seats, while the Left Democratic Front, which had been in power, won 69 seats

(11) Of the 61 members of the Lok Sabha belonging to parties of the left, 44 were from the CPI(M).

(12) He introduced a foreign policy based on non-alignment, of which the country gradually divested itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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