The left is fighting fascism in India

First published at Labour Hub.

In the wake of recent events including the violence in Leicester in September, the screening of the BBC documentary ‘India: the Modi Question’ (which was effectively banned in India) and the expose of massive fraud by Modi’s right-hand man, the billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani, many on the British left are now finally aware of the shockingly Islamophobic, violent and repressive nature of Modi’s Hindu supremacist regime. But remarkably few of us in the UK are engaging with how the left in India is responding, even though solidarity between left movements and parties is essential to any form of left internationalism.

South Asia Solidarity Group, while based in the UK, and supporting struggles in the South Asian diaspora here, seeks to make links with the revolutionary left and the multiple and vibrant people’s movements in South Asia and amplify their demands for democracy and against fascism.

In mid-February some of us had the opportunity to attend the 11th Congress of the CPI(ML) Liberation which has been at the forefront of resisting the fascism of the Modi regime. Resistance in this case involves not only workers’ struggles and other conventional activities of the left, but struggles against caste and patriarchy and against Hindutva, the Brahminical, anti-Muslim ideology of the ruling BJP and the network of Hindu supremacist organisations to which it belongs.

Within the diverse range of left parties in India, the CPI(ML)’s approach differs from both the underground Maoists who focus on armed struggle, and the predominantly parliamentary strategy of the now mainly South India-based CPI(M), whose massive defeat in the state of West Bengal after 34 years in power has been largely attributed to its adoption of neoliberal economic policies.

Currently the CPI(ML) is playing a particularly significant role in the anti-fascist resistance in India, for two reasons in particular. Firstly, it has been central to many of the people’s movements which are rocking India. Secondly, in the large eastern Indian state of Bihar, part of the ‘Hindi belt’ which Hindu supremacists see as their heartland, its small but significant tally of 12 seats in the Legislative Assembly – where they are the leading left party – and its participation in an electoral so-called Grand Alliance of opposition parties have swung the balance and kept the BJP out of power, at least for now.

It is in Patna, the capital of Bihar, that the CPI(ML) Congress is being held. One of India’s poorest states, Bihar has a compelling revolutionary history. It has been a centre of iconic struggles for justice for more than a century. It is here that the Quit India movement which finally swept the British from power had its genesis. It is here that the revolutionary Naxalite movement which took India by storm in the late ‘60s and early 1970s and was brutally crushed, re-emerged in the mass political struggles of landless Dalits and other oppressed castes for land, wages, dignity and enfranchisement in the 1980s, with legendary Dalit leaders like Ram Naresh Ram shaping the Bihar movement.

While remaining underground, the CPI(ML) had, in many areas, successfully confronted feudal landlords who had their own private armies supported by Hindu-supremacist forces. They redistributed land, increased wages for agricultural labourers, fought back against the sexual violence which the oppressor caste landowners considered their birthright, and ended the landlords’ stranglehold over the polling booths.

At the same time, the Party put increasing emphasis on building open mass organisations of rural and urban workers, peasants, women and students. In 1992 the Party itself came overground and began contesting elections, while retaining their bases and support among rural workers and the oppressed castes and strengthening organisations like the well-known students’ organisation AISA, women’s organisation AIPWA, trade union centre AICCTU and organisations of rural labour and farmers.

We arrive a day before a mass rally under the slogan ‘Defeat Fascism, Save Democracy’ which will precede the Congress. The streets are decked for miles around with red flags and decorations with Communist symbols – which we are told had to be put up in the early hours of the morning to avoid harassment by the police.

By afternoon people are pouring into Patna – they are primarily the rural poor – women and men agricultural workers, small farmers, workers in small industries, school and college students and unemployed youth. They arrive by train, on bicycles and many on foot. Along with their belongings for the overnight stay at the rally ground, they hold red flags and banners. The mood is one of claiming the space of the city for their own party, the Ma-Lé, as it’s known in Bihar.

Meanwhile other international guests are arriving, with contingents from Venezuela, Bangladesh, Nepal and Australia, a Ukrainian socialist based in India and others. Guests from Pakistan were refused visas and those from Sri Lanka too ran into problems but they have sent messages as have invitees from Palestine and Cuba.

On the day of the rally, the vast Gandhi Maidan is packed with an estimated 150,000 people and they are responding enthusiastically to the speakers, whom they clearly know well. No one is under any illusion that the BJP will be easily defeated in the 2024 national elections. But there is a tremendous sense of urgency and energy to take this struggle forward and win.

Speakers emphasise the on-going movements against rising unemployment and poverty and against the anti-Muslim and anti-Christian frenzy whipped up by the BJP, the attacks on Dalits and oppressed castes, the intensification of patriarchal violence and on another level the state offensive against media freedom. They speak out against Modi’s notorious Citizenship Amendment Act which seeks to disenfranchise the country’s Muslim minority, the revocation of Article 370 which effectively annexed Kashmir and robbed it of the limited autonomy it had previously, and the new Labour Codes which trample on workers’ rights. 

Among those who speak are some of the Party’s hugely popular Members of the Legislative Assembly, (members of the Bihar Legislative Assembly), almost all of whom belong to oppressed caste or Muslim communities and have a history of grassroots organising. Others include Shashi Yadav, the leader of the scheme workers union which represents thousands of women recruited as ‘volunteer’ health workers, school cooks and creche workers who are fighting for recognition as government employees; and Meena Tiwari, the President of the mass-based women’s organisation, the All-India Progressive Women’s Association, who calls on women to resist the new laws which criminalise interfaith marriages and the politics which sees rapists of Muslim and Dalit women being publicly felicitated.

CPI(ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya reminds the rally that Bhagat Singh, the socialist revolutionary and freedom fighter who was hanged by the British, had warned of the ‘brown sahibs’ who would sit in the chairs vacated by the white sahibs, and this indeed is the reality today, because corporates like Adani have been handed unprecedented power. The road to real democracy, he says, starts from the villages from where people have travelled to the rally, and in the demands of the most oppressed and exploited.

The next day, some 1,700 delegates fill a massive venue in central Patna. They have travelled from Himachal in the north to Pondicherry and Kerala in the south, from Karbi Anglong and Assam in the east to Maharashtra in the west. 

After the initial sessions where guests are welcomed and a lively cultural event, the delegates get to work discussing various Resolutions. These appear at first glance to be dauntingly long but in practice the discussion is interesting and stimulating. There are disagreements and debates all held together with an evident commitment to the democratic process. The delegates bring up a host of diverse issues and speak either in Hindi or in other regional languages. A team of translators works with remarkable speed and efficiency to render every contribution into both English and Hindi, where necessary.

A woman sanitation worker and union leader from Karnataka describes some recent inspiring victories. A veteran environmentalist and party activist from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand talks about the horrifying impact of power projects and environmental destruction which has brought a historic town to the brink of collapse with houses cracking and the land sinking. A young woman student activist from Delhi urges the party to do more on LGBTQI+ issues. Others discuss the collective organising going on against the indebtedness caused by micro-finance schemes, and yet others the need to strengthen the movement for climate justice.

A central theme is the importance of recognising the Modi regime as fascist. The Modi regime is not simply ‘authoritarian’ since it is rooted in, and answerable to, the RSS, an openly fascist cadre-based organisation founded in 1925 and modelled on Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Revered Hindu supremacist leaders openly admired – and thought India should emulate – Hitler and the Nazis.

The term ‘Hindu nationalism’ to describe its ideology is also a misnomer: there is no trace of economic nationalism, as the regime’s inextricable relationship with global corporate capital and its hyper-neoliberal policies are seeing the country being sold to foreign and Indian multinationals.

As Arundhati Roy, who attends the Congress and speaks about the need to unite anti-caste and anti-capitalist movements, says: “The country is currently run by four people, two who sell, [Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah] and two who buy [Adani and Ambani].”

The categorisation of the current regime as fascist is not simply an intellectual exercise, but essential for planning strategy – confronting fascism requires for example the building of the broadest possible alliances, including with those who in other periods have been adversaries.

While the trappings of bourgeois democracy remain, democratic structures such as an independent media and judiciary and free and fair elections are being targeted and systematically destroyed – which means that the anti-fascist struggle will have to continue long past the electoral defeat of Modi which most opposition parties see as the end goal. Yet alongside this recognition of a long battle ahead with the far-right in the ascendant in India and globally, the CPI(ML) Congress was also infused with hope for radical social and political transformation, and was a much-needed arena for envisioning future possibilities and thinking through how dreams could be made a reality.