Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Role of Subaltern Classes in Future Indian Politics: A Critique of the Left positions

RECENTLY Dr K N Ganesh, of the department of history at Calicut University, published a long article in Sasthragathi, on the society and politics of Kerala and its future development perspectives.

The article and its timing is interesting in many ways, as Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) which runs Sasthragathi is one organization that influences the ruling left front’s policies to a large extent and Dr. Ganesh himself happens to be one of the foremost Marxist thinkers in the younger generation.

Some comments I made in a discussion forum and my response to some critics:

1. I would like to comment briefly on Dr Ganesh's article though he does not seem to be a member of this forum. I hope someone here would invite his attention to the views expressed here:

I do agree with his basic argument that what goes on in the name of development debate in Kerala is a political debate. I also agree that in development debates, what take upper hand is middle class vested interests which have all but buried the real class interests of the toiling segments.

But I disagree with his assertion that the newly emerging movements of various social segments (like minorities, Dalits, backwards, women, etc) are essentially reactionary and they are camp-followers of imperialism. He is refusing to look at the specific class and historical origins of these movements in Indian society in the past two-three decades and fail to address the objective conditions in which they came up and what historical role they have played. Without taking this into considerations, his assertions are baseless and made only to serve a specific partisan/political purpose.

It is very interesting to note that in recent articles, other left theorists like Prabhat Patnaik also raise similar allegations against Maoists operating in India, that they are serving the imperialist agenda. Ganesh also appears to be keen on attacking the emerging new movements of the oppressed sections with almost similar arguments. . Both are interestingly failing to address the issue why these movements sprang up and whether it had any reason in the failure of the established left in taking up slogans which were important to these people? Or perhaps whether the official left and its governments were in anyway responsible for actions that gave them the impression that their class interests did clash and hence they found to their utter dismay that the official left is at the other side of the barricade in recent times?

Why does he fail to ask the question, why the middle class interests came to dominate our left parties and their government policies? Why can't he look at the issue of development vs. political debate in the light of what has been happening in the left parties, especially the CPM, during the past two decades? Is it not time for us to put these questions of inner party disputes in the 80s and 90s in their proper historical perspective now and see why the left took such a right-wing turn, though Dr Ganesh deftly avoids entering such dangerous ideological waters?

2. I do not want to respond to all the points raised by John and I do not want to say anything on the prescriptions offered by Dr Ganesh. But without a proper stock-taking of the past, we are not going to build any future, I am sure. So before John proceeds to discuss his own prescriptions for the future, let me make some points here which might possibly influence him as he draws up his own action plan.

The question he raised about the class/caste basis of the so-called past politics based on class struggle is very relevant. In fact I do feel Kerala's left politics started in late 30s as a class-based movement but at some point it was obviously taken over by other interests and ended up in a middle class-controlled, upper-caste dominated movement which ultimately resulted in its present impasse. (Which Ganesh also seems to recognize implicitly.)

The development of the present subaltern class, identity-based movements (mainly of Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, women, etc) are a natural extension/corollary arising out of the failure of the traditional left in carrying forward its original political agenda. I would also argue that these new movements do fill a vacuum left behind by the Left parties in our society. Here we must say that the new social movements of the marginalized groups are actually taking over the slogans practically abandoned by Left parties in the economic, political, social and cultural spheres for emancipation and equality. They are taking the Left's unfinished agenda forward.

To continue my point that the Left actually started out as the force that cemented the unity of the oppressed social/class elements in our society, I will revert back to the 30s when it was all started.

In the 30s Malabar, especially Kozhikode, was the major point of class struggle. The organization of the left movement actually started mainly among workers in this region and in the second stage it spread to the peasants in north Malabar which resulted in a series of violent struggles, in 30s and 40s.

On the political side, we see a coming together of these forces mainly opposed to the upper-class &caste dominated Congress leadership. In fact in 1937-38 we have the most beautiful alliance of all such forces with EMS as KPCC secretary, Muhammed Abdurahman as president, and people like P Krishna Pillai, A K Gopalan, K A Keraleeyan and E Kannan, a Dalit leader, as top leaders of the masses. Note that the left leadership even then was predominantly upper caste, just like the Gandhi Sangham in Congress which they opposed and displaced in 1937-38. Unlike the Gandhi Sangham which was exclusively upper caste, the left was firmly in alliance with the socially oppressed segments (mainly Dalits and Muslims in the 30s) which gave them their real strength and energy.

But in the post-Independence period, especially after the left formed governments, we see only the predominance of the elitist segments in the left while those who were their original allies in the 30s, slowly receded and drifted away.

Now these people who were left to the devil as the Communists took power are returning to the limelight and taking up the slogans their friends had abandoned. Why such a development should irritate people like Dr Ganesh is something which needs probing. When I read his diatribe against the dangers of identity politics, I see very well that in fact what irritated him was the rise of newly assertive subaltern politics in our midst.

3. Reply to Mr. RVG Menon,president,KSSP:

When I was reading your note, I was struck by the image of the new political and social movements, which are generally called identity political formations, being dismissed as of no serious consequence to the social/political transformation.

You seem to charge the new movements as being simply groups that would want to bargain some economic and political benefits for themselves (and their caste/community sub-sects) from the existing system, while giving no thought for the larger social and political change. That boils down to the charge that they are there to bargain and collect the benefits and not the change society through revolutionary means. So at best, they are only peripheral players and nothing more.

Reading Dr Ganesh, I felt he too accepted this limited role for the new movements though, as a historian, one should expect a more encompassing and larger picture from him. Or, as a senior KSSP person, is he simply projecting the 'politically correct' views the KSSP may hold and remain only a spokesperson for their views?

I ask this question because I have read the narrative of Kerala history Dr Ganesh made some time ago, in his book the Yesteryears of Kerala. The book is very important because it tries to study Kerala history and social evolution from a historical perspective and try to delineate the actual, deeper forces at work throughout our history.

That is why I thought it odd a person who has such an historical vision and deeper analytical skills do comes out with such a mechanical and automated response to Kerala's present problems and makes sweeping generalizations about its present process of churning, and provide a view for the future, which could have been done even by a computer at work on the data.

I am sorry for the harsh comments, but I just can't understand why you and Ganesh miss the point, why the crisis of confidence in the present dominant views that has given rise to the debate, after all. It is simply a fact that the present model is a failure, and is felt to be a failure at the larger social context, and you see there is a clamour for change, which actually is now overtaking all of us. The setbacks at electoral political level for the leftist ruling parties were an indication of the deeper setback they do face at various levels, including ideological, political and cultural spheres.

This failure or unwillingness to address the real issues, to face the reality of the utter debacle of what was once close to one's heart, one's world view, is the real problem that Ganesh and others from the left parties face today. It is this incapacity to accept this reality e that keeps them harp on the shortcomings of the new challengers to their dominance which is only laughable.

4. From a reply to JS, a friend:
Let me point out that I make a distinction between identity politics past and identity politics new (which I prefer to call New Politics because much more than identity what decides their ideology and nature must be class intermingled with caste/community).

Clearly there is a distinction between them as one can always see the line between the Kerala Congress groups, Muslim Leagues and NSS-SNDP formations, etc. They are more or less what RVG describes them; pressure groups who are content with bargaining for something for themselves and their offspring.

But the new movements which we, for clarity call groups of New Politics, are different and they do have deeper roots and wellspring. Their origins need not be local, but more national and even supranational. They acquire their strength and ideology from our recent historical experiences and developments, both national and global. In Kerala's context there might be regional issues also.

Just look at what these factors are: I would say the Mandal movement and the rise of backward castes is one; the Babri Masjid destruction and the churning in the Muslim community is another; the global war on terror and the rise of a global and national alliance against imperialism is a third, the onslaught of new economic policies and their impact tribals, dalits, farmers and others is a fourth; the rising forces of radical and Maoist politics might be another. There are so many new forces coming up and coming together in a new crucible of political experiments, that make it difficult for the present ruling classes to carry on as usual for long. For mere survival, they will have to accommodate changes.

The crisis in the left is an indication of what are the real forces at work today and the deep impact all these factors now have on our ruling elite. It appears that these huge churning are shaking up our crumbling traditional left edifice already and surely, as Lenin said, they would prove to be the weakest link in this imperialist-capitalist chain that rule India today.

Now you may ask: So what? Trinamool terror may replace the CPM terror; UDF corruption may replace LDF corruption, etc. But I am not sure this phase will continue for long. Every revolution sets off a series of big changes. There are other forces everywhere and it is only a matter of time before they come together and make the push into a shove.

5. A friend criticizes the new movements that originate from the Muslim community in parts of India as merely fundamentalist outfits. Here is the relevant text and my reply to it:

Where in socially regressive, reactionary and politically progressive. Anti-Imperialist on the one hand and pro-fundamentalist on the other hand. Such a politics do no add up. Because without democratic content of emancipation at the social and political level, there can not be a genuine subaltern politics.

I hate to fight with you but I am appalled by the exhibition of a set of preconceived notions about some groups and communities that is seen in this post, something that reminds me of Samuel Huntington.

As you can see I was making an effort to look into the future and speculate the strategy and alliances of various forces in future India, as the present dominant forces are showing unmistakable signs of fatigue and are likely to be crumbling down.

Your criticism is that some of these forces are clearly regressive in social outlook, and most have disparate and often mutually exclusive visions and agendas. Hence like water and oil, they don't mix.

But political alliances are complex mechanisms and I have never seen any alliance in the history of India where all partners were agreed on all issues. They came together on a minimum agenda and worked together; some times they failed, as in the case of the Janata experiment in 1977, and some were fairly successful as the United Front in the nineties and a few were successful to a large extent as the NDA and UPA in recent times.

So what does it tell us? It tells me that despite differences and cultural problems, people and political formations can come together and hang together. What helps them stick together is the commonality of interests despite differences. Also, it tells us that as years pass by and our politics gains in depth and experience, there is a growing willingness on the part of all parties (at least mainstream parties who were experimenting with alliance model) to stick together and work together.

In the case of subaltern mass movements that grow up from grassroots, what is going to be decisive is the common interests and the joint struggles they conduct. We have had many such experiences already. For example, I have not heard of any person who kept away from the Nandigram struggle simply because some of those who were at the receiving end of state repression and those who fought the police were Muslims with long beards and a possible patriarchal outlook when they go back home!

(My comments were originally made at

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