On 28 September, 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 felt the need to leave it since Congress is the only party that can “lead in the ideological war to save the idea of India”. He said today’s India needs Bhagat Singh’s courage, Mahatma Gandhi’s unity, and BR Ambedkar’s quest for equality, and implied that it is the Congress that unites these three essential elements. While wishing Kanhaiya and Jignesh success in their chosen political careers, the political arguments about fighting fascism that Kanhaiya has offered call for closer scrutiny.
Cannot Reinvent History
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 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 also distanced himself from the Congress as a political party and spent his days on riot-torn streets or striving for peace and justice for Muslim minorities in India. When he was assassinated for this social and moral cause by Hindu supremacist forces who rule India today, it was not as a political leader of the Congress party. It is simply impossible to reinvent history today, to artificially describe the Congress party as the home of those three figures. One can only do so by reducing them to one superficial dimension each, emptied of their specific ideas and contradictions that are their true gift.
The more important and urgent question, however, is: 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?
Can We Fight Fascism Without Challenging Hindu-Supremacist Ideas?
The main feature of fascism that distinguishes it from other authoritarian and anti-people forms of politics and State is majoritarian tyranny and violence against minority communities and ideological adversaries, organised and orchestrated by the State in close collusion with non-state forces. In India, fascism is a Hindu-supremacist ideology and politics, which systematically employs mainstream and social media, and networks of grassroots organisations to spread its ideology. The doctrine comprises Islamophobia and the Manuvadi social hierarchies of caste and gender, packaged as “social harmony”. And it 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, above all, that we boldly and with all our might resist the 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 “infiltrators”, rejecting and challenging the claim of Hindu-supremacist ideology to represent “Indian nationalism”.
It also requires us to reach out to help organise the sections affected by the policy offensive (in the economy, education, health, and so on) unleashed by the fascists in the service of their crony corporate funders. We must take up this challenge even when those who bear the brunt of this offensive are still in the thrall of the fascists. 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, or Dalit, Adivasi, and desperately poor communities, devastated as they are by the policies of the Modi regime, feel indifference at best or, at worst, satisfaction in the humiliation and subjugation of Muslim minorities or hate the idea of love between a daughter from 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.
Is Strategic Silence on Injustice an Electoral Compulsion?
It is on this question that Kanhaiya’s 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, as a rule, have given the persecution of minorities and activists defending those minorities a wide berth. They argue that if they speak up against such persecution, Hindu voters will get 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 such as 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 on the same lines.
In an interview with the Indian Express on 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 on 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 substantive issues. 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 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. For anti-fascists, these are not divisive “Hindu-Muslim” issues but issues of justice. In other words, 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, the Marxist Bertolt Brecht, well knew that as long as exploited workers and peasants feel 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 justice and human rights violations as urgent, just as bread and butter issues 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 had already done so in practice the previous month. On 16 September 2020, Kanhaiya agreed to speak at a press conference the CPI(M-L) 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 social media post covering the range of bread and butter issues on which the Modi government had failed and then used fabricated cases, arrests, jail, etc., to divert from these failures. Buried in the litany of failures he narrated was a curated list of some political prisoners, including Umar. At the time, Kanhaiya’s critics and friends alike explained away his avoidance of the issue as a compulsion of electoral politics: specifically, the Bihar Assembly election.
Asked about his absence from the press conference, 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 silent. The Congress party has been silent on the unjust arrest and incarceration of its councillor Ishrat Jahan, as the RJD has been silent on the arrest of its student leader, Meeran Haider, in the same fabricated case in which Umar has been framed.
Anti-Fascist Coalition Needs a Bold Left
I would argue, however, that defensively ignoring issues of justice is a recipe for defeat and not the success of 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 election, the CPIML’s excellent performance drew a lot of attention. A critical factor was that it had been equally consistent in its response to the migrants crisis and hunger during lockdown, unemployment and vacant government posts, the rights of every section of worker and peasant in the state, social justice and defence of reservations—and on justice issues ranging from CAA-NPR-NRC, communal lynchings, politically-motivated arrests, and the abrogation of Article 370. All 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 Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath attacked the CPIML by linking it to “Naxals, Shaheen Bagh, JNU’s Tukde-Tukde Gang, Kashmir” and so on in every rally. Yet, it did well: Being bold rather than furtive about taking up political injustice helped rather than hindered its candidates and gave the entire Opposition alliance campaign energy.
It is apparent 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 critical to, and most at home in these 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 that of “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.
The author is Secretary, AIPWA, and Politburo member of CPIML. The views expressed are personal.