HOLDING THE CENTRE - Dangers that lurk in the right and the left
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- Published 17.03.07
For the past decade and more, the Republic of India has faced a strong threat from right-wing extremism. The destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya and the pogrom of the Muslims in Gujarat were but the most visible signs of a focused and determined effort to make India a “Hindu Rashtra”. After the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the head of a coalition government in 1998, public institutions were staffed with men (and more rarely, women) sympathetic to the ideals (such as these are) of Hindutva. School curricula were rewritten to present a distorted view of Indian history, representing Hindus as victims in the past and as victorious in the present.
Fortunately, the Hindu Right has met with resistance, from political parties, civil society organizations, and the common folk. The BJP has never got more than 25 per cent of the vote, and in 2004, was turfed out of power when it was widely believed that it would be re-elected. Attempts to ‘repeat’ Ayodhya, by taking over or demolishing Muslim shrines elsewhere, or to ‘repeat’ Gujarat, by stoking communal violence in states about to go to the polls, have been thwarted.
Hindutva remains a powerful presence in many parts of the country. That India would become a “Hindu Pakistan” was once a distinct possibility; now the threat has abated, if not entirely disappeared. The damage caused to educational institutions when the BJP was in power, and the loss of property and lives in riots instigated by elements of the Sangh Parivar, are fresh in our memory.
In the struggle against right-wing extremism, writers and intellectuals have played an honourable and often a leading role. They have published books and essays documenting the errors and excesses of the Sangh. They have made films and staged plays recalling and extolling the inclusive ideals of the multi-ethnic democracy we live in. They have refused the blandishments of the rulers — very few intellectuals of credibility or distinction accepted or sought assignments under the BJP regime.
As it happens, the Republic of India also faces a strong threat from left-wing extremism now. Once confined to a few districts in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, revolutionary Maoism is now active, and strong, in several states and more than fifty districts. Their recent statements and actions make it clear that the Maoists see this as a prolegomenon to the planting of the Red Flag in New Delhi. Like their counterparts in the Right, these extremists have contempt for the makers of modern India and for the ideals of the Indian Constitution. Gandhi and Nehru are characterized as compradors and collaborators. Elections and a free press are dismissed as a bourgeois sham.
To this historian, the political lanscape of India, c. 2007, bears an uncanny resemblance to the political landscape of India, c. 1947. Then, as now, Indian democracy was being challenged and threatened from radicals of Left and Right. In my last column, I wrote of how, soon after the country won its independence, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Communist Party of India both worked to destabilize the infant Indian state. To be sure, they came from different directions, and used different justifications. But what united them was a shared contempt for the Indian democracy, and for the ideals and heritage of the Indian national movement.
Back then, in the late Forties, the Centre held. The RSS was banned and then unbanned after it agreed to abide by the Indian Constitution. The CPI was the target of a rapid and effective crackdown, forcing it to come overground and also declare its commitment to the Constitution. In 1952, India successfully held its first general elections. The CPI and the RSS-affiliated Jana Sangh both participated in the polls, in which the Congress won a comfortable victory.
But will the Centre hold now? Although the prime minister has identified the Maoists as the “greatest internal security” threat to the Republic of India, his concerns are not reflected or perhaps even understood by the rest of the political establishment. In the crucial state of Chattisgarh, the Congress has promoted a vigilante group that has spread more violence and more fear — this experiment, called ‘Salwa Judum’, is a model of how not to fight Naxalism. Meanwhile, leading sections of the media continue their deluded celebration of a country they claim must be saluted as India Shining, India Poised, and India Rising.
Make no mistake about it — Maoism is indeed a grave threat to the Republic of India. That our leaders and their cheerleaders can so ignore it is only because they usually move between Delhi and Bangalore, those twin poles — one political, the other economic — of India’s shine, poise, rise, and so on. In getting from the first city to the second — and back again — they overfly the tribal forest belts of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. These are the most depressed and disadvantaged parts of India — where India does not either shine or rise — and also the parts where the Maoists are the most active, working and acting in complete disregard of the Indian Constitution.
In my last column, I wrote of how Indian intellectuals rightly charge the RSS with promoting instability in 1947-8, yet gloss over the contemporaneous attacks on the Indian state by the Communists. One hopes, and trusts, that they will not make the same mistake this time around. Thus far, writers and scholars have been in the vanguard of the struggle against Hindutva. Yet it does not appear that they have yet recognized Maoism for what it is — a comparable threat to the noble idea of India upheld by the makers of our nation, by the likes of Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar.
The reason intellectuals are often less than even-handed in their treatment of the two kinds of extremism is that the left-wing kind presumes to speak for the poor. Hitler and the Hindutva brigade wear their brutality and bigotry on their sleeve. On the other hand, Stalin and the Naxalites claim to be acting on behalf of the oppressed. This allows them to exercise a kind of blackmail — plagued by middle-class guilt, intellectuals are loath to criticize those who are at least living with the poor.
The history of the 20th century tells us that the extremism of the Left can produce as much suffering and violence as the extremism of the Right. Some historians of the 20th century, however, cannot bring themselves to admit it — thus Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes is much softer on Stalin than on Hitler. Likewise, I have heard Indian intellectuals speak of the need to “contextualize Naxalite violence”, where ‘contextualize’ really means excuse or explain away.
The battle against Hindutva is not yet won, while the battle against Naxalism has barely begun. For the Centre to hold, three groups of Indians will have to be more sensitive and proactive than they have thus far been. First, the government must work more honestly to honour the Constitution, by bringing the fruits of development to those sections — principally, the Dalits and adivasis — who have benefited least (and, in the case of adivasis, lost most) from the recent surge in economic growth. Second, the media must go beyond the consuming classes to write about and speak for those Indians who do not own cars or refrigerators. Third, intellectuals must be more vigilant in detecting and exposing threats to the democratic way of life, even (or especially) if these threats travel under the guise of ideologies that profess to be emancipatory but whom history has shown, in practice, to be as violent and intolerant as the reactionary ideologies of the Right.