Beyond Party Politics

Invisible Social Movements

[Sophia Reuss & Katrina Gibbs spoke with social and political activist Satya Sagar on February 2, 2016, on the issue of invisible social movements in India. Excerpts:]

Sophia : Yesterday we spoke with a French political activist who talked about how the French classical political parties are not adapted to proposing political alternatives and no longer drive the political agenda. She expressed that hope for systemic social change must be vested in the emergence of new social movements that aren't linked to formal political parties and organizations. Could you speak about the situation with these so-called 'invisible' social movements in India?
Satya : India has the second largest population in the world, which means that a bulk of people in India are outside of any organized sector, whether it's a political party or the Indian state. Formal institutions don't reach people in the same manner as they would in a more organized country. To give an example, we've had trade unions in India for almost one hundred years, but only 7 percent of the Indian working population is organized. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. From the point of view of formally organizing people, it looks dismal. Formal political movements in India reach a very small number of people. Of course, a lot of people take part in the elections, they vote once every five years for the national elections. The thing is, the majority of Indian people don't define themselves very clearly with x or y political party. What works in India are older, traditional systems of organizing. To put it more accurately, India is the land of the caste system, which is one of the oldest ways of organizing people into an oppressive hierarchy and operates irrespective of who comes to power. In the last twenty days, there has been a massive upsurge of student protests across the country over the suicide of a student activist who is from the dalit (the 'untouchables' in the caste system) community. This student was expelled from the hostel he was staying in because of some incident and he, along with some other students, were thrown out of the hostel. He was sleeping out in the open with the others in protest, but at some stage he became overwhelmed with everything that he had gone through, which was all because of his dalit caste—from his economic situation and this, almost, racial discrimination against him, and his fellow students, and the family he came from—he committed suicide. This has sparked a very large movement. There are protests going on in a large number of university campuses and also outside the universities. So the nature of organization and protest in India is very deceptive.

There is a need for organizing people into movements to work toward an alternative paradigm—a different kind of economy and a different kind of political structure. But the formal structures have not been that successful, because they don't capture the realities on the ground.

I look at India as an ecosystem. It is complex, diverse, and there are layers upon layers of categories of people. There is class, there is caste, gender, linguistic groups, regional groups. This makes for a complex ecosystem. One of the failures of the Left was on the issue of caste. They thought of it as a remnant of the past, which would fade away as the class struggles intensified. But it didn't. And it didn't help either that the Indian Communist movements across the spectrum are all led by people from the upper caste. We have a situation in which the oppressed do not have positions of leadership within the organizations meant to liberate them.

A bulk of the Indian population is the dalit caste or the indigenous peoples or poor Muslims. None of these groups have representation in the top hierarchy of the Indian Left. So we have a situation where the party who is meant to be carrying out revolution for social transformation itself is blind to the social, racial, and other realities.

This does not mean that there are no social movements. Movements in India are around the issue of land acquisition, since Independence. For instance, while indigenous people in India constitute only 10 percent of the overall Indian population, they account for 70 percent of the people displaced since Indian Independence. So we're talking about 50-60 million people being displaced over the last 60-70 years.

The Indian state has promoted large mining companies and corporations, and the indigenous community pays a disproportionately high price for India's development. India, as I said, is an ecosystem. It's also a colonial system. So, the upper caste elites are in the upper economic, social, and political hierarchy.

Katrina : Did the Indian Left, whose larger project was social transformation, effectively address all the day-to-day issues of the common people? Did the everyday issues (like education, health, and rights) ever appear on Indian political agenda? What are the social movements that took every day issues as part of their work?
Satya : The record of the Left parties is quite spotty. They've played an important role in setting agendas and raising issues. And in specific parts of the country where they came to power through elections, they did make a some difference for land distribution. But, if you look at the record compared to other parts of the country that didn't have Left parties in power, land reform has also taken place. In fact, the most successful land reform, in terms of transfer of ownership, has happened in places like Kashmir, where there are no Left parties in power. But then even if we commend the Left for their work on land distribution record, on other fronts, as you asked, like health and education, the record is quite spotty.

In Bengal province, where the Left has had continuous rule for over 35 years, the record is very poor. There was land reform, but this benefited largely the middle and richer peasantry rather than agricultural laborers. Out of the entire Indian population, there are about 500 million workers—both in the urban and rural sector—more than half of them are actually agricultural laborers. The Left to this day, the big Left like the CPI and the CPM, have not organized the agricultural labor at all. Only in the past 10 to 15 years have some of the smaller communist parties have tried to organize agricultural labor. Most of the emphasis has been on people who already have land. They are fewer, but politically more influential. So, unfortunately, the Left has tended to focus on electoral politics, and it is not always about real social transformation.

Bengal has a poor record on health, education, gender, right to food, basic infrastructure (like providing safe drinking water, electricity, decent roads, or toilets). This implies a disconnect in the way that the Indian Left has imagined what its role is. In the early phase of the Indian Communist movements in the 40s and 50s, the Communist parties did a lot of very good work, a lot of very creative work—not just for mobilization of people, but of the party on the ground. The prestige of the communist movement internationally was very high. There was a need for the Communist movements and there were good leaders, so they spread very rapidly.

What was most critical though, is that they paid attention to detail at the time. They set up clinics, schools, and they provided relief work, like flood relief for example and on the issue of famine. So they were actually going to the masses, living with them, organizing them and paying attention to detail, but once they achieved electoral success, it became a totally top-down process. They became more and more cut off from the actual day-to-day needs of the people, and they did not even build up an information base needed to understand what was really happening on the ground. They looked down on any work that was not purely agitational, they looked at it as reformist. So a lot of the revolution was rhetorical—not tangible, hard, on the ground stuff.

That gap was filled by other organizations, including the Indian Right. One of the reasons that the Right has become very strong in India is that they have done the day-to-day work of running schools or clinics or providing relief work for the past 7 decades. They spread their poisonous ideology by doing work that the Indian Left should have done. The civil society groups, NGOs, and smaller movements who are also doing that work are competing with the Indian Right more than the Indian party Left. But they are too small. As the situation stands right now, the Indian Right is the most organized force. And when I say organized, it's seriously organized. It has state power : the government of India is run by the Indian Right. It has power at the level of the street: can mobilize people with very short notice. They have power at the level of subversion : they carry out terrorist attacks, which are blamed on other people. They have a militant wing : they have open display of arms at different times of year, they have processions of people with guns in the street.

Sophia : Given the failure of the Indian Left to "capture reality", is there hope, then, in social movements that do not associate with formal politics?
Satya : It's a very serious situation here. And there is nobody, in that sense, organized enough to take on the Indian Right. But the hope is that India is such a diverse country that the sheer diversity of India is what prevents any one organized group in India from getting too strong. The Left has failed in India to organize these masses. One can only hope that the Right will also fail. There is a strong resistance. This comes from a diversity of small groups; they offer hope. I would not look at the absence of large organized resistance as necessarily an indicator of lack of hope.

What is happening is that, at the macro-level, there is fermentation in India : the country is constantly bubbling under the surface and once in awhile, it erupts. It is too rich and diverse a country to be controlled by any one group. But at the micro-level, the problems are immense. A way to understand India, I always say that India cannot have a Hitler, because there are too many of them already. What happens in India is that at the macro-level, all of these "Hitlers" balance each other out. In the Indian case, at least, it is a balance of terror between all of these different characters. None of them can accept another as their leader, so they cannot unify under one banner and take over. The inefficiency of our elite is our greatest strength.

Sophia : So, you said earlier that once that movement enjoys formal political or electoral success, the movement becomes hierarchical and therefore can't enact any real change. I want to ask about the Common People's Party in Delhi, which became a formal political party in 2013. Do you think that a similar trajectory will take place with the Common People's Party? And can you tell us more about what that party is doing? Will they be able to enact substantial change?
Satya : People cannot live on the hope of revolution, they need something now. A thirsty man comes knocking on the Party door and he's not given water, but the promise of revolution—this doesn't work. So what the Common People's Party has done significantly, I think, has raised hope by addressing day-to-day issues : corruption, lack of electricity, lack of drinking water, high prices of basic goods. The Party's electoral success has been astounding in a time when the Hindu Right was seriously on the ascendent; it swept the election in an extraordinary manner. They are doing a fair number of straightforward things.

In the last 15-20 years, there has been a lot of privatization of public utilities—one of them being electricity in Delhi. The Party, the Party's leader, and some of the people at the top, they started out in the anti-privatization movement in Delhi, long before they started a political party. They had a grip on the issues, and one of the things they did was to slash electricity prices, made water almost free, and they are setting up clinics—primary health centers. The Party believes in solution-oriented policies, not ideology-driven policies. They accept the role of the private sector also in certain things.

Once upon a time, the Left was a magnet for young people who wanted to transform the country, very idealist, people willing to give up their entire life for the political cause. The Left doesn't attract those kinds of people anymore, not for the last two or three decades now probably. This new party, on the other hand, has been able to attract a large number of people working voluntarily with them. Indian politics, otherwise, is a ladder for upward mobility to gain benefits like influence, money, or power. This party, at this early stage, offer hope because they focus on tangible things, not rhetoric. There are problems with the party no doubt, but you can't expect any pure political party in a country as complex as India. It's an ecosystem. As I said, this is both good and bad, but this is the cultural matrix within which we are working, so we cannot expect the party to only have sincere, idealist people. ooo

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Vol. 48, No. 34, Feb 28 - Mar 5, 2016