Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jyoti Basu and the unnecessary success of Indian Communism

Jyoti Basu's demise is not the end of an era. The heyday of Communism in India is over, that turn has already been taken some years ago, with the electoral defeat of the Communist Parties of 2009 a major step downwards. Neither is the end near, for in India Communism is far more alive and combative than in almost any other country, with a formidable presence on the ground (Northeast, Jharkhand-Telengana corridor), in the trade-unions, in academe and in the parliaments of several states. Communism's persistent grip on West Bengal in particular is very largely Jyoti Basu's own work.



While the CPI supported the Emergency and took a leadership role in its enforcement, Jyoti Basu's CPM opposed it, and he rode the wave of anti-Emergency resistance to power in 1977. After he led the state for 23 years, his successor Buddhadev Bhattacharya is still capitalizing on the party's power position that Mr. Basu built. His personal character shines rather brightly compared with the venality of hollowness of so many Congress, casteist and even BJP politicians. Like his Kerala counterpart, the late E.M.S. Namboodiripad, he showed that Marxism-Leninism requires from its votaries a lifestyle of discipline and dedication. The Communists, both inside and outside his own party, have reason to deplore the passing of a hero of their movement.

But what should the rest of us remember him for? He was born in a "bourgeois" family in Kolkata and had the privilege of studying in England. There he joined the freedom struggle and, through this involvement, came closer to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Only because the party instructed him to, he postponed full membership until after his return to India. In 1946 he was elected for the first time to the Bengal parliament, where the Communists supported the plans for the imminent Partition. Many leading Communists (and other leftists, like Amartya Sen) were from East Bengal and found to their dismay that like all other Hindus, they had to flee the new state of Pakistan to India, the country whose unity they had betrayed. Unperturbed, they continued the anti-Hindu line they had shared with the Muslim league during the struggle for Partition. Once in power, the Communists patronized the immigration and integatrion of millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. At the end of his term, Mr. Basu even toyed with the idea of rebaptizing "West Bengal" as just "Bengal", to do away with the implication that next to "West" Bengal, "there is another part tucked away somewhere". That was a pretty crass instance of the Communists' tendency to rewrite history at their own convenience, for of course there does exist another part, the East Bengal that the Communists themselves helped to give away to the Jihadi forces.

We should take this opportunity to highlight one important phenomenon, which was concentrated mostly in pre-Independence Bengal, viz. the shift of a large majority of revolutionaries -- particularly from the Anushilan Samiti circuit -- from Nationalism to the Communist movement. An auxiliary reason for this development was British aid: revolutionary prisoners were given Marxist literature, because the British knew that the Communists opposed terrorist violence and aimed for a mass uprising in the long term, thus leaving British (and other oppressors') lives out of harm's way until the time of the Revolution, which moreover might never materialize. Hindu nationalists who easily resort to cheap blame-the-British scenarios ("Jinnah was brainwashed by the British into trading in nationalism for separatism"), tend to overplay the importance of this; the British could only reinforce a tendency already in operation. After the success of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917-20, it was but natural that activists of a revolutiony temperament worldwide would feel attracted to Marxism. At least, they did so wherever an alternative was lacking. In Italy, many joined the Fascist movement and grabbed power in 1923 on a very similar wave of revolutionary enthusiasm.

Did India have an alternative? The freedom movement was captured by M.K. Gandhi in 1920 and left no room for revolutionaries, whom Gandhi emphatically disowned and condemned. The fledgling RSS, founded by an Anushilan Samiti disappointee, Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, renounced politics and preferred work in the sphere of culture, social self-organization and "character building". Hedgewar rejected offers to integrate his volunteer corps with the Hindu Mahasabha in political work for national independence and for the safeguarding of Hindu interests. So, it is likely that many revolutionaires, initially motivated only by love of India and freedom, turned to Marxism not because of this ideology's intrinsic strengths, but for lack of a native ideological alternative. Revolution-minded people obviously could not reconcile with Gandhian nonsense, anymore than the moderate constitutionalists (including the young Jinnah) could. They wanted to act decisively against the British colonialists, and also against backward social forces hampering the devolution of the fruits of freedom to the masses. Naturally they had no patience with muddle-headed Gandhism and associated anachronisms.

One alternative that might be cited is represented by the lone figure of Swami Shraddhananda. He stood for national freedom as well for an uncompromising stand against inequality and social injustice. But the party he co-founded, the Hindu Mahasabha, was soon embroiled in compromise with Hindus who supported the freedom struggle but practised the politics of the dead weight against social reform. Also, it did not involve itself in revolutionary struggle, not in terrorism of course, but not even in theoretical exercises planning for a revolutionary overthrow of colonialism in the long term.

Lenin, while renouncing "childhood diseases of Communism" such as stray terror, did teach a long-term strategy for taking power and imposing an unalloyed new order. Nobody in India seemed to understand the challenge and the need for a convincing native alternative. Sri Aurobindo lamented that the mind of the Hindus had become dysfunctional, but he too failed to formulate an alternative, let alone to work for it. After his personal experience with the failure of the armed struggle, he soon retired from politics and, while giving lucid comments on political evolutions, never came out again to provide practical leadership. All this while, Gandhi worked on people's emotions, but the Marxists worked on their minds, and their penetration was more enduring.

Thus we see a long list of freedom fighters taking up Marxism and Socialism of various varieties. Not all these men and women were Marxists in the true sense, they only wanted to serve the national cause but not in the Gandhian way. Thus, the problem was a lack of native Indian/Hindu vision and an ensuing line of action.


We should not paint each and every Communist as a villain, but highlight the fact that a true native ideological narrative needs to be developed from scratch and articulated. This would address a historical lacuna in India. Indian Marxism will die a natural death only when such a vision emerges.

21 comments:

VAMANAN said...

But Sir, does a spiritually and morale-wise weak India have the soul-force and confidence to create a native idealogy? In the short term though, Bengal's latest Durga in Mamata seems to be all set to send Buddhadev and his comrades to the opposition benches.

Shankara said...

Sir, I did not understand one point. People who wanted to act against the British with vigour of body and mind did not get attacted to Gandhian approach, fine. I agree to this and I would have done the same. You say these people got attached to Marxism. Now that Hindus do have a alternate movement where we are fighting against islamic jihad and christian conversion, why dont these same marxist/ communist support this cause.

http://sowingseedsofthought.blogspot.com/

Apuleius Platonicus said...

This once again illustrates a lesson that America learned the hard way in Vietnam: Communists often make good Nationalists, and especially so when they are standing next to anti-Communists who often make miserable Nationalists.

LV said...

"Thus, the problem was a lack of native Indian/Hindu vision and an ensuing line of action."

As I've said before, I think "Hinduism" needs to be taken out of the equation before there can be a strong nationalistic movement. The idea of a unified "Hinduism" is a pipe dream, and Viveknanda-style propaganda to subsume everything under Vedanta is obvious nonsense as many secular scholars have pointed out. India needs to start from scratch and have something like a Meiji Restoration.

LV said...

I must admit that I admire Lee Kuan Yew's pragmatism:

"FZ: Is the Chinese regime stable? Is the growth that's going on there sustainable? Is the balancing act between economic reform and political control that Deng Xiaoping is trying to keep going sustainable after his death?

LKY: The regime in Beijing is more stable than any alternative government that can be formed in China. Let us assume that the students had carried the day at Tiananmen and they had formed a government. The same students who were at Tiananmen went to France and America. They've been quarreling with each other ever since. What kind of China would they have today? Something worse than the Soviet Union. China is a vast, disparate country; there is no alternative to strong central power."

http://www.fareedzakaria.com/articles/other/culture.html

Harish said...

LV fancies himself to be another Nehru who also thought that he was building up Indian nationhood under his rule all the while remaining ignorant that the only thing that held India together was what is called Hinduism these days.

Blind territorial nationalism is a 19th century European construct. Our ancestors had realized a long time back that the commonalities in our culture through our itihasa's and purana's are what held us together. When the Mahabharata was broadcast in the 90s almost all of India used to come to a standstill, can you find any such thing in Europe or US. Of course we have Homer's Iliad etc but how many non Greek Europeans know the story in detail?

Hell how many Americans even read their own constitution or know much about it?

Not a lot as far as I can tell going by the general ignorance which led to the unconstitutional & a pointless Iraq war.

What a Tamil & a Kashmiri Hindu have in common is not some worthless piece of garbage called the Indian constitution or some other "secular" document but the Ramayana & Mahabharata among other things.

It is those things that motivated Bhushana a Braj Bhasha speaker to talk about about Hindus as a nation similar to the French & British in the court of a Maratha king like Shivaji.

I am sure that in LV's mind Bhushana & Shivaji belong to very disparate groups but in their minds as in the minds of Baji Rao, Chimnaji Appa & Sawai Jai Singh they were Hindus first and foremost who considered the territory upto Afghanistan to be the territory of Hindus inherited from our ancestors.

India as a cultural entity existed for the last 5000 years whereas the US constitution is barely 300 years old and even that was trampled under foot by Lincoln when he crushed the War for Southern Independence.

May be people should stop deluding themselves to be some kind of builders of Indian nationhood and recognize the fact that the idea of India as a cultural entity long predates them and if they want to strengthen India they need to build on that heritage not copy the US constitution or some other thing.

I will end with an extract from a statement made by Nanasaheb in 1793:

"All the territory from the river Attock to the Indian Ocean is the land of Hindus and not of the Turks. These have been our frontiers from the times of Pandavas down to those of Vikramaditya. They preserved and enjoyed it. After them the rulers turned out to be quite effete and the Yavanas ( Mohammedans ) rose in power."

Balaji Ramasubramanian said...

It would be right to say that the revolutionaries took to Marxism due to the lack of any alternative ideology that could bind them. But what surprises me is that they did not find our natural culture viz. Hinduism to be a strong enough revolutionary idea.

When in 325 BCE Chanakya worked to assemble an army against the Greeks he assembled the masses on the basis of their Hindu cultural identity. When Veer Savarkar talked of Indian nationalism in 1920s it is this Hindu cultural identity he spoke of in those pamphlets titled "Who is a Hindu". When Krishna told Arjuna to fight the Kauravas in battle, it is this Hindu insistence on upholding Dharma that he was talking about.

When Bhagat Singh was imprisoned and awaiting his sentence, he wrote: "...if you were to ask when this spirit for revolution would end, it would not end till the time the oppression of the rightful owner of this land continues..." Indeed it is the same Hindu spirit that was present in his undertones. Yet, why did Bhagat Singh choose Marxism over Hinduism as a uniting ideology?

LV said...

"India as a cultural entity existed for the last 5000 years whereas the US constitution is barely 300 years old and even that was trampled under foot by Lincoln when he crushed the War for Southern Independence."

Wow, a supporter of slavery and the Confederacy. No wonder Hindus are/were considered to be collaborators with the Nazis and other fascist regimes by some Westerners.

"What a Tamil & a Kashmiri Hindu have in common is not some worthless piece of garbage called the Indian constitution or some other "secular" document but the Ramayana & Mahabharata among other things."

"India as a cultural entity existed for the last 5000 years whereas the US constitution is barely 300 years old and even that was trampled under foot by Lincoln when he crushed the War for Southern Independence."

[Sigh]...It just confirms my suspicion that most Hindus live in a dream world. Those texts were the victims of so many interpolations well into the common era(no doubt that they do contain very ancient material) that it is difficult to discern how accurately they record cultural history. It is hard to make a case that the Subcontinent was culturally and politically unified until the Mauryans.

Balaji Ramasubramanian said...

"Wow, a supporter of slavery and the Confederacy. No wonder Hindus are/were considered to be collaborators with the Nazis and other fascist regimes by some Westerners."

LV has taken Harish to mean that the reference to Lincoln "trampling the US constitution" implies that Harish supports slavery. This is an unfounded conclusion. He just meant to say that even the most respectable Americans (such as Lincoln) could not find the US constitution perfect. In other words, Harish simply asserts that the western ideals that the Indian communists love to live by are not ideals in their own eyes in the first place. The Indian communists just seem to be "more loyal" to the western ideals "than the rulers themselves."

Secondly, that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had a lot of interpolations does not take away anything from the fact that the fabled story of prince Rama is common to all the Hindus of the land. Whether the particulars differ or not, the effect that the name Rama has on the Hindu mind is the same.

Further, which legendary tradition has not undergone changes? Has the Bible not undergone any changes in the centuries after Christ's crucifixion? Even the teachings of Mohammed himself have undergone changes withing his own lifetime. If you are familiar with the concept of abrogation of a particular teaching, sadly that is exactly what has happened with Islam. So Mohammend could teach in Mecca that one should treat every fellow human as a brother and in Medina that one should kill all non-Muslims and lay ambush for them and he did so with divine sanction. According to the Quran, they (Mohammed and Allah) can repeal one teaching and give a better one. So all later teachings (which came about in Medina and were highly violent in nature like the 'verse of the Sword') gained prominence over the earlier teachings.

Finally, it is highly improbable that the Valmiki Ramayana and the Mahabharata have undergone changes. The pre-Panini nature of the grammar in the Ramayana is retained till date. The Mahabharata also is highly unlikely to have undergone changes, except perhaps the famous Bhagawadgita, which had two different versions by 1200 CE. But as the authoritative readings of both versions show, the differences are so minor (such as the replacement of a particular word with its more rhyming synonym) that they are essentially the same.

In any case, even if India were not politically and culturally "united" as a single nation, it surely did have a single underlying culture because it is precisely based on this underlying cultural oneness that Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya united India against the Greek forces. If it were true that India was culturally so irreconcilably diverse, we would never have united against the Greeks in 325 BCE.

LV said...

"Finally, it is highly improbable that the Valmiki Ramayana and the Mahabharata have undergone changes. The pre-Panini nature of the grammar in the Ramayana is retained till date. The Mahabharata also is highly unlikely to have undergone changes, except perhaps the famous Bhagawadgita, which had two different versions by 1200 CE. But as the authoritative readings of both versions show, the differences are so minor (such as the replacement of a particular word with its more rhyming synonym) that they are essentially the same."

Read Geoffrey Samuel's book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. It goes over the problems with the early Indological research of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the immense difficulties involved in dating Panini, the Brahmanical texts, etc. I won't claim that current research is any closer to discovering the truth about the origins of these texts, but I think it is clear that the accepted dates and early scholarly interpretations are extremely shaky.

http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521873512

LV said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LV said...

I also think that the latest genetic evidence makes the Out of India thesis rather unlikely (I'm not saying it is impossible):

http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2009/09/the_politics_of_genetic_histor.php

LV said...

More on the recent genetic studies:

http://scienceblogs.com
/gnxp/2009/09
/south_asians_as_a_hybrid_popul.php

Balaji Ramasubramanian said...

"It goes over the problems with the early Indological research of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the immense difficulties involved in dating Panini, the Brahmanical texts, etc."

So what? I never said that Panini's date is known or that Ramayana's date is known. All I said is that the grammar of the Ramayana shows a distinct pre-Panini flavor. If the text has been maintained with its pre-Panini language till date, it is hard to expect that the text has undergone major changes, except perhaps omission. And if in spite of the possibility of omission it has survived and that too all through the nation, it stands to the testimony of the importance of the epic. And even if as you claim, the Ramayana has undergone changes, it does not take away the fact that Sri Rama holds an important place in the minds of all Hindus whether in the north or in the south or any other parts of India.

Balaji Ramasubramanian said...

Your arguments on the Out of India theory are unnecessary. Nobody claimed here that the theory is correct. The only assertion is that Indians have a distinct Hindu identity that cannot be taken away from them. Further, precisely because they have a Hindu identity they need not shy away from it and try to look for external means and ideologies that can support their need for a revolution. There is enough ground to unify India.

Hinduism as you say is not a single homogeneous religion like Christianity or Islam that have a central dogma. Hinduism is a way of life, the culture of the people living in this land, the very substratum of their ideas and philosophy. And this substratum expresses itself in the form of openness and the ability to question oneself.

The association of Ramayana and Mahabharata with Hinduism is seen as non-secular because a lot of people think of it as a parallel to references of the Bible in Christian faith. But Hinduism is less a matter of homogeneous faith and more a matter of choice of living standards. Nothing in Hinduism is a necessary belief - even the belief in the existence of a God. There have surely been a lot of schools in Hinduism that have denied the existence of a God.

And yet those same schools have associated themselves with Ramayana or the Mahabharata in some or the other way. This association is not a contradiction of their core belief, because Ramayana and Mahabharata are more about the mores and standards of life that people in this land lived by, rather than eulogy of some Godhead. Unlike the Bible, Ramayana and the Mahabharata are not about God's wrath and the need to obey God's words, but about ethical and moral conduct and standards of behavior set by idealistic individuals in those times.

Balaji Ramasubramanian said...

The fact that Hinduism as a system allows for openness and self-inquiry is often eclipsed by the Communists. For example LV's own quote of LKY's pragmatism shows the blind Communist belief in the validity of the Communist ideology itself. The leader refuses to even entertain the question and gives a superficial reason to support the regime.

Nothing in Hinduism expects the adherents to blindly believe that it is right. It is a system or a way of life that can be tested for its usefulness and if it appears useful, can be adopted in full measure and rejected otherwise.

For example, the Hindu belief in the possibility of nirvana does not entail that every individual should believe that nirvana is possible. Those that wish to test the possibility are offered a choice to follow a path of self-inquiry on their own and test the validity of the truths in the Upanishads or the Noble eightfold path of the Buddha. Nobody is expected to believe blindly that the teachings are true.

Now try asking the Muslims if they can question the belief in the existence of a God? Will Marxists allow us to explore the possibility that perhaps Marxism itself is becoming a blind belief for people? Will they support the inquiry into the dogmatic nature of Communism? Will they support the pedagogy in schools of the evils of Communism and the autocratic rule of Lenin?

This is the essential spirit of Indian culture: that we as Hindus can question ourselves and tolerate the other. We are also open to new ideas and will accept all those that appear wise. And if this does not have a unifying nature what else is it? If this does not seem to bind people in a single fold, what else does it do? Does it force people to renounce their belief in a God, or does it force them to believe in a single ideology? It allows people to question ones own beliefs and unifies them all through tolerance.

Hinduism, and not Marxism is a far better choice of a rigorous ideology to unite India. While it may not be apparent, the essential key to Mahatma Gandhi's success in India's struggle for independence was not his charisma alone, but the fact that he adopted Hinduism to unite the people. If the name of his movements were not 'Satyagraha' or 'Swadeshi' and did not involve the essential modes of life that people lived by, it would have been impossible to unite such a huge population.

LV said...

"For example LV's own quote of LKY's pragmatism shows the blind Communist belief in the validity of the Communist ideology itself. The leader refuses to even entertain the question and gives a superficial reason to support the regime."

LKY was simply making a point that China needs a strong central govt to modernize the country. He actually thinks the Stalinist, Communist system is rather preposterous and he admired Xiaoping for trying to move away from it.

The point of the quote is that India is going to have a much harder time modernizing than China with the type of govt that it has. It's going to need a much stronger govt to get the country moving.

Harish said...

LV you merely confirmed your total ignorance of both American history and Indian history.

Almost every other Western nation abolished slavery without any civil war and you are naive if you think that the "Civil" war was mainly about slavery.

Do you even know what Lincoln's real views about Blacks were?

He wanted to ship them all back to Africa for example.

Support for Confederacy does not mean support for slavery. You might want to look up Lysander Spooner a confirmed abolotionist who nevertheless was against Lincoln's attemps to use force to preserve the Union.

Go read some real books instead of repeating what you were taught in your highschool in US.

wtf does Mahabharata and Ramayana undergoing changes have to do with the cultural unity of India?

Mahabharata was never a fixed text nor a 100% accurate rendering of history but a vehicle for cultural cohesion far better than any constitution.

Before talking about Hindus living in a dream world you might want to stop living in a dream world of your own making where you fancy yourself to be some modern Hindu version of Nehru or ata-turk and a builder of Indian nationhood.

Before making assumptions about other people's views (like calling me a supporter of slavery) educate yourself instead of spewing whatever nonsense comes to your mind.

Sridhar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
boyzffuture said...

Thanks for the article.

Dhruva said...

Never knew this. New perspective. Thanks