An interview with Jairus Banaji
Platypus Review 26 | August 2010
Given the considerable international interest in the progress of Naxalism on the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the wake of the 2008 Maoist revolution in Nepal, we are pleased to publish the following interview with Marxist and historian Jairus Banaji conducted on June 28, 2010.
Spencer Leonard: The immediate occasion for our interview on the Naxalites or Indian Maoists is Arundhati Roy’s widely read and controversial essay, “Walking With the Comrades,” published in the Indian magazineOutlook. There Roy speaks of “the deadly war unfolding in the jungles of central India between the Naxalite guerillas and the Government of India,” one that she expects “will have serious consequences for us all.”1 Is Roy’s depiction of the current situation accurate? If so, how have events reached such a critical state? How, more generally, does Roy frame today’s Naxalite struggle and do you agree with this framing? Does the “main contradiction,” as a Maoist might say, consist in the struggle between the Naxalite aborigines on the one side, and, on the other, what Roy refers to as the combination of “Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism”?
Jairus Banaji: There certainly is a Maoist insurgency raging in the tribal heartlands of central and eastern India, much of which is densely forested terrain. The tribal heartlands straddle different states in the country, so at least three or four major states are implicated in the insurgency, above all Chhattisgarh, which was hived off from Madhya Pradesh in 2000. To the extent that there has been a drive to open up the vast mineral resources of states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa to domestic and international capital, there is the connection Roy points to. As a definition of the “conjuncture” that has dominated the conflict since the late 1990s, she is clearly right.
But the Naxal presence in these parts of India has little to do with the factors she talks about. Naxalism, or Indian Maoism, goes back to the late 1960s. What distinguishes it as a political current from other communists in India is the commitment to armed struggle and the violent overthrow of the state. It is not as if the perspectives of Naxalism flow from the circumstances one finds in the forested parts of India. The question is why, after its virtual extinction in the early 1970s, the movement was able to reassemble itself and reemerge as a less fragmented and more powerful force in the course of the 1990s. To account for that we have to look to different factors than those Roy identifies.
The Naxalites have always seen the so-called “principal contradiction” as that between the peasantry or the “broad mass of the people” on one side and “feudalism” or “semi-feudalism” on the other. They have never abandoned this position since it was evolved in the late 1960s. The revolution has always been seen by them as primarily agrarian, except that now “agrarian” has come to mean “tribal,” since their base is on the whole confined to the tribal or adivasi communities.
Sunit Singh: Please explain the confluence that led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004, which united the Naxalite splinters, the People’s War Group, and the Maoist Communist Center? What explains the dramatic revivification of Naxalism after its decimation in the early 1970s and how do we understand the CPI (Maoist) as a political force today? To what extent has today’s Naxalism changed from its predecessor, the original CPI (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI (M–L))?
JB: The key fact about the Naxals in the late 1990s and 2000s is that they began to reverse decades of fragmentation through a series of successful mergers. The most important of these was the merger in 2004 between People’s War, itself the result of the People’s War Group fusing with Party Unity in 1998, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). That 2004 merger, which resulted in the formation of the CPI (Maoist), reflected a confluence of two major streams of Maoism in India, since People’s War was largely Andhra-based and the MCCI had its base almost entirely in Jharkhand—the southern part of Bihar which also became an independent state in 2000. To explain the successful reemergence of Naxal politics in the 1990s, we have to see the People’s War Group (PWG) as the decisive element of continuity between the rapturous Maoism of the 1960s–70s, dominated by the charismatic figure of Charu Mazumdar, and the movement we see today. The PWG was formally established in 1980 after some crucial years of preparation that involved a unique emphasis on mass work, the launching of mass organizations like the Ryotu Coolie Sangham, which was like a union of agricultural workers, and a “Go to the villages” campaign that sent middle-class youth into the Telangana countryside. Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, its founder, was able to attract the younger elements because he was seen as more militant because, among other things, he refused to have anything to do with elections. Following a dramatic escalation of conflict in Andhra Pradesh from 1985, PWG was able to build a substantial military capability and a network of safe havens for its armed squads (dalams) across state borders, in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, directly north of the A.P. border, and in the undivided region of Bastar or southern Chhattisgarh to the north and east. Regis Debray in his Critique of Arms points out that no guerrilla movement can survive without rearguard bases, by which he means a swathe of territory which it can fall back on with relative security in times of intensified repression.2 This is exactly what happened with the squads that had been trained and built up in Andhra, or more precisely in Telangana, the northern part of the state, in the 1970s and 1980s. The recent flare up of conflict in Chhattisgarh is largely bound up with the intensified repression of 2005 that drove even more fighters into the Bastar region.
SL: In “Walking with the Comrades,” Roy sidesteps the question of Naxalite politics in favor of siding with a marginalized group, in this case “the tribals.” Thus she states that “[some] believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists… [they] forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.” But she also wants to have it the other way around. For instance, this is what she says of the Naxalite leader and theoretician who first founded the CPI (M-L): “Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” What do you make of this curious political ambivalence respecting the actual Maoism (and the Marxism) of the Maoists? How do you understand Roy’s anti-Marxist, tribal revolutionary romance?
JB: The idea that the tribals and the CPI (Maoist) share the same objective is ludicrous! What the tribals have been fighting against is decades of oppression by moneylenders, traders, contractors, and officials of the forest department—in short, a long history of dispossession that has reduced them to a subhuman existence and exposed them to repeated violence. A large part of the blame for this lies with the unmitigated Malthusianism of the Indian state. By this I mean that the adivasis have been consigned to a slow death agony through decades of neglect and oppression that have left them vulnerable to political predators across the spectrum, including the Hindu Right. As Edward Duyker argued in Tribal Guerrillas, the Santals whom the Naxal groups drew into their ranks in the late 1960s “fought for specific concessions from the established rulers, while the CPI (Marxist–Leninist) fought for a new structure of rule altogether.”3 There is a big difference between those perspectives! The tribal aim is not to overthrow the Indian state but to succeed in securing unhindered access to resources that belong to them, but which the state has been denying them. The tribal struggle is for the right to life, to livelihood and dignity, including freedom from violence and from the racism that much of India exudes towards them. The massive alienation of tribal land that has gone on even after Independence was something the government could have stopped if it had the will to do so. Today the huge mineral resources of the tribal areas are up for grabs as state governments compete to attract investment from mining and steel giants. But whatever the CPI (Maoist) might think, the vast majority of the tribals in India have no conception of “capturing state power,” since the state itself is such an abstraction except in terms of harassment by forest officials, neglect by state governments, and violence from the police and paramilitary.
SL: In online comments on Roy’s article posted on kafila.org, you responded to the preoccupation with tribals and Naxalites with a series of rhetorical questions:
Where does the rest of India fit in? What categories do we have for them? Or are we seriously supposed to believe that the extraordinary tide of insurrection will wash over the messy landscapes of urban India and over the millions of disorganized workers in our countryside without the emergence of a powerful social agency… that it can contest the stranglehold of capitalism… without mass organizations, battles for democracy, struggles for the radicalization of culture, etc.?
To this you add, “in [Roy’s] vision of politics, there is no history of the Left that diverges from the romantic hagiographies of Naxalbari and its legacies.” Thus you contend that Roy’s thinking is impeded by a kind of amnesia. How precisely does Roy’s lack of awareness of and confrontation with the history of the Left compromise her ability to think through what it would mean to stage an emancipatory politics today? How does awareness of the history of the Left in the sense you intend differ from simply knowing the Left’s past? What are the consequences we face because of the Left’s widespread failure to work through its own history, a failure of which Roy is but a recent and prominent instance?
JB: Roy lacks any grasp of the history of the Maoist movement in India, which is why she can make that silly statement about Charu Mazumdar being visionary, when the bulk of his own party leadership denounced his “annihilation” line as pure adventurism and a whole series of splits fragmented the movement within a year or two. Mazumdar also played a disastrous role in splitting the movement in Andhra through a purely factional intervention. Roy’s background is clearly not the Left or any part of it, including the Maoists. What she does reflect is the disquiet generated, beginning in the 1990s, by the opening up of India to the world economy and the drive to create a globally competitive capitalism regardless of the costs this would inflict on workers and the mass of the population.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the campaign to halt the project to build a hydro-electric dam on the river Narmada, was the best example of the kind of “new social movements” that emerged in India in response to issues that the party left simply failed to take up. It was not led by any party, was related to a major single issue, and had roots very different from those of the organized left. It involved large-scale mobilization of the communities uprooted by the dam, but the NBA of course was eventually defeated in the sense that it failed to stop the dam from being built despite massive resistance. The defeat of the NBA generated a profound disillusionment with the state of Indian democracy, which is strongly reflected in Roy’s work—a kind of “democratic pessimism.” The most extreme expression of this is the idea that India has a “fake democracy,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
But, let’s get back to Roy’s bizarre reference to Charu Mazumdar as a “visionary” who “kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” The fact is that the “annihilation” line had led to such disastrous results by the end of 1971 that the majority of his own Central Committee denounced him as a “Trotskyite” and expelled him from the party! Indeed, the majority of a twenty-one member Central Committee had withdrawn support from him by November 1970, and Satya Narayan Singh, who was elected the new general secretary, described his line as “individual terrorism.” Even when the AICCCR (All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries) transformed itself into a party in April 1969, leading figures of the early Maoist movement in India were unhappy with the decision and many stayed out.
SS: Elaborate, if you will, on the exact form of struggle that Charu Mazumdar is associated with. What was the “annihilation line,” exactly?
JB: Like all Maoists, Mazumdar believed that the key social force in the revolutionary movement in India would be the peasantry. He adhered to the strategy mapped out in the deliberations between the CPI leadership and Stalin at the end of 1950, one product of which was a document known as the Tactical Line, which spoke of a two-stage revolution starting with a People’s Democratic State that would be ushered in by an armed revolution. Of course, by then Liu Shao-ch’i was already recommending the Chinese revolution as a model for all colonial and “semi-colonial” countries in their fight for national independence and people’s democracy. This would have to be an armed revolution based on the peasantry and “led by” the working class. The reference to the working class was purely rhetorical, since the leading class force in the revolution was the peasantry and the leadership of the working class existed in the more metaphysical shape of the party. The distinctiveness of Mazumdar’s politics was that he seriously believed it would be possible to arouse revolutionary fervor among the “masses” by annihilating “class enemies” such as the jotedars or larger landowners of Bengal, by forming small underground squads that would selectively target landlords, state officials, and other representatives of the exploiting class and state apparatus. Such shock attacks, he felt, would create a decisive breach and unleash a mass response. Mazumdar believed that the revolution in India could be completed in this manner by 1975! The idea was that the masses were simply bursting with revolutionary zeal and only needed a catalyst. As I said, the line generated considerable dissent, not least because it abandoned any notion of mass work.
SS: So, when the Mazumdar faction constituted itself as the CPI (M–L) in April of 1969, what followed? Were other factions loyal to Peking folded into the new party? What happened to Mazumdar’s Maoist critics, those who argued that their M–L comrades had substituted terrorism for mass organizations such as trade unions and kisan sabhas?
JB: The Chinese Communist Party backed away from the Naxals pretty early when they realized that they were talking about different things. There was a distinct loss of enthusiasm from Peking, and Mazumdar faced increasing criticism. Parimal Dasgupta, a prominent union leader, advocated the building of mass organizations among workers, and criticized the neglect of urban work by Mazumdar’s followers. He disapproved of the idea of a clandestine party organization because it would mean abandoning any effort to build broader class-based organizations. Another leading figure, Asit Sen, split on similar grounds. T. Nagi Reddy, the leading communist in Andhra Pradesh, disagreed with squad actions that were isolated from any mass struggle and simply substituted for it. He wanted a period of preparation and mass work before the armed struggle, but the group around him was disaffiliated from the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR), the body that transformed itself into the CPI (M–L) in April 1969. Even people who were otherwise close to Mazumdar like Kanu Sanyal and [Vempatapu] Satyam, a leader of the Srikakulam Movement, disapproved of individual assassinations based on conspiratorial methods by small underground squads. As Manoranjan Mohanty shows in his book Revolutionary Violence (1976), a unified M–L was already in decline by the middle of 1970, roughly a year after the party was proclaimed.4
SS: How should we view the embrace of revolutionary violence as a tactic by the Naxalites, both in its moment of inception in the late 1960s and in the present day by groups such as the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army? Does this zealousness signal radicalism, or helplessness? Can it be seen as the outcome of the defeat of the Left in previous decades, the consequence of the abandonment of a politics seeking to abolish alienated labor or, indeed, the abandonment of any explicitly labor-based politics?
JB: When the CPI (M–L) was formed in 1969, its key function was seen as “rousing” the peasant masses to wage guerrilla war. Mazumdar believed that the killing of landlords would “awaken” the exploited masses. This, classically, was what Debray calls a “politics of fervor,” a politics in which revolutionary enthusiasm substitutesfor ideas rooted in mass struggle and for the class forces that conduct those struggles.5 But there were tendencies in Andhra that rejected this line and even went so far as to argue that, if the armed struggle were waged as a vanguard war, the people would become passive spectators. One writer quotes Nagi Reddy as saying, “Their [the people’s] consciousness will never rise. Their self-confidence will suffer.”
Today we can see that this is a vanguard war trapped in an expanding culture of counterinsurgency, and the most the CPI (Maoist) can do is flee across state boundaries and regroup in adjacent districts. What they have not been able to do and cannot do, given the nature of their politics, is consolidate enduring mass support in their traditional strongholds. In Andhra, where the fight against the Naxals has been most successful, from the state’s point of view, the backlash has been ferocious and beyond all legal bounds. The state there has institutionalized “encounter” killings, India’s term for extra-judicial executions, on a very large scale, and trained special counterinsurgency forces to hunt down the Maoists. In Chhattisgarh the state has sponsored (armed and funded) a private lynch mob called the Salwa Judum, or “Purification Hunt” in Gondi, the local language, that has emptied hundreds of villages by forcing inhabitants into IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where they can be easily controlled. In Chhattisgarh both sides have recruited minors. Both states have seen staggering levels of violence, with a pall of fear hanging over entire villages in Telangana, and the atomization of whole communities in Dantewada. We should remember that it was successive waves of repression in Andhra Pradesh that drove the PWG squads into regions like Bastar and southern Orissa in the first place.
One consequence of the massive escalation of conflict from the late 1980s was a substantial weapons upgrade, a major increase in lethality. The Naxals have used land mines on an extensive scale, using the wire-control method, and inflicted heavy losses on the paramilitary. The crucial result of this conflict dynamic is a wholesale militarization of the movement, a major break with the pattern of the late 1970s when they built a considerable base through mass organizations, in Telangana especially. The civil liberties activist K. Balagopal, who saw the movement at close quarters, became progressively more disillusioned as the military perspective took over and reshaped the nature of the People’s War Group. In 2006, a few years before he died, he described the CPI (Maoist) as a “hit and run movement,” underlining precisely these features.6
SS: What kinds of affinities do the Naxalites share with other militant New Left groups?
JB: I would hardly call them “New Left.” I think the best comparison for the CPI (Maoist) is Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Abimael Guzmán’s idea that the countryside would have to be thrown into chaos, churned up, to create a power vacuum, is a mirror image of the CPI (Maoist) strategy. Guzmán called it Batir el campo—“hammer the countryside.” The idea was to generate terror among the population and demonstrate the inability of the state to guarantee the safety of its citizens. That is how Nelson Manrique has described the strategy.7 In the end it meant the assassination of village heads and increasing violence against the peasantry (from the Senderistas) that brought about their rapid downfall. A key element of the Batir el campo strategy was the systematic destruction of infrastructure with the aim of isolating whole areas of countryside from the reach of the state. The idea was that, effectively, these would become “liberated zones.”
The CPI (Maoist) have been pursuing a very similar strategy. The role they played in sabotaging the movement in Lalgarh bears a striking resemblance to the Sendero’s interdictions against all forms of autonomous peasant organization. The drive of the CPI (Maoist) to isolate the areas under their control from the rest of the country, to impose an enforced isolation on the tribal communities, is similar to the way the Senderistas worked in Peru. This is the deeper meaning of forced election boycotts. During elections the threat of violence is palpable. Sabotaging high-tension wires, goods trains, railway stations, roads, and bridges is simply the physical analogue of the election boycott. Interlinked with this is the continual execution of “informers,” a kind of exemplary punishment that is clearly designed to bolster a culture of fear in the CPI (Maoist) “base,” which breeds the kind of resentment that creates more informers. Balagopal was a powerful critic of these practices that, I suspect, were largely a product of the new leadership that took over the PWG in the early 1990s, whenKondapalli Seetharamaiah was driven out of the party.
A movement like this will obviously tolerate no dissent. There have been repeated instances of the different armed struggle groups murdering each other’s cadre, sometimes over the course of years and on quite a large scale. Indeed, at least one reason for the merger between the PWG and the MCCI was the turf war between them in the years before 2004, when on one estimate they killed literally hundreds of each other’s supporters. Left parties like the CPI (Marxist) have also seen their party activists being murdered, as if this is what the People’s Democratic Revolution needs and calls for! I should add that the CPI (Marxist) is hardly blameless, either, since they have their own vigilante groups or terror squads called the “harmads.”
SS: It seems to me that the perspectives of the Maoists do not arise from the circumstances of those they claim to represent, but are rather static in and of themselves. Party documents and Maoist “theorists” seem capable of little more than the recycling of desiccated fragments of ideology.
JB: Maoist theory has a timeless quality about it. It deals with abstractions, not with any living, changing reality. The abstractions stem from the debates and party documents of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the agrarian line emerged as an orthodoxy for the Left in countries like India. The Chinese Revolution was an incorrigible template and everything about India had to be fitted to that. Within India itself this generated what were called the “Andhra Theses.” As I said, the deliberations with Stalin generated a series of documents that all factions of the undivided Communist party accepted to one degree or another. The Tactical Line mapped out the outlines of a strategy that flowed straight into the Naxalism of the late 1960s. Some of the terminology was changed, such that “People’s Democracy” became “New Democracy,” but these shifts in rhetoric marked no crucial differences. So there is a sense whereby the Naxalite split from the CPI (Marxist) did not represent a total break with orthodoxy within the Indian movement. It was the CPI (Marxist) that was poised ambiguously between the USSR and China.
SL: Embedded in this refusal of reality, this insistence upon rehashing empty abstractions, there seems an unmistakable retreat from the very project of Marxism. Am I wrong to see an elective affinity between Roy’s insistence that the tribal people’s impetus to resist comes from outside of capitalism, on the one hand, and on the other, the rhetoric popularized by Charu Mazumdar, which identifies the peasantry as the primary revolutionary class? Roy and Mazumdar seem to share the idea that the old anti-feudal struggle was and remains viable. Both exhibit a lack of interest in the question, What dynamics within capitalism point beyond themselves? While I agree that Arundhati Roy lacks any grounding in the history of the Left, there does seem to be common ground between the Naxals’ nihilism and her romantic anti-capitalism.
In earlier comments you argued that Roy’s “democratic pessimism,” as you referred to it, has led her to argue that the ongoing Naxalite insurgency “is the best you can hope for.” Similarly, with respect to Maoists, you have suggested that, at bottom, they view those whom they claim to represent as “cannon fodder,” so that “it is not hope but false promises that will lie at the end of the revolutionary road, aside from the corpses of thousands.” To begin to understand what has brought together these two political streams —the new social movements and late Stalinism—is it fair to say that both, as expressions of political defeat and despair, are equidistant from what you have called “the vision of the Communist Manifesto,” in which Marx argues that the task of the Communists is, as you put it, “not to prevent the expansion of capitalism but to fight it from the standpoint of a more advanced mode of production, one grounded in the ability of masses of workers to recover control of their lives and shape the nature and meaning of production”?
JB: There are different strands here. One is Roy’s tendency to see Maoism as the passive reflection of a tribal separatism that is rooted in decades if not centuries of oppression of the adivasis. The trouble with this is that it makes the Maoists purely epiphenomenal. It is a reading that has little to do with politics in any sense. More to the point, Maoism simply is not a continuation or extension of tribal separatism. It is a political tendency committed to the armed overthrow of a state that is both independent (not “semi-colonial”) and democratic in more than a formal sense. Millions of ordinary people in the country have immense faith in democracy, despite the devastation that capitalism has inflicted on their lives—and when I say capitalism here I include the state as an integral part of it. The other strand relates to the way the Left has reacted to “globalization” and the isolationist stances that have flowed from that. This is not peculiar to the M-L groups—it is the soft nationalism of the whole Left and stems from the inability to imagine a politics that is both anti-capitalist and internationalist in more than purely rhetorical ways. The rhetoric of anti-globalization, which opposes the reintegration of India back into the world economy, forms the lowest common denominator of the entire Left in this country. The Indian Left today cannot conceive revolutionary politics apart from national isolationism. Everything is reduced to defending national sovereignty against the forces of international capitalism. But modern capitalism is not an aggregation of national economies, however much the working class is divided by country and in numerous other ways. It is hard to see how the movement in any one country, even one as big as India, can overthrow capitalism as long as it survives in the rest of the world. Paradoxically, it is the smallest countries, like Cuba and probably Nepal after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) takeover, that survive best in these conditions!
SS: In its 1970 program, the CPI (M-L) claimed that “India is a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country…. the Indian state is the state of the big landlords and comprador-bureaucrat capitalists…. and its government is a lackey of US imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism.” What are the limitations of such a vision of anti-imperialism and of what might be referred to as the “semi-feudal” thesis of capitalist development in India?
JB: The Naxalites haven’t substantially modified their positions except to the extent that they realize that the forces they are up against today have more to do with capitalism than feudalism. So, if you read any of the interviews that they give to various publications like Economic and Political Weekly , there are more references to capitalism than there used to be back in the 1970s. Back then it mattered much more whether you defined the social formation as mainly “capitalist” or mainly “feudal.” Today it doesn’t seem to matter as much, since it is obvious to everyone that India is capitalist. Perhaps this wasn’t so obvious forty years ago.
Most Naxalite groups still accept the four-class bloc, and the “national bourgeoisie” is part of that alliance. This position derives from the “semi-colonialism” line, and its only practical function today is that it can help the Naxalites justify a whole nexus of relationships necessary for the party to fund itself, largely by means of the tax imposed on traders and contractors. For example, in Jharkhand it is said that the Naxalites demand (and are paid) 5 percent of all large, government-funded projects in the rural areas. If “national bourgeoisie” is supposed to refer to the smaller layers of capital, those are of course among the worst exploiters of labor, as the appalling conditions in small-scale industry and so much of the caste violence in the countryside show. As for “semi-feudalism,” the irony is that the Naxalites’ survival in the late 1970s and 1980s depended precisely on creating a base of sorts among the dalits and adivasis, the vast majority of whom have always been wage laborers. Indeed, the bulk of the population in India comprises the wage laboring and salaried classes, and a political culture that does not start from there—that does not start from the right to livelihood, the right to organize, and the aspiration to control resources and production collectively—is not going to make the least bit of difference. To keep referring to the land-poor and landless as a “peasantry” shows how much one’s political thinking is defined by dogma as opposed to reason.
SL: Earlier you spoke of how the Naxals, like the Sendero Luminoso, created a kind of ghetto around themselves. Is this the endgame of the politics launched in the 1960s and 1970s, which itself represented an inadequate response to what had become an increasingly bureaucratic and opportunistic Stalinism in India? How can the left politics that now trails this long legacy of failures reconstitute itself? But what about the larger question of intersecting the Naxalites, since many of these groups have been attracting some of the brightest young minds in India and, in this respect as in others, they represent a major impediment to the reemergence of the Indian Left? How do we break the appeal of political nihilism?
JB: As I said, the vast mass of India’s population are wage laborers. They work in very different sorts of conditions from each other. So it’s not as though we are dealing with a homogenous or unified class. One way forward as far as I can see is through the unions. Unions have been a stable feature of Indian capitalism and always survived despite repeated attacks. As a small but significant example of the kind of left politics we should be concentrating on, the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), which was formed around 2005, is an attempt to organize a national federation of all independent unions in the country, regardless of which sector they belong to. This started as an initiative of the unions themselves and it has seen slow but steady expansion all over the country and includes, for example, the National Federation of Forest Workers and Forest Peoples. There is also a great deal of rethinking on the Left, both against the background of the public relations disasters of the CPI (Marxist) in Singur and Nandigram and of course the violent internecine conflicts within the party left. There is a whole layer of the Left in India that can be called “non-party,” which is for that reason both more dispersed and less visible perhaps. It includes numerous organizations active in areas like caste discrimination and atrocities, communal violence, civil liberties, women’s liberation, child labor, homophobia, tribal rights (e.g., the Campaign for Survival and Dignity), the Right to Food Campaign, campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and many others. Dozens of Right to Information activists have been murdered, and there are numerous movements against displacement throughout the country. All of this reflects a different political culture from that of the left parties, more specialized and professional, also more autonomous, and the true agents of the churning of democracy that India is currently witnessing.
SL: How do you imagine the potential political expression of that? Does this take a party political form? How does it intersect parliamentary politics?
JB: If India could establish a workers’ party on the Latin American model, then much of this non-party left would gravitate to that as its national political expression. But the culture of such a workers’ party would have to be radically different from the sterile orthodoxies of the old left parties. It would have to be a massive catalyst of democratization both within the Left itself and in society at large, encouraging cultures of debate, dissent, and self-activity, and contesting capitalism in ways that make the struggle accessible to the vast mass of the population. The fact is that the bulk of the labor force still remains unorganized into unions and a workers’ party could only emerge in some organic relation to the organization of those workers.
SL: What you are arguing then is that the Naxalites constitute a major impediment to the reinvention of the Left?
JB: Absolutely! That would be an understatement. The militarized Maoism of the last two decades is a politics rooted in violence and fear. Those in positions of leadership refuse to do any “hard thinking” in Mao’s sense. You cannot build a radical democracy, a new culture of the Left, on such foundations. The recent beheading of a CPI (Marxist) trade-union leader who refused to heed the bandh (strike) call of the CPI (Maoist) is a spectacular example of how profoundly authoritarian the Naxal movement has become under the pressure of its overwhelming militarism. When actions like that damage their credibility, they are explained away as “mistakes.” But these continual “mistakes” fall into a disturbing pattern. As a friend of mine wrote in Economic & Political Weekly, “the CPI (Maoist) is as little concerned about the lives of non-combatants as is the state.”8 | P
1. Arundhati Roy, “Walking With The Comrades,” Outlook, March 29, 2010,
2. Regis Debray, Critique of Arms: Revolution on Trial, Two Volumes, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Penguin Books, 1977-78).
3. Edward Duyker, Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
4. Manoranjan Mohanty, Revolutionary Violence: A Study of the Maoist Movement in India (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1977).
5. Debray, Critique of Arms.
6. K. Balagopal, “Public Intellectuals in the Chair 7: ‘All the News we get is Killing and Getting Killed,’” interview by Vijay Simtha, Tehelka, January 21, 2006,
7. Nelson Manrique, “The War for the Central Sierra,” in Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995, ed. Steve J. Stern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 193–223.