Shri Kanahiya Kumar: Brilliant speech, great connect but vacuous in content and all sophistry.

A new star is born. Shri Kanahiya Kumar, the President of Jawahar Lal Nehru Students Union, has emerged as the new poster boy of the Indian left. A brilliant orator, a great communicator he has managed to establish a new connect with the people and put life back in the moribund left. The ham handed manner of his arrest and the despicable physical assault on him have given him a new halo. His speech in JNU and his subsequent interviews after his release on bail has been hailed by many. Listening to his speech I could not but admire his oratory, but analyse the contents and it sounds vacuous and rhetorical. I will try to analyse the main themes/points of his speech.

Communism and Dr. Ambedkar.

Shri Kanahiya Kumar said, “We have full faith in Babasaheb… We have no faith in the deep rooted caste system in this country… we want to trash the traditions of exploitation, Jativad, Manuwad and Brahmanvad…In this country casteism is the biggest issue..speak against casteism”

No right thinking India can dispute the depravity that caste system has perpetuated in this country. For all right thinking Indians Dr. Ambedkar is a venerated figure. However, when Shri Kanahiya accuses other parties of Brahmanvaad, it is but natural that the Communist party, of which he is a representative, be subjected to the same scrutiny.

First, we need to understand what Babasaheb thought of Marxism as a philosophy. Babasaheb had studied Marxism and rejected it in favour of Buddhism. In his writing “Buddha or Karl Marx”, Babasaheb says, “liberty, equality and fraternity can only co-exist if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one (equality) but not all.” In the same essay he questions the ends adopted by the Marxists. He writes “Can the Communists say that in achieving their valuable end they would not have destroyed other valuable ends? They have destroyed private property. Assuming that this is a valuable end, can the communists say that they have not destroyed other valuable ends in the process of achieving it? How many people have they killed for achieving their end? Has human life no value?”

On the communist state utopia (which so many of my communist friends still believe in and aspire for) he had this to say, “At any rate (they) have no satisfactory answer to the question what would take the place of the State when it withers away, though this question is more important than the question when the State will wither away. Will it be succeeded by anarchy? If so the building of the communist state is a useless effort. If it cannot be sustained except by force and if it results in anarchy when the force holding it together is withdrawn what good is the communist state? The only thing that could sustain it after force is withdrawn is religion. But to the Communists’ religion is anathema…The Russians are proud of their Communism. But they forget that Buddha established communism as far as the Sangh was concerned without dictatorship…a miracle which Lenin failed to do.”

So before any attempt is made to project Baba Saheb as a Communist or even a Communist sympathiser there is a need to read and reflect on his views about Marxism.

Second, there is a need to reflect on the treatment meted out to Babasaheb by the then Communist Party of India (CPI).  In the 1952 elections from Bombay Central (which Babasaheb lost to Congress candidate NS Kajirolkar), Communist Party of India (CPI) founding member and leader Shripad Amrit Dange had instructed his supporters to waste their ballots rather than vote for Babasaheb. In fact, Babasaheb attributed his loss to the communist campaign against him. The communists had sufficient influence in Girangaon and had they not launched that visceral campaign against Babasaheb, he may have won.

Forget about the past, let us see what those seeking to appropriate the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar have to offer to the dalits in the present. Shri Kanahiya has publicly stated his admiration for Rohit Vemula who lost his life in extremely tragic circumstances. In his article in Hindustan Times (Lal Salam to Jai Bhim: Why Rohit Vemula left Indian Marxists) Rohit’s friend Jashwanth Jessie talks of the disillusionment of Rohit Vemula with the Student Federation of India (SFI), affiliated to CPI (M), of which once he was a firebrand leader. SFI comrades instead of valuing him subjected him to humiliation. Jashwanth writes, “His disillusionment with the communists happened when he discovered that the boys and girls who had given up their faith in God could not bring themselves to abandon their faith in the caste system. He quit the SFI after he was discriminated for his caste…After his unsavoury stint with the communists…He became acutely aware of not just the Brahmanical tendencies of the individual CPI(M) activists but the theoretical flaws of the left as a whole in understanding the Indian social order.’’

Third, has Shri Kanahiya reflected on the composition of the highest decision making organs of the Communist parties i.e. their Central Committee and the Politburo? Why is it that none of these parties have never had a Dalit in these decision making bodies in the last 50 years and remain a preserve of the upper castes? It is interesting to note that even the Central Committee of the extreme left (CPI (Maoist)) who claim to be at the forefront of the fight for tribals is heavily dominated by the Andhraites and hardly has any tribals.  While Shri Kanahiya can brand it tokenism, at least the so called right wing brahamanical reactionary party in his eyes, the BJP, is being led by an Extremely Backward Caste person in the Prime Minister.

It is also interesting to note the caste composition of the Left Front ministry under Shri Jyoti Basu. Between 1977 and 1982 the ministry comprised of 35 per cent Brahmins, 31 per cent Kayasthas, 23 per cent Baniyas and a paltry 1.5 per cent dalits[1]. This when West Bengal, as per the 1991 census, had the highest concentration of Scheduled Caste population in the country (24 per cent).

Fourth, it was also under the Left Front government’s watch that the largest massacre of Dalit Namasudras in the history of this country happened in Marichjhapi, Sundarbans in 1979. Some scholars and journalists have branded the massacre of these Dalit refugees from Bangladesh as a ‘genocide’ with reports of 3000 to 17,000 deaths. All this after Jyoti Basu himself had supported the relocation of these refugees from the inhospitable Dandkarnaya to Sunderbans. Its support for the refugees from East Bengal was one of the major reasons for the Left’s ascent to power. In January 1978, soon after the Left Front government ascended to power in West Bengal, minister Ram Chatterji of the Marxist Forward Block and Ashok Ghosh of the All India Forward Block visited the refugees and assured them that “Five crore Bengalis will welcome you back to Bengal extending 10 crore hands.” Alas instead of the extended hand what the refugees on their relocation to Sunderbans got was the iron hand of the ruthless government and its cadres. Branded squatters, Dalit Namsudra men, women and children were mercilessly blockaded and starved, their hutments burnt, women raped, elderly and children killed and their dead bodies thrown in the rivers for crocodiles to eat.

Sadly, while the left leaning NGO’s and environmentalists are at the forefront to protest violations of any and every human rights in India, in case of Marijhapi they have maintained a deafening silence. The brute reality is that for the liberal left, tigers and tourism triumphed over the interests of hapless Dalits.

I hope Shri Kanahiya Kumar and other young communists will reflect on what Periyar, another stalwart of dalit movement had to say about communism. Delivering a speech in Trichy on 21 February 1943 he said, “All the talks on communism in our country is bogus. Our youth must be kept away from such talks. ..So I appeal to the youth to be aware of these communists. Communism here, as it is, is a sugar coated pill. Beware!”.

Indian nationalism

One of the confusing arguments I heard from Shri Kanahiya was “I am a patriot but not a nationalist.” “Nationalism is a European concept. India is a land of diversity – she has no one uniform identity”.

Well if nationalism is a European concept, so is Marxism and Socialism. So are Democracy and Fundamental Rights. Should a concept be discarded just because it originated outside India or should it be embraced if it possesses intrinsic value and be adapted to the genius of the land and its people? The problem with Indian communists is their failure to adapt to Indian genius and instead remain hostage to sterile dogmas. While it is true that Indian nationalism remains a work in progress and it is easy to mouth homilies about diversity of India and challenge assumptions underlying Indian national identity, it is plain disingenuous to believe that no fundamental principle underlines Indian nationalism. Except the separatists who seek a divorce from the Indian nation, the ‘lowest common denominator of Indian nationalism’ on which both the ‘religious right wing nationalism’ and the ‘official secular Nehruvian nationalism’ agree on is the sanctimony of India’s ‘territorial nationalism’ and this has acquired sufficient political and mental hegemony in India. Both believe in India’s ‘sacred geography’ and India’s ‘ancient heritage’. As Ashutosh Varshney writes, “These ..have yielded two principal imaginations about India’s national identity – the secular nationalist and the Hindu nationalist. The former combines territory and culture; the latter religion and territory.” 

This is why the abominable slogans about the breakup of India in JNU evoked such passionate reactions. While the privileged students of JNU in their gated community may appear ‘surprised’ at the reaction and may swear by the ‘freedom of speech’ argument, talk to the people on the street and there are few takers for this kind of freedom of speech argument. A friend of mine remarked that people in Munirka who draw financial benefits from JNU by giving their rooms for rent to JNU students are ready to forgo these benefits and do not want them in their houses. As Varshney writes “Therefore, just as America’s most passionate political movements concern freedom and equality, India’s most explosive moments concern its “sacred geography”….Whenever the threat of another breakup, another partition, looms, it unleashes remarkable passions in politics. Politics based on this imagination is quite different from what was seen when Malaysia and Singapore split from each other in 1960’s, or when Czech and Slovak Republics separated in 1992. Territory not being an inalienable part of their national identity, these territorial divorces were not desecrations. In India, however, they are desecrations of sacred geography”.

While Indian nationalism has seen challenges in form of separatist nationalist movements (Dravidian movement, Punjab, Kashmir, Naga etc.) it has remained flexible and adaptable enough to adjust and appropriate these sub national identities within the larger Indian identity. Devising ingenious mechanisms like the grant of special rights and status to regions, linguistic reorganisation of states and federalism etc. the streams of sub nationalism were accommodated within the river of larger Indian nationalism. So what if India was a land of ‘diversity’, this diversity could flourish within the ‘unity’ of India. So one could be a good and proud Tamilian or a Kashmiri or a Sikh or a Muslim and yet remain a proud Indian. Naipaul summarized it well when he wrote “India is now a country of million mutinies..But there was in India now what didn’t exist 200 years before: a central will, a central intellect, a national idea. The Indian Union was greater than the sum of its parts.”

One can however understand where Shri Kanahiya’s statement is coming from when one understands how divorced the left is from the Indian ethos, mind and genius. It is their flawed understanding of the national question which in the past made them support the demand for Pakistan and today leaves them bemused or derisive when India is referred to as ‘Bharat Mata’. PC Joshi, one of the tallest leaders of the Communist Party of India wrote about the demand for Pakistan, “We held a series of discussions within our party and came to the conclusion in 1941-1942 that it (Muslim League) had become an anti-imperialist organization expressing the freedom urge of the Muslim people that its demand for Pakistan was a demand for self-determination… A belief continues to be held that League is a communal organization and what Mr. Jinnah is Pro-British. But what is the reality? Mr. Jinnah is to the freedom loving League masses what Gandhiji is to the Congress masses. They revere their Qaid-e-Azam as much as the Congress does the Mahatma. They regard the League as their patriotic organization as we regard the Congress. This is so because Mr. Jinnah has done to the League what Gandhi did to the Congress in 1919-1920 i.e., made it a mass organization.” (Congress and the Communists, PC Joshi, People’s Publishing House Bombay, p 5).

Now to the question of patriotism. Since Shri Kanahiya does not believe in Indian nationalism, it begs the question if he believes in ‘sub-nationalism’ or ‘separatist nationalism’? So he is ‘patriotic’ to whom? To what does he owe primary and highest allegiance? To ‘sub nationalism’ within India or to ‘separatism’? Or as a member of the ‘vanguard’ party, does his allegiance to his ‘party’ triumph over his allegiance to everything else? Remember, in China the primary loyalty of the Communist party member is to the Chinese Communist Party and not to the Chinese Nation. The Chinese Armed forces, i.e. Peoples Liberation Army, as an arm of the party, does not fight for the Chinese Nation but for the Party. Is his the same kind of patriotism?

The right wing government’s inadequate allocation of resources for social sectors

Shri Kanahiya Kumar lamented the cut in the education budget. He stated “The government has cut the higher education budget by 17 per cent. Our hostel has not been built for four years. We haven’t wifi till date.”

While it is no body’s call that sufficient funds should not be allocated for education in the country, judging educational growth simply by how much government funding is being provided for education is a very simplistic way of analysing the efficacy of education being imparted. Let us take the example of Kerala. It has been touted as a state to be seen as a role model of social development worthy of emulation by other states. Scholars like Amartya Sen have constantly eulogised the Kerala model and the Left is especially proud of its near universal literacy and high social indicators which many attribute to its ruling the state for long. Now for some reality check. A study by the Centre for Socio Economic and Environmental Studies (CSES), Kochi titled “Kerala’s Education System: From Inclusion to exclusion?” highlighted the following:

  • The government’s subsidy policy covers only the fees which forms a small component of the private fees and the disadvantaged sections have to bear several other costs like examination fees, cost of reading and writing materials, study tour etc.
  • More than 80 per cent of Engineering colleges, Pharmacy colleges, nursing colleges and schools are in the self-financing sector. Similarly, most of the management courses, medical courses (allopathy, Ayurveda and homeopathy) are also in the self-financing sector.

The Communists also take great pride in the other social indicator i.e. provision of quality health care in the state. However as per the report released by the Health Ministry, (National Health Profile 2015 by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence) people in Kerala spend the maximum amount from their own pocket on health care expenses. People in rural Kerala spend Rs. 244 per month on health care (national average Rs. 95.18) and Rs. 275 in urban areas (national average Rs. 145.71). As per reports, the health and education spend of Kerala has continued to hover around 1 per cent of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP). So before the leftists condemn other governments about their lack of commitment for social sectors, there is also a need to have a relook at policies and actions in states where they are in power.

As regards the crib about hostels and wifi in JNU, sorry Shri Kanahiya but you sound extremely elitist and ‘we are special’ kinds. Have you ever compared the hostel and hostel rooms available per capita in JNU with other universities of the country, say an Allahabad or a Patna? It was also interesting to see all Ivy League Universities jump to JNU’s support but I did not see resolutions in support of JNU coming from any of the nearly 480 odd publicly funded Universities in India. If they identify so much with JNU why are no vocal agitations going on in these Universities of the hinterland? Classic case of ‘elites’ standing with the other ‘elite’.

If the gated community of JNU is not a bastion of privilege what is? Is it not true that the Indian government spends approximately Rs. three lakhs per student in JNU and the University has one of the best teacher student ratios in the country.  As regards academic freedom in JNU, well I was listening to a podcast of Bhanu Pratap Mehta in which he was being interviewed by Mosharraf Zaidi (https://soundcloud.com/howtopakistan/episode-04-pratap-bhanu-mehta) and he stated that he had decided to leave Harvard (where he was teaching) and come and teach in JNU. He was soon to be disappointed with the way things were in JNU and decided to go back. And this is the experience of an acknowledged intellectual of this country who cannot be accused of being a right-winger.

Capitalism is rapacious and exploitative

Shri Kanahiya laced his speech (as all communists do) with the exploitation that capitalism brings. Now let us critically evaluate the communist commitment to communist economic precepts when they are in power. The whole world acknowledges that post 1991 reforms, absolute level of poverty has declined in the country. Government resources have increased and so has social spending. It is another matter that the communists refuse to accept it.

Let us look out how the states of Kerala and West Bengal have fared on unemployment and inequality. As per the Economic Review of Kerala, (state ruled for a long period by the Left Front government) at 7.4 per cent Kerala has the highest unemployment rate amongst the big States in the country and only Nagaland and Tripura (another left ruled state) fare worse than Kerala. The unemployment rate of Kerala is three times the national average (2.3 per cent). Incidentally women unemployment is worse with a rate of 47.4 per cent as compared with 9.7 per cent for men.

As per the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), Kerala was also one of the most unequal states in India having a Gini coefficient of 0.35 in rural areas in 2011-12. Similarly, for the urban areas, Kerala was amongst the nine states which showed the widest rich-poor gap since 1973-74.

The Socio Economic and Caste Survey also brought out a startling fact that the level of agricultural landlessness was 72 per cent in Kerala and 70 per cent in West Bengal. The story of deindustrialization of West Bengal under the communists is too well known for me to repeat. In terms of the per-capita income, Bengal under the left front witnessed a sharp decline in relation to other states. While on per capita terms it ranked 5th nationally in 1980-81, by 2000-1, its rank had slipped to tenth.

Further, if capitalism was so rapacious and exploitative why did the Left Front do a U-turn in 1994 and bring out a new industrial policy welcoming investment from foreign firms and domestic private sector? Why was a special 11-member committee headed by Shri Somnath Chatterjee created to win over the industrialists? Why did the industrial policy of 1994 acknowledge that there was growing sickness and stagnation in the economy and the state was starved for investments? Why did it acknowledge that the interest shown in Bengal by NRIs and MNCs was a ‘welcome development’?

The history of communism in this country is a history of U-turns and subsequent expression of regret whether it is on the support of Muslim League in the creation of Pakistan or the support by CPI to the imposition of Emergency. It reminds one of Munir Niazi’s couplet, “Hamesha der kar deta hoon mein”.

Communist sophistry has no parallels. They can speak and sound convincing about anything. It is only in communism that oxymoronic words like ‘democratic’ and ‘centralism’ can be combined together and be elevated to a principle and mantra. But the genius of India is that it finally rejects sophistry and accepts leaders with sincerity. Gandhi was no great orator but this country is yet to produce a greater mass leader than him.

(The writer is an independent analyst. The views expressed are strictly personal.)

[1] http://www.ambedkar.org/books/tu2.htm

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