a publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 2                 November 26, 1997

In this Issue...
Culture, Nation and the Left Priya Gopal
Rhetoric and Reality in Hindutva Brendan LaRocque
An Interview With Kancha Ilaiah
The Left in Independent India B. Mathew and G. Premnath
Letter to India Abroad Amitava Kumar


50 years?

August 15 saw myriad outpourings of national pride. And the sundry parades and events saw attempts to suture hegemonic visions of national community. But the Moments of Midnight are not solely struggles over cultural meaning. We at the collective feel that it is crucial to underscore the limits of national identification in the varied and particular forms of violence and deprivation inflicted on bodies named South Asian.

There are, at least, three points to think about. First, the subcontinent is not the only site of determination of South Asian national identities, or, consequently, the only sites where violence is visited on South Asians. As partial example, the embassies of Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh, and the Philippines in Kuwait have reported that nearly 2000 female domestic workers a year since 1991 have sought refuge in their halls. Driven to Kuwait by the demand for cheap labor, once there, these migrant workers report sexual assault, beatings, burnings, confinement, and garnishment of wages. In the US, organizations such as Narika in Berkeley, or Sakhi, Manavi and the Lease Drivers Coalition in the New York area organize daily against domestic violence, police brutality, and simple exploitation. Economic migration puts predominantly working class South Asians squarely in the path of racial violence. As such, activists for South Asians should not minimize the importance of making claims on, and engaging with, national communities that are not territorially South Asian.

Second, the equation of nation and community with the state can make us less mindful of state violence against South Asians. In Kashmir, the Indian government's arming of paramilitary groups is responsible for summary executions and torture of its subject(ed) peoples, as well election-related intimidation of voters, contributing to the militarization of life in that region. There are widespread reports of rape by Indian security forces since the government crackdown in 1990, as indeed in any situation of regional militancy which earns the unexamined appellations of "anti-national" or "insurrectionary". Prosecution of the culpable is rare.(1) Roughly 50 years after the anti-feudal Telengana uprising, bonded labor flourishes in states like Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Undemocratic measures like ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act) passed by the Rajiv Gandhi government mirror efforts in Western states to curb labor activism. Ironically, this much-vaunted fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of the "Sovereign" and "Socialist" state coincides with the intensification of external, so-called "global" economic regimes. As various industrial sectors face the onslaught of the New World Economic Order. Economic liberalization with the interests of capital at the center and the concomitant erosion of labor rights indicate the state's complicity in furthering human bondage and exploitation. As is well-known, the Indian state succumbed in 1991 to IMF pressure for "structural adjustment" in exchange for a huge loan, a move that has had fatal implications for an already inequitable national economic order. Amongst other things, this act which speeded up "liberalization" entails the replacement of food crops with export crops which intensifies conditions of starvation, ensures that earnings go to debt payments rather than to meaningful development, and thanks to privatization of key sectors, leads to cutbacks in social welfare, education, health services, access to civic amenities etc.* It also undermines "self-reliance", the Gandhian vision for Independent India, by eroding local industries and undermining small farmers' access to credit and subsidized materials. Relatedly, outrageous proposals for Intellectual Property Rights regimes such as those enshrined in the notorious Dunkel Draft demand that multinational companies be given patent rights to age-old common agricultural practices in addition to exclusive rights to seeds and technologies (which were stolen in the first place by these transnational corporations from the very sources they wish to police!). Whose sovereignty, kiski azadi?

A third, more common point to be made with regard to nationalism concerns the erasures of difference within territorial South Asia. Those concerned with 50 years can find miserable bookends in the Bombay communal riots of January 93, the subsequent burial of the Srikrishna commission investigating them and the Partition violence that birthed them so many decades ago. A bare few years before the pomp and circumstance around this anniversary, we witnessed the sickening spectacle of Hindutvawadis tearing down a monument to history and tradition, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the name of these very entities. On the fiftieth anniversary of so-called "Mother India", the sex-trade employing thousands of women and children in India include many who are coerced, and/or sold into this work.(2) Women in these brothels face rape, severe beatings, exposure to AIDS and confinement while "good Hindu wives" without the requisite large dowry burn in kitchens as their marital families look on. An antiquated British law makes homosexuality a crime in Independent India even as AIDS engulfs large sections of the population, straight or gay, male and female, and the state denies or ignores its existence.

Yet to the most wary and critical of us, the commemoration of independence is not simply an occasion of mourning and melancholy, not least when we also recall that the history of oppression and violence has also been the history of resistance, struggle and often, if not always, victory. Among significant challenges to oppression are the women's movements in India, which rank amongst the world's most diverse and multiple-issue based movements, and have won significant legal reforms without lapsing into complacence. State complicity with patriarchal violence in the Mathura rape case in which four policemen were acquitted by the Supreme court after a prior conviction, on the grounds that Mathura's character was dubious, inspired nation-wide outrage and indeed was responsible for the consolidation of organized resistance by women against violence. Since then, women have fought for reproductive rights, treading the dangerous line between the right to choice and the nefarious use of abortion for sex-selection and population control. The latter is a violence literally played out on their bodies by the bourgeois state protecting its propertied interests in collaboration with multinationals and their Malthusian patrons in the West hawking dangerous and lucrative drugs from Depo-Provera to Quinichrine.

Women have also struggled for equality in education, workplaces and political representation, against dowry and related violence as well as participated prominently in other struggles such as the Chipko movement against deforestation, the Narmada Bachao Andolan against big dams, forced resettlement and Fund-Bank development ideologies, and the victorious Silent Valley campaign against environmental damage. While aware of the problems of institutionalization, state-sponsorship, and possible co-optation, women's groups have also recognized the need to reclaim state, law and thus, the nation in their own interests. The very diversity and breadth of women's agitation, from bourgeois women's-rightists to socialist feminists, has initiated recurrent anxieties and debate about class interests and exclusions within the larger context of the women's movement--a critical spirit that mainstream nationalism would do well to develop.

Indian working class movements have continually sought to establish independent unions. One significant victory was the longest strike in Indian labor history, the Bombay textile strike of 1982 that lasted two years, which led to the formation of an independent, worker controlled Karmgar Aghadi Party in November 1984. More recently, in 1993, farmers organized successfully against the Dunkel proposals and the giant seed transnational, Cargill, despite government crackdowns and BJP sabotage. The embattled Narmada Bachao Andolan has succeeded in slowing down the steamrolling movement of anti-people development measures, as have the Tehri dam agitation and the Silent Valley triumph. It remains to be seen how labor organizing efforts in various industrial sectors face the onslaught of the New World Economic Order: its advance has not and will not go unprotested.

The challenges remain as much for women's and Dalit movements, as for the Left in general. We need to maintain a broad base against the erosions threatened by communalism (eg. think about developing a Uniform Civil Code or a legal system which does not sanction gendered violence in the name of religious identity but one that also does not insidiously reassert Hindu Brahminical hegemony) and as well as fight against a so-called "liberalization" which entrenches illiberal and inequitable socioeconomic orders. Responding to the challenges also means guarding against exclusions such as that performed in the past against gays and lesbians by a prominent leftist women's organization who condemned them as products of Western influence liberalization a few years ago--a move that was rehearsed by the organizers of this year's India day parade in NYC who did not allow members of the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Alliance to march with them. On the fifteenth of August this year, we might have maintained a reflective moment of silence in memory of these violences; we can certainly do so now as a prelude to action, a promise to struggle against both our mistakes and the doings of those who remain, enemies of human dignity and progress.


1. Committee for Initiative on Kashmir, Kashmir Imprisoned (Delhi: July 1990).

2. The Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women's Human Rights (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995), pp.230-231.

* Public Interest Research Group. Structural adjustment: who really pays. p.9.

This issue was put together by Amitava Kumar, Biju Mathew, Bikku Kuruvilla, Gautam Premnath, Mir Ali Raza, Niraj Pant, Priya Gopal, Rahul De', Sanjay Anand and Sharmila Rudrappa. Address all correspondence to: Ghadar, c/o Biju Mathew, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648. Or by email to, or

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