March Mania: People's Marches in India
"For the revolutionary war is a war of the masses; it can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them."
It has often been repeated on public platforms by various non-Left entities that the Left is dead, there is no working class or peasant mass base vanguardism for the Left, there is no future for the Left in India (or the world), and so on. But within the last fortnight, there has been a wide mobilization of the traditional “Vanguard” of Communist Parties, cutting across divisions within the Left itself. Three major Marches were held in Bombay and Delhi, each laying claim to the destiny of Marches and the act of marching by communist groups throughout history. But of course, Mao Zedong’s Long March stands out as the most exemplary historical precedent, which was also openly announced by the marching farmers, students, teachers, activists, and other individuals who joined in.
Before we begin looking at what these Marches were about, one must not forget what Mao’s Long March signified. In 1934, Nationalist repression against the Communists was at its peak. And as a result, the “Long March” began on the 16th of October from Jiangxi province towards the Shanxi province. Thousands of Communist Party of China (CCP) members began marching on foot towards the North from the South in two groups, breaking the Fifth Closure between Jiangxi and Gulia. Mao lead the way developing mobile warfare and traditional Chinese guerrilla tactics to counter the Kuomintang’s repression. Further, the CCP found strength in new leaders like Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, Deng Xiaoping, among others.
But what was significant about the long March was that it allowed the CCP to build support where no other Communist Party at that point of time could – the countryside. And it did so through expanding its base into the local countryside, but more importantly, creating a bridge between the urban cadre and the non-urban cadre. This link would eventually prove vital in defeating not only the Japanese imperialist forces, but also the Kuomintang army. As the mass support shifted towards Mao and the CCP, it was only logical that the Civil War would sway their way and the Revolutionary forces be successful in driving out the colonial and nationalist forces.
The Farmers’ Long March
But a non-militaristic version of a Long March was witnessed by many a Maumbaikars on 11-12 March. For about six days, farmers, agrarian laborers, tribal groups, political activists, social activists, and other citizens covered a distance of 180 kilometers from Nashik to Mumbai. Although their demands were not geared towards dismantling the Maharashtra government, the agrarian crisis forced them to take to such means to gather attention. It is well documented how the Maharashtrian peasantry is one of the worst-hit in the nation-wide agrarian crisis. With over 12,000 farmers committing suicide yearly, and about one-sixth of these deaths happening in Maharashtra alone, the silence around the agrarian crisis is rather deafening.
Under the banner of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), one of the largest agrarian organizations of India, about 50,000 people marched, many of them barefoot or with broken footwear, into Mumbai in the dead of the night of 11 March 2018. And to be sure that the board exams of the Class X students the next day were not disturbed, the marchers quickly gathered in the historic Azad Maidan before the sun rose. Demanding the implementation of a loan waiver as per the Maharashtra government’s own promise, better prices for their produce, and the implementation of the Tribal Rights Act, the marching sea of people was met with an unprecedented middle-class support once they entered the city. Various NGOs, smaller political organizations, and eventually major political parties of the opposition joined in and offered food, water, and other relief to the relentless comrades of the AIKS. This was one of the few political miracles of recent times where a Left group was able to make such an impact that people and organizations who would otherwise reject Leftist ideas and politics were forced to listen to the voice of the oppressed. The Maharashtra Government has been ultimately forced to agree to most of the demands that the AIKS has brought to them. But more importantly, a nascent link has been fostered between the Marathi countryside and metropolitan Mumbai.
In a similar strain, another section of Indian society decided to march for their rights, and to bring into public notice the crisis in their lives – the students and teachers of various universities.
Universities’ Fight for Existence
In late February, Tata Institue of Social Sciences (TISS) began, through their strike, a wave of student movements against privatization, demolishing of reservation and positive discrimination policies, and the de-funding of public institutions of higher studies by the Modi government. With slogans like “TISS for Everyone” the striking students of the Hyderabad, Tuljapur, Guwahati, and Mumbai campuses received solidarity from across the country, and also from various universities across the world.
It was in the midst of this that the Modi Government announced their plans to de-fund 62 central universities and to open them up to private investors as per a 30:70 model. The policy was ingeniously garbed as a granting of “autonomy” to these institutions, forcing them to fend a major portion of their funds themselves. What this essentially means is that the government is slowly and steadily stepping away from any socio-economic responsibilities towards the students and allowing the market a free-hand to turn education into a profit-machine. The roots of this policy like in two major policy documents: the Ambani-Birla Report, and the WTO-GATS agreement. Both these documents argue for a move towards privatizing education and urging (read forcing) the state to open these sectors up for investment. What it effectively would mean is that students who cannot afford to pay lakhs of rupees every year would be unable to enter any tertiary education system. Much like the US, higher education would turn into the luxury of a privileged-few. Although the Modi government is tasked with implementing them, they were ruthlessly pursued even by the UPA government (2004-14). It was as part of this larger scheme that the infamous F.Y.U.P. was introduced in Delhi University in 2013.
Things came to a head in JNU as this announcement was accompanied by two other major emergency-like situations. Firstly, Professor Atul Johri, who has been named in eight different FIRs for sexual harassment of students in JNU was let out on bail within minutes of his arrest. Secondly, M. Jagadesh Kumar, Vice Chancellor of JNU (not coincidentally an ardent RSS-member) shuffled the heads of departments that refused to accept the arbitrary compulsory-attendance policy introduced hastily in an academic council in JNU. This policy was rejected by most teaching staff and students’ representative bodies (the only exception being the ABVP). As a result, Jagadesh Kumar replaced the chairpersons of the departments that did not agree to the compulsory-attendance policy in a meeting on the night of 15 March.
As a result, no less than 4,000-5,000 students of JNU, led by the students’ and the teachers’ unions took out a Students’ Long March from the campus. The plan was to march for 15 kilometers up to the Parliament and voice their concern in front of various Members of Parliaments. However, the Students’ Long March was interrupted near INA Market by the police and students were lathi-charged and fired upon with water cannons. Almost two-dozen marching students were taken in by the police, who beat them up and refused to let them go until the marching students dispersed. Eventually a delegation of MPs reached INA Market and addressed the gathering of students while also hearing out what they had to say.
To drop to another low, the police even targeted journalists and photographers who were covering the event, which further triggered a protest march a couple of days later by journalists and photographers.
A similar march against privatization was carried out by DUTA and FEDCUTA on 28 March. Thousands of people from organizations in universities across North India joined the March from Mandi House to Parliament Street. Fortunately, there was little police presence this time, and no major case of police brutality was witnessed. Leaders from all major opposition parties joined the “March for Education” and promised to fight the Modi Government against “autonomizing” higher education institutions. But apart from that, many concerned citizens, NGOs, socio-cultural groups, and intellectuals joined the march. Once again Indian democracy was witness to a solidarity that transcended immediate interests and identities.
But one must also be cautious at such moments. It is not as if the goal is achieved by showing a certain number of people on the streets. It is also not as if the current socio-economic system will allow a permanent remedy to the crisis. Much can be done by the current political setup to spit-and-polish the country’s economy, but the malaise runs deeper than what the government is ready to address. Probably even most of the people who came out to march in March 2018, too are wrong to believe that their lives will change for the better because of their protest. This is where liberal-democratic politics reaches its limits.
There is a structural problem at the root of the crises. And that structure is that of Capitalism. The current form of democracy is in itself a symptom of this Capitalism: a rather authoritarian regime that allows liberal-democracy to not only work, but in fact upholds its (neo)liberality to take the agenda of Capital forward. The BJP is not very far from the Congress, or any other major political party in this regard – privatization has been the way to go for almost three decades when it comes to problem solving in Indian democracy. It is accepted as the axiom of 21st century life in India, and a major silence regarding these Long Marches is a direct result of this. Substituting privatization with “autonomy” and fostering credit-based neo-liberal agriculture instead of state-subsidies in farming have a detrimental impact on public opinion when all parties do it.
What does a Leftist upsurge in such a scenario mean? If the Left is able to redefine the coordinates of the debate, to lay bare the gaps that exist in the logic of the state, and if it is able to come up with a new way to organize life in the highly dynamic times we live in, one would be able to say confidently that the Left is where the future lies.
About The Author
Saarang Narayan is an academic of the left. He holds a Master's from Oxford University in Modern Asian Studies and is a graduate in History from Hansraj College. A closet cricketer, a home-based music producer and sound engineer, and a session guitarist, he is on his path to academic glory in the field of History.