FROM times immemorial, the vast Indian subcontinent has always been a vibrant pluralist society with a magnificent cultural rainbow incessantly being created and recreated by diverse ethnic/regional/linguistic/religious communities. Most notably, it could boast of a vast range of diverse people’s cultural and intellectual traditions to resist the dominant, hegemonic, or feudal traditions.
Today this fine democratic tradition of unity through diversity and of progressive cultural-intellectual resistance is sought to be removed from the pages of history, erased from public consciousness and annihilated in real life by the Hindutva brigade because otherwise they cannot hope to divide the people, create fake enemies, provide authenticity to ignorance and superstition, and push ahead along a bloody path towards a monolithic, regressive, repressive Hindu Rashtra.
The spate of dastardly attacks on statues of international and national leaders of emancipatory struggles is but a small preview of the aggressively intolerant, exclusivist saffron raj. To foil this sinister design has emerged as an essential part of the broader struggle against communal-corporate fascism, a momentous task all left, democratic and progressive individuals, platforms and organisations must join forces to accomplish. All that is progressive and emancipatory in our historical traditions must be upheld, nurtured and harnessed to energise and strengthen the battle for a great democratic and socialist future for our country.
Hindutva seeks to convert the Hindu faith into what historian Romila Thapar has called “Syndicated Hinduism” -- a monolithic, regimented religion (which it never was) with a strong proselytizing tendency and even a pronounced martial character (features it never had).
The RSS clubs together all these discreet faiths and even Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism in a metanarrative of Hindutva. It seeks to create an amalgamated political community of Hindus by converting the private space of faith into a tool of political mobilisation through a hundred ways and means ranging from RSS shakhas to drills and Sunday schools (catch them young!) to pogroms against minorities and Dalits and new forms of terror campaigns like cow vigilantism. They embrace the caste hierarchy of Hinduism as part of what they define as the “core” of Indianness – rather than as something that progressive spiritual and cultural traditions have resisted and challenged down the centuries.
When they demand that Hinduism/Hindutva must be accepted as a "way of life" and the core of Indian national culture even by non-Hindus (Muslims must therefore prove their patriotism by paying obeisance to the image of Bharat Mata with a Lotus in her hand and sing vande mataram) they seek to destroy this beautiful heterogeneity of Indian culture and kill the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Constitution of India.
Side by side with philosophical idealism as the dominant discourse, a rationalist and materialist interpretation of the universe, as formulated by the charvakas and others, has always been an intrinsic part of India’s civilizational ethos. The Upanishadic ideal of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” (The entire world is a family); the role of Gautam Buddha in developing a critical, rational, scientific and humanist outlook aimed at establishing a just society based on equality and non-discrimination; the conceptualization of the five elements that constitute the universe and everything in it including humans; the value of Buddhist and Jain dialectics and Jain logic as great repositories of the science and art of reasoning and rational thinking – these were some of the seminal or foundational quests and discoveries that opened up the gates for great advances in mathematics, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, medicine etc. Before the popularization of astrology, astronomy was marked strictly by reason and mathematical formulae; it was only later that the notion of Rahu and Ketu crept in and gave the whole phenomenon an unscientific colouring.
It was not just tolerance of different viewpoints and religions, but a positive inquisitiveness -- an admiration for and eagerness to learn from even an opponent -- that underlined the highly productive academic/intellectual life in our country. The Buddhist mahavihars like Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire and its curriculum was thoroughly secular, comprising as it did Buddhist texts, the Vedas, Logic, Sanskrit Grammar, Medicine and Samkhya. It brought together great minds from around the world as teachers and students in hundreds in a free flow of intellectual persuasions without any interference from the patron rulers. This fine tradition has now been thrown overboard, with the incumbent government replacing the internationally acclaimed academician Amartya Sen as chancellor of this heritage centre of learning by one of its political agents, exactly as it is doing in other educational and cultural institutions to speed up saffron takeover of thinking brains as a condition for fascist takeover of the state.
However, if critical assimilation and cross-fertilisation was the principal aspect and progressive trend which we must carry forward, there was also an opposite, reactionary tendency: where you cannot defeat or co-opt an inimical doctrine ideology and also cannot just ignore it since you know it has the potential to grow and overpower you, go and crush it through slander, conspiracy and if need be physical persecution. This second tendency was most nakedly manifested in the centuries-long campaign of distortion, vilification and suppression launched against the unabashedly materialist philosophy of Charvakas. The campaign was so successful that very meagre original documents of this school is available to us and we have to ascertain its contents – to whatever extent possible – from its opponents and slanderers only. Today we face the same tendency in a deadlier form, as witnessed in the cowardly killings of rationalists and dissenters like Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. We must fight and defeat this aggressive intolerance and uphold the legacy of ancient India as a celebration of diversity.
The Bhakti (devotion) movement emerged as arguably the strongest voice against the caste-system after Buddhism. It established a direct communication between the devotee and God, thus eliminating the need of priests and rituals, rendering caste divisions superfluous, developed people’s fraternity based on humanist values rising above all religions and put up a formidable challenge to the feudal-Brahmanical order. Women like Nayanar saint Karaikkal Ammeiyar and Alvar saint Andal in Tamilnadu and Meerabai in Rajasthan; Basavanna the Kannada poet-saint who established the Lingayat tradition; Dalits and Shudras like Ravidas /Raidas and Tukaram; and other poet-leaders and followers from the oppressed castes played very important roles in this movement. The tradition of Nath yogis – who considered themselves neither Muslim nor Hindu – was another rich pluralist tradition; ironically, in the 20th century, this tradition has been usurped and corrupted to become one of the most vicious and bigoted forms of Hindutva politics – represented currently by the UP Chief Minister Adityanath.
The Sufi thinkers and poets -- from Bulle Shah and Waris Shah from Punjab, Kabir from Banaras to Ajaan Fakir from Assam and many others -- engaged with Islamic orthodoxy and generated a wider atmosphere of compassion and devotion. Large numbers of Hindus, Sikhs and others were, and still are, devotees of saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Nizamudin Aulia without relinquishing their own religion.
In the Bhakti and Sufi traditions we see the other face of religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” – as Marx wrote, and at the same time as “a protest against real suffering”. They voiced the everyday concerns of all disadvantaged communities in local dialects and cultural forms, thereby providing a great impetus to the development of modern Indian languages, literature and the arts. The syncretic tradition was carried into modern India by people’s singers like Lalan Fakir of undivided Bengal and Shishunala Sharif of Karnataka.
The Bhakti-Sufi concept and practice of building people’s unity across caste, creed and gender was elevated to a more organized plane in the Sikh religion. Guru Nanak Dev discarded all notions of high and low, emphasized the duty to fight for the miserable and the destitute and attempted to fuse the tenets of Hinduism and Islam. The Guru Granth Sahib brought together excerpts from not only the ten Sikh Gurus but also saint poets of almost entire north India from different caste/religious backgrounds including Kabir, Ravidas, Jaydev Namdev etc.
No amount of communally motivated falsification of history can obliterate the fact that the Mughal period saw an explosion of cultural activity in the fields of architecture, painting, music and literature. Based on the contributions of people from different ethnic groups, regions and faiths, the Mili-Juli Tehjeeb (composite/syncretic culture) became the core of an evolving national culture with many different regional/ethnic/sub-national cultures retaining their unique features and flavours and also cross-fertilising one-another.
First National Uprising,
First War of Independence
This composite culture contributed to the great awakening of the India's first war of independence in 1857. Following close on the heels of the great santhal hool led by Sido and Kanhu, the ‘peasants in uniform’ rose above religious narrow-mindedness and challenged the British Raj as Indians, as ‘Hindostanis’ in the sense of being legitimate owners of Hindostan: "Ham hain iske malik, Hindostan hamara" (We are its owner, Hindustan is ours)—as the 1857 leader Azimullah Khan sang. 1857 – with its diverse set of fighters hailing not only from princely feudal backgrounds, but also from the oppressed castes and women, thus announced the birth of popular, militant anti-imperialism some thirty years ahead of the birth of the Indian National Congress.
The history (re-)writers of RSS seek to obliterate the recorded facts of Hindu-Muslim unity in the battlefield (e.g., that the artillery- chief of the Queen of Jhansi Rani Laxmibai was a Muslim) and also the names of Peer Ali, Azimullah, and other Muslim heroes from the annals of 1857, just as they try to vilify Tipu Sultan who bravely resisted the advances of British Army in the pre-1857 period. But in the hearts of all Indians, the known and unknown heroes of 1857 will live forever as an eternal source of inspiration in the continuing struggle against imperialist and all other kinds of bondage.
The diverse social reform movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped India's yet to be completed transition to the modern era both in socio-economic and political domains. The movement for women's liberation through education and self-reliance was pioneered by Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Begum Rokeya Shekhawat Husain and others.
Among the socio-religious reformers, it is Vivekananda whom the saffron brigades try their best to appropriate and make use of in their communal campaigns. But is there anything in common between the Hindutvawallas and Vivekananda?
Vivekananda did work for Hindu revival, but in a way completely different from the usual parochial, regressive kind. At the centre of his project was the ideal of social service irrespective of class, caste and creed. When a group of young men sought his help in their 'protection of go-mata' project, he ridiculed them with the remark "like mother, like son" and advised them to serve the poor, suffering humans instead.
“We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true” Vivekananda said in his Chicago address on 11 September 1893, and added, “I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.” Is this vision consistent with the Hindutva government’s persecution of the Rohingya refugees or the religion-based witch-hunt currently going on in Assam? He was emphatic in denouncing “sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism” as well as “all persecutions with the sword or with the pen”. Harmony and universal brotherhood was the basic spirit of his historic Chicago address. These are the ideals we need to uphold today in our fight against the oppressive official saffron.
Complete demolition of the caste structure itself was the most radical reform Indian society was crying out for, and it was taken up in right earnest by the Satyashodhak Samaj run by Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule in Maharashtra and ‘Periyar’ E V Ramaswamy Naicker, who led the Self-Respect Movement in Tamilnadu. The good work they initiated was developed to a qualitatively new stage by B R Ambedkar.
“Atmo deep bhavo” (be a torch unto yourself) -- Ambedkar called out to the Dalits of India – don't depend upon God or a Superman, lead the campaign of "annihilation of caste" yourselves, armed with the motto "Educate, Agitate, Organise". All his life he fought for an India to be founded on "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", with the three cannons seamlessly integrated into a "way of life" and a form of government known as democracy. His battle was against "the graded inequality” in both economic or class terms ("immense wealth" for a few and "abject poverty" for the many, as he said) and social or caste terms. He was painfully aware that independence – and the adoption of the Constitution he drafted with so much care – will not, by themselves, eradicate this twofold inequality. That is why, while dedicating the Constitution to the nation on behalf of the Constituent Assembly, he warned that in the Republic of India the political principle of one person one vote one value will be in perpetual conflict with inequality in "the social and economic structure". His message to the nation was obvious and emphatic – abolish the inequality, exploitation and oppression embedded in the socio-economic structure, so as to bring it into correspondence with the political superstructure visualised in the Constitution (not the other way round, as the present and past rulers of India have been trying to do by undermining the democratic, egalitarian, secular values enshrined in the Constitution).
The twentieth-century witnessed a dazzling fireworks of anti-British agitations in diverse forms, with different political contents and involving different classes and strata. Scores of militant, prolonged strike struggles by workers on economic and, often enough, nationalist demands and numerous peasant uprisings frightened the Raj as nothing else could. With the Champaran satyagraha of 1917, Gandhi started adding the much-needed mass dimension to the Congress movement. The Ghadar movement carried forward the secular tradition of 1857, while revolutionary nationalist/patriotic terrorist actions reached a new high in the Chittagong uprising led by Surya Sen, in which women activists like Preetilata Waddedar and Kalpana Dutta (later Joshi) played a leading role.
In the 1920s, when an advanced section of nationalists were reaching out for Marxist theory and the latter was developing into an inspiration and guide to the national liberation movements across the globe, the Communist Party of India was born. With his transition from revolutionary terrorism to Marxism-Leninism, Bhagat Singh opened up a great new chapter in the history of freedom movement. An avowed atheist, he insisted on absolute separation of religion as a matter of personal faith from politics and, by implication, from affairs of the state. He called the Dalits "the real working-class" and urged them to emancipate themselves on their own. While undergoing trial in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, he and his comrades asked the magistrate to send a telegram, at their expense, to the Third International expressing “brotherly congratulations on the triumphant march of Comrade Lenin’s mission”, adding, “we wish to associate ourselves with the world revolutionary movement.” He was very close to the CPI and after his martyrdom most of his comrades joined the party, so did the vast majority of revolutionary nationalists in other organisations including Surya Sen's group.
As the CPI strove to combine the twin tasks of national liberation from imperialist yoke and social liberation of the toiling masses from feudal and capitalist exploitation and oppression, the growing assertion of worker and peasants masses gave rise to, and was further facilitated by, a powerful Congress left wing represented by Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose and others. A socialist stream emerged in North India. The great social churning and mass political awakening led to a luxuriant growth of progressive and democratic art and literature and the foundation of Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).
During and after World War II, the country witnessed a sharp left and democratic turn in politics, as manifested in an unending series of prolonged workers' strikes, the tebhaga and Telengana uprisings, the "quit India" upsurge, the great naval mutiny, the heroic march of the Indian National Army, which created history by enlisting women in direct fighting operations through the Rani Jhansi Regiment, gave us the unique secular salutation "Jai Hind" and became a grand symbol of communal fraternity not only on the battlefield but also in the angry protest movement that swept the nation during the INA trials; the “Quit Kashmir” agitation; and so on.
Sadly, the “almost revolution” was overshadowed by a communal holocaust and a divided India achieved independence after a long long tryst with destiny – a battle hard-fought and hard-won.
The Constitution of independent India “resolv[ed] to secure to all its citizens JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity …” Fighting for the achievement of these ideals for all the people of India, and protecting these ideals from fascist subversion, which is possible only through a mass movement for their actualization in our lives, is a top priority task before the nation today.
At a time when ‘patriotism’ is being defined as fascists as hatred for minorities and for our neighbouring countries, we must harness the various rich political and cultural traditions of ‘people-first patriotism’ from the 1857 war of independence to the Ghadar movement, from Bhagat Singh and his comrades down to the Naxalbari movement.
The Tenth Congress of CPI (ML) Liberation resolves to plunge into this battle with all its might and solicits active cooperation of comrades, friends and all those who, despite ideological or political differences, are for democracy against fascism. India’s second freedom movement – this time from the clutches of fascism – has begun. Victory will be ours, because people united can never be defeated.