Peepul ke Neeche - Conversations
Communism and India's heritage
It is rare that a political party in India takes a serious attitude towards investigating Indian history, philosophy, culture and statecraft. Empty posturing, demagogy and rousing passions for narrow vote-bank politics is more the order of the day. Then there are those who flaunt their modernity by championing cosmopolitanism, Eurocentrism and labeling any serious attitude towards India’s heritage of thought material as revivalism and even communalism. However, CGPI is one political party that has consistently taken a serious investigative attitude towards all these questions for over a quarter century. We are pleased to bring to you a conversation between Shivanand Kanavi, a writer and Com Lal Singh, General Secretary of Communist Ghadar Party of India, in this section of Peepul ke Neeche.
Shivanand: Welcome to Peepul ke Neeche. I am impressed by the range of issues regarding Indian philosophy, political theory and history that have been raised by you in several publications of CGPI and would like to discuss some of them today.
Lal Singh: It is my pleasure to participate in this conversation. I have also been reading the magazine and appreciate this effort in trying to build a platform for serious discussion in a non partisan way, keeping out all prejudice and labeling.
Shivanand: The very name of your organization is intriguing. What is the connection between Ghadar and communism?
Lal Singh: The Great Ghadar of 1857, besides being the biggest war of the 19th century world, also represented all that was best in India’s anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles. Long past those tumultuous years, it continued to inspire patriots and revolutionaries in India. In fact, the founding fathers of Hindustani Ghadar Party, formed in 1913 in North America, which played an important role in India’s struggle against British Colonialism explicitly drew inspiration from the Ghadar of 1857. I believe that it is important for a communist party to takes the best revolutionary traditions of its own people and from the people of rest of the world and integrate them with the struggle to establish the rule of workers and peasants.
Shivanand: Frequently in your literature, I have seen an estimation of Bhakti movement as a radical democratic movement. Can you explain that? As far as I know no other communist group has done a serious analysis of Bhakti movement, much less characterizing it as revolutionary.
Lal Singh: Bhakti Lehar was very broad and deep. We see it coming up repeatedly for almost 800 years in different parts of the country at different times. It started around the 11th century in Tamil Nadu and spread to Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kashmir, the Gangetic plain, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bengal, Assam, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and other places. It captured the imagination of millions of people in literally the whole of India.
No doubt, it had a religious shell. After all, the stated goal of Bhaktas was direct communion with a personal deity without any intermediaries. Through this they posited a spiritual democracy. They recognized no divisions among humanity based on caste, profession, social status or gender. This immediately came into conflict with the Brahmanical system, the caste hierarchy and the priests.
The struggle was tortuous and many of them suffered at the hands of orthodoxy and even the state. But they stood their ground with great courage of conviction and became the voice of working people. They propounded their views in simple songs in people’s bhasha be it Tamil, Kannada, Kashmiri, Marathi, Awadhi, Punjabi, Bengali, Oriya, or Telugu. Till then all serious philosophical discussion was carried out in Sanskrit, Pali or Prakrit, with which very few people were conversant. The Bhakti Lehar led to the flourishing of literature in these bhashas. In fact, it played a major role in the development of various nationalities in India.
Bhaktas upheld the dignity of labour. Prominent activists of this movement came from all castes, creeds and professions. There were weavers, dhobis, cobblers, farmers, blacksmiths, gold smiths, traders, oilers, gardeners, accountants, Brahmins, and even some from the ruling circles. Moreover, a large number of Bhakti poets were women, who found liberation in this peer group after being considered second-class citizens and a source of “pollution” in the Brahmanical system. Here they shared their experiences with other bhaktas on an equal and honourable footing. The performing arts like music and dance too flourished as they were considered spiritual offerings.
According to the orthodox priests, the caste and gender divisions were ordained by a divine power. However, Bhaktas believed in a sensual and experiential philosophy and did not recognize any authority of the scriptures over the experiential. In fact, they said ‘the scriptures, which divide the people, are man made and have nothing to do with God.’ At one stroke, the foundation of a divinely ordained caste system and discrimination based on that was questioned seriously. In short, they played a profoundly revolutionary democratic role and were a part of the great secularization movement in India.
Shivanand: What about the Sufis?
Lal Singh: Sufis too brought similar values and since both the trends represented a spiritual quest and revolt against the rigidly divided social system, they were able to learn a lot from each other. In fact identifying them as Hindu and Muslim would be false because they recognized no such identities. For them everyone was a seeker. Thus, the two trends influenced each other in several places like Punjab, Kashmir and Karnataka. For example, Guru Nanak went to Kashi to converse with knowledgeable pundits and to Baghdad to discuss with the Sufis. He acknowledged the wisdom of Namdev from Maharashtra and Baba Farid from Afghanistan.
The point is not to look at everything in Indian philosophy and tradition with categories of idealism and materialism in a mechanical way. Bhaktas and Sufis did not just understand the world but actually strived to change it for the better.
Shivanand: You have time and again stressed the need to develop Indian theory, can you explain that?
Lal Singh: First, let us look at the system that we have inherited from British colonialism. It has further evolved post independence. Politically we have a system that is parliamentary, multi party democracy with election of representatives held every few years. This system was brought in by the British and embraced by the Indian ruling classes to act as a superstructure in the form of a highly centralized and repressive state machinery. The representative form of democracy lets a few chosen parties who support this system to enter the electoral arena and then get some among them elected through a process that reduces ordinary working people to a marginal role. Once elected these representatives are not accountable to anyone except their party high command. Their groupings then vie to be the best managers of the status quo as ruling and opposition parties or coalitions. Despite its total failure to empower the people through enabling direct democracy, many political parties have not only proudly become a part of the process but have also given periodic calls that people should defend this system at all costs! Why should we defend a disempowering system developed in Westminster, based on political theories of English monarchs and later the English bourgeoisie? Our civilization claims a heritage of thousands of years. Has it not produced any political theory that needs to be studied in order to deal with the problem of empowering the people today?
Similarly, capitalism transplanted by colonial administrators is being taken to new heights in the last sixty years, despite the proven fact that it enriches a tiny minority at the cost of impoverishing hundreds of millions. In terms of economic theory, Indian rulers parrot the Nehruvian mixed economy or the trickle down theory or European social democratic slogans like ‘capitalism with a human face’ or ‘inclusive growth’, which are all different versions of the same system that has not served the aspirations of Indian people. Has Indian civilization not produced any economic theory, which can be provided with modern content to serve the people? Unless, as Marx said, in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy, “we settle accounts with our erstwhile philosophical conscience”, how can we move forward to elaborate a modern theory that serves the aspirations of Indian people? These are cardinal questions facing Indian communists and all those seeking solutions to the problems facing our people today. However, in this endeavour to examine our heritage of Indian thought material, we face the other legacy of colonialism, viz. Eurocentrism, as a major obstacle.
Shivanand: Yes, I was going to ask that next. You have been repeatedly writing against the influence of Orientalism and the effect of Eurocentrism on Indian intelligentsia. Isn’t that strange for a party that professes Marxism and Leninism, which are both European in origin?
Lal Singh: Let me take up the second part of your question first. The philosophy of Marxism-Leninism is dialectical materialism. There is nothing European about that. You will find it profoundly well articulated in various ways in Indian darshan as well. It is reflected in the way the relations between man and nature and between man and man have been dealt with in Indian philosophy. Take the word darshan itself, which relates to things and phenomena revealing themselves to the seeker. Darshan posits the objectivity of nature and its phenomena. Or, take for example the concept of awagaman, which is a profound statement of matter in motion, of things and phenomena constantly coming into being and passing away and not being static. Further, take the concept of zero. Besides its application in number theory and mathematics, it represents a sandhi, where opposites coexist and cancel each other, much like the twilight zone where light and darkness coexist and cancel each other. In fact at sandhi you cannot say which way situation will turn, towards darkness or light. Unfortunately darshan has been reduced by Eurocentrics to religious spiritualism and divine revelation.
Macaulay and a host of Indologists and Orientalists, who acted as the ideological spearhead of colonialism, did not understand or want to understand the content or context of Indian darshan. They had the agenda of proving to the ‘natives’ that their salvation lies in embracing English liberalism, Calvinism, agnosticism, Utilitarianism and consider being ruled by the British as a privilege. This required breaking the moral and ideological fibre of the Indians. Hence they depicted every aspect of Indian culture and philosophy as otherworldly at best, and as crass superstition and “mumbo jumbo” at worst. They also painted pre-British Indian society in colours that could only be abhorred by a modern man. They implemented this systematically through their commentaries, even translations and of course the education system. Generations of Indian intellectuals became victims of this agenda. We can understand the strategy and tactics of colonial marauders, but sixty years on, do we see serious questioning of Eurocentrism? A majority of political parties are busy glorifying and defending the colonial legacy in the form of the Indian state, parliamentary representative democracy, capitalism and a myriad of divisions based on caste and faith, which were institutionalized by the colonial state. Thus, we cannot settle accounts with our ancient heritage without settling accounts with the colonial legacy.
Shivanand: There are several people, who are speaking against Eurocentrism with dubious intentions.
Lal Singh: Rediscovery of Indian philosophy and theory by Indian minds, and its elaboration in forms suitable to the present day needs, would be widely welcomed by masses of Indian people. It will help in taking the struggle of workers and peasants forward, to establish their own rule. In such a popular endeavour there would be elements who might flaunt the banner of struggle against Eurocentrism to preserve the status quo, or to arouse sectarian passions or justify the emergence of India as a big power. But isn’t that the fate of everything which can mobilize the spirit of people for change? Take banners of socialism, revolution, and people’s rule. Have they not been used for all kinds of dubious activities against the interests of people? So I do not think we should be worried if some people have dubious intentions in this struggle against Eurocentrism. The main thing is to examine our own history, philosophy, literature, culture, aesthetics, criticism, traditions and practices with fresh eyes. Eyes which are not Eurocentric. We might understand many things, we might approve of some of them and find them useful for solving today’s problems. We might disapprove of some. It will involve rejection of Macaulayan prejudices towards everything Indian and looking towards Europe for all enlightenment. The scope of this project is vast. While our party has made its intentions clear and is doing its bit, the project needs the energies of a vast number of people with varied expertise. On top of it there is the added factor of India having a strong oral tradition. The knowledge and wisdom contained in our people’s oral traditions are not to be found in any library or erudite tome but in the field of the mass movement.
This project of developing Indian theory will necessarily involve scholars with a fresh set of eyes and millions of ordinary people and activists summing up their historical experience objectively in the mass movement. Though it appears daunting, it is an exciting project and that too in an exciting period where the capitalist system has totally failed and the alternative is waiting to be elaborated after summing up the experiences of socialism in the 20th century.
Shivanand: You have made a difference in some of your literature between secularism and the movement for secularization. You do not seem to find secularism a virtue of Indian state at all. Secularism has become a label that every progressive loves to sport, but you see problems with it. Can you explain?
Lal Singh: The movement for secularization in Europe was revolutionary and it helped the European bourgeoisie in establishing their rule by overthrowing the feudal system, of which the Church was a big part. But soon they found that the working masses, whose support they needed to carry out the revolutions, were getting too radicalized. The European bourgeoisie then dropped the revolutionary content of the movement for secularization. They converted it into formal secularism on the one hand and pacts with religious clergy on the other. An example of this formal secularism is what the French are discussing today, about turbans and head scarves, or the agnosticism of English bourgeoisie, and their idea of “not taking sides”
In India the Bhakti lehar was part of the movement for secularization. It not only called for the liberation of the masses of people from the clutches of cunning priests and meaningless rituals but also from discrimination based on caste, community and gender. Indian tradition has always upheld the right to conscience as inviolable.
The Indian bourgeoisie has followed in the footsteps of the British colonialists. The communal foundations of the State have been retained, based on defining India as consisting of a Hindu majority and a Muslim and other religious minorities. The notion has been perpetuated that Indian people are communal while the State is an instrument to maintain communal harmony. This is the opposite of the truth. It is understandable that the major parties of the Indian bourgeoisie, such as the BJP and the Congress Party, continue to follow the colonial methods and the colonial outlook. What is not understandable and not at all acceptable is that some who call themselves communists and Marxists should also be following the agenda set by the British colonial bourgeoisie!
In our opinion the notion that the Indian State has ‘secular foundations’ acts as a roadblock to the struggle of the working class and oppressed masses to end communalism and all forms of medievalism, including the caste system. It fosters the harmful illusion that we can rely on the present day Indian State for achieving these objectives.
Shivanand: It has been a highly thought provoking conversation. We will continue this in the future as well. Thank you.
(This interview appeared in the Ghadar Jari Hai -- The Revolt Continues, Vol II, No. 2 April-June 2008)