Two of the world’s largest democracies seem to tag anyone who has a contrarian view as Communist or, closer home, Urban Naxal.
Today, 12 civil society activists, professors, scholars are languishing in jails across India. Some of them are ailing and their plight is rather pitiable, but they are all being denied bail. They have been arrested under stringent laws, accused of waging war against the country and charged under the sedition law. Some are alleged to have made inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad organised in Pune on December 31, 2017. Thereafter at Bhima-Koregaon, a historic spot in Maharashtra near Pune, visitors were attacked as they returned after paying homage. The then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis promptly blamed the ‘Urban Naxals’ for the violence but conveniently omitted to mention the roles of Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote, two extreme right-wing Hindu activists, who were given bail, despite their involvement. In fact, Superintendent of Police Suvaez Haq had, in his affidavit filed with the Bhima-Koregaon inquiry commission, clearly pinned the violence on January 1, 2018, as a ‘Sudden clash between two mobs’. He wrote the clashes were between two mobs, ‘saffron and blue flags’. He did not mention Elgaar Parishad as the cause, at all. Thereafter 11 activists were arrested.
These members, alleged to belong to the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned outfit, were accused of having organised a forum where speeches were made with the “aim of spreading rebellious thoughts, instigating violence at Bhima-Koregaon and establishing a nationwide anti-fascist front to wage war against the government.”
Hated word, Communist
The fact is, the word Communist evokes a lot of reactions in most people — for some, it is the one ideology that is non-religious, can bring about societal change and show an alternative way. But most view it with contempt, disdain and also as a conspiracy against democratically elected governments. In Maharashtra, Naxalism was as popular as in the neighbouring erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Odisha. The Red Corridor, it has been called. Many belong to the Communist Party of India and their family members joined them. A lot of the educated and intellectual class believed in it and were drawn to the ideology of bringing about change in Adivasi areas and supported the activists who are called Maoists and Naxals.
Not all of them were activists. Some went to the tribal forest areas to work while some sheltered these Naxals. The caste and religious ideologies that pervade all religions affected those on the lower rungs of society. Most continue to lead marginalised lives, be it slums or deprived rural interiors. The fact is, these areas still do not get basic amenities which we living in the urban areas take for granted – clean drinking water, doctors, health clinics, food, schools, markets and so on.
Soon, social workers began living amongst this section for longer periods of time and began equipping the poor, be it Adivasis or others. The fact is, because of the Communists, the awareness of the poor about their fundamental rights increased but at the same time, reports of violence, especially against industries and politicians who used these vote banks to come to power, began to increase. The crackdown against these civil activists began, be it the Congress government or the Bharatiya Janata Party government. The only difference is, the Congress, until it became part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA government), had not labelled the Naxals.
It was during the UPA government that the crackdown intensified. Activists were arrested, their hideouts busted and even their supporters were threatened. Officials began snooping on all those connected, first tried to threaten the villagers who lived in the red belt and later, began giving them monetary awards to win them over. The then Home Minister P Chidambaram consistently harped on attacking Naxal bases and on October 7, 2009, went on to say their government had contemplated the use of air power against Maoists. The then Air Chief, P V Naik said, “The rules of engagement in such situation will be stringent.” In fact, Dr Manmohan Singh had said on May 24, “Naxalism remains the biggest internal security challenge and it is imperative to control Left-wing extremism for the country’s growth.”
But it is no surprise that since the BJP first came to power in 2014, it has been harsh on Naxal activists. When they were arrested, the BJP foolishly claimed police had found a letter in the house of the arrested poet, Varavara Rao, with details of a plot to assassinate Modi. If anyone knows how Maoists or Naxals function, they would firstly know about the great wall of secrecy. Secondly, they don’t leave paper trails and are definitely not so amateur as to put down the details of their operations in such a manner. Police went on to arrest the others, including Gautam Navlakha, Professor Sudha and most recently, Anand Teltumbde, the grandson-in-law of the late Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Teltumbde had gone so far as to condemn the violence on January 1, 2018, due to the protest and bandh called by his brother-in-law, Prakash Ambedkar.
Red scare in American politics
The American Democratic Party has a history with the Left. The Left-wing of this party split in 1948 from the main body, as the US opposed the Soviet Union in World War II. The party refused to impose socialist economic planning. Many have called for the Democratic Party to confront their past and the revolutionaries in their ranks.
Revolution, trade unions and communism are all taboos in American politics, as well as in their society, after the civil war (1861—1865). In fact, when black workers went on strike in Chicago, on May 1, 1886, they became part of what came to be known as the Haymarket affair. That May day, Chicago, with other cities, was the site of a major union demonstration in support of an eight-hour workday. In many countries, International Labour Day is celebrated on May 1. But it is not so in the US. After the Russian Revolution, unfortunately, May 1 was mistakenly associated with communism. So in protest, Americans celebrated it as Law Day.
For their particular contempt to communist fervour, President Eisenhower signed a resolution named May 1 “Loyalty Day” in July 1958.
The opponent is always suspected and however mature a democracy, no government wants to be seen as being mild to them. Worse, be it in the United States of America or India, activists and critics are always labelled as ‘Communists’. In fact, communist-appeasers have found themselves blacklisted. In February 1950, US senator Joseph McCarthy, from whose name was coined the term McCatharthyism, had claimed nearly 200-odd Communists had ‘infiltrated the state department’, which created a huge furore. However, at the time of testifying, McCarthy failed to provide any evidence, not even the name of even one ‘card-carrying Communist’ (as they were called) in any department. But he definitely proceeded to instigate a nationwide witch-hunt and in the eyes of his supporters, appeared to be a dedicated patriot and guardian of Americanism.
Later, a black diary of names of famous writers, filmmakers, producers, directors, musicians and actors was created. Those known to be close to, or perceived as appeasers of Communists, were blacklisted. They were not given credit, often could not find jobs, not paid enough money and this McCarthyism continued even after the time of President John F Kennedy. Famous Hollywood names like Charlie Chaplin, Adrian Scott, attorney Ben Myers, accountant Bernard Reis, television director Coby Ruskin, artist Laurie Blankfort and playwright Arthur Miller (who was married to actor Marylin Monroe for five years), singer Harry Belafonte and writer Dorothy Parker were all officially blacklisted.
The fact is: American politicians are as scared of mouthing the word Communism as Indian politicians are. In fact, it was during my Master’s in Social Work in the early 90s that I first heard the name of Saul Alinsky, an American community activist, who was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote a few books, the most popular one being ‘Rules for Radicals’. He worked in the industrial areas in and around Chicago and helped poor communities organise to press demands on landlords, politicians and business leaders. In fact, he influenced a young Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, with the latter’s senior thesis at Wellesley being titled: There Is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model. She spoke to Alinsky while working on the thesis. According to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Alinsky never identified as Socialist or Communist but was a self-professed radical, and a man of the left. The fact is, both Obama and Clinton seriously engaged with Alinsky’s ideas and Clinton knew him personally, and obviously, this connect is made with an American political tradition to the left of mainline Democratic liberalism. This Democratic Party liberalism is the course the conservatives detest and blame for all the current protests in America.
In fact, even during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, US President Donald Trump said in an interview with Fox News that military-style federal assault squads were dispatched to Portland and other cities. He said the violence was on the increase in Democrat-run cities. “They are liberally run, they are stupidly run,” He claimed. However, an article in The Guardian said, Trump, warning about far-left-fascism, has made it the central part of his re-election campaign. But in truth, ‘the database of nearly 900 politically motivated attacks shows left-wing attacks have left far fewer people dead than violence by right-wing extremists. New data indicates Antifa activists have not been linked to a single murder in decades’.
In India too the violence by the members of the extreme right-wing Hindu outfits has been ignored. Take the example of Bhide, Ekbote or even Pragya Singh Thakur, the main accused in 2008 Malegaon blast case, who has even been charged under UAPA, is out on bail and got elected as a Member of Parliament. Be it the lynching cases or recent violent attacks on students from JNU by Hindu groups. Violence by extreme right fascists in India has been shielded by all political parties, moreover by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)