Who communicated Indian politics

From Deepti Priya Mehrotra

India constituted itself as an independent republic in 1947, as a result of a struggle against colonial rule based on broad sections of the population. Despite the founding of Pakistan as a sovereign nation separate from India and the resulting violent unrest, there was general satisfaction in India at the liberation from the colonial yoke.

Many social forces set about helping to stabilize the young state, helping to plan its economic policy, drafting programs for village development and making a constructive contribution in a variety of ways. Until the late 1950s the people were intensely involved in the process of nation-building and the leadership of the Congress party in it was widely recognized.

An exception was the Communist Party of India (CPI), which saw colonial rule replaced by a national bourgeoisie that lacked any reference to the working classes. In 1946, the CPI organized a peasant revolt in the Telangana region of southern India that encompassed over 2,000 villages and lasted until 1951. The participants in these uprisings consisted primarily of poor low-caste or Adivasi farmers and landless workers. From 1948 the Indian state reacted to the agitation with military means.

The first all-India elections were held in 1951/52. Attempts at social reforms have been made, for example laws against bigamy and a quota system for educational institutions and jobs. Economic change was initiated in the areas of industrialization and land distribution. In response to strong public pressure, the federal states were redistributed according to linguistic criteria and the former princely states were integrated into the union.

However, effective land reforms did not materialize in most parts of India. Instead, the government launched so-called "village development programs". The industrialization strategy chosen was capital intensive and ignored the needs of the majority of the population.

At the end of the 50s, resentment spread. The people were no longer satisfied with the ruling leadership and their policies. Indian communists and socialists like Lohia and Acharya Kripalani voiced criticism and debated alternative strategies for national development, but no one was able to implement them in Delhi, the center of power.

The 1960s saw an increased formation of social and political forces in the form of socio-political citizens' movements - peasants, women, the lower castes and the working class. An uproar broke out, and this became a medium for dissatisfaction and resistance, but also for people's creativity.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the ancient Gandhian Vinoba Bhave led a nationwide "Land Donation Campaign" appealing to the goodwill of landowners to give part of their land to the poor. Like the government's efforts to reform land through legislation and penal sanctions, these Gandhian attempts achieved only modest success.

The Marxist-Leninist party initiated a major peasant revolt in the state of West Bengal, which culminated in considerable political unrest at the end of the decade. The "Naxalite Movement" - so named after the place 'Naxalbari', one of the main centers of mobilization and resistance - pursued a policy of isolating and annulling large landowners. Students from well-known universities belonging to the affluent middle class joined the movement, which, however, was mainly made up of poor peasants or landless workers and the Adivasi population. Their violent conquest and the creation of so-called "liberated zones" caused panic in the political leadership. In 1971 the state reacted massively, arrested and killed a large number of activists. The Naxalite movement was initially crushed, but rose again over the next few decades, in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.

In the 1960s, the north-east of India also showed itself to be an area of ​​unrest and the first separatist movements grouped together. Last but not least, they represented the interests of the tribal peoples. Guerrilla warfare became the common instruments of war. Numerous communal riots also took place in north and central India.

One consequence of the multidimensional social crises was the emergence of thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social action groups. The socialist political veteran Jaya Prakash Narayan started a movement for the realization of the "total revolution" with the aim of improving the living conditions of peasants, farm workers, lower-caste people, workers and women. Thousands of enthusiastic and idealistic young people joined this movement. With the terrible famine in Bihar in 1967, the 'JP Movement' became the focus of opposition forces.


The seventies and eighties

The early 1970s saw the birth of the 'Chipko' movement, a concerted action by rural women who wanted to protect their environment and natural livelihoods. They were women who lived in the mountains of Uttarakhand in central India. Commercial interests, coupled with those of state authorities such as the forest administration, led to the felling of the forests there, which the local population used as a resource for firewood and to protect soil and groundwater. It was Gaura Devi, a very old illiterate woman from a tiny village, who called on women in her area to hug the trees so that they would not be cut down. The loggers hired by the timber company were forced to pull away with their axes and saws. The 'Chipko' movement was effective and prevented massive further commercially motivated forest destruction.

Spurred on by the success, the 'Chipko' protested from then on against the destruction of the mountainous nature through the construction of mines and against large dam projects with their socially and ecologically devastating consequences. Riots flared up in many parts of India. The agitation of exploited workers and untouchables intensified. The 'JP Movement' continued its commitment with a regional focus on rural Bihar with power. Similar organizations emerged in western India, for example in Gujarat.

The workforce also protested against the politics of the time, which had already been announced in 1960 with the great national railway strike. The employees of the post office and the government bureaucracy followed with further strikes.

In the political center of Delhi, concerns grew into panic. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has been promoting the populist slogan "Garibi Hatao" ("Conquer Poverty") since 1971. So some measures to create short-term jobs as well as housing and food security programs have been taken. Unfortunately, they were completely inadequate. Poverty in independent India grew rather than declining. There was rising mass unemployment and the illiteracy rate remained high; the statistics on the general health of Indians spoke somber language and the population growth rate was immense.


The time of emergency legislation

In June 1975 the Indira Gandhi administration declared a state of emergency in order to save its own head. A period of extremely cynical, authoritarian rule began, which represented an aggressive variant of the development dictatorship in which the oppressed people were exposed to coercive measures such as "voluntary sterilization" or "slum rehabilitation".

In the elections in March 1977, the 'Congress' party received the receipt for this. For the first time a non-'Congress' government came to power in Delhi, in the form of the 'National Front', the main actor of which was the 'Janata Dal'. The new government set about promoting small industries and the agricultural sector in order to meet the interests of broad sections of the population. Unfortunately, the ruling coalition soon overturned itself through internal party ranks.

In 1980 the Congress party found itself back in power. The period of emergency and its end generated a strengthening of the democratically oriented forces. The 'Peoples Union for Civil Liberties' and the 'Peoples Union for Democratic Rights' were set up to stand up for the protection of citizens against arbitrariness by the state.

The Indian women's movement also entered a new phase, with large numbers of new groups emerging, both in rural and urban areas. The proclamation of 1975 as the "International Year of Women" also gave a fresh impetus to women's organizations in India. Even older women's groups from the independence movement such as the 'National Federation of Indian Women' or the 'All-India Women's Conference' reanimated themselves. New organizations saw the light of day, such as 'Manushi', 'All-India Democratic Womens Association' or the 'Forum against Rape'. This trend continued into the 1980s.

One of the most important groups is 'Womens Voice'. It was founded by Ruth Manorama and represents low-caste and untouchable slum dwellers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The work of the 'Self-Employed Womens Association' (SEWA) led by Ela Bhatt must also be mentioned here. SEWA has sub-groups in different parts of India and did pioneering work in the establishment of trade unions and employee representatives for women working in the informal sector.

Quite a few of the new women's groups want to act "autonomously", i.e. independently of any parties and trade unions. As agitation topics, they focus on: violence against women, health care, sexual self-determination and the promotion of state-sanctioned women's rights.

The 1980s turned out to be a decade of turbulent events, and various social and political forces shot up or reorganized themselves. This also happened on the "working class front". It used to be the big traditional unions like AITUC, INTUC and HMS who stood up for workers, especially those in the industrial sector. But the workers were now frustrated and disappointed with the over-bureaucratisation of these organizations, which had become part of the ruling system rather than offering a real alternative to the existing and encrusted institutions and politics.

In 1982, over 200,000 workers from 60 textile factories went on strike in Bombay, the industrial center of India. This meant - extrapolated to their families - that ten million people were exposed to hunger for over 16 months. The action, which was carried out under the most difficult conditions, was organized by the charismatic worker leader Datta Samant. Unfortunately, however, not a single one of the demands from the opposing side was met: there was neither a wage increase, an improvement in health and school care for the children of the workers, nor an improvement in living conditions. Instead, a number of factory owners even benefited from the strike by simply being able to close down factories that had become unprofitable without the large number of workers who had become unemployed receiving any company pensions or severance pay. The government took sides in favor of the employers, bluntly defended their interests and berated the workers as "violent" and "misguided". In 1984 the labor protest collapsed.

This cleared the way for independent free trade unions. The start of such new foundations was made in 1977 in the central Indian mine-rich region of Chattisgarh by the worker Shankar Guhar Nyogi with his miners' union 'Chattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh' (CMSS), which then developed into a major movement for an alternative development model in the industrial sector. The CMSS advocated an employment-intensive modernization strategy, health and social security for workers and a noticeable increase in the quality of life of workers and their families. With its red and green flags, the union represented the interests of both industrial workers in the mines and agricultural workers in the region. The organization grew steadily and increasingly threatened the corrupt, anti-worker policies of the state. In 1991 Nyogi was murdered, probably because powerful industrial bosses had given the order.


Increasing influence of the environmental movement

The 'Chipko' movement established itself in various parts of the country as one of the leading environmental groups. In South India, the 'Appiko' campaign was also able to record some successes in terms of forest protection. In the so-called "Silent Valley", an area threatened by commercial deforestation interests, a nature conservation organization was also formed. Gradually, but only rudimentary, anti-atomic groups also formed. The Bhopal tragedy of 1984 (in which many thousands of people who lived in the vicinity of the 'Union Carbide' factory lost their lives due to the leakage of the poison gas) sparked public protests against dangerous industries and poison producers for the first time.

In the late 1980s a campaign was formed that was to become very active over the next few years: the 'Narmada Bachao Andolan' (Save the Narmada). It is directed against a mega dam project on the Narmada River, which includes the construction of 30 large, 135 medium and 300 smaller dams, through which two million Adivasis from 245 villages would be forced to resettle and large regions of fertile land would be drowned. Anti-Narmada leader Medha Patkar, who had won the support of many thousands of villagers as well as middle-class people, exposed the proponents of the project's promises regarding energy production and irrigation as extremely unrealistic. Various independent committees of inquiry, as well as that of the government, agreed with many of the criticisms of the 'Narmada Bachao Andolan'. In 1994 the Supreme Court ordered a temporary construction freeze on the Narmada Project until a final, reason-based pro or con decision was made.


The current situation - the 90s

Despite the many different protest movements, the political and social situation in India appears to have deteriorated in some respects. During the 1980s and 1990s, a material consumption mentality increasingly found its way into large sections of the population. The few members of the new middle class can afford the "icons of the time" such as color televisions, washing machines, cars and designer clothes; however, most people in India do not have the financial means to realize any part of their dreams. The Indian state favors an economic liberalization policy that submits to the constraints of globalization and opens the door to multinational corporations and foreign financial aid instead of orienting itself towards the Indian economic realities, which are largely determined by the subsistence level. The citizen movements see this strategy as a sell-out of the country. They therefore increasingly enforce the fundamental rights of the people.

There are a number of grassroots groups among the promising new initiatives. One of the most interesting is the 'Campaign for Citizens Right for Information'. She began her work as a group of middle class activists in association with local farmers and workers in a backward area in western Rajasthan. The widespread use of corruption has been accused of preventing development and social aid programs from actually reaching the poor. A series of public hearings was organized where local participants shared the obstacles they faced in development work, for example in terms of promoting community housing, food supplies, local industries, day-care centers, etc. It came to light that considerable sums of money for development disappear into ominous pockets, and only a small part actually reaches the actual addressees - the poor population. The citizens' movement spread like wildfire across the country and demanded transparency and reliability from all ministries and political institutions.

Another important development with regard to strengthening the "civil class" has been the emergence of the movement against communalism, the "Movement against Communalism", since the mid-1980s. In the past few decades there had been repeated unrest in India motivated by communalism. However, the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodya in 1992 by a radical Hindu mob gave communal violence a new dimension. The destruction took place with the knowledge of the government and bureaucracy and was pointedly directed against religious minorities, against whom prejudices were stoked in the worst possible way. The excesses of violence are hardly endorsed by the majority of Hindus. But irresponsible politicians like L.K. Advani and Bal Thackeray stir up hatred, supported by political parties and organizations such as the 'Bharatiya Janata Party' and the 'Shiv Sena'.Against such a "communalization of the political process" a remarkable citizens' movement has formed, with prominent intellectuals and activists who seek to realize their visions of a peaceful coexistence: groups such as' Combat Communalism 'or' Movement against Communalism '.

Another organization called 'The other Media' has initiated a series of Indo-Pakistani Citizens' Dialogues to help normalize relations between the peoples of the fragmented subcontinent.

On the "caste front" there are powerful articulations of the situation of the Dalits by personalities such as Kansha Ilaiah, Gopal Guru and Kumut Paude, who shed light on the structures and backgrounds of the oppression of the "untouchables" and plead for the abolition of the rigid caste system.

The women's movement is currently experiencing a renaissance as well, with the establishment of an umbrella organization for all Indian women's NGOs, the National Alliance of Womens Organizations, at the end of 1995. The preparatory phase for the Beijing World Women's Conference, 1993-95, motivated hundreds of Indian women's groups to meet which dealt with economic, social, political and cultural aspects. This favored the discussion about grassroots topics. The vital discussion process also facilitated the leakage of information all the way down to the "grasroots". Other organizations addressed the mental wellbeing of women, problems of single women, and the rights of lesbians and gays. The debate continues and focuses on areas such as women's identity; Tradition versus modernity; the social status of housework and raising children; and also the shaping of the relationship between the women's movement and the initiatives of the wage workers, "Untouchables", Adivasi and others.

As for the workforce, it is only in the last few years that the officially unionized labor movement has discovered the importance of those working in the informal sector, such as homeworkers (mostly women and children), artists, fishermen, construction workers and others. The National Council of Labor was born in 1994 to stand up for the rights, needs and demands of those working in this sector - a very important and overdue NGO start-up.

Trade unions, NGOs and charities, each in their own way, have tried to make the rights of child laborers the subject of public debate. In the 1990s the campaign intensified and crystallized in the formation of the 'National Coalition against Child Labor', which comprises several hundred member organizations. As a result of their actions, a law has recently been passed prohibiting child labor in hazardous areas. Sustainable campaigns against child labor in the fireworks and match production, glass and mining industries are continuously being mobilized. Rehabilitation and education of large numbers of child laborers is a challenge that NGOs, trade unions, employers and government must address together.

The many non-party political movements have recently achieved an organizational success in which they united in the umbrella organization 'National Alliance of Peoples Movements'. This is a network of several dozen citizens' movements that are organized nationwide. They have a strong and broad base within the Indian population.

Citizens' movements in India have grown up and matured and are now endowed with a realistic understanding of situations and strategies. Therefore, one can look to the future with hope with regard to their important future interventions in public policy. The existence of such grassroots initiatives is more necessary than ever in our current crisis-ridden situation.