The box-based politics in India is decreasing

Annie Raja lives in Kerala, India. She is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Woman (NFIW). In an interview with the forward she tells of her struggle for the casteless, women, LGBTQ and sex workers. She also warns of the fascist ruling party and describes how communists, Muslims and Christians fight it together.

forward: Comrade Annie, there have just been parliamentary elections in India. It has not yet been counted, but it is already clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Indian People's Party, will once again emerge victorious. What kind of party is it that is in power in India?

Annie Raja: To understand the BJP, one has to know the organization behind it. The members of the BJP, including the Prime Minister himself, come from the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, National Volunteer Organization). It is a fundamentalist Hindu organization.

forward: Are these Hindu nationalists?

Annie Raja: You can't call them nationalists. They are fundamentalists and fascists. Their ideology is fascist because their intent is to make India a pure Hindu nation and they do so by force. But India is now a culturally and religiously very diverse country with a multitude of religions, castes and many other communities. But these fundamentalists don't recognize that. India must be a purely Hindu nation, just as Pakistan is a Muslim nation. That is why we cannot call these people Hindu nationalists, they are Hindu fascists. And these are using the BJP government to achieve their agenda.

forward: What are the implications of having power in the hands of these fascists?

Annie Raja: Since Modi became Prime Minister five years ago, the atrocities against Muslims, Christians and Dalits have broken all records. I'm talking about lynching! Imagine: I'm a Christian, I eat beef. If I were to walk certain streets, people would gather around me, beat me and kill me. They would kill me simply because I am a Christian, a Muslim, or a Dalit. They do this on the grounds that I eat beef. Over 150 people have been killed as a result in India over the past five years. They died at the hand of the RSS, these fascist vegetarians.

forward: That's awful! Among other things, the Dalits suffer from the fascists. Can you tell us more about it?

Annie Raja: The RSS and the BJP have a strict caste hierarchy. At the bottom are the Dalits, also known as 'casteless' or 'untouchables', who are particularly hard hit by the violence. Many of them want a just, communist society. The majority of the members of our party come from communities of so-called casteless people: they are Dalits and Tribals, i.e. indigenous peoples. And of course we also have people from the OBCs (Other Backward Classes / Castes). We also organize ourselves together with the Dalit NGOs. There are many Dalit organizations in India. Not parties, but NGOs. And they have increasingly begun to seek our closeness, especially those from the CPI, because we started to address the caste problem much earlier than other communist parties. Many Dalit NGOs are very close to us today and we have already started to take up political issues together in recent years. We stand together to defend secularization and democracy.

forward: And what about the Muslims? Do you have Muslims in the Communist Party?

Annie Raja: We have Dalits, Christians and Muslims on our top management level. After all, communists are secular. And Muslims are also exposed to enormous violence. This is nothing new, but these mobs who lynch in the name of beef, especially Muslims, didn't exist in the past. In recent years, Muslims have even begun to be killed for wearing their traditional Taqiyah cap.

forward: There are also several Muslim parties in India. How do you work with them?

Annie Raja: There are two or three Muslim parties, but these cannot be called 'religious' parties. Its members are Muslims, but the parties themselves are democratic. We are allied with the INL (Indian National League), a small, secular and very democratic party. In the state of Kerala, where I live, that party joined us and we ran together in the last election.

forward: So with you in Kerala are communists, Dalits, Muslims and Christians allied in the fight against the fascist BJP?

Annie Raja: Yes, under communist leadership, because in Kerala we communists are in power. The BJP has no influence with us, because in Kerala the people are educated. The population cannot therefore easily be instrumentalized by the fascists. There are Christians and Muslims in every state. But in the case of Kerala, Muslims and Christians are in the majority. There are also very many Hindus, but these do not belong to a single religious branch, but differ hierarchically. At the top of the hierarchy are the Brahmins. And the Dalits at the bottom. However, the Brahmins and most of the Dalits are both Hindus. We communists have at some point realized that the caste system is a reality that we need to address. People are exposed to atrocities not only because of their social class, but also because of their religious caste.

forward: Tell us more about the influence of box thinking on politics.

Annie Raja: Especially in the 50s and 60s, but also in the 70s, the communist parties were a power in India. We were the main opposition in parliament. But our strength has declined since the 1980s. One reason for this is that socialist parties always spoke of 'classes', especially the working class. We never talked about the 'castes'. But the caste system is an Indian reality. And even in the Hindu community, the upper caste is not in the majority, but the lower castes. There are people from all castes in our CPI, but a large proportion of them are low-cast, like the Dalits. But these people do not face the problems primarily as members of their class, but because of their caste.

At some point the Lohia movement arose, which invoked the famous Indian socialist Ram Manohar. This began to mobilize the people of the lower castes. Many were drawn to his ideology and several party formations took place. They fought for the reservation of parliamentary seats for members from the so-called Other Backward Classes / Castes (OBC). This includes people who are neither among the highest Brahmins nor among the lowest Dalits and Tribals, but are in the hierarchy between them. So it is a large majority. They formed various political parties, especially in the state of Bihar. For example the RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal, National People's Party). These and other OBC parties began to practice caste-based politics. But the communist parties had not yet recognized the caste problem at the time. Today, however, we understand that the caste system is an instrument to subjugate and discriminate against the Dalits. The upper class uses the caste system to exclude people from society.

So the caste ideology has been strengthening since the 1980s. Even some people in the communist parties started to be attracted to it. It is characterized by unimaginable cruelty. In some places we (my husband is a Dalit) are not allowed to go on the street with the others or to draw water from a common well. And there are many other forms of caste-based discrimination and violence. As caste-based politics became more and more powerful, the communists couldn't fight it. We had only started late to give the caste issue the necessary attention in our thinking and politics. This is one of the main reasons the left's strength has waned. But now we have realized that the caste is a reality of India and we have started to incorporate this into our politics.

forward: Do you have new political strategies?

Annie Raja: At our last party congress last year, we passed a political resolution stating that the fight against the BJP and its allies is our primary goal. That is why we have called on the other political parties to join forces: the SP (Samajwadi Party, a democratic socialist party), the Dalit party BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), the Congress Party (Indian National Congress) and all communist parties . Thanks to us, all left parties have now started to fight side by side with the Dalits. We all have to fight together! Only in this way will we be able to defeat the BJP and form the government ourselves.

forward: The Indian left is dominated by communists. And you yourself are from the CPI (Communist Party of India). How is your relationship with the other communist parties?

Annie Raja: We have two large and a number of smaller communist parties. In Kerala we have the CPI, to which I belong. This is the 'ordinary' communist party. And then there is the CPI (M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist). When there was a dispute between China and Russia, the communist movement split in India as well. The (traditionally more China-oriented) CPI (M) split off from the CPI. This party is no more Marxist than we are, but it put an 'M' in brackets for 'Marxist' to differentiate itself from us.

forward: How is the relationship between these two big communist parties today?

Annie Raja: Very good. Once it was about the ideological difference between 'national democracy' and 'people's democracy'. But that was a long time ago, the situation has changed. These dogmas no longer work today. If you stick to an old dogma, you will go under. You have to recognize that the situation has changed. We have been working together intensively for a long time, both in the Kerala Parliament and at the national level. We have a joint coordination committee.

forward: And in addition to your position at the CPI, you are also the leader of a major women * movement.

Annie Raja: I run an organization called The National Federation of Indian Woman (NFIW). It is the first mass women's organization in our country. It was founded in 1954. But before it was formed as a national organization, we had departments in different states. And the national organization was established in 1954. Today I am the general secretary of this organization.

forward: At the beginning of the year you organized a very impressive women * strike!

Annie Raja: Yes, in Kerala. 5.6 million women took part. At the northernmost point of the state, women began to build a wall of bodies; Shoulder to shoulder on the national road from north to south through the whole country. This was organized by NFIW and the initiative for it came from the communist government of Kerala. It was triggered by an incident at a Hindu temple called Sabarimala, where women between the ages of 10 and 50 were not allowed to enter. Some women sued in court for discrimination. If all men are allowed to enter the temple, why not women? Before 1990 all adult women went there. But then women of childbearing age began to be denied entry. On the other hand, some women went to the Supreme Court, and it agreed with them. Denying women access is nonsense. Every woman must be granted access, the court announced. And the government of Kerala is responsible for implementing this decision. As communists, we are in favor of everyone being able to enter the temple. As communists, we protect the interests of people, regardless of whether they are believers or atheists.

But now the RSS tried to mobilize women. Because even in Kerala, many people are strictly religious, only a small minority is atheist. 99.9 percent of people believe in God, whether it is Allah, the Christian God or whatever. So the fascists of the RRS tried to mobilize the strictly religious women to also speak out against women entering the temple. And the communist government and its parties as well as several mass organizations resisted by participating in this huge women's protest. The participation of the 5.6 million women proved that a huge majority of women * are in favor of everyone being able to enter the temple.

forward: You are also committed to LGBTQ. What is the situation like in India?

Annie Raja: A few years ago a discussion was held in the Indian parliament based on a proposal by a private person and a draft law was finally drawn up that would have strengthened transgender people. But then the BJP came to power. They rejected this progressive draft and presented a contradicting draft that criminalizes trans people. That is why we at NFIW have now started to stand up for these people. We are the first Indian organization to fight political battles for the rights of trans people. Last year we organized a big protest in front of Parliament. So now changes more and more. In Kerala, a start has been made on reserving parliamentary seats for trans people. So now such people work in government agencies and measures are being taken to protect them. There was a really huge movement in Kerala. And this is supported by the communist government. And the Indian federal court has now expressly declared LGBTQ communities to be non-criminal. So it is no longer a crime. This gives the movement another impetus. And it was we at NFIW who gave the impetus to make LGBTQ a major political issue. We have also started to address the problem of prostitution.

forward: Are you talking about sex work?

Annie Raja: I am talking about human trafficking. In India we cannot allow prostitution to be classified as regular work. These women sell themselves for a single meal and that shows the failure of the government. There are exceptions. Some are sex workers out of self-interest. But the vast majority (95 to 99 percent) sell their bodies to feed the family. So you are forced to do this. It is poverty that forces them to do so. It is also not uncommon for women * to be offered a job in a distant city, but then to be forced into prostitution there. We stand up for these people.

forward: Do you have conversations with sex workers?

Annie Raja: Yes, we are in dialogue with them. No other women's organization was willing to do that. The reason for this is because India is a religious country. Maybe not as religious as Pakistan, but the majority are already very religious. In addition, the Indians are insanely concerned about their 'culture', their 'tradition' and 'dignity'. Therefore, many do not even speak to women who work in this profession. But our organization, the NFIW, does. We called on sex workers and other women's organizations to come to our offices to discuss things together. The dialogue is taking place and we are fighting for their rights! But we fight against the idea that this is a regular job, after all, it is largely poverty, unemployment and a lack of education that force women * to sell their bodies for a living. And this reveals the failure of the current Indian government.

forward: What about the situation of women * within the communist parties? Do you have women in management positions?

Annie Raja: We have, but not many. There are enough politically active women *, but they are still rarely given the opportunity to be part of the party leadership. For example, in my party, the CPI, there is only one female central secretary. And in the Central Committee, out of a total of 31 seats, only 2 are occupied by women *. I am one of them. That gives you a picture of the fight I am fighting! (She laughs) The CPI (M) has the same problem. Male chauvinism is still very strong, even among our communists. The opinion still prevails that women don't understand politics.

forward: So people from different castes and religions are all treated equally by the communist parties, but is there still sexism?

Annie Raja: No! You can't call that sexism.1/6 of our nationwide 600,000 members are women. Women are everywhere in the party, but unfortunately too rarely in the leadership. The majority of the men are on the committees and, of course, when there are elections they only put the names of men on the list.

forward: This is not 'natural'!

Annie Raja: (Annie laughs) No, 'of course' it isn't. That's why we fight. Part of the male party leadership is still finding it difficult to nominate women in secret elections. And then there is a second problem in the communist movement, namely the generation gap. The gender and generation differences in management are striking.

forward: Do you have too few young people?

Annie Raja: We have a lot! But not in leadership. We see a large age difference between the secretariat and the executive. And again there is a big difference between the executive and the central committee. The further up, the fewer young people. That's why I really appreciate the fact that the PdA Zurich has a young man at its head. (She points to a picture by Harald Lukes.)

forward: We really appreciate that too. Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Annie Raja: Marx once said: There is only one thing without change, namely change. The situation will change and it is up to our wisdom and foresight how we can apply socialist theory to the current situation. How Lenin implemented the theory at the time cannot be successful today. It's the 21st century now. However, if you get out of theory, that's the end.

forward: What meaning does Lenin have for you?

Annie Raja: Lenin is the only male communist leader who spoke of how women struggle when they have families to lead. The men leave all the housework to the women, but this way they cannot become politically active. For this insight I respect Lenin even more than for his revolution. For us women this is more important. He is the only male comrade who has recognized the importance of equal participation of women and men in political activities and has spoken about it. And we need to think about how we can implement gender equality theory. We definitely need gender sensitivity.

forward: We are completely in agreement on that. Thanks for the interview and all the best in your fight!