An introduction to radical politics in Kerala, India

Marxist-leninist, Communism in Kerala, India
CPI-M sign showing Marx, Engles, Lenin, and Stalin.

There is a place in India where one cannot walk more than a block without seeing a white hammer and sickle upon a red flag. Giant stone statues of Lenin hide peculiarly behind coconut trees in lush overgrown plots of land and little old men read communist newspapers next to frescoes of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. This place is Kerala, India - A region in rapid transition from socialist pragmatism to capitalist wealth accumulation.

Submitted by negatecapital on June 12, 2013

Historical Radicalism in India

Radical politics has a long and complex history in India. Anarco-syndicalism was reportedly disseminated throughout the country by Russian travelers and returning Indians who lived abroad[1]. However, by the early twentieth century, Marxist literature came to dominate all other forms of radical theory (Graeber, 214). This was due in part to the appeal of the Marxist-Leninist program, but more so because of the rise of the Soviet Union, a force seen by many to have the potentiality to rival global colonial powers.

Manabendra Nath Roy, was by far the most prominent member in bringing Marxism to India and bringing the Indian struggle to Lenin. Through a mix of luck and ingenuity, M.N. Roy managed to befriended Lenin, and earn himself a seat representing India during several congresses of the Comintern. To cut a painfully long story short, Lenin felt that India was not adequately industrialized for a proletariat revolution. To the great dismay of M.N. Roy, the Soviets decided to back Indian National Congress (INC). After Lenin’s death in 1924, Roy spent much of his time quite accurately arguing that an independence movement not based around Marxism would only lead to new forms of exploitation at the hands of the native bourgeois (Maitra, 119).

A lack of Soviet support did little to eliminate hope for a social revolution in India. All over Asia, radical revolutionary groups took up arms against the British rule. Baghat Singh and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose were two of the most influential revolutionaries in the Indian Independence Movement. Bose, former president of the INC and self declared socialist, split with the INC out of opposition to Gandhi’s pacifist influence on the group. Allying with the Japanese, Bose used guerilla warfare to fight the British throughout Southeast Asia until his death in 1945. Baghat Singh, gained notoriety after assassinating a British police officer and throwing two bombs inside of the Central Legislative Assembly. Singh was an outspoken anarcho-communist, writing articles on both anarchism and Marxism. Singh was executed after a long, highly publicized trial at the age of 23.

By the time India gained it’s independence in 1947, the country was divided into a multitude of political groups. West Bengal (in the east) and Kerala (in the south) were the two regions predominated by ultra-left politics. The Communist Party of India (CPI) was formed when the socialist contingent split with the INC. By 1957, the Keralan CPI managed to become the first communist government in the world to be democratically elected.

West Bengal went in another direction. In 1969, the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) was formed out of the All Indian Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) denouncing the electoral system, and advocating for armed revolution to fight the exploitative corporations and redistribute land to the peasants populations. Through ideological support of Mao Zedong, the CPI-ML trained and armed peasants in the region of Naxalbari, West Bengal. It was from this current that the Maoist Naxalite movement was formed.

Present day India

Today the Naxalites are comprised of several different Maoist groups, active throughout India, with the largest number of supporters reported in the states of Andra Pradesh, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Biharat. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared the Naxalites to be “the most serious internal threat to India's national security”. This may not be far off from the truth. As recently as 2010, an estimated 1,000 Naxalites in Chhattisgarh launched an offensive, killing 76 police officers in a matter of hours. A month later, in the same region, Naxals bombed a bus killing 30 people, including several Special Police Officers. There remains little doubt that the Naxals are the most brazen internal opposition to the Indian State, however they seem to be a bigger threat to the Indian police and corporations than to any civilian population.

The Keralan Leftist Coalition (The parliamentary party comprised of the CPI, CPI-Marxist, and Left Democratic Front) occupies a unique position on the issue of militancy. At some moments they seem to call upon images of militant revolutionaries to garner support for their party, while at other times they try to distance themselves from any real acts of social upheaval and militancy. Abdur Rezzak Mollah, Chief Whip of the CPI-M Legislature Party recently described his stance on the Naxalite struggle “What is required in the present context is [to] carry on the struggle in a more soft and flexible manner". This attitude should come as no surprise. The last thing a parliamentary party would want would be militants threatening the electoral status quo, a status quo which had until 2011 continued to be favorable for their political influence and wealth.

When traveling just ten kilometers (about 6 miles) north of Kerala, into the state of Karnataka, one can really get an idea of how Kerala differs from other regions in India. Kerala’s rich history of leftist governing bodies has led to some of the best literacy rates (94.59%), highest life expectancy (74 years), more gender equality, and the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in all of India. These social improvements have translated into a rapidly growing middle class and more overall wealth for the state. Although the Keralan government has remained stringent on allowing foreign investors into the region, foreign money still pours in through other channels: vast numbers of highly educated Keralans leave the country to work abroad, sending large sums of money back home.

Going along with the Marxist-Leninist program, the CPI-M is notorious for taking the side of industrialists over rural farmers. At a time when the rural poor remain dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, this can mean the difference between a simple life and complete destitution (Ramnath, 215). As if following Lenin’s advice on India and revolution, the transition to industrialized capitalism seems to be a priority for the party, even at the expense of the most oppressed. As Kerala continues to gain wealth and prominence in the world stage, the divide between the rich-middle class and the poor only grows larger. Walking down the streets one can see a brand new BMW one moment and an ox pulled cart the next. At night you can find people sleeping on the streets while large apartment complexes close by remain vacant.

Many of the blue collar jobs in Kerala, such as the auto-rickshaw drivers and the bus drivers are predominantly communist identified and heavily unionized. These sectors have the incredible capacity to halt the transportation of commodities and thus quite effectively shut down whole cities. When general strikes are called by these sectors, not only do the roads shut down, but so does every other sector of business. This is done both out of solidarity, but also out of the fear of violence, as rickshaw drivers have been reported to roam around harassing stores owners who don’t comply with the strike. However, this is changing rapidly. Many union leaders as well as coalition politicians have adopted the pro-capitalist idea of trade unions and strikes as being a mode for collective bargaining, rather than as a mode for class struggle (Maitra, 136). As more people turn towards electoral politics to bring about change, the less we will see the potentiality for a mass movement in Kerala outside of the capitalist-statist landscape.

Ernakulam, Kerala during a general strike. (2012)

Towards the Future

The CPI-M has fallen short of bringing about any real radical change because of its traditional and transitional program. By depending on the parliamentary system to create the “right” social environment for class struggle, the party continues to follow the Marxist-Leninist program which has for the last hundred years failed to bring about any lasting egalitarianism. Sure, some Keralans have prospered, but only off the labor of the destitute working class. A working class which I must point out is unable to compete with the surrounding areas. Many of the same problems experienced in the “developed” world are here in Kerala, such as the exploitation of cheap non-unionized labor from neighboring regions. This has only furthered the divide between the neo-bourgeoisie and the unionized workers within the state.

Nonetheless, the Left in India today is far from resigned to electoral politics. Mass protests and direct actions continue to make headline news and usually involve not a single political party but a plethora of different groups, radical and non-radical, working together for a shared cause. Recently these actions have manifested in anti-nuclear, anti-Mosanto, anti-land grab, and anti-patriarchy movements. There is definitely no shortage of leftist activism in this country, yet a vision of restructuring society seems to be missing from the picture. In practice, these movements tend to be reformist in nature simply because they turn towards the Indian State for solutions (i.e. regulations of nuclear power, close oversight of Mosanto, or more policing/executions to prevent rape). This exemplifies a lack of realization, that the very problems these movements strive to eradicate share the same core foundation as the state and capitalism itself- that of the centralization of power.

There are however post-traditionalist communist groups in India such as Shramik Mukti Dal from Maharashtra, which offer exceptional new theories into understanding the modern forms of caste, exploitation, and alienation. Sharing much in common with Italian Autonomia theory and modern communization currents, the Shramik Mukti Dal manifesto, offers a uniquely Indian approach to the notion of social revolution and praxis in a world of global capital. (Ramnath, 221-222).

An excerpt from the manifesto:

“A revolution that creates a new ecologically balanced, prosperous, non-exploitative society is not an ‘event’ that takes place in one day. It is necessary to start this process of revolutionary transformation from today itself. Briefly, revolution is not a single 'event' but a 'process' that makes change. It is a process of striking one blow after another against the roots of the established capitalist, casteist, patriarchal, social-economic structure, and establishing again and again the roots creating the new society. It is a process of new creation.”[2]

As the social landscape around the world continues to change, so too must the radical left, always looking for new ways to adapt and combat inequality in all its forms. I firmly believe that there is no better place to look for new approaches than outside of that which we consider familiar. By learning about other radical communities and other perspectives, not only do we see immense differences, but also we see similarities, and through this active observation, we can start to understand how we can work together in our unified struggle. If we are to have a global revolution, we must first have a unified world.

Originally published in The Commune (UK).
Nathaniel Matthews-Trigg

Footnotes & Further Reading:

1 Lala Har Dayal
2 The Shramik Mukti Dal Manifesto

Graeber, D. Direct action: An ethnography. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009. Print.
Maitra, Kiran. Marxism in India:from decline to debacle. New Delhi, India: Lotus Collection, Print.
Ramnath, Maia. Decolonizing Anarchism. Oakland, CA: AK Press & the Institute of Anarchist Studies, 2011. Print.