New Social Movements, New Perspectives

Nivedita Menon

Her side of the storyNivedita MenonPhoto: SAMPATH KUMAR G.P.

photo courtesy- : SAMPATH KUMAR G.P.

JP Memorial Lecture March 23, 2013


We stand at an electrifying and exciting moment of history, when new forces are coming into view through a range of movements, shaking the foundations of political power. They do not seek to ‘capture’ political power but rather, to make it accountable and answerable to ‘the people’. The massive upsurges against corruption and against the Delhi gang-rape, whose reverberations were heard in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nepal, tie up with a global moment which has been marked by similar unrest in different parts of the world – the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the youth movement in Bangladesh against the Islamic right-wing and for a return to the secular ideals of the 1971 liberation struggle.

But there are dots that connect these current rounds of movements to a longer history of non-party activism in India, which I want to trace in my presentation, before returning to the present and the difficult questions we face about democracy today.

In the long history of people’s movements in India, we have seen them take different forms. I’m referring of course, to non-party movements, among the first of which is the JP movement itself, whose ultimate demise, as is widely accepted now, can be traced to its takeover by political parties.

Today I will try to map the forms that people’s movements have taken since the 1980s, and it should be clear that the focus will be on what we perceive as ‘new’ movements. Thus, I will not refer to the long struggles against the Indian state in Kashmir and the North East because a discussion of those requires another lecture altogether that will question the very legitimacy of the claim of India to be a Nation.

A new kind of social and political action emerged in the 1980s, that we might call citizens’ initiatives. These non-funded and non-party forums came into being out of a sense of the inefficacy of mainstream political parties and their lack of concern regarding vital issues of democracy, freedom and civil rights. ‘Citizens’ initiatives’ have been more involved in a watchdog kind of activity and are not generally characterized by mass support. While some are small, self-sufficient groups of long standing, others are broad coalitions formed around specific issues, that bring together parties and trade unions of the far left, Gandhian, Dalit and feminist groups, some of which may be funded NGOs, as well as non-affiliated individuals. The distinguishing feature of such coalitions is that all the constituents are subject to the ‘common minimum programme’ set collectively by the forum, and separate party/organizational agenda are not meant to influence the activity of the forum. The tension that this sets up between differing imperatives is usually also the reason for the short-lived nature of such forums, which tend to dissipate after a period of intense and often very effective interventions.

Among the first citizens’ initiatives that came into existence were around civil liberties and democratic rights. Acquiring particular salience in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency, a number of such organizations came into being throughout the country. For instance, the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights (PUCLDR) set up during the Emergency later split into the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), with a more leftist perspective on ‘rights’ including economic rights, while the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) decided to focus on ‘civil liberties’ more narrowly. There was a string of such formations in the country. In many states like Andhra Pradesh (the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee – APCLC) and West Bengal (Association for the Protection of Democratic Right – APDR), the main initiative for the formation of such civil liberties and democratic rights organizations came from activists linked to the far Left groups. We distinguish such forums from what are called ‘human rights organizations’, many of which are funded organizations that work in tandem with internationally evolving agendas. The latter we would place under the rubric of  ‘NGOs’.

Such groups have continued to play an active role in the years since, painstakingly documenting and exposing cases of civil liberties and democratic rights violations. In recent years they have also been actively campaigning against capital punishment. While the initial impulse for their formation was the violation by the state of citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, they have over the last two and a half decades expanded their activities to address violations of freedoms by non-state actors in the context of caste, gender and sectarian/ communal violence. Some of them have also taken up questions of the worst cases of exploitation of labour, which effectively nullify rights and liberties sanctioned by the Constitution to all citizens.

A recent significant battle fought by one such citizens’ group – Committee for Fair Trial for SAR Geelani – demonstrates how effective such interventions can be. Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, a lecturer of Arabic in a Delhi college, was one of the ‘prime accused’ in the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001. Following as it did on ‘9/11’, the incident got inserted into the stridently nationalist discourse that drew nourishment from both the Hindu-right dominated NDA government and the rhetoric of George Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’. A group of teachers and students of Delhi University kept up a consistent struggle to ensure a fair trial for SAR Geelani in the bleak days of 2002, when one of the worst state-sponsored carnages of post-Independence Indian history was in progress in Gujarat, and Geelani was not only sentenced to death by a POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act) court but also subjected to a blatant media trial pronouncing him guilty even before the court verdict. Eventually a national level Committee was formed, drawing in respected academics like Rajni Kothari and writer Arundhati Roy, while lawyers like Nandita Haksar and others undertook to fight the case on Geelani’s behalf. Their patient and unrelenting work was successful in exposing what turned out to be a blatant frame-up. Geelani was acquitted and released. The Geelani case revealed the extent to which democracy can be subverted by the discourse on ‘national security’. However, it also demonstrated that spaces for democratic intervention are not entirely closed off.

Of course, this was only a partial victory and the December 13th attack on parliament has a darker story behind it which we cannot go into now, the latest episode of which was the unjust execution of Afzal Guru for a crime the Supreme Court conceded he did not commit.

Another set of citizens’ initiatives that came since 1984 and the massacre of Sikhs were several anti-communal groups in different parts of the country. One of the earliest of these was a forum called the Nagarik Ekta Manch, formed in 1984 itself. This was an initiative where people from different backgrounds and vocations came together to work in the relief camps – collecting and distributing relief materials, helping people file claims and so on. At about the same time, another group, the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA) was formed in Delhi, focusing primarily on public campaigns, attempting simultaneously to find a different language in which to conduct such campaigns. A wide debate was sparked in secular circles by one of the slogans evolved by the SVA to counter the Hindu right-wing campaign on Ramjanmabhoomi, discussed in Chapter 2. This slogan, in a radical departure from secular strategy, appealed to the religious Hindu – kan-kan mein vyaape hain Ram/Mat bhadkao danga leke unka naam (Ram is in every atom/let not His name be used to incite violence).

These could be said to have been precursors to a series of new initiatives in different towns and cities of India that came into being in the 1990s, especially in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal violence that followed. Perhaps the most significant part of the citizens’ actions of the 1990s was that they took up the struggle that was all but abandoned by political parties – whether ruling or opposition, Right or Left. Through this period groups have worked throughout India, engaging in a range of activities – street demonstrations and sit-ins to engage the public in debate and discussion, designing and implementing educational programmes, monitoring the media, pursuing cases in court, providing legal and other assistance to the victims of communal violence and making every effort to see that the guilty officials and political leaders would not escape punishment. Again, in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, during the long months of continued violence, innumerable individuals and newly formed groups from all over India went to Gujarat, helping in running relief camps, coordinating collections and distribution of relief materials, running schools for children of the victims – and of course, providing the legal support to fight the cases. These efforts might well comprise one of the most glorious chapters of citizens’ interventions in post-independence India.

Urbanism could be said to be one of the fledgling movements in contemporary India. Prior to the 1990s issues of the urban poor, (pavement dwellers, hawkers and vendors, rickshaw pullers) were raised by Left political parties, individuals and groups in Mumbai and Kolkata, largely as questions of poverty and the ‘state’s responsibility’ to the poor. The old Nehruvian state was also much more responsive to this call of responsibility. It was in the 1990s, with India’s rapid global integration, that urban space really began to emerge as an arena of struggle. Alongside the contests over space arose newer concerns regarding urban congestion, pollution and consequent concerns about health. The state’s response – prodded by a section of environmentalists and the judiciary – was to revive the old modernist fantasy of the ordered and zoned city. It was around these issues that struggles started seriously erupting in the late 1990s.

In Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore, citizens’ initiatives brought together questions of environment and workers’ rights and linked them up with the larger question of urban planning. Some groups conducted mass campaigns through their constituent political groupings, but the most significant impact they had was in making urban planning a matter of public debate, drawing architects and planners with alternative visions into the debate. The question of a public transport system, road planning and such other questions came into the ambit of the debate for the first time. In some cities alternative data was generated on the availability and consumption of water, electricity and other amenities in settlements of the labouring poor as well as the affluent.

Today as Arvind Kejriwal begins his civil disobedience campaign on the inflated costs of water and electricity, we can see the historical links to earlier forms of activism.

Since the late 1980s, non-party movements and citizens’ initiatives have grown and functioned in a complicated relationship with NGOs. The apprehension of being driven by funder agendas, becoming depoliticized and being co-opted by funding has kept most movements and citizens’ initiatives consciously ‘non-funded’. At the same time many NGOs often provide movements with vital support in terms of infrastructure, campaigns and educational materials. Thus, while the peoples’ movements fight their battles in faraway rural or forest areas, with little access to the media, it is these NGOs that set up and house the various metropolitan ‘support groups’ whose task it is to approach friendly and influential people in the media, bureaucracy and academia to advocate the cause of the movement concerned. Such NGOs have often also provided critical research inputs on technical details, environmental impact and other information required to conduct a credible campaign. A striking example of such a symbiosis is the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

These citizens’ initiatives were rarely mass movements, but in the first decades on the 21st century we have begun to see mass movements of this new, coalitional kind, arising around the issue of land acquisition. Such movements have brought into crisis the hitherto unquestioned assumption that industrialization and economic development of a particular kind are natural stages in human history. This assumption is shared across the political spectrum from Right to Left and so these movements come into sharp contradiction with an Old Left framework that has still not understood the deep ecological crisis our planet  faces and the need to rethink entirely the idea of endless growth which is in fact impossible.

Increasingly, movements against land acquisition are coming together with the movement against nuclear energy, from Jaitapur to Kudankulam. In these mass movements we see the new form of coming together of political energies. That is, around a single issue, a range of forces come together, from religious forces like the Jamat in Singur and Nandigram and the Church in Kudankulam, to the familiar spectrum of individuals and groups – Gandhians, Dalit groups, NGOs, left groups and sometimes left parties and so on. The anti-nuclear energy movements of course, go back to the era of citizens’ initiatives when groups like Anumukti, Network to Oust Nuclear Energy (NONE) and Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (COSNUP) were set up. Such citizens’ initiatives were undertaken to highlight issues such as the dangers of radiation to communities located in uranium mining sites, the undemocratic and opaque nature of functioning of India’s nuclear establishment, and as always, the injustice of displacing populations from their homes and occupations in order to set up nuclear energy plants. More importantly, these groups developed a critique of nuclear energy as such, asserting, along with a growing chorus of voices globally, that it was ‘neither clean nor safe nor cheap.’ While this work did not have a mass movement dimension until now, we see the coming together of these older initiatives with the mass movements in Kudankulam and Jaitapur.

Again, the Old Left is completely out of tune with these new developments, as in its imaginative horizon, nuclear energy is central to a strong nation state. For example, the proposal to build a giant nuclear power station in Haripur in West Bengal is a central government project, but is fully supported by the Left Front. The ecological and social consequences of building a nuclear plant in the densely populated Gangetic delta region are fearsome to contemplate, and the CPI (M)’s enthusiastic support for it is deeply troubling.

Coming now to the women’s movement, it has functioned more or less in the form of citizens’ initiatives of the kind I have described, with occasional mass mobilization by political parties. In the 1980s, the “autonomous women’s movement” emerged from the patriarchy and control of left-wing political parties. The first national-level autonomous women’s conferences were thus attended by non-funded, non-party, self-defined feminist groups. Over the 1990s, very few of these survived as non-funded organizations, and the seventh conference in 2006, held in Kolkata, referred to above, was almost entirely attended by funded NGOs. It is also important to note that many “non” governmental organizations receive funding from the government for specific projects. Thus, the only groups that were finally excluded were non-funded left wing and radical women’s organizations, which seemed to many feminists to be a strange paradox. Increasingly however, in the last few years, coalitions around issues such as sexual violence and the rights of LGBT people, include political parties of the Left. Feminists also perceive the close link between movements around livelihood and ecological sustainability, and the women’s movement – Nalini Nayak, who works with fisher- people’s movements on these issues, terms ecological movements the “resource base of our feminism”.

And so we arrive at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a decade in which we see two kinds of new political action. One – unprecedented urban mass movements in the city of Delhi and in other cities and towns, around two issues – corruption and sexual violence.

Two – social media driven mobilizations by young upper class women around the issue of women’s rights to public space.

Both these kinds of mobilizations, quite opposite in character to each other, have proved difficult for older Left and women’s movement perspectives to come to terms with, for they follow none of the older patterns of mobilizing, there is no comprehensive programme of action, only one narrow slogan, and the mass character necessarily means there can be no broader agreement around large political issues.

Let me start with the second phenomenon I mentioned.

Two campaigns have caught media attention. One, the Pink Chaddi campaign. In 2009, men of a hitherto little known Hindu right-wing organization called Sri Ram Sene, physically attacked young women in pubs in the city of Mangalore. These attacks, supposedly an attempt to protect Indian culture from defilement by western values, were met with protests and solidarity campaigns all over the country, but the most imaginative one came to be called the Pink Chaddi campaign. A cheeky Facebook group was launched by Delhi journalist Nisha Susan, with the name of ‘Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women’, which called upon women to send pink chaddis (underwear) to the leader of the Ram Sene, Pramod Muthalik, as a gift on Valentine’s Day, in a non-violent gesture of ridicule and protest.  Over 2000 chaddis were in fact delivered to the Ram Sene office, and the organization was a butt of ridicule all over the world. It is striking that the campaign used the word ‘chaddi’ rather than ‘panty’, simultaneously desexualizing the piece of clothing, ungendering it (chaddi refers to underwear in general, not just to women’s panties), and playing on the pejorative slang for Hindu right-wingers, after the uniform of their parent organization, the RSS, whose members wear khaki shorts. At one level an undoubtedly successful campaign, it faced criticism from conservative opinion for obvious reasons, and also from the left of the political spectrum.

The latter chastised the campaign for elitism (‘after all, only westernized women in cities go to pubs’) and for diverting attention to such a trivial issue when for most women in India, their very survival is at stake. Is going to pubs what feminism is about, was the question such critics raised. Of course not. And nor did the ‘Consortium’ claim it was anything as large as ‘feminism’ itself. It was a specific campaign in response to a specific attack, and as Nisha Susan put it, ‘for many of those who signed up, neither Valentine’s Day nor pub-going meant anything. What we agreed on is the need to end violence in the name of somebody’s idea of Indian culture’ (2009). The campaign brazenly owned up to the identities the Hindu right-wing attributed to women in pubs – ‘loose and forward’ – and made them badges of pride. And it clearly touched a chord across the country, for most people understood it as defiance towards the Hindu right’s moral policing in general, not merely about women’s right to drink in pubs.

The other instance was the organizing of Slut Walks in Delhi and Bhopal. Slut Walks, both in European and American cities as well as in some Indian ones, must be understood as a critique of the victim blaming culture that surrounds rape. The original Slut Walk was a reaction to a Canadian police officer’s remark that if women dress ‘like sluts’, they must expect to be raped. However, the overwhelmingly positive responses world-wide to Slut Walks, reveal that blaming the victim is not an attitude restricted to the West.

In India, within the feminist camp, there were misgivings expressed that the English word ‘slut’ has no resonance at all here. In response, the organizers of the march added a Hindi phrase explaining the name, so that it became Slut Walk arthaat Besharmi Morcha, drawing on the Hindi word besharam meaning ‘without shame’ or shameless, often used for women who refuse to live by patriarchal rules. What was interesting about Slut Walks in India (held in Bhopal and Delhi in July 2011), was that they were not organized by the established women’s movement organizations and well-known feminist faces, but by much younger women new to political organizing, who were expressing, however, an old and powerful feminist demand – the right to safety in public spaces.

If this was elite mobilization, what is the problem for the Left with mass mobilizations? It appears that the non-party Left has a deep rooted fear of the masses, which it can only see as communal and casteist, and politically regressive. Throughout the Anna Hazare phase of the India Against Corruption movement, we saw from this section, which forms our community, strident demands for absolute  purity of the radical position (for example, what do these people have to say about Kashmir?). We saw a sort of aggressive self-marginalization and self-exile to a high ground where all credentials were closely scrutinized, and we saw the absolute incomprehension of and contempt of people who are our friends, for  ’the people’ when actually confronted by them.

Interestingly, political parties of the Left, especially CP(ML), were supportive of the movement and active in various ways, this sharp criticism came from individuals of the non-Party left.

What I saw was a carnivalesque celebration of the pure ideals of democracy – of the idea that ‘we the people’ are sovereign, that politicians are the servants of the people, that laws must originate in the needs and demands of the people.

What my community saw though, was a mindless mob of communal and casteist – and even “fascist” middle classes.

For twelve days, a city in which protest had been consigned to a museumized space, Jantar Mantar, was reclaimed for protest by a crashing tide of humanity so huge, so peaceful and non-violent, that it simply took back the city. No violence. No untoward incidents and no hysteria (except on television channels). How is this fascism? Are all large gatherings of the masses fascist?

Since many of the critics swear by some form of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, let me quote from Lenin who said in 1916 of the 1905 revolution:

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is…The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices…; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the [back] of tsarism and paving the way for democracy.”

Another kind of critic speaks not in the name of revolution, but of democracy; a democracy disciplined through representative institutions with The People entering the stage every five years. The People are a continuous source of anxiety, casteist and communal as all of them are. Little wonder then that this set of Leftist and Left-liberals remained silent when the government denied permission for the protest and arrested Hazare on August 16; some even denying that there had been a violation of civil liberties.

Law-making needs to be demystified – “it’s a very complex process”, the experts on TV kept saying. But what the movement did was it made it legitimate to say that we have a right to the information that will enable us to arrive at a conclusion. I heard a young law student stumblingly explain before a TV camera in English, which was clearly not his first language: ”They say the Parliament is sovereign. No. They should read the Constitution. The people are sovereign.”

And I loved the way people said to the camera – Main Kapil Sibal se kehna chahta hoon, main Manmohanji ko batana chahti hoon – directly, they addressed the “leaders”, the politicians, as if they have a right to. This is neither anti political nor anti political classes – it is the exact opposite. It is the insistence precisely that “we the people” are political, we demand accountability from those whom we send to Parliament.

It is by now established that there was substantial Muslim and Dalit participation despite their leaders’ disapproval. The other misrepresentation being continually purveyed is that the supporters of this movement are the middle classes. If the lakhs of people who participated in the protests over twelve days in Delhi alone, are all ‘middle class’, then India must be Shining after all! Anybody who moved around where protests were happening could have seen that the large majority of participants were lower middle class to working class people. In Delhi local protests happened everywhere, far away from TV cameras – in middle class housing societies, working class ‘unauthorized’ colonies, around local mosques in poor localities, small temples.

We also know from newspaper reports that there was growing participation of workers throughout – railway workers affiliated to AITUC; 1800 temporary-for-years Delhi Transport Corporation workers who were sacked for going to Ramlila Maidan; dabbawalas in Mumbai who have not struck work for 140 years;   sections of auto drivers; Maruti workers from Manesar in Haryana.

The other argument against an anti-corruption law is that ‘corruption provides a little shade to the poor’.  As a skeptics about the law and the state, I have often written about the freedoms made possible by going under the radar of the state. But how to understand the poor and working class who throng the movement?  Perhaps ‘corruption’ is precisely not to be in the shade, to be forced into engaging with the force of Law, but outside the protection of the law. Perhaps the ‘corrupt’ people protesting corruption would like to live a life in which they wouldn’t have to be corrupt just to survive every day? We need to recognize that the term ‘corruption’ as it plays out in the movement, condenses within it a range of discontents – an accumulating anger over repeated betrayals of democratic expectations over years, but especially over the last decade. The immediate trigger of the movement was the series of instances of looting of the public exchequer that came to light recently – the Commonwealth Games, the 2G Spectrum scam, the Niira Radia tapes that exposed how ministers were being fixed to benefit particular business houses, and so on. But corruption is also an everyday matter for the poor – the thelawala paying hafta to the beat constable;  the labourer whose muster rolls are faked, the agricultural worker whose NREGA payment is swallowed up; every poor undertrial in jail on trumped up charges (was it surprising then, that the undertrials in Tihar fasted in solidarity with Anna?); the farmer whose land is seized to be passed on to corporates, an issue mentioned by Anna Hazare in his speech at Ramlila Maidan (kisanon ki zameen zabardasti chheeni ja rahi hai); the aspirant to own an auto rickshaw costing 1 lakh, who ends up paying more than a car costs, and drowns in debt.

A young working class boy we know, falsely implicated in a theft case by the police for over four years, rang up at the height of the agitation to tell us jubilantly that the beat constable had told him that the cases were being closed – “Anna hazare ke chakkar mein pulis saare case khatam kar rahi hai” (All this Anna Hazare stuff is going on, so the police are closing all the cases.) We don’t know what made him think this had anything to do with Anna Hazare. But this is the Anna moment. This is what the Subaltern Studies historians drew our attention to, the multiple meanings Gandhi had for different sections of people, the ‘rumours of Gandhi’ that galvanized a variety of protests that directly addressed local issues.

But also, maybe the police were scared for an instant?

To all those who woke up to the India Against Corruption movement in April 2011 – a gentle reminder that this is the crystallization of a long process that began in the villages, initiated by the campaign around the Right to Information. The RTI Act (2005), instrumental in exposing corruption in a range of spaces from NREGA to municipal schools, was the culmination of one phase of the movement; the establishment of an Ombudsman or Lokpal was always planned as the next stage. Corruption is tied fundamentally to the RTI Act that exposes it, so effectively that several RTI activists have been murdered.

Now of course, Arvind Kejriwal has decided to go the way of a political party, but what we see of the AAP so far, it is clearly not a conventional party with a top-down leadership, and it appears to be genuinely seeking a new way of being a party, with actual mass participation in decision making, which might change the ground rules for all parties.

The experience of the mobilizations around IAC were behind the massive protests around the Delhi gang-rape. This time, the voices of critique were muted, although a prominent critic was Arundhati Roy, who immediately termed the protests upper class. But again, this was not the case. The protests were sparked off by the rape of a girl on a bus at 9.30 at night. She could have been anybody – she was not in a car, or even an auto. Nobody knew her caste – later it turned out she is from a very poor family and from the Kurmi caste, which is by no means an upper caste – but the point is nobody actually knew who she was – she was Everywoman.

And again, exactly like the IAC movement, there were right-wing voices as well as left-wing and feminist voices against sexual violence. These feminist thoughts were being articulated by not only people calling themselves feminists but ordinary middle class people who may not consider themselves to be very political at all. There were thousands of submissions to the Justice Verma committee and many of these have been made by ordinary people, resident’s Welfare Associations and so on, asking for changes in the broader patriarchal context of society – things like women’s safety and police sensitivity.

There has been a ground level shift among people reflecting decades of feminist intervention at different levels, but there is a real disconnect between the people and politicians. Feminist understandings have caught on in the ordinary public but this is not matched by the understanding of state agencies. Not only was a feminist position NOT articulated by anyone in a position of power or any political organization in a consistent way, most politicians from Left to Right came out with the most misogynist and regressive statements about women and about sexual violence.

And again, people did not have to be mobilized by any organized left wing, right wing or feminist groups. The transformation that has taken place in the last 4-5 years is that people feel like they own the city and can come out in protest on the streets – and I think this can be tracked back to India Against Corruption.

Any mass movement brings together disparate and sometimes  starkly contradictory tendencies.  Don’t we know that from the Indian struggle for independence? Was the Indian bourgeoisie absent from it? Or the religious right of all sorts? Or casteist and Brahminical forces? If absolute purity and a point-to-point matching of our full political agenda is required for us to support a movement, then feminists would be permanently stuck restively in the waiting room of history, for I can assure you that every mass demonstration you see anywhere ever, is packed with patriarchal men and patriarchalized women! Nor does any movement except the women’s movement ever raise patriarchy as an issue. But what is it that we take into account when we do support a movement? One – does the movement express a goal or demand that we support? Two – Does the movement as such explicitly take positions that are anti-women or anti-anything-we-stand-for? (The answers of course, should be yes and no respectively).

The  huge movement in Goa that succeeded in scrapping the SEZ Bill was composed of precisely such a broad formation – from the Church to the Hindu Right, to all of the others  of my community as described above. They came together, they went their separate ways once their campaign succeeded. Nandigram saw a similar formation. Many non-party non-funded citizens’ forums have too. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is another broad alliance coalescing on a single issue. For that matter, at Tahrir Square there were Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood), and people and groups who stand for full-scale capitalism apart from secularists and feminists and workers and trade unions. Now it’s a struggle of secularists against the Muslim right-wing in Egypt, but that is a historically contingent, not necessary or inevitable development.

It is the logic of the development of a mass movement in all its messiness that we should seek to understand, rather than look for that pure, 22-carat revolution where everything will proceed according to the programme laid down by the Left elite. From this perspective, nothing less than our maximum agenda is acceptable – from SEZs to farmers’ suicides, from AFSPA in the Northeast to the murder of democracy in Kashmir. If you will not accept even one of these points, you’re out – we will have nothing to do with you. It is not “they” who say ‘if you are not with us you are against us’, this arrogant divisive slogan has always been ours, on the Left.

Those issues listed above are our issues too, but what if a mass movement does not raise them? What if it articulates itself around a more generalized and widespread concern? Any student of mass movements anywhere in the world knows that mass movements of this scale only arise around issues where the largest sections of the people feel affected by it. They can never arise around sectional issues – however big the sections concerned may be. And the question really is of the potentiality of the movement rather than what it is, at any given point.  It will only be inclusive to the extent that it is able to draw in the largest number.

We will of course have to part ways at some point to fight our separate battles, but we can come together for a specific limited goal.

We stand at the beginning of a new kind of politics that has all kinds of forces within it, but one of these is certainly the potential to radically transform and rejuvenate democracy. We should be prepared to ride that potential, not undermine it.


This lecture is based on material from my earlier published work, some of it singly authored, some jointly written with Aditya Nigam, in continuing conversation with whom these ideas have developed.