NEW DELHI: Earlier this month, in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of the Indian state of Odisha, activists of the Hindu right decided to do some political theater. They brought a large communist flag, lay it on the ground, photographed themselves stamping on it, and then burnt it. Why would the Hindu right—which controls the Indian government—decide to burn the flag of the communist movement in India? The communist movement has been weakened electorally, having its deputies in the parliament dramatically lowered over the course of the past two decades.
Nonetheless, the communists continue to govern the Indian states of Kerala (population 34 million) and Tripura (4 million) and continue to have considerable strength across India, leading struggles with workers and peasants, with the socially oppressed and the vulnerable.
The Hindu right, led by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu Right’s electoral arm, the BJP, has used every mechanism of state and society to suffocate dissent. The government has used its power to go after liberal journalists and radical students, using guile and force to break the confidence of the popular struggles. The murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh and the attack on the students at Benares Hindu University provide evidence of the attempt by the Hindu right to narrow the possibilities of what it means to be an Indian.
As the pressure mounts against opposition to Modi’s rule, the two communist chief ministers of Kerala (Pinarayi Vijayan) and Tripura (Manik Sarkar) have emerged as PM Modi’s most vocal opponents.
In February, Vijayan went to Mangalore for a frontal attack on PM Modi and the Hindu Right, but most centrally its brains: the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). ‘The RSS has always believed in dividing people on communal grounds,’ Vijayan said. ‘Just like Hitler eliminated Jews and communists, the RSS has been targeting the minorities and communists in India.’ Vijayan was fearless in this speech. ‘Don’t you dare to threaten me,’ he said. ‘You can’t do anything.’
Communist leader and Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has been no less outspoken. In an address that he was to have given this August on All-India Radio, but which was blocked by the government, Sarkar said, ‘Conspiracies and attempts are underway to create an undesirable division in our society, to invade our national consciousness in the name of religion, caste and community, by inciting passions to convert India into a religious country.’
Vijayan and Sarkar, along with the left in general, have emerged as the most direct critics of the government. A few months ago I met with a leading intellectual of the Hindu right circles, who told me of his exasperation with regard to the left.
‘Why don’t you guys just give us a chance to make the country great again,’ he said wryly, purposely playing with Donald Trump’s tagline. The left seems unrelenting despite its electoral weakness, unwilling to allow the Hindu right from pushing its agenda forward.
The farmers’ protest in Rajasthan alongside the student protests from one college to another illustrate the ferocity and the commitment of the Indian Left and of others who, like the left, cannot believe that tolerance of intolerance is acceptable. This is what the Hindu right’s intellectual pointed toward: there is no easy way to intimidate these farmers and these students, many of them strengthened by the left’s stubbornness.
Deep roots of social democratic and left culture in Kerala have made this state difficult terrain for the Hindu right. None of its appeals seem to work here, where the population is almost entirely literate and where social progress is seen to be more important than religious division. That is what gives Vijayan the confidence to speak so forthrightly against the Hindu right. More than the power of his state, he has his society behind him.
In Kerala, the district of Kannur is ground zero for the fight between the left and the right. Here, political violence has a long history. The early killings, however, were sporadic and rooted in local disputes. The murder of Vadikkal Ramakrishnan, a member of the Hindu Right, in 1969 took place, most likely, because of his role as a factory owner than as a member of the right.
The next death of a communist happened during a riot engineered by the Hindu right in 1971. Since 1971, however, there have been over 200 political murders in the district, with the bulk of those killed, according to police records, having been communists (this is detailed in a new book by Prof. T. Sasidharan). For over a decade, the left faced attacks both from the Hindu right and the Congress Party. Now the main instigator of the violence is the Hindu right.
After the Hindu right came to power in Delhi in 2014, the party workers in the district of Kannur became very assertive. They felt that the full machinery of the state government would now work on their behalf. The Left Democratic Front won the Kerala state elections last year. As the left forces celebrated in the district, someone threw bombs into the crowd, killing an activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the party of both Sarkar and Vijayan. Violent attacks on the left activists continued, and it should be said, the left activists retaliated in kind.
One of the architects of the Hindu right’s electoral victory in 2013, Amit Shah, and the Chief Minister of the largest state in India, Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath, were called upon by the Hindu right’s high command to make mischief in Kerala.
They were to inaugurate the Jana Raksha Yatra (Save the People March) in the state in early October to call attention to what Shah claimed is ‘Marxist-Jihadist violence’ against the activists of the Hindu right. The Hindu right has led no such march to defend the hundreds of Indians killed this year by their own fascist hordes. Their eyes are fixed on Kerala, and with laser intensity, against the communists.
The march began in Payyannur (Kannur district) on October 3. Rather than point fingers at the violence of the left, the activists of the Hindu right let loose with their own special brand of mayhem. They attacked the homes of left activists, burned cars, destroyed ATM machines and telephone exchanges. Of course, as in Odisha, they destroyed as many red flags as they could find.
The left mobilized to defend Kerala against the Hindu right’s violence. Protests took place across the state and across the country. In New Delhi, at a rally near the BJP headquarters, the left gathered to send its message to the Hindu right. ‘Wherever the RSS is, they create violence and divisions,’ said communist leader Brinda Karat. ‘That is in their DNA. The communists, the left, are being targeted by the RSS because we are in the way of the toxic agenda of the RSS.’
Frustrated with the lack of momentum for their cause, the Hindu right returned to violence. On October 8, communist activists marched through the town of Panoor to reclaim its streets. Five bombs were thrown into the gathering of the communists. Ten people—five communists and five police personnel—were injured in the attack. It is the kind of violence that has become commonplace in this part of Kerala.
Failure to win adherents to its views leads the Hindu right to violence. As Karat says, it ’is in their DNA.’ The police have taken 10 activists of the Hindu right into custody for this attack.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016).