A population of 800,000 makes Mansa a small town by Indian standards. The main market town of the agricultural Malwa region of Punjab, it has a long history of peasant struggle.
A stronghold of the revolutionary peasant movement since the 1920s, and the communist movement since the 1930s, within a few years of Indian independence left-wing peasants’ struggles had expropriated the region’s large feudal landowners.
Since a revolutionary communist movement broke out after the 1967 Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal, Mansa has become a stronghold of the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist-Liberation (CPI-ML). The group held its 10th Congress in the town from March 23 to 28, under the slogan: “Defeat fascism! Fight for a people’s India!”
The strong support for the CPI-ML in Mansa was visible to anyone arriving at the railway station, which was decorated with hammer-and-sickle red flags. The entire town was covered in party flags, posters and murals promoting the congress.
The decision-making event was attended by 1500 delegates elected from across India, a large number of observers, volunteers and local party members, and a dozen foreign guests from Bangladesh, Britain and Australia.
Delegates were from throughout the country, including South India, Delhi, Assam, Kabi Anglong (where the CPI-ML is leading a struggle for a separate state from Assam). The largest number of delegates were from West Bengal, traditionally a stronghold of the Indian left, and, most of all, from the poor and marginalised states in the north, such as Jharkand and Bihar, where the CPI-ML is strongest.
The largest group of delegates were agricultural labourers (about 40%). Other delegates were peasants, urban informal sector workers, students, formal sector workers and professionals.
The congress was preceded by a 5000-strong rally that centred on the unveiling of a statue to Punjabi Marxist independence struggle hero Bhagat Singh and two of his comrades who were hanged along with him by British authorities in 1931. Singh is arguably more popular in India than Mahatma Gandhi, and is also popular in Pakistan and Bangladesh. His image adorned congress posters and banners.
History and culture played a prominent part in the congress. This partly reflects that culture and history wars have become a crucial factor in Indian politics with the rise of far-right Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The congress passed a resolution on culture and history that emphasised the reality of pluralism and secularism in India’s past and present. It challenged Modi’s ultranationalist and religious fundamentalist mythologising.
“We are holding this 10th Congress in the face of an unmistakable rise of fascism in India,” CPI-ML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya told the opening session. “The BJP [Modi’s ruling party] is today spearheading a neoliberal policy offensive in every sphere, while simultaneously thoroughly polarising the society on communal lines and subverting and capturing the entire range of state and non-state institutions…
“The manipulation of parliamentary procedures and subversion of institutions and constitutional offices has almost acquired the proportions of a parliamentary coup.”
Dipankar stressed that fascism was characterised by a mass far right activist base that the ruling class created for its reactionary politics.
The BJP is the political instrument of the RSS Hindu supremacist movement that, like India’s communist movement, has existed since the 1920s. Despite its ultra-nationalism, the RSS collaborated with the British. Along with its association with Ghandi’s assassination, this made it disreputable after independence.
Its revival and growth is the result of widespread disillusionment with continued inequality and corruption after independence. This has been deepened by a quarter century of neoliberal economic reforms that have impoverished the masses.
Urbanisation and the growth of a high technology sector have created huge profits for foreign multinational corporations and a growing number of Indian billionaires. At the same time, living standards have fallen for the majority.
Agriculture is in crisis. Punjab had been the centre of the “green revolution”, the post-independence industrialisation of agriculture that initially boosted production but has left soils depleted and toxic. Yields are declining catastrophically and cancer has become endemic.
The rise of Modi’s fascism was also enabled by the long history of mainstream parties opportunistically using communalism, casteism and sexism, even while professing secular, socially progressive values.
Islamophobia also draws from a history of anti-Pakistan jingoism and the global post-9/11 climate. Mob lynchings target Muslims, women, ethnic minorities, and Dalits and Adavasis (marginalised castes and indigenous tribes, who are a quarter of India's population).
Justifications for lynchings range from allegations of Muslims and Dalits killing cows (revered by Hindus) to campaigns against “miscegenation” (interfaith and inter-caste relationships).
People have been lynched trying to stop fascists filming women defecating. This is part of Modi’s “anti-public defecation campaign” — misogynist, anti-poor, obscurantist thuggery disguised as a modernising public health campaign (and accepted as such by Modi’s Western backers).
Modi’s ultra-nationalism is jingoistic towards neighbouring countries and brutal to minorities. But it is craven towards the nation’s neoliberal imperialist plunderers.
The most extended and intense debate was around the national political situation resolution, which took up how fascism has changed the CPI-ML’s political tasks. The resolution discussed the need to defend institutions of liberal democracy, despite their history of imprisoning, torturing and killing the CPI-ML’s cadre as well as repressing the poor, Muslims, Dalits, women and others.
It states: “Beyond the scope of where the Left forces can and must contest directly, the Left should make a distinction between the fascists and non-fascist forces within the non-Left camp and work for the defeat of the fascist forces…
“The challenge of defeating fascism cannot and must not, however, be reduced to an electoral challenge, and within the electoral arena, it must not be reduced to the task of joining or supporting any so-called grand alliance to keep the BJP out…
“Even while having to extend critical support to available electoral options against the fascists, we must never lose sight of the real task of building a powerful ideological-political counterpoint against fascism.”
The party’s anti-fascist strategy makes electoral politics secondary to building mass opposition. This includes leading a growing student movement resisting the privatisation and corporatisation of education, attacks on academic freedom, attacks on science and sexual harassment on campus.
The resolution on international politics focused on India’s role in bullying smaller neighbours on behalf of the US. Modi has brought India closer to the US, creating an India-US axis directed against China and the Muslim world.
The resolution analysed contradictions in this policy, including India’s economic ties with China. India’s high tech sector, often cited as its main neoliberal success story, is heavily dependent on Chinese capital.
The congress was preceded by mass marches by farmers and agricultural workers. It was followed by a protest campaign by Dalits that the CPI-ML helped lead. Ominously, at the Dalits’ rallies, at least nine protesters were killed by fascist mobs whose attacks were enabled by police.
[Tony Iltis attended the congress as representative of Australia’s Socialist Alliance.]