Australian politicians often describe India as “the world’s biggest democracy”. The reality is somewhat different.
I found this out when I attended the ninth congress of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML) from April 2-7. Two CPI-ML members were killed in the lead-up to the congress.
One of them, Ganfgaram Kol, was a tea garden worker and party leader from Assam who was organising tea garden workers. He was killed by the bosses' mafia on March 25. It is common for big landlords to have their own private armies who kill and beat up workers and peasants campaigning for their rights in the countryside.
The other CPI-ML activist, Vikas Bhulyan, was only 25 when he was shot dead by police. As well as the CPI-ML members, a student activist was also killed by the police in Kolkata on April 8.
Many participants in the CPI-ML congress had been jailed for taking part in protests, sometimes for long periods.
The congress was attended by about 1100 delegates representing more than 100,000 members from all over India. The last congress was in 2007.
The congress theme was “Stop the corporate plunder ― people’s resources, people’s rights”.
With the congress being held in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, this theme was especially appropriate. In Jharkhand, there have been many struggles against the corporate plunder of resources and evictions of indigenous Adivasi peoples in recent years.
The congress delegates held a rally and march on the first morning of the congress to salute the legacy of Birsa Munda, who led an independence struggle against the British from the mid-1890s until he was killed in jail in 1900. Birsa Munda was from Ranchi.
At the rally, CPI-ML secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya slammed the proposal to turn the historic jail where Birsa Munda was killed into a shopping mall. Bhattacharya demanded that it be converted into a museum of Adivasi struggles and a memorial to Birsa Munda and his legacy.
The opening session of the conference was addressed by the leaders of many left parties, including the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Lal Nishan Party (Leninist), Forward Bloc, CPM Punjab, Communist Party Revolutionary Movement (CPRM), Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Marxist Coordinaion Committee and representatives of the Jharkhand movement. The CPRM is based in Darjeerling and is fighting for an independent state in that area.
International parties represented were the Bangladesh Revolutionary Workers Party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the Australian Socialist Alliance. Greetings were received from Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist.
In his address to the opening session, Bhattacharya gave prominence to the role played by the late-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: “At a time when socialism was sought to be discredited and declared dead in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chavez rekindled the socialist imagination by tapping the storehouse of people’s strength and energy to take on US imperialism.”
Battacharya said Chavez projected “a vision of socialism pulsating with the spirit of participatory democracy”.
The entrance to the park where the congress was held featured a huge picture of Chavez.
About 1100 delegates from 20 states debated the international and national political situation, updated the party program and assessed the party organisation.
A wide range of resolutions relating to different areas of work were also adopted. These included: agrarian and rural struggles, intervention in Panchayati raj institutions (similar to local councils), urban work, working-class work, the women’s movement, student and youth movement, struggles for environmental protection and people-centric development.
The CPI-ML is a dynamic party that combines a solid Marxist theoretical framework with being deeply rooted in struggle.
It has been involved in many campaigns to block corporate land grabs and take back stolen land. The party also has a union base and is actively engaged in workers’ struggles.
CPI-ML student activists at Jawaharlal Nehru University initiated the first protest in response to the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in December. This protest sparked a big campaign against rape culture.
In some areas, CPI-ML members are involved in struggles for an independent state, such as Karby Anlong, which is now part of the state of Assam. The CPI-ML has supported the campaigns for independent states as long as they are based on a common language and not based on religion.
The congress was conducted in Hindi and English with state delegations organising translations into other languages, including tribal languages.
The discussion was frank and democratic with many views expressed, many of which were incorporated into the resolutions.
The congress voted for an important change to its general program. Since the 1970s, the CPI-ML has characterised Indian society as being “semi-feudal and semi-colonial”.
The congress voted to define India as a “predominantly agrarian backward capitalist society, retarded by, and yet reinforcing stubborn feudal remnants”.
This change is in response to the tremendous growth of Indian capitalism in the past 20 years. The term “semi-colonial” used to be used to indicate that India was not 100% independent, but this is no longer applies given India's role in exporting capital.
While the agricultural share of the gross domestic product has declined, steadily in the first decade of the 21st century, about 60% of the population still depends on agriculture for a living.
Bhattacharya said: “There is a strong semi-feudal imprint on capitalism in India. The capitalists are taking advantage of the feudal remnants so that feudalism has been modified to suit capitalism in India.”
The program defines the stage of revolution as a “people's democratic revolution” because the first task would be to sweep away the feudal remnants.
Bhattacharya said: “We aren’t in a position to confiscate and completely abolish capitalism overnight. There will be a protracted democratic revolution to combat capitalism and set the stage for a socialist revolution.”
In his summing up, Bhattacharya said: “There is no definite socialist model in the world. Latin America is important for us. Whatever was practised as socialism in the 20th century won't come back. It will be different and better.”
He added: “We are in a period of transition. Some people say that you don't need communist parties, you just need loose coalitions. But capitalism remains a very concentrated power. If we're to take on this concentrated power, we need to concentrate the working class forces in a communist party.
“It doesn't mean no democracy. It has to be based on very sound robust democracies.
“The best way ... to develop socialism is an open question.”
The congress described China as a form of “controlled capitalism”. Bhattacharya said that “while China is following a capitalist trajectory, it isn't following a neoliberal model.”
The international resolution described the massacre of the Sri Lankan Tamils as “a genocide” and that “reconciliation in Sri Lanka cannot proceed on the basis of subjugation of the Sri Lankan Tamil community”.
However, it opposes Indian sanctions on Sri Lanka, including a cricket boycott. This is due to the way sections of the Indian elite uses it to push chauvinism against Sri Lanka's Sinhala ethnic majority. There have already been cases of Buddhist monks being beaten up.
In the case of Kashmir, the CPI-ML supports self-determination. But its main campaign focus is on the denial of democracy to people in Kashmir and against the criminalisation of Kashmiris fighting for freedom.
The CPI-ML is deeply rooted in the struggles of the rural poor ― agricultural labourers and poor peasants.
The CPI-ML is involved in key struggles by peasants and Adivasis against the corporate takeover of land for Special Economic Zones, hydroelectric power stations and other corporate projects.
The key agenda for the peasant movement is to “save agricultural land from the clutches of the corporate sector”, the congress said. The agrarian resolution calls for the “legal protection of agricultural and forest land and nationalisation of all mineral resources”.
The agrarian struggle remains a key for the CPI-ML, with 60% of India’s population depending on agriculture for a living, but the congress marked an increased focus on working-class and urban struggles.
The composition of the Indian working class is changing, with fewer workers dependent on agriculture, and an increase in contract, casual, and temporary workers.
In 2010, the CPI-ML lost all its parliamentary positions ― less of a blow for a party focused on social struggles than a purely parliamentarist one. The party intends to campaign vigorously in the next general election.
However, the party has a lot of members elected to the Panchayat institutions (local councils). On two of these councils, the CPI-ML has a majority.
The congress adopted a resolution on work in these institutions that said the the party needs to “use the panchayats as a platform of class struggle, as organs of service to the people, of struggle for peoples rights and resistance to the dominant feudal-kulak power and the state led by the big bourgeoisie”.
The focus is on using these positions to build struggles outside the panchayat.
There was a strong emphasis at the congress on involving more women members and developing more women leaders of the party. The CPI-ML played a leading role in the campaign against rape culture, broadening out the demands of the movement against marital rape, against army and police rapes, against sexist culture and for the police to treat reports of sexual assault seriously.
The congress ended with a big rally of about 20,000 people in Ranchi. It was a rousing call for people's resistance to pro-corporate policies.
[Sue Bolton represented the Socialist Alliance at the CPI-ML congress.]