Modi government’s assault on India’s Muslims and workers ignites massive women-led resistance

Students are among the millions resisting the Citizenship Amendment Act. Photo from Public Radio International.
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On February 25, the U.S. President dined with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was Trump’s first official visit to India. That day, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, Trump opened the world’s largest cricket ground. He described Modi as “a true friend” and India as “a democratic, peaceful country,” “an example to every nation in the world.” His 125,000 strong audience cheered back, “Long live India-U.S. friendship!”

Meanwhile, in Delhi’s working class northeast, a massacre was unfolding. Armed Hindus were beating and shooting Muslims. Mosques, cars, homes and shops went up in flames. Muslims were burned alive or dragged out and lynched. More than 40 were killed and 200 injured.

The Hindu attackers were members of, or egged on by, Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Hindu mob was actively assisted by the police and knew the courts would also protect them.

This violence was not new, and Delhi’s Muslims prepared their self-defence. Since the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947, Hindu-Muslim conflict has been ongoing, but Hindu terror has escalated since Modi’s election in 2014. According to The Quint, an Indian news site, there have been 113 mob-instigated murders of Muslims since 2015. 

Muslim women participate in a rally to protest against the new citizenship law, 16 February 2020. Photo by Anupam Nath.

Modi’s communal “cleansing.” In India, “communal” signifies religious-based division and is a legacy of British imperial rule. Nearly 80 percent of the population is Hindu, 14 percent Muslim and less than six percent of Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and others combined. India is constitutionally a “secular democracy,” meaning that all religions are equal before the law. 

But in December 2019, Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The legislation amends the Citizenship Act 1955, which prohibits immigrants without a valid passport or travel documents from becoming citizens. Immigrants deemed illegal are imprisoned or deported. The Act was amended to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities — specifically Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian — who entered India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 31 December 2014. Muslims are excluded

The BJP claims the CAA was motivated by concern for persecuted minorities. But a deeper look reveals this as a fraud. 

In August 2019, the Modi government revoked the statehood of Kashmir and Jammu. Autonomy had been the condition for this region — India’s only Muslim-majority state — becoming part of India in the partition. Today, seven million people remain under military occupation and isolated by the shutdown of internet and phone lines. Still, reports filter through of night raids, beatings, teenagers shot and children disappeared. This terror comes on the heels of three decades of war that has killed 70,000 Kashmiris.

Last year, the government stripped citizenship from nearly two million people living in Assam. In India’s east, it has a long, kaleidoscopic history of shifting boundaries and tensions between communities. Assam is also the prime entry point for undocumented immigrants into India. Throughout Britain’s rule, Bengali-speaking Hindus monopolised the prestigious positions in its administration and government. Soon after India won independence, Assamese nationalists demanded a national register to launch a mass deportation of Bengali “infiltrators.” In 2013/14 the Indian government instituted the National Register of Citizens (NRC) specifically for Assam to identify people without papers — and most people in Assam supported it. By August 2019, the NRC found 1.9 million people without the required “legacy documents” — 1.3 million of them are Hindus. 

The result gave no one what they hoped for, especially the BJP. Despite the excessive burden on individuals to produce documents proving their heritage and on the legal system to deal with the mess, the Modi government announced the NRC would become national. The BJP designed the CAA to ensure that only Muslims would be deprived of citizenship. For women, the Act is especially onerous: When they marry, they move from their parental homes to their husband’s, changing not only their names but their cities.

Arundhati Roy, renowned Indian feminist, author and activist, says the real purpose of the NRC and CAA “is to threaten, destabilise and stigmatise the Indian Muslim community, particularly the poorest…It is meant to formalise an unequal, tiered society…— a modern caste system, which will exist alongside the ancient one, in which Muslims are the new Dalits [India’s most oppressed caste, formerly known as “untouchables”].” Millions of Indians will become stateless.

Sound of approaching goosesteps. The BJP is the political wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fascist paramilitary organisation founded in 1925 by KB Hedgewar, an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler. Hinduism as the master culture of India is the cornerstone of its program. This “blood and soil” nationalism claims the entitlement of Hindus to rule over all of India’s minorities. In fascist ideology, a nation must safeguard its purity and culture through a crushing regime of discipline. The RSS denounces Muslims as a toxic disease, the way Nazis scapegoated Germany’s Jews. It targets Muslims, using the CAA and NRC, because they are the largest minority. But other minorities could be next.

Modi, the son of a tea seller and member of the low-ranking Ghanchi caste, joined the RSS when he was eight years old. Three decades later, after rising in its ranks, he joined the BJP. His political career rose from the ashes of the infamous Gujarat atrocity of 2002. Up to 2,000 Muslims were killed and 200,000 displaced. The Gujarat state government and police participated in the carnage, and Modi was Chief Minister. 

The RSS has implanted itself in critical arenas of Indian society, running schools and administering hospitals across the country. It is rewriting textbooks to erase Islamic history. It boasts of having an armed militia of 600,000, the second largest network of trade unions and the largest networks of farmer organisations and social welfare operations in India’s slums. It recently announced a training school for young officers in the armed forces. 

Modi has dismantled India’s mainstream media, sacking journalists and editors and closing down entire news outlets. In their place are far-right news channels and a new breed of anchors whose job is to spew nationalistic propaganda 24/7.  

Understanding BJP’s electoral ascendancy. The BJP was re-elected in 2019, making it the second party in India to form consecutive governments. The other is the Indian National Congress (Congress), in power for most of India’s 73 years of independence. Popular support for the parties that dominated parliamentary politics since 1947 practically collapsed: Congress won only 54 seats and the two communist parties combined, only five. 

Modi’s 2014 election campaign centred on the slogan, “development and progress,” general dissatisfaction with corruption and Congress’s inability to deal with economic crises. In 2019, BJP switched its rhetoric to far-right nationalist jingoism and anti-Pakistan war mongering. 

The mainstream media attributes the landslide win to Modi’s “charisma,” while reports from more independent sources, such as The Quint, point to various forms of electoral fraud. But there are far more substantial factors underpinning BJP’s success. 

When the RSS formed, India had a burgeoning and contradictory nationalist movement against the British Raj. India’s well-to-do formed the Hindu-dominated Congress in 1885 with a purpose to collaborate with its imperialist ruler for more autonomy and reform. From World War I, Congress led India’s mass movement for independence, based on cooperation with British capitalism. From the 1920s, the families of Mahatma Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru dominated the party and, since independence, governed India.

The Communist Party of India (CPI), which later split into two parties, formed in 1925 — the same year as the RSS — and followed the Stalinist program of “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism and the class collaborationist “Popular Front.” In the 1940s, under Moscow’s instructions, the CPI took sides with Britain’s war effort, alienating itself from the Congress-led Quit India movement. The CPI has since vacillated in its orientation toward the bourgeois Congress, flip-flopping between denouncing it and joining it. Buried in electoralism, Communists governed the states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura for decades and, in the 1990s, ruled with a neoliberal fist. Betrayal of their working class base led the CPI and its offshoot to their electoral collapse.

In 1939, Leon Trotsky wrote his Open Letter to the Workers of India. Denouncing the roles of Congress and the CPI, he stated that a revolutionary party, based on the most conscious of the working class, was needed to defeat the enemy at home: the British imperialist. “The basic conditions for this party,” he said, “are: complete independence from imperialist democracy, complete independence from the [Stalinist] Second and Third Internationals and complete independence from the national Indian bourgeoisie.” 

Capital needs a lifeline. When Trump heaped praise on Modi — as BJP was massacring Muslims close by — he was speaking for desperate capitalists seeking rescue in this sinking economy. Modi is backed by corporate tycoons attracted to his vision of surpassing China in manufacturing investment and an unfettered market to achieve this. Scott Morrison is in this circle. Modi and he also share a close relationship with coal and shipping magnate, Gautam Adani. 

Modi’s promise to investors includes massive cuts in corporate taxes, less restrictive rules on foreign investment and the biggest privatisation drive in a decade. 

Blaming a 35% increase in labour costs on India’s industrial laws, the business world is also excited by Modi’s planned overhaul of the labour codes, expected to be passed in Parliament this year. The changes will enable large employers to carry out mass sackings. Stricter control of strikes will exact steep fines and imprisonment for illegal strike action. Bosses will be able to hire interstate workers as apprentices on wages 70-90% of the minimum wage, with no medical insurance. Fixed term contracts, of any duration to suit the employer’s needs, will make many workers easily expendable without notification periods or obligatory payouts.

What’s good for investors is hell for workers. By 2018, 11 million jobs disappeared, massively swelling India’s unemployment. Inflation outstrips wages, with many workers earning no more than Rs 12,000 per month (about $AUD 265), working 12-hour shifts. For those in the informal sectors, the government’s changes to social security will potentially undermine many hard-won benefits. 

It will get worse: the International Monetary Fund recently instructed the Modi government to take steps to reverse a serious slowdown in investment, profits and tax revenues, imports and exports, industrial output and credit — the worst in over a decade.

Rising tide of resistance. These anticipated laws have mobilised millions of workers in a series of general strikes, organised by the Central Trade Union Organisations (CTUO) which represents 10 peak unions. On 8 January 2020, the numbers reached 250 million — the largest strike ever — melding resistance against the Modi regime’s assaults on Muslims and the entire working class. By early January, India was already ablaze with protest against the CAA and NRC. The general strike brought out, not only the informal sector — construction workers, street vendors, domestic and home-based workers, auto-rickshaw and agricultural workers — but also students and impoverished farmers. Students from two of India’s prominent Muslim universities, who had been terrorised by Hindu nationalists, tear-gassed by police and forcibly expelled from their hostels, joined the strike.

For 24 hours, India’s banking and financial sectors shut down. Schools closed. Striking workers in the public and utility services, construction, agricultural, plantation and other vital sectors stopped trains and blocked roads.

Among the strike demands for a minimum wage, the quashing of anti-labour measures, an increase in pensions, and an end to the privatisation of the public sector was the withdrawal of the CAA and NRC.

This courageous mobilisation of workers and communities gets its dynamism from the grassroots. Movements against the CAA and labour legislation are joined by those of indigenous peoples against dispossession, Dalits against the caste system, and rural labourers. Muslim women are leading protest against the CAA and NRC, making links to oppression under British rule and the present fascist threat.  

The sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, in south Delhi, has become a symbol of a national movement, led by women. Starting with five protesters on 14 December, it ballooned to 150,00 by January. As of mid-March, with gatherings of 50+ banned because of the caronavirus, the women are defying the Delhi government’s order to disband. 

Their slogans reflect the unfinished historical struggle by Dalit, indigenous and Muslim women: “During the anti-colonial struggle we fought English rule, and now we are fighting against the present ruling thieves.” Another is: “You divide, we multiply.”

Although capable of mobilising millions of workers, India’s bureaucratised and divided union movement is tied to a corrosive social democratic framework. A hopeful sign is MASA (Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Samelan), formed in 2016 to build union militancy. It is critical of the parliamentary Left in the labour movement, which ignores informal workers, who are 81 percent of India’s workforce, and has abandoned poor peasants in favour of large landed interests. MASA criticises union tops for neglecting struggles against caste, gender and ethnic-based oppression. It comprises 14 trade unions and workers’ organisations. One is the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions, which in 2016 organised Dalit sanitation workers in a 36-day strike that won 6,000 secure public sector sanitation jobs with employment benefits and safety gear. Another is the Forum for IT Employees, which fought mass layoffs. MASA blames the union movement’s weakness on its class collaborationist policy and its focus on legality. 

Heading toward a showdown. With the global economy disintegrating, big capital’s worst nightmare is the system’s total collapse and workers’ revolt. Modi is part of an increasingly aggressive far right worldwide. He is also part of a fascist movement working to entrench itself in India. Capitalists will back this if they see revolt rising. Facing this are India’s oppressed and exploited, who join a growing global upsurge of resistance, from Mexico and Latin America to the Middle East and Africa. And these front lines bear a striking resemblance: determined women leaders!

Trotsky’s exhortation to India’s workers to build a revolutionary party, capable of harnessing this vital energy and channeling it toward taking power, still rings true. This would defeat Modi and his imperialist backers. It would uplift struggles throughout the world, with the potential of linking them into an invincible international revolutionary movement. We don’t have another lifetime to wait.  

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