India: Hindu fundamentalist becomes opposition PM candidate/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 235 October/November 2013

This September the Hindu fundamentalist opposition party in India, BJP, declared its prime ministerial candidate to be Narendra Modi, three times elected controversial chief minister of Gujarat state. This decision was egged on by millions of grassroots BJP workers enthused by Modi, as well as Hindu nationalists and youths who look to Modi as both a bulwark of Hindu nationalism and an icon of ‘development’. This elevation of Modi ahead of next year’s general election bodes ill for India and for the entire region.

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Delhi gang rape triggers mass protests across India /FRFI 231 Feb/Mar 2013

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 231 February-March 2013

On 16 December 2012, a 23-year-old female medical student was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi and died on 29 December as a result of the appalling injuries she received. As the news of the brutal rape became public, there was widespread outrage in New Delhi and elsewhere. On 21 December a huge public protest took place at India Gate, a prominent landmark in the city. Protesters marched also to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the Indian president. There were clashes with the police in Jantar Mantar and other Delhi locations. The police attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, water cannon and lathi (sticks), injuring and arresting many of them.

The police alleged that the initially peaceful protest had been hijacked by anti-social elements. The Home Minister equated the protesters with Maoists. During one protest, a policeman collapsed and died despite receiving help from some of the protesters. The police promptly blamed his death on the demonstrators, and brought murder charges against eight of them, trying to use the incident to discredit the movement.

Afraid of the protests spiralling out of control over the Christmas and New Year period, the Delhi police closed off many metro stations in Delhi for over a week and restricted travel around the India Gate area. A law prohibiting gatherings of more than four people was also imposed. When it became known the rape victim had died, there was another round of protests in spite of the police blocking many of the areas. Protests also took place in other major Indian cities including Calcutta, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

In response to the widespread outrage, tougher legislation against rapists was brought into parliament and, amongst other measures, a helpline for women was set up – although activists complained it did not work most of the time.

Such widespread protests over a rape issue are unprecedented in India. Most of the Delhi protests were spontaneous; some were planned through social media like Facebook. For many this was the first time they were out on the streets protesting, since the middle class and students in India are generally apathetic about politics. Most were arguing for increased safety for women and a greater police presence on the streets. Many were demanding the death penalty or castration for the accused, presenting the incident as a law and order problem and calling for strengthening the arm of the state rather than raising awareness of the patriarchal attitudes that allow such rapes to happen in the first place.

Though the protesters were mostly students, members and sympathisers of the right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP and figures like the former army chief of staff joined in, trying to make political capital against the ruling Congress Party. Many politicians and public figures made reactionary statements. Some called female activists ‘tainted and painted’, others presented Western lifestyles as opposed to traditional Indian values as a cause of the rape or advised women not to go out at night or to wear revealing dresses. Yet more blamed increased migration and poor, low caste people as the problem.

Figures show that a rape is reported on average every 18 hours in Delhi. The very low conviction rate in rape cases and the intrusive police questioning which makes women reluctant to report assaults in the first place, mean the real figure is much higher. To that extent a better implementation of existing laws could be useful.

However, the issues behind rape are deeper than this. Many of the perpetrators are arms of the state such as the police or army and the victims are people in areas like Kashmir, North East or alleged Maoist tribal peoples. One example is the Soni Sori case where a tribal human rights activist was sexually assaulted by police in Chattisgarh. Mostly these assaults go unreported and unpunished. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, this is also the case with rapes of Dalit or lower caste women in villages.

The mass media and Bollywood are all culpable in commodifying women and making sexual harassment, euphemistically termed ‘eve teasing’, socially acceptable. Traditional feudal attitudes, which consider a woman as under the ‘protection’ of her father or husband or son, are also responsible. Challenging women’s oppression will be central to building a revolutionary movement in India.

Joy Bose                             

Indian government pushes on with austerity measures – Dec 2012

In late November 2012 the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh made a speech defending his government's recent cuts in subsidies that benefit poor people (such as the price of kerosene and the number of subsidised cylinders each family was allowed to have) and the decision to allow majority foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail. Ending the ban on foreign multinational companies like Walmart taking a majority stake in any Indian retail company will allow such companies to start undercutting their suppliers and competitors using huge investments from abroad. With interest rates in India typically much higher than in developed countries like the UK, multinationals can get cheaper loans than their Indian competitors. This will be a threat to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of small Indian shopkeepers and retailers.

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Indian farmers commit suicide in GM wasteland /FRFI 226 April/May 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012

In the last ten years 200,000 farmers have committed suicide across India. Last year alone, 800 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Maharashtra killed themselves. Some estimate that in India a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes. This horrifying trend, the largest suicide wave ever recorded, is a result of the desperate and growing poverty amongst India’s poor, which is happening regardless of – or arguably because of – the much-vaunted growth of the country’s economy.

Coverage by popular media cites vague and generic reasons for these suicides, such as ‘poverty’, ‘debt’ and ‘pest attacks’. What few point out, however, is the fact that these are a direct result of the biotechnology industry’s exploitation of India: over the last decade the country has been used as a massive testing ground for GM crops. One example is ‘Bt cotton’, manufactured by US corporation Monsanto and approved for commercial distribution in India in 2002.

Bt cotton – GM genocide

Between 2005-2007 there was a massive drive by Monsanto, together with the Indian government, to get farmers in India to plant Bt cotton instead of natural seeds. Farmers were promised that if they used Bt cotton seeds, they would see an unprecedented increase in yield. Not only this, but they were assured that the GM seeds were pest-proof, so there would be no need to purchase expensive pesticides.

Farmers were not told however that the crops would need more water than non-GM crops – and this did not stop Monsanto from selling the seeds to farmers in arid lands. In other areas, declining rain levels year on year have resulted in crops failing. The supposedly pest-resistant seeds have produced crops riddled with the pest that blights cotton-growers everywhere: the American Bollworm – in fact, pests never seen before have been discovered in the Bt cotton crops, and they have all developed a tolerance to its pest-resistant gene. Farmers are having to buy insecticide after all – from the very same Monsanto.

Another problem is that over several seasons, GM crops ruin the soil – and if they are planted for several successive years, can render it permanently infertile, preventing farmers from ever returning to growing cotton from natural seeds. Further, the seeds are made with ‘terminator technology’; they cannot reproduce and die after one season. Thus farmers are not able to harvest seeds for planting the following season, and have to buy new seeds from Monsanto every year.

The GM seeds cost up to 1,000% more than ordinary seeds, and although many farmers saw an initial boost in their yield, very quickly their crops began to fail for the reasons outlined above. Because the seeds are so expensive, small farmers are forced to borrow money to buy them, usually from local banks or money-lenders. The loans are prohibitively expensive and when the crops fail, farmers and their families find themselves at the mercy of money-lenders.

So, when farmers cannot harvest any cotton, and cannot repay their loans, they are swallowing the very insecticide that they have been promised they won’t need, dying an agonising death and leaving their families bereft. This problem is not new, and the fact that suicides are attributed to GM crops (and suicides are much more prevalent amongst cotton farmers than any others) has been known for the last five years at least. Of course, Monsanto denies any responsibility for the crisis and the Indian government, fast friend of imperialism, allows the corporation to continue to sell their seeds. In fact, it has been reported that non-GM cotton seeds have been banned from government seed banks, leaving farmers with no option but to purchase Bt cotton seeds every year.

This carries on despite the fact that over the last few years there have been big protests and rallies and seed-distributors have even been taken hostage. Many farmers have addressed their suicide notes to the government to make their reasons for killing themselves clear.

The G-word

Much is made of the fact that India’s economy is growing, and that in the last ten years it has become the world’s second largest producer of cotton after China. But what does this ‘growth’ mean for the majority of Indians?

It means only that more people are faced with grinding poverty than ever before, as the various mining, agricultural, finance and other corporations suck what they can from the land and the people. India is home to the world’s largest number of starving people, and some experts estimate that up to a staggering 87% of people in rural areas, and 65% in urban areas, live in poverty. The fact is that GDP does not measure the spread of wealth, nor people’s access to basic human necessities such as housing, food, health care and education.

Neeva Shanti

India: What’s in a name? / FRFI 215 Jun/Jul 2010

FRFI 215 June/July 2010

The demand for political prisoner status

On 11 April 2010, 469 inmates in Alipore Central Jail in Kolkotta (Calcutta) in West Bengal went on hunger strike, demanding recognition as political prisoners. The previous April, two prisoners in the district of Cooch Behar went on a fast to demand political status. On 14 September 2009 an unspecified number of inmates in Nagpur, the second capital of the state of Maharashtra in western India, went on a one-day hunger strike to demand political prisoner status.

What’s in a name? One might ask. It is one thing to ask for fair trial, injunctions against torture and such, but why this insistence on labels – ‘P’ for political, ‘C’ for criminal? Political status does not automatically lead to any special privileges or concessions other than the things civil liberties groups demand for all prisoners: fair and expeditious trial, humane treatment, prohibition of physical and sexual torture, and an end to graft. Yet the very resilience of this demand for categorisation indicates its importance for the civil liberties and democratic rights movements in India today.

In the first place, categorisation helps to count how many people are in jails for political reasons. A simple head count of ‘P’ category prisoners will deconstruct Indian democracy in ways that academic or legal analysis of security laws, or dissertations on Indian democracy cannot do. The trade unionists, the indigenous people opposed to forced sale of lands to corporations, the villagers opposed to chemical or nuclear plants in their village, the women protesting against rape by soldiers or army occupation, Muslims, Kashmiris, Nagas, Mizos, Assamese and other religious and ethnic minorities demanding cultural and social freedoms, slum dwellers protesting against demolitions or forced evacuations, the list could go on, but all of these would count as ‘P’ class. That would reveal the authoritarian and repressive character of the Indian state and the true face of Indian democracy. The CRPP estimates that in the Indian-occupied state of Kashmir alone 75,000 people were detained for political reasons. It is virtually impossible for civil liberty groups to count political prisoners where access is strictly controlled. After the Kolkotta hunger strike this April, the Inspector General of Prisoners announced he would stop interviews of all prisoners (Indian Express 11 April 2010).

Without such categorisation, the state tars all opposition with the same ‘criminal’ brush. Two consequences follow. First, politics is criminalised, circumscribing democracy to an elite group, the beneficiaries of the system. Criminalisation of politics makes it possible for the Indian state to sanitise democracy for the national and global elite. Second, it delegitimises those struggling for justice in the eyes of the wider society. The concerns they raise about society: the conditions of workers, slum dwellers, indigenous peoples, democratic rights, effects of WTO policies, political corruption and so on become marginalised. Moreover, it creates a rift between those adversely affected by state policies and those who might, potentially, sympathise with the demands for justice.

There is in India today an internal schism. What kind of society should India be and what does democracy mean in a divided society where half the population is undernourished, and vast numbers of the other half are integrated into the global elite of academics, intellectuals, professionals and business people? According to Planning Commission figures published last year 37.7% of the population suffer from chronic malnutrition and 49.9% from undernourishment.

This schism is sustained by the very architecture of India’s laws and institutions constructed assiduously since colonial times. One set of repressive laws for those opposed to the state and another set of democratic laws for those supporting it span the post-independence era. India adopted its republican constitution in January 1950 and enacted the Preventive Detention Act 1950; Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, Maintenance of Internal Security (MISA) 1971; National Security Act (NSA) 1980; Terrorist and Disruptive Practices Act (TADA) 1985; Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA) 2002, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 2009 and other state statutes interspersed with numerous special ordinances in between. These laws are used routinely to arrest striking workers, political opponents, the poor, and other sections of the population for demanding justice. On the other hand a multiparty democracy and judiciary allows freedoms for those supportive of the state’s approach to the economy and society. The ‘P’ label will lay bare the schism. It will make apparent the scale and scope of exceptional national security and anti-terrorism laws, and the exclusive and limited reach of regular democratic procedures.

What’s in a name? A great deal indeed!

Radha D’Souza