//India Independent: Economics, Politics and Culture

India Independent: Economics, Politics and Culture

2007 is a year of many commemorations for India – it is celebrating 150 years since 1857 and 60 years of its independence. However, both 1857 and 1947 need to be taken off the pedestal of mere landmarks in the history of the Indian nation and revisited for their significance in the Indian people's struggle against imperialism and colonialism. Recognising this significance of 2007 as an important milestone in the nation's history, Social Scientist in association with SAHMAT organised a three day conference between February 22 – 24, 2007 titled 'India Independent: Economics, Politics and Culture'.

The aim of the conference was to examine aspects of India’s struggle for political freedom, the strengths and weaknesses of the post-Independence nation-state, the post-independence outcomes in terms of economic, political and social development prior to and especially after the 1990s, and to define the challenges facing India as a sovereign nation. Spanning three days, the conference saw intense debates on the growing imperialist intervention in the Indian polity, prevailing political challenges, the different trajectories of development, issues of nationalism, communalism and the resistance to these.

The immediate context of the debates within the seminar was set by the developments in India in the light of the general elections of 2004. The Seminar highlighted the fact that while the defeat of the NDA and the formation of the UPA government was a significant break in the politics of our country, the three years of UPA rule have also seen a large degree of continuity with the policies of the earlier government and in the assaults from multiple sources on the lives and livelihoods of the Indian people and the secular and democratic character of the republic.

Sovereignty: The discussion on the issue of sovereignty of the modern Indian republic was taken up mainly by Prof Aijaz Ahmad and Sitaram Yechury. In the early years of the Indian republic, structures were established to bolster the newly won independence – a secular and democratic constitution set on pillars of federalism, economic self-reliance, pursuit of non-alignment, goals of intellectual self reliance, encouragement to technological independence etc. However, there is a significant shift today in the character of the Indian ruling classes which show an increasing tendency of forming an alliance with the neo-colonial forces and of collaboration with imperialism. This is reflected in the striking continuities between the pro-imperialist policies of the NDA and those of the Congress-led government.

Rather than trying to work for a multipolar world and forming alliances with other developing countries, the Congress-led government has taken a deliberate decision to become a junior partner of US imperialism. This is reflected in the increasing military and strategic ties with the US pursued by this government and its stand on issues like the Indo-US nuclear treaty and the vote on Iran in the IAEA. There is a process of the co-option of the personnel of the state by imperialist forces and even organs of the state such as the armed forces which had hitherto been relatively independent of imperialist influence are being penetrated by imperialism. The subservience to imperialist interests has taken away India's ability to strike a broad range of alliances to serve national interests. The penetration of imperialism is such that even our vocabulary on issues like communalism is borrowed from them. Hence, the wide use of the term 'terrorists', in the context of Muslims and Muslims alone. The subservience to imperialism has pervaded all spheres of the Indian polity and is resulting in an erosion of the very structures which formed the basis of our independent republic.

Economic Policy: There is a duality of Indias today. On the one hand, there is the shining India and on the other a suffering India. The discussion on the economic issues stressed the exclusivist character of the pattern of economic development in the country. While the government claims success for its policies on the basis of the high growth rates of the past few years, the fact on the ground remains that this growth is skewed, accompanied by rising inequality and completely bypasses the agricultural sector on which a majority of Indians are still dependent.

The UPA government, despite some measures like the NREGA, is on the whole committed to the pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies. In her presentation, Prof. Utsa Patnaik pointed out how the agricultural crisis brought on by cuts in government investment and organised credit and the fall in the prices of primary commodities continues to levy a huge toll of immiserisation on the peasantry. While the proportion of the population dependent on agriculture remains more-or-less the same, agriculture's share in GDP has been sharply falling, creating a situation where 60 percent of the population contributes only 21 percent of the GDP. Agrarian depression and income crisis is not addressed by government policy, indebtedness continues to drive large segments of the poorer peasantry into landlessness, and the food security situation has become even more alarming.

Prof. C.P. Chandrashekhar's presentation on the linkages between the agricultural sector and the rest of the Indian economy discussed how the high income inequalities in the sectors of the economy which are growing rapidly, particularly the services sector, means that the effects of this growth do not 'trickle-down' to the agricultural sector and conversely that the ongoing agricultural crisis does not pose any obstacle to this unequal growth trajectory. Moreover, as Prof. Prabhat Patnaik argued, there are good theoretical reasons why an economy whose integration into the imperialist economic order does not allow it to follow an independent technological trajectory must be condemned to increasing unemployment even if it enjoys high growth.

Prof. Jayati Ghosh argued that the failures in the economy take the form of absence of food security for a significant proportion of the population; the inability to ensure basic needs of housing, sanitation, adequate health care to the population as a whole; the continuing inability to ensure universal education; the sluggish enlargement of access to education and employment across different social groups and women in particular. In addition there are problems caused by the very pattern of growth: aggravated regional imbalances; greater inequalities in the control over assets and in access to incomes; dispossession and displacement without adequate compensation and rehabilitation. The pattern of economic development has become exclusivist in character and it goes hand in hand with the emergence of a more centralised and authoritarian polity.

The discussion on the neo-colonial policies was preceded by a discussion by Professors Amiya Bagchi, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Irfan Habib on colonial economy. Professor Amiya Bagchi contested the arguments of the neo-colonial historians, who according to him are sheltered by neo liberal economists, to argue that the colonial economy was marked by a regression, fall in agricultural productivity and demographic stagnation in the 19th century. Prof Sabyasachi Bhattacharya in his presentation examined the debates centred on poverty and Poor Laws in 18th – 19th century England and Famine Codes of the colonial state in 19th century India. It is ironical that the definitions set by the colonial state in its approach to famines find a contemporary resonance in the way poverty alleviating measures are discussed. Prof Irfan Habib examined the practical conditions and debates which determined the directions that the National movement for independence took.

The threat posed by the internalisation of the neo-liberal ideology by the different organs of the state, particularly the higher judiciary, was also discussed b
y the conference.

Secularism: While the attacks on secular fabric of India were a central concern for the participants in the seminar, this focus was put by Teesta Setalvad and Prof Zoya Hasan. Though the 2004 general elections saw the NDA defeated, this defeat was not a reflection of any sharp reduction in the vote share of the BJP. Since then the BJP has been able to come to power in Bihar and is part of a government in Karnataka—the first time that the BJP has been part of the government in a southern state. Moreover, the penetration of the state apparatus by communal personnel and ideology has not been reversed and as a result even where the BJP is not in power the bureaucracy and the internal security apparatus exhibits a communal outlook and Muslims continue to live in an environment of terror and insecurity.

The threat of communalism is potent not just because of its divisive character. The operation of the communal agenda is also about the attack on fundamental rights, freedom, security and the democratic character of our polity. The agenda, again, is exclusivist in character, leaving out of its ambit the tribals, dalits, women, minorities, and the poor. Part of the agenda is the denial of access to resources, employment and opportunities for self-improvement to the minority communities and targeted violence and a creation of hysteria against them. Even though it is out of power at the centre, the ideology of the Sangh Parivar continues to erode the fundamental structures of the modern Indian republic.

While the Congress is not programmatically committed to communalism, it is comfortable with a state apparatus which has been deeply communalised and shows a reluctance to take on the communal infiltration of administrative structures, educational institutions and curricula, intelligence agencies etc.

The Sachar committee report has brought out the extreme deprivations faced by the Muslims over the last 60 years. The discrimination faced by the Muslim community is both at the level of institutional discrimination as well as discrimination at the level of policy. While deprivation of different social groups like SC, STs, OBCs have sought to be addressed at the level of policy making, allocation of funds, specific measures, schemes were not undertaken to address the deprivation within the Muslims. Institutional discrimination has meant an exclusion of Muslims from other categories of deprivation like the SC or OBC and the failure to take affirmative action in terms of education, political representation, employment etc. While the tabling of Sachar committee report in itself is a positive step, the report highlights the problems but offers no solutions. Affirmative action is required to alleviate the position of Muslims in society.

Federalism: While the Indian constitution itself provides for only some federal features rather than a thoroughly federal state, the recent period has seen a further erosion of the federal character of our polity. On one hand, the limited resources available to state governments have further been squeezed by neo-liberal policies and the trend of making transfer of resources to state governments conditional on their adoption of neo-liberal policies. At the same time, the central policy of encouraging competition between the states for resources and private investment has also restricted the possibilities of united action by the states on the issues like federalism, centre-state relations and economic policies. This has been compounded by the change in the character of the regional parties themselves, with their social support bases in the regional bourgeoisie and landlords now desiring a greater integration into the process of neo-liberal globalisation. The conference also discussed the demands for imposition of Article 356 in UP by certain sections of the Congress as another example of both its disregard for the federal principle as well as its underestimation of the communal threat.

Culture: The discussion on National Culture vs. Cultural Nationalism involved both cultural activists as well as critics. Sadanand Menon, Prasanna, Kumar Sahani, Geeta Kapur, Ram Rehman and MK Raina formed the discussants on the issue. The cultural activists and critics who spoke at the seminar were overwhelming in their consensus that culture is politics. Since the independence struggle, culture has been an area of activism against imperialism, an articulation of the aspirations of the people. In the current situation, this is the role that needs to be resurrected. The need is to recreate the track of resistance, the reinvention of tradition. During the freedom struggle and in the early decades of independence, cultural movements like Progressive Writers' Association, Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) reflected the people's aspirations, responded to the creativity of the people, articulated social protest and became a medium of mobilisation in struggles. The vibrancy of the cultural movement and its concurrence with the post-independence Indian state also saw the establishment of a large number of institutions – the academies, museums, theatres, libraries, institutes etc.

Over the last few decades, these institutions have also been the focus of attack from communal, fundamentalist forces. The impact of imperialism is felt in the sphere of culture – from the withdrawal of the state as a source of patronage to a redefinition of 'culture' and 'Indian culture' in ways that negate the legacy of the freedom struggle.

It is in the field of culture that one can see the most visible concurrence of the imperialist and communal agenda – the desire to create a homogeneous cultural identity. For the imperialist forces this would take the shape of a homogeneous market and for the communal forces a monolithic identity.

Today, the field of culture is being laid open to the operation of market forces. There is an abdication by the state of its role of promoting the arts and culture. The academies and institutes set up after independence face both a lack of material infrastructure as well as an absence of creative vibrancy. Cultural activists are being asked to turn to the private sector for sponsorships. As a result, if a cultural form or expression is not commercially viable, it is also not visible.

Today more than before, cultural activists are subjected to victimisation, gagged in the name of morality, sentiments of different religious communities, decency etc. Litigation, attacks on theatre performances, exhibitions, art galleries, burning of books – the cultural activists are sought to be muzzled by violence.

The two examples that demonstrate this – the Dramatic Performance Act (instituted by the British in 1876 in response to Neel Darpan), which requires prior police permission for the exhibition of a play, is being used to prevent the staging of a number of plays across the country. The prosecution of MF Hussain, who has been under a consistent attack by the reactionary right for a long time, also shows both the extent to which communalism has become ingrained in our state structures and the failure of the Congress to stand up against communal campaigns. These draconian measures which are an attack on fundamental right to the freedom of expression must be consistently opposed.

However, within the field of culture there are dichotomies. The people in the villages, fighting for their language or even religion are also fighting for their culture. These local forms have to be accommodated in the discourses in culture. The people's movement needs to use culture as a weapon. Even though the culture of resistance may not be high art or sophisticated as a means of expression, it still has to be respected for the protest it embodies.

As the global capital becomes all pervasive, cultural activists also need to find a global language and form of protest.

Media: The discussion on Media of the Public Sphere v
s. the Media of the Market Place involved Sashi Kumar, Siddharth Vardarajan, Rammanohar Reddy, Sohini Ghosh, Manini Chatterjee and Sukumar Muralidharan. The 1990s have seen a sharp change in the character of the Indian media. The earlier equation of a state controlled television, radio and independent newspapers no longer binds the media. The entry of cable TV, a large number of private channels, technological advances, the shift from the analogue to the digital are linked to a change in both the economy and the scale of the media. These changes in the character of the media cannot be understood unless placed in the context of the neo-liberal economic policies.

The media now neither claims nor fulfils the role of the Fourth Estate. It has become an industry, with news as the commodity to be produced and consumed. The media has undergone a process of corporatisation and its main aim now is greater profitability. The circulation or the reach among the people now provides only a negligible part of media income–the bulk is made up by advertising revenues.

Far from occupying the role of watchdog of democracy, the media propagates an undemocratic perspective – reflected in a demonisation of both politicians and politics, focus on glamour and infotainment, the projection of the 'page 3' life as an aspirational revolution — at the cost of the real issues of the people.

The echelons of the media remain very much the domain of the privileged classes and caste. There has been a shift in the sensibility of the media which reflects a growing distance between the middle class and the rest of the country. The distance was clearly visible in the media coverage of the General Elections of the 2004, where the media was complicit in the NDA campaign of 'India Shining' and failed to gauge the resentment among the people.

The positive development has been that the media is finally able to establish a distance from the political establishment. However, it is unable to maintain a similar distance from the corporate establishment.

The way forward in the current situation is the emergence of a critical audience which would force the media houses to revise the contents of their coverage and a revival of the Public Service Broadcasting.


Seeking to understand the deeper social processes underlying these multiple attacks, the conference considered a number of factors. One of these was the inability of the bourgeoisie to complete the tasks of democratic transformation because of its historic compromise with feudalism. But it was pointed out that this cannot be a complete explanation because countries like China which had completed a thoroughgoing anti-feudal democratic transformation were also experiencing the inroads of neo-liberalism. Hence, there was also a need to understand the mechanisms through which imperialism exercised its ideological hegemony.

Note was also taken of the increasing size and strength of the middle-classes because of the process of unequal growth and the moral dissociation of this middle-class with the poor and its desire to emulate the lifestyles of the North. This transformation in the sensibilities of the middle classes, along with the greater corporatisation of the media, was seen as an important cause of the shrinking for the public space for dissent against neo-liberalism.


Prakash Karat maintained that the experience of the three years of the UPA government, particularly its complete commitment to neo-liberal policies, vindicated the Left's decision of not joining the government. Rather, by learning self-critically from the experience of the United Front government, the Left had this time succeeded in effectively expressing its opposition to the policies of the government within and outside parliament. This has to a large extent denied the BJP-RSS an opportunity so far to cash in on the resentment against the government's policies. Through its pressure the Left was able to ensure some measures of relief such as defeating the attempts to dilute the NREGA, blocking all pro-liberalisation economic legislations, stopping the process of disinvestment and ensuring that the government modify its completely pro-US position on the Iran issue.

But the conference also noted the severe constraints imposed on the Left by the possibility of the BJP's coming back to power were the UPA government to fall and the use made by the Congress of this constraint to deny the demands of the Left. Given the current political situation, particularly the vacillation and opportunism of the regional parties, it was felt that the only way out of this situation was through an increase in the independent strength of the Left. At the level of strategy the most important task was the better integration of the struggles against imperialism and neo-liberal policies with the struggles for social emancipation. There was also a need to wage intense ideological struggles against tendencies of the Left being co-opted, a danger that has only become more serious in this period of imperialist domination. Cultural activists stressed on the need for the Left to adopt creative forms of cultural expression and modes of organisation to fight the cultural onslaught of the RSS-BJP.

(Report prepared by Dhanjay, Santanu, Manjur, Sourindra and Anubhuti)

SOCIAL SCIENTIST & SAHMAT SEMINAR, People's Democracy, March 4, 2007