AS a Dalit student from Maharashtra who became a Buddhist, my friend Chandan Kamble was curiously sceptical of Marxism. My Marxist friends on the leftist campus were equally sceptical of Chandan with his Afro hair and his perpetually smiling, piercing gaze.
He was sinfully prankish and was never bereft of a wild observation about anyone, perfect strangers included. He was at his acerbic best when within earshot of a dyed-in-the-wool communist. “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” The kindergarten lines were deliberately parcelled and farmed out depending on the moment, and Chandan was a practitioner of precision timing, like a jester in a serious play.
The words may not be his, but they gained currency on the campus because of his love for political banter. At the same time, he got excellent grades from the MPhil tutor in international studies. “A politician is someone who knows which side his bread is buttered.” The banal words are suddenly making sense.
I have no idea where Chandan has disappeared. We were in the same hostel at Jawaharlal Nehru University. A common JNU friend in Princeton said he last saw him years ago in a US university campus, possibly Harvard. Why am I suddenly thinking of the missing Mahar friend whose cryptic homilies on politics and Marxism, in particular, I indulged but disagreed with? A possible answer lies in the question itself.
Why did the Marxists shun Dalits as Dalits? They worked hard to get the Dalit students priority in admission and so forth. Yet there was a pronounced aloofness at an intellectual level, a palpable snobbery. Or was it because B.R. Ambedkar had poured vitriol on Indian Marxists in his great work on the revival of the Dalit cause? If that was so, why didn’t any comrade woo the lowest in the caste heap to his or her side, ignoring or critiquing Ambedkar if they had a valid argument?
What puzzles me equally is the shocking ability of the BJP to woo Dalits — in Gujarat, in Uttar Pradesh and so forth. It is perhaps this worry that has sent me cartwheeling into the past. Here is a perfectly casteist party, one that Ambedkar would have loathed. He had described Hinduism in no uncertain terms as a “chamber of horrors”. And Ambedkar’s followers are today marching mindlessly, one should add, self-destructively into the Hindutva fold.
Of course, there is Chanakya’s wily wisdom at play. Divide and rule, Emperor Chandragupta’s Brahmin counsellor had decreed, way before the advent of colonialism of any stripe. It worked in Uttar Pradesh last month. Jatav versus non-Jatav Dalits; Yadav versus non-Yadavs among the other backward castes; something similar with Muslims is afoot. That’s BJP. What about the Marxists?
Indian Marxists, like their comrades elsewhere, are a threatened species. The BJP is out to swallow their two remaining hubs — one in the tiny tribal state of Tripura and the other, of course, Kerala, the redoubtable communist bastion. One should have thought that the BJP was a cause for serious worry. But the Marxists seem to have different priorities. They look keener to bring down the Mamata Banerjee government in Bengal, possibly in cahoots with the Congress. The BJP would be only too happy to let them do its dirty work.
The thought is horrifying for the sheer lack of sensitivity. The Marxists took a lead in fighting Indira Gandhi’s emergency, and they were a source of strength to the movement that ended in the Janata Party experiment. The experiment included the BJP then called the Jan Sangh. And the first thing that the Janata Party government did was to ban school textbooks on history that were authored by Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and Bipan Chandra.
The ground was laid in 1978 for the assault on Wendy Doniger’s study of Hinduism and A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramanayas — a brilliant research of the diverse Rama legends. The Marxists didn’t give up here, as they again came together with the BJP to shore up an anti-Congress V.P. Singh government in 1989.
For better or worse, they then came up with the formula of supporting non-BJP, non-Congress parties and alliances. There are three that fit the bill. They are Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, the Lalu-Nitish coalition in Bihar and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. All three are targeted by the BJP. The Congress too has joined the expedition in two, barring Bihar, where it is a junior partner in the state government. The Marxists set up candidates against all three.
The problem is that these three are the ones they count among the 59 per cent that didn’t vote for the BJP. The three are also those that stopped the BJP juggernaut. All three are accused of corruption by the BJP, a ruse that is seen as a first step towards their dismissal.
Any sane observer of the unfolding Indian scenario would have thought that it was time all opposition parties came together as they once came up against Mrs Gandhi. What is happening instead is that one by one the non-Congress and non-BJP governments, including the Left Front, are coming in the cross hairs of the Modi establishment. It’s almost like Germany in the 1930s to give an overused but relevant example. There the communists and the social democrats were taken out one by one.
Chandan Kamble is perhaps watching today’s denouement with concern. He had a habit of mixing up metaphors. “We are all sailing in the same soup,” he would say. Will the Marxists be able to untangle the jumbled aphorisms?
It is worrying that the main Marxist groups — and not to forget the Congress — seem to believe that the threat posed to India’s democracy by the BJP is comparable with Mamata Banerjee’s rule in Bengal and Arvind Kejriwal’s in Delhi. Could Chandan Kamble be right?