To mark the end of his 3-month fellowship period, our inaugural CSMCH-IASH postdoctoral fellow Rakesh Ankit, organised a small colloquium on the left in 20th century India. The two invited speakers – Virinder Kalra (Warwick) and Taylor Sherman (LSE) – both offered contrasting perspectives on an important theme in Indian political history. After the event, Rakesh wrote this short summary of the day’s highlights.
Virinder Kalra, ‘Pondering the Revolutionary Subject: From Ghadar to Kirti’
Starting the proceedings of the afternoon with a focus on the political consciousness of the Ghadar Party as gleaned from its poetics, Virinder Kalra posed the question, who is a revolutionary subject? With respect to the Ghadar-ites of 1914-17, this assumes added importance, when one realises their diverse and enduring legacies in the left in/on India. The Ghadar Party, founded in 1913, in Virinder’s words, was an ‘archetype of a certain kind of migratory and student consciousness’. Articulating its ‘politics through poetry’, in which ‘[political] truth was subordinate to the flow of political language’, it was a ‘proto-type secular anti-religious group’.
Beginning with the verses of Kartar Singh Sarabha and following it up with examples from Ghadar di Goonj, a 6-volume poem collection, described as a ‘lightening – storm – flame – fire’, Prof. Kalra mentioned its trans-national trajectory, well-traced by Maia Ramnath in Haj to Utopia (2011). Over the next 20 years, it would inspire many; from Bhagat Singh to Udham Singh. One of its more appealing features was its overt secular nature seen in forthright preferences expressed between the binaries of sacred versus profane and religion versus revolt. The Ghadar movement termed Pandits, Qazis and Rai Bahadurs as ‘black heart collaborators’ of the colonial regime thereby entwining the two, as shown by Harish Puri (1993). However, this interpretation has not gone unquestioned and it has been argued that the language of mobilisation employed in these poems was more often than not replete with Sikh religious motifs.
Virinder offered a more nuanced reading to decode these poetic motifs, which almost always portrayed organised religion as negative and, even when giving a call for action in the name of sacred duty, did not particularise it. Religious imagery was used outside a religious context. It can be read as a case of invoking religion to overcome religion. It was not so much a call for religious action but righteous action caused by material conditions and subjectivities. Unsurprisingly, it inspired revolutionary consciousness in a range of organisations like Kirti Kisan Party, Hindustan Socialist Revolutionary Association, while also being attempted to be appropriated by right-wing religious movements like Ahrars and the Arya Samaj. This fount of ‘leading inspiration’ had then, its ‘identities as process…’ in the words of Stuart Hall.
Initiating the discussion, Talat Ahmed (Edinburgh) asked about the specificity of poetry as a historical source, whether the Ghadar-ites were ‘anti-religious’ or better understood as ‘non-religious’ and how we could more accurately or approximately define their revolutionary subject. In his response, Virinder agreed about the Ghadar-ites employing religious motifs, not ‘from above’, but ‘from below’. This ambivalence was accompanied by an absence of women and lower castes/outcastes in their midst, which further qualifies the Ghadar-ites’ claim to be a modern, revolutionary subject. Their Marxism may have been alternative but it had its own populated margins.
Following on from Talat’s comment, Taylor Sherman wondered whether the Ghadar moment was a case of ‘youthful misadventure’. Further, what immediacy or urgency were they seized by in their sense of time? Prof. Kalra offered that just as religion was a rhetorical vehicle for poetry, youth was a similar rhetorical device; as was Heroism. Taken together, they responded to the ‘unsettled’ time of 1910s and 20s and imparted a sense of now or never. After all, the anti-colonial nature of the group was never in doubt.
The final questions of the session came from the audience. Some wondered about the contestations around the contemporary meanings and legacies of the Ghadar Party and were accompanied by the as to why so much of the writings by the Ghadar-ites was without authorial identification. Especially when contrasted with the Progressives and Mavericks from 1930s onwards. Virinder agreed that identities, symbolisms and legacies are neither fixed nor settled to anyone’s satisfaction. Mixed practices and articulations made any institutional appropriation difficult and this makes the memory and history of Ghadar-ites more and not less fascinating. On the matter of to name or to not name, Prof. Kalra – his response amplified by Dr. Ahmed – elucidated by pointing that the critical factor here was 1917, which provided a context for what he called the clear, fixed, ‘settled left’ afterwards, a structured project, whereas before 1917, it had been a fluid churning of an ‘unsettled left’, largely rumblings.
Taylor Sherman, ‘Does a democracy need elections? Jayaprakash Narayan and democratic doubt in 1950s and 1960s India’
Taylor Sherman began by questioning the scholarly consensus that India in 1950s was a strong state with a stable democratic regime, personified by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, before it went downhill under his daughter Indira Gandhi in 1970s. Citing Ornit Shani’s recent celebration of India’s first general election and her eulogy to the ‘bureaucratic imagination’ that conducted it, Dr. Sherman brought up the limitations of this understanding.
While the former was ‘too long-term-ist and schematic’, Shani is too ‘short-term’. Neither consider ‘how Indians themselves viewed democracy’. Bringing up one such prominent Indian, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) – the Marxist, whose socialism was always tempered by a strong influence of Gandhi – and his ‘democratic doubts’ articulated to the extent of arguing for abolishing Parliamentary Democracy, Taylor asked the question JP seemed to be asking: does a democracy need elections to do its tasks of development?
Drawing upon JP’s trajectory from party politics to social movements like Sarvodaya and Bhoodan and his consequent criticism of the built-in iniquities of the ‘first-past-the-post’ system expressed most vocally between 1957 and 1961, she listed the ‘pure particulars’ of JP’s critique: (a) parliamentary democracy did not equal to majority rule given the discrepancy between votes polled and seats won, (b) people often did not vote ‘rationally’, (c) party machines were engaged in a relentless, remorseless and rapacious competition; a ‘competition of violators’ of democratic spirit, (d) the ubiquitous caste factor, (e) the 5-year electoral cycles meant that for a majority of that time, there was a state of executive rule through an indirect democratic arrangement, given the absence of recall/referendum, (f) Democracy was, all said and done, a ‘foreign’ system.
JP’s alternative Indian vision was a communitarian democracy of ‘pooling of resources, moral quality and mental attitude’. At its heart was not universal adult franchise but ‘universal adult participation’, leading to not merely democracy but self-rule from bottom i.e. the primary village community. This was welfare in miniature, local self-government and a decentralized structure, which could ‘avoid’ elections, which it did not ‘require’ for its primary, everyday goals of community development.
The discussion that followed threw further light on JP’s milieu, especially his disillusioning experience of the Congress party-apparatus during the 1937 and 1946 elections. Seeming contradictions in JP’s thinking viz. the inherent caste/communal violence in villages, the ‘client-patron’ relations and lack of land reforms were brought up and it was wondered whether his disenchantment with democracy was not a part of a larger disillusionment, which emerged in late—1950s India. Talat wondered what JP was reading so as to be so reliant on the ‘good-naturedness’ of the elites in his almost ‘oriental despotic’ model. Virinder queried about the parallels in JP’s thinking with the nativity/indigeneity that today’s right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP profess. Finally, another audience members saw echoes of Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ and ‘Deliberation’ in JP’s thought.
In her replies, Dr. Sherman shed more light on aspects of JP’s ‘individualist democracy’ of an ‘enlightened local and not distant rule’, albeit with the danger of dissent being smothered. In sum, the time of 1950s was reposited by Dr. Sherman as a ‘period of experiment’, in which JP – a pro-development figure – was a key thinker on ways to overcome the shortcomings and violence of the then-existing socialist democracy(s).
Rakesh Ankit teaches history at the Law School in OP Jindal University, Sonipat. He studied at the universities of Delhi, Oxford and Southampton, from where he completed his PhD in 2014. His dissertation was published as Kashmir, 1945-66: From Empire to the Cold War (Routledge, 2016) and he has also worked on the Interim Government of September 1946-August 1947 in British India. He was the inaugural CSMCH-IASH postdoctoral fellow from November 2017 to January 2018, during which he worked on a new project on the history of Indian Communism.