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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 12, New Delhi, March 6, 2021

Indian Left in a Pit: The Way Out? Prof. Achin Vanaik Examines | Sukla Sen

Friday 5 March 2021, by Sukla Sen


by Sukla Sen

Professor Achin Vanaik, to the discerning Indian public in particular, is quite a familiar name—both as a radical intellectual and an activist as well, especially in the field of anti-nuclear peace movement; is a co-recipient, with (late) Praful Bidwai, of the International Peace Bureau’s Sean McBride International Peace Prize for 2000.

Prof. Vanaik, who had started his professional career as a journalist with the Times of India, back in the ’70s, is intellectually, and even otherwise, intimately engaged with the unfolding Indian scenario since the nightmarish Emergency days.

His first major work on India, a very significant venture to meticulously map out the long term trends, since Independence, as viewed from a rather less familiar—and in those days much less popular among the Indian Left—standpoint would come out at the very beginning of the ’90s: ’The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India’. Though not the main focus, the book had an entire, rather longish, chapter devoted to the issue of "communalism" and its dissection. It may be pertinent to mention that the Ram Temple movement—spearheaded by the VHP and duly backed up by various other affiliates of the RSS including the BJP and the Bajrang Dal—had already gathered momentum. L K Advani’s Rath Yatra would be launched on September 25 1990 and the Babri Masjid would be demolished on December 6 1992.

He’d, subsequently, devote two books exclusively to this issue of "communalism": (i) ’The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity and Secularization’ (May 1997) and (ii) ’Hindutva Rising : Secular Claims, Communal Realities’ (Jan. 2017). Made his remarkably informed distinctive contribution to the ongoing discourse.

by Achin Vanaik | January 1, 2020
Akaar Books (New Delhi) | ISBN : 9789350026557

Vanaik’s latest book, ’Nationalist Dangers, Secular Failings:: A Compass for an Indian Left’ —an anthology of discrete yet (five) interrelated essays—has a broader canvas with its main focus on how to engineer a resurgence of the Indian Left, has, nevertheless, this issue as a major one that he ventures to grapple with. As per the author’s own testimony: "All the essays in this collection have a common motivation—to better analyse and understand the reasons for the rise of the BJP and of the RSS and Sangh Parivar more generally in order to oppose them more effectively."

So, the line of continuum is clearly traceable.

It’s noteworthy that all the five essays presented here were penned 2017 onwards and, thereby, deal with the specifics of the situation arising out of Modi coming to power in Delhi in 2014.

In his keenness, to make the offering up-to-date, a reasoned review of the verdict by the Supreme Court of India on the Ayodhya dispute has been added as an Appendix at the end.

And the author makes it a point to specifically underline that "the thrust and preoccupations of each of the essays here [i.e. in the present book] are quite different from those elaborated in the two 2017 books [i.e. the global and Indian versions of the same book, referred to above]."

The five essays presented in the book fall under two distinct categories: the first and the fifth deal with more general—rather global—issues, while the rest, together with the Appendix, focuses on specific aspects of Indian politics.

The two are bridged via the strivings undertaken here "to trace a path to the goal of bringing about a socialist world order initially through struggles on the terrain of the nation-state but which [in the process] must go beyond".

As regards the choice of the first essay, the author has put forward that "(t)he last decade has witnessed the rise of right-wing or far-right authoritarian populisms", of various hues, all across the globe—bearing the common feature of "authoritarian nationalism".

Hence the exploration to make sense of "nationalism" with special focus on its "Marxist" understanding(s).

Before proceeding further, it must be mentioned in passing that the discussion on "nationalism", regardless of whether the reader is in agreement with the author or not, she will find it delightfully well-informed—a plethora of different notions from widely divergent schools meticulously presented and elaborately dissected—and thereby remarkably enriching.

The essay, thus, very much, stands on its own.

Near the end, Vanaik makes the transition from the abstract to specific and takes up the Indian case and argues that, here, we have, essentially, two competing varieties of "nationalism"—one (Hindu) "communal" and the other pluralist(?), with a distinct "Hindu" bent—both anchored in their respective versions of constructed "past".

Arguably, the author, here, has opted to gloss over the third strand—in pre-Partition British India—which may, for the sake of convenience, be tagged as "Muslim nationalism" [1]—which is also justified by the claim, by its proponents, that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent constitute a (separate) "nation" [2]; never mind that Islam, per se, is, according to at least some, in conflict with the notion of "nationalism" as it professes "Umma" - the (unified) global community of believers [3].

This omission, one would argue, is, in a way, critical in his construction and assessment of mainstream "Indian nationalism"—as distinct from what, usually, is referred to as "Hindu nationalism".

Be that as it may, the above proposition forms the ideational foundation of a pivotal essay, in the second category - ’Two Hegemonies’, in the subject anthology.
The fifth one is: ’The Question of Organisation: Beyond Marx, the Enduring Legacy of Lenin’.

Before proceeding further, it may be noted, in very brief, that in this reviewer’s view, while the Indian "state"—with clearly defined territory and a stable, effective and unified administration to rule over it—was brought into being, for the first time, by the British colonial rulers; the nascent Indian "nation" would take off from that launching pad, being assiduously stiched up by the anti-colonial "Indian nationalist" movement—spearheaded by its leading elite informed with Western emancipatory ideas, rather paradoxically, via the exploitative and oppressive colonial rule, out of loosely interconnected disparate and widely divergent elements in terms of ethnicity, language, culture, creed, caste, class etc.

Mainstream "Indian nationalism", in the process, invented a romanticised, glorious and harmonious past to take this project ahead, by using the "myth" as the necessary glue, and also to counter the calumny of "civilising mission" propagated by the colonial white rulers.

The "Hindu" and "Muslim" nationalists, in contrast, glorified specific segments of the past and harped on—both real and imaginary, perennial conflicts between the followers of the two broad contrasting streams of faith, while deliberately ignoring/obliterating aspects of comingling and confluence.

If the, so to speak, chief priest of Indian nationalism, the redoubtable Tagore, had imagined—his imagination being highly coloured with Upanishadic idioms, an inalienable part of his own cultural heritage—"India" as the eternal bissful and welcoming confluence—over the ages—of diverse races, faiths, cultures etc. [4]; Jawaharlal Nehru, a foremost (and brightest?) spokesperson, would further airbrush the myth—in his celebrated ’The Discovery (read: Invention) of India’, and transit from the notion of "confluence" to that of "palimpsest" [5]—in a far more prosaic, even if no less grand, style—shedding much of the spirituality infused idioms on the way.
One may argue, in terms of today’s lingo, it was a small yet significant shift from the ideal of "melting pot" towards "salad bowl" nationhood.

(The glaring contrasts between "Indian nationalism" and "Hindu nationalism" are captured all too graphically in the mythification, by the former, of two Muslim dynastic rulers—viz. (understandably, a good-for-nothing) Siraj-ud-daula and (rather extraordinarily endowed) Tipu Sultan—as two great "nationalist" heroes, fighting against the aggressive and expanding British imperialism in India.

"Hindu nationalism", on the other, visualises all "Muslim" rulers as villains and Tipu Sultan, in particular, a devil incarnate—standing next only to Aurangzeb, in terms of villainry.

In stark contrast, the battles of Plassey and Srirangapatna would come to figure as two great tragedies—the former one in particular, in the "Indian nationalist" lores—evoking strong emotions.

The springing tiger—a logo reminding one of Tipu, would be adopted, by Subhas Bose [6], as his own—featured as the emblem on the tricolour shoulder-pieces on uniforms of the legendary Azad Hind Fauj that he was able to put together out of dispirited Indian soldiers of the British Indian army captured by the Japanese.

There obtained, nevertheless, some overlaps between "Indian nationalism" and the "Hindu nationalism", in particular, for a variety of reasons, just not in terms of ideas but organisational affiliations as well, which forced the Indian National Congress to finally close its doors to the members of the "communal" organisations—viz. the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS—apparently, in 1934 [7].

But, all at the same time, the leaders were quite acutely aware that "India" was, in actuality, "A Nation in Making"—a phrase popularised by one of the very earliest vanguards of "Indian nationalism" by using it as the caption of his own autobiography, back in 1925 [8]. Subsequently—almost two decades thence, in a much similar vein, Gandhi would come to be anointed as the "Father of the Nation", by none other than his principal, and only credible, challenger from within the mainstream "Indian nationalist" currents, at a very tumultuous juncture of Indian history [9]
Gandhi himself had earlier dubbed Dadabhai Naoroji [10], a Parsi gentleman and, arguably, the tallest of the earliest "Indian nationalists" and one of the two—the other one being R C Dutt—best-known, and also first, proponents [11] of the "Drain Theory"—an elaborate and cogently argued economic crtique of the exploitative colonial rule—that marked a tectonic shift from the earlier, in 1857, huge outburst of visceral native anger, anchored primarily in race, religion and the sense of humiliation at the hands of the alien rulers, as the "Father of the Nation".

Even on the morrow of Independence—marred, and considerably undermined, by the humongous bestial violence—brought in by the nightmarish "Partition" that came as a part of the package, perpetrated and suffered by followers of all the three major religions involved—the project would be looked upon as a "work in progress", to be taken ahead by the freshly minted independent Indian state.

Hence the heavy insistence on a highly centralised state—to counter the possible, or rather likely, centrifugal forces that would come to be generated in the coming days.
That, at least partly, explains the in-built penchant for a coercive state apparatus—more coercive than usual—in conspicuous disregard of the high "democratic" ideals espoused by the "Indian nationalist" movement.

The "Partition"—with all its bloodletting and bestiality—it needs be underlined, would make not only a rather humongous contribuition to the weaponry of the "Hindu nationalists"—who’d be silenced (only) for a while as an aftereffect of the quake triggered by Gandhi assassination by those belonging to their ranks, but also leave its debilitating imprint on the subsequent evolution of "Indian nationalism"—by delivering a sort of crippling blow to the case for "composite nationhood" and, thereby, the "India", that would emerge post-Independence.

A careful reader, acquainted with the Indian scenario, can’t fail to take note that this cataclysmic episode hardly ever figures—just one solitary fleeting reference in the follow-up essay as referred to above, in Vanaik’s otherwise strikingly elaborate narrative.

Before concluding, it must be put on record that it is "Indian nationalism" that, exclusively, engineered and spearheaded the hugely heroic national liberation struggle—a vortex which would be able to attract millions and millions of Indians to itself—to throw off the stupendous yoke of colonial rule.
The "Hindu" and "Muslim" nationalists, by themselves, made hardly any positive contribution, if at all; rather, on occasions, explicitly opposed and collaborated with the colonial rulers.

These two were far more concerned with ensuring their respective exclusive identities and domination in a future post-colonial scenario.
That’s what they were focused on.

The pretty much oppressive colonial state apparatus—braved and suffered by millions and millions—left them largely untouched.

As has already been pointed out, the concluding portion of the opening essay opens the doorway to the subsequent ’Two Hegemonies’—dealing with the specifics of Indian realities in considerable details.

Here the ideas already introduced in the concluding portion of the opening essay are further fleshed out

Vanaik conceptualises the Congress as some sort of BJP lite—though not (yet?) "far-right", as the BJP is, but, make no mistake, "ugly right" nevertheless—and that flows, logically, from his foundational proposition that "Indian nationalism" was/is nothing but a "softer"—a tad more liberal, "variant" of "Hindu nationalism".

The second—a dissection of the Indian Constitution—in this reviewer’s view, is essentially a companion piece to the ’Two Hegemonies’ and the fourth, another pivotal one—a close audit of the unfolding Modi 2.0 and, in a way the culmination of the preceding piece.

That is, to be sure, not to underestimate the significant value of the second even as a stand-alone piece.

All the three taken together—along with the concluding part of the initiating essay and the Appendix—offer a fairly comprehensive narration of the author’s understanding and assessment of India today—in motion.

The one on the Constitution confronts head-on the construction, aided, inter alia, by the stark contrast with its dizygotic twin—self-designated as the "Islamic Republic of Pakistan" [12], while the Indian Constitution [13] (Article 14) so very loftily proclaims that "(t)he State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India ... (or discriminate) on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth"—of it being a great liberal document.
Vanaik, painstakingly, presents a list of "flaws" together with supporting arguments. The list includes "flaws" in the very text of the Constitution and also the way various provisions are implemented in real life.

It may, in this context, be noted in passing that the proclamation of "Emergency", formally freezing "democracy" for about twenty-one (long) months—rather unarguably, the darkest period in the life of Independent India, as yet—quite interestingly, finds no mention.

An odd one may wonder why.

The fourth one takes the story forward to, virtually, the immediate present.
In fact, it’s, in a way, the most important as, here, Vanaik not only updates his story but also discusses in details a blueprint for changing the obtaining reality by scanning various—viz. five—possible paths, as shortlisted by him.

The rather ambitious claim to be regarded as ’A Compass for an Indian Left’ rests primarily on the persuasive analysis presented here, backed up further by the next, which happens to be the last one.

It’d, perhaps, be both fair and prudent to leave it to the reader to check out firsthand the detailed arguments offered, arguably, constituting the very focal point of the book.

The last one, as had already been underlined, deals with a "general" issue: of Lenin’s conception of a "vanguard" party as contrasted from that of his ideological fountainhead, the redoubtable Karl Marx.

It goes to the credit of Vanaik—a Marxist-Leninist—that he categorically acknowledges, braving the risk of being branded as blasphemous, the disjunction—on this specific issue—between the two: "There is a fundamental disconnection between Marx and Lenin."

Times are, surely, a’changing.

Never mind that ’The Communist Manifesto’—a book that perhaps, stands next only to the holy Bible, in terms of readership—penned jointly by Marx and his life-long comrade Engels, lays down pretty much plainly—in fact, as plainly as possible: "The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties."
Further down the line, they go on to underline and expound: "The Communists, therefore, are ... the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others ..." [14]

It, evidently, flows, ipso facto, from their foundational assessment and claim as regards the role of the "working class" in a capitalist order.

Further ahead, Vanaik, again quite commendably, goes on to take note of absence of "revolution"—under "democratic" dispensations.

It won’t be out of place to put on record, on the face of it, no country, with some modicum of "democracy" ever had any "revolution"—with the sole exception of Russia in late 1917. Even there, it had turned "democratic" throwing off the oppressive and autocratic Tsarist rule via a bloody revolution just months back; the subsequent "sociailist" one can quite plausibly be conceptualised as the continuation of the previous one with a short intermittent pause. While "democracy" functions as an effective antidote to "revolution"—radical shift in state power through a mass upsurge—its capacity to inhibit a counterrevolution—(illegitimate) take-over of "power" by a narrow section of the elite—appears to be far lower.

Vanaik also, very aptly, notes: "With very few exceptions, if any, that [the preceding] era of armed struggles for national liberation is over."

Be that as it may, Vanaik here—in this essay—connects his (earlier laid out and) prescribed blueprint for revolutionary transformation—more a "process" than an "event"—in India with the Leninist conception of a "vanguard" outfit and, also, a specific mode envisaged—covered under his "bastion thesis"—calling for a sudden decisive move—at an opportune and critical juncture—as the culminating point of the (evolving) "process".

He, it’s quite noteworthy, talks categorically of the need—that would arise in the process—to specifically plan for tackling the coercive apparatus of the state.
Thus the "gradualist" mode, at the critical moment, acquires a hint of an "insurrectionist" twist.

This is how Vanaik wraps up what he had launched with his initiating essay.
And, that’s how, Vanaik, in conclusion, opts to register his claim to Leninist lineage.

With that, this reviewer leaves it to the reader to undertake the scintillating journey through the book—in company with the distinguished author.

[1"Muslim nationalism became the hallmark of his [i.e. Jinnah’s] separatist politics, and he resorted to all sorts of populist arguments and political manoeuvres to win the case for Pakistan in the face of stiff opposition from a host of opponents, among whom the most inveterate opponent was the Indian National Congress, while the final arbiter over the future of India was the British.”

Ref.: ’The Jinnah Question’ by S Irfan Habib, dtd. October 25 2020, at

[2A. "Now, suppose that all English, and the whole English army, were to leave India, taking with them all their cannon and their splendid weapons and everything, then who would be rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations — the Mahomedans and the Hindus — could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other and thrust it down. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. At the same time you must remember that although the number of Mahomedans is less than that of the Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received a high English education, yet they must not be thought insignificant or weak. Probably they would be by themselves enough to maintain their own position. But suppose they were not. [38] Then our Mussalman brothers, the Pathans, would come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood to flow from their frontier in the north to the extreme end of Bengal. This thing — who, after the departure of the English, would be conquerors — would rest on the will of God. But *until one nation [i.e. Hindu or Muslim] had conquered the other [i.e. Muslim or Hindu] and made it obedient, peace could not reign in the land* [emphasis added]. This conclusion is based on proofs so absolute that no one can deny it."
(Ref.: ’SPEECH OF SIR SYED AHMED AT MEERUT [1888]’, para 7, at

B. "[23] It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality; and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits and is the cause of more of our troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature[s]. They neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects [=perspectives?] on life, and of life, are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different, and different episode[s]. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. *To yoke together two such nations [i.e. Muslim and Hindu] under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent, and final. destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state* [emphasis added]."

(Ref.: ’Presidential address by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to the Muslim League
Lahore, 1940’ at

[3"Islam contains teachings that clearly argue against the most important elements of nationalism. Foremost among these elements are the chauvinism and exclusiveness engendered by the nationalist project. "
(Ref.: ’Where Islam and Nationalism Collide’, dtd. December 8 2017, at

[4Tagore had imagined the eternal India — in his poem ‘Bharat Tirtha’ (The Indian Pilgrimage) as a welcoming confluence of diverse cultures, rejecting none.

The concluding portion in English translation — urging all to continue with that tradition, is available here: ’Relevance of Tagore’s global vision’ by Abhik Roy, dtd. August 11 2015, at

Goes without saying, he—with his formidable poetic flair, has—pretty irrationally, romanticised the past—but, only to issue a lofty call in favour of an inclusive and egalitarian India—of future.

[6"A springing tiger, evoking Tipu Sultan of Mysore’s gallant resistance against the British featured as the emblem on the tricolour shoulder-pieces on uniforms. Gandhi’s charkha continued to adorn the centre of the tri-colour flags that INA soldiers were to carry in their march towards Delhi."

(Ref.: ’Don’t Let the Spurious Cult of Netaji Sideline His Message of an Inclusive India’ by Sugata Bose, dtd. September 26 2015, at

[7"Alarmed by the motivation of both Hindu and Muslim sectarian groups to use Congress cadres for their own disruptive purposes, the All India Congress Committee passed a resolution in 1934 which prohibited members of the Congress party from becoming members of the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim league."

(Ref.: ’History Shows How Patriotic the RSS Really Is’ by Pavan Kulkarni, dtd October 8 2018, at
As regards the rather complex relationship between "Indian" nationalism and its "Hindu" challenger, here’s this reviewer’s own attempt, in the past, to grapple with: ’Indian Nationalism, Hindutva and the Bomb’, September 28 2003, at <> .

[9"In his radio address, while launching attacks on the British forces, it was Subhas Chandra Bose who called Mahatma Gandhi the father of the nation. In his last radio address from Burma in 1944 that Subhas Chandra Bose said, "Father of our Nation! In this holy war for India’s liberation, we ask for your blessings and good wishes.

(Ref.: ’Subhas Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru: Admirers or adversaries? A myth buster’ by Prabhash K Dutta, dtd. January 23 2020, at

[10Ref.: ’Gandhi had dubbed Dadabhai Naoroji Father of the Nation’ by Vishnu Makhijani, dtd. July 25 2020, at

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