Bal Thackeray, or, Why the Communists Did Nothing

November 22, 2012

by Saroj Giri, Sanhati

Right where Bal Thackeray was cremated, at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, another event had taken place in June 1970: “a twenty-five-thousand-strong funeral procession marched to Shivaji Park, the Sena stronghold, shouting anti-Shiv Sena slogans,” reports Gyan Prakash in his Mumbai Fables (Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 247). The reason: the murder of Krishna Desai by the Sena in June 5, 1970. Bal Thackeray was supposed to be directly involved in it.

Desai was the sitting Communist Party of India (CPI) MLA from central Bombay, a popular and militant working class leader. He was also one of those who went beyond the diktats of the official CPI leadership, which discouraged self-defence and direct action and could not integrate them in its overall political strategy. That evening of the day he was murdered, it is told that thousands of workers spontaneously came out to avenge the murder. This could have meant they would have ‘liquidated’ Bal Thackeray and his cohorts.

Of course given the leadership’s ‘rule of law’ approach, this was not to happen: the angry workers were told to disperse and the Hriday samrat was born. Thackeray went to town boasting about the murder, promising to carry out more such ‘actions’. Seeing that their leaders can be murdered and nothing happens to the murderer, workers loose morale and think that the communists are not serious about defending their interests. So that when Desai’s widow Sarojini Desai contests in the elections, even a sympathy wave for her dead husband who was a hero for the workers does not fetch her victory. The tide turned: the Sena wins, gets its first legislator from the jaws of communist hold. Large sections of the workers ‘go with the winner’, while the loser, the communists, increasingly fail to resist and retaliate and try to foolishly seek protection of the law and courts.

Earlier, “on September 10, 1967, Thackeray declared in Marmik that his object was the ‘emasculation of the Communists.’ Three months later, the Sena activists attacked the CPI’s Dalvi Building office in Parel. They burned files and threw out the furniture. It was an audacious attack, brazenly carried out to strike at the very heart of the enemy. What was the Communist response? Nothing.” (Prakash, p. 242)

It is out of this ‘nothing’, that void left by the communist leadership, against the will of militant workers, that Thackeray and the Shiv Sena come to life.

And yet today the progressives do not want to ask ‘why was the communist’s response ‘nothing’’. Instead they are busy pointing out Thackeray’s overt qualities, qualities that were anyways meant for public consumption and moreover, for the Sena, proud display. We are told that he epitomised the politics of fear and hatred, how he was a fascist and communal and divisive and so on. There is over-reliance on this kind of a ‘politics of exposure’, which is merely old rehashed wisdom about the Sena and Thackeray. Such hollering is done so seriously that one forgets that it alone changes nothing, does not weaken the Sena, nor even expose it. Nor does it shame the Indian state and security apparatus to now become an ally in your anti-communal or anti-fascist struggle.

The ‘politics of exposure’ is moreover part of a tendency to then present Thackeray as just a mad crazy exception, whom we just need to ‘expose’ and soon the rest of ‘democratic society’ and civil society will shun him to hell. The hollering invests the political atmosphere with such illusions. After all, it is not that the workers who joined the Sena did so since they found the organization ‘democratic’ and upholding the rule of law. Nor will they now leave it since they have finally found that it is ‘fascist’, a gang of thugs etc.

Above all, this hollering tends to make us forget that Thackeray emerges as a tacit ruling class response to a particular conjuncture of the class struggle in Mumbai. So let us instead ask: what could the Indian state and big capital have done when they were faced with the kind of ‘enemy’ like the organised communist working class power which had Bombay in its grips in the 1960s? The Indian state is, officially speaking, bound one way or another by its secularism, labour laws and things like that – which is all fine and creates no real hassles for the ruling classes so long as you have a decrepit left but not fine if you are confronted by a powerful working class movement. The movement was so powerful that even the CPI leadership, given the illusions it had about Indian democracy, feared its most militant sections and power.

Hence to deal with this communist monster you needed a force to ensure two (contradictory) things at the same time. First, decimate or liquidate the working class movement. Second, to maintain, at the same time, the garb of democracy, secularism, and so on. A banana republic or a Pinochet would have concentrated only on the first but here you had the ‘idea of India’ too which had to be uphailed – and to which even sections of CPI leadership not to speak of other progressives and ‘left-liberals’ were deeply attached.

An extra legal force like the Sena was exactly what fitted the bill. Not the right wing vigilante armed gangs cut off from the society to be found in Latin America but one which would have a deep organic connect to ‘society’. Hindutva and the populism of the Marathi manoos ensured this connect. A cross between a vigilante and a grass roots populist movement. Put it this way: Thackeray and the Sena were something like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) emerging from within the underbelly of majoritarian society, articulating its latent organic fissures. I mean, if it is war on terror or against anti-nationals, the state is comfortable in sanctioning murder and extra-judicial killings through extraordinary laws formally passed in Parliament. There is no fear of losing democratic legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream upper middle classes.

The working classes or even Naxals are however a different matter, trickier to handle. It is difficult to paint the working classes in textile mills of central Bombay as anti-national and hence for the state to move against it – particularly, when the working classes are consciously portraying themselves as a class in an organised fashion, as a ‘class-for-itself’, and are also politically represented in legislatures and are also largely ‘Hindu’. Decimating working class struggle is of the highest importance and yet executing it demands utmost discretion, a higher level of cunning.

The extra-legal decimating force cannot therefore take the shape of a formal law, even an extraordinary one through an act of Parliament and so on. ‘Society’ then has to ‘produce’ such a force from within its organic underbelly – hence, while enacting the most general interests of capital, Thackeray was not someone who could be a hired goon for the capitalists and mill owners of Mumbai. A hired goon or henchman would only defend particular interests of specific capitalists and industrialists. Thackeray did that too – Rahul Bajaj recalls how Thackeray ‘sorted out’ a workers-related issue at his manufacturing facility. There must be many such cases of ‘sorting out’ by the Sena.

But beyond a point Thackeray ‘rises above’ these individual cases and becomes a higher presence, Hriday Samrat. Or, ‘Maharashtra’s patriarch’, as HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh put it and whose loss he wants to mourn. The point is clear: why would a banker mourn the death of ‘a patriarch’? We have here a much deeper conduit between the (upper caste Hindu) underbelly and (publicly acknowledged) capitalist class interests – Hindutva and the general interests of capital merge in Thackeray.

Moreover, Thackeray could enact all this in the name of the ordinary Marathi manoos. What is not so common knowledge is that he also made liberal use of the anti-Brahman language and symbolism from Jotirao Phule when “he ridicules the pompousness of the Brahmin cultural establishment and ‘high society’” (Thomas Blom Hansen, Wages of Violence, p. 199). If this was not enough, Blom Hansen reports that CPI leader Dange was once invited to share dais with Thackeray, to tremendous applause. And that the ‘socialist’ George Fernandes was a family friend of the Thackeray clan. Further also that the Sena flirted for some time with the idea of ‘practical socialism’ in the early 1980s.

This deep nexus between the Sena and the Indian state and big capital does not however seem credible to many progressives. The word they use is ‘collusion’ between the state and the Hindutva forces. This suggests that the nexus is not deep enough and you expect that when the fascist thugs come for your life you can still be saved by the state – since the state is constitutionally bound to do that for you! Thus when the Sena came gunning for them, the CPI leadership was indeed looking for a way to convert a clearly anti-communist offensive, nay a murder plan, of the Sena and the ruling classes, into a case of a wider attack on the so-called secular fabric of the nation and so on.

Well, did the secular fabric and the Indian state come to the rescue of the communists? It didn’t: the secular fabric turned the other way, just the manner in which Indian security forces often look the other way when hapless Muslims appeal for help in a riot situation. The difference with Muslims is that the communists are targeted first. Indeed the Shiv Sena phenomenon is a clear case of ‘first they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a communist…’. And yet there is today a veiled attempt to avoid probing the period when communists were face to face with the Sena. We need to revisit the communist strategy and find out why the response was ‘nothing’, above all keeping in mind that an anti-communal front cannot be where communists should be taking refuge.

But ‘revisiting communist strategy’ is not to now utter postcolonial inanities like ‘the communists emphasized the class question too much and never really understood caste, or religion or identities’. It is not to validate what in ‘cultural studies’ is called ‘the problem of translation’, that class is supposedly a Euro-centric category and cannot comprehend Indian social reality. Instead it is to state that there is really no problem of translation.

The problem of translation was not for the communists but for Thackeray: isn’t it common knowledge that he had to resort to the language and politics of class, that he had to take up the interests of the workers and lower castes, in order to institute his ‘identity politics’. He was forced to do that – he had to translate his identity politics into class lines in order to gain entry into the ‘communist stronghold’ of central Bombay. As the political scientist Aryama pointed out to me, unlike ‘fascists’, the Shiv Sena did not really crush the working class movement. It rechanneled the movement along ‘safe’ lines of Marathi manoos, anti-Muslim politics and so on.

It was not emphasis on class and the problem of translation which undid the communists but a half-hearted emphasis – there was emphasis on the working class ‘issues’ but not on class power, on the organised power of the working class led by the vanguard party. Working class power would have given us a different scenario after Desai’s murder. That is, in a bizarre twist, it was the Sena which would mobilize workers’ ‘militancy’, now misdirected, rather than the CPI leadership which ditched both ground level leaders like Desai and other workers by instead relying on the supposed rule of law and Indian constitutional, legal protection and so on.

So when did ‘direct action’ become a purely fascist trait, as the progressives are telling us today? Here is today a left which turns its back on working class history apparently because class is not an adequate category for Indian reality and so on – something which does not follow from actual facts. Perhaps, it was such a decrepit left which convinced those like Namdeo Dhasal to join the Sena rather than the left – for the Dalit Panthers did also use direct action as a way to defend the interests of Dalit working classes. The communist tradition has a strong place as much for direct action as for direct democracy – you however cannot have one without the other. This needs to be reasserted.

Direct action can be critiqued. But such a critique cannot be geared towards suggesting that we should now come under the mediation of the rule of law and the constitution – and then refuse to see how these latter cannot be upheld at the expense of the workers’ power. Thackeray’s direct action was to ultimately defend the mediation of the rule of law, facilitate its normal functioning and preserve the status quo. It was an exception meant to reinscribe the rule. It was the Hindutva thug’s AFSPA – extraordinary law to ensure the return to ordinary laws, to ‘peace and development’.

The communist workers and the Dalit Panthers’ ‘direct action’ is merely a (Hegelian) move to recognize the Sena’s ‘direct action’, the Hindutva thug’s AFSPA to be an integral part of the normal functioning of the law and the norm. The pro-state (or democratic/parliamentary) left, including many social movements, fails to recognize it as such and is in denial. It treats the Sena’s ‘direct action’ as an aberration from ‘our constitution’ or ‘democratic tradition’ or ‘the idea of India’ – it hence rushes to the state and the rule of law to seek ‘correction of this aberration’, seek legal protection and in the process claim to be democratic and peace-loving and so on. It would have been fine if this was done to strategically build a powerful wider movement. Instead it reduces the entire movement to just this. This is clear, for example, from the way it equates ‘direct action’ by the communists with that of the fascists.

This has historical parallels. After the collapse of Nazism, western liberals tried to present Nazism as an aberration, as something which just happened – if only we would not forget how horrible fascism was, we could stop it from repeating itself. Marxists, in particular the Soviet countries, treated fascism as a live possibility so long as the bourgeoisie was in power. So the Soviets would not merely build memorials to the victims of a past event, which we should not forget, but emphasise that the war against fascism is an ongoing one. Fascism is not in that sense a historically singular aberration.

Moreover when it came to the communist resistance to Nazism, the Soviets were equated to the Nazis. So we are told you have the Nazi concentration camps, but you also have Soviet concentration camps! We cannot take these claims at face value as simple statement of facts. At another level, we must seriously take Slavoj Zizek’s provocation: “in today’s era of hedonist permissivity as the ruling ideology, the time is coming for the Left to (re)appropriate discipline and the spirit of sacrifice: there is nothing inherently “Fascist” about these values” (‘The True Hollywood Left’ ).

The rejection of direct action by equating it with fascist tactics therefore is not just a simple and sincere way to counter the Sena offensive. It conceals a refusal to open up a whole history of communist and working class resistance in Mumbai which used ‘similar’ tactics – including by the Dalit Panthers. We are very good in upholding the cultural heritage of the left movement, right from tamashas to nukkad nataks to the poems and songs from IPTA. If these are not to become mere cultural artefacts and floating images, we must uncover the history of very real battles that have been fought, street by street, factory after factory, chawl after chawl.

Perhaps lot of the questions about organization, agency, mass mobilization, vanguard; about class struggle and identity/caste and so on can be better addressed through an account of these struggles. Meena Menon and Neera Adarkar’s work is highly commendable in this respect but we need more work in this area which would directly tell us about communist organizing rather than provide only an ‘ethnography of labour’ (One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon, An Oral History, Seagull, Kolkata, 2004). An elementary aspect of workers insurgency is waiting to be written. Perhaps this will also help us expand our approach to understanding revolutionary struggle beyond the Tebhagas and Telanganas and the Naxalbaris – particularly, if one is really serious about ‘the urban perspective’.

To start with, we might want to find more about Krishna Desai’s Lok Seva Dal about which we are told by Prakash: “Desai founded the Lok Seva Dal as much to counter the Sena’s ideological appeal as to confront its physical force. With these twin purposes in mind, the Lok Seva Dal held political-education classes as well as organized physical exercise programs and games. Since the party leadership offered no support, Desai raised money locally to pay for expenses” (p. 245). Now, are you about to tell me that the “organised physical exercise programs and games” reminds you of a RSS shakha?

One comment on “Bal Thackeray, or, Why the Communists Did Nothing

  1. Pingback: Bal Thackeray ruled Mumbai like no other, he also divided the city like no other « kracktivist

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