Feeling the impact of Egypt in India

March 8, 2011

Pranav Jani writes from India on the electrifying impact of the Egyptian revolution on politics thousands of miles away--and what that says about the future.

"SINHAASAN KHAALI Karo..." ("Vacate the throne...")

Thus read the front-page headline of the February 2 issue of the Hindi newspaper Navbharat Times in India, superimposed on a photograph of the previous day's historic rally of over a million people in Tahrir Square in Egypt.

What's significant is not just that this mainstream paper was defending the democracy movement in Egypt 10 days before Hosni Mubarak resigned--and days before the Indian government took a stand as it waited for a sign from its new chums in Washington.

More than this, it's that the Navbharat Times--the Hindi newspaper with the largest circulation in Delhi and Mumbai--was making a direct link between demands in Egypt and historic struggles for democracy in India over decades, referring to the popular slogan: "Vacate the throne, the people are coming." The slogan strikes a deep chord--recalling, for instance, the mass upsurge of the "JP movement," for independence activist and politician Jayprakash Narayan.

Since January, as the revolutionary wave swept through Tunisia and Egypt and beyond, Indian journalists, academics and activists have been talking about Egypt and its implications for India in interviews, newspapers, TV talk shows, political magazines and blogs--not to mention conversations in workplaces and on street corners. Undoubtedly, all of them with few exceptions express solidarity with Egypt and the revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.

It's become commonplace to say that India has not one but many Mubaraks. This begs the question, as Delhi University political scientists Saroj Giri puts it: "Where is India's Tahrir Square?"

That said, there is a keen awareness here of the differences between Egypt and India. These differences have led most of the people I've talked to say that while they are tremendously inspired by Egypt and think that India needs a revolution, they don't think it's about to happen any time soon. This fits, by and large, with opinions in print and online.

The purpose of this article is to make some general observations about the two elements of inspiration and caution that seem to characterize Indian responses to Egypt at this early stage.

Ultimately, progressives and radicals in India are wrestling with questions that are crucial for all people living in capitalist democracies in 2011, this year of global revolt. We all want our Tahrir Squares.

But how do we get to the next step? How do we translate Egypt in nations where democracy, however flawed, allows for public protest, whether through street rallies or regular electoral change? How do we make the most of civil liberties--and defend them--even as we press forward to fight the policies that maintain and accelerate social and economic inequalities?

Solidarity with Egypt

There's broad agreement here on the fact that many of the conditions that sparked the revolt in Egypt are present in India today, and that massive changes are needed. Rising prices for food and basic commodities, rampant corruption, repression of civil liberties from the military and courts, and an increasing gap between rich and poor, with 40-50% under the poverty line, have created political and economic crises that, in some instances, are worse than those of Egypt.

On the left, such solidarity is readily apparent. It makes sense that a site affiliated with the Free Binayak Sen campaign would carry an article on "Egyptian perseverance," calling this "an epoch-making time while the incredibly brave and inspirational women and men of North Africa and the Middle-East are shaking off the tentacles of political repression and every dictator worth his salt is quaking in terror of the inevitable."

Similarly, in its press release recognizing the formation of the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions, the New Trade Union Initiative acknowledged Egyptian workers' struggles as "a symbol of hope for all those who are struggling against undemocratic regimes...giving confidence to workers from across the world to fight for democracy."

But it's interesting to see not only radical but also mainstream commentators making these points with a clarity and freshness that only a revolution can evoke.

As Tavleen Singh, a columnist for the Indian Express¸ wrote in an article titled "Sharing Egypt's Rage":

Those of our political leaders who have paid attention to the protests in Tahrir Square must be spending sleepless nights. Not because a floodgate of public rage is about to burst open in Delhi or Mumbai, but because the reasons for the rage are so familiar to us who live in the proudly democratic republic of India.

Allow me to list a few similarities. Open loot of public money. Political leaders who become fabulously rich while ordinary people remain horribly poor. Dynastic succession...[E]conomic policies that have created a small super-rich elite while the majority of our people live on less than $2 a day.

Similarly, Mahima Sharma's blog on the website of IBN, CNN's India affiliate, titled "Time for an Egypt in India?" notes that there are debates on whether such a revolution could happen here--but within the framework that they ought to happen. Sharma concludes: "[T]he country's youth are divided over an Egypt for India with or without violent protests, but they surely want a revolution to topple down the corrupt regime prevalent in [every] nook and corner of the country."

Rank-and-file workers are also quite clear on the importance of Egypt, revealing the kinds of debates that are going on at work, in homes and in communities.

Egypt was definitely on the minds of workers at the massive national rally on February 23 in New Delhi, organized jointly by Indian's numerous trade union federations--significantly, including the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), which is affiliated with the ruling Congress Party. Everyone I talked to was aware of the revolts and expressed their solidarity, whether they were manual laborers from a village in Punjab with one or two computers among them, or dock workers from Chennai, or Life Insurance Corporation workers from West Bengal.

As a leader of the vibrant contingent of 2,500 child-care workers from the Gujarat Anganwadi Karamchari Sangathan told me, "Egypt gives us great inspiration. They showed everyone what people power can do."

Egypt has become a general sign for popular power, for the kind of mass struggle politicians should look out for. In speaking with the press about his movement against political corruption, social activist Swami Agnivesh said on February 6, "It is time people should go to the streets against corruption. If corruption goes at this level, what happened in Egypt may repeat here also."

But Egypt is not India...

The thread of caution that runs beneath many Indian commentaries on Egypt allude to three points: the political context of democracy, the problem of unity and a certain secularist defense of the Indian state.

First, many activists see a fundamental difference between Egypt and India in terms of the political context: India is already a multi-party democracy with various avenues for expressing dissent--at least it seems so if you're outside of the war zones of Kashmir, Maoist-influenced areas, and the Northeast, of if you're not marked by the state for "sedition," like Dr. Binayak Sen.

As a member of the Income-Tax Employees Federation in Delhi told me at the February 23 rally, "We need to engage in struggle like the Egyptian people. But Egypt was fighting for democracy, and we already have democracy here. We can change our leaders every four or five years. We're not fighting to overthrow the government but to put pressure on them."

In his article, Saroj Giri explains where this sentiment comes from:

Unlike in a dictatorship where direct measures of coercion are used...India's relationship of exploitation and subordination is layered and mediated, thanks to democracy and the market...Unlike the emergency in force in Egypt, one-man rule and the open repression of human rights, India always maintains what has been called a "functioning democracy."

Giri is obviously skeptical about Indian democracy's claims to freedom, and goes on to mention how "functioning democracies" always permit the use of atrocities like "regular extra-judicial killings, including Operation Green Hunt against Maoist rebels."

His point about "mediation" is that power does not seem to be coming from just one person or symbol but gets spread out in complex ways. Over the course of time, Indian capitalist democracy has allowed for, one, a sense of popular access to politics through various political parties, often espousing radical, populist rhetoric; and two, some degree of mobility for ordinary people within an expanding market, even if that mobility does not end poverty and deprivation.

Rohit Negi, a social scientist at Ambedkar University, put it to me differently. It isn't just that politics and elections provide a "vent" for people, but that the poor get connected to parties on the day-to-day level. "In Delhi, for instance, every slum has neighborhood leaders who belong to one or the other party," Negi said. "This chain then moves to a string of regional leaders who have a patronage-relationship with the slum residents," ensuring that their "illegal" settlements won't get demolished in exchange for votes.

What sorts of movements would have to emerge among the poor and among trade unionists to fight off the limitations of being so tied to capitalist parties and leaders--whether of the mainstream variety like Congress, ruling class Dalit leaders like Mayawati, or "neoliberal leftists" like the Communist Party of India (Marxist)?

Next, there is the question of unity: activists wonder if India, with all of its divisions of caste, class, religion and the like, ever present the sort of united front that was visible in Egypt? As Vidya Bhushan Rawat asks in "India Waits for Its Mubarak Moment": "In Egypt, people rose up against the despot for a common cause...Can we really fight a common cause in India?"

This question emerges not only from the identity politics that often drives many mobilizations here, but from the very strong perception among secularists and progressives that it is the Indian state, in fact, that stands as a bulwark against reactionary social conflict.

As Negi and Giri both assert, activists fear that any crises for the Indian state would lead to the flare-up of caste and sectarian conflicts that proliferate Indian society. Notwithstanding the evidence that the state itself works hand-in-glove with reactionary social forces in perpetuating conflicts of caste and religion, this myth of the secular state has longstanding power on the Indian left.

There's a certain degree of exasperation among many commentators. For, as they recount, it's not as if ordinary people in India haven't fought against inequalities and oppression. Rather, the movements have been are being crushed by the Indian state quite ruthlessly. As N. Venugopal from Hyderabad--the "cybercity" recently shut down for two days by activists of the Telangana movement--wrote in a recent letter to Economic and Political Weekly:

If the picture of one Mohammad Bouazizi, who immolated himself against bureaucratic high-handedness, could inspire hundreds of thousands of Tunisians to rise and overthrow an anti-people government, why are the self-immolations, starvation deaths, suicides, unnatural deaths, encounter killings as well as sacrifices in armed movements of thousands of our brothers and sisters not able to move and prod us into some action?


Perhaps the question in India is not "Where is our Tahrir Square?" but the 2011 version of larger questions that have engaged the Indian left for a long time: "How can Egypt inspire efforts to unify and coordinate ongoing radical actions and struggles?"

In a fragmented yet thoughtful post on Kafila.org, Gautam Bahn underlined the basic inspiration that Egypt represents for India--a political confidence, a spark, a demonstration that the powerful can be overcome. As Bhan writes, the story of:

an unemployed man, [immolating] himself alleged police harassment...is a story that could and does belong to any village, town and city in India. Within it, lie two strands of injustice--economic inequality and the indignities and injustices of everyday life in the deeply hierarchical and stratified societies we inhabit. The question lies in the spark that tips them off and the moment than then takes sparks and turns them into organized and unorganized fires.

To me, the need for us to build our own Tahrir is clear. It may or may not take the same form as Cairo but this moment must energise us to find our own version of this story. Onward!

Egypt, ultimately, does not come with a roadmap to revolution--which is, of course, an ongoing process in Egypt itself. Egypt gives us all a spark, one that has to ignite and mobilize ongoing struggles. The spark from Egypt has to meet with the sparks already ablaze in India.

If you want to find them, and the radical changes they promise, listen to the slogans of the working women of the Gujarat Anganwadi Karamchari Sangathan, part of the CPI(M)-affiliated Center of Indian Trade Unions:

Hum Gujarati Naari Hain
Phool Nahin Chingaari Hain
Hamse Jo Takaraayega
Sidhaa Upar Jaayega

(We are Gujarati Women
We are not flowers, but sparks of fire
Whoever will try to fight us
Will be sent straight to their maker.)

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