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Lessons From The Naxalbari Movement Can Save India’s Dying Working Class Protests

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The term ‘protest’ is driven by a very meaningful imagination to reclaim the people’s power. Through this, common people not only unite, but also cultivate a common opinion against an existing power structure to demand their basic rights.

The famous historian, Eric Hobsbawm, writes that “the activity combining bodily experience and intense emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation.” Marching, chanting slogans, singing, through which the individuals in the mass merge (which is the essence of a collective experience), finds expression. This means that a ‘protest’ is a collective conscience that unites all the people with common expressions and rational behavior like marching, chanting slogans and mass gatherings.

The term ‘protest’ has popularly been used since the early 19th century. It describes a collective action and mass gathering against a dominating power structure. Along with the idea of unity and the claim of people’s power, it has also been close to the basic needs of the common people, for which they have been challenging a dominating power or the ruling class.

Therefore, ‘protest’ can also be described as a political action by the masses which often constitutes a very strategic ground to maintain an ideological opinion that enhances rationality among them and the notion of collective experience. By combining different activities, it emphasises not just a change in the existing composition of power relations – it also leads to a combined expression of the masses towards social change.

But, after the declaration of the ‘end of history’, the term ‘protest’ has changed its characteristics. The ‘end of history’ laid claims to a new generation without history or the need for it. Even though it was just an idea and not the reality per se, it described the whole world not on the basis of the history of the working class but on the basis of the negligence of historical facts.

Thus, the ‘end of history’ and the Derridian notion cultivated a perception that was a complete expression of the bourgeoisie class. It changed the entire genealogy of the notion of the working class in a new society. Not only in India, but also across the world, the ruling class along with the so-called ‘parliamentary Left’ used ‘protest’ as a political tool not to lead the working class movement, but to define their position in the existing power relation.

In India, for instance, this situation was very disastrous – and it completely changed the narrative which emerged after the Naxalbari movement. The consequences of the Naxalbari uprising are still anti-bourgeoisie – it not only gave hope for the masses, it also led to a new paradigm for the working class movement in India.

This was especially relevant after India’s independence, which, in my opinion, created a myth that total freedom would come through the exercise of the parliamentary system. However, it was only an illusion that led to a consciousness against the working class.

Where the Naxalbari movement is concerned, this historic event again defined a new method and ideological coalition to bring about change in the existing power relation. After independence, the ruling class, on the basis of their own socio-economic situation, redefined Brahmanism and its sole prejudices through the different forms of protests.

In this entire scenario, the Naxalbari uprising proclaimed a new debate and intended to change the narrative of protest against the ruling class. The debate that the Naxalbari movement put forward was basically the challenges against the ruling class’ ideology and the so-called ‘Left politics’ in India. Therefore, the social movements after the Naxalbari movement and the nature of protests about the rising working class issue took a new direction in favour of radical social change – and conceptualising once again, the whole scenario that emerged after India’s freedom. It also questioned the liberal tendencies of the Indian Left’s politics.

Due to the emergence of a new condition after India’s freedom, along with class, the caste question also became a central point. The Naxalbari movement exposed this very clearly, and it was indeed the beginning of a new phase in the Indian Left’s politics, that widely influenced the working class movement. The acceptability of the caste question by the Indian Left led to their ideological engagement with the real problems of Dalits, Adiwasis and other oppressed sections. Therefore, the idea of ‘protest’ was not just redefined on the basis of the existing caste and class alliance – it was also redefined as an essential subversive action for radical social change.

Apart from these, the significant contribution of the Naxalbari movement in this context is that it led to a cycle of protests and struggles against the ruling class. People from all sections came together and put forward their strength and beliefs for radical change in the society. Waves of protests and large-scale mobilisations made successive influences in states like West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka.

What can protests like these learn from the erstwhile and infamous Naxalbari movement? (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

During the Naxalbari uprising, cycles of protests in which people in large numbers from different parts of India participated, led to a new wave of revolutionary activities in which people from across the country organised and opposed the Indian state and its supposedly-allied Left forces. Even after the Naxalbari uprising and partly inspired by it, widespread and widely-supported protests happened at different places across India.

Till 1990, the influence of protest and mobilisation through mass protests across the society raised the issue of the working class problem. But, the situation after 1990 took a different look and exposed the changing nature of the Indian ruling class. The current neo-liberal trajectory that is being pursued by the ruling class has generated acute agrarian crises and unemployment (for instance). In opposition to it, the protesting Left has not just gradually lost its social base – it has also failed to address the current situation.

Following the current neo-liberal trajectory, increasing inequality and unemployment have generated tremendous pressure on the Indian ruling class – and this situation has led them to increasingly attack the protesting working class movement. As far as protests are concerned in this current situation, they have become elitist as opposed to dealing with the genuine demands and popular aspirations of the people.

The working class movement is therefore passing through an unprecedented crisis. This crisis is undoubtedly a result of the emerging coalition of anti-working class forces with the ruling class, that has led to the whole situation.

Following formers suicides in different parts of India, numerous protest movements are still going on, but no serious effort has been made to find a solution. Recently, a large number of farmers from Tamil Nadu organised their protest at Delhi demanding loan waiver and drought-relief package. The group of farmers had grabbed headlines in the newspapers for their method of protest and demands, but they were unable to mobilise people widely when it came to having their problems addressed.

Apart from these, a series of protests have also happened recently across the country – in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Karnataka. These have clearly exposed the increasingly deep crises of the agrarian economy and unemployment. The method of protests that emerged is also a reflection of the new crisis. Following the new and emerging coalition of the Indian ruling class (with the anti-working class forces), the situation demands a new challenge against the Indian ruling class.


Featured image source: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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