200 Years Later, Why Marx Remains Relevant In An Indian Context

The year 2018 marks the bicentenary of Karl Marx, a philosopher and thinker who is partially understood without being read by his critics. Marx doesn’t lack vocal critics but in my opinion, it is the need of the hour to argue how Marx helps us understands Indian society and what lies ahead.

In a nation like India, the vision of Karl Marx has enough relevance due to deep-rooted class and caste discrimination. His renowned work with Friedrich Engels is on the contradictions of capitalism. Capitalism’s profit-making tendency eats up surplus labour and makes overproduction inevitable. This means capitalism keeps facing recurring crises.

Marx read history through the lens of class struggle. ‘Class’ in Marxism is determined by one’s relation to the means of production. Marx didn’t invent the idea of socialism – there were socialists before Marx. However, Marx and Engels did come up with ‘scientific socialism’, in contrast to the ‘utopian socialism’ that had existed before.

Marx is often blamed for the death of millions under communist regimes such as Stalin’s Russia or Cambodia under Pol Pot. However, it seems rather unfair to blame a philosopher for the poor implementation of his ideas, especially when political killings are not even mentioned once in his writings. It has been nearly three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and blaming Marx for the totalitarian character of these regimes is unfair. Marx and Engels’ vision of a communist society is a far cry from such totalitarian horror. Revolutionary terror may be used during the revolution but to make it a permanent state of affairs even after the revolution was never an idea proposed by Marx or Engels.

Marx’s Relevance In India

There are ideologues, social theorists and political leaders in India who reject Marx’s theory based on incomplete knowledge, just like people elsewhere in the world. Indian opponents of Marx have two types of opinions on Marx’s theory – 1) Marx’s theory was only relevant to 19th century Europe and circumstances today are a lot different; 2) Marx’s theory may be relevant to other countries but not in India because Marx never wrote about the caste system.

But let us not forget Karl Marx was one of the first thinkers to draw sharp attention to the highly deleterious impact of caste on Indian society and its causal link with the relations of production. In his famous essay on “The Future Results of British Rule in India”, Karl Marx characterized the Indian castes as “the most decisive impediment to India’s progress and power”. Precisely in social terms, Marx argued that the caste system of India was based on the hereditary division of labour, which was inseparably linked with the unchanging technological base and subsistence economy of the Indian village community.

He said that the economic system classifies labour into manual and mental. Mental labour possesses higher value and manual labour possesses lower value. The latter gains prominence and respect in any hierarchical system, while the former languishes at the bottom of the social structure. A society based on the exploitation of labour exploits manual labour most intensely, especially the bottommost manual labourers. For example – an engineer and a factory worker would have unimaginable differences in income, exploitation and livelihood. Majority of the upper caste population are engaged in mental labour and lower castes carry out manual labour.

Marx did address this Indian issue, calling the caste-based communities “small and extremely ancient” in  “Capital”, but he does not give a concrete solution to the problem of caste.

Today, there is labour unrest nationwide under the Modi government, jobless growth, skyrocketing unemployment, rapid unleashing of neoliberal policies which have created a colossal gap between different sections of society in terms of wealth. 73% of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of just the 1% ultra rich. Shouldn’t we realise that Karl Marx’s theory on contradiction and crisis of capitalism and remain most relevant for Indian democracy?  Caste-based labour determination is an addition to Marx’s theory of labour. But is it not our responsibility to alter Marx’s theory according to the Indian context, where caste as identity is a decisive factor? If this is not done, it will be injustice to our own people.

In political terms, India needs robust democratic welfarism which needs detail study led by an experiment. For the first time in India, an alliance between communists and Ambedkarites has happened. The Bahujan Left Front (BLF) is creating new political space for the downtrodden. This approach combines the understanding of both Marx and Ambedkar, as India never witnessed a revolution and Indian society is comprised of monopoly bourgeois and feudal relations. Marx’s theory of annihilation of class and Ambedkar’s theory of annihilation of caste need to be synthesized and put to immediate practice for the emancipation of the Indian populace.

If the Indian Left formulates this understanding on a broader level just like the Nepali communists, some radical improvement could be brought about by combining Marxian welfarism with Ambedkarite socio-economic reform. In simple terms, this vision will be an extension of the annihilation of class combined with the annihilation of caste to form a classless-casteless society.

Marx remains relevant because capitalism essentially is based on inequality of the worst order and socialism in Indian conditions can provide an answer to both the class and caste questions. We must not willingly accept a social order based on inequality of any kind.  We must also understand that Marxist revolutionaries such as Lenin, Mao, Ho Chin Minh, Castro, etc. adapted ideas of Marx which suited best the needs of their revolutions. Indian conditions demand the same. Application of Marxian principles cannot be the same everywhere as Marxism or scientific socialism itself is a dynamic force which demands change in the application according to the place and condition. With this hope, let us look forward to realising Marx’s vision of a more equitable society.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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