Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Attacks on Civil Liberties in Gujarat

“Is it a crime to work in a democratic and peaceful way for the empowerment and development of Adivasis”? 
- Adivasi Mahasabha Gujarat & People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat.

Mr. Avinash Kulkarni and Mr. Bharat Pawar, activists of long-standing repute, have been working relentlessly for the rights of the Adivasis of Gujarat, over the past 15 years. Based in Ahwa, Avinash and Bharat have been actively involved on issues pertaining to the empowerment and development of Adivasis, through the Dangi Lok Adhikar Samiti and the Dangi Mazdoor Union, in Dang district. Avinash and Bharat have played a significant role in the struggle for the Forest Rights Act and for people's rights to use, manage and control forests and forest resources as part of the leadership of Adivasi Mahasabha Gujarat, both in the advocacy and struggle that brought about the Forests Rights Act and the monitoring of its implementation across the Adivasi areas of Gujarat. It is a well known fact that they have always worked for democratic and peaceful means of securing the rights and entitlements of the Adivasis and have stood by non-violent means of working for social change.
In the afternoon of 21st March, 2010, about 2 P.M  Avinash  was picked up by Dy. S. P.  Shri Patil under the pretext of questioning and took him to an undisclosed location, without giving any information to his family members or colleagues as to where they were taking him or giving him the right of contacting his advocate. Bharat Pawar also was detained the same evening in a similar fashion by policemen from the DSP office of Ahwa, Dangs. This is a clear violation of Justice D. K. Basu Guideline of Supreme Court.

We are aware of the abysmal human rights track record of the Gujarat Government, not only during the 2002 communal carnage, or the infamous police encounter killings, but also the serious violations that the police and the forest department staff have perpetrated on the Adivasis of Gujarat, particularly over the past one decade. The Antarsuba police firing in which 2 Adivasis were brutally shot dead and more than 26 Adivasis hounded in an inhuman fashion under the pretext of destroying the forest is still fresh in our memory. The Gujarat Police and the Government has lived up to their notorious image in this yet another shameful episode by detaining these activists working for Adivasi rights.

Adivasi Mahasabha Gujarat and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat strongly condemns and requests all those who value human rights and human dignity to condemn the illegal detention of Avinash Kulkarni and Bharat Pawar by the Police on false grounds and demand that they be released forthwith.

We also condemn in the strongest possible terms the manner in which the Adivasis of Gujarat are being trampled upon and oppressed, and the sinister conspiracy of the government to decimate all efforts to secure their rights by filing false charges and resorting to unconstitutional practices such as illegal detention against all those who work for social awareness and human dignity. We urge the Gujarat Government to end this Police Raj and show respect to human rights and constitutional procedures.

Bahnubhai Tadvi   Rameshbhai Tadvi     Prasad Chacko      Trupti Parekh        Xavier  Manjooran

Adivasi Mahasabha, Gujarat

Dr. J. S. Bandukwala                        Rohit Prajapati                      Trupti Shah

People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Gujarat.

Marxists and Religion - yesterday and today

Gilbert Achcar


1. Classical Marxism’s theoretical (‘philosophical’) attitude towards religion combines three complementary elements, the germ of which can be already found in the young Marx’s Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (1843-44):

First a critique of religion, as a factor of alienation. The human being attributes to the divinity responsibility for a fate which owes nothing to the latter (‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’); he/she compels him/herself to respect obligations and prohibitions which often hamper his/her full development; he/she submits voluntarily to religious authorities whose legitimacy is founded either on the fantasy of their privileged relationship to the divinity, or on their specialisation in the body of religious knowledge.

Gilbert Achcar
Gilbert Achcar

Then a critique of religious social and political doctrines. Religions are ideological survivals of epochs long gone: religion is a ‘false consciousness of the world’ - even more so as the world changes. Born in pre-capitalist societies, religions have been able to undergo - like the Protestant Reformation in the history of Christianity - renewals, which necessarily remain partial and limited so long as a religion venerates ‘holy scriptures’. But also an ‘understanding’ (in the Weberian sense) of the psychological role which religious belief can play for the wretched of the earth.

"Religious misery is, at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

From these three considerations emerges in the view of classical Marxism, one sole conclusion set forth by the young Marx:

"The overcoming (Aufhebung) of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo."

2. Nevertheless, Classical Marxism did not pose the suppression of religion as a necessary precondition of social emancipation (the remarks of the young Marx could be read thus: in order to overcome illusions, it is necessary first to put an end to the ‘condition that requires illusions’). In any case - as with the State, one might say - the point is not abolishing religion, but creating the conditions for its extinction. It is not a question of prohibiting ‘the opium of the people’, and still less of repressing its addicts. It is only about putting an end to the privileged relationships that those who trade in it maintain with the powers that be, in order to reduce its grip on minds.

Three levels of attitude should be considered here: Classical Marxism, i.e. the Marxism of the Founders, did not require the inscription of atheism in the programme of social movements. On the contrary, in his critique of the Blanquist émigrés from the Commune (1874), Engels mocked their pretensions to abolish religion by decree. His clear-sightedness has been completely confirmed by the experiences of the 20th Century, as when he asserted that "persecutions are the best means of promoting disliked convictions" and that "the only service, which may still be rendered to God today, is that of declaring atheism an article of faith to be enforced."

Republican secularism, i.e. the separation of Church and state, is on the other hand a necessary and irreducible objective, which was already part of the programme of radical bourgeois democracy. But here also, it is important not to confuse separation with prohibition, even as far as education is concerned. In his critical commentaries on the Erfurt Programme of German Social Democracy (1891), Engels proposed the following formulation:

"Complete separation of the Church from the state. All religious communities without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are to be deprived of any support from public funds and of all influence on public schools." Then he added in brackets this comment, "They cannot be prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and from teaching their own nonsense in them!"

The workers’ party should at the same time fight ideologically the influence of religion. In the 1873 text, Engels celebrated the fact that the majority of German socialist worker militants had been won to atheism, and suggested the distribution of eighteenth century French materialist literature in order to convince the greatest number.

In his critique of the Gotha programme of the German workers’ party (1875), Marx explained that private freedom in matters of belief and religious practice should be defined only in terms of rejection of state interference. He stated the principle in this way: "Everyone should be able to attend his religious as well as his bodily needs without the police sticking their noses in." He added however :

"But the workers’ party ought, at any rate in this connection, to have expressed its awareness of the fact that bourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, whereas it [the party] strives much more to free the consciences from the witchery of religion."

3. Classical Marxism only envisaged religion from the viewpoint of relationships of European societies to their own traditional religions. It took into consideration neither the persecution of religious minorities, nor above all, the persecution of the religions of oppressed peoples by oppressive states belonging to another religion. In our epoch, marked by the survival of colonial heritage and by its transposition into the imperial metropolises themselves - in the form of an ‘internal colonialism’ whose original feature is that the colonised themselves are expatriates, i.e. ‘immigrants’ - this aspect acquires a major importance.

In a context dominated by racism, a natural corollary of the colonial heritage, persecutions of the religions of the oppressed, the ex-colonised, should not be rejected only because they are the ‘best means of promoting disliked convictions’. They should be rejected also and above all, because they are a dimension of ethnic or racial oppression, as intolerable as political, legal, and economic persecutions and discriminations.

To be sure, the religious practices of colonised peoples can appear as very retrograde in the eyes of the metropolitan populations, whose material and scientific superiority was in line with the very fact of colonisation. Nevertheless, it is not by imposing their way of life on the colonised populations, against their will, that the cause of the latter’s emancipation will be served. The road to the hell of racist oppression is paved with good ‘civilising’ intentions, and we know how much the workers’ movement itself was contaminated by charitable pretensions and philanthropic illusions in the colonial era.

Engels however had indeed warned against this colonial syndrome. In a letter to Kautsky, dated 12 September 1882, he formulated an emancipatory policy of the proletariat in power, wholly marked with the caution necessary so as not to transform a presumed liberation into a disguised oppression:

"The countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated, India, Algiers, the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, must be taken over for the time being by the proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution, and as the proletariat emancipating itself cannot conduct any colonial wars, this would have to be given full scope; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of course, but that sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algiers and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us.

"We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses, I think. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing."

An elementary truth but still so often ignored: any ‘blessings’ imposed by force equal oppression, and could not be perceived otherwise by those who are subjected to them.


4. The question of the Islamic scarf (hijab) condenses all the problems posed above. It allows us to outline the Marxist attitude in all its aspects.

In most countries where Islam is the religion of the majority, religion is still the dominant form of ideology. Retrograde, more or less literal, interpretations of Islam serve to maintain whole populations in submission and cultural backwardness. Women especially and intensively undergo a secular oppression, draped in religious legitimisation.

In such a context, the ideological struggle against the use of religion as a means of submission is key in the fight for emancipation. The separation of religion and the state should be a demand prioritised by the movement for social progress. Democrats and progressives must fight for the freedom of every man and woman in matters of unbelief, of belief and of religious practice. At the same time, the fight for women’s liberation remains the very criterion of any emancipatory identity, the touchstone of any progressive claim.

One of the most elementary aspects of women’s freedom is their individual freedom to dress as they like. When the Islamic scarf and, a fortiori, more enveloping versions of this type of garment, are imposed on women, they are one of the numerous forms of everyday sexual oppression - a form all the more visible as it serves to make women invisible. The struggle against the requirement to wear the scarf or other veils is inseparable from the struggle against other aspects of female servitude.

However, the emancipatory struggle would be gravely compromised if it sought to ‘free’ women by force, by resorting to coercion, not with regard to their oppressors but with regard to women themselves. Tearing off religious garb by force - even if it is judged that wearing it denotes voluntary servitude - is an oppressive action and not an action of real emancipation. It is moreover an action doomed to failure, as Engels predicted: the fate of Islam in the ex-Soviet Union as well as the evolution of Turkey eloquently illustrate the inanity of any attempt to eradicate religion or religious practices by coercion.

‘Everyone should be able to attend his/her religious as well as his/her bodily needs’ - women wearing the hijab or men wearing beards - ‘without the police sticking their noses’.

Defending this elementary individual freedom is the indispensable condition of an effective fight against religious diktats. The prohibition of the hijab paradoxically legitimises the act of imposing it in the eyes of those who consider it an article of faith. Only the principles of freedom of conscience and of strictly individual religious practice, whether in relation to clothing or anything else, and the respect for these principles by secular governments, allow legitimate and successful opposition to religious coercion. The Koran itself proclaims ‘No coercion in religion’!

Moreover and at the risk of challenging freedom of education, the prohibition of the Islamic scarf or other religious signs in state schools in the name of secularism is an eminently self-defeating position, since it results in promoting religious schools.

5. In France, Islam has been for a very long time the majority religion of the ‘indigenous’ people in the colonies and it has been for decades the religion of the great majority of immigrants, the ‘colonised’ of the interior. In such a case, every form of persecution of the Islamic religion - numerically the second religion of France, though it is very inferior to the others in status - should be fought.

Compared with religions present on French soil for centuries, Islam is underprivileged. It is victim to glaring discrimination, for example concerning its places of worship or the domineering supervision that the French state, saturated with colonial mentality, imposes on it. Islam is a religion vilified daily in the French media, in a manner that is fortunately no longer possible against the previous prime target of racism, Judaism, after the Nazi genocide and the Vichy complicity. A great amount of confusion laced with ignorance and racism filtered through the media, maintains an image of an Islamic religion intrinsically unfit for modernity, as well as the amalgam of Islam and terrorism, facilitated by the inappropriate use of the term ‘Islamism’ as a synonym for Islamic fundamentalism.

Of course, the official and dominant discourse is not overtly hostile; it even makes itself out to be benevolent, its eyes fixed on the considerable interests of big French capital - oil, arms, construction etc., in the Islamic lands. However, colonial condescension toward Muslim men and women and their religion is just as insufferable for them as open racist hostility. The colonial spirit is not confined to the right in France; it has long been rooted in the French left, constantly torn in its history between a colonialism blended with an essentially racist condescension expressed as paternalism, and a tradition of militant anti-colonialism.

Even at the beginning of the split of the French workers’ movement between social democrats and communists, a right wing emerged among the communists of the metropolis themselves (without mentioning the French communists in Algeria), particularly distinguishing itself by its position on the colonial question. The communist right betrayed its anti-colonialist duty when the insurrection of the Moroccan Rif, under the leadership of the tribal and religious chief Abd el-Krim, confronted French troops in 1925.

The statement of Jules Humbert-Droz about this to the Executive Committee of the Communist International retains certain relevance:

"The right has protested against the watchword of fraternisation with the insurgent army in the Rif, by invoking the fact that they do not have the same degree of civilisation as the French armies, and that semi-barbarian tribes cannot be fraternised with. It has gone even further, writing that Abd el-Krim has religious and social prejudices that must be fought. Doubtless we must fight the pan-Islamism and the feudalism of colonial peoples, but when French imperialism seizes the throat of the colonial peoples, the role of the CP is not to combat the prejudices of the colonial chiefs, but to fight unfailingly the rapacity of French imperialism."

6. The duty of Marxists in France is to fight unfailingly racist and religious oppression conducted by the imperial bourgeoisie and its state, before fighting religious prejudice in the midst of the immigrant populations.

When the French state concerns itself with regulating the way in which young Muslim women dress themselves and exclude from school those who persist in wearing the Islamic scarf; when the latter are taken as targets of a media and political campaign whose scale is out of proportion with the extent of the phenomenon concerned and thus reveals its oppressive character, perceived as Islamophobic or racist, whatever the intentions expressed; when the same state favours the well-known expansion of religious communal education through increasing subsidies to private education, thus aggravating the divisions between the exploited layers of the French population - the duty of Marxists, in the light of everything explained above, is to be resolutely opposed.

This has not been the case for a good part of those who call themselves Marxists in France. On the question of the Islamic scarf, the position of the Ligue de l’Enseignement (the League for Education), whose secularist commitment is above all suspicion, is much closer to genuine Marxism than that of numerous bodies that claim it as their source of inspiration. Thus, one can read the following in the declaration adopted by the Ligue, at its June 2003 general meeting at Troyes:

"The Ligue de l’Enseignement, whose whole history is marked by constant activity in support of secularism, considers that to legislate on the wearing of religious symbols is inopportune. Any law would be useless or impossible.

"The risk is obvious. Whatever precautions are taken, there is no doubt that the effect obtained will be a prohibition, which will in fact stigmatise Muslims....

"For those who would wish to make the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a political fight, exclusion from state schools will not prevent them from studying elsewhere, in institutions in which they will have every opportunity to find themselves justified and strengthened in their attitude....

"Integration of all citizens, independent of their origins and convictions, passes through the recognition of a cultural diversity, which should express itself in the framework of the equality of treatment that the Republic should guarantee to everyone. On these grounds Muslims as with other believers, should benefit from freedom of religion in the respect for the rules that a pluralist and deeply secular society imposes. The struggle for the emancipation of young women in particular goes primarily through their schooling and respect for their freedom of conscience and their autonomy: let us not make them hostages to an otherwise necessary ideological debate. In order to struggle against an enclosed identity, secularist pedagogy, the struggle against discrimination, the fight for social justice and equality are more effective than prohibition."

In its report of 4 November 2003, submitted to the Commission on the application of the principle of secularism in the Republic, the Ligue de L’Enseignement deals admirably with Islam and its representations in France, of which only some excerpts are quoted here:

"The resistance and discrimination encountered by the ‘Muslim populations’ in French society are not essentially due, as is too often said, to the lack of integration of these populations but to majority representations and attitudes which stem in large part from an old historic heritage.

"The first is the refusal to recognise the contribution of Arab-Muslim civilisation to world culture and to our own western culture....

"To this concealment and rejection is added the colonial heritage ... bearer of a deep and long-lasting tradition of violence, inequality and racism, which the difficulties of de-colonisation, and then the rifts of the Algerian war amplified and reinforced. The ethnic, social, cultural, and religious oppression of the indigenous Muslim populations of the French colonies was a constant practice, to the point that it is echoed in limitations to its legal status. It is thus that Islam was considered as an element of the personal statute and not as a religion coming under the 1905 Law of Separation (of Church and State - trans).

"For the whole duration of colonisation, the principle of secularism never applied to the indigenous populations and to their religion because of the opposition of the colonial lobby, and in spite of the requests of the ulema (Muslim scholars - trans) who had understood that the secular regime would give them freedom of religion. Why should we be surprised then that for a very long time secularism for Muslims was synonymous with a colonial mind-police! How should we expect that it would not leave deep traces, as much on the previously colonised as on the colonizing country? If many Muslims today still consider that Islam should regulate public and private civil behaviour, and tend sometimes to adopt such a profile, without demanding the status of law for this, it is because France and the secular Republic have ordered them to do it for several generations.

"If many French people, sometimes even amongst the best educated who occupy prominent positions, allow themselves to make pejorative appraisals of Islam, whose ignorance vies with their stupidity, it is because they subscribe, most often unconsciously while denying it, to this tradition of colonial contempt."

A third aspect gets in the way of the consideration of Islam on a footing of equality: it is that Islam as a transplanted religion is also a religion of the poor. Unlike the Judeo-Christian religions whose followers in France are spread across the whole social chessboard, and in particular unlike Catholicism, historically integrated into the dominant class, Muslims, whether French citizens or immigrants living in France, are situated for the moment in their great majority at the bottom of the social ladder.

There the colonial tradition still continues, since the cultural oppression of the indigenous populations was added to economic exploitation, and since the latter has for a long time weighed very heavily on the first immigrant generations, while today their heirs are the first victims of unemployment and urban neglect. The social contempt and injustice that strike these social categories affect every aspect of their existence, including the religious dimension. No one is offended by the scarves on the heads of cleaners or catering staff in offices: they only become the object of scandal when worn with pride by girls engaged in studies or women with managerial status.

The lack of understanding shown by the main organisations of the extra-parliamentary Marxist left in France of the identity and cultural problems of the populations concerned, is revealed by the composition of their electoral slates in the European elections: both in 1999 and 2004 citizens originating from populations previously colonized - from the Maghreb or from sub-Saharan Africa in particular - have been outstanding by their absence at the tops of the LCR-LO slates, by contrast with the French Communist Party slates, a party so many times stigmatized for its failures in the antiracist struggle by these two organizations. In so doing they are at the same time depriving themselves of an electoral potential amongst the most oppressed layers in France, a potential which the results obtained in 2004 by an improvised slate such as Euro-Palestine demonstrated in a spectacular fashion.

7. In mentioning "those who would wish to make of the wearing of a religious symbol a tool for a political fight", the Ligue de l’Enseignement was alluding, of course, to Islamic fundamentalism. The expansion of this political phenomenon in the West amongst people originating from Muslim immigration, after its strong expansion for the last thirty years in Islamic countries, has been in France the preferred argument of those whishing to prohibit the Islamic scarf.

The argument is a real one: like the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other fundamentalisms aiming to imposed a puritan interpretation of religion as a code of life, if not as a mode of government, Islamic fundamentalism is a real danger to social progress and emancipatory struggles. By taking care to establish a clear distinction between religion as such and its fundamentalist interpretation, the most reactionary of all, it is necessary to fight Islamic fundamentalism ideologically and politically, as much in the Islamic countries as in the midst of the Muslim minorities in the West or elsewhere.

That cannot however constitute an argument in favour of a public prohibition of the Islamic scarf: the Ligue de l’Enseignement has explained this in a convincing fashion. More generally, Islamophobia is the best objective ally of Islamic fundamentalism: their growth goes together. The more the left gives the impression of joining the dominant Islamophobia, the more they will alienate the Muslim populations, and the more they will facilitate the task of the Islamic fundamentalists, who will appear as the only people able to express the protests of the populations concerned against "real misery".

Islamic fundamentalism is, however, heterogeneous and different tactics should be adopted according to concrete situations. When this type of social programme is administered by an oppressive power and by its allies in order to legitimate the existing oppression, as in the case of numerous despotisms with an Islamic face; or when it becomes a political weapon of reaction struggling against a progressive power, as was the case in the Arab world, in the 1950-1970 period, when Islamic fundamentalism was the spearhead of the reactionary opposition to Egyptian Nasserism and its emulators - the only appropriate stance is that of an implacable hostility to the fundamentalists.

It is different when Islamic fundamentalism plays the role of a politico-ideological channel for a cause that is objectively progressive, a deforming channel, certainly, but filling the void left by the failure or absence of movements of the left. This is the case in situations where Islamic fundamentalists are fighting a foreign occupation (Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, etc.) or an ethnic or racial oppression as in those situations where they incarnate a popular hatred of a politically reactionary and repressive regime. It is also the case of Islamic fundamentalism in the West, where its rise is generally the expression of a rebellion against the fate reserved for immigrant populations.

Indeed as with religion in general, Islamic fundamentalism can be "at one and the same time, the expression of real misery and a protest against real misery", with the difference that in this case the protest is active: it is not "the opium" of the people, but rather "the heroin" of one part of the people, derived from ‘the opium’ and substituting its ecstatic effect for the narcotic effect of the latter.

In all these types of situation, it is necessary to adopt tactics appropriate to the circumstances of the struggle against the oppressor, the common enemy. While never renouncing the ideological combat against the fatal influence of Islamic fundamentalism, it can be necessary or inevitable to converge with Islamic fundamentalists in common battles - from simple street demonstrations to armed resistance, depending on the case.

8. Islamic fundamentalists can be objective and contingent allies in a fight waged by Marxists. However it is an unnatural alliance, forced by circumstances. The rules that apply to much more natural alliances such as those practised in the struggle against Tsarism in Russia, are here to be respected a fortiori, and even more strictly.

These rules were clearly defined by the Russian Marxists at the beginning of the 20th Century. In his preface of January 1905 to Trotsky’s pamphlet Before the Ninth of January, Parvus summarised them thus:

"To simplify, in the case of a common struggle with casual allies, the following points can be applied:

1) Do not merge organisations. March separately but strike together.

2) Do not abandon our own political demands.

3) Do not conceal divergences of interest.

4) Pay attention to our ally as we would pay attention to an enemy.

5) Concern ourselves more with using the situation created by the struggle than with keeping an ally."

"Parvus is profoundly right" wrote Lenin in an article in April 1905, published in the newspaper Vperiod, underlining the definite understanding, however (very appropriately brought to mind), that the organisations are not to be merged, that we march separately but strike together, that we do not conceal the diversity of interests, that we watch our ally as we would our enemy, etc.

The Bolshevik leader would enumerate many times these conditions over the years.

Trotsky tirelessly defended the same principles. In The Third International After Lenin (1928), in his polemic about alliances with the Chinese Kuomintang, he wrote the following lines particularly apt for the subject under discussion here:

"As was said long ago, purely practical agreements, such as do not bind us in the least and do not oblige us to anything politically,can be concluded with the devil himself, if that is advantageous at a given moment. But it would be absurd in such a case to demand that the devil should generally become converted to Christianity, and that he use his horns.... for pious deeds. In presenting such conditions, we act in reality as the devil’s advocates, and beg him to let us become his godfathers."

A number of Trotskyists do exactly the opposite of what Trotsky advocated, in their relationship with Islamic fundamentalist organisations. Not in France, where Trotskyists, in their majority, rather bend the stick the other way, as has already been explained, but on the other side of the Channel, in Britain.

The British far-left has the merit of having displayed a greater openness to the Muslim populations than the French far-left. It has organised impressive mobilisations with the massive participation of people originating from Muslim immigration against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the government of its country participated. In the anti-war movement, it even went as far as allying itself with a Muslim organisation of fundamentalist inspiration, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the British arm of the main ‘moderate’ Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood (represented in the parliaments of some countries).

There is nothing reprehensible in principle in such an alliance for well-defined objectives so long as the rules laid out above are strictly respected. The problem begins however with treating this particular organisation, which is far from representative of the great mass of Muslims in Britain, as a privileged ally. More generally, British Trotskyists have tended, during their alliance with the MAB in the anti-war movement, to do the opposite of what was stated above, i.e. 1) mixing banners and placards, in the literal as well as figurative sense; 2) minimising the importance of the elements of their political identity likely to embarrass their fundamentalist allies of the day; and finally 3) treating these temporary allies as if they were strategic allies, in renaming ‘anti-imperialists’ those whose vision of the world corresponds much more to the clash of civilisations than to the class struggle.

9. This tendency was made worse by the passage from an alliance in the context of an anti-war mobilisation to an alliance in the electoral field. The MAB as such did not, to be sure, join the electoral coalition Respect, led by the British Trotskyists, its fundamentalist principles preventing it from subscribing to a left programme. However, the alliance between the MAB and Respect translated for example into the candidacy on the Respect slate of a very prominent leader of the MAB, the ex-president and spokesperson of the Association.

In doing this the alliance passed de facto to a qualitatively superior level, unacceptable from a Marxist point of view: While it can be legitimate indeed to enter into ‘purely practical agreements’ that ‘do not oblige us to anything politically’ other than the action for common objectives - as it happens, to express opposition to the war conducted by the British government together with the United States and to denounce the fate inflicted on the Palestinian people - with groups and/or individuals who adhere otherwise to a fundamentally reactionary conception of society, it is utterly unacceptable for Marxists to conclude an electoral alliance - a type of alliance which presupposes a common conception of political and social change - with these sorts of partners.

In the nature of things, participating in the same electoral slate as a religious fundamentalist is to give the mistaken impression that he has been converted to social progressiveness and to the cause of workers’ emancipation both male...and female! The very logic of this type of alliance pushes those who are engaged in it, in the face of the inevitable criticism of their political competitors, to defend their allies of the day and to minimise, even to hide, the deep differences that divide them. They become their advocates, even their godfathers and godmothers within the progressive social movement.

Lindsey German
Lindsey German

Lindsey German, a central leader of the British Socialist Workers Party and of the Respect Coalition, signed an article in The Guardian described as "wonderful" on the MAB website. Under the title "A badge of honour", the author energetically defended the alliance with the MAB, explaining that it is an honour for her and her comrades to see the victims of Islamophobia turning towards them, with a surprising justification for the alliance. Let us summarise the argument: the Muslim fundamentalists are not the only people to be anti-women and homophobic, Christian fundamentalists are equally so. Moreover, women speak more and more for the MAB in anti-war meetings (as they do in meetings organised by the mullahs in Iran, it could be added). The fascists of the BNP (British National Party) are much worse than the MAB.

Of course, continued Lindsey German, some Muslims - and non-Muslims - hold views on some social issues that are more conservative than those of the socialist and liberal left. But that should not be a barrier to collaboration over common concerns. Would a campaign for gay rights, for example, insist that all those who took part share the same view of the war in Iraq?

This last argument is perfectly admissible if it only concerns the anti-war campaign. But if used to justify an electoral alliance, with a much more global programme than a campaign for lesbian and gay rights, it becomes altogether specious.

10. Electoralism is a very short-sighted policy. In order to achieve an electoral breakthrough, the British Trotskyists are playing, in this case, a game that risks undermining the construction of a radical left in their country.

What decided them, is firstly and above all an electoral calculation: attempting to capture the votes of the considerable masses of people of immigrant origin who reject the wars conducted by London and Washington (let us note in passing that the alliance with the MAB, was made around the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and not around the Kosovo war - and for a good reason!). The objective in itself, is legitimate, when it is translated - as has been the case - into the concern to recruit amongst men and women workers and young people of immigrant origin, through a particular attention paid to the specific oppression that they experience, and through the promotion to this end of left men and women militants belonging to these communities, notably by placing them in a good position on electoral slates - everything in short which the French far left has not done.

But in choosing to ally electorally - even though in a limited way - with an Islamic fundamentalist organisation like the MAB, the British far left is serving as a stepping stone for the former organisation’s own expansion in the communities of immigrant origin, whereas it should be considered as a rival to be ideologically fought and restricted from an organisational point of view. Sooner or later this unnatural alliance will hit a stumbling block and will fly to pieces. Trotskyists will then have to confront those whom they have helped to grow for the mess of pottage of an electoral result, and it is far from sure that the results owe much to their fundamentalist partners anyhow.

All we need to do is look at the arguments used by the fundamentalists in calling for a vote for Respect (and for others, such as the Mayor of London, the left Labourite Ken Livingstone, much more opportunist than the Trotskyists in his relations with the Islamic association). Let us read the fatwa of Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, dated 5 June 2004 and published on the MAB website.

The venerable sheikh explains that it is obligatory for those Muslims living under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good.

The sheikh then underlines the difference between a vote for one of a number of systems, and voting to select the best individual amongst a number of candidates within an already-established system imposed upon them and which they are unable to change within the immediate future.

"There is no doubt", he continues, "that the first type is an act of Kufr [impious], as Allah says, ’Legislation is for none but Allah’, while voting for a candidate or party who rules according to man-made law does not necessitate approval or acceptance for his method." Therefore "we should participate in voting, believing that we are doing so in an attempt to minimise the evil, while at the same time maintaining that the best system is the Shariah, which is the law of Allah.

"Voting being lawful, the question is then posed for whom to vote.

"The answer to such a question requires a deep and meticulous understanding of the political arena. Consequently, I believe that individuals should avoid involving themselves in this process and rather should entrust this responsibility to the prominent Muslim organisations.... It is upon the remainder of the Muslims therefore to accept and follow the decisions of these organisations."

In conclusion, the venerable Sheikh calls on the Muslims of Great Britain, to follow the electoral instructions of the MAB and ends with this prayer: "We ask Allah to guide us to the right path and to grant victory for law of our Lord, Allah in the UK and in other parts of the world."

This fatwa needs no comment. The deep incompatibility between the intentions of the Sheikh consulted by the MAB and the task that Marxists set for themselves or should set for themselves, in their activity in relation to the Muslim populations, is blatant. Marxists should not seek to harvest votes at any price, as opportunist politicians who stop at nothing to get elected do. Support like that of Sheikh Al-Haddad is a poisoned gift. It should be harshly criticised: the battle for ideological influence within populations originating from immigration is much more fundamental than an electoral result, however exhilarating.

The radical left, on one or another side of the Channel, should return to an attitude consistent with Marxism, which it proclaims. Otherwise, the hold of the fundamentalists over the Muslim populations risks reaching a level which will be extremely difficult to overcome. The gulf between these populations and the rest of the men and women workers in Europe will find itself widened, while the task of bridging it is one of the essential conditions for replacing the clash of barbarisms with a common fight of the workers and the oppressed against capitalism.

15 October 2004

A first version of this article appeared in the French review ContreTemps, whose director is Daniel Bensaïd. Thanks to Peter Cooper for kindly translating this article into English and to Jane Kelly for her helpful editing and comments.

  • Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His best-selling book ’The Clash of Barbarisms’ came out in a second expanded edition in 2006, alongside a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, ’Perilous Power’. He is co-author of ’The 33-Day War: Israel’s War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and It’s Consequences’.

Misplaced Anger: The Assault on Illhem

Forgive an outsider and staunch atheist like myself who, on reading the recent French press comments relating to Ilhem Moussaid the hijab-wearing NPA candidate in Avignon, gets the impression that something is rotten in  French political culture. Let’s take the debate at face-value. A young  Muslim woman joins the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party]. She obviously agrees with its program that defends abortion, contraception, etc, i.e. a woman’s right to choose. She is then told that despite this she does not have the right to choose what she wears on her head. It’s astonishing. There is no Koranic injunction involved.  The book says: "Draw their (women's) veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty", which can be interpreted in several ways but is disregarded most blatantly by hijab-wearing Egyptian women I see in Cairo and Karachi wearing tight jeans and T-shirts that contradicted the spirit of the Koranic message.

Patriarchal traditions, cultural habits and identity are what is at stake here and they vary from generation to generation. Pushing people back into a ghetto never helps.

I grew up in a Communist family in Lahore. My mother never wore a veil. She set up a feminist group in the Fifties that worked with working class women in the poorest quarter of the city. Half of them covered their heads in public. It did not affect their activism in the slightest. Similar stories can be told of women in different parts of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. The Algerian women who fought in the resistance against French republican colonialism did so as anti-imperialists. Some were partially veiled, others not. It did not affect the way they fought or the methods used by the French to torture them. Perhaps the torturers should have been more brutal to the hijabed freedom-fighters to help integrate their progeny better in the  Republican tradition.

In 1968-9, the Pakistani students, workers, clerks and women (including prostitutes) fought for three months against a military dictatorship and won: the only victory of those years.  The religious groups backed the military. They were isolated and defeated, but many of the women students who fought with us wore the hijab and chanted militant slogans against the Jamaat-i-Islami.  Should we have told them they couldn’t participate unless they took off their head-cover? Personally, I would have preferred that for purely aesthetic reasons, but it made nil difference to our struggle.

The anger against Ilhem and the NPA is completely misplaced. The real state of the world leaves the defenders of the Republic completely unaffected: the million dead of Iraq, the continuing siege of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, the killing of innocents in Afghanistan,  the US drone attacks in Pakistan, the brutal exploitation of Haiti, etc. Why is this the case?

Several years ago I noticed that French protests against the Iraq war were muted compared to the rest of  Western Europe. I don’t accept that this was due to Chirac’s opposition to the war [after all de Gaulle had opposed the Vietnam war even more strongly], but to Islamophobia: an increasing intolerance of the Other in French society, reminiscent of the attitude towards Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The conformism of that period explains the popularity of Vichy during the early years of the war.

Islamophobes and anti-Semites share a great deal in common. Cultural or ‘civilizational’ differences are highlighted to sanction immigrant communities in Europe. The narratives are multiple.  No universalist response is possible.  Immigrants and the countries to which they migrate are  different to each other.  Take the United States for a start.  This is a territory peopled by migrants, many of whom were Protestant fundamentalists,  from the seventeenth century onwards and which has depended on migrations ever since.

In most of Western Europe the first large wave of migrants were from the former colonies of the European powers. In Britain, the migrants were from the Caribbean Islands and South Asia, in France from the Maghreb.  Without abandoning their identities, they integrated in different ways and on different levels.  The South Asians, principally peasants and a sprinkling of workers, were not treated well by the trades-unions.  Despite this, South Asian migrant workers led some of the most memorable struggles for unionization.

The Indians in particular came from a highly politicized culture where Communism was strong and they brought this experience with them to Britain (like the New York taxi drivers today).  The Pakistanis were less political and tended towards networking groups reflecting clan loyalties in their villages or cities of origin.  The British governments encouraged religion by pleading for mullahs to arrive so that the migrants could be kept away from the racial currents in the working class during the 1960s and 1970s.
In France, there was forced integration.  Each citizen was taught that s/he had the same rights, something that was patently not the case. It is material needs and a desire to live better that fuel the rage, not spiritual beliefs. During the eruption of the banlieus in 2005,  Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, like the ultras in Stendhal’s novels, talked of ‘savages.’  I have often pointed out to the discomfiture of even some leftists that the kids who rioted had integrated well by internalizing the best French traditions: 1789, 1793,1848, 1871, 1968.  When oppression became unbearable the young built barricades and attacked property. Deprivation, not disbelief, was the root of their anger.

How many Western citizens have any real idea of what the Enlightenment really was? French philosophers undoubtedly took  humanity forward by recognizing no external authority of any kind, but there was a darker side. Voltaire: "Blacks are inferior to Europeans, but superior to apes." Hume: "The black might develop certain attributes of human beings, the way the parrot manages to speak a few words." There is much more in a similar vein from their colleagues. It is this aspect of the Enlightenment that appears to be more in tune with some of the Islamophobic ravings in sections of the global media.

Marx famously wrote of religion as the ‘opium of the people’, but the sentence that followed is forgotten. Religion was also ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’ and this partially explains the rise of religiosity in every community since the collapse of Communism. Compare the young Normaliens trooping in to say Mass today to the horror of their parents. My women friends in the Muslim world complain bitterly when their daughters wear the hijab as a protest against familial norms. It was always thus.

Published in Le Monde on February 20, 2010.

Ilham Moussaid : statement by the National Executive Committee of the NPA

1) At the same time as the government is accentuating its anti-social policies and increasing expulsions of undocumented migrants, the NPA is being targeted in the framework of the debate on national identity.

The NPA is confronted with a political-media campaign centred on one of its 2000 candidates in the regional elections, Ilham Moussaid, who wears a headscarf and is in fourth position on the NPA - Alternatifs list in the Vaucluse department of the Provence-Cote d’Azur (PACA) region, where Jacques Hauyé heads the departmental list.

Contrary to what some people have been making out, it is in no way a question of a « political and media coup » orchestrated by the leadership of the NPA, but of a decision that was taken in Vaucluse. A minority of the members of the NPA in this department were opposed to it. The decision taken by the Vaucluse comrades cannot be taken to be the position of the NPA as a whole, since it had not been discussed in advance at any level of the party. 2) Our comrade Ilham Moussaid is a member of the NPA, and as such, can put herself forward as a candidate in the same way as the other members of our party.

A majority of comrades in Vaucluse decided to accept her as a candidate. Whatever one may think of this decision, it was taken in conformity with the statutes of the party. We assure the NPA-Alternatifs list and all of the candidates of our solidarity at this difficult moment.

3) Ilham wears a headscarf (and not a burqa, as some people have said and written). She sees no contradiction between this and the founding principles of the NPA, of which the feminist and secular dimension constitutes one of the keystones, and affirms her attachment to these values and to all of the founding principles of the party.

The headscarf is not only a visible religious symbol, but also an instrument of subjection of women, used in various forms and at various times by the three monotheistic religions, even though Ilham does not experience it as such, and is not the only woman in our society to feel that way.

4) The announcement of the candidacy of Ilham Moussaid has provoked many reactions. All of them are not of the same kind. The criticisms and disagreements expressed within the NPA and by movements or by activists of the social movement and the feminist movement represent arguments which enrich the discussion, and the debate will continue.

On the other hand, we denounce the hate-ridden and hypocritical flood coming from the far Right, the UMP, the Socialist Party, and indeed the Left Party and the Communist Party. We don’t hear so much from them when the President of the Republic falls into the arms of the Pope or crosses himself in public on an official visit, or when Boutin brandishes the Bible in the National Assembly. The institutional parties spend millions on financing private high schools, in particular Catholic ones. As for the Communist Party, it really ought to be more careful, since, alongside the SP, it accepted on its lists during the local election campaign a candidate wearing a headscarf, who continues to wear it in the municipal council of Echirolles of which she is a member.

5) Within the NPA, the EC confirms that the debate on « religion and emancipations », planned before this political-media campaign, will take place. The internal debate that we are having is a public debate. The decision taken in Vaucluse does not create any « jurisprudence » on the question. The congress of the NPA is sovereign.

6) Now it is time to first of all and above all conduct the campaign around the lists that we are presenting or supporting, a campaign to get across what is really different about us, that we are a Left that is anticapitalist, antiracist, ecologist, internationalist and feminist, a Left which has always been in solidarity with women who resist those who want to force them to wear the veil.

Adopted unanimously by those present, with one abstention, February 8, 2010

Bravura expression of growing left influence in Pakistan

The 5th LPP congress

Farooq Tariq


The two-day Labour Party Pakistan Fifth congress helped to advance the revolutionary process in Pakistan. It brought together comrades from different traditions and trends to discuss the central topic: “build a mass working-class party independent of the influence of the capitalists and feudal elements.” The congress was a bravura expression of the growing influence and strength of emerging left-wing politics in Pakistan.

Over 140 delegates and few observers representing 7263 members of the LPP discussed the political and organizational aspects of the party. For the first time in the LPP’s 13-year history, delegates attended, representing Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan, Gilgit Baltistan, Sareiki Waseeb, Pukhtoonkhawa and Kashmir. There were leaders of trade unions, of social movements, of peasants and from the labour movement — all eager to learn from each other and discuss their future course of action.

Comrades travelled overnight to arrive at the Faisalabad Centre for Peace and Harmony, a social organization, for a residential congress followed by a mass rally of workers and peasants held at famous Dhobi Ghat grounds. (On the way to the congress one comrade from Baluchistan was seriously injured in a train accident and had to be hospitalized at Multan. As a result of the unfortunate accident he lost three of his toes.)

The three-panel chair presided over the congress proceedings with a three-member standing order committee to help organize the congress. The congress opened with a two-minutes silence in memory of seven comrades who, since the 4th LPP congress, are no more with us: Abdullah Qureshi (killed in a suicidal attack in Swat on 9th December 2007), Jilal Shah (died 2008), Master Khudad (killed in a Peshawar suicidal attack October 2009), Rehana Kausar, Najma Khanum and Abdul Salam Salam (died in road accident December 2009).

Several organizations sent donations to enable holding the congress and the one- day conference. These included Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres (ESSF), comrades related to Workers International Network, Socialist Alliance Australia, Organization of Communist International Greece, Solidarity USA, and Pakistani comrades in Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom as well as several individual donations. Over 100,000 Rupees was raised in the finance appeal from the delegates attending the congress. At the congress Comrade Farooq Ahmad read some of the solidarity messages received from the following organizations across the globe Congress opened up with reading of some of the solidarity messages received b, including the Fourth International Japan Revolutionary Communist League (JRCL), Central Committee Communist Party of Cuba, New Anti Capitalist Party (NPA) France, International Socialist Organization USA, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Independent Lawyers Association International UK, Revolutionary Socialist Party (Australia), Consumers Action Committee Pakistan (CACP), The South Asian Peoples Solidarity group Toronto, Canada, Action Aid International, Workers International Network (WIN), South Asia Alliance For Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) and Organization of Communist International Greece.

Here are some parts of the messages received:

* “We think in particular of your involvement in the Lawyers’ Movement for the overthrow of the Musharaf dictatorship, your intransigent defense of democratic rights and minorities threatened by religious fundamentalism, your constant combativity in offering a progressive and solidarity alternative to the joint threats of talibanism and militarism, the help which you bring to strengthening the struggles of women, workers and peasants, your active participation in the social forums and internationalism that you express in a part of the world that is in a permanent state of war, dominated by the Pakistan-India nuclear face-to-face and NATO-US intervention in Afghanistan.” (Fourth International)

* “We hail the holding of your Congress, which is convened in the midst of a complex political situation and a global economic crisis that imposes new challenges on the political forces that are struggling for a better possible world for all. We wish you success in your work.” (Department on International Relations Communist Party of Cuba)

* “The New Anti Capitalist Party (NPA) of France brings you its warmest greetings for your 5th congress. We wish in particular to salute the efforts that you have made to build a strong progressive and popular political force, independent of established power systems, capable of offering a socialist perspective and solidarity alternative to talibanism and religious fundamentalisms, to militarism and to the bourgeois clientelist parties. (New Anti Capitalist Party (NPA) France)

* “It is imperative for the Left in both India and Pakistan to resist this imperialist design and work consistently for bilateral peace, cooperation and friendship. The CPI(ML) and LPP have a history of shared initiatives and mutual exchanges towards this common goal and we are sure in the coming days we will be able to further strengthen our comradely ties and defeat the designs of our pro-imperialist rulers. Wishing you every success with your Congress and the rally, with warm comradely greetings, Dipankar Bhattacharya General Secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)

The 120-page draft documents on national and international perspectives were presented.

The international perspectives discussion was opened by comrade Farooq Tariq, who explained the basis of international capitalist crisis, the ecological disaster, and the imperialist occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Adding to this crisis, is the decline of reformism and growing Islamic fundamentalism. Is there a way out? Where are the forces that can save the planet and challenge the new face of counterrevolution? Where in Africa, Latin American and Asia do we see a challenge to imperialist globalization? He outlined the class struggle ahead, highlighting the role of women and building international ties as part of constructing a coming revolution.

Comrade Pierre Rousset of the NPA (France) and comrade Simon Butler of Socialist Alliance (Australia) spoke about the crisis of capitalism and climate change. Comrade Arif Afghani of Afghan Labour Revolutionary Organization (ALRO) outlined the worsening social and economical conditions of the Afghan masses. A discussion by more than 12 comrades enriched the topic, covering aspects insufficiently mentioned in the draft document.

The perspective discussion was introduced by comrade Farooq Ahmed. His main emphasis compared the policies of the present civilian government with those of General Musharaf military regime. These are remarkably similar. In addition, the rise of religious fundamentalism is direct threat to the organizations of the working class. Washington’s imperialist aggression and daily drone attacks are fueling the popular appeal of the religious fanatics. He argued that, in order to cover up its anti-people policies, the present civilian government is making a lot of noise about a possible military takeover. While there is little probability of a takeover in the near future, implementing policies to raise the standard of living of the masses remain the government’s best defense.

Over 30 comrades spoke on different aspects of Pakistan’s political and economical situation, once again deepening the analysis. These ranged from discussion on the national question, the rise of religious fundamentalism, imperialist economic policies, and the declining living standard of the masses.

The organizational perspectives were laid out by comrade Nisar Shah. Describing the achievements of Labour Party Pakistan since the last congress at the end of 2007, he cited its magnificent growth. For the first time, the LPP has a presence throughout Pakistan, including Baluchistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Tribal areas. The most important growth area has been in Pukhtoon Khawa, where the LPP has over 2000 members. He stressed the need for more study circles and schools for the integration of this new membership.

A second, and interrelated, point is that the LPP is working to develop the social and labour movements in Pakistan. It has promoted regional and international solidarity and actively participates in anti-imperialist globalization initiatives.

Before the opening of general discussion on organizational issues, LPP secretaries from Sindh, Baluchistan, Pukhtoon Khawa, Punjab and Sareiki Waseeb gave provincial reports to fill in the overall report with specifics. A constitutional amendment to change the name of National Committee to Federal Committee was accepted unanimously. Another amendment to hold two annual meetings of Federal Committee instead of three was defeated. The election of 31 members Federal Committee was held through secret ballot organized by a three-member election commission. Thirty-seven comrades contested. The newly elected members of the Federal committee include Nasir Mansoor, Mukhtiar Rahu, Farooq Ahmad, Beena Fida, Azra Shad, Rehana Shakil, Maqsood Mujahid, Bukhshal Thallo, Aziz Baluch, Farooq Tariq, Bushra Khaliq, Zara Akbar, Nisar Lighari, Younas Rahu, Latif Lighari, Moeen Nawaz Punno, Nazli Javed, Mehr Abdul Sattar, Mian Abdul Qayum, Choudry Imtiaz Ahmad, Riffat Maqsood, Baba Jan, Ihsan Ali, Suhail Javed, Salim Noshad, Khalid Mehmood, Kafait Ullah, Abdul Jalal, Irfana Jabbar, Nisar Shah and Talat Rubab. This includes nine women.

The Federal Committee held its first meeting and elected the Federal Executive Committee, who is the main LPP officials. For the second term comrade Nisar Shah was elected general secretary and comrade Farooq Tariq as spokesperson. Bukhshal Thallo was elected secretary of Education and Culture, Nisar Lighari secretary of Youth, Nasir Mansoor secretary of Labour and Mehr Abdul Sattar as Kissan [peasant] secretary. The decision to elect the secretary of Women was postponed until the next meeting.

Most of the congress delegates then participated in the international workers peasants’ conference on 29 January at Dhobi Ghat ground Faisalabad.

The two month long jute workers’ strike in West Bengal: hopes and despair

Sushovan Dhar

Jute mill workers in West Bengal called off their indefinite strike after signing a tri-partite agreement in the presence of the minister in charge of the labour department at Kolkata on February 13, 2009.

It was agreed that the arrears in dearness allowance (DA) would be settled in six installments spread over three years. There were about 627 points arrears in DA of which 277 points will be settled immediately and the remaining 350 points will be done in five installments. Regarding payment of future dearness allowance, 169 points of DA at the rate of Rs 1.90 would be paid effective February 1, 2010 and the future DA on a quarterly basis henceforth. A wage hike for new entrants has also been agreed upon. Earlier, the entry-level wage was fixed at Rs 100 a day but now it has been increased to Rs 157 per day. The tri-partite agreement would be effective from the next day.
Almost 2, 50,000 workers employed in around 50 jute mills in West Bengal went on an indefinite strike from December 14, 2009 called to press for pay-related demands, especially implementation of settlements arrived at in 2001.
All central unions except the Trinamool Congress affiliated INTTUC have responded to the call for the strike. Hence, two jute mills – Meghna and New Central – were operational while fifty-two others are closed.

There was a series of meetings which took place in the period; however, none could find out a solution due to the adamancy of the jute mill owners. Earlier, the tripartite meeting between the West Bengal Labour Minister, jute mill owners and labour unions held on Sunday January 31, 2010 remained inconclusive, leading to the continuation of the strike in jute mills. According to trade unions several rounds of tripartite meetings had failed to evoke any response as the management and jute mill workers have been unable to reach an accord. The meetings remained inconclusive as the mill owners were not ready to agree to the demands regarding the payment of dearness allowance. The workers were demanding full and final settlement of their dues and were not ready for any ad-hoc settlement. The mill workers have been pressing for long their demands for job security and payment of arrears in dearness allowance and removal of anomalies in payments of provident fund, gratuity and bonus.

In this context, it is important to point out that the jute industry which declined in the 1980s has shown potentials & signs of a fresh revival in the 1990s. Jute is grown in the very state, i.e. the raw material necessary for this industry is conveniently at hand. Almost two hundred and fifty thousand workers are engaged in the industry; almost 5 million peasants are in the cultivation of jute and over 4.5 million people are involved in the jute trade in some manner or the other in India. The yearly turnover of this industry is nearly Rupees 5,000 crore (50 billion). In the last few years both production and productivity has shot up very high. In the wake of global environmental concerns the demand of jute has gone up coming as a shot in the arm for the ailing jute industry in West Bengal. Not only used for packaging, mainly in the sugar and cement industries, there is a growing popularity of designer bags, wall-hangings, jute paintings, shoes, textiles and even jewelry, jute is in fact rapidly emerging as a reusable & bio-degradable alternative for the environment conscious citizens.
With several Indian states banning use of polythene bags as a measure to protect the environment, jute has got a new lease of life in the carter segment alone in the form of clutch bags, party bags, laundry bags, rucksacks, gunny bags, totes, shopping bags and wine bags. Besides, a variety of exquisitely designed, painstakingly created handicraft and utility items are on display at various shops selling jute goods. Even, voguish stores like Fabindia and Anokhi are also stocking jute items of various hues nowadays. Industry sources say that jute has bright prospects. Formerly, exports were limited to sacks, to the tune of Rupees 800-900 crore (8-9 billion) annually, but in the decade, the export amount has risen to Rs 1200 crore (12 billion). The export share of diversified products has risen from 18-36 % in the last five years.

India is the world’s largest jute producer, accounting for two-thirds of the global jute production exporting to the US, Europe and Gulf countries.  It has been averaging a production of 1.6 million tones annually in the last five years with a domestic market of 1.4 million tones.

India has launched the Jute Technology Mission and the next two years will be significant. If jute products are marketed ably at home and abroad, the Indian jute industry has the potential to double the current turnover of Rs. 5,000 crore, according to Atri Bhattacharya, Secretary of the Jute Manufactures Development Corporation and also the Executive Director, National Centre for Jute Diversification.

However, even with the rise of production the number of workers in the industry kept falling. There are reports that in the in the jute industry, workers are being forced to work at the rate of Rs. 40 to Rs. 100 per day. This is done by various skilful maneuverings by the owners, categorising the workers as ‘bhaga’, ‘voucher’, ‘zero number’ ‘temporary’, ‘apprentices’ etc. The normal wage of a jute worker is, at present, above Rs. 250 per day. The mill owners thus amass amazing profits by underpaying the workers. It is atrocious that this anti-worker practice of the jute barons has been legalized by the left front government of West Bengal.
Two sections of a previous tri-partite agreement reached on January 5, 2002 between the unions, the owners and the government will serve to illustrate the fact:

(iii) ‘that the question of productivity-linked wages has been discussed with the parties in details. After discussion it is however agreed that for this purpose 33.33% of the total wages payable in a month will be linked to production which may be adjusted proportionally for non-fulfilment of the prevailing agreed norms of production in each mill.

(iv) That the wages at new entrants such as workmen who are paid through vouchers engaged popularly known as zero number other than retired person or who are paid less wages than the rate payable as per industry wise wage settlement etc., and whose names are not borne on the master rolls of workers of mill who are paid wages as per industry wise settlement will get a sum of Rs. 100/- per day as wages plus usual fringe benefit thereon.’

These two sections make it amply clear that this agreement has introduced the production linked wage system and also legalized the long practiced acts of the mill owners of compelling the jute workers to accept Rs. 100 as a wage by branding them with new names and categories. As a matter of fact, the jute mill owners in West Bengal have implemented a series of attacks on workers for a long time. It is done through freezing of workers’ dearness allowance, failure to make gratuity payments and stopping several bonuses. And, the worst of it is through declaring lock-outs compelling workers to dire situations and eventually obliging them to adverse work-contracts, either through agreements or otherwise. Even those agreements reached with the owners having an upper-hand are rarely honored by perpetrators themselves. It is in this light that one finds the commitment of Gobinda Guha, General Secretary, Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union specifically unpleasant. After the conclusion of the agreement, he said that since most of the demands have been considered and they have signed an agreement, there will be no strike for the next three years. It is impractical to believe that he is ignorant about the situation and that he doesn’t understand the fact that the onus of the recourse to strike does not solely depend on the workers, but primarily, on the jute mill owners.  It is basically that Guha as a faithful member of the CPI (M), the ruling party - whose interest is largely intertwined with the jute mill owners - has more responsibility towards his bosses in keeping the system running rather than upholding the interest of thousands of workers whose union he leads. Indeed, no review of the condition of jute workers can be complete without assessing sufficiently the role of bureaucratic and degenerated trade-unions which has quasi-total membership of the jute mill workers.

Workers in West Bengal’s jute industry have repeatedly been forced on strike over the past decade, including in 2002, 2004, and for 63 days in 2007 and 18 days in 2008. Indeed, both history and experience shows that struggle is the only option left to them. It is essential to have the workers of the other sectors to stand solidly besides the jute workers to make their struggle victorious. Also, the accomplishments would largely depend on the capacity of the workers to form their self-organisation, unions controlled by them and lead independent struggle as happened during the historic Kanoria workers’ struggle in 1993-94. The hope is in the struggle!

Support the Contract Workers' struggle for living wages and tolerable working conditions

The Telegraph, one of the principal mouthpieces of the ruling class of India, of its imperialist allies, and a newspaper that functions more like an ad agency (witness the way it “covered” the launch of the i-pod Nano, and more recently, the i-Pad), ran news items on the strike of 12t February 2010 that are worth looking at, if only in order to understand the mind of the ruling class. The Metro page had a headline: Citu strikes at supply line - Day of disruption with strategic stops.

The news item was about how terrible was the plight of ordinary people, like the young professional who had to borrow money from friends because ATMs were closed, or the Salt Lake tech firm employees who had to go out and buy food as food and water supplies were affected, just because the Centre of Indian Trades Union was flexing its muscles.

A  strike that covered 2.5 million contract workers was, from the point of view of the ruling class, nothing but trade union bureaucrats flexing their muscles. A look at the basic demands will however give us a better idea of what it was all about.

1.    The government must ensure payment of the statutory minimum wages to all workers.
2.    The minimum wage must be increased to Rs.260 per day.
3.    Minimum wages must be amended every 4 years and dearness allowance must accurately reflect price rise.
4.    All workers in the unorganised sector must be given identity cards, pay slips and proof of attendance.
5.    All agents and labour contractors must be licensed before they are allowed to take migratory workers out for work.
6.    All unorganised sector workers must be covered under social security legislation and their inclusion in the BPL list must be made compulsory.
7.    Under NREGA, 100 days of work must be provided to all workers under NREGA.
8.    Contact workers must be made permanent and   be given equal wages for equal work.
9.    Men and women must receive equal wages for equal work.
10.    Legal action must be taken against dishonest labour exploitation and existing labour laws must be implemented properly.

So what do these demands tell us? The first three demands make it clear that these are people who live in below subsistence level. They want an increase of minimum wages to Rs. 260 per day, i.e., Rs. 1560 per week for six working days a week. At current rates, a room in a slum without water and with common toilets, in Calcutta, can cost Rs. 600 to 800, plus separate electricity charges if provided. A kilo of very ordinary rice costs about  Rs. 18, and a family of five consumes about 25 kilogrammes a month. A kilo of cheaper varieties of fish like tilapiya costs Rs 70-80, making that the cheapest animal protein after eggs at Rs40 per dozen, against pulses shooting up to Rs. 100 and more . Schooling is a big expense, since private tuitions are a must in the education system of the present. In other words, if the minimum daily wage was raised to Rs 260, a family of five would barely keep its collective nose above the waters in times of good health. In times of illness, one illness, say one appendicitis operation, could take away the savings of a decade for such a family.
Demand 9 tells us that regardless of anything the Constitution of India may say, women workers still get wages lower than those paid to men. So the assumption continues to be, that women merely earn additional money, their incomes are less central to the family than men’s income, and so they can be paid less even though they might be doing the same job.

Demands 4, 5 and 8 deal with their conditions as contract workers.  Contract workers are hired through agencies who routinely steal part of the money due to them. Lacking proper identity cards, they are often unable to protest. Let us look, not just at the lowest rungs, but even higher rungs of contract workers to show the massive disparities. College teachers all over India have received news of their new pay scale, and in many provinces, including West Bengal, they have received the pay scale or a close approximation in the form of Interim Relief. They are now placed in Pay Band 3 (for Assistant Professors, Assistant Professors Senior Scale and Assistant Professors Selection Grade and Associate Professors of up to three years’ seniority), and Pay Band 4 (for Assistant Professors Selection Grade and Associate Professors of above three years’ seniority). What it means is that an Associate Professor of above three years service in that grade will be now taking home, in West Bengal, after taxes, around fifty thousand rupees per month. Against that, there are the contract teachers. They take about the same number of classes, perform other duties such as correcting answer scripts, take their turn as invigilators, and the rest. The official government rate for them is Rs 7000 to Rs 10,000, depending on the number of years of experience. In reality they are paid around Rs. 2000 to Rs. 4000 per month – i.e., less than what the demand of the strikers of February 12 was. We make this point, not to argue that college teachers who hold secure jobs are overpaid, though we have no doubt that The Telegraph’s sister paper, Ananda Bazar Patrika, would make such a point (as it has done, ad nauseum, over the last decade and a half, whatever they are paid). We make the point, rather, that capitalism is trying to turn every kind of salaried job insecure, tremendously exploitative, underpaid.

This is not surprising. Neither the 8 hour day, nor the minimum wage, was a gift from above. In every country were any variant of these have been given to the working class, they were wrested after bitter ad bloody battles. For capital, the reserve army of labour, with which it fights to push down wages to subsistence levels, and to redefine subsistence to levels unthinkable, is not an abstraction. When the ruling class and its hired intellectuals argue that the free market is essential, when they assert that without it jobs would not be created, they are concealing the reality. Jobs can be created in more meaningful ways. If ATMs have to be kept open for 24 hours, 365 days a year, there is a need to hire full time workers who will work for 8 hours a day and get a certain number of days off in a year. So if the country, that great abstraction, truly needs say 100,000 ATMs, well over 300,000 full-time jobs should be created. Instead of creating two categories of workers, one of whom (including children whose labour is hugely exploited even though formally it is illegal) are so ill-paid that they are held up as a threat to the other, relatively well-paid sector to blackmail them into accepting cutbacks or at the least not agitate for more wages or benefits, we need to see a country where every adult is gainfully employed and every child is able to attend school without the burden of work, and with sufficient food as well as the necessary educational material. Such an economy, however, cannot be to the liking of the rulers and their hangers on. In a society where everyone worked for fixed hours and for decent wages, the rate of profit would go for a toss. If every adult was gainfully employed, then the lever which could be used to depress wages and increase working hours would be much weakened.
Above all, it is the collective power of the working class that threatens the owners. This is what they cannot stand. When they and their hacks wrte that a trade union was “flexing its muscles” one can almost hear the teeth of the bosses grinding. Instead of humbly begging individually for a little more, workers have dared to band together in an organization of their own class, and have shown what determined class action can do. And so, the goal of the capitalist class s to ridicule the union, to show the strike, not as a class struggle, but as union bosses flexing their muscles.

We salute the struggling workers and stand by their side and wish their struggle every possible victory. In this context, it is important to note that the casualisation of labour wrought by neo-liberal economic and political practices have played havoc in the lives and the livelihoods of billions of workers in this planet. Like any part of the globe, the conditions of toilers are pathetic in the state of West Bengal. With the recent price rise and inflation their situation is far more precarious than any other sector. It is appalling to note that a state which has a “left” and “progressive” government for more than the last three decades present such a deplorable condition of the unorganised sector workers. Not only are wages abysmally low, the situation is as well being exacerbated by non-implementation of labour laws, as well as the lack of provision for punishment of erring employers in the law. If we have any criticism of the CITU, it is that in its fixation about saving the Left Front government from alleged conspiracies, t has not fought in a much more sustained manner, and it has soft-pedalled cases where the state government is responsible for contract labour and outsourcing. The fact that one demand calls for fulfilling the NREGA is a telling commentary on how the West Bengal government s working in the interests of the toilers.