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Issue #1762      January 25, 2017

A rich history

Sitaram Yechury is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the parliamentary group leader of his Party. He was recently in Sydney to speak at a conference and while he was there visited the Communist Party of Australia’s headquarters. He kindly agreed to an interview with Anna Pha from the Guardian.

Anna Pha interviewing Sitaram Yechury.

Guardian: I thought we could start with some background about the Communist Party of India Marxist?

Sitaram: The Party has a very long history. It is the product of the fight of the Indian communists, first against revisionism that appeared in the communist movement and then against adventurism that surfaced a few years later.

G: What period are we talking about?

Sitaram: I am talking about the decade of the 1960s. Following the 20th Congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union – 1956] these trends developed in the international Communist movement.

Both these manifestations emerged rather strongly in India and we had to struggle against them. Eventually, the Indian Communist stream ended up in three streams: one the CPI, one the CPI(ML) which was more aligned to Chinese and in those days Mao Ze Dong’s positions and then us, the CPI(M).

But over a period of time we grew to become the stronger of these three tendencies and emerged as a major player in Indian politics, a role we continue to play now though not in such a big way as it used to be. But still it is a force that Indian politics cannot ignore.

So there is a distinct point of view in Indian politics that is articulated by the CPI(M) and represented by the CPI(M).

G: So how large is the CPI(M)?

SY: It has over 100,000 members. We are very, very selective in our party membership. We have very rigorous criteria. But we have what we call the mass organisations in which the party leaders work, leading that section of the people.

Apart from the trade unions, youth, students, women, the agricultural workers and the peasantry, we also have employees like federations of financial organisations like the banks, like the insurance companies, like the teachers, university and college teachers, and all these federations. When you add up the membership of all that together it is around 40 million plus.

G: Are you concentrated in particular parts of India?

SY: Traditionally we have been stronger in three of the Indian states – in Bengal, Kerala and in Tripura.

Of these three we have now the state governments in Kerala and Tripura – elected governments in which the CPI(M) is in the lead of these governments. In Bengal, we have been under tremendous attack by a grand coalition of all the reactionary forces that managed to come together to put an end to our winning elections after our winning seven times on the trot and forming and running a government for 35 years.

They had the great, grand coalition for that.

G: When did they succeed?

SY: That was in 2011. They succeeded on the basis of and continue to maintain themselves on the basis of a very intense level of politics that is determined by violence and terror.

We have lost more than 200 comrades of ours during the last four years or so. And these struggles continue every day. There’s physical fights that continue to happen. We are facing it, our comrades are braving it and I think will be able to hold them.

G: I think the CPI(M) has a rich history of martyrs and struggle.

SY: We do. The Party has what we call a very rich history of what we call mass agitations, which are not only strikes but marches where we march through various stretches of the country.

It is not as the long march of the Chinese but it is the same idea. We cut across the lands in the various states and we still do that. In fact next week, all the agricultural workers and the farmers are organising seven different marches from all across India to congregate at a central place after a period of nearly 45 days of marching.

That is to highlight the issue of a very deep agrarian crisis in India.

Agrarian crisis

G: Could you tell us more about that crisis?

SY: India has traditionally been an agricultural economy but of late in the last 20 years or so with globalisation and all that – all of us are familiar with – the nature of the Indian economy underwent changes and today it is the services, that includes the information technology sector, where India has developed itself to be very good with human skills in the software branches.

So the services sector has actually become the dominant contributor to India’s GDP, and then after industry, agriculture has been reduced to the third position. But yet more than 60 percent of the Indian people are dependent on agriculture.

So therefore the agrarian distress is a very serious issue for us in India because of these new agreements that have been concluded. Whether it is the Doha agreement or the WTO [World Trade Organisation], or whether it is the access of foreign imports to India, Indian agriculture is actually suffering with the dumping of highly subsidised western products. That is really affecting our farming in a big way.

As a result of this the Indian farmer is not getting proper remuneration for his produce which is leading up to the farmers taking loans from the banks in order to survive. The inability to return these loans is pushing thousands of farmers to commit distress suicides. These distress suicides, very distressing as it is, the volumes are increasing rapidly.

So we have a very serious agrarian crisis. Unless the Indian government and the state intervene positively, giving relief to our farming community and ensuring proper wages to the agricultural workers, this crisis cannot be overcome.

In the last 10 years, for instance, the real wages of agricultural workers have actually declined so their living conditions are worse than what they used to be. So the march is highlighting these issues and demanding the government give these farmers an adequate minimum support price for their produce so that they don’t have to starve.

Pitting worker against worker

G: If we could return to the question of services, this is an issue that concerns Australian workers and trade unions because, for example, Telstra recently announced the sacking of 400-500 workers because they are going offshore to India for call centres. There is a pattern of companies going offshore for cheap, skilled technical labour and sacking Australian workers which of course then has a tendency to pit Australian workers against Indian workers as they are seen as “taking our jobs”. I am wondering if there are any communications between the trade union centres and what approach the CPI(M) is taking on this question.

SY: There are approaches, in fact both between the trade unions and also as part of the World Federation of Trade Unions whose Congress, as I speak, is meeting in Dublin that issue figured. This is going to be a major issue on which there should be a unified position.

The point is very simple. This is the tactic of the bourgeoisie to pit one worker in one country against the worker of the other while the actual culprit is the bourgeoisie who in their search for maximising profits that this offshore business is happening. It is not that the Indian people are stealing Australian jobs. It’s the Australian bourgeoisie who is maximising profits by shifting to India.

That target should not be missed out. What the bourgeoisie always does is to pit one section of workers against the other while they get away scot-free by their predatory profit maximisation which is what capitalism is all about.

So I think both the Australian workers and the Indian workers will have to bring back the central issue into focus. That is as far as the Party is concerned. We are trying to tell the trade unions that you have to bring it back to that focus, saying that the Indian workers be given the same rates of wages that are paid to Australian workers.

If that is done then they will not shift. Why would they shift?


G: Could you say more about the government’s domestic policies?

SY: Domestically the policies are imposing unprecedented burdens on our people. The economic policy is more connected with creating greater access for foreign capital to maximise profits. They have opened up every area of the Indian economy to the inflow of foreign capital.

The net result is that Indian domestic industry is very badly affected. Not just agriculture, but everything.

India has a very large component of industry which we call small scale industry. They are small units. They are not huge factories and these small units employ the maximum number of people.

Now with this inflow of foreign capital, these small units are the ones that are getting wiped out. And with them employment for millions of people is wiped out. So that is leading to growing unemployment.

There are completely uncontrollable rises in the prices of all food articles and social commodities. The subsidies are all being withdrawn, if not already withdrawn they are all being withdrawn.

So the net result because of the global capitalist thirst, by opening up India’s economy and resources for international capital profit maximisation, India’s domestic deindustrialisation has virtually begun.

G: It could hardly have been said to have become industrialised?

SY: That’s right. Last month data that had been put out by the government shows a negative, a minus 2 point something growth of industry and minus 3.3 percent growth of manufacturing.

Any economist would tell you that the production of capital goods is the index for the future of the economy. Last month’s capital goods production figure fell by minus 29.6 percent. Whopping! That means no new investment is being planned for the next few years.

So this is the overall crisis, difficult times in India.

Trade agreements

G: India is part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Trade In Services Agreement?

SY: Yes, and now they are going for a free trade agreement with the European Union which will be disastrous for India. It means that highly subsidised European dairy and agricultural products will flood Indian markets and the Indian farmer, already in crisis, is going to be completely drowned with this.

It is a right-wing government in India, but so far the right-wing policies were confined to domestic issues which are also very dangerous as they are going to completely disrupt the unity of our country and our people.

India is a huge multi-national country. You really can’t have an exclusivist political situation where you speak for only one religion or you speak for one language.

But among its diversities what we have is a government that is pursuing a singularly exclusivist agenda of wanting to convert India to be more and more dominated by just one community, a religious community and that is Hindu and by only one language which is Hindi.

India will just implode. That is India’s domestic right-wing government that is happening and that is in current terms of employing people in various positions.

US Strategic Defence Partner

G: I think it would be worth you saying a few words about recent developments in India’s relations with the US and the recent military agreement because India until the Modi government, if I am correct, was considered non-aligned.

SY: That’s correct.

We are very, very concerned and critical of what our government, the Indian government, is doing in this area. In fact we have organised public actions against the government’s move of virtually using India as a subordinate area of US imperialism.

India has now been reduced as a subordinate ally and the USA has declared India as its Strategic Defence Partner which is something that it has never been in India’s case. This is the first time you are having a Non-Aligned Summit where an Indian Prime Minister has not attended. This has never happened in the history of our land.

It is a very clear shift to pro-US imperialism. It is happening in all areas. It’s not only in foreign policy, but it is happening in defence as a strategic defence partner; it is happening in the economic sphere with free trade agreements and the signing of various economic treaties; it’s happing with climate change where suddenly against the opinion of the Indian parliament, decided to go and ratify the Paris Accord. This happened just two days ago. So these are not usual developments.

G: Have the relations with Russia changed with this government?

SY: Yes, because the government has moved away from the traditional framework of our defence cooperation relations. So, they moved away from Russian defence cooperation which means they are buying a lot of western defence equipment which again is very disturbing for us because we have about 200 million Indian Muslims. India is now buying a lot from Israel.

India has the largest military budget from Israel in the world today. This means that we are financing to a large extent Israel’s continuing oppression of the Palestinians.

That is something that was impossible to have conceived of even a few years ago. Naturally it is disturbing Russia. Now they have signed to buy a huge number of French fighter planes and a lot of American equipment.

US imperialism is creating a situation, encouraging tensions between India and Pakistan.

Hindu fundamentalism

G: That brings me to my next question: what is happening in Pakistan and also in Kashmir?

SY: With the right-wing government in India it was only a matter of time before this became very sharply exposed. I mean if you are talking only of a Hindu India then you will have a Muslim reaction. So you have Muslim fundamentalists on the other side and you have Hindu fundamentalists in India and they both feed each other.

That is exactly what is happening, with greater tensions between the two countries and that is a playground for US imperialism and for the military industrial complex.

G: They play both sides…

SY: Absolutely. The US have this defence agreement with India, calling it a major strategic defence partner and now they [the US] are talking with Pakistan along similar lines. So they do it with both sides, that’s how they always come through.

But there has always been this tension between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.

Partitioning of India

On Kashmir, the fact of the matter has always been that British India was united, it included Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir. When British India became independent, at that time, unfortunately the partition of India took place.

Many of these, what we call princely states, they are feudal kingdoms in British India – there were about 666 plus in British India at that time – so all of them were given the option to choose who they wanted to go with. India or Pakistan. So it was mayhem, some choosing here, some there.

So when that was finally settled, Kashmir remained in dispute, which actually was not a dispute because the ruler of Kashmir had signed the accord of acceding to the Indian union in 1948. But Pakistan contested that. That is a bone of dispute.

Now historically the rulers were given the option of choosing where to go. The ruler chose to go with India. Pakistan’s argument is that the ruler chose India because the ruler was a Hindu but the majority of the people are Muslim.

So it was not the people who chose to go with India but it was the ruler. So Pakistan claims that the people want to go with Pakistan. That is not a fact at all. Today, in fact, in Kashmir, if you ask anyone who they want to be with, they will tell you they neither want Pakistan nor India.

That is where we are worried because Kashmir is part of India but why are people getting alienated? For that we have taken, the CPI(M) have taken, a public position consistently through all these disturbances saying that the government of India should have a political dialogue with all the stakeholders in Kashmir.

Political parties, non-political parties, all those who are stakeholders and see where the promises made to Kashmir at the time of their joining India, if under those promises how much has not been fulfilled or not been kept by the Indian state, and how that has been constantly eroded by the Indian state that leads to the alienation of the people.

So they need to be addressed. Now the unfortunate part is that part of Kashmir is occupied by Pakistan, and that part of Kashmir they have not occupied Pakistan are saying is occupied by India.

G: And that suits the US?

SY: Absolutely. And that is the imperialist and the USA. Just look at it geographically and the geo-politics of it. Kashmir today, what is occupied today by Pakistan in that valley is what the US would love, that is what they want to have to create an independent state.

An independent state means that that is the point of access to Central Asia – to Afghanistan – and that is the part that joins with China, Tibet. And so it is a very, very strategic location. And that is exactly what the USA would want.

Pakistan, because of its own historical origins and because of its Muslim population is saying Kashmir is theirs and India is saying no, the king has signed accession to the Indian union, so it is ours.

And legally, India has the legal documentation, because that is what the ruler signed. That is what Mountbatten* told these princely kingdoms: you are to choose between India and Pakistan. They chose India. So legally India is right.

So all of this together contributes to a rather difficult situation. Therefore the only way is to win back the confidence of the people of Kashmir by the Indian state and this can only happen through a political dialogue with all the stakeholders concerned.

That is what we are pressing for.

* Lord Mountbatten was viceroy of India with a mandate to oversee the British withdrawal in 1947 when India won its independence from its British colonisers.

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