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Posted at: Sep 25, 2016, 1:18 AM; last updated: Sep 25, 2016, 1:18 AM (IST)

Left out

In the growing din for political supremacy in Punjab, you may not hear much about Left parties. As campaigning for Assembly gains momentum, a vacuum of sorts is palpable: where have the communists gone? They were a force to reckon with some years back. The Tribune scrapes the state’s political surface — there are voices that travel beyond politics of votes.

It is hardly a time to talk about communism in Punjab where political discourse has already been skewered to panthic issues, and where ideas and ideologies are being used up to bloat a system that flaunts power and pelf and heaps scorn on those who stand their ground. A communist would dare say that this is no time to be apologetic either, for being a mere post script in the evolutionary changes determining a social order. And no, a Left ideologue would also argue, this is not the time to offer an obituary to flaccidly structured semantics about wealth’s cause and effect. 

Yet it’s time for an inquest, or plain curiosity, as to where and why the once fashionable Left has disappeared in a state where comrades were always at hand for ‘political course correction’ or were cursed for being so “un-godly” as to demand equality over religiosity, honesty of purpose over parochial regionalism and firmness of belief in a classless society over ever-increasing layers of the middle class. 

In a country where Centrists and Centre-Left have acquired a reverential status, the Right has been kept largely shut up; it’s a mere spectator, left to pat itself on the back over scoring some brownie points over religion. Moreover, in the evolving situation globally, there are concerns over Right’s slide into Alt-Right (Alternative Right, as in the United States). The Left, despite retaining some of its charm, has been forced to jettison or re-revise much of its copy-book revolutionary tactics such as its vaguely defined, but hotly debated, dialectical materialism (diamat) in order to make some sense of the new global economic order.

Punjab’s case

For the champions of the Left ideology, Punjab with big communist names such as Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Prof Randhir Singh and Satpal & Vimla Dang attached to it could have been a Bengal, Kerala or Tripura. But the state turned out to be different: social unrest took an extremist religious hue, vested interests promoted self-righteous, corrupt politicians and money power gave rise to disparate social entities where farmers, the oppressed Dalit peasantry and jobless youth stood on one side and the omnipresent ‘custodians’ of religious sects on the other. 

In this flux, the industry suffered and is barely managing to survive in a highly competitive domestic and global market. The days of philosophical jargons were to be over. The election results gave a firm indication: in 2014, the communists in Punjab finished just after NOTA (none of the above) option. The communists expected it. But where are they? Punjab’s history does demand an answer, though principal players in present-day politics are simply not bothered. 

Amorphous, ineffective

“Those on the Left seem to have lost the dreams they once had — the most terrible thing that can ever happen to a people…,” wrote Marxist scholar Prof Randhir Singh around a decade back. But what happened in Panjab University recently was ‘unthinkable’. Left-leaning Students for Society emerged as the single largest party in the student council polls. How does one see this vis-à-vis the Communists’ dwindling popularity? Can we write them off in a state that has had a tradition of rebellion against the establishment or Khalistani militants? Nobody can deny that they have also strongly influenced Punjabi literature and theatre.

“Despite being one of the oldest communist movements in the country, communism in Punjab is practically dead,” declares Gurharpal Singh, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of London, who has done research on Punjab’s communist movement. “In many ways it was the most unsuccessful politically because it failed to extend its mass appeal beyond the Sikh peasantry,” he says. After Partition, it became a minor footnote. “After the ’70s, the movement dissipated into factional feuds and personal fiefdoms.”

Electorally, the best performance of the Left was in the 1977 assembly elections, when CPI and CPM won 15 seats. The situation is such that in the last Lok Sabha elections, the Left was even defeated by NOTA. In the last assembly elections they couldn’t save their deposit on even a single assembly seat.

“The mass base of communists has shrunk among workers and peasants,” agrees Dr Joginder Dayal, member of the national executive of Communist Party of India (CPI). “Green Revolution brought some new challenges, we couldn’t properly identify the problems and failed to intervene,” he says. This was followed by Sikh militancy, of which Communists were worst sufferers by losing a large cadre and some of the best leaders, says Dr Dayal. Another jolt, he says, came in the 1980s and ’90s when BSP emerged and Left’s class base shifted to caste politics.

Divorced from religion

London-based writer Amarjit Chandan, who has almost five-decade association with the communist movement in Punjab, says the state has been dominated by Panthic issues. “Despite the fact that the first-generation communist leadership, including the Ghadris and people such as Sohan Singh Josh, Teja Singh Sutantar, was the product of Sikh politics, the communists’ total divorce from religion became a reason of their failure,” he says.

“Politics is now a money game. The Left can’t afford this dirty business,” he says. 

However electoral politics is not the only yardstick to gauge Communists, a section feels. “There has been a tendency to dismiss the Left as a failure. But the argument relies on a rather arbitrarily defined index of success and failure. Given its own objectives and dreams, obviously the Left failed, but not without profoundly impacting the political landscape with ideas and ways of conducting politics. In that sense, the Left was influential in Punjabi politics,” says Muhammad Ali Raza, a Berlin-based scholar who did his PhD on pre-1947 Punjab’s Communist Movement from Oxford University. 

Art & literature

More than political organization, Gurharpal feels, the influence of Punjabi communists was stronger in the realm of ideas. The Naxalite movement influenced Avtar Pash, Surjit Patar, Lal Singh Dil. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) offered space to Gursharan Singh. Gursharan Singh said the Punjabi theatre may not be world class in aesthetics, but is one of the most active theatres in the world. Even novelist Gurdial Singh never hid his association with communists. 

When the Naxalite movement suffered a setback, Punjabi poet Lal Singh Dil engaged in a dialogue with himself and asked: Has the wave died down? “It was there, it is there, it will be there,” answers Darshan Khatkar, a poet and one of the founders of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. “However, the times have changed the shape of the communist movement,” he says. The Assembly polls might shed some light.


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