India at a Crossroads?


Praful Bidwai is a leading independent Indian journalist, political analyst, and activist. He served as editor of the Times of India between 1981 and 1993, eventually becoming its senior editor. He currently writes for the Hindustan Times, the Tribune, Frontline, the KashmirTimes, and many other newspapers and magazines. His regular column, “From the World’s Most Dangerous Place” is at He is co-author of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He is a recipient of the Sean McBride International Peace Prize. I talked with him in New Delhi in April 2008.

BARSAMIAN: You’ve recently written an article called “Indian Left at a Crossroads.” What do you mean by crossroads?

BIDWAI: There are two large communist parties with a mass membership that are today relatively well represented in parliament. They have more than 10 percent of the lower house, a total of 60 MPs, which is the highest total since independence. These are the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CP(M), which split away from the CPI in 1964, partly over ideological differences similar to the kind that existed between the former Soviet Union and China. The CP(M) was sympathetic to the Chinese point of view whereas the CPI remained very close to the Soviet Union point of view. They’re considered to be relatively clean parties.

By that you mean not corrupt?

Yes. They’re serious about doing politics. They have principles, they have programs, they have policies that are fairly transparent, they’re in favor of the poor. The urban and rural poor constitute a majority of India’s population. They have had a fairly clean record of governance—until recently,. The CPI was the world’s first communist party to win a democratic election and come to power in any province or state. That was in 1957 in Kerala.

In addition, you have smaller parliamentary parties and more militant organizations, particularly a whole bunch of groups called the Naxalites, who believe in armed struggle using violent methods and who work underground. The Naxalites recently regrouped and now call themselves the Communist Party of India (Maoist). They don’t contest elections. They believe elections are part of the bourgeois system that they want to keep out of and oppose. But their influence has spread to more than 100 of India’s 600 districts where conditions for the vast majority of the population are unbearable.

But the article I wrote about was primarily on the CPI and the CP(M) and other parliamentary parties. I believe they’re at a crossroads in the sense that they’re under pressure—as part of the parliamentary system—to conform to right-wing economic policies. On the other hand, their membership, their cadres, do not want that orientation at all. They have to decide which way to go.

West Bengal is one of India’s most populous states. The chief minister says that there’s “a mad rush” in India to set up what are called SEZs, Special Economic Zones. He and his party were caught up in killings in the Nandigram area in West Bengal, in March 2007. What are SEZs? Are they like maquiladoras?


West Bengal protestphoto from

Some of them are still being set up, so we don’t know what they will eventually look like. About two-thirds of them are information technology services-based zones. The others, yes, maquiladora would be an apt description. But the idea is to create an enclave that is like a foreign territory as far as the laws of the land and export and import regulations are concerned. They get big tax rebates and tax breaks. So for the first ten years, there is no income or corporate tax to be paid and for the next five years only half the rate. Also, they can import things duty-free. They can also sell to in the domestic market, so they’re not entirely for export either.

The state will end up losing revenue on the order of seven or ten times the investment that is being made today, committed over a period of years. In fact, the finance ministry has objected to them. Even the World Bank says they are a scandal. Raghuram Rajan, who was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, says there is absolutely no economic justification for SEZs.

West Bengal has about half a dozen SEZs planned. One of them was going to be in Nandigram, which is about 100 miles from Calcutta. This would have involved the eviction of very large numbers of people. This was going to be a zone to produce chemicals sponsored by the Salim group from Indonesia. It’s really a front for the super-corrupt Suharto family, which looted Indonesia for decades. What’s even more scandalous is that West Bengal, with its left front government, should have any truck with people like that.

However, the Nandigram population, spread over several villages, has resisted land acquisition. The government had to beat a retreat on that. Meanwhile clashes between supporters of the CP(M) and others broke out and the police opened fire in March last year, killing 14 people. There is enough evidence from independent commissions set up by citizens, as well as from the records collected by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a high-powered police agency, that the CP(M) and the police colluded. The CP(M) cadres tried to disguise themselves in police uniforms and the state encouraged them to do this.

That wasn’t the end of the story. Again last year, in October and November, there were very serious clashes. The CP(M) deliberately withdrew the police so that its own cadres could recapture the area by practicing the most brutal forms of coercion, including rape, murder, and arson. Nandigram is a horrible blot in the record book of the left. The fact that a left-wing government opened fire on peasants, on farmers who were part of their basic constituency and in whose name they claimed to speak, shocked the conscience of liberals as well as supporters of the left.

A new book called Nandigram: What Really Happened says Nandigram reflects “the gradually emerging police state in India with corporations, political parties, state institutions, and criminal elements joining hands to put down all forms of resistance….”

That’s a fairly accurate description of what’s going on, especially in the mineral-rich states, such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in central India and Orissa in the east—and to a certain extent Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in the south. Wherever SEZs are being set up, there is tremendous resistance. The state then comes down heavily on the side of the promoters of capital and brutalizes people.

In Orissa there is this huge mining area being opened up for one of the biggest groups in the metallurgical industry in the world and another one for the Mittals, businesspeople of Indian origin, the world’s largest steel makers. They want to set up a steel plant provided they can export all of the steel and iron ore at throw-away rates. Those are the kinds of pressures that are mounting on state governments, which are unable to resist, which have no imagination in terms of developing alternative economic policies to these predatory and dispossessing forms of industrialization.

The argument that this will create jobs is laughable. In Nandigram there were calculations made about the Tata group—one of the largest industrial groups in India—who was setting up a car factory to produce the world’s cheapest car, costing just $2,500. But, of course, it doesn’t meet even the most elementary standards of safety or emissions. That car plant has displaced over 1,000 families and a total of 15,000 people who are dependent on the economy of this very prosperous agricultural area in Singur. In place of the 15,000 people whose livelihoods have been ruined, they’re going to create 600 jobs, half of which probably will go to outsiders because the local population doesn’t have the necessary industrial skills.

Another aspect of the big dam issue in Tehri is the lack of drinking water in the area. People were complaining to me about it. One journalist told me that he is now bathing with only one bucket of water where he used to bathe with four. The dam is bringing water to Delhi, but it’s depriving water to the people who are living in the area.

That’s the picture that you will see in place after place. Recently, a whole bunch of villages near a power project in Bihar had huge protests because 20 years after this big power station is built, the neighborhood gets no electricity at all. It’s the same kind of stuff. It’s all sent out to the big cities, it’s sent out to industries, it’s sent out to those who have the reins of power, whether in agriculture or industry or the services.

What prompted India to join the so-called new world economic order?

Several things happened. The Soviet Union had collapsed by then and some of our policymakers decided that the only game in town was the American one. Forget about nonalignment, there are no blocs left now. So we began to realign our policy.

Second, a whole new group of bureaucrats and economic administrators emerged in the late 1980s saying the real future is in the free market, in relaxing regulations, allowing the entry of foreign capital, getting rid of anti-monopoly and anti-trust laws, and letting private companies flourish. They used a short-term economic crisis related to a foreign-exchange crunch at that time. New Delhi defaulted on repaying a loan and had to sell its gold in order to raise money. In the guise of finding a solution, they pushed through a broad agenda to liberalize, deregulate, and privatize—the typical Washington consensus stuff.

P. Sainath, who writes in the Hindu, says that there are basically now two Indias.

That’s an extreme formulation in some respects, but largely it’s true that the Indian elite has turned its back on the vast majority of the people. They look on India much in the way that faceless capitalists from anywhere in the world would look on India, as an investment destination and a market and as a huge pool of cheap labor. They’re not bothered about the vast majority of Indians doing badly or whatever. They could starve for all they care. So in that sense it’s true.

But I also believe that there is a kind of enlightened section within the rich who understand that this cannot go on indefinitely. Explosive disparities and regional imbalances are growing in India. Just a half a dozen of the 28 states and 7 union territories get two-thirds of all investment and the others go to the dogs. This is an unsustainable, unacceptable situation, which no country which claims to be democratic can allow to carry on.

You’ve written recently about the new strategic relationship with the United States as well as Israel, which is not very well known. India launched an Israeli spy satellite in early 2008.

We have now developed what can only be described as a strategic relationship just short of a proper military alliance with both the United States and Israel. The U.S. and India signed these agreements on a strategic partnership and the nuclear deal, under which the United States will dilute its own domestic laws and resume civilian nuclear commerce with India although India has nuclear weapons and hasn’t signed either the Non-Proliferation Treaty or any other nuclear restraint agreement.

General Pace in Indiaphoto from

At the same time, in mid-2005, the two also signed a new framework agreement on defense cooperation which calls for personnel exchange, military exercises, joint consultation, exercises that lead to interoperability of their different services and maneuvers—the same frequencies and stuff like that—which is very much like what the United States does with its NATO allies. So it’s a very strong and unbalanced relationship. It’s deeply unpopular in India.

Let me say a little bit about the Israeli relationship, because it is actually a very perverse one, driven by military considerations involving a complete violation of India’s decades-long commitment to the cause of Palestinian nationhood. It’s driven by military sales and cooperation in so-called terrorism. India is now the largest buyer of Israeli military hardware and software. Israel is India’s second largest supplier of weaponry after Russia. We didn’t have a strong military sales relationship with the United States, but it’s now developing. The United States is very keen to sell a whole bunch of new warplanes to India, several categories of them: fighters, helicopters, surveillance aircraft, and transport planes. In fact, India signed a $3 billion contract for the Hercules transport planes.

Have there been joint military exercises as well?

Huge ones. It is very interesting, because we had this so-called Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union in 1971. We never conducted a single military exercise with the Soviet Union. Here you have with the United States the biggest exercises ever held in the world, involving 40 ships and hundreds of aircraft and thousands of military personnel off the east coast of India. Two such exercises were held last year involving joint maneuvers and testing of interoperability and so on.

The United States has actually said that it would like India to join expeditionary forces in third countries. It’s been pressing India, for instance, to send troops to Iraq to stabilize the occupation. The BJP, Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing government, which was in power until 2004, came very close to sending 17,000 troops, more than the number of troops that, for instance, Britain ever had in Iraq. But it was under such public pressure and huge protests by political parties that it finally did not send any troops. Similarly, the government that followed, the United Progressive Alliance of Manmohan Singh, also came under pressure, but it didn’t make any commitment. The essence of the relationship involves joint expeditions in third countries, so India will become complicit in aggressive U.S. maneuvers and postures in different parts of the world. That has terrible implications, it seems to me.

There is a major proposal for a gas pipeline, natural gas being badly needed here in India, from Iran via Pakistan. The U.S. has warned India it could face sanctions if it goes ahead with the deal.

India has gone slow on the pipeline, which makes no economic sense whatsoever. The pipeline is really very much in India’s economic interests, and it could deliver gas at a much cheaper price than gas transported by ship or by pipeline from countries like Turkmenistan. But, yes, the United States has been mounting pressure on India in respect of Iran. And India, I think to its eternal shame, voted twice against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency and colluded with the United States in sending Iran to the Security Council for sanctions, although India’s own position is that Iran is in no substantive breach of any of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or the IAEA charter.

The Guardian reported increased defense spending in India, which dwarfs spending on education and health and has met mounting domestic criticism. 

This is one of the most distressing aspects of the priorities of public spending that we have in India. It works out to something like $30 billion, which is three times bigger than what it was just 10 years ago, when India conducted nuclear tests.

Some apologist for nuclear weapons claimed then that they would help India limit its expenditure on conventional armaments, and military spending would stabilize. We questioned this as completely nonsensical, because the history of the Cold War is that those countries that invested in nuclear weapons also saw their conventional military spending spiral upwards, so you had both a nuclear arms race and a conventional one.

This is exactly what is happening between India and Pakistan and, more dangerously, between India and China. This is the beginning of the nuclear arms race. As it gathers pace, India will spend many more billions at the expense of huge cuts in its programs for food security, drinking-water supply, for the minimal needs of the people, and especially health. Health expenditure is so low, it’s embarrassing.

Talk more about what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls “the biggest internal security threat in the country.” The Hindustan Timesrefers to a “Naxal red corridor” from Andhra Pradesh to Jharkhand. The Naxalites are named for the Bengal village, Naxalbari, where their movement began in 1967. But it seems now that the term Maoist and Naxalite and terrorist are all being used interchangeably.

Unfortunately, that’s true. What is new is that they’re being described as terrorists and are being dealt with under laws that are meant to be used against terrorists or terrorist suspects. This is a complete abuse of the term terrorism, it seems to me. The government claims that this is a huge threat to internal security and the prime minister, in fact, went further and said that this threat must be put down ruthlessly and that India will not rest unless this scourge of left-wing extremism is defeated.


Anti-Naxalite clearing operationphoto from

He has never said this about right-wing extremism, mind you. He has never said this about the goons of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, who have killed many more people. Take for example, the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. It was sponsored and supported by the state which turned a blind eye, as some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were butchered.

There is a large amount of money being spent on rearming the police forces in these states and modernizing their weaponry, giving them night-vision equipment—it’s like warfare against your own people.

In fact, what they did in Chhattisgarh state is to set up a Contra-style guerilla force, Salva Judum, whose mandate is to kill the Naxalites. So the state armed this militia, much in the way that Reagan armed the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s and gave them guns and salaries and told them, “Go and kill and we’ll protect you.” The Salva Judum people—you’re talking about something like 13,000 of them on government payrolls—have played absolute havoc and created mayhem in that area. About 100,000 people have been displaced, 50,000 are living in camps, unable to earn a living. They can’t go back to their lands and till them. They can’t practice anything that would earn them an income.


David Barsamian is director of Alternative Radio and author of numerous books, including What We Say Goes: Interviews with Noam Chomsky.