India: Class Struggle, Environment and the Corona Virus Pandemic

Kunal Chattopadhyay

Posted April 17, 2020

“Class Struggle, Environment and the Corona Virus Pandemic” by Kunal Chattopadhyay analyzes the the Covid-19 pandemic in India from the standpoint of public health, ecology, economic and social conditions, caste, class, the neoliberal offensive, and the actions of the government. It charges the Indian capitalists and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi of both criminal negligence and criminal intent. In an example covered in the U.S. media, on March 24 the government ordered an all-India lockdown, with no care for the consequences to migrant workers who would have to starve in place or make their way home on foot, encountering and spreading the virus.

The full article appeared on the Radical Socialist website on April 2, 2020 here. The article is too long and too detailed for the Solidarity Webzine, but we recommend it to readers who want to learn more about how the Covid-19 epidemic is hitting India and the rest of the global south. We reprint its last three sections, which politically generalize the Indian experience and propose a fightback that will resonate with activists everywhere.

Migrant workers, displaced by the Covid-19 lockdown, walking home. (India Times)

The Class struggle on the Political Plane

The Corona virus is an ecological disaster created under conditions of aggressive global capitalism. This global capitalism seeks opportunities everywhere — the opportunity to make money but also the opportunity to carry out its political projects. Right now, it is the case that in numerous countries, an ultra-right, chauvinist, nationalist force is on the rise. They are pursuing all aspects of their agenda at the same time, and to treat the Corona virus crisis as a purely public health issue is to miss out on this dimension.

Right from the start, the Corona virus crisis has been linked to specific political projects in different countries. One dimension in India has been the increasing use of police and the legitimisation of police violence in the name of disaster management. The West Bengal Chief Minister has earned much applause for her populist ways, “leading from the front,” going out on the streets to draw the chalk lines to show where people should stand if they have to go shopping, etc. In that same West Bengal, police treated the lockdown, not as a medical issue but as a kind of curfew. One young man was beaten to death when he went out to buy milk for his young child.

There was violence in a prison. Due to the Corona scare, courts had been closed till 31 March (with the lockdown the dates are likely to be extended). As a result, bail petitions of under trials were not being heard. From 20th March they were not being allowed to meet their relatives either. As a result, in the Dum Dum Central Prison violence broke out on Saturday, 21 March. Angry prisoners apparently set parts of the prison on fire. According to human rights activists like Ranjit Sur, police fired on them, and different figures about the number of dead are being mentioned. The police, as usual in such cases, have denied that there was any firing, and that only tear gas was used. Since the attempt by Human Rights activists in court to get some court action failed, the government is sitting pretty.

Human Rights activists also moved for the parole of prisoners in several overcrowded jails. In independent India most of the time political prisoners are not treated as “political.” But as Ranjit Sur has written, there are quite a few people who are in fact political prisoners, charged with antiquated charges like sedition, or simply accused of being members of the banned CPI(Maoist). While the government has decided to release on parole some 3018 prisoners, not one political prisoner is included.

According to the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (the oldest functioning civil rights organisation in West Bengal) there are currently 71 persons in West Bengal prisons, either accused or sentenced. Trials are moving very slowly. People arrested since 2010 are still under trial. Sudip Chongdar, a former State Secretary of the CPI(Maoist) died in prison. Patitpaban Halder died a few days after being released. Others too have died while in prison. Currently there are at least seven such political prisoners who are above sixty. There are others who are quite critically ill. Spondylitis, Uric Acid, Diabetes, Glaucoma, Depression and various skin diseases are common. The state government’s opposition meant that attempts to get any of these prisoners released even under current conditions failed.

This is worth mentioning, because here there is no difference with the Central Government. The Elgar Parishad Case, a major case of cooked up charges on activists by accusing them of being CPI(Maoist) and of planning to kill PM Modi, has been dragging on for a couple of years. In January 2020, the Central Government, fearful that the Maharashtra government might reconsider continuing the case, abruptly transferred the inquiry from the Pune police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a Central agency. The move has been sharply criticised by human rights activists. It has also raised serious questions about the course of the investigations. Bail applications have been repeatedly rejected. Despite the ill health and advanced age of some of them like Varavara Rao, no bail, no release on parole, is accepted by the government.

For the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, the fascist mass movement behind the BJP), an added dimension is the communal dimension. Making Muslims the target has not stopped. As the news of the conditions of migrant workers percolated, public opinion began to swing. One evidence was that for a day and a half, the aggressive BJP IT Cell was relatively muted on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. On the 30th the BJP struck back. By 31st morning every TV channel was making it the major story. Apparently the number of affected had gone up in leaps and bounds on one day due to Muslims gathering illegally. The Kejriwal government of Delhi, which has repeatedly been accused in recent times of being a different kind of Hindutva brand, even asked the Delhi police to file an FIR against the concerned Muslim cleric.

Now the actual chronology was this. On 13 March a Ministry of Health circular asserted that Corona virus was not a health emergency. From 13 to 15 March there was a Jamaat (religious congregation) of about 4000 people at Nizamuddin Markaz. On the 26th the Hindu Mahasabha organised a gaumutra party (drinking cow urine) to end the Covid. On 16 March the Delhi government ordered a closure of religious institutions. On 17 and 18 March there were still 40,000 visitors at the famous Tirupati shrine in South India. Tirupati was closed only on 19 March. On 22 March, 5pm to 6 pm, people gathered in many places in mini-celebratory mode to ring bells, bang pots and pans. On 24 March midnight the all India lockdown began.

On 30 March, seven of the participants in the Jamaat of 13 March died. So far they had not been separately identified. Now, upon their death, it all became a story of how Muslim irresponsibility was the cause. Forgetting Italy, the USA, there were also claims that not just in India but everywhere it was due to Muslims that there was the spread. But more important was the India focus. All news of migrant workers disappeared, while electronic media had reported, by the evening of 30 March that 29 of them had died, making deaths due to the state imposed violence on the working class more significant at that point than Covid deaths in India. So communalism was called in once more to silence the faint murmurs about class that had begun even among the relatively better off.

Not a Local but a global trend

This is not an India specific thing. Globally, the environmental crisis is linked to capital. The rapid industrial growth in India and China have both contributed to increasing pollution, for capitalism sees the ecology as external, and something that has to “adjust” with the needs of growth. Studies done by the World Health Organization in 2016 found that approximately 98 per cent of cities in middle to low-income countries — have air quality that doesn’t meet the recognized WHO standards. In Delhi levels of dangerous particles in the air are far higher than recommended and about seven times higher than in Beijing.

Across the world, some members of the ruling classes are concerned with how to exploit the Covid crisis for their goals. For Donald Trump, it was to go on a drive of anti-China propaganda. At the same time, Trump attempted to minimise the Covid threat, since keeping business running was a major part of his goal.

Having made slow initial responses, the capitalist class is everywhere being compelled to take some measures. But these are measures taken by capitalist states. They start by putting pressure on the working classes. Trump has suspended union elections, and has continued ICE (Immigration and Customs enforcement) raids under the banner of fighting the pandemic. Israel and Singapore have refined their already well developed internal espionage systems.

Taking into account the specific ideological-political contexts, each country is tending to move to cut down civil liberties and democratic rights of working people, and to extend so called “anti-terrorist” measures. While this orientation to authoritarianism does nothing to slow down the virus, it gives an impression of a government hard at work. It also responds to a standard middle class reaction demanding “firm action.” At the same time, the capitalist state is concerned with the profits of the capitalist class. In Italy, the working class struck after seeing that despite the massive spread of the virus, industrial production was being continued. In the USA, Amazon workers have struck work demanding better health protection.

Stranded migrant workers wait for food. (News18, India)

For a Working Class Fight Back

Of course, it will be argued that we are all in the same boat. But that is not how the ruling class sees it; and that cannot be the working class response. Given the political blows struck at the working class in many countries, including in India, to talk of a fight back is easier said than done.

But this is essential. Unless militant actions are undertaken, workers will find more and more of their rights trampled in the name of fighting the Corona virus. Parties, trade unions, and social movement organisations and networks of the working class and poor peasants have to try to understand and demarcate between what is really, scientifically necessary to fight the threat, and what is an attack by capital to extract more surplus value. We must not give up struggles for better wages, living conditions, better public health care, in the name of national unity.

We have to fight for international collaboration for better research to develop treatments. At the same time we have to fight for immediate state regulation of hospitals so that far greater numbers can be treated at low cost.

In place of the actions of regimes that look at profits first, we must demand:

  • Immediate imposition of tax on the rich. In India, an Oxfam report of January 2020 said that the top 1 per cent own four times more wealth than the bottom 70 per cent. So the crisis calls for a tax on the top 1 per cent. Arundhati Bhattacharya, former State Bank of India chief and now Salesforce’s India operations chief, has only one recommendation — to print more money to tackle the crisis. The key action however is one she will not recommend.
  • The income share of India’s top 1 per cent  rose from approximately 6 per cent in 1982–1983 to above 10 per cent a decade after, 15 per cent by 2000 and to around 23 per cent by 2014, according to the World Inequality Report 2018. It makes sense therefore to call for a flat tax on this 1 per cent — not a voluntary donation, not getting out of even that by the fraudulent PMCares fund which shows “corporate responsibility” while gathering donations from ordinary Indians.
  • The government must move for production of large numbers of ventilators and even larger numbers of PPEs. It is the historic experience of World War II that shows how quickly necessity can compel companies to change their lines of production. If the Government claims to be serious it must put the pressure on the capitalists, not the workers. This has to be the line of argument to be taken to the ordinary masses of people, including those who still support the Modi government.
  • Since a whole range of things have to be produced (medicine, basic food) and a range of services must be provided, the government must ensure better rationing for all and work out how workers in all those production and service sectors are to be protected.

This breaks down into a set of demands:

  • Restore a functioning Public Distribution System (PDS) for all. Provide cereals, pulses, edible oils, soap, hand wash, basic spices, for all through the PDS.
  • Stop bottling of water for aerated drinks. Ensure drinking water for all. Let us not forget that there exist even now long queues for drinking water. If we are serious about maintaining distance, the poor have to be protected from that.
  • Owners must be responsible for the health care of employed workers, if production units are open. Owners and the State must ensure pay and benefits, if units are temporarily closed.
  • Decrease hours without a decrease in pay for all who must work! All necessities provided for those who are not working!
  • Free housing for all the poor during the crisis, funded by cuts in the military budget and taxes on the rich. (We have seen that light machine guns [LMGs] were bought recently from Israel. We submit that these are for more ruthless internal policing purposes, which must stop).
  • Free all prisoners with low terms. Free all nonviolent, immunity-compromised and elderly prisoners. Free all who are long term under trials [jailed without convictions], regardless of charges, for it is the State that has endlessly delayed the trials.
  • Women face multiple problems. The UN estimates that about 70 per cent of frontline healthcare workers are women. Special attention must be paid to their health.
  • Lockdowns increase chances of domestic violence. Domestic violence must be tackled as seriously as the Covid itself.

These are all demands that have to be tied up with the struggle for restoring and widening democratic rights:

  • No curb on the right to strike.
  • Abolish the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
  • Abolish the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
  • Abolish the National Investigation Agency (NIA).