CWI 11th World Congress: South Asia wracked by instability

Huge potential for workers’ struggles

The following is a report of the plenary discussion on South Asia held during the 11th World Congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), in Belgium, from 24-30 January 2016. The very successful week-long Congress was attended by 125 delegates and visitors, from 34 countries.

The situation in Asia was touched on in the opening session of the congress on world perspectives, and also in the discussions on women’s rights and the building of the CWI. But there was a separate session on South Asia – Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka – three key countries with a presence of the CWI. Clare Doyle introduced the session on behalf of the International Secretariat and TU Senan concluded it. Members of the International Executive Committee from all three countries and other comrades made valuable contributions.

The background to this discussion is the slowdown in the global economy and particularly that of China which has a particular impact on these countries. The possibility of a new Asian crisis, but on a larger scale, is very real.

India: only growth for the rich

The Indian economy is currently the fastest growing in the world. India seems to be the last BRICS country continuing its growth. Indian companies are active throughout the world. Steel giant Tata for example wants to condemn thousands of British workers to unemployment. It looks a bit like reverse colonialism. But the growth of the Indian economy is uncertain.

The electoral slogan of Indian president Modi was: ‘The good days are ahead’ (Achche Din). The economic growth however has little impact on the daily life of the vast majority of the 1.3 billion people in the country. The number of suicides amongst farmers remains very high, the slums around the big cities continue to grow. Half the population of Mumbai lives in slums. At the same time, there are super-rich in the city such as Mukesh Ambani whose ‘home’ is 27 storeys high.

The majority of the population is faced with price increases without wage increases. There is a growth of natural disasters such as air pollution in the big cities or the recent floods in Tamil Nadu in which hundreds died were worsened because of the lack of decent infrastructure. Now Modi wants to make things for ordinary workers and poor even worse by introducing neoliberal measures.

Both right-wing Hindu nationalism – Hindutva – and the economic policies of Modi have led to resistance. There was last year’s general strike, the biggest in the history of India and probably worldwide, with 150 million participants. The participation exceeded all expectations, including those of the trade union leaders. The campaign of our comrades for a higher minimum wage is getting a good response and finding an echo amongst trade unions.

And now there is a large protest movement from students against caste-based oppression. This movement arose from the ‘forced suicide’ of Dalit student Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad. The CWI Congress approved a message of solidarity with the protests in India. The spread of angry protests across the country over this death are reminiscent of the movement in Tunisia five years ago when mass protest also arose from an act of desperation when a street seller committed suicide. On this occasion, the movement is unlikely to develop into a revolution that unseats the head of state, but is an indication of the pressure building up Indian in society.

There are storm clouds gathering above the government of Modi. His finance minister is named in a corruption scandal. His BJP party lost in the recent state elections in Bihar and got swept away in Delhi earlier last year by the anti-corruption AAP. This party itself has no real alternative; it grew on the basis of disillusionment in the other parties. If the government remains relatively stable at the moment, this is mainly due to the weakness of the opposition, including the left parties and the trade union leadership.

Yet the massive general strike and the movement against caste oppression show the potential of struggle. New Socialist Alternative, the Indian section of the CWI, is keen to build on that potential.

Sri Lanka: new regime, still no solutions

In early 2015 former president Rajapaksa lost the presidential election. He thought he could use his victory in the civil war and his support amongst the Sinhalese majority to secure a new term. Yet he lost. In the north and the east of the country, areas with a Tamil and Muslim majority, Rajapaksa barely got votes and even amongst the Sinhalese population his majority shrank sharply. His attempt to stay in power with the help of the army failed.

Sri Lanka has a proud history of mass workers’ struggle and leftwing political organisations. This still has consequences today, including free health care and education. But all social achievements are under pressure. The right-wing UNP government wants to step up the neo-liberal offensive. Political mistakes and wrong tactics from the left have led to defeats, resulting in a very weak left today. Besides the United Socialist Party there hardly remains anything from the Trotskyist tradition on the island. Former leftist leaders supported bourgeois candidates in the presidential elections, either Rajapaksa or the new president Maithripala Sirisena. The new government led by Ranil closes a page in Sri Lankan history. It looks to the West and India, while the previous government looked more to China. Promises of loans from the IMF will be accompanied by neo-liberal demands that will lead to new workers’ protests.

The Tamil National Alliance, made up of bourgeois Tamil politicians, supports the government. But they do nothing to improve the situation of the Tamil population or to meet the aspirations for a new life. There are still 150,000 troops in the North. There are still detention camps and the USP supports a campaign for the release of all political prisoners, held for many years now without any trial.

The United Socialist Party is a small party, but with a great tradition and reputation. This was shown in the interest shown in the book written by USP general secretary, Siritunga Jayasuriya, on the 1980 General Strike. Meetings to launch the book attracted hundreds of attendees.

In last years elections the USP contested under its own banner. An attempt to form a left front failed, partly because we were the only ones to defend the right to self-determination for Tamils and other oppressed minorities, but also because we were the only ones openly talking about the need for a socialist transformation of society. At the moment we are also the only left organisation putting forward a clear position in the discussion on a new constitution. We demand a secular constitution that recognises the right to self-determination. A new constitution should not be decided by a small closed committee, but through a constituent assembly with representatives democratically elected from all peoples on the island.

Pakistan: political instability

Pakistan is hit by many crises. Life is catastrophic for the vast majority of the 190 million inhabitants. As the document agreed by the congress says, there are elements of capitalism, feudalism and even slavery co-existing side by side. There is a growth of religious intolerance and rightwing political Islam and Pro-Taliban parties are arising. In the province of Sindh the Islamist JUI(F) has regularly come second in the parliamentary elections.

The impact of Chinese investment in Pakistan is huge; it is changing the life of the country. China has pumped a massive 46 billion dollar into the economy, both in infrastructure and production. At the same time a large part of the budget still goes to the army which is heavily involved in the economy.

The weakening of the traditional parties is used by the army to pull the strings in its direction. This does not happen in a direct manner with a military dictatorship, but through controlling and balancing between different groups and interests in the country and the world. Some say Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s role now is limited to being the ‘mayor of Islamabad’, but even that is a positive assessment. The new army chief has no intention of limiting the role of the military in Pakistani society.

The security situation has temporarily improved, but the situation remains explosive. Every day new schools run by religious sectarian forces are opened. Youth following an education in those schools don’t need to be ‘radicalised’ any further to join Taliban forces; their education is specifically aimed at them joining reactionary fundamentalist groups.

The Taliban continues to threaten and attack schools where girls are allowed to study or where female teachers work. The danger of attacks and violence is constantly present. The army has gained control in most of the tribal areas, but some of the worst groups are still protected by them. This is of course linked to the fact that some of these groups were set up or supported by elements in the establishment, especially the ISI or intelligence service.

Regional tensions may rise at any time. This was shown after the attack on a military base in India. While the Indian president Modi made a Christmas visit to Pakistan, it is not excluded that he or his Pakistani counterparts would use national tensions, for example on the issue of Kashmir, to stimulate nationalism in order to divert attention from the many social problems in both countries.

In recent years the trade unions have been weakened, partly because of the large-scale privatisations since the early 1990s causing hundreds of thousands of job losses in the public sector. In the private sector, trade unions are traditionally very weak. But there are elements of class struggle. A victimized trade union leader at Nestlé was released from prison after a campaign, supported internationally by the CWI. There are ongoing struggles against privatisations in the health sector and at the national airline, PIA.

Potential for the workers’ movement

In India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan the workers’ movement has a long tradition but also the potential for new struggle is developing. Capitalism has nothing to offer the vast majority of the population who get only more poverty, sectarian tension and religious intolerance while a small layer at the top lives in extreme wealth. With a resurgence of workers’ struggle, the need for a consistent socialist programme will become greater. The organisations of the CWI in the three countries under discussion are well placed to play a significant role in such developments.

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February 2016