It is a “Power” Struggle Alright! – A Centrifugal Take on Recent Movements

Protest against power tariff 2

“আন্দোলনই ঠিক করে দেয় আন্দোলনের পথ”। It roughly translates into a movement decides its own course. This catch phrase has been doing rounds lately quite a lot in some of the prominent movements taking place in and around Kolkata – for instance the SSC movement, Bardhaman univ movement and now, what seems to be increasingly gathering momentum, the anti power tariff hike struggle. It is no coincidence that this catch phrase is constantly being used. It is because of the presence of a very distinctly identifiable group of student[mostly]-activists who have begun to identify themselves as “independent”, more vociferously so since the Hokkolorob movement.

Now what do we make of this catch phrase? [I insist on calling it a catch phrase for the following reasons : 1. it keeps getting used and reused a lot, through photo-posts or status updates of those in or associated with the struggles or with the group in question, i.e. it is used as a marketing or sales tool for the movement and 2. there is generally no elaborate explanation of the concept as a follow up. These two, I believe are characteristics of catch phrases which have recently come to dominate the pattern of political rhetoric largely mediated by social media. As I have argued elsewhere, “campus democracy” and “independent student movement” are also examples of such “Empty signifiers” which are more empty than they might appear at first sight.

Now that I have sufficiently established “movement takes its own course” as a strategic catch phrase, let us proceed towards analyzing it. One very obvious way to react to it would be to say, why bother? Ultimately it is the movement that matters and it is after all just a slogan and if it stays hit and manages to attract people, let it be. Unfortunately, it is difficult to leave the matter at such a rudimentary level of investigation. Let us give an example why it would be problematic to do so. For instance, I distinctly remember the debates that arose when a Maoist sympathizing student organization had negatively portrayed prostitutes in one of their slogans whose core matter may have been otherwise progressive. Therefore, what a slogan or catch phrase is constitutive of in terms of its symbolic cannot be taken lightly.

In this particular case, “আন্দোলনই ঠিক করে দেয় আন্দোলনের পথ” has a certain historical pretext. During the Hokkolorob days, when open GBs [open to students of JU] were supposedly defining the direction of the movement, there arose massive confrontation between two student groups – the prastuti-pdsf camp on one hand and AISA on the other [there was also USDF as a third belligerent] –regarding the mode of operation of decision making during the movement. Insider information revealed how political debates degenerated into ad hominem attacks and soon went out of hand, and more often than not resolved not through the highly celebrated open GBs but “behind the scenes” by “key persons”. In other words, a complaint from those political individuals and organizations who felt that their voice was not properly represented in the movement and was snubbed out was that the movements were not really as democratic as they were marketed to be. Instead, they were being dominated and controlled by a coterie.

The typical and standard response to this criticism from the group that did manage to get the cream out of the movements in question was this – it is the movement [implying, the people, the general mass in the movement] that decides the “course” of the movement. Notice a very subtle reduction is being made here – what basically is being implied is that it is the masses who decide who gets to call the shots. Having seen the SSC and Ranaghat movements up close, which followed the hokkolorob movement, I can safely say that the methods of selection of who gets to call the shots was hardly based on a notion of popular democracy. Likewise, insiders in the Bardhaman university movement have pointed out efforts were being made to constantly malign certain political groups, which were not seen in a favorable light by the dominant group. In other words, sheer muscle power and slandering were tactics that were most certainly used to establish dominance as the decision making power bloc within the movements. This is not to say that there was no positive contribution from the dominant sections – quite the contrary – several individuals from the said camp have actually made it a habit to dedicate themselves completely to these ongoing movements in a manner which is certainly commendable, if only for the massive amount of physical devotion. But what the other groups have been saying is this – they too have their comrades who are prepared to take the tough route for the sake of movements. But they haven’t been given a fair chance of equal opportunity treatment.

These are the internal dynamics which are reduced to a simplistic slogan or catch phrase “আন্দোলনই ঠিক করে দেয় আন্দোলনের পথ”। What is not discussed, let alone admitted openly, is that there is indeed a bitter internal struggle among various forces to gain control of the movement. What this catch phrase is intended to do is to deny this internal conflict and give the general impression that the “movement” is a dispassionate, non-human and amoral entity with no interests of its own. It is as if this “thing”, devoid of human complexities we commonly associate with concepts like “leadership”, that is deciding the course of the movement, rather than some individuals or groups. In so representing, the politics of the power struggle is being brushed under the carpet to the “outside” world – those who are unaware of the who’s who of the figureheads in the movements. Just a casual glance at the fascinatingly shifting patterns of alliances and strife among the various involved stakeholders will reveal why such matters are best kept out of the purview of everyday discussions.

Let me be explicit – the student’s group commonly referred to as Prastuti along with PDSF [with ML RO, MKP and KNS being its big brothers] have in recent times shown an affinity towards building an alliance with Left Collective, a ensemble group of mostly academic-activists, many of whom were once part of CPM and some may still be harboring sympathies for the party. It is interesting to note that while CPM bashing has been a common practice among both PDSF et al and Prastuti, they once used to be bitter rivals. One can easily pull up old Facebook posts from members of PDSF which severely criticized the then solely prastuti line of “independent students”. Ironically, today, we see an alliance having been reached between these groups and the old prastuti line is being picked up by this newly formed alliance. So far this seems to have worked reasonably well as it has an apparently “ non-political” ring to it – as in not being aligned to any particular political group. There is an inherent tension that still prevails between these ex-rivals – turned – allies, as the pdsf, well known for its close connections to the political outfit MKP, finds itself in a spot of bother to toe the “independent line”. However, the present author is not in a position to comment specifically on what the current dynamics is among these two groupss, and neither is that the major focus of this article. To come back to the grand alliance referred to in the beginning of this paragraph, it is for instance the Left-Collective-Prastuti-PDSF forum that is currently battling it out in the anti power tariff struggle [admittedly, in a fairly committed manner].

This alliance is not nearly the only one around in the “third left/stream”. AIPF – All India People’s Forum that basically includes CPIML Liberation and forces like CPM Punjab, CPRM Darjeeling, NTUI (of Anuradha Talwar fame) etc. Then there is the Ganamancha, which is already known to be a faltering forum of organizations like MKP, Radical Socialist, Liberation, Left Collective and people like Rezzak Mollah [who is known for his past history of being a “button man” or strongman for CPM]. This article is neither trying to suggest that trying to find new alliances is bad or that the only ethical practice is to blacklist someone because of association with a certain problematic organization or practice in the past. Everybody deserves a second chance. What it is instead trying to allude to is that slogans or catch phrases like “আন্দোলনই ঠিক করে দেয় আন্দোলনের পথ”। basically try to shield the complex realities of the leadership [read: command, authority, domination or power] structures within movements. It would be ridiculous to conclude that there is such a thing called “people’s movement” in the anarchistic sense of the term whereby there are no hierarchies. Whether or not such a practice is at all realizable is a wholly different matter. But as long as there are existing hierarchies, and the channels of influencing decisions are informed by the parameters of power, let us be very frank about the same. It is precisely this hush-hush attitude regarding the political identity of those involved that allows for the confusion to be generated. It is therefore not a “neutral, independent” process that decides the course of a movement. In the extremely anarcho-communistic sense of the term [or say in the sense of even more conventional ideas of direct democracy], these are not movements “run by the people”. There is a definite decision making structure that is there but not always very transparent.

It is only when we begin to accept the hollowness of the claims behind some of these catch phrases that we can truly start grappling with the courses the movements take, participate with an open mind and offer suggestions without the fear of being snubbed out in an atmosphere that is exclusivist rather than inclusive [this is not a remark on any particular movement but a general remark in the light of the above analysis]. Not only that, it is only when such complexities are out in the open that we can begin to question the claims of these groups or movements paving the way towards an “alternative” – presumably a better one at that. Armed with information about power tussles within movements, people would be forced to question – alternative to what, to whom, in what sense?

This will also force us to deal with more uncomfortable questions – do we at all draw lines when it comes to alliances? If so, where do we draw it? There are forces within the anti power tariff hike struggle who once stood by the party CPM which allowed the behemoth CESC to gain the ground that it has made for itself today. They did not cry foul back then. Also, alliances are being made with individuals like Rezzak Mollah. It may not be wildly off the track then to ask – if CPM too is using its cadre base to oppose the power tariff hike, why not ally with CPM too? Maybe call it an “issue based alliance”?

After all, they must not be too worried about the direction or course of the movement, right? Since “আন্দোলনই ঠিক করে দেয় আন্দোলনের পথ”। !!

[and lest I be mistaken or misrepresented (deliberately?), for the umpteenth time – I do stand in solidarity with the power tariff movement]

By Kisholoy

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