Lessons for the U.S. Left from a comrade in India

At a time when the United States faces internal problems that threaten its very claim to be a democracy, what can leftists learn from struggles in other democracies at risk?

Sundeep Narwani, an organizer and political activist associated with DSA’s International Committee and with the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party and the All-India Kisan Sabha (Farmers Union) in India, is familiar with both U.S. and Indian political trends and played an important role in supporting farmers’ protests in India and, later, COVID relief efforts.

Massive Indian farmers’ protests brought thousands to Delhi and other major Indian cities over the past year. They emerged in late 2020 in response to the government’s plans to end long-existing subsidies in service of corporate interests. These protests did not end once the second COVID-19 wave hit in March 2021. Rather, the farmers have now resolved that they will be going to states with important upcoming elections to take the fight directly to the Indian government. At the same time, the cosmopolitan coalition that emerged to aid the farmers also created massive mutual aid networks in Delhi in particular, where an estimated 30%–40% of the city’s population was unable to make ends meet.

Despite the threat of arrest or oppression from the central government, political activists like Narwani went to great lengths to provide the support that the state was both unwilling and unable to give. They worked to find oxygen, money, and food for people in poor, largely Muslim Delhi neighborhoods. The importance of such activity cannot be stressed enough. The right-wing forces that have seized power in India—particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where the majority of the farmers’ activities are currently focused—are intent on building an exclusively Hindu nation and violently oppressing minorities, including the largely Sikh farmers and the Muslim population.

“Our networks have become interfaith, all-India, and very powerful as a result,” Narwani said. “The mutual aid networks and communities that have been spawned by these difficult times are all out there doing their best to fill the gaps of the state.”

To Narwani, the beauty of socialist politics and the mass movements that have emerged in India is in the “broad and united movement” that can draw its strength from a variety of people regardless of their differences. Resistance requires negotiation and solidarity in the face of seemingly impossible contradictions and opposition. At home, doing so means tangibly affecting people’s everyday lives; efforts like East Bay DSA’s Tenant and Neighborhood Councils show that this kind of direct action can be replicated in the United States.

Narwani noted that U.S. mass movements have not had the organizational discipline or popular momentum to sustain themselves in the way that the Indian farmers’ movement has. The power of such organizations stems from their ability to “make reality”: shaping popular imagination with education, mobilization, and action. In other words, treating “humans as the pillars” of our politics. Despite India’s great internal divisions, the farmers helped spawn a truly all-encompassing movement. Can DSA do the same?