The relative marginalisation of Pansare’s work is likely a consequence of the larger unquestioned practices that have become normal fare in communist parties today.
Govind Pansare was not among the nationally well known faces of the Communist Party of India (CPI), even though it was his political home for over six decades. Tragically, it was Pansare’s assassination in February 2015 that catapulted the CPI leader to the centre of national discourse. Prior to his murder, not many beyond Maharashtra, where he was based all his life, knew about the richness of his innovative work, his scholarship, and his organic links with the people he spent most of his time with.
Reading Pansare’s writings in the recently published book Words Matter: Writings against Silence, I wondered why his work did not get the attention it deserves during his life time, even within his own party. These diverse writings – he authored 21 books – clearly distinguish Pansare from run-of-the-mill communist leaders, many of whom despite their ordinariness, have become well known faces representing the party. His relative marginalisation seems to be a consequence of the larger unquestioned practices that have become normal fare in communist parties today.
Pansare, along with M.M. Kalburgi and Narendra Dhabolkar, whose murders captured national headlines, were all rationalists. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that religion is one arena where his distinctive mode of intellectual inquiry is on full display. In his work, the communist leader reckoned with questions like: how can communist parties – which believe in and practise atheism – reach out to vast numbers of deeply religious people? What kind of popular cultural idioms do they need to evolve that move beyond a ‘class only’ approach? These are questions that have a direct bearing on contemporary politics in India where aggressive forms of religious fundamentalism have rendered Left-Liberals quite helpless in the political sphere.
While Pansare reflected at length on the complexities of religious and political mobilisation for Left forces in the country, Left parties as a whole shunned deeper intellectual exercises to understand the politics of religion. Instead, the Left parties clung to unchanging formulations year after year, decade after decade. Consider for instance the deadening language of the section on communalism in the CPI-M’s organisation report presented at the party’s Kolkata plenum in December 2015. Para 1.187 of the document states: “Utilising the intellectuals with us and our contacts with democratic intellectuals and prominent personalities, we should set up joint platforms against communalism. We should use the intellectual resources and the research centres that we have to produce political and ideological material for the campaign against communalism.”
These words are typical of the Left’s general tendency to reduce its fight against communalism to a string of (failed) electoral strategies. The latest example of this comes from the politically bankrupt and disastrous Left-Congress alliance in the recent elections in Bengal. The language deployed by the Left to wean people away from communalism has been no different from that used by so-called secular parties like the Congress or Samajwadi Party. However, while the latter of these parties has successfully leveraged caste arithmetic in its favour, Left parties have, for too long, been slow to react on that front as well.
In his writings on religion, Pansare seems to ask more interesting questions and spell out potentially more fruitful strategies. For example, he writes: “On the one hand, we should not hesitate to explain religion in a straightforward language. We should note the historical role played by religion, and at the same time explain how the established system has used the miserable and helpless in their place.” He goes on to explain how communist parties should deconstruct religion and how it has been used by vested interest groups to acquire power and wealth. “We should not spare any effort in showing how religion has been used by the rulers to further their vested interests and explain this to the exploiters. But we should be sympathetic to those who have fallen victim to religious bigotry.”
Delving deeper into the question of communist parties’ engagement with people who are religious, Pansare cites Lenin’s response to the question of whether believers can be admitted into the party. Lenin was of the opinion that millions of workers, peasants and the poor would stand to be excluded from membership if the party shut its doors on believers. He maintained that his “party is not a debating society between believers and non-believers.” It is this deep attention to local conditions, to the intricate histories of caste and religion that appear to set Pansare apart from the most prominent faces of the Left movement today.
In contrast to what is often the Left’s dismissive attitude of religion, Pansare emphasises that “revolutionaries” need to intellectually engage with religion: “All the revolutionaries in the world have had to think about religion. They did so by putting in front of them two sections of society. One section is that of oppressors using religion to exploit. The other is that of the exploited and the poor who have taken shelter under religion with false hope.”
However, Pansare also argued that to liberate the masses from the clutches of religion, one has to analyse it in specific social contexts. The views revolutionaries have of religion, he writes, “must be based on the social conditions of the time. It may be convenient for those who wish to interpret the world to go on repeating the same views irrespective of time and space. Such a position does not help those who wish to ‘change the world.’”
In observing that “religion thus occupies a singular space as far as the scope, depth and continuity of its impact on society is concerned”, Pansare seems to suggest that mere sloganeering will not effectively challenge the increasing politicisation of religion, or wean people away from such a process. The pull of religion is perhaps stronger than most identities. It is not enough to understand religious mobilisation either in purely electoral terms or simply as a subset of questions related to class. The matter is far more complex.
Pansare therefore asks: “What are the reasons for it? No system in society survives without reason. It does not become universal unnecessarily. It does not create hegemony for no reason. There is something in religion that fulfils a social need.”
In the chapter introducing him, author and translator Uday Narkar writes that Pansare “was perhaps the only Left leader in Maharashtra who was struggling to engage with the people’s imagination.” At a time when the masses at large seem disillusioned with dogmatic party line and staid politics, getting back in touch with “the people’s imagination” – even if to critically interrogate it – could be well worth the effort.
What Left parties need right now is to revive a culture of intellectual debate – one in which grassroots leaders like Pansare (there surely are many more such invisible and restless party intellectuals away from the glare of publicity) can make a worthy contribution. It is equally necessary for communist parties to make space for dissident opinions on critical subjects like religion and caste rather than penalise them, for the debate to lead to a genuinely different conversation.