Throwback Thursday: My Day with the Communist Party of India

From my Field Notes in Bangalore, India
Wednesday March 14, 2007

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Today I visited both the State BJP and Communist Party of India (CPI) offices. The BJP meeting was the usual. It was scheduled for 10:30 and we met at 11:15 (which by political party standards is good, better than a meeting with the doctor in the US). I met the State Secretary of the BJP party, who runs the state branch of the party. He was cordial, and answered all of my questions. Like most politicians he fit the standard mold–wearing a doti, the traditional dress of men in South India. His belly is far bigger than the rest of his body giving him a humpty dumpty sort of look, (Misha-maybe a toad). The office, a typical political party office for India, was covered in the BJP party symbol and colors (red and yellow) with Bollywood kinds of life-sized posters throughout of various political candidates, even one of the General secretary himself. It was fairly routine, and this was surprisingly easy.

Then I had my meeting with the State General Secretary of the CPI. I arrived at the Communist Party compound, a big red and white building with a small row of concrete shack-like rooms along one side where all of the party leaders live. They all live in the compound and travel organizing meetings among workers throughout the state. They are all there a few days in the week. Today was one of those days.

Mahesh, the leader of the state students’ organization came out to meet me. He took me into the compound, a small place in Malleshwaram, where we then went to Mr. Patil’s office, the secretary. He was there and waiting for me. The president of the State Peasants Association (a part of the CPI) was also sitting there. I introduced myself, and as I was doing so 3 other men entered the room and sat behind me. They all wore basic clothes, some dotis and others just simple cotton shirts and pants. But suddenly I was in the CPI office alone with 6 men, another man, a local cultural activist later joined. On the walls in the room there were pictures of Singh, the man responsible for setting up the party in India, and of Karl Marx. I felt like I had entered into a revolutionary’s study. Every room had at least one bust of Karl Marx. As we talked the men referred to one another as comrades. Every time anyone answered the phone also, they would say Comrade so-and-so is on the line. They were very skeptical of me at first but warmed up.

The meeting was cordial and they told me both their party perspective and the history of the party in some detail. I also completed the questionnaire I needed to get through with the General secretary. We talked Marx over, and they explained to me how they do not want revolution yet (that is the CPI-Maxist party) which split from them in 1964. But the CPI, as Marx saw it too, sees a necessary stage for capitalism. They explained that they are now in the role of fighting for the common worker and spreading their ideology. One day when they have a base they will call for revolution. The state peasant organizer thought this was especially fun–they quizzed me on my knowledge of revolutionaries. Fortunately I passed their picture tests. I know what Stalin, Lenin, Che and Fidel all look like and who they are. I was proud when I correctly identified Trotsky. This was pretty amusing though. They wanted to know about things from the US, so I talked to them and we shared information over coffee. They make great coffee actually, and I was happy when they expressed interest in my research and what I am doing.

I was then invited to join them for lunch, a culinary lesson by my new CPI comrades. The Comrade of the Peasants State Association and the General Secretary himself cooked lunch for me in their communal kitchen. They taught me how to make raggi balls (a dense ball made of wheat flour that farmers in Karnataka typically eat) and a new style of egg curry. The curry was prepared by sautéing onions and garlic in a bit of water. While the sautéing was occurring, a curry masala was added to chopped chilis and more onion and pureed in the mixer with water to make a paste. It was stirred into a wok, and tomatoes were added. There was no oil at all in this meal. They then cracked open raw eggs and dropped them into the curry. Everyone helped prepare the meal.

Dining was great–we sat in plastic lawn chairs in their style of living room and ate with our hands. We ended with curd and rice. It was very YUM. Throughout the cooking and eating process I inquired about political rallies they organize and their status with unions. They told me about demonstrations, and how they go to villages and factories and mobilize their base. They also talked with one another about their upcoming week and the administrative things they needed to do in the afternoon. They have told me anytime I want to travel in the state, they will organize it and I am invited to join them, including in a CPI rally in Delhi at the end of this month. It is very interesting just to see, though I will not be going out with them. They are all very educated men, almost all with PhDs and MAs. The bookshelves in the offices all contained books of political philosophy and they talked intelligently, even about Rousseau. I felt as if I entered their ideological world for a short time, and it was fun just to observe it. At the end of the meal one of the party activists sang a Carnatic party song for me that they typically would sing at a rally. When I left I had been there nearly 4 hours. Tomorrow they are off to the northern part of the state to organize a farmers demonstration, but it was very cool to spend the afternoon with them. I imagined many experiences but never any of this from political chats to culinary musings. Within the next week I will also visit the Marxist faction of the CPI that split from them back in the 60s. I look forward to seeing their office as well. But this was just stunning and it might have been one of the best meals I have eaten since coming to India this trip.
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