India: strange bedfellows in Bharat Bandh

Much of India was shut down Sept. 20 in a Bharat Bandh—an all-India general strike—called by opposition parties to protest new neoliberal economic measures by the center-left United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The bandh was most widely observed in Calcutta and Bangalore, which were virtually paralyzed. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimated losses of over $2 billion to the national economy. At issue was the UPA government's decision to hike fuel prices and allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector—which the opposition charges will allow foreign-owend box-store chains to squeeze out local businesses. WalMart, reacting swiftly to the government announcement, has already announced plans to open outlets in India in the coming months. 

The bandh—the second of this yearbrought together opposition parties both to the right and left of the UPA; the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party played a leading role, but the strike was also supported by the Communist Party of India-Marxist. In Uttar Pradesh, the regionally strong Samajwadi Party, a socialist party that advocates equality for low-caste citizens, took leadership, its supporters filling the streets of state capital Kanpur. The strike was poorly observed in regions loyal to the Congress Party, an entrenched machine that leads the UPA. More left-leaning members of the UPA, such as the Trinamool Congress, strongly dissented from the neoliberal measures, but also declined to support the bandh. Mumbai was hardly impacted, being a stronghold of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena, which did not support the strike despite being a sometime ally of the BJP. (Times of India, Times of India, IANS, IANSReuters, Sept. 21; BBC News, Sept. 20)

Assam: BJP exploits ethnic conflict
The bandh was widely observed in the conflicted eastern state of Assam, where the BJP has played a controversial role in recent ethnic violence. Earlier this month the independent Asian Centre for Human Rights issued a report (PDF) on communal riots that left scores dead and hundreds displaced in Assam in July and August. The report accused the security forces of dereliction of duty in failing to intervene in the riots, that pitted the indigenous Bodo people against immigrant settlers from Bangladesh. Although the Bodos are adivasis—a tribal people with an "animist" belief known as Boutha—and are ethnically closer to the Burmese "hill tribes" than to the country's Indo-Aryan majority, the BJP has been attempting to woo them by appealing to "common culture and religion" and a "common enemy" in the Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. "It is possible that we may come together politically," boasted local BJP leader CK Das. "Bodo leaders have told us they need to come closer to us for survival." During the Assam riots, Das organized a BJP seminar in New Delhi titled "Bodo Hindus—Refugees in their own land." The subtitle was "Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators—the new kingmakers in an Indian state." (The Pioneer, New Delhi, Sept. 21; IANS, Rediff, Sept. 11; Hindustan Times, Aug. 28)