Punjab Postcard: A Street Artist Paints Old Left In New Light

Artist Balvir Singh and his murals of revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Lenin have helped rekindle socialist ideas in his home state of Punjab.

Lenin mural with a quote that reads: “Let me what songs your people sing and I'll tell you the future of your country"
*Kudrat Wadhwa

PUNJAB — On seeing his Che Guevara mural, some of Balvir Singh's neighbors asked whether he had painted a ghost in their village.

"To tell you the truth, my kids wanted Balvir to paint over the mural," says Mander Kaur, who lives next door to the artist. They were convinced that Che was a bhoot ghost because of his long flowing hair ... They were scared to leave the house!"

Anticipating such a reaction, Singh explained to them that Guevara — like Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary folk hero of the Indian independence movement — was a revolutionary socialist. He then pointed to another mural depicting Lenin and said that his ideas were particularly inspirational for Bhagat Singh.

"I told them how Lenin was one of Bhagat Singh's gurus. After that they stopped pestering me to get rid of the murals," Balvir Singh explains.

Gursewak Singh, a professor who also resides in Bhai Desa village, thinks it's important that today's young people be reminded of what Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries believed in. "And because of Balvir's paintings, there has certainly been some interest in learning about samajwad socialism and kranti revolution," he says.

Balvir Singh with a poster of Bhagat Singh — Photo: Kudrat Wadhwa

Balvir Singh normally runs a flex business store in the nearby city of Maur Mandi. But the recent lockdown left him without any work, so he decided to keep himself busy by painting the walls of his village, Bhai Desa. He painted images and quotes about a host of topics like saving water and reducing plastic usage. But the paintings that particularly stood out were the murals of such popular leftist figures.

"I've read the writings of all these icons, and ultimately what's in my head and heart is what will come out of my hand too, right?" says Balvir Singh. He says he's been a lifelong follower of Bhagat Singh and is also a communist and thus couldn't hide his admiration for these revolutionaries. Unlike his other work that is spread all over the village, these murals are painted on the walls of Singh's own home.

What's in my head and heart is what will come out of my hand too.

Singh, now 40, began reading Bhagat Singh's writings at the age of 16, around the same time that his father died unexpectedly and he had to drop out of school to support his family. A few years later, he got involved with a movement against unemployment led by the All India Youth Federation (AIYF), the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). While he never became an official party member, he diligently involved himself in the party's activities, which ranged from speeches to protests and demonstrations.

"No one in my friend circle became official members of the party, but we were involved in the movement," he recalls. "We would go among the people and talk about employment, about our deteriorating conditions. We used to fill up buses and go to protests."

Specifically, he helped organize yearly demonstrations on Bhagat Singh's birthday (Sept. 28). "In 2007, on Bhagat Singh's centenary, I painted his photos all over Punjab," Balvir Singh says. "I want the people of Punjab to remember Bhagat Singh. Just like we celebrate Holi and Diwali as major festivals, we should also be celebrating Bhagat Singh's birthday."

Even though Bhagat Singh remains a beloved figure in the region, his ideas of socialism and revolution don't garner the appeal they once did here. Jagtar Singh, a Punjabi Tribune journalist who was also involved with the AIYF agitation in the late "90s, explains that communists were once very popular in the state. "In fact, they had a stronghold in Mansa (the district that Bhai Desa village is situated in). But right now, they're struggling to maintain their very existence," he says.

In 1977, the CPI and CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had a total of 15 seats in the state assembly, testifying to their support. The state has also produced firebrand leftist leaders like Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who served as the General Secretary of the CPI(M) from 1992 to 2005, and Satyapal Dang, who represented the CPI in the state legislative assembly for four terms. Additionally, the Naxalite movement also took root in the state, and influenced prominent writers and artists like Paash, Laal Singh Dil and Gursharan Singh.

Anand Patwardhan's documentary, In Memory of Friends (or "Una Mitran Di Yaad Pyaari") set in the late 80s when the Khalistani movement that demanded a separate homeland for Sikhs was at its peak, showed how communists played a prominent role in fighting communal violence against Hindus as well as state violence against Sikhs. Some party activists like Jaimal Singh Padda even lost their lives at the hands of Khalistani militants. Since then, however, they have declined. There are no active MLAs from left parties and the Naxalite movement has also virtually disappeared from the region.

Mural of Che Guevara with a quotes that reads: "Socialism for us means ending the exploitation of man by man" — Photo: Kudrat Wadhwa

There are several reasons for this decline, with the first being increasing factionalism in the left. "By 2002, the CPM had split into CPM and CPM (Punjab), which affected its electoral fortunes rather badly," writes Professor Chaman Lal, a retired JNU professor.

In an interview with The Wire, Lal added, "Even now left-leaning groups like Bharat Kisan Union have some hold among the peasant working class of Punjab. But the problem again is that these groups are also divided into factions. Moreover, these radical organizations often opt to stay out of parliamentary politics, and instead they participate in mass resistance only for minor reliefs like financial support for farmers and so on."

Others attribute the left's present absence to its perceived image as a foreign movement that was vehemently opposed to religion. Bhupinder Singh Mann, a Mansa-based author and educator, says that words like proletariat and bourgeois have had a negative impact on left politics. "People perceived communism as a movement from elsewhere and didn't want to join it for that reason," he explains. "They thought that communists stand for ‘qaum nasht" (community destruction), and that they will destroy the Sikh qaum."

According to Sukhdarshan Singh Natt, a Mansa-based senior leader of the CPI(ML) Liberation, "Part of the reason for the left's decline in Punjab is that older parties like the CPI actually supported the Emergency instituted by Indira Gandhi, hence maligning the image of all leftists in Punjab." Jaspal Singh Sidhu, a Chandigarh based writer, argues that the political positions of prominent leftist parties did not differ from "bourgeois' parties like the Congress and the BJP in that they all reinforced the idea of the Indian nation-state.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the Indian class situation to the crudest level.

This does not mean that the ideology has totally vanished. Every year in November, various progressive thinkers and leaders congregate at the Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da (Fair of Ghadar Veterans), held at the Desh Bhagat Yadgaar Hall in Jalandhar, Punjab. The program consists of talks, discussions and performances of revolutionary songs and poetry by renowned artists. Progressive literature, translated into Punjabi, is sold at affordable prices.

Balvir Singh visits the mela each year with his comrades, including journalist Jagtar Singh, and returns home with a pile of literature and books. It was through the Mela Ghadari Babeiyan Da that he learned about Che Guevara and Lenin and what they stood for. He has their framed photos and quotes hung up all over the walls of his office, alongside Bhagat Singh's.

Students politics at Punjab University present a ray of hope for the left in the state. In 2018, 22-year old Kanupriya of the left-leaning SFS (Students for Society) made history by becoming the first woman president of Punjab University. She won on the platform of opposing fee hikes, increasing commercialization of education and deteriorating conditions of hostel and mess workers.

CPIML's Sukhdarshan Singh Natt says that stories like Kanupriya's keep him and others motivated to continue doing their work. "Punjab University elections are similar to elections in the state in that votes are bought with money," he explains. "But SFS won the elections based on its manifesto and on ground work. While university elections don't have a lot of impact on the ground, it's heartening to know that it's possible to influence people and win on the basis of integrity."

According to Professor Lal, the present time is quite ripe for a resurgence of the left, but that can only happen if leftists are able to form a joint front and oppose fascist forces. "The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the Indian class situation to the crudest level — the whole facade and illusion of a welfare state has been completely exposed," he says. "The left movement can make an impact if it has organizational strength and a clear view of how to organize the most oppressed unorganized working class."

*Kudrat Wadhwa is an independent journalist based in Punjab.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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