CHENNAI: There is a picture that comes to mind when you think of student/youth politics, right? Young people, mostly men, at a party office; casually spouting Communist slogans or quoting revolutionaries of yore; with a penchant for smoking; getting dragged into fights and courting arrests. Yet, how about a virtual reading circle? Of presentations on political theory? Or memes as a means of dissemination? Perhaps, even a women’s wing? The contemporary face of youth politics is far different from our stereotypical, conditioned imagination. And you don’t need to look beyond Anil Marxist Sangam for an example.
What started as an informal group for Marxists across the state to discuss research papers and books is now an active study circle with nearly 100 members participating in readings, discussions and presentations. “After the second wave (of the pandemic), many youngsters became Left-leaning. When the questions about how the structure itself was oppressive and about vaccine availability and so on started coming in, they began looking for Marxist sources everywhere. Then, they came to us too, thinking this was some new form of Marxism. When we realised that people were taking this seriously, we decided to start a study circle. So, what was being done in a close circle since December 2020 became an official public forum from May 1, 2021. That’s when a lot of new people joined,” narrates Mathur Sathya, offering a glimpse into their origin story.
And people came to it from all walks of life. Ragul Sivasubramaniam, a PhD scholar at Pondicherry University, was already a member of the Ambedkar Student Association at his university. A Dalit man himself, he had been deeply affected by Rohith Vemula’s death and the events that led to it. This inspired him to organise, join the association, and voice out about the injustices around him. It was the Sangam’s Clubhouse gatherings that encouraged him to join the circle. Soon, he was taking part in book discussions and presentations. Ambedkar’s Caste in Politics and Joseph Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism were some of the first works they discussed. He says it offered him a brand new understanding of political theory and how it can help foster practical application.
It was the reading of Caste in Politics that completely turned things around for Swetha R. She was introduced to the circle when the Sangam opened up for public membership. Until then, her idea of Ambedkarite politics had been limited to surface discussions on social media and the general belief in reservations being a good thing. The book, however, offered so much more, she says. “You realise how much of his work is based on extensive research. You get to know how he viewed society and his opinions on many things. This kind of understanding was possible only after AMS,” she notes.
A student of Public Policy at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, Rohit Vishwanath had not been new to this scheme of things. He names Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar as pioneers for the one concept that has guided his work — ellarukum ellam poi seranum. “While we call ourselves Marxist Sangam, we study Ambedkar and Periyar equally. When we look at ways to tackle oppression, it is these three stalwarts we look to,” he notes. And what better way to take these ideologies to other people than through a reading circle. “When you find something right, you read up on it and take it to others simply. And they take it the way they see it — the main idea is suyasinthanai (self-thinking). In our current political situation, the idea is that more people will take up work like this,” he reasons.
Of teachings and takeaways
While the common tendency, still, is to dismiss politics in the life of a student, especially a student of science, Rohit offers a counterpoint. “Science is very vital to this movement. Anyone can say it was God who created everything; there is no room for independent thought there. But it is science that lets you do it. If you notice, it is Darwin’s arrival that offered a spur for Marxist literature. With his Theory of Evolution, you realise the importance of labour in the scheme of the world. In the Indian context, you look at production and the caste hierarchy that comes with it. That’s where Ambedkar comes in,” he reasons, offering an insight into how much political theory can help understand our world.
Swetha has found reasonable success in the political debates in her typical middle-class home, thanks to her learnings at AMS. Where she was dismissed and distanced, she can now hold her ground and make herself heard. Seeing her read about politics and the people who revolutionised it, her family finds more reason to accept her argument now. She would like for more women joining the effort. “Right now, female students are a small population of AMS (maybe 4:10). We also do separate discussions on political ideologies and gender,” she says.
Ask Ragul and he points out that this is the time for all Leftists to unite against the common enemy, letting go of internal conflict and contention. “If you take any university, there is never a complete agreement between an Ambedkarite organisation and SFI (Students’ Federation of India). While the Marxist group questions the strength of identity politics, the Ambedkarite group would be opposed to basing everything on a class struggle. There is a point where Marxists and Ambedkarites diverge and we focus on that instead of coming together on a common point. We need to move to a place where both groups identify with each other. We have that at AMS. A majority of them identify as pure Marxists but are able to fully incorporate Ambedkarite thoughts into their ideology. Even as I am an Ambedkarite, I was able to find a Marxist perspective to my idealogy,” he shares.
There is more need for such reconciliation in our current times, points out Mathur. Given that these ideas and principles are no longer just theories; we are living it. “Through revolutionary work only we can find answers. As a new generation of Marxists and Ambedkarites (we want to identify as both), we want to put these conflicts and differences of opinions behind us, although we want to acknowledge them and understand them in their social and political context. When faced with fascism, we need to find ways to work together. We need to find ways to use the knowledge of both groups to the best of our abilities. AMS has helped reinforce that,” says Mathur, a member of its politburo.
The legend and the next leg
So, why ‘Anil’ Marxist Sangam? While the group now holds a wide range of members — students from different fields, people from several socio-economic backgrounds, lawyers, artists, activists and more — many among them once found resonance over the fact that they were all fans of actor Vijay. “It was when the second look of Master was released. Someone shared it in the group and everyone started reacting to it. “Neeyum anil ah? Naanum anil.” That discovery happened. So, we named ourselves Anil Marxist Sangam. It’s not to say that it was a Vijay fan club. But Vijay is a trending actor, he has a great fan following and his movies have a lot of memes to offer. We took those memes to put across Marxist theories. For example, we explained all of World War I through Master stunt scenes,” narrates Mathur.
Yet, they can only hold on to Vijay for so long. Come May, the organisation is all set to go by its new, formal name — Academy for Marxist Studies. The politburo has put together a syllabus for more structured learning. The members are also working on taking relevant works of research and scholarship and offering them in far more palatable versions for the masses. They have already started work on a library, thanks to the big gains at the recent Chennai Book Fair and the many people who stepped up to help; this is only likely to grow bigger. Perhaps, soon enough, they will be able to take in every eager and enthusiastic candidate. Until then, you can have your slice of Anil Marxist Sangam on social media.
For details, visit Instagram: @anilmarxistsangam