Sunday, May 08, 2011

The CPI(M) will be sent packing...But the Communist Legacy will stay alive...

It is most certain that the CPI(M)-led left, also identified as the mainstream left for some reason, is on its way out of power in both Kerala and West Bengal. Tripura will remain the last bastion for the party. And if any reason is to be culled out for this it will be the CPI(M) having abandoned its legacy. The CPI(M) had shied away, in the past decade, from claiming its legacy as the platform that brought the aspirations of the peasantry into the political discourse.

Nothing will be more illustrative of this legacy than story of one of Hindi cinema’s classics: Dho Bhigha Zameen, that Bimal Roy made adapting from Rikshawallah, Salil Choudhury’s short story. The Indian People’s Theatre Asociation (IPTA), the vehicle for communist propaganda for at least three decades since the 1930s, contributed immensely to building a movement that set the peasant’s rights over the land and against the zamindari system in a manner that the leadership of the Indian National Congress could not ignore. The roots of Tebhaga and Operation Barga in Bengal as well as the strong movement in Uttar Pradesh (the United Provinces then) and Northern Bihar lay in that context.

Dho Bigha Zameen was a symbolic narrative of the travails and the struggle to retain the land against the avarice of the landlord and his machinations to transfer it to an industrialist. The communist movement in Bengal, then led by Hari Krishna Konar, represented the political face of that era and this indeed was the base on which the CPI(M)-led Left Front entrenched itself as the natural choice of the rural poor in West Bengal since 1977. The party had wrested power a decade before that and set out on the land reforms course even then. A similar trajectory was witnessed in parts of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Northern Bihar too; and also in the Malabar region in Kerala, in the Tanjore delta in Tamil Nadu and the Telengana part of Andhra Pradesh.

It is not as if that such struggles have come to an end. The spread of anti-acquisition agitations across Western Uttar Pradesh in the past week, in a sense, is not different from the protests and the consolidation against land alienation in Singur and Nandigram. Those familiar with the history of peasant movements in India will recall the legendary Baba Ramchandra, a sadhu who mobilized the peasantry against the landlords in Western Uttar Pradesh as well as Swami Sahajanand Saraswati who successfully converted the Kisan Sabha, then controlled by the Indian National Congress, into a radical platform that mobilized the small and the middle peasants against the zamindars. These movements, it may be stressed, were the force that made the Indian National Congress’s provincial leaders in Bihar and United Provinces to champion zamindari abolition legislations at the dawn of independence.

To cut a long story short, the roots of radical politics in India lay, primarily, in the mobilization of the peasantry against evictions by landlords. The culture, so to say, began from Champaran and Kheda by Mahatma Gandhi; was fore-grounded by the communists in the thirties; represented by the left-leaning IPTA as well as other such cultural platforms in the three decades since then; and effectively implemented by the CPI(M)-led Left Front after 1967. There were the Socialists too who were committed to this idea in the early stages. But then, the Socialist Party did precious little in this regard even while their contribution to the political empowerment of the peasant social group was immense. In a sense the ascendancy of the legatees of Ram Manohar Lohia to positions of power in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar could be seen as an expression of the peasantry’s attachment to the land and the long history of struggle against evictions.

The point is that this attachment to one’s land may be dismissed as mere emotional or sentimental by those whose view is blinkered by shades of capitalism. The Land Acquisition Act, 1894, which was sanctified by Section 299 of the Government of India Act, 1935, is indeed rooted in this way of looking the world. This premise then leads to treat cultivable land as mere commodity and thus provides for acquisition as long as the owner of the property, thus alienated, is compensated adequately. It fails to concede that agricultural land is not the same as a run-down factory and that it constitutes the heart and the soul of the farmer. The communist movement in India, in its early days, looked things differently and hence established itself in West Bengal, Malabar and many other parts. The communists, then, were not exposed as much to the Soviet Union; it may be because Marxist texts as well as texts by Lenin and Stalin were banned in India!

This changed after independence. The CPI, as did the Congress under Jawaharlal Nehru, accepted the Soviet model of development and viewed large industries, long and wide roads and rail lines, indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and centralized planning as the panacea for free India. The small farmer, the protagonist in Dho Bhigha Zameen began to be ignored or even condemned. Benoy Choudhury, as Land and Revenue Minister ever since Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister in 1977, turned irrelevant for the party in the past decade; and his work as part of Operation Barga was sought to be reversed. The story in Singur and Nandigram are not very different from the narrative in Bimal Roy’s Dho Bigha Zameen. The difference being that the conspirator in the present times happened to be someone like Nirupam Sen, the CPI(M)’s Industry Minister who conspired to grab land and pass it on to the Salem group; and not Thakur Harnam Singh, the landlord in Dho Bigha Zameen.

It may be a bit too much to place Mamata Banerjee in the role of the communist party of the 1930s or even the 1970s. The most charitable comment would be that Mamata is innocent of such ideological positions to which the communists or Baba Ramchandra or Swami Sahajanand Saraswati were committed. But then, the forces that have now rallied behind Mamata Banerjee are representative of the struggle that the protagonist wages in Bimal Roy’s classic. It is indeed the legacy that is now playing out in West Bengal and also in Kerala. It is, hence, not very surprising that an Ajit Singh manages to draw strength, in the same way as Mamata could, from the expressions of collective anger of the small and middle peasantry against alienation of land in Western Uttar Pradesh.

The argument then could be that even if the bastions of the communist party are poised to fall when the votes are counted on May 13, 2011, the legacy that the communists built is very much alive and is manifesting in full bloom and even in violent forms, in places that are far away from West Bengal and Kerala. In other words, here is a scope for the CPI(M) to re-invent itself. And even if they refuse to see the writing on the wall, there is no way that the legacy can be erased. The idea that Salil Choudhry gave expression to in Rickshawallah and that which Bimal Roy adapted to make Dho Bigha Zameen are indeed a reflection of the reality in our villages. And Shambhu Mahato, the protagonist, too will continue to remain as real time characters in blood and flesh.


Blogger Sanjay said...

Even if the radical politics in India lay at the mobilization of peasantry which communists, as you have stated, seemed to have effectively taken up since independence, the communist party cannot retain such politics for long contrary to your assumptions.

When the overall Indian economy is shifting since liberalization it is inevitable that a move towards industrial and service economy dictated by foreign capital is noticed. The communists in India do not have answer to the next stage of Bengal's economy as it necessarily involves disturbing the land. 98% land in Bengal is agriculturally productive land and any attempt to move to the next stage of the economy involves touching the land. The bourgeois parties like Congress and TMC were waiting to opportunity to unsettle the base of the communists and when they did touch the land at Singur and Nandigram they were effetively hijacked by the bourgeois parties aided by of course the ever ready army of paid intellectuals.

3:26 AM  
Blogger V. Krishna Ananth said...

well. wonder if the communists in bengal were such a fragile lot to be broken into pieces just when the bourgeois parties decided to do that and ``paid'' intellectuals cooperated. if this is what the cpi(m) feels, they do not need enemies from outside!!!!

just wonder as to why nitish kumar did not collapse the same way. lest i be mistaken, i do not call nitish a communist. in any case, did the communists have to kill peasants in order to ensure development???? in case such killing was justified, why do the left leaders oppose land acquisition in noida and dadri and also shout against jaitapur?

10:19 PM  

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