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India’s ‘rural reds’

India’s communists were among the first in the world to be democratically elected to power. Kheya Bag looks at the history of the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the ongoing struggle for land reform

August 15, 2013
5 min read

Despite having an urban population second only to that of China, India is still a predominantly rural society: seven out of ten Indians live in the countryside. Many of them migrate in and out of the shadow economy of cities, their traditional livelihoods no longer possible due to the stagnation of agriculture. Despite this rural distress, of which mass farmer suicides are a tragic sign, there has been little attempt at agrarian reform in the history of independent India. Notable exceptions, however, have been implemented by a handful of communist-led state governments.

India is one of a few countries in the world where communist parties – in Soviet and Maoist variations – are still a significant political force. The largest and most influential is the Communist Party of India–Marxist (CPM), which has a presence in the south – primarily Kerala, but also Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – as well as its stronghold in the east, West Bengal and the small state of Tripura.

The history of Indian radicalism, though compelling, is relatively unknown elsewhere. One such episode is the Telangana rebellion of the late 1940s, when peasant communes took control over 3,000 villages in what was the princely state of Hyderabad; they were eventually crushed by the Indian military in 1951. Violent repression would be a recurring theme under the burgeoning democracy. The late 1960s in West Bengal saw ferment far more dramatic than that in France at the time. Student and worker rebellion erupted alongside peasant uprisings. By 1973 the state had nearly 20,000 political prisoners.

The CPM, meanwhile, had become the main opposition party in the West Bengal legislative assembly as a result of spearheading movements for refugee and famine relief and trade unions in the preceding decades. It became the nucleus around which many other radical groups formed a left coalition. After Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was lifted in 1977 – following nearly two years of censorship, police terror and the suspension of democracy – the ruling Congress Party was jubilantly voted out of state assemblies across the country. That year the Left Front won the West Bengal election, and every one thereafter for the next 34 years.

The CPM’s first term in office cemented its rural support with a three-pronged agrarian programme: local devolution, sharecropper registration and land redistribution. Each pillar of reform involved mass mobilisation, extending general political participation and property rights in a steeply hierarchical society. Though West Bengal is a small corner of India, the Left Front was responsible for a fifth of all redistributed land in the country, where constitutional provisions had become a dead letter.

The lynchpin of these efforts was the institutionalisation of regularly elected panchayats, or village councils, charged with planning development and distributing public funds. (Later prime minister Rajiv Gandhi extended this model nationwide.) For the first time, local affairs were run through popular consultation and proportional representation, which mitigated the overwhelming dominance of landlords, mill owners and moneylenders.

Between 1978 and 1982, the Left Front established 8,000 camps across the countryside to hold public meetings where tenant farmers could voice their grievances and learn about their legal rights. During the early, most active phase of Operation Barga, about 1.2 million sharecroppers, or bargadars, registered for protection against eviction and to ensure their landlords would give them a fair share of their produce.

Over the same period, an area of 800,000 acres was distributed to nearly 1.6 million households. This large-scale operation enlisted local people to identify holdings in excess of the statutory ceiling for transference to the state; after compensation these plots were assigned to mostly landless and marginal farmers. (It wasn’t until the early 1990s that women were granted deeds, since calls for ‘land to the tiller’ qualified only men.)

Ultimately these measures were modest but widespread – nearly two thirds of cultivators at the time were beneficiaries of land reforms. Decentralised administration combined with enhanced social and economic stability improved living conditions and reduced indebtedness. On the opposite coast in Kerala, where they had been elected to form one of the world’s first democratic communist-led governments, the CPM implemented similar policies on a smaller scale. However, they were less electorally entrenched there and had to focus more on grassroots organising – which contributed to leaps in human development.

Mass-literacy programmes were something of an afterthought for the Bengali CPM. But in the early 1990s, their Keralan comrades mobilised a popular-education campaign that helped bring the state up to nearly full literacy. High female literacy in particular facilitated a decline in infant mortality and fertility rates. Kerala has also enjoyed more social spending as the Congress and Left coalitions compete for voters in the alternation of governments.

West Bengal, as one of the most populous states, has some of the highest concentrations of marginalised communities in the country. These minority groups – the indigenous adivasi, Dalits, Muslims – altogether make up the majority: the landless and the poor. Yet the Left Front did little to confront social oppression and exclusion, with especially dire consequences in healthcare and education. After the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991, rising discontent as the government retreated from public provision was met with increasing police violence. Those who faced the brunt turned to armed Maoism, separatism or Islamism as a last resort.

Complacent in office, the CPM fostered party patronage, rather than principled links to extend its gains and support (which never budged over 39 per cent of the vote, while still securing a majority in the first-past-the-post legislature). Rural reforms had long lost steam by the turn of the century, when landlessness in West Bengal surpassed the Indian average. The CPM went on to unilaterally hand over thousands of acres for special economic zones, displacing tens of thousands of people for enclaves of jobless economic growth. State-wide protests culminated in the Left Front’s electoral dismissal two years ago.

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