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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 31, July 18, 2009

Agrarian Struggles: Yesterday and Today

Saturday 18 July 2009, by Bhowani Sen


On July 10, 1972 passed away in distant Moscow one of the most creative Marxist-Leninists this country has produced—Bhowani Sen (whose birth centenary was observed this year on January 26).

As was noted during his birth centenary in Mainstream (January 24, 2009),

“. . .apart from the fact that he was one of the most erudite scholars of Marxism in general and Marxist philosophy in particular, Bhowani Sen had a highly enriched analytical frame of mind and a broad national vision which is why he could, with effortless ease, discard sectarianism (which he had once vigorously practised as the lieutenant of that arch-priest of Indian sectarianism, B.T. Ranadive) and adopt the policy of the Communist Party’s close cooperation as well as struggle with the Indian National Congress; and while adopting this course he steadfastly fought the die-hard Left adventurists-cum-opportunists in the CPM without deviating from the basic ideological principles of creative Marxism.

“Bhowani Sen was also one of the architects of the peasant movement in the country. He was the real initiator of the Tebhaga movement in the forties when he headed the State Committee of the CPI in undivided Bengal. In 1970 he was elected President of the All India Kisan Sabha, a post he held till his death. At the same time his repeated proposals for building a separate organisation of agricultural labour were rejected by certain sections who feared it would hurt their interests. They were to subsequently form the CPM—and these elements were also opposed to lowering the ceiling on land from 25 to 15 acres so that more land was available for distribution among the land-hungry and landless peasantry.

“Finally under Bhowani Sen’s guidance the Khet Mazdoor Union and Adivasi Mahasabha were set up in 1968 . . .

“Bhowani Sen’s last memorable contribution to national life was his tireless endeavour to propagate the importance of the Bangladesh liberation struggle while rendering material assistance and extending full support to that struggle.”

Bhowani Sen’s funeral took place in Calcutta on July 15, 1972. His funeral procession on that day was one of the biggest the city has ever witnessed though not a single CPM leader came to offer their last respects to him even as leaders of every other political party (from the Congress to the Naxalites) mourned his death. That is because the CPM’s frontranking leaders considered Bhowani Sen as their staunchest enemy after the late CPI Chairman, S.A. Dange, as he was able to smash their arguments to smithereens with the most convincing counter-arguments from the Marxist standpoint.

There is not a shadow of doubt that had Bhowani Sen been alive today he would have analysed the CPM’s betrayal of Marxism at the State and national levels in the most cogent manner by effectively employing the Marxist yardstick thus exposing the CPM leaders’ pretensions of being the sole Marxists in the country.

On the occasion of his thirtyseventh death anniversary we offer our sincere homage to Bhowani Sen’s abiding memory by reproducing the following excerpts from the Foreword to the book, Agrarian Struggle in Bengal 1946-1947, by Dr Sunil Sen (People’s Publishing House). The Foreword, one of his last pieces, was written on March 15, 1972 barely four months before he breathed his last, and these excerpts from it appeared in Mainstream (July 22, 1972) after Bhowani Sen’s untimely demise. S.C.

The main agrarian struggle of 1946-47 in Bengal was known as the tebhaga movement. It was the struggle of sharecroppers for two-thirds share of the produce. In other words, it was the struggle for reduction of land rents from 50 per cent of the produce to one-third. At that time the sharecroppers, known as adhiars in North Bengal, bhagchasis in other parts of the province and as bargadars in the statutes, did not yet advance the demand for the distribution of landlords’ land to the cultivating sharecroppers. It must be noted that at that time there was no law regulating relations between the landlords, known as “jotedars”, and the share-croppers.

The sharecropper, having no rights in land, had to hand over 50 per cent of the crop to the jotedar, while the entire cost of cultivation was and is still borne by the sharecropper himself. This system, known as barga or bataidari, is a strong survival of feudal land relations. The revolt of the Bengal sharecroppers in 1946-47 was, therefore, supported by all sections of the peasantry in view of the fact that the zamindari system was yet in vogue and there was then no land reform law on the statute book.

The great movement of 1946-47 was led and organised by the Bengal provincial branch of the All-India Kisan Sabha and the Bengal Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of India. India was yet under British rule and naturally Pakistan was not yet born. Bengal was not yet partitioned. The author has, therefore, given an account of the agrarian relations and of the movement comprising both West Bengal and Bangladesh. Most of the area where the movement was concentrated is now inside Bangladesh. After independence and the partition, the two countries (India and Pakistan) followed two different historical courses. In West Bengal, the urge for land reform born out of that great movement has spread to all the districts and secured some reforms. The abolition of zamindari, the Bargadars Act, the Land Reforms Act and its amendments are the results of a continuous series of peasant movement spread over the whole of India. The great agrarian struggles of 1946-47 had lit the spark which kindled the fire of land reform in the hearts of all progressive elements.


Before 1945-46, very few people, besides Communists and their sympathisers, had any support for a movement which aimed at giving land to the tillers. Even the abolition of the zamindari system had a limited support outside the ranks of the Communists. As for the sharecroppers’ demand for two-thirds of the produce, it was resented even by the middle class intelligentsia. Since independence, the democratic movement in India has made rapid strides and the demand for land reform has now become a national demand. Land reform laws passed since 1955 have not yet solved the problem of concentration of land in the hands of the large landowners and of landlessness on the part of the tillers of the soil. Remnants of feudalism have, of course, been curbed and landownership has also been conferred on certain strata of cultivating tenants. The landlords have now reduced the rents payable by sharecroppers. In West Bengal, under the new law, the sharecroppers’ share has been increased to 75 per cent of the crop. Ceilings on landholdings have been statutorily fixed in all the States. But these laws remain, to a very large extent, confined to the statute book; neither the administration nor the judiciary is helpful in implementing them.

What are the difficulties? The laws themselves suffer from many loopholes. There is a powerful landlord lobby in the government, in the ruling party and in every sector of the administrative machinery. What is called the state apparatus in political science is overwhelmingly under the influence of the landed gentry. Today, in independent India, the state power belongs to the national bourgeoisie committed to the capitalist path of development. But the remnants of feudal land relations continue to survive under the protection of the administrative machinery, including the judicial sector. This two-fold process was so long protected by the Constitution in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights, which safeguarded every form of private property. The 25th Amendment of the Constitution has weakened the barrier, it has made the chapter in-operative for the purpose of progressive legislation insofar as it seeks to implement the Directive Principles of the Constitution.

Progressive land reform in order to eliminate the remnants of feudal land relations and pave the way for the non-capitalist path in agriculture constitutes one of the main planks in the programme of the Communist Party of India. It seeks to unite all Left and democratic forces for an early implementation of this programme. All experienced gained since 1946-47 leads to the conclusion that an organised and united peasant movement is indispensable for the implementation of any progressive land reform. Even when laws are passed, they will not be implemented by the bureaucracy until it is thoroughly reorganised by purging it of all pro-feudal reactionaries.

Since the split in the Congress in 1969, the ruling Congress party having been divested of the biggest patrons of the landlord lobby, the prospects of radical land reform began to be brighter. The great movement for land organised by the Communist Party of India in 1970 and the massive mandate of the electorate in 1972 have brightened the prospect still further. But there are remnants of the landlord lobby inside the ruling Congress, who continue to sabotage land reforms.

The peasant movement in the country has, therefore, to march further forward in order to enforce reasonable ceilings on the landed property of the landowning families so that maximum area of land is available for distribution to the landless tillers of soil. Even then legislation by itself will not solve the problem unless the entire administrative apparatus is drastically reorganised. Structural reform requires new administrative cadres and a judiciary ideologically oriented towards such a change.

Land reform will not be complete simply by an imposition of family ceilings and the distribution of surplus land to the tillers. That is, of course, the condition precedent for a higher reform which means organisation of voluntary cooperatives (from service cooperatives to cooperative farming) for the purpose of creating an upsurge of agricultural production. If the “green revolution” has benefited only a handful of big farmers, it is because the primary condition for a green revolution is the redistribution of land to the actual tillers of the soil. This condition has not yet been fulfilled. But one should not run away with the idea that once land is so distributed, the rest will automatically follow. More than a century ago Karl Marx had pointed out (in Capital, Volume III) that small peasant economy is a drag on scientific agriculture, that private property in land is a hindrance to agricultural development. Experience of the socialist countries has revealed that small peasants can be brought into cooperatives only if the state gives them extraordinary facilities for scientific agriculture by supplying them improved machineries, electricity, irrigation, seeds, and other amenities. This means that the State itself must be so oriented towards poor peasants and cooperative agriculture that discrimination in favour of genuine cooperative property as distinct from individual property becomes the normal order of the day.

When this happens, agrarian revolution will be accomplished. To achieve all these objectives, a powerful united peasant movement and a mass Kisan Sabha are indispensable.

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