A Fistful of Dry Rice: Land, Equity and Democracy: Essays in Honour of D. Bandyopadhyay by K.B. Saxena, Manoranjan Mohanty and Sumit Chkaravartty (editors); Aakar Books, New Delhi; pages: 434; Price: Rs 1295.
Debabrata Bandyopadhayay, a member of the Indian Administrative Service, was the man who carried out the ‘Operation Barga’ of the Left Front Government, which it continued to cash for three-and-a-half decades. It was its greatest achievement for which it claimed all the credit at home and abroad. Bandyopadhyay’s role has been succinctly summed up by Muchkund Dubey in the ‘Preface’ to the book: “He played the single most important role in the implementation of the Bargadari reform in West Bengal, the only successful land reform in post-independent India.” The reform meant conferring of occupancy rights with permanent tenurial security to lakhs of sharecroppers who could no longer be evicted by the landlords.
It was his misfortune that after he retired from service, Bandyopadhyay had to witness the very same Left Government embark on a drive to dispossess farmers from their fertile multi-crop lands at Singur and Nandigram in the interest of the monopoly capitalists whom the Left had fought all through. The taste of limited power under a federal Constitution changed not only the Left’s priorities but also its class outlook and class position.
When the Left Front Government was thrown out by the people of West Bengal last year and a new government under Mamata Banerjee came to power, many hoped that the rich adminis-trative experience of D. Bandyopadhyay, or Debuda as he is fondly called, would be put to good use and he would be given a major role in rebuilding the State left bankrupt by the CPI-M Government. Many thought he would be entrusted with the responsibility of heading the State Planning Board. But that was not to be. In the event, the Trinamul Congress chose to send him to virtual political retirement by making him a member of the Rajya Sabha. The articles presented in this volume come under three broad heads: Land, Equity and Democracy. It is truly a conspectus on various aspects of land reform and other problems associated with it—from the presentation of specific field surveys like ‘Economic and Social Backwardness of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar’ by N.J. Kurian and Prashant Kumar Trivedi, or ‘Unbroken History of Broken Promises, with Special Reference to Bastar’ by B. D. Sharma, to general studies like ‘Equity and Land Reforms In the Context of the Agrarian Crisis’ by Vikas Bajpai and Anoop Saraya.
Special mention may be made about some of the articles. In a short and pithy monograph titled ‘Bondage to Freedom, B.N. Yugandhar has exposed the utter hypocrisy and hollowness of the way independent India has addressed the task of freeing the rural poor of their bondage and made a mockery of Article 23 of the Constitution and all the laws made under it for the abolition of bonded labour. Laws have been enacted, not for implementation but for circumventing them and frustrating their objective. The writer has pointed out that although the Ministry of Labour had identified thirteen States and 132 districts as ‘bonded labour prone’, reports of the National Human Rights Commission and other NGOs have confirmed that ‘the system is prevalent in almost all the States’.
He has mentioned a case in which the Chief Minister of a Congress-ruled State complained to a senior officer in a Cabinet meeting that inspectors under him ‘were persecuting the cultivators’ in a Division. When the officer pointed out that five such cultivators booked under the law for keeping bonded labour were sitting right in the Cabinet meeting as Ministers, the Chief Minister asked him ‘to direct the inspectors to go easy and ignore violations of law’. These politicians ‘want a public façade of progressiveness and having the interest of the downtrodden at heart’ but ‘in reality they are at one with the exploiters and while having a law in the statute book they would rather not enforce it’. This is the crux of the problem and it explains why fedualism exists six-and-a-half decades after independence.
There is a lesson here for those progressives and Leftists who still continue to babble about the necessity of ‘completing the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution’. This assertion implies that the democratic revolution remains unfinished and feudalism exists. True. But how? The independence of India meant the passing of state power from the imperialist bourgeoise to the national bourgeoise of India. In their own interest they should have gone the whole hog to liquidate feudalism. It is with this end in view that various land reforms acts were legislated and put in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.
Then why has feudalism not been totally abolished? Why does it exist even today? The fact is that in India today, feudalism exists under the sufferance of the bourgeoisie, of the bourgeois state, and as its collaborator, because in an era in which bourgeois property itself is under attack, the bourgeoisie dare not attack the sacrosanctity of the private property of any other class. The remnants of feudalism have been incorporated into the bourgeois system. These can be abolished only by abolishing the class rule of the bourgeoisie as a whole.
The period after the introduction of the neo-liberal economic policies introduced by Dr Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister in 1991-92 has witnessed a deliberate neglect of agriculture. This is reflected in two facts, admitted officially. First, “There has been a loss of dynamism in the agriculture and allied sectors in recent years. A gradual degradation of natural resources through overuse of chemical fertilisers, has affected the soil quality, resulting in stagnation in the yield levels. Public investment in agriculture has declined. . . “ (Economic Review, 2007-08, p. 15) Secondly, “gross capital formation in agriculture (GCF) as a proportion to the total capital formation has shown a continuous decline.” (Ibid., pp. 163-64) The Economic Survey for 2006-07 admits: “The share of agricultural sector’s capital formation in GDP declined from 2.2 per cent in the late 1990s, to 1.9 per cent in 2005-06. This disturbing decline was partly due to the stagnation or fall of public investment in irrigation, particularly since the mid-1990s.” (p. 175) (Italaics mine—B.D.G.)
The decline of agriculture in the Manmohan era has been brought out in this volume in the monograph titled ‘Equity and Land Reforms in the Context of the Agrarian Crisis in India’ by Vikas Bajpai and Anoop Saraya. They have called it the “neo-imperialist globalisation of India”. They have also exposed the hypocrisy and insincerity of the “Parliamentary Left” (that is, the CPI-M and its hangers-on). In the authors’ opinion: “Their talking of the issue of land reforms appears more as an apology for their claim to being ‘Left’ than being a commitment to be pursued in the form of mass mobilisation of small, marginal and landless peasantry.”
Referring to the Singur and Nandigram incidents, they observe: “This turn of events were no misguided policy adventures of the ‘Left Front’ Government that had ruled West Bengal for over 30 years, but is a logical culmination of ideological deviation aimed at adjusting to parliamentary policies. The exigencies of parlia-mentary politics have made the mainstream Left place the issue of land reforms also purely within the framework of bourgeois reform, that is, bereft of militant mobilisation of peasantry that the implementation of any meaningful land reforms necessarily entails.” In fact the Parlia-mentary Left has been providing theoretical justification for marginalising the land reforms.
The authors have quoted extensively from a CPI-M ideologue to whom the ‘principal contradiction’ after independence was “between the mass of the working peasantry and the labourers on the one hand, and the minority of landlords, traders and moneylenders who monopolised control over land and money capital” on the other. There is no mention of the national bourgeoisie at all, as if such a class does not exist and even if it does exist, its role is so insignificant, so marginal that it figures nowhere in the ‘principal contradiction’! One would like to know from this CPI-M theoretician whether the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Jindals and umpteen others belong to the class of ‘landlords’ or ‘traders’ or ‘moneylenders’.
Further on, talking about the era of neo-liberal economic reforms, the CPI-M theoretician says that in this era the principal contradiction is shifting towards that between “the mass of the Indian people, and the new imperialism”, “between all the peasant classes in rural areas on the one hand, and imperialism with its local landed collabaorators on the other”. Again, the national bourgeoisie is conspicuous by its absence. The contradiction is essentially feudal in character—between the ‘peasant classes’ and ‘imperialism and its local landed collaborators’. The national bourgeoisie has nothing to do with this contradiction. In fact it does not exist! The writer also takes care not to identify who these ‘landed collaborators’ of imperialism are!
The deliberate falsification and misinterpretation of facts and theoretical tergiversations have become unavoidable for the CPI-M because the party has long bidden good-bye to Leftism and become an unashamed protagonist of neo-liberal economic reforms, as was exposed during the last few years of its rule in West Bengal. As Bajpai and Saraya have rightly pointed out, “Such a formulation provided the mainstream Left parties the ideological rationale to compete and collaborate with the parties of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ for capturing state power through parliamentary means.”
Yes, capturing state power, not for a progressive transformation of society in which the rule of the exploiting few will be replaced by the rule of the overwhelming number of the exploited working in fields and factories but for the perpetuation of the exploitative social system and the state apparatus that makes exploitation possible. This is the tragedy of the ‘Parliamentary Left’ in India. What is more tragic is that the tragedy does not affect the Parliamentary Left alone, it has an immediate and adverse impact on the struggle of the people to resist the onslaught of the neo-liberal policies and build up a powerful movement to bring about a change in the balance of class forces in society. How long will it take for the real Left to organise itself and emerge as a decisive force in the political arena? The book ends with Suhas Borker’s interview with Shri Bandyopadhyay. He draws a pen-picture of his multi-faceted personality and brings out the experiences that have gone into the making of this man. Of his childhood in Dhaka, Bandyopdadhyay recalls the traumatic memory of the Bengal famine of 1943 when he saw a baby trying to suck milk from a mother who was already dead, gave it gur and chapati before leaving, and went back later to find the baby also lying dead but touching the gur.
He describes how he was asked by Harekrishna Konar, the Land Revenue Minister of the first United Front Government: “How about joining me?” He did join and that led, step by step, to launching the ‘Operation Barga’, which the Left Front Government continued to flaunt as its biggest achivement till the last day. He recalls how he accompanied Benoy Choudhury (who succeeded Konar as the Land Revenue Minister) to Geneva as members of the Indian delegation to the ILO, the meeting with Paulo Fraire and how the latter gave him the idea of holding ‘rural labour camps’ to ascertain the identity of the real bargadars who would never open their mouths in the presence of the landlords.
Then there are the pithy anecdotes of his run-ins with a judicial officer which ultimately took him to the Supreme Court and on one occasion with Jyoti Basu who distanced the West Bengal Government from the views expressed by Bandyopadhyay in an Information Department journal as not being his government’s. Bandyopa-dhyay’s immediate reponse to it was to apply for sixty days leave. Then he went on deputation to the Centre and eventually became the Secretary, Revenue.
His trenchant criticism of the CPI-M-led Left Front Government, the party’s gradual transfor-mation which saw it bent on pursuing ‘develop-ment through the capitalist path’ and ending up as a ‘counterfeit electoral brand name’ is based on his personal experience and observations from close quarters.
He holds that the ‘Operation Barga’ ultimately failed because it was ‘against the class interests of its (CPI-M) members’. There would be many who would agree today with his harsh comments that ‘The Left is gone, there is no Left left’ and that the ‘CPI-M and the CPI have done the greatest damage to the Left movement... A new Left has to emerge.’
The reviewer was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.