By K Varadharajan
COMRADE Jyoti Basu’s death was followed by an unprecedented show of love and respect from the masses cutting across political lines and they thronged the streets of Kolkata and across Bengal grieving his death. What was it that led to such a profound sense of loss for millions of people in Bengal and elsewhere?
Most political commentators talk about how he was the longest serving chief minister who held the post for 23 long years and thereby created a record of sorts in political history. What however is less spoken about is as to what was the basis on which the Left Front kept getting re-elected despite the most hostile opposition from political opponents, the corporate media and all kinds of reactionary elements. To put it simply this was possible because the government did not run from the Writers Building alone, but also from the villages of Bengal. While Mahatma Gandhi spoke about India living in villages and the run-of-the-mill Congress leaders and others kept repeating it, Jyoti Basu actually understood the pulse of the villages; he shared the sorrows of the peasantry, rejoiced in their joys, stood by their side and fought for their rights. This is what the Communist Party stood for and he never lost sight of that even when he kept getting re-elected as the chief minister for more than two decades.
Comrade Jyoti Basu’s commitment to the toiling masses and the peasantry was unquestionable. His association with the peasantry started with the Tebhaga movement. Kisan Sabha mobilised the peasantry around the demand of 2/3rd of the produce for the sharecroppers. The Tebhaga movement was met with brutal repression. He vociferously raised the demands of the Tebhaga movement consistently in the assembly and protested against police atrocities. The Communist Party entrusted him with the task of visiting different districts and preparing a report on the police atrocities against the peasantry. It was years later that the Left Front government with him as the chief minister guaranteed the rights of the sharecroppers and also put an end to evictions from land. The Left Front government also put an end to the use of police to suppress mass movements by workers and the peasantry. After independence when the assembly session took place for the first time on 21 November 1947, peasants who had come to Kolkata from their villages to greet their leaders were lathicharged. Comrade Basu raised the matter in the assembly and walked out when the chief minister’s response was found to be unsatisfactory. He then addressed the peasants outside the assembly and again tried to move a resolution condemning police brutalities on the peasantry. This zeal to take up the cause of the peasantry was witnessed throughout his life and he also made it a point to attend Kisan Sabha conferences where he placed his views candidly even when he was the chief minister.
In the midst of the food crisis, he made a scathing attack on the policies of the Congress government in the Bengal assembly which is a landmark in the history of the Food Movement. When the Communist Party wholeheartedly participated in the collection of food grains under the leadership of the Peoples’ Committee, Comrade Jyoti Basu was in the forefront of that initiative. He was also actively involved in providing leadership to the mass upsurge that engulfed Bengal from 1953 to 1959, be it against the hike in tram rates, the food movement or the different mass strikes of the workers. In 1967, Comrade Basu became the deputy chief minister in the United Front ministry and again in the second UF ministry in 1969. The role of these two governments and his leadership in providing a stimulus for the unleashing of mass movement and intense class struggles is memorable. He addressed the All India Conference of the Kisan Sabha at Borsul in Bardaman district in 1969 and gave direction to the Kisan Sabha by his call for being with the peasantry and mobilising them around the demand for Land Reforms. When the Left Front government took over in 1977, it translated the demand for land which was the slogan of Kisan Sabha into a reality with the implementation of far-reaching land reforms. The Left Front government followed up land reforms with the panchayati raj reforms. This strategy of the Left Front government termed as “walking on two legs” has transformed the lives of millions. The unleashing of productive forces through the land reforms gave a new lease of life to agriculture in the state while panchayati raj led to real political empowerment of the rural poor.
Land Reforms were taken forward under the leadership of the CPI(M) and West Bengal has seen the most equitable distribution of land in the entire country. Although West Bengal accounts for only around 3 per cent of agricultural land in India, it accounted for over 21 per cent of ceiling surplus land that has been redistributed in India. Operation Barga ensured the security of tenancy rights to the sharecroppers and this was also a move without precedence in India. Over 11 lakh acres of land was permanently brought under the control of sharecroppers and their right to cultivate land was firmly established. West Bengal has accounted more than half (54.5 per cent) of the total number of gainers from land distribution programmes in the entire country and the total number of beneficiaries was 29,71,857. The total number of gainers from all the various land reform programmes, including recorded sharecroppers (15,10,657) and recipients of homestead land (15,57,151), comes to 50,39,665 beneficiaries. This means more than half of the rural households have benefited from Land Reforms in the state since 1977 and West Bengal accounts for almost 50 per cent of all beneficiaries of land redistribution in post-independence India.
In West Bengal, 84 per cent of land is owned by small (2.5 acres to 5 acres) and marginal farmers (less than 2.5 acres) today, while the all-India figure is only 43 per cent. When contrasted with this, large holdings (more than 25 acres) accounted for merely 0.003 per cent of holdings and operated only 0.05 per cent of the total cultivable land. Around 56 per cent of the total beneficiaries of land redistribution in West Bengal were dalits and adivasis. They also comprised over 41 per cent of the registered sharecroppers. Till date, over 5.35 lakh women have been given joint pattas and 1.57 lakh women given individual pattas (ownership rights over land). Proportion of land owned by Muslims in West Bengal is the highest among all the Indian states. It is this fact that drew the attention of B P Mandal and West Bengal land reforms’ record as well as its emancipatory role in overcoming caste oppression has been documented by the Mandal Commission. Even when under neo-liberal economic Policies there has been an increase in landlessness in most states, in West Bengal an additional 95,000 acres of land was acquired in the 1990s under the land reform legislation and 94,000 acres redistributed. These figures for the decade of the 1990s account for almost all the land acquired and over 40 per cent of the land redistributed in the entire country.
The democratisation of the countryside through the panchayats threw up a new stratum of leaders from hitherto oppressed backgrounds and the political domination of the erstwhile village elite, including landlords and moneylenders was decisively broken. Panchayats also played a major role in the effective implementation of land reforms. They exposed benami land holdings, identified surplus land and also ensured that the legal rights of recipients of vested land and sharecroppers over land were not compromised. The panchayats were involved in the disbursal of institutional credit for the beneficiaries of land reforms and also for the sharecroppers. The rural poor and socially deprived groups like dalits and adivasis, as well as women soon played a dominating role in the elected bodies. In most Indian villages a major share of land is monopolised by a few families and whoever gets elected invariably came from the landed class and in many cases these sections also divided themselves among different parties and retained power within their families. In West Bengal, the panchayat elections were not mere tokenism and it has brought the villages under the control of the poor and oppressed irrespective of which Party emerged victorious. The proportions of dalit and adivasi panchayat representatives in all the three tiers were over 37 per cent and 7 per cent respectively, well over their share in population. It is noteworthy that over 35 per cent of the gram panchayat members are women.
The achievements of West Bengal in agriculture on the basis of these reforms demolish the argument of agricultural experts and economists that the small landholdings are detrimental to enhancing productivity. Under Left Front, food grains production has grown at the rate of 6 per cent per annum, which is the highest among seventeen most populous states of India. It has transformed from a food deficit state witnessing famines and food riots to a leading food producer in the country. It is the topmost producer of rice, vegetables and fish in India. There has also been significant expansion of irrigated land area through small and minor irrigation projects.
The face of villages in West Bengal is far different from the villages of most other states because of the strategy of “walking on two legs” and the political commitment of the Left Front government under the leadership of Comrade Jyoti Basu to pursue it genuinely. There is a general refrain that we hear in the villages of states like Tamilnadu where I come from: “Whether Rama rules or Ravana, Moghuls rule or the British, the Landlord remains our ruler”. This is a reference to the unchanging nature of the hierarchical relations in the rural countryside irrespective of who rules at the centre and also an indicator as to how the monopoly over land determines power equations in the countryside. This is the reality in our villages and in most parts of India it remains so even after 60 years of Independence. The Left governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura are the exceptions to this rule and their record on land reforms as well as political empowerment through panchayati raj is impeccable.
It is as the helmsman of a collective that brought about these radical transformations that Comrade Jyoti Basu is loved and respected and he shall forever continue to live amidst the peasants and the toiling masses for that. His mark on the minds of people remains indelible. I remember him for his unstinted commitment to the liberation of the oppressed and his consistency in pursuing that commitment to its logical culmination.