Micro foundations of Bengal communism 9788120204539, 8120204530

On communism in West Bengal since 1977.

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By H a r ih a r B h a tta c h a r y y a f

a ja n t a

J >5 &+?! MS ISBN : 81-202-0453-0 © No part of this hook may hp reproduced or trans­ mitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechani­ cal including photocopying, recording or by any informa­ tion storage and retrieval system, except references or re­ views, without permission in writing from the Author and Publisher.

1st Published 1998 by

A P ublishing U nit


AJANTA BO O K S IN TERN ATION AL I-UB, Jawahar Nagar, Delhi-110007.

(P rinted


I ndia)


Laser Typeset by : Universal Laser Typesetter, Delhi-110094.

Pl Il '




Contents Pages Preface and Acknowledgements Content o f Tables Chapter 1 : Introduction

v ix 1

Chapter 2 : Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Chapter 3 : Bengal Communism and Rural cooperatives: The Case of the District of Burdwan


Chapter 4 : Bengal Communism and Panchayats : Operation of MicroDemocracy


Chapter 5 : Micro Communist Organisations in Micro Districts : Social Bases of Communist Power


Chapter 6 : Conclusion




Preface and Acknowledgements Contemporary Bengal communism remains neglected by Indian, more particularly, Bengali political scientists who are mostly preoccupied with the past. As a result, a subject which affects and concerns each and every Bengali, particu­ larly since 1977, is left to a group of western academics of different persuasions who have produced scholarly but biased and inadequate accounts of communism in Bengal since 1977. This study is an attempt to rectify that neglect, and an invitation to more thorough and penetrative re­ searches and debates on communism in Bengal. In collecting data for the book I received help and co­ operation from many persons and institutions. 1 am, first of all, grateful to many members of Panchayats, Co-Opera­ tives, Banks and Municipalities who have volunteered knowledge. Of the Burdwan CPI-M, Sri Nirupam Sen, former District Secretary, now a member of the W est Ben­ gal State Committee of the CPI-M, and Prof. J. Bhattacharyya, a DCM and editor of Natun Chiti offered many insights which were useful. I am grateful to both, particularly the latter for facilitating data collection and reading parts of the draft and comments. Am it, Kajal, Sibotosh, j. Sain, Sk. Rasheed and Prabir (all my post-graduate and doctoral students) and Manik have also facilitated data collection for

which thanks are due. Madhab, my youngest brother, helped by collecting some data from New Delhi.

I take this op p ortu nity to thank Prof.K alyan Bhattacharyya, a former teacher of mine for kindly listening to me about the ideas in the book and reading parts of the draft and comments. He has always been a source of en­ couragement. I am also grateful to Professor T. J. Nossiter, LSE, London, my former research supervisor, for kindly reading a small part of the draft and comments and Dr.Sudipta Kaviraj, SOAS, London, Dr. G. Singh, Leicester and Mr. Adam Swirsky, my friend, for encouragement and inspiration. A host of my colleagues and former teachers have shown interest in the work. I would particularly mention the names of Prof. Sudhir Roy, M.P., Prof. Abhijit Mitra, Dr. Ajoy Ranjan Biswas, Dr.(Mrs) Anima Biswas, Prof. Shibnath Banerjee, Prof. Anil Baran Roy, Prof. Sunil K. Bhattacharyya and Prof. Surojit Mukhopadhyay. I would like to thank them all. Professor Mohit Bhattacharyya, ViceChancellar B.U. himself a political scientist, has been very helpful when needed. I am grateful to him. Parts of the book were read by me at different semi­ nars and conferences, such as International Symposium on Management of Rural Co-operatives hosted by Anand, Gujarat on 7-11 December 1992; All India Conference on Decentralisation and New Right Philosophy hosted by NEPASI and the Dept. Of Political Science, B.U. at Burdwan on 14-15 April 1995; All India w'orkship on Professional Management of Co-Operatives held at Uttarpara Co-Opera­ tive Training Institute, Uttarpara, West Bengal on 18-19 March 1995; the workshop on Panchayats and Mass Par­ ticipation hosted by the Burdwan University Branch of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi at Burdwan University on 21 September 1995 and finally, 7th Annual Grassroots Politics Colloquium 1996 at the Dept, of Political Science, University of Delhi hosted by the said Dept, and Developing Countries Research Centre D.U. on 8-9 March 1996. The ICSSR, New Delhi offered some financial support for part of the research for the book for which thanks are due.

Sri Koushik Kushari has offered an able job in wordprocessing and printing out the draft for which thanks are due Sarswati, my wife, as always, has stood by me, and baby Sahon has not complained much about 'it'. Finally, the views expressed in this book are my sole responsibility.

Harihar Bhattacharyya

Department of Political Science,

University of Burdwan, Burdwan.

Content of Tables C


T able





P ages

Decadal Growth of Population of Burdwan (1861-1991).



Industrial Map of Burdwan Town.



Religious Composition of Burdwan's Population. 26


Scheduled Caste Population of Burdwan Town (1961-91).



Growth in Literacy in



Occupational Distribution of Popula­ tion of Burdwan Town (1951). 30


Occupational Structure of Burdwan Town's Population (1961). 31


Occupational Structure of Burdwan Town (1971). 32


Occupational Structure of Burdwan 33 Town (1981).


Party Members of Burdwan Town (1968-71).




Growth of District's Party Members 35 (CPI-M) (1968-1994)

Growth of Party Members in Burdwan Town (1968-1994).


Members of Mass Org. of the CPI-M in Burdwan Town. 36 Membership of the CPI-M led Mass organisations (Detailed). 36 Growth of Party Branches and Members in Burdwan Town.


Membership Growth of Burdwan Town Local Committees of the CPI-M. 37 Party Performance in 1981 Municipal Elections in Burdwan. 42 Party Performance in the Municipal Elections of 1988 in Burdwan. 44 Party Performance in the Municipal Elections of 1993 in Burdwan. 44 Changes in Municipal Wards (1981-1988).


BJP performance in Selected Wards in 1993 Municipal Elections in Burdwan.


Working of PACS in West Bengal (1956-1971).


Class Composition of Membership of 36 PACS under Ukhra Block, Burdwan (1990-91).


Rich Peasants and Agricultural Labourers in 8 PACS inUkhra.


Class Composition of Membership of PACS Under Bhatar. Balgona Block, Burdwan. 88 Agricultural Labourers in 5 PACS in .Bhatar. Bolgona.




3 //



6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

Class Composition of Members of 10 PACS in Kanksa Block.


Class Composition of Members of Sonalika PACS.


Class Composition of Members of 18, PACS.


Class Composition of Members of Dhankora PACS.


Class Composition of Members of Bhedia PACS.


Class Composition of Members of Amagarh PACS Ltd.






Party Membership in Hooghly District (1978-1992) 144


Class Composition of CPI-M Members in Hooghly District. 144



3. 4. 5.


Party Panchayat Correspondence of Members of Hijalana Gram Panchayat, Burdwan. 116

Party whole timers


Class Composition of Members of Polba Local Committee (No. 2).


Growth of the District Party Members (1968-1994).



Class Composition of CPI-M Members in Burdwan District (1989-91). 156


Social Composition of Party members



Growth in members of CPI-M led Mass Organisations (1977-92). 158


Class Origins of Delegates to the District Conferences (1981-91).




Social Composition of Party Members Memari Zonal Area. 161


Party Members of Memari Zonal Area.




Social Composition of Party Members in Tripura (1995). 168



Agrarian Structure of Tripura (1995)




Social Composition of Party Members of Burdwan Town (1995). 261


Introduction The Indian State of West Bengal has been continuously under Communist rule since 1977. The democratically elected CPI-M led Left Front Government (L F G) in West Bengal is a unique phenomenon in India and the world. This long­ est serving elected Marxist Government has attracted, natu­ rally, considerable global attention as a development agency. While communism has failed elsewhere in the world, in West Bengal the communists still continue to retain their mass bases. This is indeed a remarkable achievement. This empirical-analytical study explores the micro foundations of communism in West Bengal since 1977. Communism in this eastern state of India is well-entrenched especially since 1977 organisationally, socially and electorally. Since 1977 ie, the rise of the C P i-M led L F G , the Communists, more particularly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), have continuously expanded their bases of support. The global decline of Communism is yet to produce little impact on the strong communist bases of support in West Bengal. Apart from the historical tradition of communism in the state1. Raised numerals always the factors resposible for this communist miracle are a set of well-formulated designs of capturing and exercising power at different in­ stitutional levels of society, and their successful operation. Thus, the key to the understanding of communist power in West Bengal is the operation of communist designs in sev­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

eral vital institutions of society and polity. The well-formu­ lated communist designs and their concomitant operations determine the patterns of exercise of power at different levels of socio-political reality of the state. The questions of mass mobilisation, expansion of social bases of support and the degree of popular participation in the polity are all intimately connected to and determined by, communist de­ signs. Communist designs and their operation hold the real clue to the patterns of the exercise of power and the degree of mass participation in the polity. The inquiry is pursued at the grassroots of Bengal Communism where the regime is said to be consolidated. The central question of Bengal communism, or for that matter, of any polity at any level, is the question of power. Michel Foucault believes power is equivalent society as it produces reality.2 Foucault (1926-84)3, the French philoso­ pher made original contributions to modem political theory, not only by his concept of the state but also,more impor­ tantly, by his idea of power. Foucault's 'analytics of power' is full of insights for utilisation in an empirical exploration of the operation of power. He has raised the question of power in an original way. For him, the question of who has or holds power is enigmatic and the great unknown in history. He follows a micro-approach to power whose five methodological rules are as follows : 1.

power should be understood at its extremities, in its regional and local forms where it is less legal;


power should be understood on the point of ap­ plication at which it is in direct relationship with it's target;


power is not a property of an individual or group or class, but on the contrary, the latter are to be seen as the effects of the former as well as its vehicle;3


power should be analysed from the micro level in order to explain how power techniques are colonised by macro forms of domination; and


the exercise of power is accompanied by the pro­ duction of an apparatus of knowledge and the dis­ course of truth".4



Thus Foucault was basically concerned with the how question of power: how it is exercised, its mechanisms, strategies and effects. In an interview, Foucault emphasised that we can not study power without the strategies of power, " the strategies, the networks, the mechanisms, all those by which a decision is accepted and by which that decision could not but be taken in a way it w as."5 Our inquiry is informed by Foucault's analytics of power sketched above. We are basically interested in the patterns of exercise of communist power at micro levels and their effects so far as the issue of popular participation in the political process is concerned. The exercise of com­ munist power in West Bengal since 1977 has been accompa­ nied by a political discourse, the discourse of Marxism which determines and legitimises the contours of the exercise of power, and the degree of mass participation in the process of decision. The CPI-M's Marxist discourse, a particular version of Marxism, informs its designs as far as its pen­ etration in the micro institutions of power and the control over them are concerned. If, for instance, communism in West Bengal since 1977 has not resulted in popular partici­ pation iii the democratic political process, it may be be­ cause of the operation of communist designs which again are informed by the party's political discourse. However, we have some fundamental disagreements with Foucault's analytics of power which should be mentioned here. Foucault's is a post-modern analysis of modem power; ours is a 'm odem ' analysis of modern power. In his case, Fou­ cault has eschewed the method of totality and concentrated his attention on the dispersions of power. W e cannot do so because a totalizing framework operates in the case of com­ munism in West Bengal. The Communist designs of power are totalizing in the sense that they are arrived at the allBengal (if not, all Indian) level and meant to be operative throughout the state. As we will see later, in greater detail (concluding chapter), Communism represents a modernity and a totality, Bengal communism being no exception. W e show in this study how communist exercise of power in Bengal produces as its effects, an exclusionary process i.e, excluding the people from the process of power, of deci-


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

sion and action. Democratic participation has thus been the casualty. Paradoxically, communism in Bengal and popular disem-powerment have gone hand-in-hand. We examine the micro mechanisms of communist power in West Bengal in order to make a macro argument about communism in Bengal, or India, if not about global communism. This study is empirically based but theoretically ori­ ented. The empirical data have been collected with the help of both semi-structured and structured interviews, and on the spot survey of the micro institutions. The other and the novel sources of data collected and utilised for this work are local level inner party sources which are usually un­ available but indispensible for understanding the true na­ ture of the operation of Communist power in the state since 1977. Both these two types of data have been utilised to corroborate our argument. The argument that we make in this study is essentially a theoretical one : against the common sense belief and the findings of existing researches on the subject* that Indian communism means all practice and no theory, we stress here that Indian Communism, or to be specific, Bengal Communism since 1977, has meant a theoretical practice. The practice of Bengal Communism has been informed and backed by a particular version of Marx­ ist political theory. And this explains truly why despite the best wishes, intentions and sacrifices of great many com­ munist activists, grassroots democracy, mass initiative and involvement in the development processes and democratic participation have not been areality in West Bengal since 1977. West Bengal has since 1977 experienced 'development7. Atul Kohli (1987) has given it rank 'A '7 among the states of India. Decentralisation understood in the terms of admin­ istrative science,has been a reality. Funds have flowed down to the local level. Corruption has been minimised. But none of the above indications are proof enough for democracy. Interestingly enough, in West Bengal since 1977, decentra­ lisation and centralisation have been the two interlinked processes. There is no necessary relation between develop­ ment and democracy. Therefore, that 'development' has taken place in West Bengal is itself not an argument for the case of democracy. If there is no necessary relation between



democracy and development, there is nonetheless no neces­ sary conflict between them. Much depends on how 'devel­ opment7 is perceived and practised. West Bengal, in short, might be a highly mobilised regime, but it is difficult to prove that it is highly dem ocratic. The hiearchically organised and ultra-centralised communist party can never be the substitute for democracy.* Mobilisation, however, committed and pro-poor people, cannot substitute for par­ ticipation which is an activity valued in itself. Of the existing studies of Bengal communism, Atul Kohli's (1987) is perhaps the single one which has attempted a theorisation of the Bengal experiment.8 Kohili puts for­ ward the social democratic argument, and overemphasises the developmental aspects of the regime. He is wrong on both. Bengal communists are not the replica of European social democracy, although the CPI-M led regime is en­ gaged in socio-economic reforms, as part of its goal. Sec­ ond, the developmental dimensions of the regime should not be over-emphasised at the cost of the mobilisational goal of the party in power. In the party's frame of refer­ ence, they are closely inter linked. The party has not sepa­ rated the one from the other. Kohli's bias is clear when he said : ' the CPI-M 's organisational arrangement is both centralised and decentralised. While the decision-making power is concentrated, local initiative and knowledge can be combined within the fram ework o f central directives'.9(My em p h asis). He does n o t ex p la in how th e C P I-M organisationally is both centralised and decentralised; also he can not explain why the decision-making power has to be concentrated. Kohli does not lament over the fact that West Bengal under the communists since 1977 has experi­ enced 'development' without democracy even in the bour­ geois sense of the term. Understanding that would have taken him away from a statist political sociology to the heart of marxist political theory which explains the way the regime exercises power. Our concern with democracy does not, however, blind us to tremendous, somewhat revolutionary, mobilisational dimensions of the regime. This is evident in terms of the


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

social bases of support the regimes builds and retains,and the organisational and electoral involvement of the lower clases of people in the organisational and grassroots politi­ cal institutions such as panchayats, municipalities and rural cooperatives, as much as the lower levels of party organisation. As far as the panchayats are concerned, this aspect has received some empirical attention. The empirical evidence on the class origins of panchayat members con­ tained in the existing studies on Bengal communism would be helpful for our purpose. However, we will present empirical evidence on the class background of elected panchayat members on the basis of our own indepth study of Gram panchayats across the districts of West Bengal. The party through its political mobilisation and recruitment has been able to ensure some degree of lower class presence both inside the movement and organisation as well as in the institutions of grassroots democracy. In the study, we will also make a comparative study of the social bases of sup­ port, organisationally and electorally, of the micro institu­ tions under study, and assess its implications for commu­ nism in West Bengal and democratic participation of the lower classes of people in the political processes, institu­ tional as well as non-institutional. In this study, we raise also the question of the politics of the 'social bases' of com­ munist power. What is the special meaning of 'mobilisation' and 'recruitment' when communism is seen as a form of modernity? What is the politics of communists' 'organised mobilisation'? Why do they recruit in such as an organised manner? If organisation is central to communism, the commu­ nist party is the prince of communist modernity. It is the party at its different levels that formulates the 'designs' or techniques of power, and operates them in different insti­ tutions. Thus while the party guides its mass fronts in their acquisition of bases of support, it also recruits for itself. The nature of party membership, sociologically understood, provides one powerful indication of the party control over society. Within the space available, we will examine closely the local party units of two districts such as Burdwan and Hooghly as two representative cases. Except the rural co­



operatives for which we will base ourselves on the Burdwan district, most of our case evidences will be drawn from several districts such as Burdwan, Hooghly, Birbhum and Bankura. Since we will be making a macro argument in this study, several quantitative cases do not make such differ­ ence. Systemically, the operation will be similar throughout the state. Even a single case, if appropriately investigated, will offer enough proof for establishing the general case. The party's operational mechanisms for different institu­ tions are the samç throughout the state. Hence the effects of the party's excercise of power on the people would ar­ guably be similar for all cases. Although references would be made to many other micro institutions which have been subjected to the CPI-M control, the major micro institutions specifically chosen for this study are : municipalities with particular reference to Burdwan municipality; panchayats with special emphasis on Hijalna Gram Panchayat (Burdwan district); Ruppur Gram Panchayat (Birbhum), Magra I and II (Hooghly) and Dhulai (Bankura); Local party units of the districts of Burdwan, and Hooghly (these are compared to other units in the State and the Tripura units of the CPI-M also) ; and rural co-operatives (Burdwan). The CPI-M, the m ost pow­ erful communist party in the state, has left hardly, if any, institutions of importance beyond its penetration and con­ trol: schools, colleges, universities, Notified Areas Author­ ity and so on. Each and every platform—literacy campaign, science movement, library movement etc—has been sought to be penetrated by the party with the help of a wellformulated design of control. The party's seriousness and sincerity in this endeavour is beyond doubt. It's, no won­ der, that elections of the members of the schools' managing committees in a district town take on the character of a general election. For all these and many more, the design of the party remain the same : systematic penetration and control of institutions in social; cultural economic and po­ litical spheres. In some way, this study is a critique of the regime. But unlike the existing em pirical critiques, ours in


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

a theoretical critique which is at the same time based on intimate empirical evidence and confidential archival sources. If one closely reads the inner party sources, one will notice that the regime is also self-critical of the operation of the partycontrolled institutions, but the party critique, though valuable, is not theretical. Most of the academic studies done on different aspects of Bengal communism have indulged in some critique of the regime, but they are not only empirical but also discrete. There are studies like Ross M allick's10 (1993) which wrongly criticise the regime from a perspective imposed on it. As the regime itself is totalistic, there is all the more the need for a total critique of the regime. We criticise the regime in order to explore the po­ tentialities embedded in it for further advance towards a more progressive social development. Our critique is based on the recognition of the massively successful mobilisation undertaken by the regime, and the achievments recorded since 1977 as far as the improvement in the material con­ ditions of life of the people is concerned. Thus this cri­ tique should be considered a part of the reality it de­ scribes. It is a measure of success of the regime itself which has forced sincere academic attention to be paid to the operation of the regime. When marxism, to be precise, Soviet modelled communism,throughout the world is quite legitimately subjected to criticisms, when leftists all over the world are searching for new paths, agencies and institutions12, it is high time that communism in Bengal gets a dispassionate hearing. A rethinking has also started, though not powerfully, inside the movement about many aspects of its practice. My efforts, made outside of the party, seek to contribute to the same in search of a vision of a society that ensures people's power. This retheorising efforts are conceived not in the abstract, but in the concrete i.e, the living mass bases of the regime which hold some optimism. The micro-institutions and organisations studied in greater detail in this book, are treated historically, that is by highlighting the major points of communist penetration in them in the pre-1977 period, and the nature of bases of



support built in them. However, the primary focus is post1977 period. The methods followed in researching out the problem are that of historical political sociology. In order to collect empirical and archival data, we have fol­ lowed the methods of interview and archival research. The inner party sources (unpublished), constitute the major portion of archival sources. Of these, local level sources are more frank and less guarded and of unusual signifi­ cance for understanding the communist designs and also communist self-criticisms. Both the elected representatives of micro institutions as well as the beneficiaries i.e, a cross section of villagers have been interviewed. In the interviews, both stmctnred and semi-structured, it was the quality of information that was the focus of attention. While archival sources are available in party office of the Burdwan District Committe of the CPI-M at Burdwan, panchayat offices, and offices of Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies, and the Burdwan Central Co-operative Bank, Burdwan, interviews have been conducted in the field i.e, party offices, villages, panchayat offices, offices of the PACS, and Banks. The researches for this book have been done over a period of one year and a half since 1993. While the appropriate secondary sources have been consulted, most of the sources used in this work are primary. In re-theorising the case of communism in Bengal, if not in India, the ap^ propriate contemparary global level literatures on com­ munism have been consulted. Needless to say, through these micro cases, we have attempted to reformulate a macro argument, through empirical evidences to reconstruct the theoretical argument.

Notes and References 1.

2 3.

See, NossiterT. J. Marxist State Governments in India (1988), Chapters 2, 9,10 and 11; Franda, M. F. Radical politics in West Bengal (1971): Sen Gupta, B. Communism in India Politics (1972), Chapters 4 and 6 and Overstreet G. D. and Windmiller M. Communism in India (1960). Foucault, M. Politics, Philosophy, Culture (1988) Chapter 6, "On Power', PP. 96-109. Foucault today is one of the most controversial post-mod-


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

emist thinkers. Every branch of human Knowledge today refers to his thought. As far as Marxism is concerned, Foucault has posed the most powerful challenge. While, 3 in a sense most of his writings are political in nature, he has written directly on 'power' in several places, e.g., 'Disciplimary power and Subjection' in Lukes, S ed. Power (1986);' The subject and Power' is Drefus H L and Rabinow P. Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (198 2), and Truth and Power' in Gordon, C ed. Michel Foucault. Power! Kjiowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings (1986). 4 See, Foucault, M : Disciplinary Power and Subjection in Lukes, S ed. op.cit. 14 5. See his 'On Power', in Politics, Philosophy, Culture op.cit, p. 104. 6. See, Nossiter (1988): Webster N (1992) Panchayati Raj and Decentralisation of Development Planning in West Bengal Lieten G K 'Continuity and Change in West Bengal (1990): Mallick, Ross : Development Policy of a Communist Government : West Bengal since 1977 (1993), and Singh, G Communism in Punjab (1993). 7. See his The State and Poverty in India (1987). & Kohli A. op.cit. 9. Ibid., p. 143. 10. Ross Mallick (1993), op.cit. D. Bhattacharyya's study "Manu­ facturing Consent: CPI-M's Politics of Rural Reforms in West Bengal (1977 -90)" (an unpublished paper presented at a Workshop on Agricultural Growth and Agrarian Structures in Contemporay West Bengal and Bangladesh' at C S S S, Calcutta on 9-12 January 1995) is a case of confused under­ standing of the CPI-M regime in West Bengal. Bhattachayya has failed to see the centralist ethos of the regime i.e., produc­ tion, to be precise, capitalist production and hence used a floppy term 'middleness' to characterise it. He also does not see the implications, of the fact that the 'middle peasants' are "reliable allies" of the CPI-M's People's Democratic Front. The regime is centralist and productivist, the links between the- two being obvious. (See also his paper in Chandhoke and Ghosh (eds) (1995). 11. See, Wainwright, H : Arguments for a New Left (1994).

Chapter 2

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy Communist Modernist Design in Municipalities Communists in West Bengal have penetrated into and operated Municipalities particularly since 1981 with a wellformulated 'design'. Municipalities are considered to be the institutions of urban grassroots democracy, agencies of lo­ cal self-government' in urban areas. Throughout the world they have been recognised and incorporated as part and parcel of the modem state system. 'Local democracy' is a legacy, wrote Patric Dunleavy1, from the nineteenth cen­ tury, when municipalities were an important means for co­ ordinating the interests of a territorially divided capitalist class. In the case of the West, especially Britain, the rise of monopoly capital has signified the gradually diminishing role o f 'local bodies', although the central state, ideologi­ cally, has never risked the abolition of such local bodies altogether. Centralisation of key functions of such bodies has followed as a means of by-passing them. Dunleavy,


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

however, has seen such local bodies as tied to fostering capitalist state objectives as well as the potential platforms for the left's 'stepping stones' to national power, because by using 'red islands' they can demonstrate the viability of socialist strategies, or to expose the oppressive character of centra17 state controls2. In terms of both organisational as well as electoral support mobilised by the communists in West Bengal for municipalities, the communist-run munici­ palities are the 'red islands' in the state. Whether they dem­ onstrate the viability of an alternative communist strategy and, if so, to what extent requires not only the examination of social bases of party support in the municipalities, the exercise of municipal power by the communists but also the analysis of communist design as far as municipalities are concerned. Although communists have been participat­ ing in municipal politics since pre-independence times, it was only particularly since 1977 ie. the rise of the Left Front Government (henceforth LFG) that they have sought to take part in municipal politics with a well- formulated political design. But it must be stressed here that communist par­ ticipation in such politics has always been informed and backed by a 'design', well-formulated or not. That is, their participation has always been purposive and political, the prédominent attitude towards such (bourgeois) institutions being instrumental, tactical and manipulative. Because of the well- entrenched nature of the communists ( in the case, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI-M) in the left controlled municipalities since 1981, urban political analysis centring around municipalities in West Bengal ever since is impossible without a prior knowledge of the CPI-M's de­ sign in municipalities. This knowledge exposes the political problematic of the party in operation in municipalities. The crux of the party's design is the externally oper­ ated party control of the affairs of municipalities. The es­ sence of this control is to utilise the platform and institu­ tions of municipalities for building party support and ex­ tending party influence through development activities of municipalities. Party members elected to municipalities themselves suggest party control over them. But,more importantly,the party forms Municipal Sub-committes at

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


different levels of the party hierarchy such as district, zonal and local committes to look after the interests of the party in municipality. These Sub-commities are the most power­ ful techniques of party control over municipalities, hi party's terms of discourse, these Sub-commitiees are to take all the important decisions regarding municipalities. The local level inner party sources attempt to define the party design in municipalities: Evidence I :

"W e have Sub-Committes at district and local levels in order to run the municipali­ ties. These are guided by the party, and meet regularly."3

Evidence II

"In running the municipalities and Noti­ fied Area Authority, the District Com­ mittes.' Sub-Committes meet regularly and take all the important decisions. Also, there are Sub-Committees in each local Commit­ tee area to run the municipalities."4

Evidence III

"According to the Directives of the Dis­ trict Committee, the role of the concerned committes is to be the "determinant of policies". Over control and unreasonable interference in the day to day activities of the municipalities only complicates things. Elected representatives are to work within the framework of the constitution of In­ dia, but they must obey the definite poli­ cies of the party."5

Evidence IV

"The role of the Nagarik Samity in the life of the citizens is very important, but in the absence of proper guidance, we have yet to reach that goal. Nagarik Commit­ tees are yet to be formed in all munici­ palities and where formed, they have not been able to perform any active role." " The im portant p osts of the N aganik Samities are occupied mostly by party per­ sons. But they are unable to give them


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism time due to their involvement in other dif­ ferent activities. As a result, the Nagarik Samities are not playing an active role."6

The above are some of the representative documen­ tary evidences from the inner party sources covering the districts of Burdwan and Hooghly. But they can be said to be representative in the sense that the operational mecha­ nisms devised by the party are the same everywhere. The design of the party in this respect is centrally formulated. The passages above are somewhat overlapping in respect of the design, and that is a proof of the centralist nature of the design. Although the party is interested in ensuring grassroots democracy, mass initiative and mass participa­ tion in these urban local government institutions, opera­ tionally the party has sought to make its Sub-committees as the real exerciser of power. Operation o f the Design: How has the party operated its design? What are the effects of the operation of its design as far as urban grassroots democracy is concerned? How does the party asseess itself? Once again the inner party sources are quite instructive. Today, most of the munici­ palities and Notified Areas Authorities in the state are under the control of the leftists especially the CPI-M. And that is a proof of the success of te opeation ot party design. To­ day, communist occupy the kiy posts in Municipalities and Notified Area Authorities. Communist's electoral support lias also increased over the years, as will be particularly evidenced by te case of Burdwan Municipality, in a sepa­ rate section below. And yet what has been the fate of grassroots democracy? How has poere been exercised in Municipalitis? Has communist leadership translated into popular control of such bodies? Evidence I : "The main weakness in running the munici­ palities is our failure to involve the people in the activities of the municipalities. In some areas, Ward Committees including common people have been formed, but they ae not active at all."7

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Evidence II : "W e have not been able to make much head­ way in so far as the mass intiative in the developmental activities of the Municipality is concerned. As we stressed in our last con­ ference/'8 Evidence III : "In the wake of the increasing pressure of population, lack of planning and absence of appropriate control, the concerned Sub-com­ mittee lack long-term perspective. In some cases, the elected representatives show greater concern for cheap popularity than the issue of developm ent."9 Evidence IV : "It is necessary to elect those persons to the important positions of the Nagarik Samity who are not party members, yet loyal to the party and progressive. The party persons in charge should only play the role of a guide in this matter."10 Therefore, in the party's own understanding, urban grassroots democracy through municipalities has not been realised because the most fundamental precondition of this ie, mass initiative, mass involvement and mass participa­ tion have not occured. Ward committees and Nagarik Committess, even though they have been formed occasion­ ally, have not been able to play an active role. All this has been so despite the excessive party involvement and par­ ticipation in the affairs of the municipalities. One instance of this excessive party control is that the key posts of the Nagarik Samities are held by party persons. The evidence (iv) above is a testimony to the fact that the District Com ­ mittees itself feels the necessity of involving common people, though loyal to the party, in the important posts of the Nagarik Samity. Thus we find that excessive party involve­ ment and absence of mass involvement in the affairs of the municipality have gone hand-in-hand. On closer analysis, both are parts of the single problematic of the party, the problematic of control, a modernist problematic, so to the say. This problematic demands confirmity and "consensus", and hence demands raised by even by the CITU affiliated Municipal Worker's Union, when they do not conform to


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

the political goal of the party, are not recognised as legiti­ mate by the communist leadership of the municipality11. When the municipal sub-commitre of party is designed as the "determinant of policies", much is said about the fate of democracy in municiplalities. The party's centralist and controlling modernist design is the real reason why mass initiative and involvement in municipal affairs do not take place. This design is inherently ati-people or at least is based on som e kind of suspicion of people. As the detailed case evidence from the Brdwan Municipality will presently show below, the cultivation and expansion of the social bases of the party in the munucipal areas, to be seen in the light of the central political problematic of the party, has also not resulted in mass initiative and involvement in municipali­ ties. A wide gap between the party and the people, so far as the exercise of power is concerned, is- also the reality, very crude, yet undeniable : an inevitable consequence of the operation of the modernist design of the party in mu­ nicipality.

Social Bases and Exercise of Communist Pow er in the M unicipal Tow n of Burdwan : Constraints of Urban G rassroots D em ocracy This section explores the 'social bases' of communist power in the municipal town of Burdwan. By 'social bases' are meant here both the organisational and electoral sup­ port bases of the party. These two sphere are closely interlinked, but are, justifiably to be explored separately for analytical purposes. This research attempts to contrib­ ute not only to the understanding of Bengal Communism, but also, more importantly, to urban political analysis in Bengal. Urban political studies in India and, more particu­ larly, in West Bengal have not enquired into the social bases of urban local government although there is no dearth of studies of the more formal aspects of the subject such as urban management and functions of municipalities. This study seeks to rectify this neglect which has stood in the way of understanding the political processes, comprehen­ sively, at the level of urban local government. From the

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


standpoint of the communist, sch a study is very signifi­ cant: this make them aware of the potentialities of and limitations to establishing mass or grassroots democracy at the urban areas within the given structures of bourgeois democracy in India despite their commendable achievements in building organisation bases of support by mobilising the masses. Let us start with a very simple question:-Who voters for the communists in Burdwan and why? This apparently simple question has, however, no simple answer but in­ volves a whole lot of issues about the social structures of the town, the level of political mobilisation by the commu­ nists, and the level of growth of the organisation of com­ munists. That is to say, the answer to that question can be sought in terms of the interrelationship between the social structures of the town, mass mobilisation of the commu­ nists and the comunists' organisational growth. This micro­ study of Bengal Communism explores the interrelationship betw een so cial stru ctu re s, p arty o rg a n isa tio n and mobilisation, and the political behaviour or the Municipal areas of Burdwan in West Bengal. The electorate of Burdwan have, since 1981, consis­ tently returned the communists to Burdwan Municipality through 1981, 1988 and 1993 with overwhelming majority of suppport. To be sure, the communists' party-and -sup­ port-building in the town was not done in a day, but their recent record of electoral performance is a solid proof that the communists are well-entrenched in the town which, socio-economically speaking, does not possess, on the face of it, potentials favourable for communist penetration. How was the wonder done? No study is available on t he subject. Based on a novel methodology, not usually encountered in the existing state of research in social sciences, which com­ bines archival records, electoral data and census data. This study seeks to explain the changing social bases of support for the communists in Burdan town and the complexities involved. The m ain archival sources are the CPI-M organisationous reports of various conferences at district, zonal and local levels. These inner party documents, not


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

usually available. Provide very important clues to the organisational growth of the party, the electoral penetra­ tion of the among the party people and the patterns of party support in the Municipal area of the town. This study rejects the rational choice12 theory in favour of a modified class approach in explaining the social bases of communists support in Burdwan. When an individual joins a commu­ nists party he or she is not irrationally so motivated, but the party cynics would argue, in private, that an individual's joining and remaining in a communists party may also well be "raionally" calculated. There is certainly an element of truth in it, but this can not be held solely responsible for the successive communists victories in Burdwan. The cen­ tral argument of this section is that (communist) party organisation translates into electoral support and there is a clear positive correlation between party organisational growth and electoral support for the same. Additionally, the com munists in "Pow er" at the Municipal level in Burdwan town have provided relatively better local gov­ ernment by delivering goods to the people given the con­ straints of Municipal finance, and this was reflected in wider margins of victory for the communists in 1988. The com­ munist votes in Burdwan town are decidely class votes, but it is difficult to argue that these are proletarion votes.

A Brief History: The ex-secretary of the Burdwan District Commitee (henceforth DC) of the CPI-M wrote13 (1992) that the total members of the district party unit and its mas organisations were approximatley 22,0000 when the total population of the district was 56,0000,. So the ratio between the party and the people, or to be more precise, a party man/woman and ordinary persons 1:2.5. This ratio would be lower when the electorate replace the people. In 1991, the district unit had 10,000 members. Those facts mentioned above strongly in­ dicate the CPI-M 'Hegemony' in the district, and serve to explain why the party regularly wins all the elections held in the district. The researches14 done on the history and growth of the movement in Burdwan district show the deep organisational penetration of the party in the length and breadth of the district.

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Despite the long histroy of communism in the district, the communist movement in the district of Burdwan was started, orgnisationally, in the mid-thirties15 -the district town, typically, was to remain, for quite a long time, a non­ communist, if not anti-communist, urban centre. The sym­ pathetic attitude that was available among some sectors of the urban dwellers towards the communists was such his­ torically, because of the nationalist past of many of the founders of the communist movement in the district. The epicentre of the famous Damodar Canal Tax movement of the 1930s16 was the Burdwan town. The historical opposi­ tion of the town dwellers to communism was understand­ able in terms of the caste and class character of the resi­ dents: most of them were higher caste people with landed interests. The communists prospects changed with changes in the social morphology of the town. Once the urban cen­ tre mainly of upper classes thriving on "rural surplus', the town later on, was to be inhabited by the middle and lower classes. Socio-economically and demographically, the town has changed drastically so much so that today it is the home of a mixed and diverse population (see below). A post-modernist perspective would give consideratble au­ tonomy to the communist movement that has developed in the town, but the fact remains that the movement in the town, surrounding by a rural Burdwan thoroughly pen­ etrated by the CPI-M, is part of the district communist movement. One important reason why the Commiinists of the district are found to be successful in making a headway in the district generally and in the town specifically is their capacity and readiness to adapt to the local conditions and to appropriate the same for building bases of support. Ir­ respective of the international and national constraints on the communist movement, the Burdwan District Commit­ tee of the CPI, formed on 5 October 1935, decided early on to involve itself in the Municipal electoral politics in 1938. Neither organisationally non politically, the communists in the district were able to compete in an election, and that too, in the district headquarters. But even the very mini­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

mum opportunities and space were utiised. The DC de­ cided to present Congress, in the Municipal elections to be held in 1938, in the forefront as an anti-imperialist front, not to strengthen Congress but utilise its weakness and to build on them.17 Added to the above and to complement the same somewhat, was the tactical move to recuit disillu­ sioned 'Satyagrahis'. The decision thus was arrived at to extend support to Congress in the 1938 elections. This com­ munists symbiosis with nationalism was not an isolated move, but very much in vogue in the early history of the district communist movement.18 The communist 'bases' in the town in the late 1930s, were practically invisible-whatever limited support they had was due to 'organised student activities', and that too, in some small pockets of the town in such areas as the North of Banka River, Kundupkur Lane, Pilkhana Gali, No.l Pakmara Gola, Rajbati areas, Shulipukur, Baburbag, Borehat Goda and Lukuddi. In the 1938 elections, Congress swept the poll which also meat some gains for the Communists. The Communists utilised their 'own' support bases, how­ ever limited, to get Congressmen elected. Congress formed the Municipal Board. But the solid gain reaped by the com­ munists was the establishment of a Night School for the sweepers (workers of Municipality). The comunists never wanted to lose touch Congress although not at the cost of losing their independent existence. This was to remain the dominant tactic of the communists for quite some time. The reason was not far to seek. As Sahedullah, himself a leading participant in such activities, said, 'we had popular­ ity but not organisational bonds".10 As part of the process of building bases, especially among the workers, the com­ munists made use of the method of 'strike' in Municipal politics to focus on the interests of workers, in the 1946 elections to the Municipality, for the first time. Sahedulllah, a communists leader stood for election and got elected from Ward I (i.e., areas of Banka river that includes Kundupukur Lane, Pilkhana Goli: 1, No.l Pakmara Goli etc.) in the elec­ tion of the chairman of the Municipal Board. Sahedullah extended support to Mr.Pranabesh Sarkar, popularly known as 'Togoda' (i.e. elder-brother 'togo'), who was known for

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


his anti-imperialist and pro-nationalist position as a Lawyer and Congressman. Untill India's independence, the modus operandi of communist politics in the Municipality remained the same: coiistitutionalist method of agitation, writing reso­ lutions, influencing individual Congressmen, and extension of support to-imperialist and nationalist Congress element. Upto 1967, if not also later, the Communist had to be con­ tent with their sporadic influence on the people. As far as their politics was concerned, it was mostly ideological, as it was always trying to win an argument by linking local. Municipal issues to the larger national and even interna­ tional contexts. In the first post-independeace Municipal elections of 1950, the situation was not at all favourable for the com­ munists. Very little organisational efforts visible on their part to participate in the elections. As a result, everybody stood as Independence. But as far as Congress was con­ cerned, the same old tactic was resorted to : both Sailesh Chandra Bandopadhyay (Word B) and Mathura Nath Ghosh (W ord A ) got elected w ith co m m u n ist su p p o rt. Bandapadhyay was elected Chairman again with Commu­ nist support. However, the communist strength in the dis­ trict generally was growing as evident in their very sub­ stantial victories in the Burdwan Zilla Board (District Board) election in the 1951 and the 1952 State Assembly election from the Burdwan.20 The Municipal election of 1955 was the high time for the town communists operating through the Genatatrik Samity (Literally, Democratic Citizens' Associa­ tion) i.e., a United front, and a charter of demands such as universal suffrage, recognition of the issue of public health as a national issue (and not a local one), primary education to be regognition as an issue of national importance, and the abolition of the 1953 Amendment to the Municipal Act that allowed tax exemption to factories in the Municipal areas. The Samity secured 10 out 25 seats-s confirm ation of their growing strength in the town. In the Municipal election of 1958, the Samity improved their position with 17 out of 25 seats. The detailed records of the elections held since 1958 are not available, but the impression that one gathers out of party reports and interviews with old com­

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism missioners is that the communists maintained their leading position ever since. It must also be kept in mind that Elec­ tions to Burdwan Minicipality were not held regularly for quite a long time during the 1960s and 1970. The 1981 elec­ tion was the first ever-held post-Emergency. Municipal elec­ tion in Burdwan. If it was Cognress as a nationalist plat­ form in pre-independence period. In the post-independence period it was to become Congress failures as government and its 'anti-people' policies-i.e., anti-Congressism in essence—that were the sine quo non of communist politics in Burdwan town as much as in the state and the country. Demographic and Socio-Economic Structures Demogaphic Structures agid Urbanization Burdwan or what was traditionally known as 'Bardhaman' (literally, means something which is growing) does not ap­ pears on the face of it, a favourable urban centre for the growth and sustenance of commuism. Dating from the me­ dieval Bengal, and once the principal seat of trade in West­ ern Bengal. 'The town of Burdwan occupeid a place of importance not only as the headquarters of the district but also as the principal seat of power of the Burdwan Maha­ raja. In 1869, the population of the town was 46,000. The Burdwan Municipality, formed in 1865, covered an areas of 8.4 square miles which today has risen to 22.8 square km. Around the turn of the century, Burdwan's population de­ creased to 38,691 of who about 20.87 percent was rate pay­ ers. In 1908-09, the prinicipal heads of receipts were the taxes on houses and lands. According to the census reports of India (henceforth CRI) of 1901, the total population of the town was 35,022 of whom 25,453 were Hindus (72.71%), and 9.441 were Muslims (26.45%), and the rest Christians (.84%)21. Long recognised as a 'sanatorium' by the residents of Calcutta (at least, until the first half of the nineteenth century), Burdwan, nonetheless, did not grow as an urban centre for quite a long time. As Peterson (1910) wrote: "The town really consists of 93 small villages, and the greater part of the population are engaged in agriculture" 23 Until 1947, Burdwan remained the "seat of power of landed aristocracy"23 and not an urban and/or industrial town) to pave the way for the growth of communism.

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Table No. 1 Decadal Growth of Population of Burdwan (1861-1991)

Census Year

1861 1871 1881 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 1941 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991


G row th in percentage

46,121 33,627 32,627 34,477 38,691 35,921 33,616 39,618 62,910 75,000 1,08,000 1,43,000 1,67,000 2,45,000

NA -29.92% 09.95% 5.67% 12.22% -7.16% -3.63% 14.44% 60.00% 20.06% 44% 3243% 16.78% 46.7%

Sources : Different Census Reports of India : Urban West Bengal 192293 (Institute of Local Government and Urban Studies, Cal. 1930).

The lack of urbanization was an important factor in the negative growth of population of Burdwan during 18611931. The 'Burdwan fever' which took epidemic form in the late nineteenth century, which resulted in large-scale deser­ tion of people from the town, was another factor. The positive growth in population of Burdwan ever since was as much due to growth in urbanization as other factors such as the influx of a large number of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) especially since the late 1950s reflected in as high as 44 percent decadal growth in population in the census year of 1961. The population of the town has grown ever since in keeping with the pace of urbanization of the district especially the town. The 46.7 percent growth in population during 1981-91 exemplifies this. One important factor to be stressed in connexion with the above is the migration during 1981-91 of significant population of landlords and rich peasants from rural Burdwan who keenly felt the negative pressure of the land reform of the Left Fron Government. The arrival and even­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

tual settlement of this class in the urban centre of Burdwan in politically significant in the sense of having disturbed the existing political balance of the town, at least, in some pock­ ets, of the town.24 However, the rapid growth of population in Burdwan subsequently has added to the density of population which is 7370 per square Km and compares quite favourably with the West Bengal average of 5462 and all India average of 3002. One of the objective consequences of this high density of population is the intense interaction between people and equally intense competition among them for scarce urban amenities and opportunities. While the former may facili­ tate the growth of communism, the latter may hinder the same. And yet, Burdwan has remained a non-industrialized urban centre without a modern working class that could spearhead a communist movement. The immensely inter­ esting point for the investigator is then: what sustains the communist movement and communist support bases in the town? Despite the availability of 'airal surplus' (the Burdwan district was known as the granary of Bengal for long!), industrilization of the tow n had not happened, and Burdwan's urbanization, consequently, remained historically delinked from industrialization. During the rules of the Maharaja and, of course. The British, the rural surplus mostly went back to rural areas not for the improvement in agri­ culture, but for the purchase of more lands for more rev­ enues. Merchant capital, not industrial capital, was to be­ come the dominant mode of investment. No wonder, Burdwan town had got, excepting some rice mills, a large number of mostly small-scale and family-based industries today. (Table—2 below). Table No. 2 Industrial Map of Burdwan (1992)

Type o f Industry

Rice Mill Flattered Rice Mill Oil Mill


42 78 47

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy Husking Mill Grinding Mill Soap Factory Candle making Factor)' Ice cream Factory Bakery Shaw Mill Welding Factory Goldsmith7 Factory/shop Furniture making Factory Dyeing Factory Brick Factory Battery Making

25 15 180 10 10 24 48 36 259 200 167 101 3 8

Source : Natun. Chithi. Sarad issue 1992, Burdwan.

J. Bhattacharya, 'Som e Aspects of Urbanization in Burdwan' pp. 123-28. One of the distinctive features of the industrial devel­ opment of Burdwan is that neither the owners of the mills and the factories, nor are the workers employed by them are 'modem capitalist' and modern working classes respec­ tively. Both the classes possess a dual character in the sense that the mill owners are also substantial land-owners in the villages, and the workers are also agricultural labours at times, sometimes are found to be possessing some land also. This duality in class character, objectively, possess special problems for the operation of communism in the town. Until very recently, most of the workers remained 'unorganised'.25 Nonetheless, the life-essence of Burdwan is not indus­ tries, but business. There are 1700 recorded (at the Munici­ pality) bus mess concern in Burdwan, about 250 sweet shops, 180 small and medium sized hotels of some decency, 400 tea stalls, mostly on the pavement, 35 Private Nursing Homes, and 700 medical Stores. The last two items indicate that medical treatment and services constitute an impor­ tant, though costly, commodities sold in Burdwan. In all the cases mentioned above, 'free labour' is a far cry. Not an urbanized town proper, yet the town exhibits elements of


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

'ultra-urbanization': there is about one square mile of slum dwelling of about 1,81,000 habitants, and are about a thou­ sand homeless people.15 These features are hardly congenial for the growth and sustenance of communism.

Social Structure According to the Census Report of India, 1991, the total population of the town is 2,45,079 of which 52.44 percent is male and 47.75 percent female. The Scheduled Castes, mostly with East Bengali origins, are 30,645 (12.50%), and Scheduled Tribes are only 4485 (1.82%). The Muslims are about 12 percent of the total population, and their propor­ tion has declined over the decades (Table-3). The town's Muslims are one of the oldest groups of residents, and sparsely distributed, with some pockets of concentration. Except two Municipal Wards (23 and 27) (Goda and Mayurmahal) where the constitute majority of the elector­ ate, they are unevenly distributed in Municipal Constituen­ cies: about 15% in Ward 9 (South of B.C. Road upto Sarbamongala More), 30% in Ward IC (Loco). 40% in Ward 2 (Duvraj Dighi). 25% in Ward 3 (M ehdibagan and Lakshmipur), 30% in Ward 4 (Subhaspalli and adjoining areas), and 20% in Ward 6 (Laskardighi). As for as their political behaviour is concerned, they predominently sup­ port the CPI-M although the pattern of their support varies from constituency to coiistituency depending on their con­ centration. Table No. 3 Religious Composition of Burdwan's Population


M uslims(%)

C1tristians(%) Others(%)






1901 1931

25,453(72.71) 30,135(76.6)

9441(26.45) 864(21.76)

297(.84) 185(.46)

Nil 677(1.6)






Sources : Census Reports of India of Relevant Years.

There is a sizeable section, about 19 percent, of nonBengali, mostly Hindi speaking, and Hindus, population in

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Burdwan, mostly concentrated in such areas as Alamgonj, Borehat, Loco. Bajepratappore and Lakshmipur. Most of these people are engaged in such occupation as rickshaw pulling, and in other mills, working as 'Mutiamajdoor' (i.e., loading and unloading of commodities manually). That is to say, most of these people are economically speaking, 'labourers' or 'proletarians'. Most of them are organised under the CPI-M, and about 80 percent of the rickshaw pullers are organised under leadership of the CPI-M. The same however, cannot be said to be true for the upper caste and class non-Bengalis, mostly Marawaris who are owners of shops, mills and business concerns, and are sup­ port bases of either Congress of the BJP. The 'Auguries, the dominant middle and rich peasant caste of rural Burdwan, do not constitute more than 10 percent of the town's population, and are mostly concen­ trated in Shyamlal, Mithapukur, both sides of B.C. road, Burirbagan, Townhall para, Radhanagar and Kalibazar. While the CPI-M has some bases of support among some sections of the old 'auquris', this caste, as such, do not support the CPI-M. Ethnically, Burdwan is a predominantly Bengali town inhabited mostly by the higher caste Hindus who are the overhelming majority of the population. This is so despite the significant number of Muslims, and Scheduled Caste population (Table-4). About 19 percent non-Bengali popu­ lation in the town population means that the ethnic divi­ sions, especially when reinforced by varying economic strengths, are significant for political purposes. Mobilisation of the poorer non-Bengalis by the communists has never been an easy task. Most of this section are still migrants who have left their 'home' and families behind in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other Hindi-speaking area of the coun­ try, and maintain close contact with their 'hom e' country. Their political behaviour, despite being 'organised by the CPI-M, is most often determined by the political correla­ tions at home.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism Table No. 4 Scheduled Caste Population of Burdwan Town

T otal SC

















Census Year

Total Popula­ tion o f Toivn


Sources : Census Reports of India of Relevant Years.

The other significant element of the social morphology of Burdwan is the 'middle classes', who happen to be the largest dominant group, control political power and govern the town. Though born much earlier historically in connec­ tion with the growth in colonial administration and always having some landed properties in rural Burdwan This class is also the product of Burdwan's growing literacy (Table 5). While the growth in literacy facilitates the development of communism, its other consequences may produce just the opposite repe. Discussions. Literate electorate can never be taken for granted.42 Table-5: Growth in Literacy in Burdwan

Census Year 1931 1%1 1971 1981

Percentage Growtli(%) 30.50 51.84 53.15 62.57

Sources : Census Report of India of Relevant Years.

These classes are employed in various government and semi-government offices, schools, colleges and university. Some of them are businessmen. Two factors have been active in swelling the ranks of middle classes, not linked to landed interest: First, the influx of Hindu refugees from East Pa­ kistan since the late 1950s, and second, employment, due to the expansion of the tertiary sectors, during 1981-91 of a

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


huge number of middle classes in government, semi-govem m ent, and private sectors. These 'white collar' workers are the most significant element of towns, population, po­ litically speaking26. They are the backbone of all political activities including communist in the town. Their number and significance appear to give Burdwan's urbanization a 'white collar' character. But the profoundly significant ques­ tion is : is then Burdwan's municipal communism a 'white collar' communism ? Since 1971, the SC population of the town grew in a big way, and are to be found in all the Wards. Excepting the Census Year, 1971, which registered some negative growth of the SC population in the town over 1961, overall during 1961-91 or to be more precise, during 1971-91 the Sc population of Burdwan town grew almost three-fold. Dur­ ing 1981-91 the Sc population doubled. At present (1991), the S C 's constitute a significant (12.50%) elem ent of Burdwan's population. This great increase in Sc population has been mainly due to the influx of Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan. The Ward-wise concentration of Sc population, according to the Census Report of India, 1991, provides one indication of this. Although to be found in some numbers in almost all the Municipal Wards, they are concentrated in 10 out of 29 Wards: 20.14% in ward 1,16.44% in ward 2, 12.50% in ward 3, 12.66% in ward 4, 7.2% in ward 13, 19.5% in ward 14, 16,96% in ward 20, 33.51% in ward 21, 14.31% in ward 22, and 19.68% in ward 29. Of those 10 wards, as many as 5 wards (13,14,20,22,and 29) are known to have distinct refugee settlement ('Colonies'). The scheduled castes, especially those migranting from the erst­ while East Pakistan overwhelmingly support the commu­ nists (in the neighbourhood of 70%), although there has taken places recently some erosion of support among the more-affluent section of these castes who tend to support either Congress or the BJP. The Scheduled Tribes constitute an insignificant pro­ portion of the total population of the town-only 1.8 per­ cent, according to the CRI of 1991. But their constituencywise concentration makes some differences in terms of elec­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

toral outcomes. It is found that these people are concen­ trated in 6 wards of 29 Municipal Wards : 559(9%) in Ward 11, 431 (3.03%) in Ward 14, 284(4.54% ) in Ward 18, 1125(90.4%) in Ward 20, and 259 (2.18%) in Ward 21. The distinctive social charactertics of those wards are that they contain high proportion of middle classes, very rich people, non-Bengali (Hindi speaking), and the famous Auguri com­ munity of Burdwan-the elements which from the point of view of the communists' electoral support, are not to be taken for granted. In such circumstances, the ST voters mostly very poor, (who are about 80% communist sup­ porters) may be, quite effectively, electoral power brokers in the Municipal elections, the smallness of the constituencies mean that margins of victory/defeat are sometimes very small. Urban Occupational Structure o f Burdwan : Despite the slow process and peculiar nature of urbanisation of Burdwan, the near absence of any big industries in the town, an urban class structure nonetheless has emerged in Burdwan with its distinctive characteristics. The Census Reports of India, particularly since 1951, contain data with which we can get an idea of the emerging and changing urban class structure of the town. The Census categories are elusive but indicative. Table-6 : Occupational Distribution of Population of Burdwan Town in 1951.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Production other than cultivation Commerce Transport Other Services & Misc. Non-cultivating owner of land; Agricultural Rent Receivers and their dependents 6. Cultivator, Cultivating Labourers and their dependents

Number 17,796 14,170 3,925 29,589

Percentage 23.60 18.79 5.20 39.25





Source : Burdwan District Census Handbook (1953), p. 14.

The categories 5 and 6 above clearly indicate the im­ portant proportion of rural elements living in the town,

Bengal L,ommuru*in and Urban Grassroots Democracy


and suggest the still significant proportion of rural charac­ ter of the town. The category 6 itself is quite revealing : 11.16 percent of cultivators, agricultural laboures etc. as residents of a district town may not be typical of a classical type of an urban set-up, but certainly is the essence of an urbanising town in a post-colonial society like Burdwan. The people under category 4 may be read as mostly middle classes (their percentage being the highest at 39.25) which are the largest group of the population. The category 2 'Commerce' obviously referred to the businessmen of the town and their employees, the people under 1, seemed to mean the small-scale and cottage industries. At any rate, the sphere of non-agricultural pursuit of the people was for greater than the agricultural-the percentage share being 87:13 respectively. The 1951 Census did not make the dis­ tinction between working and non-working people of the town of Burdwan. Therefore, except where it is stated (such as categories 5 and 6), the dependent population can be said to be included in the figure on working population under different categories. Table-7: Occupational distribution of Burdwan Population in 1961

Classes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.

Agricultural Labourers Cultivators Mining, Livestock etc. Trade and Commerce Manufacturing other than Household Construction Houbehold Industry Transport ang Storage Other Services

Total member 145 2255 190 7,459 5,256 1,185 387 4,788 12,659

Percentage o f total 0.13 0.21 0.17 6.89 4.85 1.09 0.35 4.42 11.69

Source : CRI o f 1961

The 1961 CRI reports that as many as 75,922 i.e. 70.15 percent of Burdwan's population are dependent on the rest 29.85 percent. This showed the underdeveloped nature of Burdwan town because this dependecy is a feature of underdevelopment. Although the 1951 CRI did not sepa­

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism


rately report on it, it can be assumed that the proportion of dependent to working population was then not lower than in 1961. This dependent population would include minor, aged, unemployed and others. The very youthful nature of population in a post-colonial underdeveloped country adds a lot to making a dependency. But one cannot escape from the fact that unemployment in a town like Burdwan would be very high. The urban class structure of Burdwan changed radical­ ly between 1951 and 1961 especially with respect to the lower proportion of agricultural people to the total popu­ lation of this town. The classes under categories 1 and 2 above do not even add up to half a percent of the total population. There were some changes in the number of people engaged in different urban occupations-the main reason may be the different way of enumerating data in 1961. One, however, was very certain that most of the working people in 1961 were found to be engaged in urban occupations. One of the major limitations of such census categories is that they do not distinguish between the em­ ployers and employees of different urban occupations and concerns. Table-8: Occupational Structure of Burdwan Town in 1971


Total Number

1292 1. Cultivator 2307 2. Agricultural Labours 3. Livestock, Fishing etc. 570 31 4. Mining and Quarying w 5. Household Industries 6. Non-household Industries 4304 1127 7. Construction 8. Transport, Storage Communication etc. 6140 7831 9. Trade & Com m erce 10. Other services 12,368 Sources : CRI o f 1971 : Wß

Percentage o f total population 0.90 1.60 0.40 0.02 0.69 3.00 0.82 4.28 5.46 8.62

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Interestingly, during 1961-1971 there took place some noticeable increase in the number of agricultural laboures and cultivators (1 and 2 in Table above). The increase in num ber of the agricultural labourers has continued subsequently (Table 9 below). This increase has mainly to be explained in terms of the migration of such classes from rural Burdwan, although one could not rule out the factor of refugee (from Bangladesh) influx during this period. As much as 73.46 percent dependent population -a 3 percent increase over 1961-is also to be related to the factor of refugee influx. The middle classes grew almost there fold between 1971 and 1981 (Table 8 above). The expansion of the tertiary sector especially the settlement of these em­ ployees in Burdwan town may be the cause of such in­ crease. And yet, the magnitude of dependency of the people of Burdwan has not lessened at all; on the contrary, one notices as much as 73.99 percent of the people to be depen­ dent on the limited working members of the families. This is an objective constraint in mobilization for the communist cause. Table-9 : Occupational Structure of Burdwan Tow n 1981


1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

T otal Number

Cultivators Agricultural Labourers Household Industry Marginal Workers Other Workers

1280 1046 2350 482 36,356

Percentage o f to ta l population % 0.76 1.81 1.40 0.28 21.72

Source : CR1 o f 1981, S .L No. 7 Bardhnmnn

Paity Organisation This section explores the level of C P I-M party organisation in the town. The growth in party organisation is the consequence of party-led mass mobilisation of the communists. The communists recruit their members in and through the movement that they launch and lead. The organisational state of the CPI-M in the town is the conse­ quence of the party's movement in the town. Again, the

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism


movement of the party in the town is not something iso­ lated, but part of the movement in the district, although for analytical purposes, and to some extent, sociologically, it is possible to delineate the contour of the movement in the town inhabited by distinct social groups not to be found in the rural areas. The party itself realised the special aspect of the areas, and hence conducts the movement, organisa­ tionally speaking under the leadership of different Town Local Committees (at present 3) which are again under the leadership of the Town Zonal Committee. So, clearly, the town is a separete zone from the party's point of view. A history of the communist movement in the Burdwan town is yet to be written : it involves more data and more re­ search which the present auther is not in a position to col­ lect and to undertake. What is presented here is an outline of the state of party organisation in the town. The growth of party organisation, mostly in terms of the increase in membership of party and party-led mass organisation, is an index of the hold of the party in the town society. The tenth (Burdwan) District Committee of the CPI-M was formed in November (that date unavailable) in 1968 at Nadanghat with 17 members. This fact did not mean that the headquarters of the district communist movement was in the rural areas. It clearly meant that after the split and all the political uncertainties in the state, the District Commitee (henceforth DC) was at a fledgling state. In the 11th District Conference (Held on 29 November-I Decem­ ber 1971) Report of the unit it was ruefully stated : "There is no District Party Centre. Localism is rampant among leaders of Local Committees. The financial situation of the part is miserable as it depends on lo^ns for survival"27. During 1968-71 the party organisation in the district as much as in the town registered growth although not in the same proportion in both the cases (Table-10) Table-10: Party m ember of the District Party m ember of the Town

Party m em ber o f the D istrict 1968 L528 1971


Source : 11th Conf (1971)

Party m ember o f the Toum 111(Full=85; Candidate=26) 186(Full=122; Candidate=64)

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


Thus, while, in the district as a whole, the party mem­ bership grew during 1968-71 by 223.4 percent which on an annual average was 74.4%, in the town during the same period the growth was 167.5 percent and average being 55.5%. The town nonetheless showed growth in party organisation, although lower than the district (predomi­ nantly rural) average. This 55.5% annual average growth in party membership, in the town in difficult political time would be hard to obtain subsequently, and during 19711988, the average annual growth rate was 14.32%/and during 1988-91 it was 35.54% (Table-11 below). The period between 1971 and 1977 was a very hard time for the communist organisation in the district as much as in the State as a whole. There was severe state repression and ruling Congress attack on the communists so much so that the entire leadership of the district communist leader­ ship had to go underground, and the very survival of the movement itself was at stake. During this period, there was only limited organisational presence of the party in many sub-divisions of the district28. Table-11: Growth of the District Party Members

Year 1968 1971 1978 1981 1985 1988 1990 1991 Qune) 1994

Party Members 1,528 3,415 2,596 4,721 6,992 8,774 11,153 10,584 13,240

Source : Different District Conference Reports (1971-1995).

O ne measure of the impact of sufti political repression chi the party in the district was the negative growth of the organisation during 1971-78 from 3415 in 1971 to 2596. Since 1978 th e p arty organisation has registered a tremendous grow th in its membership (Table-11 above) and this is


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

positively correlated with the arrival of the CPI-M led Left Front Government in West Bengal since 1977. In the party's own account provided in 1991, only 14.18 percent of party members joined the party before 1977; the rest have joined in the post 1977 period 2Q. Table-12 : Growth of Party Members in Burdwan Town during 1968-91 (ZC)

Year 1968 1968 1971 1988 1991 1994

Party M embers 1,528 111 186 453 483 628

Source : Zonal Committee Conference Reports. Table-13: Growth of Members of Mass Organisations of the CPI-M in Burdwan Town (1985-91)

Years Members













1991 (Sept) 86,771

Sources : Different Zonal and Local Committees Conference Reports. Table-14 Growth in Membership of CPI-M Mass Organiation in Burdwan Town (1985-1991 Sept.)

1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991





8,942 10,053 12,000 12,500 12,500 12,000 12,593

7,526 10,014 12,352 13,080 16,640 23,151 27,475

6528 8142 10,760 12,297 N/A N/A N/A

5800 6004 8120 8527 9249 10752 12,533

School UCRC Teachers 1440 671 686 1014 746 1350 77 6 3309 77 9 3320 1079 3038 863 3142

Sources: (1) Draft Report of the Second Burdwan Town Zonal Committee Conference, 6-7 October 1991; (2) Draft Report pf the 16th Burdwan Zonal Committee Conference of the CPI-M, 8-10 October, 1988.

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


As far as the growth in members of mass organisations is concerned (Table 13 and 14), it is seen that while the party's penetration among the town's working classes has not improved perceptibly during 1987-91, the membership growth among the woman, students and youths and School teachers has been quite impressive. The slackening growth in the case of UCRC i.e.among the refugees especially since 1988 is mainly due to some erosion of support among the well-off and newer sections of the community. But nonetheless, on the whole, the membership of party-led mass organisations together has improved much ever since 1985. • Table-15 Growth of Branch and its Members in Burdwan Town Branch Members

1985 32 317

1988 36 399

7993 45 483

Table-16 Membership Growth of Burdwan Town Local Committee 2 1988 1989 W0 1991

100 120 130 N/A

130 126 129 122

(ACMS) (ACMS) (2)


Source : First Conf. (2 no Local Committee) Report (1991).

Though much slower than the district average, and much below the rate of pre-1977 period, the party organisa­ tion in the town has been growing (Table-12). Its mass organisational growth has been remarkably high (Table-13). The party branches of the town have also impressively grown in number from 32 in 1985 to 45 in 1991 (Table-15). The membership of the Burdwan Town No.2 Local Comittee has registered about 30 percent average annual growth (Table-16). In 1991 i.e. the time of the 16th District Party Conference, the total members of the zonal Committee and the party led mass organisation w'ere estimated at 87,254 which when put in relation to the total population and total voters of the tow n com es dow n to : 1 party/ m ass organisation man is to 2.80, people, and I party/mass organisation man is to 1.93 voters respectively. The mass


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

organisation members of the party are overlapping in many respects. Therefore, if we assum e that the net mass organisation members in the town would be 50,000 (a hy­ pothetical guess) then the ratio of party/mass organisation, and population and voters would be 4.90 and 3.37 respec­ tively. Interestingly enough, in the 1993 Municipal elections, the total votes polled by the Left Front (Which includes FB and RSP and CPI) (i.e., 66,342) are less than the total mem­ bers of party (ZC) and mass organisation members being 67,254. This figure will be bit higher to include the mem­ bers of three Local Committees. The members of two Local Committees are 130 and 151 (1991). The point to be noted here is that the CPI-M has penetrated very deeply into the town society to narrow down the ratio of party personnel to 2.80 (persons) and 1.93 voters (on a conservative es­ timate). The total members of the party organisation and of mass organisations in the district in 1990 were estimated to be 22,50,403 which,when put in relation to total votes polled by the Left Front in the district in 1991,come down to the following ratio : I party/mass organisation man is to 0.66 vote polled. The same for the town in 1993 1 : 0.70 vote. The social composition of party members provides an impor­ tant index of the influence of the party over society. The data on this problem are not sufficiently available. On the basis of limited data, it is found that of the total party members of the district in 1988, 35.25 percent were workers and agricultural labourers (urban and rural proletariat) and the rest were middle peasant,middle class employees etc. This poorer representation of the proletariat in a commu­ nist organisation was certainly a limitation about which the party is found to be conscious. Not only leadership which had been predominantly middle class and middle peasant, the sam e was true also of membership, to some extent30. The reality improved to some extent, in 1991 : by the party's estimate, about 51.50 percent were workers, agricultural labourers, poor peasants and bargadars. Of this, 22.30 per­ cent w as workers and 10 47 percent was agricultural labourers. That the majority of party members in 1991 belonged to poorer sections of society was a radical shift in

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


class composition of party membership. So far as the STs and SCs together were concerned, the percentage figure was 23.5031. The successive District Party Conferences have attempt­ ed to make self-critical analysis of the party's penetration into different segments of society. According to the PolOrganisation Report of the 15th District Conference (1988), the party members among the tribals of the district were "quite unsatisfactory"; the Muslims should have been "more proportionately represented". The party's influence on the district's non-Bengalis was and still is "very limited". This is despite the fact of a significant proportion of non-Bengalis living in the district as much as in the town of Burdwan. The hold of the party on the refugees especially the older generation is very good32. About the above, the 16th Dis­ trict Conference (1991) wrote: "our organisational and po­ litical influence among the refugees of East Pakistan is still strong. This is the result of our movement for their reha­ bilitation"33. Despite the increasing growth of party mem­ bership and larger incorporation of members from some segments of society/ the party still lags behind in many respects so far as its penetration into some very vital seg­ ments of society is concerned. The 16th District Conference (1991) wrote of the following about its relative failure to penetrate the working classes. From the working class people there should have been more representation in membership. This weakness still remains. W e need planned efforts to induct more of them into the party34. Sadly enough, the party so far did not have any "planned efforts" to induct more elements from the working classes. The Burdwan Town's one Local Committee (No. I) is worse : 14 members from working class origins out of the total of 151. Most of the members originate from middle class back­ grounds (No. I LC, Burdwan Town, 1991). Secondly, women are "very poorly represented'' (418 in 1989 to 591 in 1991 )35.


Micro Foundations of Bengal Communism

Thirdly, the absence of "planned efforts" is also no­ ticed as far as the non-Bengalis are concerned among whom there are only a "very few" members36. The district picture of the social composition of party members is indicative of the same in the town too. In many cases, the picture is worse than the district average. As we have just seen above in connecion with the Burdwan Local Committee No. I, only 9.27 percent of it members are workers, and the said/Local Committee is predominantly composed of middle class people. From the party's own account, it is hard to believe that the relatively poorer rep­ resentation of the working classes in the party members of the town is something automatic or a passive fact. There is no dearth of such people in society. The Draft Report of Burdwan Town No. I Local Committee wrote self-crtically: ! here is a lack of planned initiative in recruiting from among the lower classes of society who are the backbone of the society37. The same Local Committee said that the Committee's influence on the non-Bengalis is very limited. In 1991, in the area concerned, there was no party members from among the non-Bengalis members from among these sections lost their membership by 1991. This fact indicates the party's failure to build communist movement among them and recruit party members from among them. As the Local Committee No. 2 reports indicate, the party's organisational hold over the Muslims excluding the upper layer is good. However, the party's penetration into Muslims has not been very satisfactory. There were 1227 (12.94%), 1319 (13.18) and 1370 (13.15%) Muslims in party members in 1987, 1990 and 1991 respectively. This is the district picture which is quite close to the proportion of M uslim s in the d istrict's population. So far as the organisational penetration of the commuiusts into the work­ ers of the towns is concerned, advances are noticeable. The Burdwan town does not have any big industries; most of the towns industries are small-scale. In the late 1980s there w'ere 30 unions under CITU with a membership of 12,000

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


which shot upto 12,500 in 1989 and 12,573 in 1991. Two special features or advantages from the Party's point of view stand out clearly. First, the organised workers re­ spond to call for both trade unionism and electoral sup­ port. Second, these workers have been taking a platform (a left ones despite their limited political consciousness). But any discussion of the issue must be critical in nature. De­ spite the advances made by the communists in respect of organising the town's, workers, many of whom are nonBengali, Hindi speaking, the overall picture is unsatisfac­ tory from party's standpoint. First, only about half the workers of the town are organised; the rest remains unorganised. Second, leadership ("organic leadership", to use a term from Gramsci) is yet to develop from among them. The landed interests of both the workers and some section of trade union leaders which make them 'dual members' and sometimes antagonistic to left politics (on the basis of the left attack on land and land reform mea­ sures of the LGF) is an important hurdle in the way of developing working class movement properly in the town. The slow growth of working class elements in the district's party membership-21.49 percent in 1989, 22.30 percent in 1990 and 24.67 percent in 1991 is certainly a consequence of the above. The organisational penetration among the youths of the town has been increasing although much remains to be done because of all the youths, only 20 percent could be organised (1988 report). But the party reports suggest that the youths are more active now than ever before, although it can not be said that they are equally active in all areas of the town. The DYF1 membership on the town has been on the rise-25,997 in 1989, 31,132 in 1990 and 33,516 in 1991. The party's assessment of the youths under DYFI is that they "played a commendable role in the last few years" political (read 'electoral' emphasis mine) struggles"38. Social change especially of significant nature, create fresh challenges before a political movement especially, its organisation. They tend to distrub the political balance of the party.The near revolutionary social changes that have


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

been taking place in West Bengal's countryside, more par­ ticularly in Burdwan's rural areas, are likely to have their repercussions on the socio-economic balance in the town. This has happened in the case of Burdwan town. The party noted a development with much concern : 'T h e Burdwan Town has been receiving the work­ ing classes as well as big landlords and rich peas­ ants from the villages. If we fail to organise the former faster, political balance in the town will be disturbed due to the arrival of the latter"39. The latter categories mentioned above are anti- com­ munists bccause they have borne the brunt of the LFG land reforms movement. The former category cannot also sim­ ply be taken for granted because having so~ne landed con­ nections still left behind, they would entertain a lot of anti­ communist feelings. One very critical feature of the communist movement in the town,the one which is not a healthy sign for the purpose of a revolutionary party— is that the branches of the party which have close links with the masses (and elec­ torates) are found to be "active at the time of election and electoral struggle. At other time, they remain passive and fail to continue their activities". This shows the profound electoral orientation of the party. This also explains the growing electoral strength of the party in the town. Table-17 Party performance in the 1981 Municipal Elections Total seats = 25, Elections held in 21 (4 seats were uncontested). Total valid votes cast in 21 seats = 60,369.

Party __________________________ V alid v otes secured (%) Seats obtain ed DCA (CPI-M, CPI, FB, RSP, Ind.) 30,959 (51.28%) 17 CPI-M 15,940(26.40% ) 10 DCA Ind (1 uncontested) 4 CPI 1 FB 1 RSP 1 Progressive Citizens Association 20,422 (33.82%) 7 (Congress led)

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


C ongress (Urs) PC A (Congress) janata

Others (BJP and Others) 8,988 (14.88%)

4 3 Nil

Source : Natuti Chithi (nd), Burdwan.

Electoral Performance of the Communists In the first Post-Emergency Municipal elections of 1981, the Democratic Citizens Association (henceforth DC A), the local, municipal variant of the Left Front led by the CPI-M, swept the poll by capturing 17 (CPI-M alone 10 including 3 uncontested seats) out of the total 25 seats (Table 17). As indicated above, the CPI-M's 26.40% share of popu­ lar votes should not be underestimated because that was the Party's achievement in 7 seats which were contested and it was its percentage share would have been in the neighbourhood of 33.70 percent, which was almost the equal percentageas the Congress led Progressive Citizens' Asso­ ciation (PCA). This victory of the CPI-M led DCA signified not only the communist's growing strength in the town as a serious rival to Congress but also the fact that the district headquarter of the red-district of Burdwan for the first time came under communist control. From the standpoint of the party system, what appeared was a one party domi­ nant system (the communists as the dominant) replacing the old one party dominant system. The pattern set in 1981 i.e. as Congress being reduced to a meagre minority and the communists as dominant party still continues. It should be noted in this connexion that in 1988 the erstwhile 25 Municipal Wards were upgraded to 29 Wards as a result of changes in boundaries of the Constituencies. Since 1988, elections are being held in 29 Wards. Strictly speaking, those were not simply changes in boundaries, but also the result of incorporation of newer areas into the Municipal jurisdiction. Three distinct factors seemed to have been operative behind such changes : smaller constituen­ cies, distinct boundaries of roads and bridges etc. in place of old vaguer ones; and some "political considerations"

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism


resulting in some gains for the Left, and a few more ho­ mogenous Congress constituencies40. Table-18 Party Performance in the Municipal Elections of 1988 Total Seats =: 29 Total votes polled = 115,967. Total valid votes polled = 114,228 (78.09%)

Parties CPI-M FB RSP Left Front Congress (I) Cong. Dissident CPI CPI-ML SUCI BJP IND

Votes polled 53,355 7,270 5,230 65,855 39,948 3114 629 336 237 273 2880

Percentage share 47.56% 6,36% 4.67% 58.54% 34.95% 2.72% 0.55% 0.29% 0.29% 0.23% 2.52%

Scat secured 19 2 2 23 6 Nil Nil Nil Nil Nil Nil

Source : Natun Chithi (nd), Weekly, (Vi.B.).

A comparative assessment of party performance in the above three Municipal elections of 1981,1988 and 1993 must, first of all, classify the changes of Wards between 1981 and 1988. O n the face of it,it may be difficult to compare party performance between 25 seats in 1981 and 29 in 1988 (and 1993), but on the basis of the detailed information on the exact nature of transformation of Wards between 1981 and 1988, it may be possible to compare the party position and strength. It is found that in most cases one Ward has been split into many wards while a few have been obliterated (eg. Ward 16 in 1981). Some of the examples of the trans­ formation of one Ward into many may be given below (Table-20). Table-19 Party performance in the Municipal selections of 1993. Total Seats = 29 Total votes polled = 1,32,939 Total valid votes polled = 1,30,982.

Party ____________________ Votes polled ______ Percentage CPI-M 51,623 39.41% Congress (I) 44,577 34.03%

S eats secured 19 8

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy



N/A N/A 2 Left Front 66,342 50.65% 21 BJP 19,217 14.47% Nil Others_________________________ 846___________ 0.65%______________ Nil Source : Natun Chithi, weekly, No. 23, 5th June, 1993. Table-20: Ward in 1981 Ward in 1988 & 1993 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

1 and 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10 11 12 8 29 24 28 27 26 25 22 23 21 20 15 16,17,18,19 13,14

So u rce : Jyotirm ay Bhattacharvya, Ex-V ice C hairm an, Burdwan Municipality, and Editor, Nntun CJiithi.

As far as the party performance in wards are con­ cerned, it was found that the CPI-M not only retained it original position (1981) but improved its position ever since especially until 1988 by encroaching on the bases of either the erstwhile DCA/Ind or RSP. Between 1981 and 1988, the CPl-M 's votes registered a huge increase and its percentage


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

share of popular votes shot up from (average) 34% in 1981 to 47.56% in 1988. In term of seats, it meant 9 extra seats. The party's performance in 1988 was the height of its vic­ tory. Despite some losses incurred by the party in 1993, it has maintained its hegemonic position in the Municipality. Congress, though reduced to a meagre minority position, has nonetheless improved its position since 1981- All the seats won by the Congress led PC A in 1981 have been retained by Congress(I) in 1988 and 1993. That show the hard core Congress bases have not been encroached upon by the Communists. The CPI- M's increase has mostly been at the expense of Left Constituents and Independents. In percentage-wise share of popular votes, the CPl-M 's per­ formance has experienced a downward trend since 1988 : 47.56% in 1988 to 39.41% in 1993. It's about a loss of more than 8 percent share of votes. This will become clearer when we consider the BJP performance over the years. Between 1988 and 1993, the BJP improved its position quite consid­ erably from only 273 votes in 1988 to astounding 19,217 in 1993. It polled more votes than that of all the non-CPI-M Left Front Constituents. Table-21 BJP Performance in Selected Wards in 1993

Wards 1 2 3 5 13 14 16 25

Won by BJP Votes (%) 1399(25.61%) CPI-M 1383(19.4(1) Congress 1831(30.70) 926(18.29) FB CPI-M 1548(20.22) 2081(29.61) CPI-M 1288(22.86) CPI-M FB 429(17.67%)

Constituency Com position Muslim(30%), SC-20.14%, ST(1.36%) Muslim(40%), SC(16.64%) Muslim(30%), SC(12.56%) SC(9.46%), Large non-Bengalis Large refugee* SC(7.2%), ST (303) Large refugees SC(19.51), ST(1.99%) SC(29.92%), Mostly non-Bengali Workers.

Source : Natun Chithi, Weekly, Burdwan No. 23, 5th June 19^3.

A close look at the constituency level performance of the BJP in 1993 elections shows that in many cases it is a real rival to the Communists securing as much as 29.61 percent popular votes in Wards won by the CP1-M. This is particularly in those Wards which contain large proportions 'f Muslims and Scheduled Castes minorities. The BJP's in­

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy roads, which are, in some cases, at the expense of Congress, into the Marxists bases are serious, but this should not be taken as far as to be oblivious of the larger margins of victory of the CPI-M and FB Candidates. On the basis of constituency level data, it is found that of the 19 seats won by the CPI-M, the party has secured more than 50 percent popular votes in as many as 16 (the range is from 51.43 percent to 66.74 percent). The number of wards in which the party has secured more than 55 percent popular votes is ten. The Left Front Constituents FB won 2 seats of which in one it secured as high as 61.67 percent popular votes. The powerful CPI-M bases will also be obvious from the Party's performance in wards which Congress w o n : 39.03% (CPI-M) and 41.60% (Congress) (Ward-7); 42.05% (CPI-M) and 52.33% (Congress) (Ward-29), for example. In the other Congress won seats,the rivals are RSP,FB and CPI: FB(32.10%) and Congress (37.20%) in Ward 3; FB(38.90%) and Congress (61.10%) in ward 8; RSP(39.21%) and Con­ gress (46.58% ) in ward 10; R S P (44.99% ) and C ongress(46.25%) inward 11; CPI(28.17%) and Congress(65.42%) in Ward 26; and RSP (34.19%) and Congress 54.24%) in ward 28. It may be mentioned in this connexion that the Left Front constituents especially the RSP and FB are organisationally very weak. Their performances are, in most cases, reflections of the CPI-M 's organisational strength in the constituencies concerned. This is the price the CPI-M, locally, has to pay for the sake of maintaining Left Unity. On balance, the Left Front increased its votes by 1702 over its performance in the Municipal areas in 1991 Assem­ bly elections, although compared to the 1988 Municipal elec­ tions it incurred some losses (142 Votes). Between 1988 and 1993 there has been a good increase of votes of 16,704 but most of this increase of voters has been reaped by the BJP and partly by Congress (3114 Votes). Between the Assem­ bly elections of 1991 and the Municipal elections of 1993, the BJP lost only 348 votes. Another very significant feature of the CPI-M 's persis­ tent victory in Burdwan's Municipal area is its solid basis of support among the town's Muslims. The Muslim votes are


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

to be found in different numbers in 8 out of 29 wards. Of these, they are a majority in two wards (23 and 27)-Goda and Mayurmahal where they constitute more than 60 per­ cent of the electorate. In others, their proportion range from .5 percent 40 percent. Of these 8 wards, the CPI-M has been winning 7 seats leaving 1 to Congress. Of the CPI-M 7 seats, the party has, at least since 1981, put up Muslim candidates not only in the Muslim majority constituencies but also in those in which the Muslims constitute a significant propor­ tion of the electorate (upto 30 percent). In one of the two Muslim dominated areas, the CPI-M's Muslim candidate has incurred loss of about 9 percent in 1993 over 1988. In the other ward, the party has slightly improved its position from 48.66 percent in 1988 to 51.43 percent in 1993. In ward 1 with some 30 percent Muslim electorate, the party has incurred a loss, despite having put up a Muslim candidate, of about 10 percent. About this sustaining bases of support among the town's Muslims minority, the party's own un­ derstanding may be clarified a little further. 'The majority of Muslims especially in Muslim majority and dominant areas support the CPI-M, and in others, the Muslim sup­ port for the party is partial' (Interview, with J. Bhattachayya, on 21.6.93 at Natun Chithi office, Burdwan). The self-critical assessment (inner party) of the party performance in the 1991 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections is mostly applicable to 1993 so far the Muslims are concerned : (In this area) "About 18.65 percent are Muslims among whom, except one area, the Communist support, among the Muslims ex­ cluding the richer section, has been retained41". Rudolph and Rudolph in the path breaking book on Indian Politics entitled In Pursuit o f L akshm i: The Political Economy o f the Indian State (1987) have tried to explain the Muslims support for political parties, especially Congress, in India, and to indicate the determinants of Muslim politi­ cal behaviour. According to them, the proportion of Mus­ lims in a constituency is the determinant of their political behaviour. Thus, where the Muslims are a vulnerable mi­ nority (from 10 to 20%) they do not antagonise the main­ stream parties, and seek their protection. For example, Congress nationally gained 2% more seats in such cases

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


(Muslim-I (10 to 20% concentration), 28% fewer in Muslim II Constituencies (20-50%), and 55% fewer in Muslim 111 (50+%). In Muslim III Constituencies, the Muslims vote for class and confessional parties. For example, in 1980, the CP1-M support was pronounced in Muslim III and II42. Rudolphs' argument has some merit, but that is not the whole story. One will need to supplement their analysis by bringing in the organisational argument. In the case of Burdwan M unicipality, following Rudolph's, it is possible to categorise the Muslim Constitu­ encies. We here find thus the following classification. Muslim-1 (10 to 20%) = 2 wards Muslim-II (20 to 50%) = 4 wards Muslim-Ill (50 plus %) = 2 wards But the party perform ance does not approve of Rudolphs' argument43. As we have already seen, the CPI-M has won in all but one which, with 25% Muslim concentra­ tion, went over to Congress. The ultimate analysis must then be done at the level of organisation. The CPI-M has been receiving Muslim support in Burdwan town not be­ cause of plain and simple class or confessional logic; class elements may have been operative. But it is because of the party's organisational hold among the Muslims. Class has not directly translated into electoral support. The party organisation does, if at all, mediate it. Orgnisationally, the party's penetration among the Muslims is remarkable which is in proportion to the percentage of Muslims in Town's population (about 12%). In the membership of the party the Muslims constituted 11.97% in 1983, 12.11% in 1984, 12.24% in 1985,13.16% in 1986,13% in 1987, and 12.78% in 198844. In the District Committee, the Muslim representa­ tion was below this proportion : 7.14% in 1990‘r‘, but it is not a mean achievement. It is also always the case that greater number of people are involved in mass organisation of the party than directly in party work. We do not have data on the proportion of Muslims in the CPI-M led mass organisations, but we may assume that both in party and in mass organisations, the Muslims are an 'organised' 'm i­ nority' in Burdwan. The CPl-M's persistent support among


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

the Muslims should be explained in term of the party's organisation among this community. It is also because of the organisation that the party wins in all categories of Muslims Constituency (1,11 and 111), and not just in II and 111, as Rudolphs would have us believe.

Sum up Most of the Muslims in majority and dominant, and other areas support the CPI-M. The non-Bengalis, about 19% of the town's population, are mostly (80%) poor and working classes; 80% of this classes are in organised sector, and of them, about 60-70% support the CPI-M. The 'Mutia majdoor' are about 100% under the organisational fold of the CPI-M, but only about 50% of them support the party in election. The resident non-Bengalis, especially Marwaris and who are very rich, do not support the CPI-M. Rick­ shaw pullers (unorganised sector) very poorly (about 30%) support the party in elections. People engaged in smallscale industries mostly (about 60%) support the CPI-M. Except one or two sectors, Government officials and teach­ ers mostly support the CPI-M. Strong grounds are always retained among the refugees. About 70% SC especially liv­ ing in 'colonies' support the CPI-M. Fisherman especially those organised in cooperations are supporter of the CPIM, but those who conduct their activity independently such as fishermen, goldsmiths, potters etc do not support the party. The party support is organised support, and it is organisation that has lifted the party from a somewhat 'mar­ ginal' position in 1981 to the central one since 1988. Organisa­ tion has translated into electoral support*6 In its self-critical analysis of it bases of support, the party is somewhat modest to emphasise also the factor, particularly since 1981, of developmental works in the Municipal area in the expansion of its mass bases: In the 1988 Municipal elections in which the CPIM won with bigger margins, the factors respon­ sible w ere: favourable political situation organisa­ tional strength as well as the positive impact of the developmental work on the people of Burdvvan which ensured our victory.47

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


If the developmental works, an index of good govern­ ment, were responsible for the greater margins of electoral victory of the CPI-M in 1988-although this m ust be under­ stood in again in organisational terms-the relative lack of the same, due to acute scarcity of funds, since 1988, has resulted in the loss of some support for the Left especially the CPI-M in 1993. For one thing, the developmental works failed to cut any ice among the richer sections of town dwellers. The better organisational build-up of the CPI-M has created core support bases among different sections of the townsmen which, despite their lack of developmental works since 1988, have been retained. In the ultimate anslysis, what has been the effect of the CPI-M organisational mobilisation so far as the urban grass­ roots democracy is concerned ? The party has, no doubt, been able to involve the people in the organisational and agitational programmes. Has it also been the case with the local governmental developmental works ? To be sure, the party has always taken up the Municipal electoral politics very seriously evident in its putting up candidates who are mostly party members-not sympathisers and supporters along with party members as in the case of the Panchayat elections, including some district and zonal level leaders. "The party members in the Municipality are to look after the interests of the party"48. There are sub-committes at district and local levels to run the affair of the Municipali­ ties; these Committees are run by the directives of the party. Despite all those, the party has not been able to involve the people in the developmental works of the Municipality. So far as the creation of "mass initiative" in the developmental works of the Municipality is concerned—a central index of grassroots democracy— party's failure is documented by the party conference reports. The 14th District Conference noted: "But the main problem in the case of the Municipality is our failure to involve the people in the activities of the Municipality4“. The 15th District Conference Reported : "but we have not been able to create mass initiative in the devel­ opmental works of the Municipality"38. The 16th District Committee noted the same problems with concern : "But


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

the Sub-committee does not meet very regularly. There is an absence of efforts to create mass initiative in the activi­ ties of the Municipality"50. True, the above self-critical as­ sessments of the party are about all the Municipalities and Notified Areas Authority (Except one (Dainhat), all of them in the district are under party control), but the message, generally, is clear: the party is involved, but not the people in the activities of the Municipality. Why has this so happened ? How to explain this hiatus between the people and the party ? How has the party looked at the problem ? The inner party self-assessment of the problem provides strong indications : 1.

"A lot needs to be done in organising the workers properly"*1;


"There is a lack of planned initiative in recruiting from among the lower classes of society who are the back­ bone of our support"52;


"Efforts must be made to recruit working classes of rural and urban areas into party membership and lead­ ership"53;

The above three passages suggest that the Marxists (CPI-M) have not been equally successful in organising the proletarians as other classes of society. A part of the blame is to be shared by the party itself which has shown "a lack of planned initiative" in recruiting proletarians into party membership and leadership. In this respect the most no­ ticeable weakness of the party is failure to penetrate organisationally the non-Bengalis, especially the working class elements of this community : " ... among them, the party is very w eak"5*. In one Local Committee area of the town with a significant proportion of non-Bengalis, there is no party member; all the 43 members from this community lost their membership due to their opportunistic attitude'5. Is this an ethnic limitation so far as mobilisation is con­ cerned ? Economically, the non-Bengali workers are as poor as any other but then what stands in the way of their organisational involvement in the party? It appears that the

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy


flaw s in the party apart, the non-economic aspects of the workers of this community are more importantly respon­ sible for their non-attraction towards the party. From the perspective of the party, this non-economic (social, political and cultural)aspects must be given serious consideration if th e organisation hopes to make any breakthrough in such cases. By contrast, there is a preponderent element of middle classes in the party organisation. The middle classes are the largest social group of the town's population, and the lar­ gest single support base of the party. In some lower level party committees, the middle classes dominate the leader­ ship and membership. The party is aware of this develop­ ment : "middle class mentality dominates the workers of even organised industries"56. All bourgeis ideas such as selfaggrandistment, individuality, factionalism and dishonesty must be fought out strongly"57. Those are short-hand for the ills the party is to suffer from when dominated and led by the middle classes, and lacking in proletarian elements. But the real reason why mass initiative and mass in­ volvement or grassroots urban democracy has not trans­ lated into reality is the political theory of the party which informs the party's techniques of the exercise of power. This political theory, a certain interpretation of Marxism, is the source of the party's instrumental attitude and orienta­ tion to such institutions and legitimates the party's theory of external control over them. Any radial attempt to rede­ fine the structure of the municipality, and to radicalise it from within is far removed from this theory. A narrowly defined marxism of the party militates against adopting the municipalities as 'public spheres' with immense democratic potentialities to be explored. The same marxist theory is also responsible for not properly recognising the non-eco­ nomic, ethnic identities of sections of society who feel more alienated from the movement and the municipality. This political theory, this particular interpretation of Marxism is Leninist-Stalinist rather than Marxist, and is centralist, by implications, and really stands in the way of the actualisation of urban grassroots democracy.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

Notes and References 1.

See, Drucker, H. et al (eds): Developments in British Politics, (1986), pp. 370-71. See also, Dunleavy, P : Urtvut Political Analy­ sis (1980).

Z 3.

Dunleavy, P in Drucker H (1986), p. 371. "Pol-organisational Report of the Burdwan District Commit­ tee of the CPI-M " (Unpub.) (1985), p.24. "Pol-organisational Report of the Burdwan District Commit­ tee of the CPI-M" (Unpub.) (1988), p.24. "Political-organisational Report of the Hooglily District Com­ mittee of the CPI-M " (1995), (Unpub.) (1995), p.5. Ibid., pp. 3-4. "Political Organisational Report of the Burdwan District Com­ mittee of the CPI-M " (Unpub.) (1985), p.24 "Pol-org. Report of the Burdwan District Committee of the CPI-M " (Unpub.) (1988), p.23. "Pol-org. Report of the Burdwan District Committee of the CPI-M " (1991) (Unpub.) p.22. "Pol-org. Report of the Hooghly District Committee of the CPI-M " (1995), p.4. Ibid., p.5. 83 This theory holds that voting is primarily an individual ac­ tion, based not on group identity as the "expressive theory" of voting should suggest, but on 'rational calculation'. Emo­ tional ties, habit and group loyalty do come into it, but ulti­ mately the focus is on the individual who attempts to maximise his or her interests by voting. This theory, derived from eco­ nomic models of human behaviour, lias become increasingly influential in recent years in the west (e.g., Downes, A (1957): An Economic theory ofDemocray. Franklin, M.N. 'The Rise of Issue Voting in British Elections', Stratuclyde Paper on Govern­ ment and Politics, No.3 (Second Edn.); and Himmel Weit, H et at (eds) How Voters Decide, (1981). But it is not applicable to the hetergenous sodo- economic environment of Burdwan wliich offers very little scope for individual action given the fact of organisational monopoly of the CPI-M. Ideally, a class ap­ proach would suggest that political parties reflect class inter­ ests and hence the support they receive are largely from their natural class constituency. This is the other name for 'party identification' theory. This theory is used, in our case, in a

4 5. (x 7. 8 9. 10. 11. 1Z

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy



15. 16. 17. ia 19. 2a 21. 22. 23. 24 25. 26.


modified sense because, first, it is hard, if not impossible in many cases, to prove that the CPI-M reflects class M(proletar­ ian) interests in each constituency, because a 'pure' class con­ stituency is a rarity in Burdwan, and second, heavy organisa­ tional spread and its impact on the people have foreclosed any question about whether the party really serves the class(es) as it claims to do. Organisation, ideally a mediating factor be­ tween class/social charactertics and political choice, may equally be a complicating factor. However, the issue is much more complicated than we can possibly handle here, and may be taken up in any further larger research. Mr. Nirupam Sen, said this in his 'preface' to 'Bardhatwm Jelay Kommunist Andoloner Otit Prosanga' (in Bengali) by S.Sahedullah (edited by J.Bhattacharyya (1991). See, Sain J. L., "Bengal Communism and the Bhadralok : A case study of the Burdwan District Committee Leadership of the CPI-M (1964-88)/(Unpublished M. Phil, thesis, University of Burdwan, 1991); and Bhattacharyya, H and Mukhopadhyay, "Design and Operation of Political Processes in Rural Co­ operatives : A Case Study of the District of Burdwan' (forthcom­ ing in a volume by Sage, (New Delhi). The Burdwan District Committee of the CPI was formed on 5 October 1935, See Sain (1991). See, B. Bhattacharya et al.t 'Damodar Canal Tax Movement' in Desai, A.R.(ed): Peasant Struggles in India (1981), pp. 175-415. Sahedullah, S (1991) Sain, JL (1991) Sehedullah, S (1991) Sahedullah, S (1991) Peterson J C K., Bengal District Gazetteers: Burdwan (1910), pp. 158-189. Ibid., P. 47; also Hunter WW.; A Statistical Account of Bengal (Vol-IV) Ibid. See, Draft Report (Pol-organisational) of the 15th District Con­ ference of the CPI-M, Burdwan, 17-20 November 1988. See, Several Party Organisational Reports ( District, Zonal and Local Committees). See,J. Bhattacharyya (1992).


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

27. Ibid. 28. Political Organisational Report of the 11th District Confer­ ences of the CPI-M, Burdwan 29 November-1 December, 1971). 29. Political Organisational Report of the 12th District Conference of the CPI-M, Burdwan, 30 December 1977-1 January 1978, p.i. 30. Pol. Org. Report, 16th District Conference 21-24 November 1991, P.92. 31. Pol.-Org. Report. 15th District Conference. 17-20 November 1988.86 32 16th District Conference op. cit. 33. 15th District Conference op. cit. 34. Ibid., p. 45. 35. 16th District Conference op. cit p. 53. 36. Ibid. 37. Ibid. 38. Draft Report (henceforth DR) of the 1st Conference of the Burdwan Town Local Committee, 28-29, September, 1991, p.49. 39. D R. 16th Conference of the Burdwan Town Local Committee, 8-10 October, 1988. 40. Ibid. 41. Interview with J.Bhattacharyya, at Natun Chithi office, on 21. 6.1993. 42 D R. 2 No CPI-M Local Committee, Burdwan, 21-22 September 1991, p. 5. 43. Rudolph and Rudolph (1987), p. 195. 44 Sain, J L, op-cit, p. T 158. 45. Ibid, p. T. 157. 46. Interview with J.Bhattacharyya on 21.6.93 47. Pol. org. Report 16th District Conference p.21. 48. Draft Report, 1986. 49. Pol. Org. Report, 14th District Conference 23-26 November 1985, p. 24. 50. 15th District Conference Report, p. 23. 87 51. 16th District Conference Report, p. 23. 52 Draft Report of the Town 2 Local Committee (1991). P. 27.

Bengal Communism and Urban Grassroots Democracy 53. 54 55. 56. 57.


Political Organisational Report of the 15th District Conference (1991), P.49. Ibid. Political Organisational Report of the 15th District Conference, p. 38. Ibid., pp. 50-51. Ibid.

Chapter 3

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives: The Case of the District of Burdwan Marxism and Co-operation As is the case with many other areas, the subject of co­ operation has not received a systematic treatment from the founders of Marxism. But it was a subject which received almost continuous references in their writings. References to co-operation in Marx and Engels' writings show that they treated the subject rather seriously, and had a per­ spective for it. Although it is not the place here to engage in a detailed discussion of Marxist perspective on co-opera­ tion, we will nonetheless attempt to summarise the Marxist notion of co-operation. First, co-operatives were treated by Marx and Engels always in the general perspective of work­ ing class emancipation. While welcoming the very idea of co-operation itself, the movement's deformations were con­ demned and attacked by them. Marx attacked the state-

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


aided co-operatives in Prussia. For Marx, co- operative is the negation of wage-labour. He believes that within capi­ talism, forms of co-operative association are bound to bear the husks of the old system as well as seeds of the new. In Marx's view, the philanthrophic middle class spouters are false friends who use it for their own quack purposes.This has to be resisted, and also the tendency towards localism and self-sufficiency. Co-operation could never defeat mo­ nopoly unless it was developed to national dimensions. Only political power could enable it to escape from the narrow circles of the casual efforts of private workmen. In the later periods of his career, Marx insisted upon the possibility and partial visibility of communism through co­ operatives in the 'lap of capitalist production'. Marx nonetheless viewed cooperatives from a pro­ foundly industrial stand point. He wrote in Capital, Vol. Ill, Chapter 23 : "Co-operative factories furnish proof that the capi­ talist has become no less redundant as a function­ ary in production as he himself ...finds the big landowner redundant. In as much as the capital­ ist work does not originate in the purely capital­ istic processes of production, and hence does not cease on its own when capital ceases; ... in as much as it therefore originates from the social form of the labour process, from combination and co-operation of many in pursuance of a com­ mon result, it is just as independent of capital as that form itself as soon as it has burst its capi­ talistic as that form shell."1 Marx's view of co-operatives was closely linked to capi­ talism and the capitalist industrial production. He said that without the factory system origing out of the capitalist mode of production, there could have been no co-operative fac­ tories. He pointed out that the capitalist credit system also offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises more or less on a national scale. For Marx, the cooperative factories should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the asso­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

ciated one with the distinction that antagonism is resolved positively in them.2 Karl Marx's definition of 'cooperation' then presupposs the existence of capitalist factory production. He defines co­ operation follows : "When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected process, they are said to co-operate, or to work in co-operation."3 The above was also the point that Marx stressed in distinguishing between ancient co-operation and modern ones. In his view, the co-operatives in the colonies are pre­ modern i.e., pre-capitalist. According to him, the applica­ tion of co-operation in ancient, medieval and in modem colonies is sporadic, and "reposes on relations of domina­ tion and servitude, principally on slavery."4 Marx's coop­ eration then presupposes from the first to the last, the free wage labourers who sells their labour power to capital. He said : "Historically, however, this form is developed in opposition to peasant agriculture and to the car­ rying on of independent handicrafts whether in guilds- or not. From the standpoint of these, the capitalistic does not manifest of particular histori­ cal form of cooperation," historical form of co­ operation does not manifest itself as a particular histrorical form of correction," but co-operation itself appears to be a historic form peculiar to and specifically distinguishing, the capitalist pro­ cess of production."3 Marx thus saw even elementary forms of cooperation as presupposing "production on a large scale. For social­ ists, he advocated co-operative factories for co-operative production.

Historical O verview of Rural Co-operatives in Burdwan District

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


The history of rural co-operatives in the district of Burdwan is quite old, as the Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. established in 1917 exemplifies. But it was only since 1977 i.e., the time of the rise of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M henceforth) led Left Front govern­ ment in West Bengal, that they have gained considerable momentum. The story of rural co-ops in the district ever since happens to be the story of their onward marches and successes. The basic argument of this section is that there exists a clear correlation between the successes of rural co­ ops in Burdwan and the higher degree of CPI-M mass political mobilisation in the district. The increasingly organisational and electoral strength of the CPI-M in the district has not automatically translated into the better health of the rural co-ops, but nonetheless the former has neces­ sarily been a precondition and the most important factor in the growth of the latter. The intimate connection between the two is obvious enough. The Left Front government, the party-led pancliayats, the Kisan Sablia and the party itself are the institutional manifestations of the communist move­ ment in the state, more particularly in Burdwan, popularly known as the 'red district' of West Bengal. The interaction of these factors, on the one hand, and the co-ops, on the other, is the practical scene in the development of co-ops. But on the whole, it is the fundamental correlation between the CPI-M organisation and the growth in co-ops that draws one's attention. The CPI-M 's design and operation in Burdwan's rural co-ops appear to suggest that the co-op movement in the district since 1977 is but the extension of the district's communist movement led by the CPI-M. The com m unists, especially the CPI-M , have thoroughly radicalised the base of the niral co-ops in Burdwan. Although we focus on the post-1977 period, the sub­ ject is treated nonetheless historically, because the current design and operation of the CPI-M are connected with the same in the past, and the product of many trials and errors committed in the past by the party. Secondly, the CPI-M design needs to be clearly distinguished from those they replace. Co-ops in the district wrere never devoid of politi­ cal forces with their respective designs, manifest or latent.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

That the history of rural C o o p in Burdwan is quite old is itself not an explanation for the subsequent successes of the movement. When the Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. was established in 1917, the first meeting of the first Board of Directors of the Bank recorded that already four 'village societies', two of them 'important', had been existing. These two 'important' societies were Dhatrigram and Koronda. The first board was rather happy to note that these two societies "[had] grown too big to manage their affairs effi­ ciently" and hence, they were proposed to be split up:. The formation of the Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. (hence­ forth BCCB) in 1917 was a significant event in the subse­ quent development of Co-op movement in the district. As an apex body, and central affiliating institution for the dis­ trict, it was supposed to lead and to give a fillip to the co­ op organisations in the district. The rise of the Bank in the year of the Russian Revolution of 1917 would appear to give it more importance than it deserved. But the socio­ economic and political forces involved in its formation, decision making, and its share-holders and beneficiaries strongly suggest that socialism was anathema to it. In the first Administration Report of the board of the BCCB, the following definition of the co-op bank was of­ fered : "... machinery of alleviating the sufferings of the poor; these banks are "not joint stock business but are meant to be an educative propaganda of self-help". The movement is essentially a moral one and it is indiv idualistic rather than socialistic. The theory is not co-partnership but co-opera­ tion, and the object that underlines co-operation is that, weak individuals are enabled to improve their individual productive capacity and conse­ quently material and moral possession by com­ bining among themselves and bringing into this combination the factor of moral obligation-the fundamental keystone of self-help and self-gov­ ernment'.8

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


Individualism, not socialism, then was accepted as the guid­ ing ideological principle of a movement which called itself 'co-operative'. The central focus on the improvement of 'individual productive capacity' in the above definition is also signicant in the year of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The social composition of the first Board of Directors, a wholly nominated body, shows that the upper class people controlled the decision-making of the bank. The members of the Board of Directors were high level colonial officials, maharajas, local landed elites and other notables*. The first twenty-six share-holders of the bank were all from the very rich sections of society including the zamindars and maharazas'0. Not surprisingly, the bank introduced two types of the share-holders: preference and ordinary, the latter, repre­ senting different rural areas. It meant two types of mem­ bership having each 50 percent share. Not the people, but the circle inspector was given the task of organising village societies. He also audited them. It is recorded that 15 vil­ lage societies were formed in that year.! Thus at no stage, were people given any say in mat­ ters of organising societies, decision-making and implemen­ tation of decisions. It was the colonial state in alliance with landed gentry and richer sections of society that assumed all powers and 'responsibility' in "alleviating the sufferings of the poor". Quite predictably, the effect of the overall activities of the bank, as recorded in the First Administra­ tion Report of the bank, on the people were discouraging. It was said in the above report: it is doubtful how far the village people have understood the "Nine Points of Co­ operation"; 'the local rate of interest has been lowered (It seems) down to a small extent [my emphasis] at all villages where societies exists'. The following passage summed up the effects of the bank on the people as well as the opera­ tion of class forces in and through the societies : The attitude of the public is very discouraging for want of education. They view the movement with suspicion sometimes actively or passively resisting it. The moneylenders frighten the pio­ neers of the movement in the villages by suing at


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism once for their money as soon as an organisation is started in the villages giving them all kinds of trouble. In places where societies exit, they some­ times pay for the repayment of loans thereby tightening their hold in the villages. In some so­ cieties, it has been observed the zamindars to exert more influence over his ryots, conducts societies in an arbitrary way, borrowing money in the name of the society to lend to the ryot he wants to bring under his control. He thus, achieves his ends by risking societie's m oney."11

Given the upper class leadership and control of the co­ op, and their degeneration into centres of corruption by the Zamindars who also practised money lending as a busi­ ness it was no point in blaming the people for being sus­ picious of the movement, even to the point of resisting it. The very upper class character of the movement defeated from the very beginning the original purpose of the bank of fighting the exploitation of moneylenders, locally known as mahajans. Therefore, the societies already existing and not organised from above by the colonial administration in alliance with the upper classes and landed gentry, showed some signs of progress. It was recorded in the Administra­ tion Report that the properties of the longstanding societies were "in the hands of money lenders at exorbitant rates of interests"12. The price of each share being Rupees twenty-five (Rs.25/-), which was then the monthly salary of the BCCB's clerk meant that the ordinary, poorer sections were far beyond the reach of the co-op movement. The co-operative was the upper classes exclusive club for all practical pur­ poses. From the foregoing discussion, one should not arrive at a conclusion that the co-op movement in the district as well as in the state, was non-political. Despite the absence of electoral politics in matters of formation of decision­ making bodies and the emphasis being laid on the 'moral7 character of the movement, the co-op movement was not devoid of political content or design. The leading role of

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


the colonial state on the one hand, and the richer sections of society being deeply interested and involved in the op­ eration of co-operatives, coupled with the very high price of shares and preference type of membership on the other, were evidences to establish the anti-people and pro-rich bias of the co-op movement. Whether the colonial author­ ity was genuinely interested in fightings feudal exploita­ tion in the countryside in order to introduce capitalism or not certainly was a big issue, but one tiling that was, almost crystal clear was that the landed gentry and upper sections of society kept the co-operatives tightly under their con­ trol. The common people's involvement in the movement, let alone their participation in decision-making, would be quite a long way off. The transformation of the co-op movement from an instrument of rule over the ryots, the one with which the zamindar brought his ryots under his control, to a (people's) instrument against feudal exploita­ tion, against the rule of zamindars would be quite revolu­ tionary, and very difficult. The class character of the movement did not change much for the better subsequently. Fundamentally, it re­ mained the same with a lot of bad effects on the progress of the BCCB and the movement. The Administration Re­ port (read in the 2nd General Meeting of the Board on 27/ 8/1918) recorded lamentably that the Bank had not changed from a mixed type to one from which "m ost of the prefer­ ence shareholders ... expected a good dividend for their money. The consequence was that most of them bought preference shares freely, instead of putting money in fixed Deposit. The directors realise that the educated class of people who are willing to co-operate with the government but doing honorary work as well as investing money in the scheme are limited in number.In a district like Burdwan;... Had the leading gentlemen bought fewer shares, putting money as fixed deposit the divident would have been large, and the Central Bank could have managed the rural societies without the help of the government at all"13. Need­ less to say, these preference shareholders were from the upper classes of society including the District Magistrate of Burdwan. The above report noted very categorically that


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

the dividens paid to the preference shareholders were "an absolute loss to the co-op scheme". Nonetheless the BCCB, because of class constraints, could hardly ignore these pref­ erence holders. T o r the proper management of the bank it will, however be necessary to retain the preference share­ holders, though their actual holdings of shares will be nomi­ nal'15 When things were in bad shape at the top, it could not be better at the bottom. As far as the leadership of the village societies were concerned, the Administration Report noted "dishonest people sometimes make their appearance and they have often succeeded in obtaining office in the village societies"16. Such admission in the official report suggested that the above fact was only the tip of the iceberg. In some cases, a president of a village society being forced to resign as his 'actions' and movements grew sus­ picious was not an exception'17 And yet, the management was not ready to give the movement a rural orientation in a rural district. It consid­ ered it as "drawbacks of being overrulled by an over­ whelming majority of the ordinary shareholders ".18 In this context, the report of societies growing spontaneously7 throughout the year would appear to be suspect. The com­ m on masses were not taken into confidence in organising societies. Therefore, the S.D.O. of Katwa was thanked for "organising" as many as ten societies in six months! That way, the affiliated societies to the bank upto 1918 num­ bered 591. The transformation of such co-ops into peoples' co­ ops since 1977 in the district was not the result of one leap forward. The hands of leadership did not simply change from the upper classes to the representatives o f the com­ m on people. Mr. Asoke Banerjee Ex-Chairman of the West Bengal State Co-op Bank, who has been mobilising co-ops for the last four decades believes that a distinct breakthrough occurred in the management of co-ops in Burdwan in the 1930s when the nationalist leaders were increasingly re-

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


placing the old leadership of landed gentry and upper classes, and hence, a distinct nationalist phase in co-op mobilisation was started. The communist hegemony took place afterwards. Mr. Banerjee, a district level CPI-M leader and convenor of the District Co-op sub-committee, and a person wholly in charge of co-ops (by the CPI-M) testifies this partly from his own family history. He came from a family in the village Sridharpur which had a tradition of co-op mobilisation, and played a great role in the district co-op. movement. His father Mr. H. Banerjee was one of the founders of the famous Sreedharpur Co-op Society (estd. 1918). It is the contention of Mr. A. Banerjee that in the pre-1977 period, there was also a political design, "though of a different character; that too was a class de­ sign though not like ours (CPI-M); political forces have always operated in co-ops".1* On the basis of what Mr. Banerjee has said above, it is possible perhaps to divide the phases of co-op mobilisation into (a) British period upto 1947, (b) Nationalist/Congress period upto 1977, and (c) Communist period since 1977-a périodisation which broadly coincides with the overall périodisation of Bengal politics. How did rural co-ops function during the Congress period? What was the state of the co-op movement durira 1947-77 in the country ? What was the nature of m a n a g ? ment and leadership of co-ops during the above periods ? No full-length study has yet been done on the district of the state answering those questions. The available works on the state as well as on the country provide some broad.r generalisations helpful in understanding the district sce­ nario. According to the report of All India Rural Credit Sur­ vey Committee (1954), the record of co-op movement in India was a record of failures. The above committee held responsible many factors for the degeneration of the co-op movement. But most importantly it focused attention on the managerial/leadership aspects : In several respects, literate office holders put their own interests first to the detriment of the mem-


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism bers interests. Illiteracy in the rank and file of the members exposes them to the dangers of exploi­ tation by a few influential members.20

Another statement of the report conveys the same message in different words ... co-ops are dominated by a large number of cultivators and businessmen who natu­ rally did not realise their responsibilities towards poorer rural families.21 Paradoxically, the co-op movement strengthened the hands of money lenders. It was admitted in the above re­ port that co-op loans were misused or went to moneylend­ ers again via the poorer rural families. It was stated very categorically in the same report that in respect of rural credit ... the achievment was anything but failure in view of the fact that only 3.1 percent of the total credit needs of the agriculturists could be met by the co- ops. About the causes of failure, the report exposed the hollowness of the whole attempt : total impracticability of any attempt to combine the very weak in competition with the very strong;22 Needless to comment, people were indifferent to and suspicious of this movement. About the miserable state of the movement, Banerjee rightly commented : people can­ not be expected to keep their money as deposit in a badly' run society.23 The picture of West Bengal co-ops was no exception to the rule. By the mid-1970s the co-op agricultural credit structure was disintegrating. The Reserve Bank of India's Study Team (Formed in January 1972) on co-op Agricul­ tural Credit Institutions in West Bengal observed : Lack of earnestness on the part of office-bearers, field staff and others concerned at operational level in impressing upon their borrowers, the im perative need for prom pt repaym ent was manifest in a variety of ways. "A large number of Directors themselves were defaulters. Defaulting members could secure government loans"24


Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


The National Co-op Union of India admitted the near collapsing state of agricultural credit through co-ops in West B en g al: Table 1 Working of PACS in West Bengal during 1956 * 71 (Rs. in Lakhs)

1956-57 1960-61 1963-64 1965-66 1967-68 1970-71 12,120 12,575 13,040 12,996 12,845 11,548 Societies 4*528 Dormant NA 7,340 5,155 3,930 4,487 Working Capital N.A N.A 959.93 1342.58 1803.99 NAs Deposits 12 24 67.00 40.02 62.41 7631 Loans Oustanding 134 378 742.20 1054.12 1479.03 180034 83.10 124.74 319.85 604.82 855.14 1198.91 Share Capital Sources : Adapted from : National co-op Union o f India, p .ll.

In this way a crisis of confidence started between coop institutions themselves. It resulted in a vir­ tual paralysis of the entire co-op credit structure in the state25. A number of features of the performance of the co-op movement in West Bengal are revealed (See Table - 1). First, during 1956-71 the Primary Societies did not grow significantly; on the contrary, during 1967 - 71, there took place a negative growth in a number of such societies; from 12,845 in 1967 - 68 to 11,548 in 1970 - 71. That is, as many as 1,297 societies were liquidated or merged with others. Secondly, during the same period there was quite a çood proportion of dormant societies. Thirdly, the working capital did not register good growth. Fourthly, deposits grew only to some extent. Fifthly, while loans given to members grew in a very big way, the very high proportion of overdues meant that loan repayment was very negligible. All these features suggested a gloomy and collapsing state of affairs of the state co-op movement since indepen­ dence down to the 1970s. It was understandable why the


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

National Co-op Union of India had come to the conclusion that there had taken place 'a virtual paralysis of the entire co-op credit structure in the state'. Our interviews with many vereran communist co-op organisers of the district as well as the successive Annual Reports of the BCCB Ltd. seem to indicate that the district of Burdwan was no exception to the rule in the state gen­ erally. This historical sketch would remain incomplete with­ out mentioning the communists sporadic attempts to pen­ etrate the co-op societies from early on, and to attempt an alternative co-op mobilisation in the district of Burdwan. These were done by the Kisan Sabha organisations and by individual communist leaders. The party might not have developed a comprehensive design with which to operate in rural (and urban) co-ops in the district, but that did not debar the individual leaders and activists from organising the masses for co-ops. Sometimes, the kism Sabha itself took the lead. For instance, at Bolgona, north of Burdwan Sardar, a novel experiment in co-ops was launched during 1948-49 under the aegis of the then District Kisan Sabha movement. Inspired by the Soviet experiment of co-ops, this Bolgona experiment removed the mud partitions between plots of individually owned land giving birth to a huge commune type farm. This experiment, though short-lived, remained an inspiration for further co-ops in the district26. In other cases, especially among the workers, strike provided an opportunity and an impetus for the rise of communist-led co-ops. Such was the case in the formation of the Durgapur Steel Plant Co-op Credit Society in 1969 and the bidi workers of Bankura and the weavers of Bishnupur, in the district of Bankura. Mr. Hemanta Roy, a communist veteran and the present chairman of the BCCB Ltd. is a leading figure in the co-op mobilisation in the district. His early socialisation in co-ops started from the district of Bankura (1950-51) through the then communist controlled trade union movement. It originated as an effort to look after striking bidi workers of Bankura in 1949-50. The bidi workers co-op was thus formed followed by the

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


weavers co-op in Bishnupur in the district of Bankura at around the same time. The former has grown since its in­ ception as a big co-op. Mr. Roy's election as director in the BCCB Ltd. in 1964 reflected the success of the communists sporadic attempts at co-op mobilisation27. Those individual, though communist party oriented, attempts at co-op mobilisation apart, the big land reforms movement during 1967-69 provided the communists with an opportunity to involve the poorer sections of the peas­ antry in the co-ops in a big way. On this point, there is wide agreement among most of the leading communist co­ op organisers of the district. The short-lived United Front Experiment of the communists with governmental power offered a clear hint that land reforms was a good impetus in co-op mobilisation, and must be incorporated into any future communist design with which to operate in the co­ ops. The above governmental experiment offered the com­ munists lessons from another standpoint; the movement alone was not enough but must be backed by a favourable government, in other words, a marriage between move­ ment and government was to become the sine qua non of a new, successful communist design in co-ops.

Com m unist Design in B e n g a l: Rural Co-ops in H is­ torical Perspective Despite Marx's advocacy for co-op factories for co-op production, the rural co-ops in Bengal have never appeared to be anathema to Bengali peasantry. The Communist domi­ nated Kisan Sablia (Peasants Organisation) has since its in­ ception in the mid-1930's seen much value in rural co-ops in Bengal so far as the interests of the peasants are con­ cerned. The historical understanding of the relations be­ tween the rural co-ops and the peasants interests by the Krishak Sabha (Peasants Organisation) contains several ele­ ments for understanding the .nature of co-ops in the state as well as the design and mode of operation of the com­ munists in the co-ops. To begin with, Krishak Sabha has always taken up the rural co-ops seriously. When the First Provincial Organising


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

Comittee of the Sabha met at the Albert Hall, Calcutta on 16-17 August 1936, it elected Abdul Kadir, as secretary-in charge of co-ops.28 The Second conference of the provincial kisan sabha (PKS) (henceforth PKS) (2-3 December 1938 at Bora, Hooghiy in West Bengal) elected Shibnath Banerjee as Secretary in charge of Co-ops.29 The PKS has always seen the co-ops in the perspective of its anti-feudal task and the protection of interests of the peasants. But it has not tried to see the co-ops as unaided by the government, and hence, when the governmental loans seemed meager, it has not hesitated to criticise the govern­ ment because that forced peasants to be dependent on vil­ lage moneylenders (11th Conf. 31-May to 1 june 1952 at Kumarsha village, 24-paraganas, WB). The Fifteenth Con­ ference of the PKS ( 1 - 2 November 1957 at Bongaon, 24Paraganas, WB) demanded that agricultural co-ops must be made completely voluntary and the right to freely enter in or exit from them must be conceded30 The problem of Agricultural loans perturbed the six­ teenth conference of the PKS at Kakdwip (15-17 April 1960) as much : In the last two years, the problem of Agricultural loans and of dadan (advance) have increased. The government and co-op loans are meagre so the peasants have to depend on village moneylenders and businessmen. The peasants are losing their land in the wake of the repayment of agricultural loans throughout West Bengal. This has become a very dangerous practice. Even the middle peas­ ants are also victims of this process.31 The conference underlined the need for land reforms for launching "real co-op agricultural production", because co-ops without land reforms will necessarily benefit the jotedars and richer people"32 Three things stand out clearly from the above resolu­ tion of the PKS conference. First emphasis was placed on

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


agricultural production on co-op basis. Second, this was linked to land reforms. Thirdly, jotedars and rich peasants bias of the co-ops, launched without land reforms, was mentioned as a caution. The seventeenth conference of the PKS (28-31 May 1961 at Ballak village, Midnapore) identified two factors in the failure of both co-ops and pancliayat. They were : bureau­ cratic and vested interest. But the 26th conference of the PKS [1-4 October 1982 at Pandua] (now dominated by the CPI-M as the la tier's peasant wing) showered praises on the Left government for contributing Rupees ten for each primary share of the member when the latter had paid only a rupee "so that most of the common peasants and poor peasants can join the co-ops and will be freed from the clutches of vested interests"33. The above statement indi­ cates that the communists were interested in involving the poorer peasants in the co-ops as part of their design of controlling them. Nonetheless, this CPI M led peasant body was critical of the current state of the movement because it believes that despite government's emphasis on the in­ crease of production, it is no guarantee for the improve­ ment in the life conditions of the peasants because the "real need is fundamental land reforms, agrarian revolution". However, within the given set up, the PKS demanded pro­ vision for greater scope of agricultural loans "by organising agricultural credit societies".34 Hopes are not sky high. It stated that the moneylenders' exploitation can be resisted to some extent if co-ops are formed in every village [28th Conf. Coochbehar, 19-22 Feb 1986]35. The following statement of the 29th Conference of the PKS (10 March 1989 at Udainarayanpur, Howrah) epitomises the relation between the co-ops and the communist-led peasant m ovem ent: "The Krishak conferences have always emphasised the co-op movement. The co-op movement was considered to be an instrument of struggle against the influence of moneylenders and vested inter­ ests in the countryside. In the last three years, we have made some progress in this respect. In many


Micro Foundations oj Bengal Communism districts, we are in control of the central co-op Banks. But in some, despite our victory in the lower co-ops, we have not achieved leadership in the central co-op Banks. In this respect, Burdwan is an instance of how and when our activists con­ trol both at the lower and central levels of co-ops, the co-ops can be of immense help to the Kisan movement. We must strive to establish our con­ trol over the central co-op banks by a method of planning from above and the bringing the pri­ mary societies under our leadership.To this end, we need to form co-op sub-committees at Dis­ trict, Block or Thana levels36.

An analysis of the above statement reveals the follow­ ing features : 1.

The co-ops are seen by the CP1-M as an instrument of struggle against the influence of moneylenders and, vested interests, and the co-op movement is not an independent movement, but complementary to the peasant movement.


The design of the CP1-M is to control the decision making bodies of both the central banks and primary societies.


The co-op sub-committees of the KS at different levels will act as the mechanism of party's control over the co-op bodies.


Tart of the party's design is to chalk out plarn from above and to implement them at the lower levels with the representative already in control of the lower bod­ ies.

The degree to which the communists will be able to establish control over the co-ops depends on the level of communist mass political mobilisation. In this respect, the district of Burdwan offers certainly a better prospect,at least,in so far as the peasant mobillisation by the KS is concerned. (This aspect is discussed, in greater detail, in the chapter on party organisation).

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


Defining the Current Communist Design in Rural Co* ops in Burdwan The CPI-M's participation and penetration in rural co­ ops has been backed by a consciously formulated design of the party. The CPI-M 's activists have been mobilising for co-ops, penetrating in co-ops and guiding them, but this communist action in co-ops has always been purposive; it has been consciously so done, rather than spontaneously. In fact, the most distinguishing marks of communist partici­ pation in co-ops, and one of the very important factors for the party's success in doing so lie in the above. In other word, the party always knows that it wants to do and why. The detailed quidelines for party activists are thus formu­ lated before hand. In the pre-1977 period, the forces oper­ ating in co- ops did not lack a political dimension. But what was lacking in them was a consciously formulated design of participation and penetration in co-ops. Ironically enough, the communists in pre-1977 period had a design, but not well formulated or well defined. W hat is available as the CPI-M design in rural co-ops is then the product of the post-1977 period. The arrival of a favourable governmental power and more particularly the effects of this government's action in rural areas created certain problems and possibili­ ties which called for a kind of political intervention addi­ tionally by the party in rural Burdwan (as much as in rural West Bengal). Any attempt to define the CPI-M's design in rural co-ops in Burdwan must not ignore this political backdrop. We will present here two types of evidence pertaining to the CPI-M 's (Burdwan District Committee) design in the district's rural co-ops. The first type of evi­ dence consists of some inner-party documents. The second type of evidence that will be considered here are data col­ lected on the basis of structured and semi-structured inter­ views with the district level CPI-M leaders who have long been mobilising for co-ops and hold very important party and official positions in co-op societies and the bank.

Party Documents Evidence I : In a district level party document in the early 1980s, it was reported under 'co-ops' :


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism In the last few years, our record of success in co­ ops is remarkable. In the past, there was no at­ tempt to develop the co-op movement in a planned way. This is the first time that we are making efforts at the district level. Our candidates at the local level co-ops have won elections to the Board of Directors. Most remarkable of all is our victory in the election to the Board of Directors of the Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. For long, the vested interests in and around this Bank have been desperate to forestall our entry into it. Many court cases have been launched against us in the past. Despite the presence of our workers at the local levels, we have a lot of weaknesses in build­ ing the co-op movement in the real and just inter­ ests of the people37.

Evidence I I : In another district level CPI-M document in the mid-1980s it was said under the heading 'C o -o p s': Immediately after the formation of the Left Front government we began to organize the Co-ops in our district in a planned way. W e made progress in this respect in the face of stiff opposition from the vested interests. But our record of success is rem arkable here.Our victory in the Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. is remarkable We fought a lot on the legal front too. We have co-op Fraction/Sub-committee at the local levels to prop­ erly guide the co-ops; they meet regularly.38 Evidence HI : Under the heading, 'The Co-op move­ ment', another district level CPI-M document of the late 1980s said : In our district, for the last few years, we have been guiding the co-op movement in an organised and planned way. We are already witnessing its positive effects. Most of the co-ops are under our control. The work of the Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. has significantly expanded due to the presence of our workers in the Board of Direc­ tors.39

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


Evidence I V : In a very recent district level CPI-M document it was stated under the heading 'co-ops' : The party has sought to build the co-op move­ ment, not guided by any reformist illusion, but the need to use the co-op movement as an in­ strument of class struggle, as a complement to mass movement against the vested interests in the villages, and against mahajani exploitation. Our aim consists of (a) Planning from above, and (b) democratic running from below the co-ops our dominance in the central co-op Banks, and to conduct the movement accordingly. In order to build and to guide the co-ops as complement to m ass movement, we have co-op sub-committees at zonal and local levels. We emphasised our fight against mahajani exploi­ tation in the villages, and creation of employ­ ment in the rural areas.

Effect of Party Designs As result of the operation of party design, the Antpara SKUS Ltd. ( P A C S , estd. 1962), has not only been brought under the CPI-M fold, the party has been able also to radicalise the membership of this society. Of 1826 mem­ bers, the following was the class composition in 1992: small farmers (65%), marginal farmers (34.11%), and big farmers (.54%), (Based on office records of the society Antpara). However, the class composition of its Directors gives us a sharply contrasting picture. Of a seven-member board,most of them possess land ranging from 10 to 35 Bighas. Many of them have side incomes through business. Nonetheless, this is a successful rural co-op. by conventional standards. In its membership there are about 20.64% SC, and .98% ST. But the rich farmers control the board. The seriousness of the party in controlling the board can be evinced from the fact that the Chairman is a secre­ tary of the Anchal Krishak Samity, two are branch mem­ bers, and three are A G members. This does not allow the society to be turned into a private field to the rich.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

The success story of the legendary Sreedharpur Co­ op. Bank (PACS, estd. 1918) is some what different, but it has not remained immune to left influences particularly since 1977. Out of 1058 members, 53.69% are small peas­ ants, 2.36% marginal peasants, 35.60% middle peasants and 8.33% big peasants. Extending credit on an unlimited basis, the society comprises three villages of Sreedharpur, Sarra and Baksa. With such services as banking, cloth selling fertiliser supply, grocery and paddy storing, it has become the nodal point of the villagers'life and struggle. For nearly 700 families, this society has become a way of life. Unlike the Antpara society, this society is not dominated by big farmers. It is dominated by small and middle farmers. The SCB is not really an apolitical body : within its Board of Directors, party members hold key positions such as the Chairman and Vice-Chairman (1992). Again, the SCB sends delegates to the BCCB Ltd. and the State Co-op. Bank who owe allegiance to the CPI-M. An analysis of the total membership of SCB in terms of land holdings also point out the fact that the CPI(M) has been successful in bringing to the fold of the Co-op. small and marginal farmers in greater numbers than ever beforethus serving its ideological commitment towards the poorer section of the populace. Marginal and small farmers make up 56.05% of the total, 35.60% belong to the middle farmer category whilst the rich classes constitute 8.33% of the total membership. Thus through its membership drive for co-op the Left has been able to change the class composition of the co-op very effectively. One must also keep in mind the effect of land reforms on the one hand, and reduced number of big/rich farmers, on the other. What really transpires politically, therefore, is that the Left under emphasises its politics and resorts to latent political maneuvering thus still propagating the myth of apolitical or non-political workings within the co-op. In fact, when asked to name the indicators of success «is claimed, the Chairman of the Board pointed out that the

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


SCB fulfills the needs and aspirations of its member in terms of fertilizer procurement and supply, water resource management marketing of produce and such social require­ ments as schools and roads. The SCB could generate em­ ployment for about 80 people, stop distress sale of land and produce profit. The reasons behind this success has been "sound leadership, non-political stance, honesty and the induction of new faces". Describing the co-op. as economic in the main, the chairman was of the opinion that social changes in the villages are an automatic part of the development and improvement in the SCB. An interesting observation of the Chairman is that a co-op in general and SCB in particular is a middle farmer institution and those who own five biglia of land are the real beneficiaries. He admitted that more bargadars were being helped after coming to power of the Left Front Government since 1977 but was quick to point out that the SCB had been helping the landless since 195052 On the prospects and problems facing the SCB, the chairman was of the opinion that the increase in prices and the increase in interest rates were the twin worries. Savings were going down considerably and the increase in D.A. to employees were bound to creat financial problems. He was confident however, that the SCB model of giving poli­ tics a back-seat is sustainable and successful. He felt that the nature and character of leadership changed in 1954 with the zamindari grip over the co-op being successfully chal­ lenged. Leadership since then has remained essentially the same with those who are leaders of the villages being lead­ ers within the co-op also. Another director of the SCB felt that one of the indi­ cators of its success lies in the fact that the co-op could successfully remove the dependence on the mahajans. He also felt that middle farmers are the real beneficiaries and that ultimately it is the individual who is the target of the development programme of the SCB. This assertion is borne out by other members of SCB who feel that membership has given them economic help


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

in being more enterprising and technologically more sound. Advise on matters agrarian, credit loans for purchase of tractors, shallow tubewells and improved variety of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides have made the individual economi­ cally sound and sure. Most of those interviewed felt that there is no alterna­ tive to this individual oriented co-op as capacity, produc­ tivity, initiative and endeavor would vary among individuails to a large extent. The post 1977 period all members agreed has seen an improvement in their lot. Commercial success has come about in a big way especially with the increasing use of fertiliser, improved seeds, pesticides and irrigation. The dependency on maliajans has disappeared and most felt that panchayats have firmly taken up the task of setting the agenda of rural development. A few felt that development was ushered in by the CPI(M) and the SCB, but clearly they were in a minority. The directors own on an average four acres of land which is supplemented by the other jobs with the Govern­ ment of West Bengal, schools, colleges and such like. Mem­ bers whom w e met hold not less than five acres of land and given fertility of the soil, the irrigation facilities and use of m odem implements and aids, the produce is not insub­ stantial. A general prosperity both among members and the Directors can be easily discernible. The solvency and vitality of this society has helped it to take up a lot of developmental work which has in its turn made the SCB an institution of stature. The SCB along with the Zilia Parislwd constructed a metalled road of four Km s. in length, connecting the Memari-Matishwar road to Sreedharpur village. In the process eight adjoining villages and about 17,000 people have greatly benefitted. By sink­ ing 21 minideep tubewells the SCB could change 336 acres of monocropping land to triple cropping ones and creat more mcmdays, thus providing indirectly more employment, especially to the landless agricultural labourers. Primary schools in Sreedharpur, Sarrah and Baksa, the construction of one library building and a post office at Sreedhapur figure prominently among its activities. Stipends are also

Bengal Communism and Rural Cooperatives


given to promising students and grants and donation to educational institutions have boosted the social welfare activities of the society. In the recent literacy campaing in Burdwan (which produced a success rate of 80% and more) the SC B activety took part by way of monetary and logistic support. Health care is also one of the concerns of this society. Space has been spared within the SCB premises for running a health sub-centre and a homeopathic dispensary. The above is not to suggest that SCB has no weakness in terms of organisation and management. Though as a whole profit has been annually increasing (Rs. 1,507.5 thou­ sand in 1990-91) the SCB loses on the agricultural loan front considerably. This is so because of the unlimited nature of liability that it incurs. As officials of the Burdwan Central Co-op. Bank Ltd. point out, Sreedharpur would have folded up long time back if its business in potato, fertiliser and cold storage had not been a roaring success. The solvency of the SCB is further exemplified in its ability to open up branches in areas surrounding Sreedharpur. This one finds offices in Radhakatapur, Sankarpur (along with the Cold Storage) Bohar, Matiswar, Madhyamgram and Memari. In­ terestingly many of these branches are located in semi-urban centers but the headquarters of the SCB remain at Sreedharpur - a village quite deep in the country-side.

The Burdwan Central C o-op Bank L td .: Case III The Burdwan Central Co-op Bank Ltd. (hence BCCB) is the largest co-op bank in the Eastern region. Situated on the Grand Trunk Road (National Highway - 2) in the cen­ tral part of Burdwan town, it has been in existence since 1917. The BCCB was started in 1917 with the help of the district board, lawyers of the bar and other notables of the district. Wth an initial meager capital and few members, the BCCB restricted itself within the confines of the then elites and richer people of the district. We deliberately fo­ cus on developments in the BCCB after 1977 for two rea­ sons that the history of the institution has already been delved into earlier by us and more importantly the focus


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

of this section is on events following the election of the Left Front government. The BCCB is a financing bank for all agricultural credit societies and non-agricultural ones. The branches of the BCCB dot the entire district of Burdwan. All co-op societies of the district are affiliated to it. A Board of Directors manage the BCCB. There are 12 members of the whom nine are elected and three nominated by the West Bengal govt. The BCCB employs 600 people who are spread over the 35 branches and the central office. Nearly 90% of the BCCB's activities are in the rural areas and 80% of all affiliated societies are production oriented. Development of the district figures prominently on the agenda of the BCCB. Nearly 50% of the District Credit Plan Target is funded by it. 80% of all agricultural lending comes from the BCCB. Lending on the handloom is 100% and for minor irrigation 80%. Loan recovery is quite high. 77.5% of the agricultural loans are recovered and as much as 98.5% in other sectors. With an average of 84% loan recovery, the BCCB is firmly placed in matters of finance. Among the 466 Central Co-op Banks in India, BCCB is 33rd in terms of fund support. It holds the premire position among all Central co-ops in terms of diversification. A glance at deposits with the BCCB shows that over a ten year perood (1981-82 to 1991-92) the amount has steadily increased. Whereas in 1981-82 Rs. 20.04 crores was with the BCCB, in 1991-92 Rs. 78.28 crores has been deposited. The deposits mainly come from saving (46%) and fixed (44%). Current account and others constitute 5% each to the total. The position in terms of working capital has also shown a steady increase In 1981-82 Rs. 29.45 crores constituted working capital for BCCB which increased to Rs. 130.12 crores in 1991-92 Profits too have shown a dramatic in­ crease over the decade-from Rs. 30.17 lakhs in 1981-82 to Rs. 440.56 lakhs in 1991-92. However both directors at BCCB and its officials are not ready to describe success purely in terms of profit earned. The active participation of people and its patron­

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


age, diversification of co-op activities, expansion of branches, enhanced leading capacity in key rural sectors and the new outlook of the management are equally strong attributes of the health of the BCCB. Officials claim that the lending policy is liberal with a strong pro-poor bias. Priority is accorded to mass contact and on the spot decisions, thus orienting the solid bureaucracy towards prompt action. It is interesting to note that by an Act in 1983, the BCCB changed the nature of chairmanship. District Magis­ trates since inception have been ex-officio chairmen of BCCB. With the Left-Front government's arrival this post was sub­ sequently made an elected one thus giving the common people more free access than before. It also clipped the bureaucracy and its red-tapism and paved the way for the Board to manipulate laws for a better purposive approach towards key issues. For example, unemployed engineers who had formed a co-op could keep their work order in lieu of security or collateral. With the coming of the Left Front the BCCB has been democratised and made more transparent and accountable. In 1981 Voting for the Board BCCB took place after a long time. The Left won the elections but litigation from oppo­ nents forced them to wait till 1985. In 1985 the CPI-M won eight directorships, the Forward Bloc one, and one seat went to an individual member. Elections were next held annually till in 1990 it was decided that elections would be at a gap of three years. The other notable change that took place was the re­ cruitment of BCCB staff through the good offices of the Banking Services and Recruitment Board (hence BSRB). This recourse to BSRB for purposes of recruitment makes BCCB unique. It also snuffs out any hint of corruption in recruitment-a phenomenon that was rampant and nepotic in the p re-1977 period. The real success of the BCCB lies in its ability to pro­ vide the dynamism required to sustain the co-op as a movement. By opening its doors to universal members a much needed democratic act has been committed. Officials


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

who were interviewed felt that more profit could have been made if BCCB operated like any other commercial bank. However the notion of movement has been lost sight of at BCCB and unlike commercial banks a divorce between management and people could be avoided. With a relatively short period the CPI-M has achieved spectacular success in putting its design to practical use in Burdwan's rural co-ops. Since the late 1970s there has taken place tremendous penetration of political forces in the shape of the CPI-M in such co-ops. The character of management and membership of societies has redically changed. The co­ op societies as well as the BCCB Ltd. Including its branches are today much different from what they were in pre-1977 periods. Table-2: Class Composition of Membership of 36 SKUS Ltd. under Ukhra Block (1990-91) Total M ember : 10,056

Land ow nership in H ectares Upto 1 " 2 " 4 " 8



Marginal Small Rich Very Rich Agricultural Labourers Others

2,700 1,891 1,516 619 3,009. 321

Percentage to T otal 26.84 18.80 15.07 6.15 29.29 3.19

Sources : O fficial Records kept in BCCB Ltd. Burdwan. Table-3: Proportion of very Rich Peasants and Agricultural Labourers in 8 individual societies under Ukhra Block (199091)

T otal M embers 503 502 392 295 313 401 385 148

Very Rich 100(19.88) 40 (7.96) 40 (10.20) 49 (16.61) 20 (6.38) 60 (14.96) 30 (7.79) 70 (47.29)

S o u rc e : Ibid (Figure* in brockets d en o te % )

Agricultural Labourers 203 (40.35) 32 (6.37) 47 (11.98) 60 (20.33) 28 (8.94) 35 (8.94) 48 (12.46) 10 (6.75)

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


The most significant area of changes is the class com­ position of membership of rural co-ops. This was the area in which the CPI-M was most interested because favourable changes here would reflect on the changes in higher bodies of management upto the level of district headquarters. For instance, in the case of Anipara SKUS Ltd., we have seen that small and marginal farmers constitute as much as 99% of the members of the society. A random sampling of eight members of the above society corroborated the above ob­ servation of ours. In the case of SCB, the proportion of members belonging to small and marginal peasants is not as high as in Antpara, but it is more than 56% of the total members (1992). If the middle peasants are included, the percentage figure goes upto 91%. In the case of BCCB Ltd., the small and marginal peasants constitute about 70% of its total members. During 1991-92, the BCCB Ltd. has suc­ ceeded in enrolling as many as 10,000 universal members. [Interview with Mr. Asoke Baneijee on 1/9/92]. In late 1991, the BCCB Ltd. had 1,62,000 universal members. Most of these members were small and marginal peasants, land­ less agricultural labourers, and a percentage of middle and rich peasants. The proportion of the latter two categories was much lower than that of the former. Our survey of the class composition of members of 75 rural co-ops in different Blocks of Burdwan district shows a more optimistic picture so far as the involvement of poorer sections of rural society in co-ops is concerned. [See Table 2-11]. In the case of 12736 societies under Ukhra Block despite the presence of some significant proportion of richer sec­ tions of society (Table - 2) the poorer sections constitute about 76% of the total members. As Table - 4 shows, the proportion of these sections is still higher in seven societies under Bhatar-Bolgona Block of Burdwan Sadar. A sample of five societies under the above blocks reveals that the contribution of landless agricultural labourers to member­ ship in some cases, as high as, 70% (Table - 5 ). The richer sections of society still remain significant elements of members (Table-3): in some cases as high as 47.29%, but on the whole these sections have not been anv *

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism match for the proportion of poorer elements in member­ ship of societies. Another interesting thing about this radicalisation of membership is the significant presence of Bhagis (Sharecroppers) in some societies - 9.56% in 18 so­ cieties, 11.34% in Dhankona, 14.47% in Bhedinand 10.26% in Amagorh, (Tables 8-11). On an average the small and marginal peasants, Bhagis and agricultural labourers constitute as much as 85.04% of the total members of these 75 PACS. If we keep in mind what Mr. Samar Baura said above in defining the party design (i.e., the party ideally aims at 70% membership from amongst these classes), then we may safely conclude that the party has achieved more than it expected. Even though, the proportion of total members of societies are much lower in relation to total population of the areas of operation, the party might have a point in arguing that by class terms, its achievements are remarkable. How has the party assessed the success of the opera­ tion of its design in rural co-ops of Burdwan ? A recent inner-party (District level) document stated : In the last three years we have made some progress. We have not been able to root out mahajani exploitation, but been able to make sure that agricultural credit from co-ops is being utilised in agricultural production. Our short-term loans have increased from rupees 12 crores in 1988 to Ru­ pees 21 crores in 1991. The universal membership has in­ creased from 83,000 in 1988 to 1,62,000 in 1991. By utilising the Left Front government plan of universal membership we have been able to bring under the fold of co-ops agri­ cultural labourers, poor peasants and bargadar, but more efforts are necessary here. (Not to be cited). So the district party authority is quite modest about the successes achieved through co-ops. The local scenarios are mixed. The party zonal.committee of an area (Not to be cited) stated in a recent conference that the sub-committee on co-op.rarely meets; the sub-committee is not too clear about its perspective and role. In one society, the electoral loss of the party was related to party's organisational weak­

Bengal Communism end Rural Co-operatives


nesses in the area. But in another zone, the party sub-committee controls ten co-ops with success. And yet, the party organisation here is not too happy politically, as the zonal committee of the area noted with dismay in its recent conference : What is most often not realised by party mem­ bers is the fact that co-ops are platforms for wider mass contact and the purpose of the party par­ ticipation in co-ops is the development of demo­ cratic consciousness among the people. This po­ litical purpose must be given priority over the administrative question in the running of co-ops. (Sources not to be cited). This passage is indicative of both the party design and its operation in a particular area. The other zonal level party documents reports the im­ provement in the running of the co-ops and the positive role in the interest of peasants by the co-ops, and yet, in­ dividual centric instead of democratic running, profit mo­ tive rather than people's interests are not over looked by such reports in co-ops of the zone. The party zonal committes of some areas noted with concern that in the absence of party efforts, some co-opera­ tives have fallen victim to vested interests; some have be­ come victim of party factionalism; some are run by per­ sonal vested interests; some are suffering due to the bu­ reaucratic administrative set up. On the good side, in some cases, as much as 90% societies are controlled by the party through its sub-committees; some are directly under party control; some are coming closer to the party on their own, and occasionally, follow party directives. (Sources not to be cited). On the basis of the above party reports, it can be concluded that this radicalisation of membership has not been conterminus with the growth in politicisation from the party's point of view.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism Appendix

Table-4: Class Composition of M em bership of SK U S Ltd. Under Bhatar-Bolgona Block (1990-92) Total M embers : 3392

Land Holding in H ectares I Jptn 1




" 2 " 4


" 8

V ery Rich

Rich A gricu ltu ral

L ab ou rers

1107 599 224 117 1345


Percentage to T otal 32.63 17.65 6.60 3.44 39.65

S o u r c e : Ibid.

T able-5: Proportion of Agricultural Labourers in 5 Selected Societies under the above Block

T otal M embers

Agricultural Labourers 198 261 134 433 170


373 364 681 504

Perceritage 18.06

69.97 36.81 63.58 33.73

Source : Ibid.

Table-6: Class Composition of M em bership of 10 SK U S Ltd. under Kanksa Block (1990-91) Total M embership -7,139

Laiui Holding in H ectares U p to 1 " 2 " 4 " 8

Peasant Marginal Small Rich V ery Rich A gricultural Labourers Rural A rtisans O thers

Number 3651 1273 726 344 990 40 115

Percentage to T otal 51.14 17.83 10.16 4.81 13.86 0.56 1.61

Source : Ibid

Table-7: Class Composition of M em bers of Sonalika SK U S Ltd. (1990-91)


Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives Total Members - 1,600

Lmtd Holding in H ectares Upto 1 " 2 " 4 " 8



Marginal Small Rich Very Rich Agricultural Labourers Rural Artisans

974 150 66 10 340 10

Percentage to T otal 60.87 9.37 4.12 0.62 21.25 0.62

Source : Ibid. Tnble-8: Class Com position of 18 SK U S Ltd. (1990-91) Totnl Members - 7,660

Land H olding in H ectares Upto 1 " 2 " 4



Marginal Small Rich Agricultural Labourers Share-Croperers (Bhagi)

2,085 1,977 545 2,320 733

Percentage to T otal 27.21 25.80 7.11 30.28 9.56

Source : Ibid. Table-9: Class Com position of M em bers of Dhankora SK U S Ltd. (1990-91) Totnl Members-564

Land H olding in H ectares Upto 1 " 2 " 4



Marginal Small Rich Agricultural Labourers Bhngi

179 73 14 234 64

Percentage to T otal 31.73 12.73 2.48 41.48 11.34

Source : Ibid. T able-10: Class Com position of M em bers of Bhedin SK U S Ltd. (1990-91) Total Members - 1,437

Land Holding in H ectares



Percentage to T otal

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

90 Upto 1 " 2 " 4

Marginal Small Rich Agricultural Labourers Bhagi

264 366 75 525 208

18.37 25.46 5.21 36.53 14.47

Source : Ibid. Table-11: Class Composition of Members of Amagarh SKUS Ltd. (1990-91) Total Members - 4 1 9 Lam i Holding in H ectares Upto 1 " 2 " 4

P easant Marginal Small Rich Agricultural Labourers Bhagi

Niunber 52 180 33 111 43

Percentage to T otal 12.41 42.95 7.87 26.49 10.26

Source : Ibid. 147

Given the fact that the Left forces control most of the co-ops at the PACS level the control of the Board at BCCB presents no problem Added to the strength of the political mobilisation that is done at the primary or grassroots, the presence of a friendly government at Calcutta has helped by way of legislation, has brought about a degree of démocratisation in so far as it has reduced bureaucratic hold on the Board at BCCB. The district Magistrate who has always been ex-officio Chairman of the Board has been removed. In his place the government nominates a public figure to head the Board. The first incumbent was Sri Hemanta Ray (still Chairman) who was then a member of the Legislative Assembly and one who had behind him years of experience in mobilising and activising Co-ops at the village level. This transition from stodgy bureaucracy to popular representation bridged the gap between the common man and his financier. Trans­ parency and accountability was introduced along with the political mandate. The new chairman became a bridge head between larger political, ideological and mass interests. He could also easily put into practice the political design of his political party.

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


Another piece of progressive legislation in the post1977 period was to the end of the veto power that the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) could exercise. Previously the CEO who is a member of the Board, ex-officio, could by exercise of this drastic step nullify the decisions taken by the elected board. Having removed this last hurdle, the BCCB could truly call itself people oriented. The political agenda set by the CPI-M could then easily be placed within the board and the design of political will realised and operationalised. In fact inner-party documents of the CPI-M which are not for general circulation substantiate our views given above. In 1985, a party document says, "our electoral vic­ tory in BCCB Ltd. is remarkable. We have fought a lot on the legal front too, to achieve this". A 1988 document mentions that, "M ost of the co-ops are under our control. The work of the BCCB has significantly expanded due to the presence of our party workers in the Board". Giving an overview of co-ops in Burdwan district, a document of 1991 says that "w e are in a majority in most of the 586 PACS, district co­ op. bank and in the three co-op. unions of the district. Our activists are in the Board of Direc­ tors of both PACS and the Bank".

Evalution Lamenting over the miserable state of the co-operative movement in India in the early 1960s, Thomer wrote : ... the success of rural co-op presupposes a mo­ dicum of social equality, political democracy and economic viability among the villagers..... If the co-op movement in india is to get anywhere, two things must happen first : (i) the power of the village oligarchs ... must be curtailed; and (ii) the government must become an instrument of the ordinary people, and must be considered as such by the ordinary people.41


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

In his own case studies of over a hundred co-op soci­ eties all over India, he found to his great dismay that : 1. the landholding local dominant community, Patels controlled most of multi-purpose co-ops at Saadhi in Baroda; 2. all co­ op joint farming at Rasulabad were run as a family show, by one of the landlord families of the villages; 3. the co-op movement of a district (eg. the Salem district of the then State of Madras) seemed to be little more than the exten­ sion of personality of a leading landholding persons of the area; and 4. in many cases, the ex-zaminder controlled the co-op movement of a district, eg., Kanpur in UP.42 Such unhealthy features are a thing of the past in the case of the co-op movement in Burdwan at least since 1977. In the pre-1977 period, however, the things with the co-op movement in West Bengal were no better. But the post1977 secnario is certainly anathema to the above. The post1977 rural co-ops in Burdwan district fulfill most of the expectations of Thomer in favour of a successful and effec­ tive co-op. Academic studies on cooperation in India greatly vary as regards the criteria of evalution of cooperatives. B.S.Bhaviskar (1980) emphasises the symbiosis between poli­ tics and cooperatives in order to understand the process of rural development. He says "The polition of cooperatives is indeed the politics of development".43 On the basis of the indepth study of suger co-operatives in rural Maharastra, he came to the conclusion : "operatives a r e .....both the instruments of politics and development, and therefore the politics of co-operatives is largely the politics of develop­ ment.44 But B.B.Goel (1988) takes just the opposite view when he says that politicisation of co-operatives is danger­ ous and unhealthy because it is inimical to the principle of democratic control and political neutrality.4-' M.S.Gill's (1993) argument is more productivist. He says that "cooperation in the last analysis must be judged by the economic results in terms of higher production, better returns to the farmer and an overall improvement in rural living".46 The other conditions or criteria mentioned by Gill are : self-reliance in the peasants, and the growth of collective human endeavour,

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


and the rise of a positive leadership within the commu­ nity.47 The Burdwan model of cooperative mobilisation, how­ ever, suggests that there is no inimical relation between politicisation and productivity. Much depends on the kind of politisation one is talking about. On the basis of the Burdwan model, one may safely argue that a particular model of politicisation can ensure, within the time and space, not only productivity and efficiency, but also more democ­ racy and neutrality. The most important aspect of this Burdwan model is the radicalisation of the base of the movement. The continuous increase of membership is one indication of the above. As for as the agricultural societies are concerned most of the members belong, socio-economically speaking, to poorer sections of society. The better management that has followed in Burdwan is the result of the relatively successful implementation of the CPI-M 's developmental strategy and political designs by a group of very dedicated leadership which is oriented politically and cooperatively. In our field surveys, we interviewed on a random basis members of Antpara SKUS Ltd. and Sreedhar-pur co­ op Bank ascertaining among others the extent of benefits avaliable to them by the societies. From what they said it is found that the impact of the co-ops has been differential on different classes of rural society. While the middle and rich peasants reported solvency and increase of wealth and prosperity in their personal lives, since becoming members of societies, those belonging to the categories of small and marginal peasants reported not much of an improvement in their economic status since becoming members of soci­ eties; these sections dependency on mahajani loans has de­ creased to the point of extinction, but they have become dependent on co-op loans taking it every year. (Interview on 6/9/92 at Antpara SKUS Ltd. office). The points on which all members we interviewed agreed w e re : availabil­ ity of loans at a lesser rate; remunerative prices for pota­ toes; absence of dependence on village/town money-lenders; fear of losing land is absent; decrease of dependency on


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

bureaucracy; and absence of acute scarcity. One member who has been benefited by the co-op wrote in the Schedule we administered : Since my membership of the society my wealth and property have increased. Today I possess more than what I inherited. (Interview on 24/9/ 92 At Sreedharpur). In the light of our evidence above we may safely say that the CPI-M led rural co-op in Burdwan district are most successful in involving the vast majority of the rural people. This is a fundamental break through. Considering the very high percentage of poorer sections of society in member­ ship of rural co-op (in the zone 80%), one may conclude that the CPI-M has proletarianised the base of the rural co­ ops of the district. The model that the party has adopted in penetrating the co-ops is that the Left Front operative at the state and other levels below: participation in bourgeois institutions and making it operative to the extent possible to make some difference to the people. This model is other name for a marriage between bourgeois administration and com­ munist mass mobilisation. This model can certainly be recommended for those co-ops seeking to achieve similar goals. In achieving the above goals the party has invested a lot of its energy and assets. For instance, many of the district level communist leaders are working full time for the co-ops. The party does it because it thinks of it as political investment. Long time ago, Thomer expressed a caution against the implementation of the policy of cent per cent enroll­ ment. Welcoming the content of the move, he said : It would seems to represent a social advance by ensuring the inclusion of the bottom half of the population... The fact, however, remains that simply bringing the weaker families into co-ops does not automatically improve their economic position. To gather all these insolvent people up into the co-ops is doubtless a dramatic gesture.

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


But it means that they carry all their unsolved problems with them into the co-op. It must also be realised that cent per cent village membership guarantees equally the enrollment of all the vil­ lage traders, money lenders and landlords.4® The above passage is instructive to the CPI-M in so far as the policy of universal membership is concerned. De­ spite the fact at the party pursues a biased implementation of this policy in favour of the middle, small, marginal, poor and landless, it has not been able to prevent a dispropor­ tionately powerful presence of the middle and rich peas­ ants in rural co-ops, particularly in management. In this sense, while the old rural class divisions have been replaced, the new ones are reflected in the co-ops. Therefore, while the party has proletarianised the bases of rural co-ops. the same cannot be said to be true of the leadership which still remains largely in the hands of middle and rich farmers. Nonetheless, the overwhelming presence of the poorer sections of society in rural co-ops is a major social advance and contains progressive potentialities. In the light of our discussion above on 'Marxism and Co-operation', it is difficult to call these co-ops Marxist in the true sense of the term. Marx would prefer to call them pre-modem or pre-capitalist. To the extent these are guided by the CPI-M's perspective of the emancipation of the work­ ing class they may be called Marxist partially. But then, the term emancipation of the working class is too broad so as allow all sorts of manipulations and aberrations. The Marx­ ist co-ops are supposed to be productive co-ops devel­ oped on a national scale to counter monopolies; localism and self-sufficiency are anathema to them. The Burdwan experiment, one may argue, is only of a shorter duration so far, but the beginning and working of such societies so far do not suggest a better prospect. This loan floating which seems to be the life-blood of this experiment coupled with a failure with a co-op joint-farming in a village in the north of Burdwan town reinforces rather than weakens the exist­ ing class divisions in rural Burdwan. They may be still called Marxist, in a much qualified sen se: they are as Marxist


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

as the state government in West Bengal since 1977, or the state government in Tripura during 1978-88, (and since 1993) or the state government in Kerala for many years led by the CPI-M49. Having said that, it seems these co-ops have a long way to go to become truly Marxist. Prospects fo r th e D istric t M o v em en t The cooperative movement in India today is at a cross­ roads. It is searching for new directions and identity par­ ticularly in the face of the growing liberalisation of the Indian economy. The cooperative mevement operates within the overall socio-economic and political milieu of the coun­ try concerned. Any major shifts and turns in this milieu immediately affect the health of the cooperative movement. In view of those changes, Mohun Dharia said, the coopera­ tive movement is the only "proper solution to provide due protection and render social justice along with much reeded economic strength. Here the movement calls for a new orientation and direction."50 In the new economic policy of the Government of India, the cooperatives as an agent of socio-economic development are marginalised. How are cooperatives going to survive and fight back ? Dharia ad­ vocates for the adaptability of the cooperative movement to the new environment. He said : "In view of the fast changing science and environment and the impact of the free competitive economy, it is necessary to introduce welltrained efficient management for the cooperative move­ m ent."51. On the basis of the Burdwan model of co-opera­ tive 'mobilisation' (not management !), it is argued, some­ what against Dharia's adaptatabilitv thesis 'that professiona­ lisation of cooperatives if made their central slogan, carries with it a managerial perspective which is anathema to the spirit of cooperation itself. While the need for training and efficiency are most welcome, managerialisation is not the answer. Keeping once again in mind the cooperative mobilisation of the district of Burdwan (both rural and urban)52, we argue that there is no necessary conflict be­ tween professionalisation and politicisation of cooperatives, and that the social objects of the movement can be fulfilled, given the time and space, by a mission-driven movement

Bengal Communism and Rural Cooperatives


and organisation. A motivated leadership can be a very important factor for not only radicalising the movement, but also for ensuring efficiency, accountability and viability, and of course, productivity. If a particular pattern of politi­ cal mobilisation relativity fails to fulfil the radical social objectives of the movement, then remedy does not lie in greater professionalisation of management, but a further shift in the very political mobilisation itself. The district cooperative movement today suffers from a number of limitations which are part structural and part operational. To begin with, the movement suffers from an acute leadership crisis in the sense that the next generation of leadership is not only not available, but also not in sight. Due to the fundamental and upsetting changes in the world following the collapse of socialism in the former USSR and East Europe, and the growing liberalisation all over the world, the conditions today are inhibiting for the rise of a committed leadership especially from among the younger generation, even among party comrades. It must also not been forgotten that the district communist movement's left­ ism provided the context and meaning within which the cooperatives in the post-1977 period flourished. When left­ ism globally as well as mationally loses fast its meaning, one wonders what now provides the ideological sustenance for the co-operatives. Closely related to the above, the cooperatives in many cases are chairman-centric which inevitably kills the demo­ cratic elam of such grassroots institutions. This fact is in­ timately related to the excessive party control of such organisations : key positions in cooperatives are always held by a party personality who carries considerable political clout. This stifles the democratic spirit of such endeavours. Cooperatives as non-profit organisations also have not been able to produce the desirable social impact. The na­ ture of such organisation demands not only social commit­ ment but also social responsibility in the particular sense of serving the poorer sections of sociery. This requires not only the members and directors to be cooperatively ori­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

ented, but also the staff to be so oriented. There is an undercurrent of feeling among many left directors that the management does not stand up to those values. The inter­ nal obstacles from within the party against producing such social impact is also heared of. Also, co-operatives them­ selves m ay be non-profit organisations, but they may also be an instrument in the hands of individual members to make profit by re-investing cooperative loan in capital market. In rural Burdwan, rural cooperatives have been instrumental in reinforcing socio-economic inequalities al­ though they made some positive improvement in the con­ ditions of life of the poorer sections. Lamenting over the paradoxical development of the cooperatives in the Punjab, M.S. Gill (1993) said : "Co-operation has failed in the Punjab, but cooperatives have largely been successful."53 This holds messages for the Burdwan Cooperatives. O ur conclusion then is that professionalisation of co­ operatives is not the answer to what ails the movement and but further, more left radical shift in it. What is needed is a fundam ental reorientation of the very pattern of mobilisation of co-operatives the potentialities of which are embedded in the movement itself in the sense of the organisational presence of the vast bulk of mral poor in the arena of the movement. Whether that is possible under the same leadership or not is indeed a large question whose answer lies in the further left radical shift in the very com­ munist movement in the state itself. Not external contol w ith th e help of a w ell-fo rm u la ted d esig n , but démocratisation in the true sense of mass participation should be central to a strategy for further shift in the movement. N o tes an d R eferen ces 1.

Marx, K. Capital, vol. ID (1959), Chapter 23 p. 387.

2 3. 4 5.

Ibid., p. 440 Marx, K. Cupitul, vol. I (1954), p. 308. Ibid., p. 316 Ibid., p. 316

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


14 15.

Ibid., p. 317 See, "Administrative Report" First General Meeting of the Board of Directors, 1917 (Unpublished), The Burdwan Cen­ tral Co-operative Bank Ltd. (Henceforth BCCB Ltd). The BCCB Ltd (1917). Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. The second general meeting of the Board Of Directors on 27th August 1918. See the "Administrative Report" (The BCCB Ltd). Ibid. Ibid. .



17. 18 19.

Ibid. Ibid. Personal Interview with Mr. Asoke Banerjee on 1/9/92 at the office of the BCCB Ltd, Burdwan. See, Banerjee, J. Co-operative Movement in India (1961), p. 338 Ibid. Ibid., p. 50. Ibid., p. 338. Factors Behind Breakthrough in Co-operative Agricultural Credit in West Bengal: A study (1976), p. 19.

6. 7.

a 9. 10. 11. 12 13.

20. 21. 22. 23. 24 25. 26.



Ibid., p. 18. Interview with Mr. Samar Baura, a District Kissan leader and a CP1-M District committee Member, and MLA, West Bengal, and also a member of co-operative Sub-committee, on 14.8.92 at the office of the Burdwan District Committee of the CPIM, Burdwan. Interview with Mr. Hemanta Roy, Chairman, BCCB Ltd. Burdwan un 6/8/92 at Hie CPI-M District Committee Office, Burdwan. Rasul RA. A History of Kisan Sabha (in Bengali) (1990), p. 53.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

29. Ibid., p. 69. 30. Ibid., p. 167. 31. Ibid., p. 173. 32. Ibid. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50.

Ibid., p. 251. Ibid., p. 259. Ibid., pp. 268-69. Ibid., p. 293. "Political Organisational Report", (Unpublished) CPI-M Burdwan District Committee (1981), p. 117. "Political organisational Report" (Unpublished), CPI-M Burdwan District Committee (1985), p. 32. "Political organisational Report" (unpublished), CPI-M Burdwan District Committee of the CPI-M (1989), pp. 22. "Political organisational Report" (unpublished), Burdwan District Committee of the CPI-M (1991), pp. 46 - 47. Thomer, D. "Context for Co-operatives in Rural India", in Desai, A. R. ed. Rural Sociology in India (1969), p. 504. Ibid., pp. 492- 93. See his The Politics of Development: Sugar Cc- operatives in Rural Maharastra ( New Delhi: 1980 ), p. 211. Ibid. See his Dynamics of Co-operative Administration (1988), p. 47. See his Indian Success Story: Agricultural Co-operatives (1993), p. 538. Ibid. Thomer (1969), p. 501. See Nossiter T J. Marxist State Governments in India (1988). See for details, Dharia, M. "Co-operative Movement-Search For New Directions (1992-93)', Rajya Smabay Congress (Calcutta: 1994), p. 49.

51. Ibid. 52. The urban dimensions of the movement with particular emphasis on the cooperatives in the industrial area of Durgapur have been dealt with by me in a paper

Bengal Communism and Rural Co-operatives


"Professionalisation of cooperative movement: Empirical Evi­ dences from the District of Burdwan", presented at the All India Seminar on Professionalisation of Cooperatives held at Uttarpara (West Bengal) Co-operative Training Institute on 18 March 1995. The materials on the rural aspects of the move­ ment are partly drawn on an unpublished paper that I jointly did with S. Mukhopadhyay on 'Design and Operation of Political Processes in Rural Coops : A case study of the District of Burdwan' in 1992. That paper was presented by us at an International Symposium on Management of Rural Coopera­ tives" hosted by IRMA, Anand, Gujarat during 7-11 December 1992. 53.

Gill, M. S. op. cit, p. 538.

Chapter 4

Bengal Communism and Panchayats: Operation of Micro Democracy The post-1978 panchayats in rural Bengal are consid­ ered universally as the kernel of Bengal communism. These grassroots institutions of rural self-government have re­ ceived worldwide scholarly attention as effective agencies of alternative development. At home, in West Bengal, panchayats are identified with the regime itself. Mr. Asoke Mitra, former Finance Minister of West Bengal, and at present a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) is quoted to have said : 'if panchayats fail, the CPI-M experiment fails'.1 Al­ ready, a good number of books2, based on thorough em­ pirical research, have appeared on panchayats in West Ben­ gal. Scholarly journals3 continually reflect on them. Pancha­ yats, at least, in West Bengal, are today the most popular topic for research students at universities and research in­ stitutions. In Bengal villages, they are an essential part of popular discourse. W hile western scholars commend panchayats as agencies of development,4 communists as well as those who take blindly a pro-regime view, parade them

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


as examples of grassroots rural democracy in West Ben­ gal5. Those who parade panchayats as exampls of grassroots democracy cite 'development' as the proof. Thus, a guided tour to 'development' is to become the subtitute for grass­ roots democracy and mass participation. There are finally, still others who prefer to remain rest assured of the opera­ tion of democracy at this micro level in view of the ommipotent presence of the party (CPI-M in particular), in the panchayats through elections. For them, democracy will dawn on a society if the whole society becomes the mem­ bers of a communist party, notwithstanding the d isinte­ gration of the USSR and East Europe where the communist parties were almost synonymous with the society ! One would prefer to consider them as 'left reactionaries'. As we have indicated in the Introduction, the existing researches on Bengal panchayats are mostly empiricallyoriented showing no concern for the theoretical importance of the empirical data collected for the studies. An admin­ istrative/managerial, rather than a political science, view has dominated the current understanding. Thus, even though, the concepts such as grassroots democracy, mass participation and self-government would continuously be used, the whole discussion would take place outside of the purview of the canons of social science. And yet, panchayats are immensely significant from a theoretical point of view. An honest and sincere political scientist who tries to under­ stand Bengal politics in recent years does not understand how panchayats in terms of mass mobilisation, develop­ ment, grassroots institutions and party control over them could remain beyond the purview of a critical political science discourse. We therefore attempt to locate the sig­ nificance of Bengal communist panchayats in the appropri­ ate theoretical framework in which they are really mean­ ingful. The absence of any theoretical insights in the cur­ rent knowledge on panchayats is responsible, 1 believe, for the absence of a correct understanding of communist-ruled Panchayats. This chapter is based on the assumption that the sev­ enteen years long Bengal panchayats have not translated


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

into grassroots democracy in rural Bengal. It is also as­ serted here that while 'development' has taken place, de­ mocracy has taken a backseat. Decentralisation through panchayats in West Bengal have not been accompanied by grassroots democracy. On the contrary, concentration of power and centralisation have informed the operation of panchayats as grassroots democratic institutions. It is ar­ gued that the above has so happened despite the best intentions, honestly and sacrifices of communist activists throughout Bengal. The electoral (and also organisational) presence of the poorer sections of society in the panchayats in growing proportion-an achievement of Bengal Communism-has not been able to arrest the processes of concen­ tration and centralisation in panchayats. We argue rather strongly that a particular marxist political theory informs the communists' mechanisms of the operation of panchayats. This political theory is centrally based on the assumption of control externally operated, of panchayats, as much as rural cooperatives and municipalities. Here communism shares, fundamentally, the assumption of bourgeois modernity which is too based on the the idea of control, externally executed, over nature, society and individual human beings in institutions. An analysis of communist inner party dis­ courses on panchayats provide sufficient evidence for our argument stated above. In this study, we emphasise two political variables in explaining the restriction, if not near absence, of democracy at the grassroots : a limited concept of democracy at the grassroots, and the centralising party mechanisms which effectively run panchayats. In elaborating the first, we take a critical look at the establishment notion of 'panchayat democracy' through critical scrutiny, though very briefly, of the constitutional legal provisions of the panchayati raj in India as well as the current ruling class interest in panchayati raj. In this part that follows we seek to see a radical devel­ opment, if any, in the communist notion of panchayats from that of the Indian establishment. In the later section that follows, we attempt to analyse the CPI-M 's conceptua­ lisation of panchayats. How has the panchayat been defined by the CPI-M ? How does the party seek to operate the

Bengal Com m unism and Rural Co-operatives


panchayats ? What role does the party really assign to panchayats ? How have panchayats really operated ? These questions take one to the heart of the matter and under­ standing Bengal panchayats. In the last section, we provide empirical evidence on the nature of the operation of grassroots democracy in panchayats along with the social bases of support marshalled by the party in the panchayats. The concluding section addresses itself to the theoretical issues involved beginning with the inner-party assessment of the operation of panchayats. C o n stitu tion al Legal Fram ew ork : A C ritiq u e The constitutional legal/institutional approaches6 to the study of panchayats fail to underline the profoundly sig­ nificant political fact that panchayat as institutions of grassroots democracy and the political setup in India centring around the concept of the nation-state are incom­ patible, theoretically speaking. The nation-state that devel­ oped in India during the raj, and adopted after 1947 as the basic political framework is inherently centralised. The modem state, as any student of state formation must know, implies centralisation. But panchayat or Gandhi's gram sioaraj are notions which conjure up a reality opposed to centra­ lisation. No wonder, the concept of panchayati raj has remained a subjugated concept in the political framewark of India. As a concept of governance, or self-governance, more appropriately, it has been marginalised in the politi­ cal vocabulary of modem India. The Article of 40 of the Constitution of India which provides for the panchayati raj paid only the lip-service, and subjected the institution to the authority of the Indian state : 'the state shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government.'7 Thus, originally, the panchayat has been defined and conceptualised in terms of the state discourse which is anathema to the institution of grassroots democracy. The whole series of legislation and legal enactment that followed ever since the inauguration of the Constitu­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

tion of India in 1950 have not, arguably, been able to alter this basic arrangement in which the panchayati raj is sub­ jected to the modem (capitalist) raj led by the nation-state in India. The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee of 1957 was the first legal attempt to operationalise Article 40 of the Con­ stitution. But it failed to make panchayats agencies of selfgovernment. It made village panchayats subordinate units of the government to implement its programme at the lowest levels.8 This committee was subsequently followed by the Asok Mehta Committee of December 1977, the C.H.Hanumath Rao working group on District planning in 1983, the G. V. K Rao Committee in 1985, the L.M.Singhvi Committee for the preparation of the concept paper on panchayat in 1986, and the Constitution (seventy-third) Act, 1993 as the last in the series so far.9 The last legal enactment (1993) is the much talked about document as far as further decentralisation of power and local self-government are concerned. But none of those legal measures was able to make panchayats agencies in the overall rural development of the areas concerned, or to suggest systematic method of involving weaker sections in their functioning.10 H. Singh commented : "Finally, no clear trend is emerging on decentralisation of power. There is a lot of talk about decentralisation to district and lower level bodies but cen­ tral government schemes are increasing both in number and size raising questions about the kind of decentralisation that is projected.11 Does the 73rd Amendment (1993) make any radical improvement upon the past legal institutional frameworks as far as grassroots democracy is concerned ? There are scholars who tend to see this enactment as a revolutionary step towards grassroots democracy. They vulgarise the word 'revolutionary'. This legal enactment defined pancha­ yats as institutions of self government, it provides for the setting up of Gram Sabha, reservation of seats for SC, ST and women, and gives panchayats power, authority and responsibilities a s : "Subjects to the provisions of the constitution, the state legistature of a state may, by law endow the panchayats with such powers and authority as

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


may be necessary to enable them to function as institution of self-government and such law may contain provisions for the devolution of powers and responsibilities upon panchayats at the ap­ propriate level subject to such conditions."12 The responsibilities of panchayats relate to the prepa­ ration of plans for economic development and social ju s­ tice, and implementation of schemes for economic devel­ opment and social justice.13 On the face of it, then, the 73rd Amendment appears to be a radical legal decument, but on closer analysis, "it offers little", argues H. Singh, "to panchayats by way of functions, powers and resources to shape them as units of self government."13 As before, this has been left to each state legislature to determine the na­ ture and operation of panchayats and the extent of each states parting, if at all, powers with panchayats. There is thus genuine legitimate ground for suspicion about the decentralising and democratic potentialities of this act. Thus, the concept of democracy for panchayats is lim­ ited in terms of the constitutional legal provisions. Although panchayats are mentioned in the constitution and legisla­ tions, as 'units of self-government' the precise meaning of the term 'self-government' has nowhere been defined. The notion of democracy for panchayats is then as limited as the notion of democracy operating in the country as a whole. The contradiction that those legal provisions reveal is to be seen in the attempt to understand and define grassroots democracy in a framework of knowledge, as- * sumptions and beliefs, and political theory which can ac­ commodate only a limited concept of democracy as opera­ tive throughout the capitalist world. Jurgen Habermas (1976; 1992),the foremost marxist political theorist of our times, has drawn our attention to the formal, limited and yet functional nature of this democ­ racy for the maintenance and reproduction of capitalism in the late twentieth century.14 He argues that the state in all capitalist countries needs a level of mass loyalty-not genu­ ine democracy-for the legitimation system of capitalism, which is one of the important ways of how the crises of


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

capitalism are averted today.15 A genuine ie, mass democ­ racy can never be an item in the agenda of capitalism. On the country, any move towards the establishment of mass democracy has always been resisted by the state all over the world. We have seen above that while the Indian state is found to be interested in panchayati raj, it is at the same time keen on centralising the whole mechanisms. In the state discourse, a discourse of modernity, the ideal of panchayats as "units of self-government" is lofty. Those who characterise Gandhi's concept of 'gram swaraj' as ide­ alistic actually take the modernist side, the side of the nation-state, of centralisation. This state discourse of moder­ nity is a dominating discourse as for as panchayats are concerned. Panchayats are units of self-government, as in­ stitutions of grassroots democracy, demand a radically different frame of reference. C o m m u n ists' m o d ern ist D esig n s on Panchayats The existing studies on Bengal panchayats do not adequately explain the communist (in this case CPI-M) approach to panchayats, more particularly how the party has sought to operate them. The party has a well-formu­ lated design of penetration and operation of panchayats which is indispensable for understanding Bengal panchayats. The existing researches do not touch upon this very impor­ tant dimension of panchayats. Kohli saw in panchayats the CPI-M 's strategy of political penetration of the country, side: "Since coming to power, the CPI-M has sought to consolidate its rural power base further. In order to incor­ porate the lower rural class institutionally (my emphasis), the leadership has undertaken a comprehensive penetration of the countryside. Central to this task are new politicised panchayats".16 In Kohli's frame of reference, the develop­ mental dimension of panchayats has received greater at­ tention though this has been combined with the govern­ mental dimension. Like Kohli, Webster also sees panchayats as part of the CPI-M 's rural developmental strategy which is based on the following : planning, reforms and change by 'drives' rather than by movement; administration of programmes and work aimed at the alleviation of poverty

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


rather than at the structural causes of poverty; and chanelling of radical activism towards consensus politics in the vil­ lages.17 This ancillary role of panchayats to that of the state government was expanded to consider them as the insti­ tutional basis for a decentralisation of development plan­ ning since 1985-86.18 The system of decentralised planning has been functioning in the state for about a decade now and has earned popularity for the LFG. But those who want to make an accurate measure of its success in terms of the institutional restructuring are a little concerned : "It is one thing to recreate decentralised institu­ tions it is another for those institutions genuinely to become the vechicles for the majority interest, the mass of poor villagers and to facilitate a quali­ tative transformation of both their political and economic condition."19 The intensive study of the operation of panchayats shows that grassroots participation in decentralised devel­ opment planning has not really taken place.20 And yet, the existing academic commentaries on Ben­ gal panchayats do not adequately explain the political per­ spective that really informs the operation of panchayats. This is a serious methodological flaw in the current percep­ tion of panchayats and decentralisation. Understanding this political perspective, or what we may call the political prob­ lematic of the party (the CPI-M), calls for our attention to a different kind of sources not used in the existing studies. The inner party sources, frank and less guarded, truly ex­ plain the perspective of the party vis-a-vis the panchayats. Any assessment of panchayats must begin with how the party assesses them in the first place. The party critiques of panchayats are often more radical than many of the existing academic ones. How then have panchayats figured in the inner party source? First, the CPI-M has defined the panchayats as part of the government's rural developmental programmes, and thus they are considered as agencies of programme implementation.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

This dimension of panchayats has received adequate scholarly attention.21 In this respect, there is little funda­ mental conceptual difference between the left especially the CPI-M, and the Indian establishment. In this perpective, panchayats are adjuncts to state power at the lower levels of socio-economic formation. But this has not been the primary focus of the party. The party has sought to see the developmental agency role of panchayats as a means through which to build mass political consciouscess. For the party, the developmental role of the panchayats is not an end in itself. The party has a long term political objective which it calls "political organisational perspective" as far as the op­ eration of panchayats is concerned. In the (inner party)" Directives of the West Bengal State Committee on running the panchayats"22, the basic focus is 'parichalona', a term in Bengali which literally means 'direction' or 'guidance'. But the way it has been operationalised, it covers much more than that. The CPI-M West Bengal state committee explains it : "This does not mean acting at will. It means activation of panchayats in accordance with the principles and ideals of the party. The basic issue involved here is giving party leadership to pancha­ yats. This leadership conists of (a) political lead­ ership and (2) Organisational leadership. This job cannot be done by commands. The political leadership of the party is established only when people in their own experience, accept the poltical perspective of the party as their own. Even though decisions may be correct, they are not automatically translated into actions. We need to activate our activists and the masses for car­ rying out our decisions."23 It is also added in this document: "The party has a definite aim. Panchayat activities should be conducted in such a way that they conform to the basic goals of the party".24

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


At each level of the Panchayats, the party forms Panchayat Sub-Committee (PSC) which is the party's "Parichalan Committee". Its activities have been defined by the CPl-M state committee as follows : "All elected party members of Panchayat Samiti and Zilla Parishad will act under the respective committees. Generally, the local and zonal com­ mittees of the party will look after the Gram Panchayat Samities respectively. The final decision at each level will be taken by the Parichalan Commit­ tee o f the Party, although the elected members may offer recommendation."2- (My emphesis) This state level communist document contains also a number of cautions which are often contradictory to the basic thrust of the party : 1.

"W e must involve the people irrespective of all classes and creed in the activities of the Panchayat. The people of the area must be made aware of the fact that it is their money and work. They will decide the priority of expenditure and implementation of development works.


"If everything is concentrated in the hands of a few and people are kept in the dark then, even honest operation will also arouse suspicion in the eyes of the people. Our aim is not to do mercy to anybody,but to intensify class stmggle.


"W e cannot expect those who do not take part in decisions to carry out decisions. The process of deci­ sion must start from the people."26

The above three cautions can be seen as the effect of the operation of party designs on panchayats. And these effects seem logical in view of the party design which make party committees (PSC) the real centre of decision-making and hence, the real challenger to the democratic elan of the panchayats. Although the state level 'directives' on panchayats are sent to all lower levels of the party and are followed by


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

each level of the party, one must nonetheless closely look at the local formulations of party decisigns on panchayats. In the part that follows, we will present a few documen­ tary evidences on it on the basis of inner party sources at the micro-levels. 1.

"The party has clear directives about the way a revo­ lutionary party should use and utilise thes&panchayats" 77. (My emphasis).


"W e hav e a b so lu te con trol over the th ree-tier panchayats in this district. The District Committe has definite directions. These have been sent to each zonal and local committee. The District Panchayat Sub-committee regularly meets to direct the panchayats. It is the District Committee and the Secretariat which take all the important decisions regarding the panchayats. On the whole, the District Zonal and local committees have control and vigilance over panchayats".28 (My empha­ sis)


"In running the Gram Panchayats, the decisions of the Sub-Committee are final. As a result, the ordinary members of the Panchayats do not feel encouraged to attend the meetings. They lose all interest in attending any meetings. Their voice is not heard and reflected in the panchayats. Many think it is the duty of the prodhan to involve the people with the panchayats. These create difficulties".29


"That the activities of the panchayat will be performed by elected members of panchayats alone is the out­ look which is opposed to the long term political ob­ jective of the party. In order to transform panchayats into the weapon for struggle against vested interest, and to utilise them in further developing class struggle, what is necessary is strong party control over panchayat units, collective discussion and leadership, and regular checkup o f panchayat activities in party committee meet­ ings".30 (My emphasis)

The above are only some of the representative pieces of evidence from district, zonal and local level party sources

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


of the districts of Burdwan and Hooghly. The state level directives' and those micro level directives make it clear that in terms of the political problematic of the party, the panchayats are, first, to be utilised as the platforms for mass contact to the built by involving the people in the developm ental activities of the panchayats. Second, panchayats are not to be institutions for simply delivering goods to the people : they are instruments for building class struggle. Third, the party does not want panchayat members to perform their functions without prior consul­ tation with the concerned local party units. Ftfurth, creation of mass initiative through panchayats is one of the major goals of the party, and an important means of expanding grassroots democracy in the villages. Last, panchayats are to operate within the overall political control of the party and they are to maintain close harmonious relationship with party committees, different mass fronts of the party, and the respective panchayat sub-committees of the party. Despite what is enshrined in the Constitution, or provided for in the legal enactments, panchayats in West Bengal since 1978 happen to be heavily politicised, structually as well as operationally. The whole operations of panchayats in the state have been heavily determined and conditioned by the political design of the party described above. The crux of the design is the party's control over panchayats. Panchayats are truly dependent on the party which is a real challenger and threat to the democratic elan of these grassroots self-governing institutions. The concept of de­ mocracy that the party adopts for the panchayats is radi­ cally not different from the establishment notion. In fact, it is less democratic than the standard liberal notion of democracy in the sense of excessive party control. The party sources clearly establish the fact that as the centre for decision-making at the grassroots, panchayats are emptied of all real content as the important decisions are taken at the level of the PSC. Conceptually, the whole question of empowerment of the people, decentralisation and grassroots democracy has been defined within the contours of the discourse of a Leninist-Stalinist party whose essential politi-


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

cal ethos is centralisation. As I have shown elsewhere31, democracy has been a casualty in democratic centralism which is the organising principle of the party. The party's basic attitude towards panchayats is instrumental and manipulative : it wants to control, use and utilise them ! Nowhere in the party's design is it even mentioned that the institutions of panchayats themselves are important and have even to be developed from within. Panchayats are thus typically subjugated to the authority of the party which is to remain the agent of social transformation. The sanctity of the platform of the panchayat is not to be maintained, the platform of the panchayat is not to be used for itself, but for the party. The design of the party is thus out and out 'modernist' which makes party committees all power­ ful and pale panchayats into insignificance. The design of the party about panchayats is not democratic but central­ ist. its operational effect would be quite predictable. D e m o cra tic P a rticip a tio n and P anchayats : E m p irical E v id en ce s from H ija ln a G ram Panchayat The term 'democratic participation' is meant here to refer to participation of elected panchayat members in Panchayat activities including decision-making. Mass democ­ racy is too radical a concept which is yet to be established anywhere in the world, and whose institutional forms, if at all, are yet to be properly defined. Within the given time and space, a democratic participation by elected members of panchayats would certainly be a step further in the di­ rection to grassroots democracy. Elected members of panchayats have smaller constituencies than that of mem­ bers of State Assembly or of Parliament. Their participa­ tion would ensure people's participation in more demo­ cratic ways. The Hijalna Gram Panchayat (its located at Bandgachha), is quite a big panchayat covering as many as 15 villages on the southern bank of the river Damodar, about 3 Km east of Polempur. Some of the villages are located in about 4 Km further south of the river bank at Bamunia. The people of those 15 villages was 18,481 according to the Census

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


Report of India, 1981. The whole area falls within the juris­ diction of the Police Station of Raina in southern Burdwan, and is known also for the CPI-M strongholds since the late 1960s. The development activities that have taken place since the late 1970s in this area would not escape the atten­ tion of even a casual visitor to this area. These include construction of roads, sinking of tube wells for drinking water, community centres, a minimum of health care sys­ tem, literacy, afroestation and so on. Indepth interviews with the beneficiaries would add up to this list : creation of more mandays for labouring classes through the imple­ mentation of centrally and state funded projects, increase in the wages of agricultural labourers, recording of the rights of bargadacs and some degree of redistribution of land acquired by the government and so on. Although a number of agencies of the CPI-M have been active in the developmental activities mentioned such as the Kisan Sabha and the party units (in terms of the overall strategy of the party in power), the panchayat is considered to be the agency responsible for those activities by many. As far as the composition of the present Panchayat is concerned, of 25 Members, 8 are female who are all elected for the first time in 1993 (reservation of women). All the female members have been elected on the basis of CPI-M tickets : 7 are associated with the Mahila Samity (AIDWA) and 1 is a party member(A.G.M.). All are literate including one who has passed the School Final Examination. Of 8 members 1 belongs to aguri caste, 4 are SC and 3 are Mus­ lims. They are within the age group of 22-40 years. There are 2 agricultural labourers, 3 landless persons and the rest, landed, though the amount of lands possessed do not exceed 6 bighas . Most of them are housewives. Socio- eco­ nomically, these 8 elected female members belong to poorer sections of rural society and their election is a proof of the CPI-M 's preference for this section as its candidates. Of 17 male members, there 8 are Muslims, 1 aguri, 1 Kayastha, 2 Middle caste, 3 SC and 2 ST. Classwisc, there are 6 middle peasants, 1 rich peasant, 7 poor peasents and 13 landless. Numerically, then the poorer sections are in

Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism


majority in the Panchayat, although in terms of class po­ sitions, all are the allies of the CPI-M's Peoples' Democratic Front. All the 17 male members are literate including one graduate and one Post-graduate. In terms of age, this panchayat is not dominated by the aged : 3 in the age group of 50 plus, 1,40 plus, and 13 below 40. Politically, it is a CPI-M dominated body (there are only 2 Congress(l) members). As far as the CPI-M affiliated members are concerned, there is an interesting correlation between the terms elected to the Panchayat and party po­ sition. Table-1: Party Panchayat Correspondence o f Members Terms Elected 2 (1988; 1993) 1 (1993) 4 (1978) 2 (1988; 1993) 2 (1988; 1993) 1 (1993) 2 1 1 2

(1988; 1993) (1993) (1993) (1988; 1993)

Party position Branch M em ber NIL Party m em ber (Since 1967) Branch M em ber (1935) M em ber (1949) NIL ACM NIL NIL (Supporter) Party M em ber (1979-90) (19 77)

Party's Mass Front Anchal Kisan Sabha Kisan Sabha (G.C) Kisan Sabha (A.C) Kisan Sabha (A.C) A B P T A Vice-President (Raina Block) NIL NIL NIL NIL NIL

1 (1993)



1 (1993) 4 (1978)

CM LCM (1978)

NIL Vice-President, KS (Anchal)

1 (1993)

A C M (1990)


Source : Structured Interviews

Motes : Data on 15 elected m em bers are presented above. The rest of the m em bers are supporters o f the CPI-M

Of the total 25 members, there are at present 8 CPI-M Card holders including one Member of the Local Commit­ tee (LCM) -When the party puts up its supporters for can­

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


didates in Panchayat elections, it is only natural that party members will have better chances for contesting the poll for more than once. As many as 15 CPI-M candidates are elected for the first time in 1993 including women members, SC and ST candidates, a result of the application of the 73rd constitution Act 1992 which provided for reservation of seats for women SC and ST. The large number of new faces in the 1993 panchayat elections has given birth to challeng­ ing panchayats as openly admitted in the State Committee (CPI-M) 'Directives' on Panchayats : "New panchayats have begun their joumey. About 70 percent members of these new panchayats have been elected for the first time. Only a very few o f them are members o f the party. Therefore, the run­ ning of the panchayats this time has been a great challenge to the party."31 (My emphasis) As far as the operation of party design is concerned, a large number of non-party (in membership sense) num­ bers means that the passage of party control will not be smooth. But the reality of the situation suggests that this may not at all be the case. The game that is played at panchayat levels is not one of quantity, but "quality" i.e, a handful of party members can be the 'real' substitute for the rest. The non-party members are, however, supporters and they are associated with one of the mass organisations of the party in the rural areas. This facilitates easy party control over them. As we will see below, a large number of new faces may complain about absence of democracy in panchayats, but the real power is at all cases exercised by a few party members, or to be precise, by the P S C. The presence of poorer sections in panchayats, to be precise, their election, certainly means something, but not much. The party manages to recruit out of the panchayat few new faces to the organisation, but then one wonders if that is the correct criterion. How has the Hijalna panchayat ensured democratic participation ? How has panchayat power been exercised in this case? In order to ascertain the extent of democratic participation in the working of this panchayat, a set of


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

questions was placed before each member of this Panchayat in structured interviews conducted over a period of over six months during 1994-95. Each member was asked the same type of questions relating to her/his biographical, attitudinal and participatory aspects in connection with the panchayat. We will present, in summary form, some of the representative responses of both female and male members relating to the amount of time they spend on panchayat, the nature of their participation, and extent of freedom they enjoy in performing their functions etc. We will first sum up the responses of the female members. A. W om en M e m b ers' R esp o n ses (1)

"Villagers do not come to me for their problems. I do not have to do anything. Everything is done by other members of the party. The party members do not keep in touch at all." (she spends on an average 2 hours a month on panchayat).

(2) "I do not have to do anything at all. I am a member only in name." (3) "People do not come to me; they go to the party people who do most of the works. I am not consulted at all. I hear of their decisions already taken only at the panchayat meetings. I have to accept it", (she spends about 30 minutes a day on the panchayat). (4) "1 believe panchayat members should be allowed to work freely without political interference from above and outside. Everything is done by the party persons. Sometime I feel that perhaps we are not required at all", (she spends about 30 minutes a day). B. M a le M e m b e rs' R esp o n se s (1) "W hen leadership imposes decisions from above, it creates problems. 1 am looked down upon by the people. Those decisions are often unrealistic." "W e have to obey the decisions of the Panchayat Sub-Com­ mittee. We have nothing to say to that. We feel con­ strained. 1 feel I have no freedom to participate in

Bengal Communism and Panclxayats


planning for the panchayat. I am for action only. Even in action, we are interfered with." (He has been elected twice since 1988, and spends about 3 hours a day). (2)

"Party leadership hampers our work. My role as a member is decreased. People believe 1 get a lot of money by becoming a member." (First elected in 1993; spends only an hour a day).


"A t times the decisions of the party leaders from above are imposed which we can not avoid because they are political decisions. The advice of the leaders are often useful." (Upoprodhan; elected four times since 1978; spends an hour a day).


"T here are a lot of obstacles in working for the panchayat. Sometimes, decisions arrived at locally are rejected because of political reasons. This creates de­ jection among us. We are looked down upon by the people. In running the panchayat, the ordinary mem­ bers are nothing; it is the prodhan who is all-in-all. Added to it are the party, and its Sub-Committee' (elected since 1988; spends about 4 hours a day).


"W e work according to the decisions of the Panchayat Sub-Committee. There is bound to be obstacles when decisions are not taken on the basis of concrete situ­ ation. We do the routine work. We have to wait for the decisions of the Sub-Committee. In many cases, the panchayat programmes are implemented accord­ ing to the wishes of the LCMs. This is bound to ob­ struct the work of the panchayat." (elected since 1988; spends about 5 hours a day).


"W e are only ciphers; we do what we are told to do. Our job is to come to the panchayat meeting, sign and go home. We often resolye some disputes of the people which are often overruled at "other" levels ' (elected since 1988; spends 1 hour a day).

The above were the representative responses of mem­ bers who are also associated with the party in power, not as party members but as members of one of the mass


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

organisations of the party such as as me DYFI, Krishak Sabha and Mahila Samity (Women's Association). This kind of association, needless to say, facilitates easier party con­ trol over them in the panchayat. Congress(I) members in this panchayat were also interviewed. Their responses were, given the above, quite understandable; they are not con­ sulted at all on matters of viUage-development, or loan floating (RDP), or expenditure. In running the panchayat, in decision-making and implementing them, it is the Panchayat Sub-Committee (PSC) of the party which plays the central role. The PSC is a wholly political body compo­ sed of prodhan, all the secretaries of the mass organisations of the area, secretaries of the party branches, members of the party local committees (LCMs) (one of the LCMs being its Convenor). For all practical purposes, it is this PSC which is really powerful, and the real challenger to the democratic authority of the panchayat : 'M ost of the panchayat works are done according to the decisions of the Sub- Committee. Those decisions are only approved at the panchayat meet­ ings, with a very few exceptions' (Knowledgeable but unattributable source on February 9, 1995). The responses of both the Upopodhan and the Prodhan above (3 & 5) strongly suggest the overarchical control of the Sub-Committee over the panchayat Above the Sub-Committee is the party Zonal Committee which really selects the Prodhans of all panchayats in the area rather than the floor of the panchayat. There are instances of sacrificing the democratic opinion of the panchayat in selecting Prodhans at the altar of the party committee.32 P ercep tio n o f A gency o f D ev elo p m en t This section presents some empirical evidences col­ lected on the basis of structured interviews with the ben­ eficiaries of development in the Hijalna panchayat area about their perception of the agency of development. A crosssection of beneficiaries were interviewed In the perception of most of the interviewees the role of the panchayat in development was the following : 1.

"To me, it is the party which has played the funda­ mental role in the panchayat activities. It is the party

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


persons who have played the active role in develop­ ment." [a landless person having education upto class

8]. 2.

"The party is the real agency. I have received most from the party. I go to the party first. I don't feel like going to the panchayat." [a poor peasant and literate].


"The party has done all for development. First party, then panchayat". [Agricultural labourer and literate].


"W hat is party is often the panchayat. I don't see any difference between them." [a women and employee of 1CDS, Hijalna].


"I believe that the party plays the central role in panchayats. It is thanks to the party that social oppres­ sion has stopped. The panchayat acts as the auxiliary of the party." [a well-off peasant of the village, Jaktaj.


"It is true that the panchayat is giving people a lot of things. But the beneficiaries are decided by the party. It is not panchayat, but 'comrades' in villages who are indulging in too much of rule causing irritation to villagers". [Agricultural labourer, and a member of Gram Committee].


"In all activities, it is the party which is the real mover, playing the most active role. Panchayat means the party." [A school teacher].

The above are proofs that if the panchayat, for all practical purposes, has been eclipsed and overshadowed by the party, this has been well reflected in popular percep­ tion. Thus, the same person (No.I above) who saw only the party's role in development could respond, when asked to comment on an 'ideal panchayat', in the following manner: An ideal panchayat is one which maintains democracy and right of all persons. It is necessary to look after the interest of all. If the bargadar violates the law, then the panchayat must stand by the landowner. It occurs sometimes that some party persons in collusion with the landowner and the bargadar arranged to give away some land in order to evict him and to evade the law. The panchayat is found to


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

be silent on such occasions. One cannot call it a good panchayat".33 There are also responses like this : "The per­ sons from Santal families should become panchayat mem­ bers".34 Many other interviewees especially of poorer back­ grounds stressed the need for more representation from the poorer sections of society. One interviewee even went to the extent of the following : "In an ideal panchayat, panchayat members should be from poorer families. A CPI-M leader and also a panchayat member still exploits the agricultural labourers, and puts them to work for more hours."35 The Hijalna Panchayat experiment then unmistakably suggests that 'democratic participation' has remained an unfulfilled goal. The elected members of both sexes, espe­ cially those who are not members of the party but sympa­ thetic to it, do not feel to be participating in panchayat activities. Even, important office holders such as Upoprodhans and Prodhans testify rather frankly that decisions are really taken at the level of the PSC, and they are bound to obey them. The visions of an ideal panchayat of villagers are also to be seen as critiques of the existing one. Grassroots democracy, popular participation etc. are ideals which re­ main on paper. The real power is exercised by the party, particularly its PSC. The sanctity of the floor of the panchayat, its autonomy and independence has been lost to the ownipotent authority of the party. The panchayat re­ mains merely as the rubber-stamping platform of the party. E m p irical E v id en ces on 'D em o cra tic p a rticip a tio n ' o f M agra G ram P an ch ay ats in th e D istrict o f H oog h ly The same set of biographical, attitudinal and percep­ tual questions were presented before each member of Gram Panchayats of Magra I and II, Hooghly in the structured interviews. On the basis of the available data, we will present, very briefly, the findings, below. As for as the socio-economic composition of Magra II Gram Panchayat members are concerned, it is found that of 9 members, there are : 1 teacher (School), 1 agricultural labourer, 1

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


worker, 1 serviceman, 2 businessmen and 3 unemployed. Educationally, it is quite a highly literate body : 1 neo­ literate, 5 SF/HS, 2 graduate and 1 post-graduate; castewise, it is dominated by higher and middle castes : 3 Kayastha, 3 middle caste, 2 Brahmins and 1 SC. Politically, out of 9, 7 belongs to the CPI-M, and 2 Congress(I). The available data on Gram Panchayat members of Magia I do not sug­ gest a picture any different from that of the above : Socio­ economically, mixed class positions, higher and middle caste predominance, educationally quite advanced, and CPI-M political dominance. Unlike Hijalna, the semi-industrial Magra Gram Panchayats show the presence of people from not only the service sectors, but also businessmen and working classes. The presence of educated unemployed, and occupation of the important positions of Prodhans suggests improvement in reality. How have these two panchayats operated ? Have they ensured 'democratic participation'? Most of the members of Gram Panchayats interviewed pointed out a series of development works in the area, and the fact that the panchayat produced positive, though differential, impact on each class of rural folk. However, the beneficiaries and poor villagers, as we will see below soon, will have com­ pletely different impressions about development. In this part, we will first present a few representatives responses of members regarding people's participation in decision­ making. 1.

"People are not fully participating in panchayat deci­ sions, but the process has started." [Subrata Pal, Magra

2]. 2.

"I think it would have been better if decisions were taken by the people. But we have to follow the prin­ ciple of democratic centralism of our party. As a re­ sult, on many occasions, the party's decisions predomi­ nate". [Dilip De, Magra I].


"The lack of knowledge about the administrative pow­ ers of panchayat of m ost members makes Prodhan powerful who plays the leading role in decision mak-


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism ing. This should not happen. In reality the panchayat is Prodhan-dependent." [Saikat Som, (Magra I) Upopro dhan).


" In panchayat decisions, prodhan is most powerful. If I send a proposal, I may have to wait longer for his consideration". [Jugal Kishore Banerjee, Magra I].

The above responses suggest the restriction, if not absence, of democratic participation in these two Gram Panchayats of the district of Hooghly. The 'Prodhan-dependence' is the cause and effect of the absence of democracy in panchayats. The principle of 'democratic' centralism of the party predominates over the democratic process of de­ cision of panchayats. There are members who do not accept the fact that Prodhans take all the decisions, but then, they stress the fact that decisions are party decisions. The view of m an y m em bers interview ed that panchayats have mainly benefitted the poorer sections of society is somewhat contradicted by the responses of most ‘ of the poorer sections interviewed. The following was the responses to the question 'has the panchayat benefitted you?': 1.

"The panchayat has not come to any use to me. It has not tried to increase wages. I vote for the party, at­ tend literacy classes. Party people are selling off lands by making plots (i.e., in real estate business), but the panchayat remains a silent spectator on this !" (Panu Bauri, a landless agricultural labourer).


"The panchayat has not done anything for me. My husband died, but the panchayat has not helped me in rebuilding the cottage. I have to work as maid in people's houses when there is no work in the agricul­ tural field". (Sandha Bauri, a landless agricultural labourer).

The other five agricultural labourers interviewed re­ sponded in the same way as above.

Bengal Communism and Pandiayats


S o cio -p o litica l co m p o sitio n o f M em b ers o f R u p p u r G ram P anchayat, S rin ik e ta n , th e d istrict o f B irb h u m (1995) The indepth structured interviews with 12 out of the total of 25 Gram Panchayat members show that sociologi­ cally, lower caste and class persons predominate : there are 5 Sc and 1 ST persons; there are only 1 Sadgop and 1 Muslim. The higher castes such as Brahmins and Kayastha are 4 (1 Kayastha and 3 Brahmins). Not only are there a large number of members elected for the first time, of them women constitute a majority: 5 women out of 8 elected for the first time. As far as the class origins of these 12 members are concerned, it is found that housewives, agri­ cultural labourers and primary school teachers dominate the scene. Politically, the Ruppur Gram Panchayat is a CPIM dominated body. The present Prodhan may be a person belonging to ST category, but he is a party whole-timer and has been elected so far thrice. He also possesses university education (UE). The Upoprodhan is a woman who has been elected for the first time, but she possesses a post graduate degree and a member of the CP1-M. Thus, the two most strategic positions in the Gram Panchayat are held by CPIM members. Also, 8 out of 12 interviewed, recorded their professed political allegiance to the CPI-M. From the party's point of view, politics is more important than sociology : it is not enough that there are lower caste and class mem­ bers in Panchayat; these members must necessarily be CP1M members, followers and sympathisers. This facilitates easier party control over decisions and actions. Be that as it may, the social composition of CPI-M elected Panchayat members suggests that the party has been able to mobilise lower caste and class and the subordinate social groups such as women around the Gram Panchayat. These lower class and socially subordinated groups constitute the micro foundations of the communist regime. But the above micro foundations of the regime are themselves not an argument and an instance of democratic participation of panchayat members in panchayat decisions. The overwhelming CPI-M presence indicates a reverse situ­


Micro Foundatiœis o f Bengal Communism

ation. In order to ascertain the extent of democratic partici­ pation of members in panchayat decisions, a set of partici­ patory questions was presented to each of the 12 members interviewed. Responses vary between important office hold­ ers such as Prodhan and Upoprodhan, and ordinary elected members. Both Upoprodhan and Prodhan (Vice-chairman and Chairman) tried hard to 'prove' popular democratic participation in Ruppur Panchayat. The Upoprodhan, a woman elected for the first time in 1993 and very close to the CPI-M, organisationally, said that she takes part in panchayat decisions especially when it is a case of issuewise decisions. For her, this Gram Panchayat is successful as a governing institution including its role as a Judicial organisation in settling local problems. However, she is a little concerned about the participation of those members who are agricultural labourers, and who, due to the lack of education and time, do not play a participatory role. Inci­ dentally, this woman Upoprcdhan is a post-graduate (M.Sc). She does not believe in a party-less panchayat,or in one having lesser party control. On the contrary, she defines the party's task in panchayat as "expanding party leader­ ship through the panchayat/' (interview on 9.6.95) The 'Prodhan' (aged 41) sees the full scale operation of pupular democracy in this panchayat. He believes all the panchayat decisions are taken after "consulting" with all the elected representatives. He flatly denies that the party imposes anything on the panchayat. For him, the party only 'guides' the panchayat and sees that elected members are appropriately performing their job assigned to them. He says that the party's Panchayat Sub-committee is not so active but it discusses things beforehaed in order to avoid' any "unnecessary debate" ("hottogol") in the panchayat. The ordinary members lead a life of hand-to-mouth and therefore they cann't find any time to devote to panchayat. The Prodhan also laments over the fact that in many cases the party directives are not followed even by those sym­ pathetic to the party. (Interview on 9.6.95). But the ordinary members see the world in a different light. Mrs Fori Bauri (aged 30), the woman (first term in

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


1993) does not see any role for her : "I am only a cipher; all the decisions are taken by Naba Roy and Sushil babu; it is the party which really takes all the decisions". (Interview on 8/6/95). (Roy and Sushil Majumdar are influential mem­ bers of panchayat : while Roy is a former member of the CPI-M, Majumdar is currently a member of the party). Another member who is a party member Pradip Majhi (aged 28) and an agricultural labourer says that on the issue 'who really takes the decisions', "it is the Prodhan who recommends, the rest of the members only give con­ sent'. (He also testifies to the Panchayat's dependence on Prodhan and Upoprodhan. (interview on 8.6.95). Pradip Bauri (aged 21, SC) responded in sim ilar vein but emphasised that decisions are not taken at the panchayat level, but at a different high level, and his individual opin­ ion is not recognised at all (interview on 9.6.95). Mrs Kismat Begum (aged 36), a Primary School teacher, sees her role only in name : she laments that she does have only to put signatures on decisions already arrived at. However, she also testifies that the Panchayat has been playing a good role and the villagers participate, to some extent, through the Beneficiary Committee. (Interview on 9.6.95). Thus the Rupper Gram Panchayat in the district of Birb-hum, does not show up as a different and better case of democratic participation, despite the greater number of proletarian elements elected as Panchayat members. Most of the members interviewed showed satisfaction with panchayat activities especially developmental ones, but they also testify to the Panchayat's dependence on Prodhan/ Upoprodhan ! The role of the Panchayat Sub-Committee of the party is not that visible to members, but the fact that decisions are really taken by the Prodhan, or the party or at a higher level, as testified by many respondents, is indi­ cation enough of the absence of democratic process of decision in Ruppur Panchayat. D em ocratic P a rticip a tio n in D h u la i G ram P a n ch a y a t in th e D istrict o f B an k u ra Dhulai Gram panchayat is quite big covering as many as 25 villages with a population of 16,000 (1991). But po­


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

litically, it is a different panchayat in the sense that in this Panchayat the CPI-M does not posseess the monopoly po­ sition in terms of representatives. Out of the total 18 mem­ bers, the CPI-M have 8, RSP 1, BJP 1 and Congress 8. The CPI-M has formed the Panchayat, first with the casting vote of the Panchayat Samity (ex-offio) member of this panchayat, and later by winning in a by-election a seat fell vacant by the death of the sole BJP candidate. However, 'Dhulai' is a keenly competitive panchayat in a district like Bankura which is heavily penetrated upon by the CPI-M. In this panchayat, the CPI-M is as powerful as the Congress, at least, eleetorally. The question is whether the relatively weaker position of the CPI-M in this panchayat has made participa­ tion easier. As far as the social composition of this Panchayat is concerned, it is found out that of the 8 CPI-M candidates interviewed (17.6.95 to 19.6.95 at Dhulai), 4 are women and elected for the first time. There are other three male candi­ dates who have also been elected for the first time in 1993. There is only one candidate who has been elected for the third term. Both the Trodh an' and Upopradhan (RSP) are elected in 1993 for the first time. This panchayat is thus full of new faces. This is mostly true also for the Congress(I) candidates. Castewise, the lower caste people predominate: 3 SC, 1 Mahisya, 1 Muslim and 2 Brahimins. Most of the women members are housewives. There are two unem­ ployed youths (educated) but there is no agricultural labourer. Peasants elected are mostly of small and marginal characters. The 'sociological facts' described above relating to the elected left members militate against active participation of numbers in the panchayat process. Of the 7 CPI-M mem­ bers interviewed, 4 are active in CPI-M politics. The same set o f 'participatory questions' was placed before them, as was done for other panchayat members of other panchayats surveyed. While each member spend some amount of time for the panchayat a week (from 7 hours to 56 hours a week), and express his or her opinion when called for, most of the members commonly agreed that : "It is the Prodhan who really takes the decisions".

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


"The decision of the Panchayat Sub-Committee (of the CPI-M ) is final". "The Panchayat is dependent heavily on the Prodhan". "It is the party which takes the decisions " (Interview on 19 6/95 at Dhulai). Even the Prodhan also admits this Panchayat's depen­ dency on him. The Prodhan (SC) and a graduate unem­ ployed Youth (aged 29) believes that the decisions are all taken democratically with the active participation of all members. However, he links the panchayat with the party in the following way: "The panchayat looks after the ad­ ministrative aspect while the party does the organisational one." (Interview on 19/6/95 at Dhulai). Typically, and perhaps quite obviously, the majority of members have not agreed to the view expressed by the Prodhan. In an answer to the question as to "W hat is an ideal panchayat", the answer mostly was : "it has to be more democratic with less party control". The Prodhan also did not differ on this. But nobody was ready to consider the proposition of a party less panchayat, if any. When elected members them­ selves do not participate, they do not and cannot have any 'answer' to the issue of popular participation in Dhulai Panchayat. There are some members who think that due to the absence of democratic participation and the concentra­ tion of all powers in the hands of the Prodhan or the party Sub-Committee, there have been bureaucratic delay and corruption unfulfilment of demands, and apathy among ordinary members. Thus, in the case of Dhulai Gram Panchayat, due to a set of factors such as the specific social composition of members (in the 1993 election), and the operational techi\ique of the party, democratic participation, let alone, mass initiative and involvement, has remained an unfulfilled goal of the CPI-M. Dhulai may be the single panchayat of the district of Bankura surveyed, but the strong indications are clear.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

T h e P arty 's A uto C ritiq u e s o f Panchayats What have been the effects of the operation of the party's design as far as grassroots democracy at the panchayat level is concerned ? How has the operation of the panchayats in West Bengal been assessed by the party ? Since the panchayats in West Bengal, especially those of the CPI-M, are run under the leadership of the CPI-M, the party continuously assesses their functioning at its different organisational levels such as the local, zonal and District and of course the state committee levels. While the state level assessment is more guarded, the local level party (in­ ner) sources are characterised by openness and frankness. The state committee 'Directives' on panchayats analysed above already contained some self-assessment expressed in the form of 'directives'. In particular, the sentence "we can­ not expect those who donot take part in decisions to carry out decisions" epitomises the whole issue of 'democratic par­ ticipation' in panchayats. The other equally significant passage mentioned above is : "If everything is concentrated in the hands o f a few and people are kept in the dark, then, even honest operation will also arouse suspicion in the eyes of the people". (My emphasis). The recently held 18th State conference of the CPI-M (1995) in its 'Political Organisational Report' self-criticaUy wrote on the issue of 'Party Admin­ istration Relation' as the following : "Som etimes, the party imposes its prior decisions which violates the democratic right of the members of elected bodies. As a result, they feel discouraged from tak­ ing an active interest in the meetings and discussion. This occurs mostly at the level o f the Gram Panchayat where the number of party members is few."36 (My emphasis) The state committee, it seems, has got the symptoms right but not the disease or causes of those symptoms. The committee does not relate those effects to the operation of its design in panchayats. This is to look at reality undialectically i.e., in isolation from other parts. The micro level inner party sources very strongly suggest that 'democratic participation', and mass involve-

Bengal Communism arid Pancliayats


ment have been the casualty in the operation by democ­ racy. In this part of discussion, we will present some pieces of evidence from district and local level inner party sources which very candidly lament over the absence of mass par­ ticipation in panchayat activitis including decision-making. D istrict level E vid ence 1.

"Despite commendable activities in matters of devel­ opment, the creation o f mass initiative that was men­ tioned in our party directives, lias been neglected. As a result, ordinary panchayat members feel discouraged and passive. And the panchayats are increasingly de­ pendent on Prodhans. The process o f mass democracy is halted. In some cases, the bureaucrtic attitude of the Pradhans, and the absence of any efforts to popularise Panchayat Programs are facts of life. We cannot ignore our Organisational limitations in successfully leading and politically utilising the Panchayats".37 (My emphasis)


"The panchayats are increasingly becoming depen­ dent on Prodhans or Presidents. The DC 'Directives' are not followed in all cases. The issue o f mass initiative which zvas centrally highlighted in our 'Directives' has been neglected. The common people also have not been involved in the panchayats" .38 (My emphasis)


"Despite our best efforts we have not been able to remove the prodhan dependence of Panchayats. We have not been able to activate other members. In many cases, the prodhans and Upoprodhans, instead of dis­ tributing responsibilities, tend to concentrate power in their own hands. This renders other members passive. Despite repeated warning, no noticeble improvement is in sight. The potentialities o f creating mass initiative have not been actualised. The decisions are first taken in the party committes, and then comm unicated to the Panchayat. These decisions are not explained, neither are their rationale. These render others esp. those not party members discouraged and passive."39 (My em ­ phasis).


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism


"Despite our best efforts, the work of the panchayats is slackening. We notice the indifference o f the elected members to the panchayat meetings. There is a great weakness in the creation o f mass initiative in running the panchayats. At the village panchayat level, the six monthly meetings are not, for all practical purposes, held, and if held at all, are conducted mechanically and ritualistically,/.40 (My emphasis)


"O ur party's outlook on panchayats were united col­ lectiv e w ork, d e ce n tra lisa tio n , d istrib u tio n of w orks,m ass-oriented activities,m ass participation, spread of democracy and development of class con­ sciousness. The panchayat Sub-Committee was to see that those were implemented. But there is widespread unhappiness over the performance. There .are com­ plaints o f ultracentralisation reducing the newly elected members to passivity. Fabrication o f utilisation reports is also a reality".4' (My emphasis)

Local C o m m ittee Level Evid ence While the District Committee in its self-critical assess­ ment summarises the district experiences of the panchayat functioning, it is the party Local Committee esp. its PSC which provides the most detailed and intimate data on the operation of panchayats. The party Local Committees are much closer to the Gram Panchayats. The inner party sources at this stage are quite informative about the effect of panchayat functioning as far as the party's goals of mass democracy and participation arc conccmcd. Within the limited space available, we will present below the local committee level analysis of panchayat functioning in the district of Burdwan and Hooghly. 1.

"In running the Panchayats, we have gathered two types of experience: (1) increase in mass initiative in adoption and implementation of plan, informing the people of these plans appropriately keeping accounts, the direction of the party etc; and (2) inefficiency and indifference to adopting and folloioing democratic method and party principle, and the indifference of the man­

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


aging committee of the party. An analysis of the internal party audit reports shows that the same kind of errors are continuously committed. We must also record our inability to inform the people everything, and to create mass initiative. In many panchayats, no meeting o f the elected members has taken place at all for many years.......... In most cases, the discussion is replaced by informing or reporting on the directions or decisions o f the District Committee. This has become the standard practice."42 (My emphasis). / .• . 2.

" In running the Gram Panchayats, the decision o f the Sub-committee is final. As a result the ordinary mem­ bers of the panchayats are not encouraged to attend the meetings. Their voice is not heard or reflected in the panchayats".42 (My emphasis).


"People's grievances are growing particularly against the role of Prodhans. It seems the panchayats are getting isolated from the masses. The reasons are the non-involvement of the people in the implementation of Programmes of development and non-acceptance of the role of Prodhans".44


"In the beginning, the link with the masses was main­ tained in running the panchayats. But subsequently, there has taken place slackeness. Even the elected lead­ ers feel discouraged. The process o f spreading democracy is hampered. Sub-Com m ittees meet but there is no programme o f mass initiative."*5 (My emphasis).


"W e must not forget that it is urgent to involve inti­ mately the people in the developmental activities o f the Panchayat. If that does not take place, then panchayats become the opportunistic institutions for giving favours to the people." (My emphasis).

Such reports of local committees of the party, which can be quoted ad infinitum, of the districts of Burdwan and Hooghly contain the same kind of assessment. In going through those reports, one gets the impression that as for as the panchayat functioning is concerned, there is a strik­ ing similarity of experiences throughout these two districts.


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

Each and every panchayat shares the same experiences with regard to the absence of mass democracy, participation and initiative.

Dem ocratic Participation : O ther Panchayats in O ther Studies The existing studies on panchayats of districts such as Burdwan, Midnapore and Burbhum, though conceived and conducted in different frames of references, contain find­ ings that corroborate our argument. Kristen Westerguard (1987) somewhat addressed the issue quite early on at the all-Bengal level in the essay 'Marxist Government and People's Participation: The case of West Bengal'47. On the basis of a distinction between 'representation' and 'control' Westeguard came to the following conclusion : "In terms of the popular participation framework, it may be concluded that the poor are represented in the institutions of power, by and large. This representation has not resulted in any significant increase in their control over these institutions."48 G.K. Lieten's study of the district of Burdwan also drew the same conclusion : "it is clear that although not all CPI-M candidates are party members, substantial decisions are made at the level of the party. Many of these decisions may be handed down from state to district and then to block level".49 As far as the experience of the district of Birbhum is concrened, Lieten's study suggests that the "em ­ powerment of the people, especially of the poor has not taken place".50 On the basis of his study of the district of Midnapore, Atul Kohli said tliat party members are actualy involved in the Supervision of the Panchayats......major local governmental decisions are made in continuous infor­ mal and formal consultation with the local party represen­ tatives."51. Of the existing researches on panchayats on West Ben­ gal, . Neil Webster is perhaps the only one who believes that 'popular participation' is very much a fact in the villages : 'Popular participation by villagers as a whole and by the

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


disadvantaged in particular is now very much present."52 But this statement is neither explained or empirically sup­ ported. On the contrary, there are passages in his book which contradict the above. Consider, for example, the fol­ lowing observation of Webster : "development is now as­ sociated with a party, its programmes and policies".52 The party control over panchayats "m ight appear to be against the democratic spirit of panchayati Raj."54 In Saldya Gram Panchayat (in Burdwan District) there is an absence of agricultural labourers and share-croppers.55 Above all , Webster's overall understanding of the CPI-M led Bengal politics does not add grist to his own mill : " .......by re­ treating from the prosecution of class politics within the agrarian society and moving towards consensual politics within the v illa g e s......This is a sensible thing to say, and it is clear that in a class-divided agrarian society, popular participation and consensus politics within the villages don't go together. The existing studies on panchayats thus add sufficient indications that democratic (popular) participation in decision-making process has been a myth rather than a reality. And this has happened despite the presence of poorer sec­ tions of society in large proportions in panchayat bodies. The current literatures provide ample evidence of the major changes in the "sociology of leadership" of panchayats. [Dif­ ferent studies provide different accounts and explanations of this 'leadership". Those "sociologies of leadership" however do not explain the true politics of the panchayati raj in West Bengal since 1978. The presence of poorer sec­ tions of society in local self-government bodies-the result of the organisational mobilisation of the party-while im­ portant for ideological legitimacy for the regime, may not, given the political space, ensure poor people's control and real leadership of those bodies.

Concluding Remarks The so-called decentralisation in West Bengal since 1978 has not translated into democracy at the grassroots. The process of decentralisation has witnessed a process of


Micro Foundations o f Bengal Communism

centralisation which remains a strong challenge to democ­ racy in rural West Bengal Paradoxically, the decentralisation process in the state has been operated mostly through mechanisms which are centralising in character. But demo­ cratic participation even by elected members of panchayats has not been a reality in the state. Panchayats have seen the rise in its arena of larger sections of poorer people as its members—the inevitable consequence of the CPI-M led political mobilisation. The elected members of panchayats are today fundamentally different from their predecessors in the Congress regime, socio-economically speaking. The presence of the poorer sections in panchayats is paraded as the proof of democracy. The empirical as well as archival sources strongly suggest otherwise. The inner party sources at different levels of the party hieararchy shows that the party is self-critical of the func­ tioning of panchayats. It greatly laments over the fact that their objectives of mass initiative, mass participation and grassroots dem ocracy have rem ained, by and large, unfulfilled. The chairman-centrjc operation of panchayats is mentioned in most reports"as the main factor. The real reason is thus evaded. Our discussion has not given the impression that 'de­ velopment' along with democracy, is also the casualty. Quite the contrary is the fact. The panchayats studied indepth for our purpose show that multifarious developmental activi­ ties have been undertaken by the panchayats since 1978. The impact of development has, however, not been similar on different groups of rural society. There is also a great variation from panchayat to panchayat about the degree of impact. The poorer sections of the panchayats of Magra 1 and II do not report any benefits reaped by them. In Hijalna panchayat, the picture is different. The detailed structured interviews with the beneficiaries at the lower levels of the society show the panchayat has benefitted them : increase of wages, more work, some health care system, resolution of disputes at the local panchayat level, bank loan, literacy, village road, overall law and order situation, cultural ac­ tivities and so on. It must, of course, be stated that for

Bengal Communism and Panchayats


those activities the panchayat alone was not responsible. The other agencies active, sometimes more importantly were the CPl-M organisations and mass fronts such as the Kisan Sabha units. To the beneficiaries, it is the party i.e., the CPIM rather than the panchayat itself which remains the agent of those development activities. The panchayat's role as an agent was mentioned only, secondarily : "The panchayat means the party, the party plays the fundamental role" etc was the typical response of most of the interviewees. There is thus no necessary relationship between democracy and development. Development does not presuppose democ­ racy, although development through democracy would provide a much different socio-political reality from what is available today is rural West Bengal. In the operational dynamics of panchayats, the party plays the leading role to the extent that the panchayat is overshadowed. In operating the panchayats, the party has been guided by the notion of external control over such self-governing institutions. The political theory that informs such notion is a particular version of Marxism which is Leninist-Stalinist and based on the ethos of control, centralisation and com­ mands. This marxism shares the fundamental assumption of 'modernity, and is statist.' Like modernity itself, it be­ lieves that a good society can be rationally designed and created under the leadership of the party-state. The com­ munist party is the central part of marxist modernity, but it is a party which is itself ultra