The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism
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The Present History of West Bengal E:ssays m t-'o .. __ . Criticism

Partha

The Present History of West Bengal

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The Present History of West Bengal Essays in Political Criticism ·

Partha C atterjee ~·

DELHI

OXFORD

UNIVERSITY

CALCUTTA

CHENNAI

PRESS

MUMBAI

1997

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.Oxford University PrtSS, Walton Street, Oxford OX2

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Oxford New Yorlr A.dtens A.ucldand Bangltolt Calaltta Cape Town Chmndi Dar a Solaom Dtlhi F1omta Hong Kong Istanbul JG,rr,d,i KMald Lumpur Madrid Mtlbourne Mtxito City Mumbai Noirobi Paris Singapore Taipei Tok)io Tonmto Mdasoci4Jain

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Present, a. (adv.) ME . . . 1. Being in the place considered or mentioned; that is here (or there) . . . b. Existing in the thing. class, or case mentioned or under consideration; not wanting; 'found'. Opp. of ABSENT. 2. That is actually being dealt with, written, discussed, or considered . . . 3. Of which one is conscious; directly thought of, remembered, or imagined . ..

TM Shorter O,iford English Dictionary

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Preface udging by what I read and l1ear every day, it seems to be especially difficult to talk about West Bengal without invoking the past. This is perhaps inevitable, since virtually everything that is said and written on the subject dwells in one way or another upon the theme of decline. History, the repository of modem Bengal's past greatness, serves to fill in the gap in an unsatisfying present. It also functions as an explanatory · key, seemingly unravelling the mystery ofhow the pioneers of India's intellectual modernity suddenly lost their way and fell into a morass ofstagnant provincialism and sterile despair. In this function too, the heirlooms of history are brought out to stand in for that which is not present. I have never been fully convinced by the theory of Bengal's decline. It fetishizes some aspects of our colonial modernity just as it stubbornly refuses to even look at others. Further, by recounting this history largely as the heroic deeds of a number of great men (and a few great women) , it sacralizes social a11d political action and closes the very possibility of criticism. The theory of decline easily lends itself to a social conservatism that justifies class privilege by dressing it up as a meritocracy and to a celebration of the nineteenth-century 'synthesis' of West and East - attitudes of which Nirad C. Chaudhuri is perhaps the most extreme but by no means the only proponent; such sentiments are indeed part of common conversation among the cultural elite of West Bengal. It is my belief that the talk of decline only betrays the anxiety of an entrenched but now somewhat beleaguered literati about the effects of what is surely the most overwhelming tendency in Bengal's social, political, cultural and even economic life since tl1e 1930s, if not earlier, namely democratization. If I am allowed to make a broad historical generalization, I will suggest that it is not the nineteenth-century 'renaissance' but

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viii • Preface

the popular upsurge of the 1930s which contains the most significant clues to understanding what has happened today to the two halves of Bengal. The 1930s saw the most decisive entry of the peasant masses in Bengal's organized politics. On the one hand, agrarian movements all over the province raised a set of demands in the 1930s that would in effect shape the contours of land reform legislation and rural politics, at least in West Bengal, until the 1980s. On the other hand, the Praja movement in eastern Bengal and the various lower-caste movements not only shook the entire edifice of Hindu upper-caste cultural dominance but, for eastern Bengal, unleashed social forces that ultimately created a strong enough sense of nationality to bring into.existence a sovereign nation-state in 1971. If one is looking for a principal theme around which to weave a history of West Bengal, the strongest candidate, it seems to me, is the theme of the spread of dem~racy. The theory of decline implicitly recognizes this, but only to betray its bad faith. It narrates the story of democratization as one of tl1e decay of public institutions. It refuses to see that the old forms of the modem state, built on abstract notions of universal freedom and equality that were in fact the modem foundations of institutionalized privilege and class inequality, must necessarily come into conflict with new demands for the abolition of privilege and inequality. These demands can never be addressed within the old routines of colonial-nationalist institutional practices. The most significant elements in the recent history ofWest Bengal are to be found in the attempts to devise more democratic forms of social action to secure sources of livelihood as well as a public culture of dignity for all sections of the people. These attempts have had a central co-ordinating focus in a politically organized elite directing the machineries of government, but their applications have varied considerably from locality to locality. It is in the locality- more specifically, the rural locality- that the urge for democratization has sought out new forms of social practice that cut across the boundaries between state and non-state, public and private, individual and collective, secular and religious. Caught in the iron grid of governmental practices, such attempts to extend democracy to new domains of everyday rural life in West Bengal have often floundered, but in some significant instances, even without an

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Preface• ix explicit theoretical language of description, forms of collective engagement with questions of entitlement and fair allocation have emerged in the localities that contain the potential for entirely novel arrangements ofdemocratic-governance. To identify tl1ese instances, to narrate the story of their development, to imagine their future possibilities, we must, I am convinced, fmnly tum our backs on a history that only bemoans what has been superseded and instead face up to the history that is present before us. This book like its companion volume, A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism, is also of mixed genre - academic papers, lectures, reportage, editorial comments, juxtaposed one beside the other. Here too there is, at one level, a chronological line running through those pieces that were written, as it were, alongside the historical events, while at another level I have attempted to provide periodic snapshots of history captured in a single frame. The mixture does not, I admit, give a smooth texture to the volume, but, as I have explained in my preface to A Possible India, I have been unable to find a better way of registering the fact that there is no single historically stable position available to me from which I can tackle a subject matter that is both irreducibly historical and irreducibly contemporary. I had originally arranged these writings to form a single book to be called Possible Nations: Part 1 India, Part 2 Bengal. For technical reasons, related mainly to the size of the volume, my · editors have persuaded me to split the work into two separate books. I suspect that by suggesting this, they have inadvertently saved me from becoming the target of at least one set of sanctimonious lectures by those self-appointed Marxist guardians of national integrity-vigilantes more nationalist than the nationalists themselves. After many disappointing experiences, I have come to realize that, unlike as in West Bengal, irony is not a rhetorical mode much appreciated by those who claim to speak as the 'all-India' Left. I thank Timir Basu, editor of Frontier, for giving me permission to reprint several of my pieces published over the years in that journal. I am also grateful to Pradip Kumar Bose and Ranabir Samaddar for letting me include in this volume part of a report

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x • Preface on a study conducted jointly by the three of us. I worked on this manuscript in the winter of 1995, which I spent at the University of Michigan: I must thank in particular everyone at the International Institute for their warmth and kindness and all my friends and students in Ann Arbor who made a cold winter both enjoyable and intellectually profitable. I am, of course, grateful as always to the ever-helpful staffofthe library, reprography, typing and computer sections of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, without whom I could not have put together this volume. My colleagues at the CSSSC have been constant intellectual companions; in both agreement and debate, seriousness and frivolity, I have daily drawn sustenance from their friendship. Finally, I thank Nitasha Devasar of Oxford University Press, Delhi, for her enthusiasm and persistence in seeing this volume through the publication process. Cairo~ August 1996

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Acknowledgements Chapter 1: 'The Heritage We Dare Not Renounce', Frontier, 15, 39 (14 May 1983), pp. 3-5. Chapter 2: 'The Fruits of Macaulay's Poison Tree', in Ashok Mitra (ed.), The Truth Unites: Essays in Tribute to Samar Sen (Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1985), pp. 7~9. Chapter 4: 'Agrarian Transformation in Bengal: Class Structure and Class Struggle' ,Jounial of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 32, 1 (June 1987), pp. 51-66. Chapter 5: 'Caste and Politics in West Bengal', in Gail Omvedt (ed.), Caste and Politics in Indian States (Delhi: Authors' Guild, 1982), pp. 88-101. Chapter 6: 'Naxalbari Legacy', Seminar, 220 (December 1977), pp. 30-2. Chapter 7: 'Introduction', to Promode Sengupta, Naxalbari and Indian Revolution, tr. Tanika Sarkar (Calcutta: Research India, 1983). Chapter 8: 'The Land and the Nation', Frontier, 19, 41 (30 May 1987), pp. 25-7. Chapter 9: Economic and Political Weekly, 13, 49 (9 December 1978), pp. 2001-2; Frontier, 16, 29 (3 March 1984); 16, 34 (7 April 1984); 16, 38 (5 May 1984); 17, 20 (5 January 1985); 18, 20 (4 January 1986); 18, 34 (12 April 1986); 18, 49 (26 July 1986); 19, 32 (28 March 1987); 19, 34 (11 April 1987); 19, 50 (1 August 1987); 20, 48 (16July 1988); 21, 29 (4 March 1989); 22, 46 (30 June 1990); 23, 2 (25 August 1990). Chapter 11: 'The Political Culture ofCalcutta', in Sukanta Chaudhuri (ed.), Calcutta: The Living City, vol. 2 (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 27-33. Chapter 12: '.Amader Adhunikata', Srijnan Halder Memorial

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xii • Adenowledgemmts

Lecture 1994, Y~tra, October 1994, pp. 71-86. Translated from the Bengali. (Chapters 3 and 10 are being published for the first time.)

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Contents .

List ofTables

XIV

.

Figures and Maps

XIV

1 The Heritage We Dare Not Renounce 2

1 6 27

The Fruits of Macaulay's Poison Tree

3 The Second Partition of Bengal 4 Agrarian Transformation in Bengal:

47 69 87 94 100 106

Class Structure and Class Struggle 5

Caste and Politics in West Bengal

6

The Naxalbari Legacy

7 Critique from Within 8 The Land and the Nation 9

Communists in Power

10 Discipline and Development (with Pradip Kumar Bose and Ranabir Samaddar) 11 The.Political Culture of Calcutta 12 Our Modernity Index

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137 183 193 211

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xiv • Contents

Tables 4.1 4.2

4.3

5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6

Distribution of Land Owned by Household and Area in West Bengal Proponion ofAgricultural Land in Direct Possession of Proprietors, Tenure-holders, Raiyats and Under-raiyats, c. 1910-37 Percentage of Occupancy Holdings in Each District Transferred Annually by Registered Sales, 1929-38 Literacy ·a nd Occupation of Selected Castes, 1931 Caste and Religious Divisions, 1931 The Principal Middle Castes, 1931 The Principal 'Depressed Classes', 1931 The Principal Tribes, 1931 Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 1971

48

50

62 70 72 75 76 . 77 85

Maps 4 .1 4.2

District-wise Proportion of Land held by Occupancy Raiyats, c. 1910-37 Levels of Differentiation of Peasantry, 1945-6

51 53

Figures 10.1 CPI(M) Campaign Organization in Urban Areas 10.2 CPI(M) Campaign Organization in Rural Areas

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142 143

1

The Heritage We Dare Not Renounce

O

n Saturday, 23 April 1983, there occurred a rather remarkable incident in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. It , was the last day of the budget session. But the uproar was not over the rise in public transpon fares or power cuts or police repression or the installation at public expense ofa lift at the chief minister's residence. The uproar was on the question of cultural heritage. And the remarkable fact about the incident was not the debate about culture, but the extreme reluctance of the members on the government side to enter into a debate. The occasion was provided by a non-official motion moved by the Congress(I) leader Subrata Mukherjee demanding that the government undertake to widely circulate Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's novel Anandama~h in this the centenary year of its first publication. The agenda for the day had included an amendment to this motion listed in the name ofUpendra Kisku of the CPl(M). But as soon as Mukherjee had finished speaking on his motion, it became apparent that the issue was far more complicated than one would normally have suspected. Mukherjee does not enjoy a very high reputation for political sagacity; on this occasion, however, he had hit upon something that had the potential to cause far more embarrassment to the ruling Left Front than all the great issues of policy and administration that had been debated earlier in the session. According to newspaper reports, the RSP and the Forward Bloc had privately expressed their dissatisfaction with Kisku's proposed amendment which would have drawn the attention of the government to the controversies about the 'secular' character of Anandamath, to the • possible repercussions on communal harmony in the state and to the necessity of balancing 'the national heritage' with 'the political reality'. Apparently, the decision was then taken not to

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2 • The Present History ofWest Bengal

have Kisku move his amendment at all. Instead, speakers from tl1e Treasury benches attempted to persuade Subrata Mukherjee to agree to a postponement of the whole debate. Mukherjee, whatever his other shortcomings, cannot be blamed for not possessing a shrewd sense of drama. With perfect choice of timing, he called for a division on his motion. Amidst confused consultations on the Treasury side and shouts of jubilation from the Congress(!) ranks, the vote was taken: the motion was defeated 11-92. Four constituents ofthe LeftFront-RSP, Forward Bloc, DSP and the West Bengal Socialist Party - did not vote on the motion; the CPI members were not even present in the House. This was the first occasion since 1977 when the Left Front came to power that the Front partners failed to vote together in the Assembly. The Front leaders, it seems, suddenly became aware of the potentially divisive nature of the AnandamatJi issue and were anxiot1s to avoid a controversial debate on such a minor matter just before the panchayat elections in the state. Yet, this readiness for tactical retreat on ideological questions has curious sources of support in ideology itself. It in fact raises serious problems about the very quality of our 'progressivism'. Some of the comments made in the West Bengal Assembly that Saturday morning are quite significant. Jarin Chakravarri, the RSP Minister for Public Works, is reported to have said that Bankim's novel could not be characterized as 'communal' if it was judged in the context of the rime when it was written. One would hardly have suspected Chakravarri ofhaving such a fine and discriminating sense ofjudgement, for it has not been apparent in his taste for monumental art.1 But he then went on to defend his statement by recalling that in his youth he had faced the police latfii while chanting 'Bande Mataram'. Ergo, it was incorrect to characterize Bankim's novel as communal! Subrata Mukherjee, arguing that AnandamatJi was free from parochialism, insisted with somewhat excessive concern for historical detail that even such eminent nationalist Muslims as Mohammed Ali and Hasrat Mohani had, in 1886, agreed that 'Bande Mataram' was a suitable national anthem. Contradicting 1Jatin

Chakravarti, as Minister for Public Works, ordered the top of Shahid Minar in the Calcutta Maidan to be painted a bright scarlet as a mark of the city's revolutionary tradition.

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1ne Heritage We Dare Not Renounce • 3 him, Kalimuddin Shams, the Forward Bloc Deputy Speaker, said that this could not have been so, because both Mohammed Ali and Hasrat Mohani were accomplished Islamic scholars and no Muslim could subscribe to a song which spoke of the worship not of the one God but of the country revered as the Mother. Needless to say, no one took note of the fact that in 1886 the eminent maulanas were both only eight years old! The point on which the Left Front members found it most convenient to oppose Mukherjee was that part of his resolution where he had attempted to express a literary judgement: Anandamatf,, Mukherjee had said, was Bankim's greatest work. This, the Front members pointed out with alacrity, was contentious. Not everyone agreed that this was so, and even such great men as Romesh Chandra Dutt and Rabindranath Tagore had expressed their doubts about the aesthetic merits of the book. This, therefore, could not be an adequate ground for giving wide publicity to the novel. But it was not aesthetic questions which were uppermost in the minds of the legislators. In the 'progressive' ideology no less than in nationalist art, aesthetics has to be subordinated to the politics of the day. And .the most important item in the politics of this day was the panchayat election. Several members of the Left Front accused the Congress(!) of having deliberately brought up- this controversial matter in order to further its narrow partisan interests on the eve of the panchayat elections. And it was doubtless with their own partisan interests in mind that the Front leaders decided to beat a retreat. Tactical adjustments on ideological questions are always a snare. Why should there be so much hesitation in 'progressive' circles about taking a clear position on A,iandama(h? Compared to the outstanding craftsmanship, acuteness and economy of expression and intellectual quality of his other works, Anandamatf, is without question one ofBankim's least impressive literary creations. Its fame does not rest on its aesthetic merits. It rests almost entirely on the symbolic significance it has come to acquire within a particular political tradition in Bengal. Why then should the Left find it so difficult to define its own positi~n with respect to that political tradition? The question, it would now appear, is not a very simple one. For the fact of the matter is that leftism in Bengal is parasitic

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4 • The Present History cif West Bengal upon a whole cultural heritage among the Bengali intelligentsia in which patriotism has been intimately tied with a distinctly religious (and needless to add, upper-caste Hindu) expression of the signs of power, in which the celebration of the power of the masses has been accompanied by an unquestioned assumption of the natural right of the intelligentsia to represent the whole people, in which utopian dreams of liberation have found expression in a barely concealed admiration for the politics of terrorism. Ifwe are now finding it difficult to take a definite stand on the political significance of Anandama(h, it is not simply because the political compulsions of the day have made it tactically injudicious for us to open a controversy. On the contrary, it is because the ideological critique of our political heritage is so half-hearted, so riven by contradictory emotional pulls, that we have found ourselves in a position where the political compulsions seem insurmountable. We have never achieved the clarity of self-conscious political action to renounce our heritage. It is perfectly legitimate to argue that in tl1e context of its times, Anandama(h was not a 'communal' tract, for the politics of communalism as we have known it in twentieth-century India had not been born then. The important question is why it later acquired a 'communal' significance. And here it is specious to argue that Bankim did not in his later novels openly express his hatred for Muslims. It is still more specious to suggest, as some still do, that the reference to Muslims was purely allegorical, that Bankim had really meant to express his hatred for the British. Literally dozens of passages can be quoted from Rajsi~ha, Anandama(h, Debi CaudhurtilJi and Sitaram to show quite unambiguously Bankim's profound contempt for what he regarded as the essential attributes of the Muslim character irrationality, bigotry, deviousness, sensuality and immorality. Why a man of such outstanding intellectual abilities, searching for a modem identity for his nation, should have been led into a celebration of the essential rationality and morality of the Gita and the exemplariness of the cl1aracter of Lord Krishna and a vitriolic condemnation of the essential immorality of popular Hindu beliefs and of Muslim culture is an important historical question. But an answer to this question cannot avoid an examination of the elements that have gone into the formatiqn of our own 'progressive' consciousness today.

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The Heritage We Dare Not Renounce • 5

This task, unfortunately, our 'progressive' ideologies are reluctant to face. Rather, they fervently wish that reactionary Congress(!) leaders would not bring up such thorny issues to serve their 'narrow partisan interests'. Ideological retreats, as I have said before, are a snare. This time the Left has once more stepped into that familiar nationalist trap. Instead of asserting its historical right to criticize our own heritage, it has only connived at perpetuating a cultural attitude which sacralizes every item of that heritage, transforms them into icons that must be worshipped from a distance, an attitude which treats criticism as tantamount to desecration. This is scarcely consistent with the 'revolutionary' cultural role of a 'progressive' political leadership.

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2

The Fruits of Macaulay's Poison Tree

T

he time has come once again to talk about the 'Bengal renaissance'. And also to talk about ourselves. It was in the age of nationalism that the story of our renaissance was invented. Our nationalism required not only the ennobling memory of an ancient and glorious civilization, it also needed to affiliate itself with a more recent tradition of the authentic rediscovery and reinterpretation of that ancient heritage. For us, the renaissance had to be a modem, and for that reason historically authentic, re-creation of our memory of the nation's glorious past. In their eagerness not to miss out on any potentially significant part of this new intellectual tradition, nationalist historians of modem Indian thought cast their nets as wide as possible. Liberal, conservative, rationalist, romantic, Westemizing, revivalist, forward-looking, backward-looking - they all became part of the story of our modem rebirth, and nationalist historians were not unduly fussy about the precise quality of modernity which the great figures of the Indian renaissance displayed. The criteria for a more discriminating sense of historical judgement were provided, interestingly enough, from within Indian Marxism. And it was the Bengal case which came to exemplify these criteria.

The Debate Within Marxism The intellectual history of India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Marxist historians argued, was a history of the struggle between the forces of progress and those of reaction. Progress was represented by those who stood for modernity, that is to say by those who fought against the antiquated beliefs and practices of a medieval society, who championed the cause of rationality,

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The Fruits ofMacaulay's Poison Tree• 7

science and enlightenment against scripture, custom and faith. Progress was also represented by those who took up the cause of the nation against the exploitative rule of a colonial power. The criterion of modernity acquired its progressive historical significance in terms of an analogy between the social and intellectual history of nineteenth-century India and the Renaissance, the Reformation, and perhaps also the Enlightenment, in Europe. This analogy then seemed to imply that the social and intellectual history of nineteenth-century India could be interpreted in relation to the economic history of this period in much the same way as the Renaissance or the Reformation in Europe has been interpreted in relation to the class struggles in the age oftransition from feudalism to capitalism. That is to say, our renaissance too was thought to go hand in hand with the rise of a historically progressive bourgeoisie. This in tum justified the second analogy which attributed in the Indian case the same progressive significance to the criterion of nationality as in the nationalist struggles in central and southern Europe in the nineteenth century. Taken together, the double analogy sought to encapsulate within a single co·n cept of 'progress' two quite distinct criteria of modernity and nationality. The results were hardly satisfactory. In fact, the difficulties were apparent almost as soon as this, more discriminating history of 'the Bengal Renaissance' began to be written down. Susobhan Sarkar in his classic, 'Notes on the Bengal Renaissance', underlined the two analogies at every available opportunity. 1 Bengal's role in 'the modem awakening of India' was, he thought, 'comparable to the position occupied by Italy in the story of the European Renaissance'. Rammohun Roy's criticism of priestcraft and superstition reminded him of the leaders of the Protestant revolution and his defence of free speech of Milton's Areopagitica, and Madhusudan Dutt 'ofa typical Italian humanist indulging in wild free living'. Surendranath 1 First published in 19'49 and reprinted in Susobhan Sarkar, Bmgal Rmaissllnct

and Other Essays (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1970), pp. 1-74. Other examples of this 'orthodox' Marxist interpretation of nineteenth-century thought can be found in A.R. Desai, Social Background of Indian Nationalism (Bombay: Popular Prabshan, 1948); Bipan Chandra, The Rist and Grrnvth of &"'10mic Nationalism in India (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1966); Arabinda Poddar, Rmaissllnct in Btngal: Starch for Idmtity (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1977).

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8 • The Present History of West Bengal Banerjea, he thought it important to mention, 'made his audience thrill in sympathy with the Italy of the Risorgimento or Ireland of the Home Rule movement'. Rammohun Roy was, of course, unquestionably the great figure of the renaissance, not merely because he began the struggle to transform 'the stagnant, degraded and corrupt state into which our society had fallen', but because he sought to do so on the basis of'a synthesis of the best thought of the East and the West'. He was modem, but not denationalized. By contrast, the impact of the Derozians was 'ephemeral and insubstantial'. Even their irreverence for social conventions did not lead to 'sturdy revolt or bold defiance', but to 'mere evasion'. The conservative opponents of Rammohun were traditionalists, unable to appreciate the progressive quality of the new ideas that were beginning to challenge many longstanding beliefs. And yet, Sarkar himself admitted, men like Radhakanta Deb or Mrityunjay Vidyalankar were not 'out and out reactionary', for although they opposed Rammohun they were often in favour of many progressive reforms: On the criterion of n~tionality, the entire progressive intelligentsia ofBengal, virtually without exception, was on the wrong side during the revolt of 1857. But Sarkar is able to find an alternative conjuncture, a historical point not too distant in time from the Great Indian Revolt, where this anomaly is set right. The Indigo agitations 'swept like a tidal wave over the country in 1859-60 and formed a striking landmark in the growth of Bengal's consciousness'. The significance of this mass upsurge against English planters, carried out by the peasants and fully supported by the city intelligentsia, Sarkar emphasizes by pointing out that even the Royal Institute of International Affairs had called it 'a landmark in the history of nationalism'. The rest is a story of the progressive disappearance of illusions about the benefits ofBritish rule and the growing militancy ofanti-colonial struggles. More detailed historical studies, however, easily brought out the main difficulty with this framework. It was obvious that the national was not always secular and modem, and the popular and democratic quite often traditional and sometimes fanatically anti-modem. The 1970s, in fact, saw several attempts by historians to question what had by then become the Marxist orthodoxy on the subject. How much this academic rethinking

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The F"'its ofMacaulay's Poison Tree• 9 was prompted by the political turmoil in the Left in West Bengal

in this period and particularly by the quite literal attempts at iconoclasm remains an interesting question of our own intellectual history. In any event, the earlier Marxist formulations on the nineteenth-century 'renaissance' were severely criticized by these historians. It was all very well, these critics argued, to pick out the many undoubtedly modern elements in the thought of the nineteenth-century social reformers and ideologues, but what significance do these elements of modernity acquire when looked at in the context of the evolving colonial economy of the same period, of massive deindustrialization and destitution, of unbearable pressure on the land leading to a virtually irreversible process of regressive rent exploitation and stagnation in levels of productivity, of the crushing of peasant resistance, of the growing social gulf ratl1er than bonds of alliance between a modernized, Western-educated urban elite and the rest of the nation? In what sense can this modernity be reconciled with any meaningful conception of the national-popular? Sumit Sarkar, for instance, showed that Indian Marxists in interpreting the evolution ofIndian thought as a conflictbetween two trends, 'westemist' or 'modernist' on the one hand and 'traditionalist' on the other, had, notwithstanding the many analytical intricacies, whole-heartedly plumped for Westernism as the historically progressive trend. 2 He then argued: 'An unqualified equation of the "westernizers" . . . with modernism or progress almost inevitably leads to a more positive assessment of British rule, English education, and the nineteenth-century protagonists of both .. .' In fact, the entire 'tradition-modernization dichotomy' served as a cover under which 'the grosser facts of imperialist political and economic exploitation [were] very often quietly tucked away in a comer'. As facts stand, Rammohun 2 Sumit Sarkar, 'Rammohun Roy and the

Break with the Past', in V.C.Joshi, ed., Rammohun Ruy and tht Process ofModmiization in India (Delhi: Vikas, 1975), pp. 46-68. Similar arguments arc put forward in three other articles in the same volun1e: Asok Sen, 'The Bengal Economy and Rammohun Roy'; Barun De, 'A Biographical Perspective on the Political and Economic Ideas ofRamn1ohun Roy'; and Pradyumna Bhattacharya, 'Rammohun Roy and Bengali Prose'; and Barun De, 'A Historiographical Critique of Renaissance Analogues for Nineteenth-Century India', in Barun De, ed., PerspertilltS in tht Soci4l Sciences I: Hiswrical Dimmsions (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 178-218.

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10 • The Present History of West Bengal Roy's break with tradition was 'deeply contradictory', accommodating within the same corpus of thinking numerous compromises with orthodox, Hindu elitist and, by his own enlightened standards, clearly irrational ways of thought and practice. In any case, it was a break only 'on the intellectual plane and not at the level of basic social transformation'. In his economic thinking, he accepted, in toto, the then fashionable logic of free trade and seemed to visualize 'a kind of dependent but still real bourgeois development in Bengal in close collaboration with British merchants and entrepreneurs'. This was an absurd illusion because colonial subjection would never permit full-blooded bourgeois modernity but only 'a weak and distorted caricature'. The argument therefore was that while there were elements of modernity in the new cultural and i~tellectual movements in nineteenth-century India, these cannot become meaningful unless they are located in their relation, on the one hand, to the changing socio-economic structure and, on the other, to the crucial context of power, that is to the reality of colonial subjection. When thus located, the achievements of early-nineteenthcentury 'modernizers' such as Rammohun seem limited within a Hindu elitist, colonial, almost comprador, framework. In another article on the Derozians, Sumit Sarkar once again questioned the simple-minded tendency among Marxists to distinguish between a clear progressive trend and a clear conservative trend among nineteenth-century intellectuals.3 'Perhaps we have all been somewhat guilty of a Whig interpretation of our nineteenth-century heritage.' Although the Derozians were seen as the most extreme radicals of their times, Sumit Sarkar showed how there occurred a quite rapid blurring ofdistinctions between them and other sections of the intelligentsia. On many crucial matters, in fact, they shared the same presuppositions. . The virtually ubiquitous presence of the concept of Muslim tyr•ny (and of British rule as a deliverance from the same) is merely one of the most striking features of nineteenth-century 'renaissance' thought, and the Derozian acceptance of these assumptions is a reminder that in certain crucial respects our 'radicals' were not all that different from the 'moderates' or even the 'conservatives'.

Sumit Sarkar, 'The Complexities ofYoung Bengal', Ninet«nth untury StuditS, 1, 4 (October 1973), pp. 504-34. 3

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-- .

The Fnlits ofMacaulay's Poison Tree• 11 Indeed, these, much more than the presence or absence of liberal attitudes and sentiments, were the crucial questions which would have to determine our characterization of nineteenthcentury thought. And the answer was clear: 'Dependence on the foreign rulers and alienation from the masses were to remain for _long the two cardinal limitations of our entire "renaissance" intelligentsia.' The same argument was stated at greater length in Asok Sen's study of the career oflswar Chandra Vidyasagar. 4 Sen placed the problem in the theoretical context ofAntonio Gramsci's discussion of the relation of intellectuals to more fundamental forces ' of social transformation. The mere acceptance of ne\v ideas or their original structure of assumptions and implications did not in itself mean much. Major changes in thought and attitude were, in fact, brought about 'by the capacity of nascent social forces to achieve goals of transformation [often] not clarified in the original postulates of reasoning or speculation' (Sen, p. 75). What was crucial, therefore, was a fundamental class striving for class hegemony and advance of social production. Without such a class, 'the cultural influence of intellectuals is reduced to an essentially abstract phenomenon giving no consistent direction of significant social renewal; their influence is limited to tiny intellectual groups who have no creative bonds with a broader social con~ensus' (Sen, p. 86). In the specific context of nineteenth-century Bengal, the middle class was not a fundamental class nor were its intellectuals organic to any fundamental project of social transformation or conquest of hegemony. The new middle class was a product of English education. But in an economy under direct colonial control, in which there was little prospect for the release of forces of industrialization, the attempt 'to achieve through education what was denied to the economy' was utterly anomalous. Vidyasagar's own attempts at social reform, for instance, placed great reliance upon liberal backing by the colonial government. The failure of those attempts showed that his hopes were misplaced. On the other hand, he did not find any effective support for his schemes from within his own class. Asok Sen, Iswar Chandra Vulyasagar and l1is Elusive Mikstonn (Calcutta: Riddhi;- 1977). 4

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12 • Tht Present History of West Bengal When arguing for reform, Vidyasagar, despite his own professed disregard for the sanctity or reasonableness of the fastra, felt compelled to look for scriptural support for his programmes. He did not think it feasible to attempt to create a 'nonconformism outside the bond of canonical orthodoxy'. In fact, this remained a major ideological anomaly in all nineteenthcentury attempts to 'modernize' religion and social practices - 'a spurious conciliation of Indian idealism and imported liberal sanctions' - which led to a major backlash after 1880 in the form of movements to 'revive tradition', movements that were openly hostile to the earlier decades of 'reason and enlightenment'. In Sen, therefore, the argument becomes sharper. The nineteenth-century intelligentsia may have genuinely welcomed the new ideas of reason and rationality, and some may even have shown considerable courage and enterprise in seeking to 'modernize' social customs and attitudes. But the fundamental forces of transformation were absent in colonial society. As a result, there was no possibility ofthe emergence ofa consistently rational set of beliefs or practices. Liberalism stood on highly fragile foundations; 'reason dwindled to merely individual means of self-gratification without social responsibility'. The half-heartedness and ambiguity was part of the very process of bourgeois development in a colonial country: 'the dialectics of loyalty and opposition' did not pern1it 'a clear division among the native bourgeoisie or the entire middle class into two exclusive categories of collaborators and opponents of imperialism'. In India. bourgeois opposition to imperialism was always ambiguous. The attempt to relate developments in thought to the evolving socio-economic structure of a colonial country inevitably therefore, led to the problem of power: the subjection of a colonial country and the question of loyalty or opposition to the imperial power. And once put in that perspective, the modem and the national seemed to diverge in fundamental ways. It is the problem of power which is placed at the centre of another critique ofthe nineteenth-century 'renaissance' -Ranajit Guha's analysis ofDinabandhu Mitra's Ml DarpatJ. 5 This play has long enjoyed a reputation for being a bold indictment of the Rmajit Guba, 'Neel Darpan: The Image of a Peasant Revolt in a Liberal Mirror',Joumal ofPeasant Studits, 2, 1 (October 1974), pp. 1-46. 5

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The Fmits ofMacaulay's Poison Tree• 13 depredations of British planters in the Indian countryside and a classic portrayal ofthe bravery and determination ofthe peasantry in their resistance to colonialism. But Guha shows the innately liberal-humanitarian assumptions underlying Dinabandhu's criticism of the planters, assumptions he shared with virtually the entire new intelligentsia ofthe nineteenth century. Thus, underlying the criticism of the lawlessness of the planters and of the actions of a few foolish and inconsiderate English officials, there was an abiding faith in the rationality and impartiality ofEnglish law and in the good intentions of the colonial administration taken as a whole. Never did it occur to these newly enlightened gentlemen, despite their fondness for justice and liberty, that the legitimacy of British rule in India might be called in question. In fact, it was the very existence of British power in India that was regarded as the final and most secure guarantee against lawlessness, superstition and despotism. Not only that; the image of the resolute peasant defending his rights against the predatory planter, as represented in elite accounts such as Dinabandhu's play, is that of an enlightened liberal, conscious of his rights as an individual, willing to go to great lengths to defend these rights against recalcitrant officials, even succumbing to 'brief, intermittent bursts' of violence, but all the while believing in the fundamental legitimacy of the social order. This was a far cry from any truly revolutionary appreciation by a progressive intelligentsia of the strength of peasant resistance to colonialism and of its potentials for the construction of a new 'national-popular' consciousness. What the play does reveal is, in fact, an attitude of collaboration, between a colonial government and its educated native collaborators, sealed by the marriage of law and literacy. The sympathy of the intelligentsia for the victims ofthe violence of indigo planters and the support by large sections of the rich and middling sorts of people in town and countryside to the cause of tl1e peasants are explained by a specific conjuncture of interests and events. In the overall estimate, such opposition only opened up an immense hinterland of compromise and reformism into which to retreat from a direct contest for power with the colonial masters. . . . And, thus 'improvement', that characteristic ideological gift of nineteenth-century British capitalism, is made to pre-empt and replace the urge for a revolutionary transformation of society.

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14 • The Present History ofWest Bengal The critique of the 1970s seriously damaged the old structure ofassumptions about our 'renaissance'. It emphasized at numerous points the impossibility of making the distinction between a progressive and a conservative trend within the nineteenthcentury intelligentsia. It showed, in &et, that on most fundamental questions, virtually the entire intelligentsia shared the same presuppositions. But those presuppositions were neither unambiguously ·modem, nor unambiguously national. Liberal, secular and rational attitudes were invariably compromised by concessions to scriptural or canonical authority or, even more ignominiously, by succumbing .to pressures for conformity or to enticements of material advancement. On the other hand, sentiments of nationality flowed out of an unconcealed faith in the basic goodness of the colonial order and the progressive · support of the colonial state. All this reflected the absence of a fundamental social class infused by a revolutionary urge to transform society and to stamp it with the imprint of its own unquestioned hegemony. Our 'renaissance' had no historical links with the revolutionary mission ofa progressive bourgeoisie seeking to create a nation in its own image. Interestingly, however, even in their critique of the 'renaissance' argument, the historians of the 1970s did not relinquish the analogy with European history as their basic structure of reference. Indeed, the critique was possible only by reference to -that analogue. The point of the critique was, in fact·, to show that if modem Europe is taken as the classic demonstration of the progressive significance of an intellectual revolution in the history of the emergence of the capitalist economy and the modem state, then the intellectual history of nineteenth-century India did not have this significance. As the harbinger of a bourgeois and a national revolution, the .Indian 'renaissance' was partial, fragmented; indeed, it was a failure;

The Nationalist Project The critique of the 'renaissance' could not have avoided an implicit reference to European analogues because the most crucial terms of this discourse - modernity, progress, science, rationality, liberalism, capitalism, nation - could be defined within the domain of historical scholarship only by reference

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The Fruits ofMacaulay's Poison Tree • 15 to the classical cases from Europe. The problem, in this case, was compounded by the fact that the great figures of the 'renaissance' themselves thought, spoke and wrote within more or less the same discursive limits, and in fact consciously set out to emulate the historical experience from which that discourse had been born. As any reader of contemporary popular nonfiction will confirm, the paradoxes of self-referring systems of representation are seemingly endless.6 Thus, what was meant to be modern became increasingly alienated from the mass of the people. What seemed to assert greater ideological sway over the nation were newer forms of conservatism. And yet, these seemingly conservative movements in thought were themselves premised on the same presuppositions- 'modem' presuppositions-as those ofthe 'renaissance'. Nowhere are these paradoxes more bailing than in the history of the so-called 'revivalism' of the late nineteenth century. To this day, they have continued to embarrass our progressive intelligentsia. Consider Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, a man who regarded himself as 'a Young Bengal' and wrote his first novel in English. Rationalist to the core, his early social essays are marked by an explicit acceptance of the basic tenets of mid-nineteenthcentury European social thought - positivist sociology as well as utilitarian political economy. Arguing from those theoretical premises, he quite naturally identified the cause ofIndia's poverty and subjection in the absence from our culture ofthose attributes that have made the European culturally equipped for power and for progress. The overwhelming part of religious beliefs in India, he argued, was based on vairagya, on other-worldliness and fatalism. This was wholly in contradiction with the requirements of progress in the modem world. IfIndia was to progress, she would have to change her archaic beliefs and outmoded social institutions. The conditions for such a transformation had been created by British rule. It had established a finer and more impersonal legal and judicial system, brought greater access, at least in principle, for the lower castes to positions of power and status and had made available the means for Indians to acquire the benefits For instance, Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Go1'kn Braid (Hannondsworth: Penguin, 1980). 6

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16 • The Present History of West Bengal of Western science and literature.7 In order to qualify ourselves for progress and liberty, therefore, it was necessary to transform our culture, to bring into being a new national religion suited to the modern world. And to achieve this transformation, we would have to learn from the West, indeed to a large extent to imitate the West.11 But how, then, would we retain our own cultural identity, those distinctive cultural traits which made us different from all other nations in the world? How could we prevent ourselves from being submerged completely by the dominant culture of the West? By imitating the West, we might become modern, but what about our national character? How were we to preserve the latter? This indeed was the central question of our emergent nationalist thought. And Bankim's answer to this question typified the intellectual premises which characterized virtually the whole of our national movement. Bankim's answer did not deny that the West and the East were essentially different. It also did not deny that in the conditions of the modern world the cultural values of the West were intrinsically superior to those of the East. Only, this superiority was partial; it -related to only one sphere of culture. The superiority of the West was in the materiality of its culture. The West had achieved progress, prosperity and freedom because it l1ad placed Reason at the heart of its culture. The distinctive culture of the West was its science, its technology and ics love of progress. But culture did not consist only of the material aspect of life. There was the spiritual aspect too, and here the European Enlightenment had little to contribute. In the spiritual aspect of culture the East was superior: there it was undominated. There were three kinds ofknowledge, Bankim argued, knowledge of the world, of the self, and of God. Knowledge of the world consisted of mathematics, astronomy, physics and chemistry. These, one would have to learn from the West. Knowledge ofself meant biology and sociology. These, too, one would have to learn from the West. Finally, knowledge of God. In this field, the Hindu fastra contained the greatest human achievements 7

Sec, in particular, 'Bharatbaqcr Svadhinati EbaJ11 Paradhinati', &rikim R4antibali, vol. 2 (Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad, 1955), pp. 241- 5. 8 Sec 'AnuJcarar:i', ibid., pp. 200-4.

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the Upanishads, the darfana, the Puranas and, principally, the Gita. 9 The true national religion would have to be a synthesis of the best achievements in these three aspects of knowledge. As the Guru explains in Dharmatattva : The day the European industries and sciences are united with Indian dharma, man will be god . . . Soon you will see that with the spread of the doctrine of pure bhakli, the Hindus will gain new life and become powerful like the English at the time of Cromwell or the Arabs under Muhammad. 10

We need not concern ourselves here with the precise details ofBankim's attempted synthesis. 11 The point is that this wave of religious revivalism, usually regarded as a 'backlash', a 'reaction' to the progressive phase of modernism which had preceded it, was itself based on exactly the same intellectual presuppositions as those of the earlier phase. Like the modernists, the new conservatives admitted, first of all, the essential cultural difference between East and West; second, the importance of the material sphere ofculture in the conditions created by the modem world; third, the innate superiority of Western culture in the material aspects of life; and fourth, the need to learn from and emulate the West in those material aspects. However, they also proposed an answer to the modernists' dilemma: by learning from the West we did not necessarily risk losing our national cultural identity as long as we were careful to distinguish between the two aspects of culture. We would learn our science and technology from the West, for there the West was superior. But we must at the same time revive, retain and strengthen our own spiritual heritage, for there we were second to none. That would preserve our national identity vis-a-vis the West. It is also an undeniable fact that it was this ideological solution, and not the modernism of the early 'renaissance', that created the possibility of the emergence in Bengal of a nationalist vanguard. It was a solution which directly confronted the problem of modernity without evading, as the 'renaissance' did, the problem of power. It .urged the new middle class to regenerate and 'Dharmatattva', ibid., p. 630. to Ibid., pp. 630, 633. 11 I have discussed this at m·•ch greater length in my book, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (London: Zed Books, 1986). 9

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18 • The Present History of West Bengal

reform the institutions of national culture - the national 'religion', as Bankim called it - and to do it as a political task. The spiritual conception of the nation evoked powerful sentiments in the minds of the new nationalist intelligentsia. The nation became the Mother, once resplendent in wealth and beauty, now in tatters, exhorting her sons, those of them who were brave and enlightened, to vanquish the enemy and win back her honour. The nation acquired a utopian meaning, dreamlike and yet passionately real, charged with a deeply religious semiotic. It co11veyed tl1e acute sense of anguish of a small, alienated middle class, daily insulted by the realities of political subjection and yet powerless to hit back, summoning up from the depths of its soul the will and the courage to deliver the ultimate sacrifice that would save the honour of the nation. It was also a singularly elitist solution. The task of cultural synthesis could be performed only by a supremely refined intellect - learned, wise, agile and religious. So also the political task of freeing the nation. Only the enlightened and the brave could be entrusted with it. It is in no way surprising that the direct political disciples ofBankim were the revolutionary terrorists of the early twentieth century. The elitism of their intellectual conceptions was reflected in the rigid exclusiveness oftheir organization, their distaste, indeed contempt, for mass politics, their mistrust of the peasantry and the lower castes, and, of course, of the Muslims - ignorant, superstitious, bigoted, treacherous. The Uniqueness ofWest Bengal But surely, we could object, all this changed in the 1920s and 1930s? The nineteenth-century renaissance, it is true, was limited. It could hardly have been otherwise under conditions of colonialism. Yet, despite its limitations, it did succeed in implanting in our consciousness the ideas of reason, rationality and progress which were the hallmarks of the new democratic age. True again, the revivalist phase was marked by excessive emphasis on religion, by a championing of conservative values and by sectarian exclusiveness. But despite all these limitations, it nevertheless succeeded in inspiring an emerging political leadership with the spirit of nationalism. It united a much broader section ofthe middle classes into an uncompromising, militant and organized struggle against

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foreign rule. And the limitations from which both these phases of the movement suffered were overcome in the second and third decades of the present century when radical sections of the middle-class political leadership actively sought to forge organized links with the working class and the peasantry, both within and outside the platform provided by the nationalist struggle. Why, then, should we continue to harp on the limitations of the earlier phase when these had been superseded by our more recent political history? It is an important objection, and one which the critique of the 1970s, restricted by the terms of its analogical reasoning, does not answer satisfactorily. That critique had sought to expose the invalidity of the conclusions drawn by the proponents of the 'renaissance' argument from the application of European analogues to nineteenth-century Indian history. If the historical analogy was to be applied, these critics had argued, it would only show that there was no renaissance in nineteenth-century India, no laying of the intellectual foundations for a bourgeois and a national revolution. Our present objection, however, would put the ball back in their court. Fair enough, we could reply; let us accept that the alleged renaissance in India did not have the same significance for the emergence of capitalism and the modem nation-state as the comparable intellectual and cultural movements in Europe. But this is only a negative demonstration. Looking back on the history of India in the last century and a half, it is surely undeniable that something significant did happen. What was it? We could indeed throw the challenge back at these critics and say: analogue or no analogue, explain to us in positive terms the course ofour intellectual and cultural development leading up to the country's independence, the creation of a post-colonial state and the rapid growth of democratic and Left movements in various parts of the country. Once again, it is paradoxical that the nationalist argument, originally built upon a historical analogue, should now want to vindicate itself by asserting the irrelevance of that analogue. But let that pass. Let us consider the theoretical requirements for an answer to our objection. The objection would, in fact, force us to re-examine some of the central conceptual terms of our discourse. Instead of adopting an analytical framework which demonstrates the various ways in which ,developments in India

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20 • The Present History of West Bengal

do not fit the more well-known historical models, we would be required to construct other concepts and other theoretical relations so as to adequately understand the specific historical developments in India. On the face of it, this may seem an obvious enough requirement. Unfortunately, in the field of historical scholarship, it is not all that simple. Involved in this is the gigantic problem of opening our theoretical constructs to the constant interplay between generalities formulated at the level of universal history and particularities discovered at the level of the historically specific. The former seem to emerge as abstracted generalizations over a large number of particular cases, thus constituting our framework of understanding. And yet, the inadequacy of the framework is exposed as soon as particular cases are re~xamined within the unity of tl1e theory. This, then, calls for a re-examination of the general framework itself. But the problem with historical knowledge is its own presence as an active element within human consciousness which in tum creates both history and historical knowledge. This problem of self-reference makes it extremely difficult to identify, and then to make sense of, the divergences between the universal and the particular. Understanding demands a unification of knowledge, while the urge not to overlook the historically specific seems to make understanding impossible. Yet it is this ceaseless tension itself that sustains the quest for historical knowledge. This is what makes it a powerful and creative element in our consciousness of ourselves. Let us, therefore, accept the risk of gross oversimplification and hazard a few tentative comments by way of suggesting an alternative framework for understanding our intellectual history in the last hundred and fifty years. What, in the first place, are the main elements which may be said to define the hegemonic 'national' cultural form within the Bengali nationality? To what extent does this represent the intellectual-moral achievement of the leading strata among the Bengali people? And how is this development related to the evolving structures of the Indian state formation? To start with, we should note the fact that there now exists a fairly well-defined, standard form of the Bengali language, for speech as well as for writing, applicable with minor modifications to West Bengal and Bangladesh. This, it can safely be asserted, is largely the creation of the Calcutta-based intelligentsia; this

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The Fruits ofMacaulay's Poison Tree • 21 work of standardization is pursued to this day, at least for West Bengal, from that metropolis through the vastly expanded media of the press, school textbooks, radio and television, theatre and cinema and gramophone records. With the help of this standardized language, there has also grown since the nineteenth century a considerable body of literature, artistic as well as theoretical, perhaps less distinguished in tl1e academic disciplines and particularly the natural sciences, but nevertheless wide enough in range to cover virtually every significant intellectual movement in the world. The most outstanding feature of this literature is its undoubted modernity. Not only does it reflect, in the main, the social, intellectual and artistic concerns and tastes of a relatively well educated, largely urban, middle class, it also reveals a consistent urge to 'keep up' with the most advanced cultural trends in the rest of the world, more specifically in Europe. An avant-gardism.of this sort is evident from the time.of the Derozians, and as early as in the middle of the century Krishnakamal Bhattacharya could scoff at the positivist pundits of Ben~l because they could not read Comte in the original French; Bankim, he alleged, ·had only a second-hand familiarity with his supposed mentor. 12 Bankim, in tum, did not bother to hide his contempt for the 'backward' views ofmost of his contemporaries on scientific and philosophical matters. This intellectual attitude ofBengal's cultural leaders, undoubtedly born out of the peculiarities of the colonial situation, produced, at one and the same time, an urge to find a distinct and authentic cultural identity for the nationality as well as an urge for cosmopolitanism. Paradoxical as this may sound, it was the two together, and not just the first - the claim, that is, that it was not merely national but comparable with the most advanced international standards - that provided this culture of the middle classes with the standard of legitimacy which made it the accepted cultural norm for the entire nationality - the dominant, the 'standard' form of its culture. In a sense, the intellectual and creative tension between the two demands, for indigenous authenticity on the one hand and cosmopolitanism on the other, was born out of the more fundamental contradiction encountered by the new middle class in its entire colonial experience .12

Sec Bipinbihari Gupta, Puritan Prasariga (1913; reprint Calcutta: Bidya-

bharati, 1967), pp. 11-84.

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22 • The Pre.smt History of West Bengal

the contradiction between the national and the modem. But the cultural resolution ofthis contradiction attempted by the Bengali intelligentsia was, in many ways, quite unique in the overall Indian context. It has a lot to do, it seems to me, with the uniqueness, one might even say marginality, of the West Bengal case in the evolving pattern of present-day Indian politics. There did, of course, exist a rather unique socio-economic situation in Bengal. The very size of the middle class was, by the early decades of the twentieth century, much larger than anywhere else in India. Culturally, it was fairly homogeneous, being predominantly upper-caste Hindu, until there emerged in the twentieth century a significant Muslim middle class. But the latter development was interrupted by largely exogenous historical circumstances as Bengal's politics was drawn into the vortex of all-India political developments, culminating in the partition of the province. Looking back, it now appears as one of those quirks of history that through all the devastation and bloodshed of the partition, the upper-caste Hindu middle class of Bengal should have received, as it were, a whole new lease of life in the now truncated state of West Bengal. For there, once again, its claim to a position of natural leadership of the entire nationality became virtually unassailable. There was no Bengali capitalist class which could seize the new opportunities opened up by the withdrawal of British capital or by state suppon for private capitalist expansion. Historically, the industrial working class too was very largely from outside Bengal; when a sizeable Bengali working class was formed in the 1950s and 1960s its culture became a virtual extension of that of the urban middle class. The middle class itself, having lost its last surviving ties with the land as a result of panition and the abolition of the zamindari form of landownership, became a much more distinctly urban class than ever before. It also became much more 'radical' in its politics. This specific combination of urbanism and radicalism in the ideological orientation of the political leadership in West Bengal has given a distinctive character to the politics of the state. In the sphere of agrarian politics, for instance, unlike in most other states in India, the middle-class political leadership of West Bengal, irrespective of party affiliation, has intervened through the state machinery or through party organizations, not as a contending element in the agrarian class struggle but as an

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The Fruits ofMacaulay's Poison Tm:• 23

outsider, an external force with an 'objective' consciousness of the social reality. This struct_ural location of the middle-class political leadership and the resultant 'objectification' of politics is crucial to an understanding of the apparent paradox of the continued domination by an upper-caste Hindu and predominantly urban middle class in virtually every sphere of organized political and cultural life in the state and the absence of any significant caste or communal articulation of political demands. This creates the basis for the principal political strategy of Left politics in West Bengal - the alliance between urban consumers, both middle class and working class, and the small and landless peasantry in the countryside. The crucial mediating role in this political strategy is necessarily provided by the state machinery, in the form of guaranteeing a system of public distribution of food in the urban areas, statutory control of prices of essential items of consumption, protecting the poor peasant against eviction from the land, maintaining the bargaining position of landless peasants and labourers against landlords and moneylenders, and generally resisting as far as possible the destructive consequences ofa full-scale capitalism in agriculture. It is significant that except for the ill-fated Bangla Congress of the late 1960s, West Bengal's politics has not seen a distinct party organization of the kulak interest. The 'radical' thrust of this politics, however, necessarily culminates in an itatisme, but an etatisme which lacks the guidance and support of a fundamental 'national' class. This is where the continuity lies between the so-called renaissance of the nineteenth century and the dominant strand ofpolitics in West Bengal today. This is also where the discontinuity lies between the politics ofWest Bengal and the politics that has emerged around the Indian state as a whole. As members of an enlightened intelligentsia, our nineteenth-century reformers were acting in accordance with the newly acquired dictates of reason, rationality and freedom. In theory, this should have prepared the ideological conditions for the emergence ofa capitalist order. Unfortunately, in the case ofBengal in the second halfof the nineteenth century, the nationality did not possess even an emergent bourgeoisie with the will and the ability to carry forward this struggle in the sphere ofcivil society, more specifically the economy. The intelligentsia consequently fell back upon what now appears to us a supremely

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24 • The Present History of West Bengal naive belief in the essential rationality and liberality of the colonial state. Nevenheless, a struggle was waged, both against medieval obscurantism ossified in the traditional hierarchical order and against the vulgar profligacy of the comprador rich who dominated the social life of Calcutta in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In the process, a new ethic came to acquire a position of dominance in Bengali society - a dominance backed by a wholly new claim to moral legitimacy. It was the ethic of the new middle class in which social respectability was based not on binh or wealth but primarily on education, an ethic which demanded hard work, devotion to learning, professional excellence, and a somewhat self-righteous contempt for easy wealth. It was an ethic which gave the middle class its dignity and self-respect, and even.a pride in having emulated the English in the best aspects of their knowledge and culture but having done so without losing its distinct cultural identity. It was this ethic, undoubtedly elitist, even exclusive in its own social context, which sustained the political will of the Bengali middle class in the difficult years of revolutionary terrorism. It was the central moral core of the same ethic which later gave sustenance to the new phase of anti-capitalist radicalism from the late 1930s. It was, one might be tempted to say, a puritan ethic, innately bourgeois in its constitutive elements. Ofall the dominant regional cultures in twentieth-century India, the culture of the Bengali middle class is arguably the most bourgeois in the classical European sense. It is the moral legitimacy of this aspect of its culture which enables progressive circles in West Bengal today to proclaim with justified pride the modernity of its artistic tastes, the rationality of its social beliefs, the 'civilized' nature of its treatment of women, and the secular character of its public life. And yet, crucially, the moral power of this legitimacy, from its very binh, has lacked suppon in any positive principles of economic activity. In its social and political mission its predominant form of activity has been purely etatist. One might say that the historical culmination of this mission, begun in the middle of the nineteenth centt1ry, was reached with the formation of the Left Front government in West Bengal. There the mission has met its final impasse. For what has happened to the all-India economy and the Indian state in the last fifty years has quite effectively, and one

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The Fruits ofMacaulay's Poison Tree• 25

has reason to suspect irreversibly, marginalized the political role ofBengal's middle class. In this period, one has seen the creation of an organized p.olitical alliance within the Indian national movement of the aspiring ruling classes; one has then seen the end of colonial rule and ·the inauguration of a post-colonial state. Looking back on this recent history, it seems nothing less than a 'passive revolution', in Gramsci's sense of the term, led by an all-India bourgeoisie clearly unable to rule except in alliance with other dominant classes, particularly in the countryside, but nevertheless capable of maintaining a directing role in the central structures of the economy and at the highest levels of the state. The main ideological axis of this 'passive revolution' is also etatist, for the hegemonic role of the bourgeoisie in Indian society as a whole is clearly much too weak and fragmented for it to rule within a fully liberal, free-enterprise type of state framework. Not only does the Indian bourgeoisie have to share power with other dominant classes, it necessarily has to operate in an economy that P._ermits a considerable degree of state intervention, state control and state initiative. The main ideological props for such a politics are nationalism, planning, • mixed economy, modern science and technology, 'national integration' and 'secularism', together constituting an ideology of 'progressivism' the acknowledged origins of which lie in the Bengal 'renaissance' of the nineteenth century. But, of course, in the onward march of Indian capitalism in the last three decades, it is West Bengal which has been systematically marginalized. It has not had its own representation within the dominant class alliance for it to have grabbed, by those means, an adequate chunk of the investments for development. Instead, the dominant political mood of the state has turned into a pervasive anger, sometimes sullen, sometimes violent, but always negative, against the quite perceptible process of decay and the utter injustice of it all. The political leadership has voiced this anger and has received the support of the people in its stance of militant opposition to those who rule so unfairly the destiny of the country as a whole. Meanwhile, the process of capitalist accumulation and its consequences on an all-India scale has moved on relentlessly. The very cultural and moral basis of the leadership ofthe progressive intelligentsia is now threatened, not by any significant political challenge from within but as a result

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26 • The Present History of West Bengal

ofchanges in the sheer technological scale of cultural production which have made the older forms of newspaper, magazine and book publishing, or the theatre and the cinema, economically non-viable, unless undertaken on entirely new commercial premises. The moral legitimacy of virtually every aspect of the cultural edifice built by the Bengali intelligentsia over the last hundred years is now under constant assault, on the one hand by the new cosmopolitanism of the 'English medium' to which the class itself has almost wholly succumbed, once again a helpless submission to the economic laws of the job mark.et, and on the other by the vulgarity of mass-produced commercial entertainment. The only answer to this has been state patronage of culture, on a scale so woefully inadequate as to be almost irrelevant to the overall situation. What this reveals, as indeed does nearly every other aspect of the political experiment carried out in West Bengal in the last few years, is the inability of the political leadership to articulate its ethic of modernity and national pride into a social programme of productive economic renewal. Despite the radicalism ofits politics . and the decades of bitter political struggle, the failure of this leadership to formulate a feasible programme of economic transformation in West Bengal, to identify appropriate social agents and to organize them politically for this task, has necessarily led to a hollow etatismt whose limits are exposed almost as soon as one is brought face to face with the true realities of power in the all-India context. This is a very poor improvement on the natvete of the nineteenth-century social reformers who had fondly believed that one only needed to persuade the enlightened English law-maker and progress would be ordained by law. The wheel has come full circle. Today a radical Bengali intelligentsia finds its own ideological resources being appropriated by a capitalist order which benignly lets it rule over a nationality whose fate the intelligentsia is powerless to decide. '

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3

The Second Partition of Bengal The Nation at the Time ofSwadeshi

I

t is instructive to compare the first partition of Bengal in 1905 with the second in 1947. The first partition of the province of Bengal into two provinces - Bengal in the west and East Bengal and Assam in the east - was the result almost exclusively of an administrative decision at the top. There was no mass political agitation at the time, of the kind we now associate with nationalist mobilizations, making the demand that the province be divided in accordance with the facts ofcultural demography. On the contrary, it was the decision to partition that provoked what was perhaps the first mass nationalist agitation in India - the Swadeshi movement - demanding, in the end successfully (in 1911 ), the repeal of partition on the ground that the people of Bengal were culturally.one and indivisible. The reason given for the partition decision was administrative convenience: the undivided province with an area of 189,000 square miles and a population of 79 million was said to have become· ungovernable. But, of course, there were important political considerations too that were, as Sumit Sarkar has shown in his classic study, by no means secondary. 1 The most clearly stated of these was the need to curb the growing nationalist sentiments in Bengal which were thought to be confined almost exclusively to the Hindu middle classes: a partition ofthe province, the colonial governors felt, would reduce the effect that this movement, 'unfriendly if not seditious in cliaracter', was having on 'the whole tone of Bengal administration'. As H.H. Risley, the ethnographeradministrator, put it in two oft-quoted sentences: 'Bengal united Movemmt in Btngal 1903-1908 (New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1973). 1 Sumit Sarkar, Tht Swodahi

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28 • The Present History of West Bengal is a power; Bengal divided will pull in different ways ... One of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.' 2 The political objective of the colonial administration, in other words, was pre-emptive: to disrupt what was seen as a growing nationalist opposition led by the Hindu middle classes. Curzon, the viceroy, stated the objective quite plainly: The Bengalis, who like to think themselves a nation, and who dream of a future when the English will have been turned out, and a Bengali Babu will be installed in Government House, Calcutta, of course bitterly resent any disruption that will be likely to interfere with the realisation ofthis dream. Ifwe are weak enough to yield to their clamour now, we shall not be able to dismember or reduce Bengal again; and you will be cementing and solidifying, on the eastern flank of India, a force already formidable, and certain to be a source ofincreasing trouble in the future. 3

He did not forget to mention in addition the other part of the colonial strategy: partition 'would invest the Muhammadans in Eastern Bengal with a unity which they have not enjoyed since the days of the old Mussulman viceroys and kings'. 4 If the partition of 1905, therefore, is attributed primarily to a colonial strategy ofdivide and rule, then that strategy can already be seen to be playing with the varying possibilities of congruence between territories and culturally marked populations. The historically significant point here is not whether there already existed one nation of Bengalis or two. Rather, the point is that even as the project of imagining a nation into existence got under way, it found itself on a political field where contending strategies could be devised to contest or disrupt that project by enabling the rival imagining ofrival nations, one on a principle oflinguistic nationalism, the other that of religious nation:alism. The first partition was undone in six years. The success ofthe Swadeshi movement in 'unsettling the settled fact' of a divided Bengal (in the celebrated words ofSurendranath Banerjea, principal leader of the movement) provided a major spurt to the Cited in ibid., pp. 17-18. 3 Cited in ibid., pp. 19-20. 4 Cited in ibid., p. 18. 2

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The Second Partition ofBengal • 29 nationalist imagination in Bengal and produced most of the ideological and organizational forms that would characterize nationalist politics there in the subsequent decades. This was the first significant occasion when the nationalist imagination in India was confronted with the concrete question ofthe territorial division of state jurisdictions. The idea that Bengal was one and indivisible, regardless ofreligious plurality, was a crucial element that shaped the notion that territory and culture were inseparably tied in a sort of'natural history' of the nation. The same naturalhistorical theme once again made the encompassment of Bengal within India largely unproblematical: the culture of Bengal was seen to be 'naturally' a part of the larger cultural unity of the Indian nation. The success of the anti-partition movement, however, barely concealed the faultlines in this unitary conception of the nation. The nationalist political leadership in Bengal at this time was overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindu. More significantly, the nationalist imagination which flourished so spectacularly at the time of the Swadeshi movement actually naturalized a conception ofthe nation in history that was quite _distinctly Hindu. And yet, it would be wrong to suppose that this Hindu-centred view of the nation was targeted against Muslims or that it even sought to exclude them from the ambit of the nation. It is noteworthy that even though there was little political campaigning in favour. of partition, the Swadeshi movement nevertheless produced an explicit rhetoric of'Hindu-Muslim unity' as part ofits evocation of nationhood. Bepinchandra Pal, for instance, put forward the idea of a 'composite patriotism' and a federal India of which the units would be the religious communities - Hindu, Muslim, Christian, aboriginal tribes. 5 The idea would persist through the period of mass nationalism and be applied most famously in Chittaranjan Das's 'Hindu-Muslim pact' of the 1920s. Alongside the conception of a 'natural history' of the nation, therefore, articulated predominantly in terms of a Hindu religious idiom, there was also the idea of unity born out of the fraternal association between Hindus and Muslims. The two ideas were perhaps best expressed in a very early nationalist text, which stretched the metaphor of natural relationship to its limit: 5

Ibid., pp. 420-4.

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. 30 • The Present History ofWest Bengal Although India is the true motherland only of those who belong to the Hindu jati and although only they have been born from her womb, the Muslims are not unrelated to her any longer. She has held them at her breast and reared them. The Muslims are therefore her adopted children. Can there be no bonds of fraternity between two children of the same mother, one a natural child and the other adopted? There certainly can; the laws of every religion admit this. There has now been born a bond ofbrotherhood between Hindus and Muslims living in India .. . 6

To sum up, the dominant form of the imagined nation that was produced in Bengal at the time of the Swadeshi movement contained, at one and the same time, an Indian nationalism built around a 'natural history' of Aryan-Hindu tradition, a linguistic nationalism valorizing Bengal's cultural unity and a rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim unity. This combination was possible because neither the place of Bengal within a state structure of the Indian nation, nor the place of a Hindu minority within a Muslimmajority Bengal, had yet been posed as problems. The nationalist elite of Bengal, predominantly upper-caste Hindu and belonging to the landed proprietor and urban professional classes, was still comfortably ensconced in its position as leader of the nation it had imagined into existence. Two developments would throw this situation into disarray. First, the rise of nationalist mass movements all over India from the 1920s would produce an entirely new organizational structure of the all-India Congress in which the place of Bengal's nationalist leadership would become either marginal or oppositional. Second, within Bengal, the politics of Muslim identity would find an agrarian base. The older rhetoric of Hindu-Muslim fraternity could not suffice any more unless it was able to confront the question of agrarian class relations. Let us begin with the second development, since this is often taken to be the most cntcial element of a 'structural' explanation of the second partition of Bengal.

iliriyim (Sampratik Harigami) (Alambazar: Daubya Bibhag, t 947).

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The Second Partition efBengal • 41

and clearly conscious of his stature as a leading figure of the neighbourhood, looked up to with respect by the working class poor, both Muslim and Hindu, who lived in the nearby slums of the industrial suburb of Alambazar, north of Calcutta. The most striking thing about the author's description of the communal riots in his area in August 1946 is the sense of an assault from the outside, carried out by powerful but anonymous forces, against which the carefully nurtured bonds of neighbourhood solidarity were no match. He talks of local Congress and Muslim League leaders jointly setting up peace committees as soon as news arrived of rioting in Calcutta. He himself went around the neighbourhood, urging people to look out for outsiders - 'We must not let these outside disturbances get into our neighbourhood'. And yet, before the night was over, the slums were in flan1es and people were killing one another with astonishing brutality. The rest of the book is a series of arguments and counterarguments about why this happened and what was to come. It gives us a flavour of the animated conversations that took place at the time in Hindu middle-class male gatherings. The full range of political arguments, now famiJiar to all students of modern Indian history, is presented here - blaming the British, blaming the Congress, blaming Muslim communalism and the Muslim League. What is striking, however, is the way in which an otherwise bewiJdering and deplorable set of events is sought to be made comprehensible in terms of a 'historical necessity'. All these differences and conflicts between the League, the Congress and other parties seem to me like an elaborate theatre being performed on the political stage. Mahatmaji is the playwright and director oflndia's freedom struggle and the others are all experienced actors. Most Indians have still not understood the mysterious way in which Mahatmaji and Jinnah Saheb have divided up their responsibilities. . . . They have together taken up the role of religious reformers and, by prevailing upon the men of religion, have combined religious preaching with the message of freedom. Thus have they built up their parties and the nation .... By starting an upheaval, they have sought to destroy stagnant minds and a decrepit society and to produce a renaissance among ordinary people.... I do not think of these disturbai1ces as communal. I think of this as India's last movement.... This is a conspiracy to eradicate for ever the demon of communalism from this country. The

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42 • The Present History of WtSt Bengal clashes now taking place will soon lead to a situation where people of both communities will get fed np with those who preach untouchability, communal hatred and religious hypocrisy. Perhaps then a new nation will arise in India.26

The rapidly unfolding political events are also seen as unreal, devoid of truth - events that must necessarily give way to 'real' history. This December [1946], the Congress has accepted the British view of things which was for so long in favour of the objectives of the Muslim League. Now the Congress will accept the division of Bengal, the division of Punjab, even the division of India. In time, perhaps every province of India will be partitioned in order to accommodate the League's demand for Pakistan. This will either lead to the strengthening of two nations, or else it will cause so much disruption in everyday life that Hindus and Muslims will come to see that by fighting each other and putting up fences all across the country neither community can live in happiness . .. Even if partition is necessary today, the country cannot remain partitioned for ever.Z1

'Historical necessity' is the theme of another small book written at the time of independence and partition and published in December 1947. 211 Partition had been made inevitable because of the failure of the nationalist Congress to forestall the aggressive politics of a 'fascist' Muslim League whose ideology was that of 'modem totalitarianism in the garb of medieval bigotry'.29 In truth, the failure is of the Congress, the success of the Muslim League. As a matter of fact, Congress's efforts in the last two years to avoid the partition of India were not very conducive to maintaining unity . . . [Mountbatten] has only done that which was inevitable, because every effort to avoid that eventuality had led to miserable failure; he has merely resolved the problem with the surgeon's scalpel.30

Having thus condemned the all-India nationalist leadership for failing to resist an aggressive religious nationalism, the writer 2

z

S011rre: Rqx,rt ofthe !And Rtvmut Administration for the years 1930--8, Tables on 'Operations Under the Bengal Tenancy Act'. Total occupancy holdings as in Survey and SetdmiLnt Rqx,rt for each district.

64 • The PrtSfflt History ofWest Bengal

jute slump of the 1930s. The famine of 1943 struck what was virrually the final blow.9

Restructuring of Agrarian Relations in East Pakistan/ Bangladesh I suggest that in order to better understand the contrast in the post-colonial agrarian structures ofBangladesh and West Bengal, it would be worth our while to pay attention to two levels of determination - first, the local agrarian structure and nature of class antagonisms in the countryside and, second, the overall political context of class relations as defined in and through the institutions of the state. In eastern Bengal, the dominant antagonism as defined by the agrarian structure was between the zamindar and the praja. In cultural terms, zamindari domination in eastern Bengal was principally signified by upper-caste Hindu dominance. In the given demographic situation, it is not surprising that the resistance of the praja should take on the ideological form of a peasant community bound by a common religion - Islam. That the point ofopposition to this solidarity of the praja was upper-caste Hindu dominance, and the fact that underlying this was the overwhelming antagonism in agrarian relations between landlord and tenant, is shown by the political alliance in the 1930s of the organizations of lower-caste Hindu peasants in eastern Bengal, particularly those of the Namasudra, with the Muslim political parties in the region. This specific ideological form of the agrarian class struggle in the East Bengal countryside fed into and overdetermined the larger political articulation and resolution of the conflict. Tl1e Praja movement which developed in eastern Bengal from the early 1920s was, it has often been said, taken over by the risingjotdar strata in the late 1930s and 1940s. The demand for abolition of landlordism merged into the ·political demand for Pakistan. It would be simplistic to regard this crucial phase of the agrarian history ofeastern Bengal as simply a manifestation of the manipulative politics of the jotdars. There was also a context defined by the agrarian structure, the cultural expression 9 For a summary of this evidence, see Chatterjee, Bengal 1920-1947,

pp. 142-

57.

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Agrarian Transformation in Bengal • 65 of relations of domination and subordination, and the new institutional forms of 'representative' politics, which made the richer peasants, as it were, the 'natural representatives' of the peasantry as a whole, and this created the room for manipulative politics. It is also important to note that the specific political form in which the zamindar-praja conflict was resolved in East Pakistan was determined to a considerable extent by the much larger context of subcontinental politics around the question of the transfer of power from the British colonial state to the new independent states of India and Pakistan. There is thus a severe discontinuity in the agrarian history of eastern Bengal, and the districts of northern Bengal which became part of East Pakistan, which was not the result only of the internal development of class struggles in the Bengal courftryside. This discontinuity is principally marked by events surrounding and following the partition of the province in 1947. The abolition of zamindari in East Pakistan in 1950 can of course be regarded as a culmination of the major thrust of the Praja movement ofat least three decades. But the sudden physical migration of the Hindu landlord classes from the East Bengal countryside created a situation for which no Praja movement had been prepared. The landlords were expropriated, but not in the course of a victorious agrarian revolution. It was in fact a situation created by larger political events which in the localities the newly dominant sections among a rapidly differentiating peasantry were best capable of turning to their advantage. The concentration of landownership in the hands of a top layer of peasants had already begun in the late 1930s and picked up even further after the famine of 1943. The transfer of the kha.s lands of emigrating zamindars and tenure-holders into the hands of localjotdars virtually meant a complete restructuring of the agrarian order in the space of about two decades. Perhaps the rapidity of this transformation was one significant reason for the ideological unpreparedness of any effective movement for the organization of the dispossessed small peasants of East Pakistan. W11creas for tl1e western districts the emergence of a political organization of small-peasant-sharecropper interests formed part of the history of mass peasant mobilization against the colonial state at least since the early 1930s, this was not the case in the eastern districts. In fact, the issue of the

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66 • The Present History of West Beng4l rights ofsharecroppers, the principal fotm in which jotdari appropriation would take place in East Pakistan, had always been subsumed under the general issue of the rights of the praja in eastern Bengal, since barga was a form of tenancy principally used in the cultivation of the khas lands of zamindars- and tenure-holders. The Praja movement of the colonial period had not laid the necessary ground for the articulation of the distinct demands of dispossessed small peasants or sharecroppers against jotdari exploitation. Consequently, there was virtually no organized pressure from below to check the concentration of land in the hands of East Bengal jotdars in the period following the abolition of zamindari.

Role of the Urban Middle Class and the State in the Changing Agrarian Structure of West Bengal The other major reason why such organizations of small and landless peasants in eastern Bengal could not be developed in any effective way in the period after partition also becomes clear from a comparison with neighbouring West Bengal: the relative weakness of an autonomous and distinctly urban middle-class political interest intervening in the institutions of the state. In West Bengal, such a middle class, originating from the ranks of the landowning classes but settled in professional occupations in and around the city of Calcutta, had come to acquire a cultural and political identity which was distinctly urban. The ranks of this middle class swelled phenomenally after partition with the entry of uprooted refugees from East Pakistan, and its politics as the most organized and articulate section of the population and as the vanguard of organized political movements in the state acquired new tones otradicalism. It was this class which provided the organizing cadres of the new parties of mass mobilization. Shorn ·of the last remaining ties with the land, its role in the ongoing agrarian class struggles was not as another contending agrarian party; it was intervening in that struggle from outside. It was the increasing strength ofthe organized Left movement -in West Bengal since the 1950s which built on the earlier organization of a distinct small-peasant-sharecropper interest fighting against the new dominance of the jotdar-rich peasant sections and saw to it that the abolition of zamind_ari did not lead to further

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Agrarian Transfonnation in Bengal • 67 concentration of land in the hands of the jotdars. A ceiling of 25 acres was imposed on individual landholdings (now reduced to 12.5 acres per family) and the performance of West Bengal in identifying the surplus land, vesting it in the government and redistributing it to the poorer sections of the peasantry has been the most impressive among all states in India, notwithstanding the many loopholes in the legal system which enabled property owners to circumvent these provisions of the law. The performance was due not so much to administrative vigilance as to the direct intervention of organized political movements in the countryside. It was this political force again which pressed for the security of tenancy for sharecroppers, a movement that has since culminated in the so-called 'Operation Barga' for the legal recording of the rights of sharecroppers. It is in fact the Left movement, whose ideological and organizational leadership was provided by the urban middle classes, which has succeeded in resisting, much more than in any other part of India, the emergence and domination of rich capitalist farmers in the countryside and sustained to a very large extent the continued viability of small-peasant cultivation. The major thrust of Communist-led peasant movements in West Bengal, and of the legal and administrative actions of Communist-led governments, was to further extend the logic of peasant resistance in the last days·of colonial rule: to abolish the land revenue form of agrarian taxation; to protect against eviction the small producers with inferior rights of tenancy, especially sharecroppers; to control by statutory pricing, state purchases and public distribution the prices ofagricultural commodities in favour of both urban and rural consumers; and to reduce, by public work programmes and organizations of credit and marketing the subjection of small producers to local trading and usurious capital. It is also worth pointing out that all attempts to create a separate political organization of the kulak interest, of the kind which exists in most other parts of India, have been singularly unsuccessful in West Bengal. This again seems to be in distinct contrast to the state of affairs in Bangladesh. There the political weight .of the joular sections in the state apparatus, both in East Pakistan and in Bangladesh, seems to have been decisive in perpetuating both their power and the form of what Adnan has called 'non-

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68 • The Present History of West Bengal operational exploitation'. 10 They have not turned themselves into full-fledged capitalist farmers, nor have they been faced with the challenge of an organized middle and small peasantry. The overwhelming direction of the agrarian economy appears to be towards stagnation in production levels and growing mass impoverishment. It would be interesting to speculate on whether these differences in agrarian structure indicate divergent paths of possible agrarian transformation in West Bengal and Bangladesh. In West Bengal, the principal thrust is still to ensure the continued viability of small-peasant cultivation and to explore ways of marginally increasing the productivity of small farms through state subsidies and village-level organization. Further changes in the pattern of distribution of land through la11d reforms within the present state structure seem unlikely. The entire line ofthinking on agrarian transformation followed by the parliamentary Left in West Bengal appears to have reached an impasse. In terms of capitalist development, it is the crisis of petty production: the middle and small peasantry is now deeply enmeshed in a network of production and exchange .in which market incentives play a crucial part, and it is difficult to think offeasible alternative forms of productive organization based on collective mobilization of labour. For Bangladesh, while such incentive structures dooperate and provide to the poor peasantry the illusory hope of upward mobility, the stark reality of class oppression at the level of the village could well contain the potential for the political solidarity of the vast majority of the peasants against the exploitation by a small minority of property owners.



111 Aclnan,

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5

Caste and Politics in West Bengal

O

n several aspects of contemporary politics, West Bengal appears to fall outside the general all-India pattern. Ask an informed observer whether caste has any great influence on present-day West Bengal politics and he is likely to reply: 'Very little.' Perhaps he will go on to describe the depth ofclass feelings in West Bengal, both in political organizations and in the ideas which people have about political issues. He will point out the strength of the Left parties which have successfully mobilized support for their programmes along class lines, cutting across divisions of caste and community. In a highly politicized atmosphere surcharged with not-too-distant memories of considerable political violence, West Bengal has not wimessed any attacks on Harijans as a target of caste antagonism, no Parasbighas or Kafaltas - scenes of the recent organized killings of low-caste villagers in northern India. Like many other answers to such general questions about politics, however, this too is only a very partial answer, both true and false. An institution like caste operates at many levels. It is not true that caste elements cannot be found in the structure or functioning of political organizations in West Bengal or that they are entirely absent from the political beliefs of the people. On the other hand, it is perfectly valid to point out the rather remarkable differences which West Bengal politics bears from the pattern in most other parts of the country. Let us, therefore, look at the question in somewhat greater detail. While we hear so little of caste oppression on the poorer sections of the population in West Bengal today, one persistent observation about modem Bengali society and polity, strangely enough, has concerned the phenomenon of upper-caste domination. History shows that the new opportunities opened up by

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70 • The Peasant History of West Bengal

European trade in the eighteenth cenrury, and later by the Permanent Settlement of landownership and an expanding network of bureaucracy and the professions, were avidly seized upon by the Hindu upper castes, and by the second halfof the nineteenth cenrury, the ubiquitous bhadralok- the 'genteel', the 'respectable' - had established unchallenged command over virtually every field of public life in the province. For the most pan, the bhadralok had rentier interests in land, of varying sizes and rank, and they were principally from three castes, namely the Brahman, Baidya and Kayastha. But the key to bhadralok status was education, and in the new economic and political conditions of colonial Bengal, it was English education which became the ultimate stamp of respectability. Numerically, the three upper castes put together comprised well below 10 per cent of the population of undivided Bengal - the Baidyas, in particular, were a small group numbering slightly over 100,000, most ofwhom then lived in the districts of eastern Bengal. But the upper castes had proportionately many more literates than the other castes, and of their working population the bulk was in the higher professions (see Table 5.1 ). These proportions were to grow over time. The English civil servants who in 1915 made that oft-quoted characterization of the Bengali bhadralok were not entirely inaccurate: they had called it 'a despotism of caste, tempered by matriculation'. TABLE 5.1 Literacy and Occupation of Selected Castes, 1931 (as percentage of total population of the caste in Bengal)

Caste

Literate

Brahman

37.28 51.74 32.90 10.17 14.51 1.92 0.77

Baidya Kayastha Goala Kamar Bagdi Bauri

Sourrt:

Agric11lt11re

15.38 6.04 20.03 37.49 21.81 81.74 65.94

Industry

4.50 1.85 5.16 7.28 56.11 5.03 4.07

Higher Professions 30.76 49.40 22.42 5.42 5.32 1.17 0.78

Nirmal Kumar Bose, Hindu Samajer GOlfau (Calcutta: Visvabharati, 1949), now available in English as The Structurr of Hindu Society, tr. Andre Beteille (Delhi: Orient Longman,.1975).

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 71 When organized politics of the modern kind made its appearance in nineteenth-century Bengal, not only was it dominated entirely by the bhadralok, but by bhadralok of a rather special kind - wealthy, with extensive landed property or trading interests, and highly educated and successful in urban professional life. This was the rather small group of people, mostly resident in the city of Calcutta, who began the first political associations in the province which were soon to merge into the early Indian National Congress. Their politics was genteel and entirely peaceable. It was with the Swadeshi movement following the partition of Bengal in 1905 that mass agitation and mobilization became part of organized politics. It was through this movement that provincial politics reached the district towns, although there too its adherents were drawn predominantly from the ranks of the bhadra and the educated. Around the time of Swadeshi, indeed from within that movement, there also emerged another trend which became extremely important in the organized politics of the province. This was the politics of revolutionary terrorism. This politics, again, was confined almost exclusively to upper-caste Hindu bhadralok youth. This was so not merely by a quirk of the regional social structure. Until at least the la_te 1920s, the terrorist groups consciously shunned mass activity. One reason for this was organizational, prompted by the requirements of secret conspiratorial work. But ideologically, too, there was considerable scepticism, even contempt, about the political maturity of the masses and about the feasibility of effective political action on the basis of organized mass agitation. The noble task of freeing the country from the grip of foreign invaders necessarily lay with the enlightened few, organized into secret groups of selfless patriots fully trained in the complex skills of prolonged underground activity and planned violence. The levels of education, culture and articulate political thinking required for this purpose almost inevitably restricted the membership of these terrorist organizations to the high-caste bhadralok. In the early 1920s, Non-cooperation and Khilafat inaugurated the process of bringing wider sections of Bengal's peasantry into the fold of organized political movements. Naturally, the composition ofdifferent strata ofthe political leadership, and certainly that of the rank-and-file participants, underwent considerable

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72 • The Peasant History of West Bengal

change. The former exclusiveness of bhadralolt politics was no longer tenable. But while organized politics drew larger sections of the people, it also evolved a complex and differentiated structure, and acquired many layers of significance in organization as well as in ideology. In looking for the relevance of caste in the politics of Bengal since the 1920s, it is to this somewhat complicated structure of organized politics that we must look into. TABLE

5.2 Caste and Religious Divisions, 1931 (percentage of total district population)

Up~- Middle- Dtptffled Tribes Mr1slims Other caste caste Classts Religions Hindr,s Hind11s

District

Burdwan

9.81

29.07

34.50

7.69

18.56

0.37

Birbhum

6.44

22.45

36.50

7.82

26.69

0.10

Bankura

11.29

39.70

31.81

12.51

4.59

0.10

Manbhum

7.07

37.50

22.42

16.29

6.01

0.71

Midnapur

6.31

58.17

19.15

8.54

7.59

0.24

Hooghly

10.33

41 .84

17.00

4.56

16.17

0.10

Howrah

10.48

46.58

20.86

0.42

21.27

0.39

24-Parganas

6.04

27.61

29.95

1.97

33.65

0.78

Nadia

4.84

21.99

10.19

0.54

61 .77

0.67

Murshidabad

3.79

25.31

13.24

2.00

55.56

0.10

Maida

1.41

25.84

10.21

8.25

54.28

0.01

Dinajpur

1.32

32.78

5.76

9.48

50.51

0.15

Jalpaiguri

1.80

43.82

4.07

22.50

23.99

0.88 (+· 2.94)

Darjeeling

3.12

14.50

2.38

14.51

2.63

13.62 (+49.24)

Cooch Behar

1.87

59.48

2.74

.

-

35.33

0.58

Sourct: Computed from Cmsus ofIndia, 1931, vol. 5 (Bengal and Sikkim) and vol. 7 (Bihar and Orissa). Noks: 1. Compared with the present districts ofWest Bengal, 24-Parganas in this table excludes the Bongaon subdivision then in Jessorc district; Nadia includes Kushtia subdivision (now in Bangladesh);

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 73 Dinajpur includes Dinajpur subdivision (now in Bangladesh) and excludes part of Purnea district in Bihar which were later transferred to West Dinajpur district in West Bengal; Cooch Behar was then a princely state outside British India; Manbhum was in Bihar of which the Purulia subdivision was transferred to West Bengal to form the present Purulia district. 2. The figures for Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling exclude 2 .94 per cent and 49.24 per cent, respectively, of the population who were listed as Nepali Hindus, the caste distinctions among whom cannot be meaningfully incorporated into this discussion of the Bengali caste structure.

A glance at Table 5.2 will show the broad caste and religious composition of the population in the different districts of what is at present the state ofWest Bengal. Since the post-1947 censuses do not give detailed breakdowns by caste, one has necessarily to extrapolate notionally from the 1931 figures. However, the present proportions are not likely to be vastly different, except for a probable increase in the upper-caste Hindu proportions in the districts of24-Parganas, Nadia,Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar, following partition and migration from the districts of eastern Bengal. The Muslim proportions in the present districts of Nadia and Maida are also certainly lower, and the scheduled caste proportion in Nadia higher than in 1931 (compare with Table 5.6). Now, the entry of representatives of the peasantry into the district and local levels of the movements organized by the Congress in Bengal meant, in large part, that people from the Hindu middle castes in the western districts and Muslims in eastern and northern Bengal became part of the Congress organization. This was particularly true of the districts of southwestern Bengal - Midnapur, Hooghly, Bankura, and parts of Burdwan and Birbhum, and Manbhum in Bihar - where the Congress organization struck deep roots in the villages. If one now looks at Table 5.3 one will find that the single most important middle caste in south-western Bengal is the Mahishya, resident principally in Midnapur, Howrah, Hooghly and 24-Parganas. Apart from the Mahishya, the only other numerically significant middle-caste groups in western Bengal are the Sadgop and the Goala, both spread ·over several districts, and the Kurmi who are mainly concentrated in Purulia district. In the northern districts, a major caste is the Rajbangsi, but it is now

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74 • The Peasant History ofWest Bengal listed as a scheduled caste. It is apparent, therefore, that the caste composition of the peasantry in West Bengal is such that apart from the. local concentrations mentioned above, there are no numerically significant middle-caste groups in many regions of the state. Although groups which could be classified as middle castes in the 1931 census comprised between 20 and 60 per cent of the population in every district, they were greatly fragmented: with the exceptions noted above, none of the other castes numbered more than 3 per cent of the population in any district. 1 It must, of course, be remembered that a significant part of the peasantry in the central and northern areas of West Bengal is Muslim and falls outside the realm of our discussion.2 The scheduled castes also tend to be fragmented, as shown in Table·s.4. The Namasudras were the largest and politically most organized scheduled caste group in undivided Bengal. They were mainly concentrated in the East Bengal districts and were organized under the Scheduled Caste Federation which had links with B.R. Ambedkar. After partition, some migrated to India, a large bulk after the riots of 1954 and another wave in 1971. Some have settled in the border districts ofWest Bengal-24-Parganas and Nadia. They form the largest part of those rehabilitated in 1 If one compares this with the situation ·in other north-Indian states, one

finds that while the overall caste structure is even more fragmented in most of the north-Indian districts, there being sometimes more than twenty-five castes in a district each having more than one per cent of the district population. nevertheless there arc large contiguous regions where one or the other middle or lower caste - Jat. Rajput. Ahir, Goala, Chamar - is clearly dominant. Secondly, Punjab, and to some extent western Uttar Pradesh, have much more homogeneous caste structures over contiguous groups of villages than in Bengal, where there arc great variations in the caste structures ofeven neighbouring villages. Sec Joseph E. Schwartzberg, 'Caste Regions of the North Indian Plains', in Milton Singer and Bernard S. Cohn, eds, Structurr and Clu,n~ in Indian Society (Chicago: Aldinc, 1968), pp. 81-113. 2 Muslim conversion has a great deal to do with the rather unique caste structure in Bengal, because a very substantial bulk of the peasantry, who would otherwise have formed the middle castes, became Muslim. In many respects, both before and after partition, the Muslim landowning peasantry in both halves of Bengal have behaved much like the dominant peasant middle castes in other parts of India, but because of religious 'communalism', this has taken completely different ideological and organizational forms in undivided and later divided Bengal, especially in terms of the hold of the substantial boded peasantry over the Muslim small and landless peasants in eastern Bengal.

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Caste and PQlitics in West Bengal • 75 Dandakaranya and the Andaman Islands. But the majority continue to live in Bangladesh. TABLE 5.3 The Principal Middle Castes, 1931 (as percentages of total district population) Caste

District

Burdwan

Sadgop 6.31, Goala 4.34, Kalu/feli 2.08

Birbhum

Sadgop 8.20, Kalu/feli 2.38

Bankura

Goala 5.82, Tili 4.93, Sadgop 3.95, Kalu/feli 2.79; Khaira 2.42, Tanti 2.21, Kamar 1.93, Kurmi 1.86, Mahishya 1.82

Manbhum

Kurmi 17.84, Kumhar 3.15, Teti 2.68, Goala 2.26, Kamar 1.95

Midnapur

Mahishya 31.56, Sadgop 3.92, Kurma 3.06, Tanti 3.03, Baishnab 2.20, Raju 1.96

Hooghly

Mahishya 15.74, Sadgop 4.89, Goala 3.89, Tanti 2.50, Tili 1.98

Howrah

Mahishya 24.92, Goala 2.51, Sadgop 1.92

24-Parganas

Mahishya 12.14, Goala 2.62

Nadia

Mahishya 6.49, Goala 3.50

Murshidabad

Mahishya 5.48, Sadgop 3.82, Goala 2.06

Maida

Rajbangsi 3.99

Dinajpur

Rajbangsi 20.53

Jalpaiguri

Rajbangsi 33.68

Darjeeling

Rajbangsi 8.44

Cooch Behar

Rajbangsi 53.96

Source: Computed from Census of India, 1931, vols 5 and 7. Nott: The Khaira and Rajbangsi castes were not included among the 'Depressed Classes' in the 1931 Census. Both arc noy., listed as scheduled castes in West Bengal.

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76 • The Peasant History cifWtst Bengal TABLE 5.4 The Principal 'Depressed Classes', 1931 (as percentages of total district population) .

District Burdwan Birbhum

Bagdi 11.75, Bauri 7.86, Muchi 4.05, Dom 2.22 Bagdi 9.24, Muchi 4.79, Mai 4.32, Bauri 3.90, Dom 3.83, Hari 2.36 Bauri 10.74, Bagdi 8.07, Lohar 2.30, Sunri 2.26 Bau·ri 6.69

Bankura Manbhum Midnapur Hooghly Howrah 24-Parganas

Bagdi 5.49 Bagdi 14.02, Bauri 2.33 Bagdi 6.99 Pod (Paundra Kshatriya) 14.71, Bagdi 3.68, Kaora 2.28

Nadia

Bagdi 2.62

Murshidabad

Bagdi 2.94

Sourre: Computed from Census of India, 1931, vols 5 and 7.

The various movements launched by the Congress in different parts of south-western Bengal during the period of the national movement, and the nature and functioning of the Congress organization in the region, have been studied in great detail by Hitesranjan Sanyal.3 His studies show that Congress was able to draw considerable support in these areas from different sections of the owner-peasantry. The leadership at the local and, later, district levels were in the hands of the substantial peasantry, many of whom were intermediate tenure-holders as well. But the range and depth of popular support, especially from the lower peasantry and sharecroppers, was not unrelated to the fact that such a large proportion of peasants in Midnapur, Hitcsrmjan Sanyal, 'Congress Movements in the Villages of Eastern Midnaporc, 1921-1931', in Marc Gaborieu, cd.,Askdu Sud: TradilionsttCMngmtml (Paris: CNRS, 1979), pp. 169-78; 'Arimbagcr Jatiatibadi Andolan', Anya Artha, 6 (September 1?74), pp. 6-23 ~d 7 (November 1974), pp. 1-15; 'BankudaJelay Jatiatibacli Andolan',AnyaArtha, 10 Oanuary 1977), pp. 1- 21. (Subsequently reprinted in Hitcsranjan Sanyal, S110rijer Podte [Calcutta: Papyrus. 1994], pp. 177-232.) 3

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 77

and even larger proportions in the subdivisions of Contai and Tamluk where these movements were particularly strong, belonged to the Mahishya caste. Mahishyas as a caste were not restricted only to peasants with large holdings but included very large numbers of small peasants and sharecroppers. The social and political authority of many local Congress leaders in Contai and Tamluk derived in large measure from their caste; the Mahishyas, in fact, had a remarkable experience of caste mobilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, led by their caste associations, on various educational, religious and other programmes of social uplift. From the 1920s, the organized Congress movement became for many people in the region the successor to those earlier movements of mass mobilization on social issues. TABLE

5.5 The Principal Tribes; 1931 (as percentages of total district population)

District

Tribe

Burdwan

Santai 4.10

Bankura

Santai 6.07

Manbhum

Santai 15.59, Bhumij 5.74

Midnapur

Santai 3.05

Hooghly

Santai 2.71

Dinajpur

Santai 4.43

Jalpaiguri

Oraon 9.04, Munda 3.72

Maida

Santai 3.64

Sourte: Computed from Census of India, 1931 , vols 5 and 7.

Although caste was an important element in the success of the Congress leadership in Midnapur in rallying such remarkably large and durable support, there is little evidence of -caste conflict within the Congress organization in Midnapur. There was admittedly one area of conflict between the district leaders of Midnapur and the provincial leadership of the Congress in Calcutta in the period following the death of Chittaranjan Das in 1925, and caste was often an overt factor in the general

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78 • The Peasant History of West-Bengal manner of contempt and derision with which Midnapur leaders like Birendranath Sasmal, or his associate Basanta Kumar Das, were treated by Calcutta politicians. But this was very much a conflict between a metropolitan political aristocracy and the provincial hoi polloi. This did not mean a conflict between upper and middle castes in the Midnapur Congress where the ranks of both leadership and followers contained numerous members from the upper castes. When the conflicts did arise in the Midnapur organization, they operated not along caste lines at all, but, at one plane, on issues of agrarian relations - tenancy, rent, illegal exactions, interest payments, share of the crop and at another, on the basis of identification with particular political factions in Calcutta. In the case of Hooghly or Bankura, Sanyal' s studies do not reveal any particular middle-caste concentrations at any level of the leadership, although several middle castes were represented. There was a large upper-caste component in both districts, but again there was no caste dimension to the conflicts within the district organization or movement. Here, too, there was the same distance between the provincial and district leaderships, although many of the important district leaders here were themselves upper caste. In Burdwan, too, the·Congress agitation in rural areas led to the emergence of a new district leadership from among the more substantial raiyat peasantry. In this district, an important part of this leadership came from the Aguri (Ugra Kshatriya) caste - a middle-caste group not very numerous (they totalled a mere 68,000 in the entire province in 1931, ofwhom the major section was in Burdwan) but counting among its ranks many of the more prosperous owner-peasants in Burdwan. In Manbhum in Bihar, the core leadership of the Congress organization was composed of immigrant upper-caste bhadralok, but the movement spread rapidly among the predominantly Kurmi-Mahato raiyat peasantry and produced, from within this caste, the major part of the second-rank leadership. Having made this brief summary of the story of the entry of the different middle castes into the arena of organized politics in Bengal, let us tum to take stock of the overall structure of this politics on the eve of independence and partition. The provincial leadership of the Congress in Bengal had always been faction-

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 79 ridden, the alignments changing •frequently and with amazing flexibility, but caste was never a factor in this somewhat sordid game. Indeed, the entire provincial leadership of the Bengal Congress including all its factions was until 1947 a citadel of bhadralok politicians, almost wholly upper caste, with strong support from the upper-caste bhadralok-dominated district congress committees of eastern and northern Bengal. This was a leadership which, in terms of the specific interests shaping its political activities, was very much a representative of'middle class' interests in Bengal - protection of rentier landed property, and preservation of educational privileges, jobs, municipal administration and, of course, 'nationalism'. With the exit in the late 1920s of the major part of the Muslim political leadership in Bengal from the fold of the Congress, the Congress committees in the districts of eastern and northern Bengal were left entirely in the hands of the upper-caste Hindu landlords and professionals, with the former revolutionary groups supplying most of the full-time organizing cadres. It is on this support that the various factions of the provincial leadership in Calcutta depended. In the districts of western Bengal, where the Congress retained its organizational hold over political movements in the countryside, the district leadership had many representatives of the middle-caste owner-peasantry- in districts like Midnapur, they were clearly the dominant section - but group alignments within districts were not along caste lines. On the other hand, although different factions there aligned with contending groups in the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee, district leaders of western Bengal on the whole had little influence on provincial Congress politics. Ifwe leave aside the distinctly Muslim parties, of the various organizations which had come up in Bengal during this period and which were to play an important role in the later politics of West Bengal, the Communist and other Left parties deserve mention. The leadership of these parties was, again, predominantly from among the literati, the middle-class bhadralok. Indeed, a historic development in the evolution of society and polity in Bengal was the near complete collapse of the zamindari form of landownership by the early 1930s. A new generation ofbhadralok youth, predominantly urban in cultural outlook and shorn of the former ties binding the class to the fragmentary

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80 • The Peasant History of West Bengal remnants of landed property, now sought to forge new links with the masses in more radical programmes of agrarian reform and a new vanguardism in political organization. Their success in launching effective movements were only local, limited to certain areas in western and northern Bengal. But in Midnapur, Burdwan, Hooghly and 24-Parganas, and in Dinajpur, Rangpur and Mymensingh in the north and north-east, Communist workers succeeded in setting up organized movements of the entire tenantry against landlordism and ~xcessive state revenues and, more specifically, of sharecroppers on the demand of a more favourable share ofthe crop. This latter movement reached its peak during the Tebhaga agitation of 1946-9. In terms of caste, these organizations, whether inside the broader platform of the Congress or outside it, contained the full complement of castes, with the upper-caste intelligentsia in leadership positions at different levels, and various middle and lower castes among both leadership and rank-and-file in the local areas. In particular, since these movements laid greater emphasis than did the official Congress machinery on organizing the small and, to some extent, the landless peasants, they contained a greater representation of the scheduled castes, especially of the Rajbangsi in the northern districts and the Paundra Kshatriya in 24-Parganas. The partition of Bengal in 1947 meant a massive reorganization of the entire Congress set-up. With the powerful Congress committees of what were now the districts of East Pakistan out of the picture, the erstwhile dominance of Calcutta's political elite came under immediate challenge. Now, it was the district committees ofHooghly, Midnapur and Burdwan which held the cards, and after a period of intense faction-fighting in the period 1947-9, a new order and a new equilibrium of forces was established at the initiative of the Hooghly group, led by mastertactician Atulya Ghosh. Indeed, Atulya Ghosh's West Bengal Congress was a classic example of the ruling party's vote-getting machine. The capture of the provincial citadel by district committees very much under the control of representatives of the richer peasantry smarting under repeated experience ofslight and humiliation could have taken the form of an assault on the upper-caste bhadralok. It did not. Indeed, the co-option ofBidhan Chandra Roy as Chief Minister and the reorganization of the

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 81 Congress under Atulya Ghosh were recognition of the indispensability of urban bhadralok support for a party of order which had to hold power by electoral success. And with the population of Calcutta and its suburbs swelling with the massive influx of uprooted refugees from East Pakistan, it was soon apparent that the urban bhadralok would become indispensable even for parties of radical change. This indeed is the most crucial - perhaps unique - feature of the social structure in West Bengal which goes a long way in explaining the absence of caste articulation of organized political demands. For, since at least the 1920s, and particularly after partition, the upper-caste bhadralok have comprised the bulk of the urban Bengali population in and around Calcutta which no longer has any ties of material interest with the land. Coupled with the long-standing tradition of the cultural and political domination of the city over the entire society and polity, this has meant that major political conflicts relating to rights over land and its cultivation and produce have never been directed against the upper castes. Whether it has been a question of landlord versus tenant, or jotdar versus sharecropper, or the fixing of procurement prices for foodgrains, the highly vocal and articulate bhadralok intelligentsia have not judged the issues . as insiders in a struggle between contending agrarian parties, sharing the modes and categories of thought developed over centuries of collective communal allocation of rights and entitlements relating to the use of land and associated economic activities. Rather, the bhadralok have viewed such questions from a distance, from the perspective of urban consumers of agricultural products, and issues of agrarian relations, land reforms, food prices - which form the bread and butter of state politics under the Indian Constitution - have been seen in terms of much more 'objective' categories: landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, small peasant, agricultural labourer, distress sales, terms of trade between agriculture and industry, etc. These are the terms in which the debates have been conducted in the political arena, in party conclaves and mass meetings, and in the media, and when battlelines have been drawn, the upper-caste intelligentsia were to be found in leading roles in every contending party- the ruling party and the party of the opposition, parties of status quo and parties of change. ·

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82 • The Peasant History ofWest &ngal It is not as though landlords and rich peasants are politically inactive or inarticulate in West Bengal. Far from it. And the experiment with intensive agricultural production has had its usual socio-political consequences in the growth of a substantial landowning section actively interested in state patronage of agricultural production and marketing. But unlike most other parts of the country, West Bengal does not have a distinct and separately organized political articulation of the so-called kulak interests. The only attempt of this kind was the ill-fated Bangla Congress, born out of a split in the ranks of the Congress in 1965, but blown to maturity in the period of the massive food crisis in 1966 and the government's policy of compulsory procurement and rigid restrictions on the movement of foodgrains. The Bangla Congress was clearly a party of the jotdar - rich peasants ofsouth-western Bengal. After the brief flush ofsuccess during the widespread discontent with the Congress before the 1967 elections, the Bangla Congress died a quick death. The rise and fall of this party clearly showed the electoral nonviability of a distinctly kulak party vying for provincial power. The extension of adult franchise and the spread of organized politics arhong the peasant masses has not, therefore, led in West Bengal to an assault on entrenched upper-caste power by the numerically dominant middle castes. For upper-caste power is not localized or easily identifiable; it is itself fragmented, differentiated and driven by the full range of political divisions in the state. On the other hand, the absence of caste articulation of political demands does not mean that caste authority and caste linkages have not proved useful to various political parties as instruments of gathering electoral support in the relatively unmobilized areas. But the considerable fragmentation among the middle castes, and the overall dominance of modes of culture and thought of the urban intelligentsia, have prevented any successful aggregation of caste interests in the state election scene. Besides, it is undoubtedly true that the relative success of the Left parties, and even more generally of a 'radical' or 'leftleaning' ideology, is an important indicator of the differences of West Bengal politics from the pattern in most other parts of India. Thus far the Left parties have generally operated on the basis of a programmatic identity of interests between the urban middle class and the middle and small cultivators, generally on

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 83 the issues of security of tenure, more favourable terms of rent and interest, and ensuring a steady supply of foodgrains at low prices through an effective public distribution system. Vigorous organization of the landless agricultural labourers has not been seriously attempted. And generally speaking, most of the Left parties in West Bengal have on the whole avoided, except in isolated instances, a direct confrontation with landlords or rich peasants. But in a situatiop of cautious and gradual change based very much on parliamentary premises, West Bengal has not witnessed the phenomenon of politically aggressive landlordism, articulated in the idioms of caste superiority and power, which has been seen so often in recent years in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Ofcourse, there is the other world ofcollective social thinking and practice little touched by the orderly process of organiz~d party politics. This is the apparently uninstitutionalized world of what may be called politics among the people. The ordering principles there are not those of individual rights and citizenship or of organized articulation and aggregation of interests. In fact, the principles of representative government are quite alien to this world. The norms and beliefs by which social relations there are thought of and acted upon are based upon the notion of a community, a prior collective authority from which all other rights and entitlements flow. 4 And there, caste becomes a fundamental organizing principle in terms of which the social division of labour is conceived. Economic relations have, of course, undergone many changes, particularly over the last hundred years or so, but in ideological terms the categories ofcaste have continued to provide many of the basic signifying terms through which collective identities and social relations are still perceived. These have, in most other parts ofIndia, even become the most important categories for the organization ofcollective interest. We have, on the other hand, seen why this has not happened in the sphere oforganized politics in West Bengal. But this does not necessarily imply that these categories and modes of thought have .been eliminated from popular consciousness. For a discussion of some aspects of this process as evidenced by the prolonged Hindu-Muslim conflict in rural Bengal, sec Partha Chatterjee, 'Agrarian Relations and Communalism in Bengal, 1926-1935', in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltem Studits I (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 9-38. 4

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84 • The Peasant History ofWest Bengal Much more research needs to be done into the elements constituting popular political ideology at the level of the rural communities in Bengal before we can make more definite statements about it. The following comments are, therefore, not only speculative but also entirely impressionistic. But it does appear that while a process of differentiation within the peasantry, the spread of organized political agitations on class questions and electoral mobilization have together tended to erode and perhaps break down the bases of any earlier notion of the community as consisting of an entire village, this is often replaced by the idea of a truncated or fragmented community, comprising perhaps a strata of the peasantry or of a caste, but possessing many of the ideological characteristics of collective solidarity and identity of a community. In parts of India where organized party politics links together these truncated peasant communities into larger political movements in terms of caste, we can immediately perceive the impact of caste on organized politics. But where, for various reasons, the linkages with the structure of organized politics do not take the form of caste, we may be mistaken in concluding that castes, or similar truncated communal loyalties, have disappeared from the political consciousness of the people. For it is quite possible for a strata of the peasantry to be politically mobilized for struggle against its economic exploiters, and for it to subscribe to an organized political movement articulated and conducted in the more objective terms ofclass struggle, and yet to perceive its own identity as a collective group struggling against common exploiters defined in terms of caste or religion or such other 'communal' notions. A recent study of electoral mobilization in some Midnapur villages5 has shown, for instance, that whereas the upper and middle sections of the peasantry in a village would be divided in their support to various parties, their decision being the result of elaborate calculations of expected gains and losses, the lowest strata in any particular village would tend en bloc to support a single candidate, usually from one of the Left parties. The same study has also shown 'spontaneous, self-generated mobilization' during an election campaign among the poorest sections of the peasantry, Unpublished report, ICSSR, New Delhi (July 1979) (since published as Partha N. Mukherji et al., From Left Extmnism to Ekctoral Politics: Naxolite Patticipation in Elections [New Delhi: Manohar, 1983)). 5

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Caste and Politics in West Bengal • 85 belonging mainly to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. But if this hypothesis is correct, then there would also remain the possibility of sudden shifts in the support given by these 'communities' to particular political parties, since this support is more the result ofa particular choice oflinkage with the structure of organized politics of a group identifying itself as an exploited peasant community rather than its absorption into that organized structure as a group conscious of itself as constituting part of a class. In that case, given appropriate conditions in the arena of organized politics, there can, even in West Bengal today, be no a priori ruling out ofthe possibility ofpolitical mobilizations based on appeals to caste or tribal or religious loyalties. TABLE 5.6

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 1971 (as percentage of total district population) Sched111ed Castes

Sched111ed Tribes

24.51 30.00 28.22 15.00 13.57 19.08 12.31 22.61 21 .32 12.16 16.48 23.10 34.02 12.57 47.02

5.84 7.05

Burdwan Birbhum Banlcura Purulia Midnapur Hooghly Howrah 24-Parganas Nadia Murshidabad Maida West Dinajpur Jalpaiguri Darjeeling Cooch Behar Sourrt:

10.28 19.58 8.04 3.48 0.14 1.62 1.43 1.32 8.11 11.90 23.49 13.89 0.75

Computed from Census ofIndia, 1971, Series I, Part IIA (ii).

The widespread electoral support for the Left parties among the poorer sections of the peasantry, whether owners or landless,

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86 • The Peasant History of West Bengal is derived in large part from the performance of the three governments in West Bengal in which the Left parties have participated. The movements conducted by these parties amon·g the poor and landless have, since the mid-1960s, been largely geared towards the mobilization of electoral support based on the promise of beneficial administrative action if the party was elected to power. It should not, therefore, be surprising if it is found that peasant consciousness still regards the state and the various organizations or personalities vying for state power as external entities which are either benevolent or malicious, and accordingly worthy of veneration or resistance, but never as the products of a set of social relations of power and authority ofwhich it is itself a part. Since the efforts _of the Left parties have been confined largely to the question ofthe choice of appropriate representatives, and not so much to the tasks of conscious organization to overthrow existing relations of power, the evidence of support to the Left does not necessarily reflect a corresponding demolition of the structures of'false consciousness' among the people. The contrasts of West Bengal politics with the rest of India are, it would seem, due more to the strikingly different role in the state's organized politics of a radicalized middle-class leadership; the contrasts do not necessarily run to the level of popular ideology or consciousness.

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6

The Naxalbari Legacy

O

ne point must be conceded at the outset. There were certain major shortcomings in the working of the established Left parties in West Bengal, especially the CPI(M), which led to the process culminating in the formation ofa new Communist party, the CPl(M-L), in 1%9. Too often has there been the tendency in political circles to label the CPI(M-L) as the product of 'left deviation', 'extremism', 'romantic adventurism', etc. and end it at that. Yet even left deviation and adventurism have their social roots, and part of those roots lie in the organizational and programmatic deficiences of the parties of the Left. The split in the Communist Party in 1964 was followed, in West Bengal, by a period ofintense organizational and agitational groundwork by the newly formed CPI(M) - among the urban middle classes, but more notably in the trade unions and among the peasantry. Most of its leaders had been in jail after the SinoIndian border war in 1962: yet this massive political activity led to the creation ofa large, strong and vital party organization. The working class and peasant struggles launched during this period culminated in a massive outburst in 1966 over the demand for food which forced the government to release the CPl(M) leaders from prison. The State Assembly elections in February 1967 led to the first United Front government in West Bengal. The peasant struggle in Naxalbari had developed since the early 1950s, but attained a new level oforganization and militancy when it was programmatically linked with the struggles of tea plantation workers in the neighbouring gardens. The peasant struggle at that time was being led by the Siliguri unit of the Krishak Samiti composed mainly of CPl(M) members. The largest proportion of poor people in th~ Naxalbari area consisted of Santai, Oraon and Rajbangsi sharecroppers tilling the jotdar's land on terms which were perhaps the most oppressive in all of West Bengal. The formation of the United Front government in

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88 • The Present.History ofWest Bengal March 1967 was followed by widespread rumours among most of the landowning classes in the area that the government would dispossess them and grant ownership rights to sharecroppers. As a result, there was large-scale eviction of sharecroppers. Local peasant leaders took some of these eviction cases to court, and in one of them, Bigul Kishan, a sharecropper, won a courtjudgment against his eviction, but was nonetheless forcibly evicted by the landlord and his armed gang. The local leaders then began to organize the peasants on a militant footing. Kanu Sanyal reported later that in March and April 1967, peasants' committees were formed in all the villages in the area. The jotdar's lands were occupied, all fraudulent land records burnt, all debts cancelled. Atmed groups were formed, the armoury consisting of traditional weapons such as spears, bows and arrows, as well as of guns taken away from landlords and a parallel machinery was set up to administer the villages. By May, large tracts in the Naxalbari, Phansidewa and Kharibari police station areas were under the control of the rebels. At this point, Harekrishna Konar, the CPl(M) leader and then the Minister of Land and Land Revenue, went to Siliguri and met the rebel leaders. He later reported that there was an agreement to suspend all 'unlawful activities', that the aggrieved peasants would apply to the government for land and that the vested land would be distributed by government agencies in consultation with the local peasant organizations. The dissident peasant leaders denied that there was any such agreement. The minister's visit was immediately followed by the establishment of special police camps near the areas controlled by the rebels. Several partners of the ruling United Front coalition, and especially the Chief Minister, -'\joy Mukherjee, were by now clamouring for direct police action; it is true, however, that the CPl(M) was still, at least overtly, against any such drastic administrative measures. The situation was nevertheless developing too quickly for the CPl(M) to tackle within the ambit of party democracy. The party was admittedly in a difficult situation, but such a situation cannot but arise in the working of a Communist party which accepts the need to combine legal and illegal methods of mass mobilization and struggle. It had entered a coalition government, under what was only nominally a federal constitution, with an assortment of leftist, centrist and pseudo-Left parties. It was

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~ Naxalbari Legacy

• 89

pledged to a programme of radical redistribution of land, but found the task of effecting any kind of redistribution within an immensely complicated legal system of landownership an increasingly impossible task. On virtually every programme for radical change of the existing structure, it was faced with a difficult choice between reliance on an obdurate bureaucratic and judicial system and the unleashing of popular initiative with the associated risk of violating entrenched norms of legal propriety. The logic of holding on to governmental power for what it was worth consistently pushed the CPI(M) towards the former . opnon. On 23 May 1967, tl1ere occurred a clash between the police and the local peasants in Naxalbari in which a policeman was killed. Two days later, the police retaliated by sending a heavily armed force into a Naxalbari village and firing upon a large crowd. Ten people, including seven women and two children, . were killed. The CPI(M) leadership condemned the police firing and blamed the chief minister for unilaterally resorting to police action. It recognized that the disturbances in Naxalbari were the result of 'a deep social malady - malafide transfers, evictions and other anti-people activities ofjotdars and tea gardeners'. By early June, however, various partners of the United Front ministry and the entire organized media in West Bengal were clamouring for decisive administrative action to quell the disturbances in Naxalbari. The union government joined in by expressing concern at the state of 'serious lawlessness' which prevailed in the area. A cabinet mission sent to Naxalbari failed to arrive at any satisfactory settlement with the rebel leaders. By the end of June 1967, the CPI(M) leadership came out openly against the Naxalbari leaders, calling them 'an organized anti-party group advocating an adventuristic line and actions'. Nineteen members were then expelled from the party. The rift was complete. Moving through the stages of a Naxalbari Peasants' Struggle Aid Committee and a Coordination Committee, a new party, the CPI(M-L), was finally formed · on 1 May 1969. In theoretical and programmatic terms, the Naxalbari struggle brought to the fore of the Communist movement in West Bengal the central question of power. Charu Mazumdar, who became the single most influential leader of the CPI(M-L),

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90 • The Present History of West Bengal later emphasized, perhaps rather one-sidedly, that the chief feature of the Naxalbari struggle was that 'the peasants fought neither for land nor crops, but for political power'. This touched upon the fundamental question of the political perspective of the day-to-day struggles waged by the oppressed classes: how were these struggles to be linked with the objective of the seizure of state power? The parties in office did not forsake the day-to-day struggles; they, however, relied upon their ability to use their control over the administrative machinery to shield such movements from state repression, and to reform wherever possible the existing inequities within the given legal framework. The Naxalbari incidents were a clear indication to the dissident leaders that even these limited objectives were unrealizable if the constraints ofexisting legal norms were to be unconditionally accepted. Popular initiative would then be held on a tight leash, and the question of organized enlargement of the sphere of people's power recede forever into the background to be mouthed from time to time as revolutionary catechism but never to be programmatically incorporated into organized mass activity. An appreciation of this fundamental political problem led to the so-called 'Naxalite' movement. Admittedly, the errors committed in pursuing this new line were many. Kanu Sanyal, the Naxalbari leader who later disagreed with the line pursued by the CPI(M-L) under the leadership of Charo Mazumdar, has spoken of the 'inflexibility' ofthe leaders of the Naxalbari movement in dealing with the United Front government, and their excessive reliance on the spontaneous militancy of the masses rather than implementing a carefully planned programme for creating a powerful mass base with a well organized guerrilla armed force. Those who continued to stick to the general line proposed by Charo Mazumdar disagreed that there was any error in the attempt to create a guerrilla force, but conceded that the movement had trailed behind a spontaneous movement. Most errors were, in fact, precisely the result of a faith in spontaneity - the result of uncritical distrust of prolonged and sustained mass activity which in the minds of the rebels became identified with 'revisionist politics'. While Charo Mazumdar's writings did not theoretically dismiss the need for mass movements and mass organizations, his emphasis was quite decidedly on other forms of struggle. 'The revolutionary peasantry', he

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The Naxalbari Legacy • 91 wrote, 'has demonstrated through its struggle that neither mass movement nor mass organization is indispensable for waging guerrilla warfare.' If the accent was on building mass organizations, 'who is to build up the underground party organization? Do we expect the mass organizations to organize the agrarian revolution?' Besides, there was the danger of strengthening 'the tendency to carry on open movements through those open mass organizations, inevitably turning us into another set of leaders of revisionist mass organizations'. Again, it was this almost pathological urge to move away from the set routines of'economism' and 'revisionist politics' that created the tendency to virtually ignore the organized working class in party activity. The faith in the spontaneous militancy of the oppressed masses, verging on a virtual mystification of the concept of the revolutionary peasantry, led to two other massive errors: one tactical, the so-called 'annihilation campaign', and the other ideological, a glorification of violence and the armed struggle. The tactic of individual annihilation of class enemies, conducted in most cases without sufficient preparation in mass activity and support, led to disastrous consequences; yet, in the face of mounting criticism from within the· party, Charu Mazumdar raised the matter to a level ofmystical abstraction: 'Only through the annihilation campaign can the new man be created, the new man who will defy death and will be free from all thought of self-interest.' 1 The perfectly legitimate concept of revolutionary violence was similarly glorified. 'It is the blood of martyrs which creates enthusiasm, transforms the fighters into new men, fills their hearts with class hatred. ' 2 The same ideological distortion prompted the leaders to hail the indiscriminate, uncritical and unhistorical condemnation of various leading personalities of India's past and the equally indiscriminate adulation ofall figures endowed with the aura of 'violent resistance'. All these were major errors. And the people of West Bengal know what price was paid. A few thousand brave lives were lost in the face of massive and brutal repression. Uncoordinated I Charu Mazumdar, 'Hate, Brand and Smash Revisionism', 15-16 May

1970, cited in Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wakt ofNOX1Jlbari: A History ofthe Naxalik Mo11tmml in Indi4 (Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1980), p. 145. 2 Charu Mazumdar's speech at the CPI(M-L) Party Congress in Calcutta, May 1969, cited in Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wakt ofNt1X4lbari, p. 198.

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92 • The Present History ofWest Bengal spontaneity and impatient self-righteousness on the part of the young rebels and the mindlessness of entrenched bureaucratism in the established Left parties also contributed to the worst fratricidal warfare in the history of the Indian Communist movement. The result was a severe setback to the entire democratic and revolutionary movement in the state. Efforts are now under way to gather the pieces and reorganize. But the dead wood of the past is not always easy to sweep away. The erstwhile CPI(M-L) had split up into at least a dozen different groups. Their differences ranged over a variety of questions, not all of equal importance or relevance to the immediate task - questions such as the correct assessment of Lin Piao, the true inheritors of the political line of Cham Mazumdar, the legitimate claimants to the erstwhile party organization, the correctness or otherwise of the formation of the party, the proper role of mass movements and mass organizations, the question of participation in elections, and so on. Efforts for the re-establishment of unity are proceeding. There appears to be a more general recognition of the need for mass activity and organization. There is, however; little effort to think out and put into practice concrete programmes of mass mobilization and action, of concrete means to forge a genuine political alliance ofthe oppressed cla~ses toiling under a thousand different forms of labour and groaning under a thousand different forms of economic and social exploitation. There is, again, little endeavour to formulate programmes ofcombining militant agitational movements with the increasing control of the proletariat and its allied classes over the processes of social production. Instead, much time and polemical effort is spent on questions such as the identification of factions or individual leaders in the various political parties as 'agents' of imperialism or social-imperialism, the military strategy ofarmed struggle and base areas, or tactical questions of guerrilla warfare. The legacy ofNaxalbari is, nonetheless, real. It brought to the fore the political urgency of the agrarian revolution in India, of the militant organization of the small and landless peasantry to accomplish this revolution, of the systematic expansion of the sphere of people's power as a preparation for, and not merely as a hypothetical consequence of, the seizure of state power. These issues have again assumed great importance before the entire Left

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in India, especially in view ofthe state oftotal paralysis of political will and mass initiative on the part of the established Left movement in West Bengal since the dramatic inauguration of the Left Front government a few months ago. Naxalbari is not simply the story of a few brave lives lost in a futile battle. It represents a political task which must be achieved.

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7

Critique from Within

O

f late there has been a sudden spate of books about Naxalbari. If the decade of the seventies did not quite tum out to be the decade of revolution, it does seem to have ended up as the decade of books on revolution. It is possible, of course, to go on endlessly about the various ironic implications of this statement, as political commentators, particularly on the Left, are so fond ofdoing. But it would be wrong to overlook the significance for the future course of Indian politics of the theoretical and programmatic debates that have now emerged out ofthis literary profusion. It seems to me that the continuing experience ofwhat is now commonly called the 'Naxalite' movement, not only in its specific political expression in the several localized and seemingly abortive experiments in rural insurgency, but in its wider ramifications, all over the Indian subcontinent, in the field of social thought - economic, political and cultural - is of profound historical significance. I think that it is possible to argue that this wider movement in the last decade has, in fact, forced people to confront some of the most fundamental issues concerning the structures·and processes of power in contemporary Indian society in a manner that is sharper, more direct and integral, and more revolutionary than anything since the emergence of Gandhi fifty years before. This argument does not necessarily involve an acceptance of the vastly exaggerated claims that are still being made about the actual political impact of the movement in the areas of insurgency, nor does it presume that the often simplistic and crude theoretical statements that were said to underlie the movement were correct or its naive programmatic campaigns valid in terms of any realistic political strategy for the seizure of state power. Nor does this argument entail a dismissal of the significance of the long history of the Indian Communist movement which preceded that brief uprising in the foothills of Darjeeling in 1967. What it does highlight, however,

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Critique.from Within • 95 is the fact that it is only in the last decade or so that the most critical questions about the new and changing regime of power in postcolonial India have been asked, and that it was the political challenge ofNaxalbari, with all its theoretical naivete and tactical 'adventurism', that thrust these questions upon the social consciousness of the Indian people, especially ofits politically articulate and leading sections. It may be worthwhile to list at least some of these questions that now occupy the forefront of discussions on Indian society and polity. First of all, there has been the long and continuing debate among economists about the mode of production in agriculture in India, a debate that has evoked great interest not only in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, but in the wider international arena of academic scholarship on underdevelopment, colonialism, 'peripheral capitalism', etc. Whatever one's judgement may be on the quality of this debate, it is clear that ten years after it was begun in the pages of the Economic and Political Wetkly, the Social Scitntist and Fronnu, the debate's central issues have expanded far beyond the original and somewhat simple-minded controversy about semi-feudal and capitalist relations of production and have now created a much more lively and authentic awareness of the complexities of the structures and processes of production and exploitation that exist in various regions of the Indian subcontinent, both in their history and in their contemporary and rapidly changing reality. In particular, there is much greater awareness now of the diversities of production organizations and of the social forms of existence of labour, and what is more significant, of the reasons for the continued existence of liUch diversities. In other words, there is much greater concern now to try and understand in all its concreteness the untVt_nness of capitalist development in India, to locate the specific social structures and forces that resist a more complete realization of the full consequences of generalized commodity production, of the specific political forms of articulation of class demands in such situations of transition, and of the specific role in all this of the state in its twin aspects of domination and legitimation of class rule. Further, these concerns, accompanied by a healthy urge to settle the points at -issue by i:eferring to concrete empirical facts from the field, led to a very large number ofsurveys in the last decade, by academics

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96 • The Present History ef We.st Bengal as well as political workers, into the changing realities of rural economy and society in various parts of the subcontinent. All of these, it seems to me, are historically linked to the political challenge that was implicit in Naxalbari. The second area in which the last decade has seen much new questioning on the Left in India is that of the complex structures and processes of power in Indian society. The 'Naxalite' movement, it is now widely acknowledged, had relied heavily - and many would say, mistakenly - on the spontaneous spirit of militant resistance among the peasant masses. In so doing, it directly challenged the strength as well as the effective legitimacy of the liberal-bourgeois state structure. The failure of the various attempts to start the final devastating prairie fire did not, however, lead to a quiet confirmation of the basic viability and social legitimacy of the Indian state. Because the political challenge of Naxalbari forced the state to bare its teetl1, to show its ugly face stripped of the facade of bourgeois legality, populist reformism and tolerance of dissent. In fact, in those parts of the country where the 'Naxalite' movement was able to mount a significant challenge, the utter fragility of ruling-class liberalism and of the rule of law was exposed long before the Emergency when the rest of the world finally sat up and took notice of the fact that all was not well with 'the world's largest democracy'. Yet the insurgencies were finally crushed ruthlessly and fairly quickly. And once the dust of recriminations, of accusations of 'adventurism' and 'stabs in the back', of conspiracy trials and campaigns for release of prisoners had settled, a much more extended debate began to emerge within tl1e Indian Left about the nature, the processes and the mecha11isms of state and class power. The new experiences of peasant insurgency in various parts of the country were tallied against the received wisdom that had been distilled out ofTelengana and Tebhaga and made into an orthodoxy in the Indian Communist movement. Now it became clearer than ever before that the fundamental aspects of popular consciousness, its norms of political obligation or of legitimate revolt, its distinctive cultural idioms of solidarity, the specific process and form of determination of class demands within this ideological domain defined by elements such as caste or kinship or locality or community had never been adequately confronted in Communist theoretical debates in India. It also

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Critiquefrom Within • 97 became clear that the structures of state and class power in India were much more complex and differentiated, mediated at many levels by diverse economic and cultural institutions, than was implied by the rather straightforward characterizations of the Indian state put forward by the numerous contending political groups on the Indian Left. Hitherto unquestioned orthodoxies of the Left, for instance of central planning, the public sector, the mixed economy, of 'non-capitalist paths of.development', of the gradual 'socialization' of the 'commanding heights of the economy', of the linear historical development of the Indian democratic movement and the triumph ofthe forces of 'progress' over those of 'reaction', were turned around and shown to have become the new foundations of the ideological legitimation of ruling-class power in post-colonial India. It would be wrong to suggest that these new concerns resulted directly in a radically new formulation of the central questions of the Indian revolution, or that the conceptual terms of debate were transformed into a novel radical-revolutionary discourse. Political debates are still conducted on the Indian Left in terms that would be wholly familiar to members of the Bolshevik Party at the time of the October Revolution. And yet every radical journal in India today is full of attempts to 'reinterpret' the terms and principles of theoretical orthodoxy, to fit new facts to old theories and in the process to bend and stretch them to their limits. Even more striking are the achievements in the field of artistic production, particularly the cinema and the theatre, where, unencurnbered by the rigid formalisms of theoretical discourse, the new urge to portray the realities of Indiai1 life has resulted in some remarkably effective and truthful exan1ples of radical art. And finally, one can hardly miss the significance of the increasing gap between the almost ritual theoretical pronouncements of the parties on the Left and their day-to-day political practice, which makes it so easy for their critics to charge them with unprincipled opportunism, ad hocism and numerous other crimes of this sort, but which only reflects the fact that in their relations with the state structure and their participation in the political process, these parties already recognize a degree of complexity which their theoretical presuppositions are quite incapable of encapsulating. Ifone is prepared to accept some ofthese benefits of historical

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98 • The Present History ef West Bengal hindsight, one would be in a position, I think, to better appreciate the merits and the signif1canc~ of Promode Sengupta's critique of the politics of the CPl(M-L) written in 1969. 1 It was, in a sense, one of the first 'critiques from within', sharing many of the concerns as well as the hopes of those who in 1969 stood 'to the left of the CPI(M)' and declared that there be an end to the politics of 'revisionism' and an immediate renewal of the tasks of armed seizure of state power, but vehemently disagreed with the specific programmatic, and thereby theoretical, formulation of this political task proposed by the newly founded CPI(M-L) and principally by its leader Charu Mazumdar. Reading it now, twelve years after it was first written, one can hardly fail to notice an almost uncanny prevision of what would be written in many later 'critiques from within', those post-mortem reports composed in days of defeat, despair and endless theoretical 'rethinking'. But it would be foolish to read a political text such as this as some sort of brilliant anticipation of impending disaster. The text ought to be read historically. And the historical fact remains that Sengupta failed to persuade most of those whom he had set out to persuade. His terms of discourse were perfectly orthodox, and his adherence to his own discursive tradition explicit, sometimes at considerable cost to the flow of his argument or the economy of his style. He was arguing for a new revolutionary politics, but entirely within the discursive ambit occupied by the old; his critique sought to demonstrate that the politics of the 'revisionist' parties as well as the projected politics of the new 'revolutionary' party were both deviations from the 'true' orthodoxy and hence 'wrong'. If his intended readership at the time was not largely persuaded by his arguments, it was not because they did not share his conceptual systems or affiliate with the same discursive tradition. It was rather because, within that discursive tradition, apart from his own 'interpretation' of the principles of revolutionary politics, Sengupta had no recourse to any independent criteria by which he could support his claim about the 'correctness' of his interpretation or his opponents any reason to doubt its 'falsity'. Sengupta's critique was not, therefore, an 'anticipation' of the arguments that would . 1 Promode Sengupta, Biplab Kon

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Critiqutfrom Within • 99

be given as to why the movement failed; it must be treated along with all the documents Sengupta criticizes as forming part of the same historical preconditions that made the 'Naxalite' movement possible. Promode Sengupta was very much a maverick revolutionary. He recounts his own political affiliations in different periods of his life in the interview recorded by the Nehru Memorial Museum and included in this volume.2 These affiliations were diverse, including a remarkable spell as propagandist in the journal Azad Hind published from within Nazi Germany in the years 1942 to 1944. He later went on to produce some excellent work of radical scholarship, most notably his history of the Indian Revolt of 1857. Sengupta, in fact, came from an age in the life of middle-class Bengal when political action was above all an intense personal commitment - both intellectual and moral - to the cause ofnational liberation. Historical judgement will probably decide against personalities of this kind as successful leaders of prolonged and organized mass revolutionary struggles. And yet Promode Sengupta's life and work cannot fail to remind us of the continued relevance of yet another fundamental question of Indian politics that was once again brought to the forefront of political life by the 'Naxalite' movement - the question of the proper historical role of a self-conscious radical intelligentsia uncompromisingly committed to the task of revolution.

Promode Sengupta, Naxalbari and Indian Rtv0lution, tr. Tanika Sarkar (Calcutta: Research India, 1983), pp. 121-57. 2

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8

The Land and the Nation

T

he 1967 movement in Naxalbari which subsequently sparked off a long and remarkable chain of events in Indian politics was a movement about land rights. In particular, it was a movement about rights of permanent occupation and a more favourable share of the crop to sharecroppers, which were demands that had been voiced by the Communist-led peasant movement in Bengal even before independence and partition. True enough, the Naxalbari movement did not remain bound by these supposedly 'economic' terms. In the course ofa history, the details of which are now quite well known, the original issues of the peasant movement in the foothills of Darjeeling were transformed into much larger questions concerning the very character and path of the Indian revolution. The transformation was effected by means of a theory - many would say, a 'borrowed' theory - which drew upon the experiences of the Chinese revolution and constructed a framework for revolutionary action in which the Indian state was characterized as 'semi-colonial and semi-feudal' and the path of the people's democratic revolution was seen as passing through a protracted phase of armed agrarian struggle. Apparently, this was a great leap from the limited agrarian issues over which the movement first began in Naxalbari in 1967. Virtually everyone is now agreed that, in terms of the original programme laid down by the CPI(M-L) after its founding in 1969, the movement failed to attain its goals. We need not go into the many conflicting assessments which are still being made of the reasons for this failure. We also need not consider here the circumstances which made the 'borrowed' theory so attractive to those who felt disturbed and impatient about the way in which the established leadership was handling the political tasks facing the Communist movement at the time. Let us instead focus our attention on the way in which the 'borrowed' theory sought to

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The Land and the Nation • 101

relate the agrarian issues of the Naxalbari movement to the broader issues of the Indian revolution and identify the huge gaps in that construction. To help us in our task, we have twenty years ofhistorical experience since the spring of 1%7, in addition to a sizeable mass of new theoretical and empirical research.

Concrete Diversity We now know in far greater empirical detail that the specific issues of the movement in Naxalbari cannot be easily generalized in the form of'the agrarian question in India'. The heterogeneity of structures within which different strata of peasantry and different labour forms in agriculture are located in various regions in India is too great to permit any simple encapsulation. We can speak of at least three broad types of agrarian formations. The first type comprises those regions which have undergone the so-called intensive agricultural development in the last two decades. The form of agricultural production in those areas of 'green revolution' has changed considerably, more or less along the lines of classic capitalist development: productivity has increased dramatically, production is much more directly oriented towards sale in the market, the forms of employment of labour apparently include a much greater proportion of wage labour than before. One important qualification is that this development has occurred with the direct intervention of the state, both in subsidizing the inputs of production and in supporting the prices and distribution of agricultural products in the market. We also know that capitalist development of this kind is enmeshed with the continuation, some would say reinforcement, of precapitalist forms of exploitation, based on cultural institutions such as caste or locality, through which landowners seek to segment the labour market a11d prevent free entry into the land market. There is clearly an increased differentiation of the peasantry in these areas, and the old contradiction between a feudal-type landowning class and a large mass of subjugated small and landless peasantry is largely a thing of the past. The new contradictions that have emerged cannot be understood within the framework evolved by the Communist movement in India in the days of the Tebhaga and Telengana movements. The problems are compounded by the fact that agrarian issues

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102 • The Present History if West Bengal in the 'green revolution' areas are directly connected with the policy priorities of the central structures of the Indian state and these concern the overall relations between industry and agriculture as well as the regional unevenness of agricultural and industrial development. The second type offormation exists in areas where agriculture continues to be dominated by small-peasant subsistence cultivation. True enough, all such areas are now related in varying degrees to the wider market in foodgrains and an increasing part of the subsistence consumption of small producers has to be procured from the market. This means that the tendencies towards greater differentiation are not absent among the peasantry even in such regions. Thus, we see the rise here of a relatively substantial section of the peasantry seeking greater political strength at the local level to press for state support to carry out a 'green revolution'-type development. On the other hand, we also see the struggle of the small and marginal peasantry to resist eviction from the land and secure a level of subsistence. In areas which have continued to stagnate, landlordism still bears the cultural marks of traditional feudal domination. What is more interesting is that the rich peasantry too finds it convenient to appropriate the old forms of feudal domination to subjugate the small and landless peasants and impose its newfound political power at the local level. At the same time, the resistance of the poor peasantry has also tended to take the cultural form of caste solidarity and caste conflict. In several such areas, most notably in Bihar, the political successors of the Naxalbari movement have made impressive gains in recent years. This indicates that much of the politics of Naxalbari is in fact still relevant in agrarian formations of this type. While most ofthe political tactics of the original CPI(M-L) programme have been substantially modified here, the difficulty faced by the movement in Bihar today is its inability to achieve larger geographical and demographic consolidation. This inability stems from the problem of evolving a larger unity of concrete economic demands ofsmall and landless peasants with a political strategy of confronting not simply class power in the locality but state power as a whole. The third group of regions are scattered all over the central and southern landmass of the country. Typically, they consist of

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The Land and the Nation • 103 marginalized groups of population forced into seeking a livelihood on marginal lands or in occupations marginal to settled. agriculture. Very often, the cultural forms within which the social life of such peoples are organized are what is broadly described · as tribal. The forms of exploitation to which they are subjected, including their incorporation into larger economic or political relations, resemble the oppression of the entire community by powerful outside forces. Here too 'Naxalite' politics has continued to provide some sort of organization to the collective resistance of these communities. But the problems of relating these day-to-day struggles for survival to a broader political strategy of confronting the Indian state with an alternative programme of 'development' are even greater here than in the second type we have discussed above. To this we may add the hill regions of north-eastern India where the nature of social formations bears little resemblance to that of an agrarian society based on settled peasant agriculture.

Theoretical Unity Even in this threefold classification, I have overgeneralized. Enough variations can be found within each type which have implications for political organization and the handling of contradictions. Other classifications may also be suggested. The response to this heterogeneity ofstructures cannot.be that we must have as many theories or as many political strategies as there are structures. That would be absurd. The point is rather to consider the adequacy ofthe overall theoretical formulations within which we have tried so far to understand the concrete variations. The fact that we are having to classify and reclassify the different empirical situations and fight endlessly about the way in which they can be made to fit our general scheme is an indication that the framework is not adequate. We need to evolve new theoretical relations within which concrete issues at the local level can be adequately unified into a broader political strategy of struggle against the total structure of state power in India. This task cannot be accomplished by theoretical labour alone. It is not for any political theorist, no matter how committed to the revolutionary movement, to lay down a blueprint which activists would then follow to unify the various local struggles

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104 • The Present History of West Bengal into a comprehensive challenge to the organized power of the ruling classes. An adequate theoretical unification requires constant nourishment from the experiences of political practice and its adequacy is finally tested on the battleground of politics. I have argued that general formulations like 'semi-colonial and semi-feudal' or 'armed agrarian revolution' are incapable ofholding in a politically meaningful way the diversity ofcontent which confronts us in our present situation. The solution, however, is not to jump on to some other readymade theoretical wagon. The realistic response should be to identify a suitable political plane where the local mobilizations built up so far can be consolidated, through conscious exchange between theoretical ideas and practical experience, into larger solidarities of the people.

Level of the Nationality It seems that the most suitable plane for working out the modalities of this politics is the level of the nationality. That is where the concrete variations in agrarian issues can be summed up most effectively, albeit provisionally, into larger democratic consolidations. Once again, the approach is not to settle first on some determinate definition of 'nationality' and then to identify the collectivities which fit the definition. Rather, the task is to consciously transform the local issues relating to land and agricultural production into political demands aggregated for broader regional and demographic consolidations which allow articulation in the cultural form of a nationality. The form of these demands would be, in general terms, democratization of the state structure marked by a shift from centralization to federation. The emphasis will be on the demand to pose and tackle issues of 'development' at the level of the nationality rather than that of the central structures of the state. In other words, the struggle will be for a new constitutional form of the political union of the Indian peoples. The specific forms in which the nationalities would be consolidated or in which they would be related to each other in a broader state structure must not be laid down beforehand; this can only evolve through a process of conscious politics based on such demands. The level of the nationality, not that of'lndia, that is Bharat',

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The Land and the Nation • 105 affords the most effective democratic level where the agrarian questions in India today can be tackled. The most significant indicator of this possibility is the fact, now recognized eve11 by the organs of the ruling classes, that it is the weakest level in the present structure of the Indian state. It is for the Communist movement to address itself more strenuously to this level of democratic politics: not to be scared away by visions of a disintegrating polity ( the incompetence of the ruling classes sends our parliamentary Left into paroxysms of fear!) and not to allow the field to be usurped by reactionary and chauvinistic politics.

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9

Communists in Power* 17 November 1978: In Birbhum After the Floods 1

I

t is twelve days after the final devastating assault of the rivers on the unsuspecting landscape of southern Bengal. Our truck turns off the Grand Trunk Road at Panagarh to take the road to Ilambazar. The evening stillness is eerie, because we do not pass another vehicle. The approach road to the bridge on the river Ajoy had been washed away, but news had reac}:ied Calcutta that morning that a detour of some sort had been constructed and that we could cross llambazar and move on to Suri, the district headquarters. The forests end, and suddenly, two miles before the bridge, we see sand, huge stretches of it, glistening in the moonlight. We remember villages on the banks ofthe Ajoy. They are not there any more; instead, there is only sand. A policeman stops our truck. We tell him we are a relief team carrying medical supplies for the Central Stores in Suri. Two others walk up. They inspect our papers and wave us on. We tum off the road and down the embankment along the detour, freshly constructed, because there is no road,just a huge yawning chasm where the Ajoy had bludgeoned its way through. At Hetampur we see lights in the distance, and music and drums, and human voices. The Pujas are over, and it is immersion day for Goddess Durga. We approach the procession ofdancing, singing, screaming, gyrating men and women block-' ing the road, and we have to stop. Tapan leans over the side of the truck and asks about the floods. They point this way and that, and talk animatedly about devastated villages and hundreds washed away. We ask about the incongruity of a Puja celebration at a time like this. An elderly man wipes the

* This chapter consists of comments written at various times in the period 1978-90 on matters related to the working of the Left Front government 1 Economic and Polilical Wttkly, 13, 49 (9 December 1978), pp. 2001-2.

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Communists in Power • 107 beads of perspiration off his brow and says philosophically, 'Well, life must go on.' A youngish man in an embroidered silk kurta, a gleaming watch on his wrist, carefully trimmed moustache on a glistening face, walks up to the truck and asks, 'What relief have you got? Food or clothes?' 'Medicines', we say, 'and doctors from Calcutta.' Respectfully, he steps back and waves and shouts at the processionists; the crowd parts and we pass through .

• Block Mayureshwar II on the northern bank of the River Mayurakshi. The irrigation project on this river has in the last two decades brought prosperity to many in Birbhum. On the night ofthe 27th, after unprecedented rains and sudden discharge from the Messanjore dam, the Mayurakshi had burst the northern embankments across Sainthia and raced along a completely new course to devastate the region. The primary health centre at Kotasur has shifted to the local high school building, its own building having collapsed, only the long corrugated tin sheets which used to be the ceiling lying stupidly on the ground. We are shown another two-storeyed brick building which used to house a local co-operative bank and where, on that fateful night, a young auditor from Calcutta had perished under a falling roof. Kalikapur, a large sprawling village. The Bauri hamlet, populated mainly by agricultural labourers, on the outskirts of the village is ravaged; not a single structure is left standing. The people were crowding under the shade of a newly ~onstructed shelter, rickety and unstable. An old woman shows us how, with the waters rising menacingly from the rice fields just below her house, she had buried her only valuables, a few brass and aluminium pots and plates. The women and children had taken shelter in the brick houses ofthe 'babus', but many ofthe men, busy conducting rescue work, had found that it was too late to cross to the other half of the village and had spent the next day on top of the tall coconut trees until the waters receded sufficiently. All oflast week they had eaten at the community kitchen opened by the Byabasayi Samiti at Kotasur, and now at last, they were on government relief. The 'babu' neighbourhood of the prosperous middle peasants presents a more stunning picture, for here there used to be more

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108 • The Pre.sent History of West Bengal imposing houses, two-storeyed mud buildings with wooden balconies and beautifully trimmed straw chala roofs. 'Three generations it took to put up this house. It'll take another three to build it back again.' Except for five brick buildings, everything else has collapsed. There are many accusations. 'Only the evening before we had waded across the river, as we always do. And by midnight the embankments are breached! Why did they let out the excess water all at once? Of course it's negligence, or else sheer perversity. How else did the dam burst at Tilpara?' Official enquiries are now under way into what happened at Tilpara and Hinglow. But then there are more long-standing reasons for the floods this time - the decay of the natural drainage systems, the rapidly rising river:-beds, the incomplete implementation ofvarious river projects. But these seem academic controversies, for the people here do not know how such decisions are made on their behalf; they only suffer the results.

• Village after village on the north bank of the Mayurakshi, it's the same story. How does it look like in war, after a bomb raid? I have never seen one, but it could not be much worse than this. I had seen Divi taluka in Krishna district a week after the tidal wave had hit coastal Andhra in November last year. It looked much like this; only, 30,000 had perished there. Mercifully, the death toll here is much lower; official estimates now put it at around 3000. The devastation is the same, but spread over twelve districts in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The government has now sanctioned up to Rs 400 for rebuilding each house. It seems a pittance. For, more than a week after the waters had left, the villages were a huge pile of earth, rubble, bamboo poles, wooden beams, tin sheets, and no one knew how the debris would be cleared. Many had begun putting up a shelter on top of the remains of their old dwelling. At one place, a cow and a calf were still lying under the ruins of a house over which the family had begun to live again, and there was no putrid odour in the air, so well were the bodies buried.



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Communists in Power • 109 Outside flood-ravaged Beluti village, PWD contractors have engaged workers to repair the vital road links. Santai, Bauri and other landless men and women dig and carry, dump and beat back into existence a road where now there are only craters. The villagers queue up for inoculation, their faces grave and serious, the women busily herding together their reluctant children, for they know they must take the 'needle'. In between jabs, we talk. We hear a complaint that while the Byabasayi Samiti gruel kitchen, organized by the Congress(!) MIA of Suri and financed by the big rice-mill owners of Sainthia, had fed them rice, the CPI(M) was giving only milo. Local political rivalries seem to surface, and there are recriminations, although tensions do not rise very much. An old man says of the local CPI(M) anchal panchayat president, 'Oh, he's a good man, but he's no different from us. He too has lost everything. How is he going to feed us? You youngsters are hot-headed and stupid. It's only at a time like this that one realizes that rich people too·are needed .in the country. In a calamity, it's only they who have the means to save the poor. How can you do without rich people?' A younger man argues with him. 'How long would the rich feed you? Seven days, ten days? What happens after that? They go back to their old ways. This is just a ruse, a clever ploy; they want to use this disaster to regain their popularity - it's just clever politics. But they won't feed you for life. It's only our government which will look after the poor.' The old man, unconvinced, shakes his head.

• It is an eight-mile trek from Kirnahar along what used to be a bus route, but is now a twisted, upturned, misshapen coil of hard clay stretched across the fields where a ripe golden·crop had stood only a few weeks ago and where 110w there were marshy puddles, rotten stalks, and patches where the crop could be seen flattened completely into the hard layer of fresh clay. We cross the Kuye, now a placid stream hardly twenty yards across, and it seems incredible that this innocuous river had in one sudden assault devastated miles on both its banks. Village Thiba is on the edge of a large stretch of lowland that used to be a lake perhaps only a few decades ago. The people here are used to floods, for the rain-waters accumulate

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110 • The Present History of West Bengal

every year in the rice fields. The crops are always uncertain, but every three or four years, the rains are just right and the yields are rich. But this flood was unprecedented, the worst in living memory. We are told about the floods twenty-two years ago almost to the day, 10 Asvin 1363. Then too it had rained continuously for three days, and the Kuye had overflown its embankments. But there was not this mad rush of water, sweeping up into the homesteads on high ground. This time the water had stayed for almost a week - seven, eight, ten feet inside their homes - and the walls had started to collapse on the third day. But people had taken out the huge iron pans in which the sugarcane juice is boiled to make gu4, and had raised funds to procure rations for their villages and row them across in their floating kadai . • The cattle population had been halved. The young men here were talking of pooling together the cattle stock, getting government help to procure seeds for a quick ploughing and planting for a winter crop. 'If the winter crop succeeds, we'll get by this year. Or else, it'll be tough. But we've survived. No one died. Let's see what happens now.' 27 February 1984: The Governor's Speech

2

As expected, the governor's address at the opening of the budget session of the West Bengal Assembly contained little that was remarkable, except for the fact that a large part of it could not be heard because the Congress(!) leader, Abdus Sattar, decided to read out a memorandum in the middle of the governor's speech. It was reported that A.P. Sharma had earlier had some differences with the chief minister over certain parts of the speech. It is also rumoured that the governor has been pleading for some time with Rajiv Gandhi (who apparently has the power to decide such things) to be relieved of his post and brought back into active politics. In any case, Sharma finally read out what in effect is the Left Front government's current policy statement. The address reiterated the usual arguments about centre-state 2

Frontier, 16, 29 (3 March 1984).

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Communists in Power • 111 relations which have been made for quite some time now: nothing new was added to the list this time. Unlike previous years, no mention was made of the government's agrarian and education policies. It was pointed out, quite legitimately, that the Land Reforms Amendment Bill of 1981 was still awaiting the President's approval. But in actual fact, nothing significant has happened on the agrarian front in the last year to merit a paragraph in the governor's address - a reflection of the impasse which the Left Front now faces in this most vital aspect of its politics. On education, its policies with regard to primary education have met with little or no success, whereas its short-sightedness and sectarianism in higher education have recently more led it into the still more embarrassing episode of the Calcutta University vice-chancellor. Little surprise then that these matters were not raised in the governor's adclress. 3 On the other hand, what has featured prominently are matters . relating to industry. The centre has been blamed for its tardiness ·in granting licences for three major industrial projects in the public sector. Yet the speech does nothing .to rectify what has been obvious for quite some time - that the Left Front does not have an industrial policy at all. It has talked from time to time of helping small capitalists in the private sector but, unlike other states in southern or western India, has been unable to clarify its political position sufficiently in order to actively promote capitalist development of this sort. On the other hand, it has made itself more dependent on aid from international funding agencies in order to run its infrastructural programmes, particularly in the metropolitan areas. The performance of its own public sector units is abysmal, to the extent that it has had to make an offer, unprecedented in India, to private capitalists to take back some of the units now languishing in the nationalized sector. The Left Front's policy on industry has been one of complete ad hocism. It has constantly acceded to the power of organized interests and thus only sought to drift along the path of least resistance. . 3

A gross mismanagement by CPI(M) party bosses of the election by the university syndicate of a panel of names for Vice-Chancellor allowed Professor Santosh Bhattacharya, a vocal opponent of the Left Front government, to be appointed to the post by the governor.

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112 • The Present History oJWest Bengal 4

2 April 1984: The Police Again

So it finally required the brutal murder ofa deputy commissioner of police at the hands of ruthless criminals for the West Bengal government to acknowledge that all was not well with the law and order administration in the state. That things had to come to such a pass before the chief minister felt it necessary to recognize that a 'drastic shake-up' was needed in the police administration is a true indicator ofthe narrow vision, aimlessness and utter lack of political will of the Left Front regime. It was primarily on the crest of a massive wave of popular feeling against the severe repression, lawlessness and arbitrary authoritarian rule of the preceding years that the Left Front was elected to power in 1977. Its first promise to the people was the restoration of civil liberties and democratic rights. In the early flush of popular enthusiasm, much was undoubtedly achieved in this regard. But then, as the new claimants to power settled down into the comfortable grooves of bureaucratic functioning, many sections of popular opinion pointed out that what had been achieved was not enough. There was a need to set the popular feeling against repression and lawlessness on more secure democratic foundations. The warnings were not heeded. Instead, the leaders of the Left Front chose the easier path of consolidating their narrow sectarian interests not only by compromising with entrenched lobbies within the bureaucracy and the police but by actually making their politics dependent upon the use ofthe state machinery. Following the recent death within hours of his arrest of Mohammed Idris, prime suspect in the murder ofV.K Mehta, DC (Port), Saroj Mukherjee, the Left Front chairman, mentioned the fact that many such deaths had occurred in police custody in West Bengal since 1971, including the still unaccounted for 'disappearance' of Saroj Datta. Surely one has a right _to ask: why in the last seven years have such deaths not been properly investigated and the culprits brought to book? Why did the Left Front government adopt such a lackadaisical approach towards the investigation and prosecution ofnumerous well-documented cases of police brutality and lawlessness? Why 4

Frontier, 16, 34 (7 April 1984).

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Communists in Power • 113 do the most ruthless killers in the Calcutta police force, whose links with the criminal underworld are some of the most open secrets in the city, not only continue in service but actually receive rewards and promotions for their misdeeds? Endlessly, at every meeting on civil liberties, our Left leaders have repeated Justice AN. Mulla's famous characterization of the police as the largest organized gang of criminals in the country. Why do they now feign such complete surprise at the discovery of systematic tie-ups of interest between policemen and organized crime - and politicians too? There is widespread suspicion that Idris was done to death at Lalbazar to cover up some of these grisly ties. Even the deputy speaker of the West Bengal Assembly has been subjected to prolonged questioning by the chief minister in connection with the Garden Reach murders. It is well known that Idris named quite a few people during his 'interrogation'. If there exists any justification at all for those who call themselves revolutionaries to take up the reins of government within a bourgeois constitutional order, it must lie in the demonstration that the repressive machinery of the state can be brought under the moral sway of the democratic will of the people. If for once it is conceded that the bureaucracy and the police and some politicians have norms oftheir own to which the 'revolutionaries' in government must conform, every single one of those justifications must fall to the ground. By reacting as they have done to the incidents of the last two weeks - in confusion and inept attempts at a cover-up - the Left Front leadership has now surrendered to the Right, perhaps more than ever before, the moral ground for legitimate rule. When the next great assault comes down on the Left as a whole, it is the present leadership which will stand guilty of having betrayed the democratic trust of the people.

1 May 1984: Politics and Theatre5 The political theatre in Calcutta is clearly in a state ofconsiderable crisis. The much vaunted politically conscious theatre-loving public seems to have deserted it. There have been few productions 5

Fron&r, 16, 38 (5 May 1984).

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114 • The Present History of West Bengal of any significance in the last few years. Most group theatres of repute are continuing to perform old favourites of a decade, not so much because they still draw large crowds, but because their new attempts attract even fewer people. There is a marked tendency to revive some of the classics of Bengali theatre - Madhusudan Dutt, Dinabandhu Mitra, Girish Ghosh and, still more remarkably, Tagore. Even that firm favourite of the 1970s - the Bengali incarnation ofBertolt Brecht- is now jaded. The feeling is now widespread in group theatre circles in West Bengal that people have had enough of politics. They do not want to hear any more of the exploitingjotdar and the avaricious mill-owner, about struggle and revolution and clenched fists and the lntemationale. They want to see and hear about other things. Which is why they find even the tinsel glitter and mindless vulgarity of the commercial theatre more attractive; Or perhaps they simply stay at home and watch television. No more political theatre for them. Is this true? Very doubtful. It is far more likely that the audience is tired of the kind of theatre served up to them in the name of political theatre. What was new in the late 1960s and early 1970s is now hackneyed. The plain fact is that the practitioners of political theatre in West Bengal have nothing new to say. They are unable to talk about politics as something that. is immediate, relevant and lively. It is also a fact that this condition of artistic immobility coincides with the period ofLeft rule in West Bengal. The connection is not direct. On the contrary, the Left Front government has given more direct inducements and support to the group theatres than any previous regime in the State. There have been some allegations offavouritism and partisan bias, but-not ofany serious proportions. (The recently imposed amusement tax on theatre, however, although it exempts amateur groups, is likely to affect them indirectly, but that is another matter.) The artistic crisis is more the result of constraints created by the very fact of the existence of a Left establishment in power. Just as the workers' or peasants' or students' movements have lost their militant edge, in much the same way political theatre has lost its bite, the sharpness of its critical gaze, its precision in identifying targets, its capacity for satire and irony, and the nobility ofanger. The subjects today are abstract, general,

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Communists in Power • 115 not too immediate; the treatment vague, cautious, blase. If people seem tired of political theatre, it is not because they have suddenly forgotten their politics. It is more because the practitioners of political theatre lack the artistic courage to talk about the politics of the day.

1 January 1985: Left in a Bind'' Some of the most telling implications of the massive electoral swing in favour of the Congress(!) right across the country is the virtual obliteration of the opposition in the new Lok Sabha. Whether or not this is a good thing for the electoral system itself is a moot point, although one of Rajiv Gandhi's selfappointed minions has pronounced that the concept of a strong opposition is a Western notion and has no place in Indian-style democracy. What these people will say once the squabbles over loaves and fishes begin inside the ruling party remains to be seen. For the moment at least, the electoral strength of every single opposition party of all-India standing has been drastically reduced, and the Telugu Desam has emerged as the second largest party in parliament. On the Left, the CPI(M)'s representation has been reduced from 36 to 22 and the CPI's from 13 to 5. The Left's performance in both Kerala and West Bengal must be regarded as little short of a debacle. The West Bengal results in particular have caused shock and dismay in the ruling Left Front. While many on the Left had conceded the possibility of a Congress wave in northern India, West Bengal, they were certain, would not be affected by it. This cheerful confidence was apparent in Left Front circles even in the first stage of counting of votes, and the subsequent storming ofthe firmest Left citadels in and around the metropolis took everyone by surprise. The initial reaction of Left Front leaders has been to confess their underestimation of the 'sympathy wave' . Saroj Mukherjee has even accused the voters of West Bengal of falling prey to ephemeral emotions. Initially, little was said of the Left's own acts of omission and commission during its seven-year period in office as having something to do with the people's verdict.