…the battle must break out again and again in ever-growing dimensions, and there can be no doubt as to who will be the victor in the end – the appropriating few, or the immense working majority.
– Karl Marx in “The Civil War in France”, 30 May 1871.
The 1990s have been a period of great euphoria among the ruling classes of India, for all the wondrous opportunities made available through ´liberalisation´ of the economy. While the steady economic and political surrender to the consumerist demands of the elite and to Western capital continues, the 400 million Indians who are trapped in poverty can only dream revolutionary dreams.
Amidst the sheer persistence of the country´s monumental social, economic and political ills, the Indian Left, and the Maoist movements in particular, have faced a daunting task in mobilising the resistance of the rural and urban working classes. And it is the state of Bihar, otherwise unceremoniously dismissed as “the diseased heart of India”, which has defiantly kept India´s revolutionary hopes alive with over a quarter of a century of Maoist struggles.
The deciding historical event which largely explains today´s social conditions in Bihar and the continuous revolutionary reaction was the enactment of the Permanent Settlement Act by the British East India Company in 1793. This Act fostered and consolidated a specific relationship between the zamindars who had control over land and those who did not. Right up to the early twentieth century, the Permanent Settlement Act helped the upper-caste land-owning classes to continue their traditional dominance over the land in return for handing over a tenth of their total rental income to the state.
This Act also sowed the seeds of agrarian struggle, which has manifested itself for over 150 years in the Bihar-Bengal region. Peasants and tribals of the Chotanagpur region in the southern part of present-day Bihar, for example, were engaged in resistance throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1820-21, the Ho tribal peasants of Chotanagpur rose twice against money-lenders, zamindars and British rulers. The Oraons, another tribal community, rebelled in the years 1820, 1832 and again in 1890. To quell the ferocious Kol revolt of 1831-32, the British called in troops from as far afield as Calcutta, Danapur and Benares.
The Santhal Uprising of 1855-57 was widespread, covering Bihar, Orissa and Bengal, in which the Santhals were often joined by the lower caste peasantry. As many as 10,000 rebels were massacred in a final gruesome battle which crushed the uprising. The heroic struggle at the turn of this century by the Mundas of the Ranchi area inspired folkloric visions of a new society, which survive to this day in the form of songs and popular tales.
The baton of the peasant struggle was carried to the plains of North and Central Bihar during the early parts of twentieth century. Here, the agrarian protests often revolved around the issue of bakasht lands, lands that had been repossessed from tenants by zamindars for putative non-payment of rent. From the 1920s until the early 1940s, this land alienation was considerable between 2.5 to 3.5 lakh occupancy holdings annually. This, together with produce rent which prevented tenants from selling directly in the market and thus take advantage of increasing market prices, and an increasingly ecological burden on the peasantry, the structural features were in place for mass upsurges against the zamindari system.
The peasantry was mostly led by the Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha (BPKS), formed in 1929 by a charismatic leader, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. The Kisan Sabha and the emerging Socialist Party together led a peasant organisation whose membership had grown to four lakh by 1939. The BPKS´s demands were all-encompassing: the abolition of the zamindari system, cancellation of all agrarian debt, establishment of a system to transfer land to the tiller, and employment for landless peasants.
However, both before and after Independence, the peasantry were repeatedly betrayed by the conservative Congress leaders of Bihar. The Kisan Sabha could not muster enough strength to push the Congress into accepting its demands. The Sabha´s over-dependence on a few leaders, like Swami Sahajanand, and its stronger ties with the tenants and middle peasants at the cost of the landless and agricultural labourers were its major weaknesses. The first wave of peasant struggle in the plains of Bihar, although unsuccessful in itself, did clearly put the writing on the wall.
The spectre of radical change haunts the semi-feudal interests of Bihar, and of India generally. The Congress party, which came to dominate Bihar´s political scene after Independence, offered token measures to address the land problem. Without any shame or pretension, the Bihar Assembly passed extremely watered-down legislations, among others the Bihar Land Reforms Act (1950) and the Fixation of Land Ceiling Act (1962), which had enough loopholes to render them meaningless.
Because of the deep collusion between the state´s governing elite and the semi-feudal landed interests to deny the peasantry their minimum share of land and its produce, the pre-Independence rural class characteristics of Bihar did not change dramatically. Merely, the British Raj was exchanged for an Indian Raj. Landlords, rich farmers and money-lenders were still ranged against tribal communities, poor and landless peasants and village artisans.
Such callous indifference was bound to ignite a reaction, and 25 years of silence in the countryside, following the BPKS-led agitation of the 30s and 40s, was broken in 1968 with a clarion call for militant peasant struggle issued by the Marxists-Leninists. This was a loud echo of the ´Naxalbari´ struggle of the previous year. An armed struggle in the countryside against semi-feudal interests combined with area-wise seizures in order to finally capture state power was the leitmotif of these revolutionaries.
After the first wave of peasant struggles dominated by the middle peasantry ended in the mid-1940s, this time it was the poor and landless peasantry who are militantly asserting themselves. The new radical grouping which emerged was critical of the “parliamentary” tendencies in the Indian communist movement, and believed that the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had betrayed their revolutionary role. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), officially formed in 1969, emphasised the pivotal role of poor and landless peasants in smashing the edifice of the semi-colonial, semi-feudal Indian state.
The first congress of the Marxist-Leninists, held in Calcutta in May 1970 and inspired by Mao Zedong´s Chinese revolution, adopted a full-fledged programme of action. The congress held that the “principal contradiction” of the period was between feudalism and the broad masses of the Indian people. Resolution of that contradiction would lead to the settlement of all other contradictions.
The districts of Muzaffarpur and Bhojpur were the first places in Bihar where the silence of the peasants was decisively broken. Heroic lower caste figures like Jagdish Mahto, Ram Naresh Ram, Bhutan Musahar, Rameshwar Ahir and Nirmal Mahto, were some of the early leaders struggling to ignite that single spark that would light the prairie fire. By the late 1970s, many central and some northern districts of Bihar were raging with the flames of peasant struggles.
Unlike Naxalbari in West Bengal, the place of its genesis, the Marxist-Leninist struggle in Bihar has endured. Unlike the other communist parties, the one persisting and defining theme of the Marxist-Leninist struggle here has been its ability to draw the sustained participation of the poor and landless against the arrogant, brutal and corrupt ruling classes. The state´s fertile fields have been kept in flames by three dominant Marxist-Leninist parties, among half a dozen others. These are the CPI (M-L) Liberation, CPI (M-L) Party Unity and the Maoist Communist Centre.
Some of the mistakes committed in the early days of the struggle, from the early to mid-70s such as extraordinary dependence on annihilation of class enemies and neglect of mass movements have been apparently rectified, though much organisational and ideological re-direction may still be needed in order to launch and sustain a major struggle.
Belchi to Habaspur
Bihar´s economy is overwhelmingly rural-based, with 74 percent of the population of 100 million relying on agriculture for survival. Sixty-four percent of the people belong to the ´backward´ and ´scheduled´ castes, 21 percent are Muslims and ´scheduled´ tribes. Between 85-90 percent of the state´s rural households own less than 5 acres of land each. The ´backward´ and ´scheduled´ communities have nursed a historical grievance against the upper castes who make up 15 percent of the population but have until recently largely dominated the economic, cultural and political structures.
Four strategies came to dominate the Marxist-Leninist struggle for the heart and minds of Bihar´s people. Perhaps the most successful has been the relentless combat on social issues. The constant battle waged by the lower caste rural poor in acquiring social dignity, or izzat, has been immeasurably successful. The Marxist-Leninists have thus been able to help deal a devastating blow to the cultural heart of feudalism.
Secondly, the focus has been on the seizure and distribution of surplus land under the illegal possession of landlords, mahants (religious heads), and other big landowners, which amounted to about 1.4 million acres statewide even after the implementation of ´land reform´. This is perhaps the most intense and violent of all the struggles, and success has been partial and concentrated in a few districts of central and south Bihar such as Patna, Bhojpur, Nalanda, Gaya, Jehanabad and Palamu. It is because of the challenge put up by the feudals against the concrete actions to seize land that the Marxists-Leninists have felt the need to arm groups of peasants.
Thirdly, the activists have mobilised a struggle for minimum wages of agricultural labourers. Even the minimum wage of INR 16.50 per day during non-harvesting periods and 10 percent of the crops during harvesting periods are not given to agricultural labourers. The struggle around wages can, however, create counter-productive tensions when the middle peasants are not able to pay the minimum to agricultural labourers. This has been a potentially divisive issue, for the Marxist-Leninist strategy clearly depends on uniting both these classes.
Finally, the activists have in the last decade succeeded in pressuring local administrations to undertake development projects in the ´backward´ areas. Meanwhile, the rural population has been mobilised to monitor and ensure that the crores of rupees allocated for digging wells, building roads, providing of warehouse facilities, and so on, are not squandered. While forcing the “comprador-bureaucratic” capitalist structure to be directly accountable to the people, the Marxist-Leninists also want to intensify the contradictions within it.
All these activities have been directed against Bihar´s ruling classes. They are like the “baron of old” who, in the words of Karl Marx, “thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted itself a crime.” Placenames such as Belchhi (1977), Parasbigha-Dohiya (1980), Pipra (1986), Kansara (1986), Arwal (1986), Khagri-Damuhan (1988), Tishkhora (1991), Bathanitola (1996), Ekwari (1996), and Habaspur (1997) among many others, are deeply etched in the mind and memory of Bihar´s poor and landless peasants. Names like these mark the moments when the landed interests struck barbarically and mercilessly at the rural poor, killing thousands.
Since the early 1980s, the big landlords, in connivance with the Bihar state apparatus, have even organised themselves into private armies, or senas. The purpose of these well-equipped feudal war parties with names like Ranvir Sena, Kunwar Sena, Sunlight Sena, Brahmrishi Sena, Lorik Sena, Bhumi Sena is to strike terror among the peasantry in order to force their militancy to backtrack. Many such senas have, however, been liquidated by the different wings of the Marxist-Leninist parties of Bihar.
Land or Votes
CPI(M-L) Liberation, led by its general secretary, Vinod Mishra, is perhaps the revolutionary organisation of Bihar that has travelled the greatest political distance. In a “rectification” programme launched in 1977, the group moved away from an emphasis on “annihilation of individual class enemies” to a concerted attempt at organising mass peasant movements under the umbrella of a “Kisan Sabha”. In 1982, this group took an even more radical step by deciding to enter the thickets of parliamentary struggle under the banner of the Indian People´s Front.
At its Fifth Party Congress in 1992, the CPI(M-L) Liberation itself decided to come out into the open and participate in all kinds of progressive mass organisations and parliamentary forums. The group´s overall electoral success has been waxing and waning. It won one parliamentary seat in 1989 and has one seat, won by a ´fraternal´ Assam party, the ASDC, in the present Parliament. It sent seven members to the Bihar State Assembly in 1990, but this number was down to six in 1995, when the party polled around a million votes. The Indian People´s Front was dissolved in 1994 because, it was claimed, it was absorbing and diverting the energies of the mother, Liberation, organisation.
It is too early say whether the Liberation group was well-advised to enter the parliamentary fray, but it certainly signals a sharp break from its earlier ideological moorings. On the one hand, the obvious benefit is a national presence and the possibility of intervening and giving shape to country-wide debates. On the other hand, there is the fear that electoral pursuit will dilute the struggle over land, thus compromising the very core of the Marxist-Leninist ideological agenda. The desire for easy electoral victories, it is said, will provide to some a reason to excuse themselves from the harder struggles on the ground. Other Marxist-Leninist organisations in Bihar, like the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI(M-L) Party Unity, have refused to enter the electoral arena because of this perceived danger.
While the debate over strategy continues among the Marxist-Leninists, the stakes are becoming higher with each passing day. For arrayed against the peasantry this time are not only the Congress with its class interest but the centrist and very corrupt Janata Dal and the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists.
Ultimately, the Marxist-Leninist ideology will triumph or be defeated depending on the skill with which they use their parliamentary and extra-parliamentary options. While it is important not to let go of the down-to-earth struggle against exploitation of the peasantry, they must work to establish a national presence as opposed to strong presence in a few states like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Assam (under the banner of ASDC).
The call by the CPI (M-L) Liberation for a “National Left Federation” of all communist parties may produce the urgent strengthening of India´s anti-systemic forces. Much is riding on the success or defeat of the different communist strategies as they play themselves out in Bihar. Whether they will destroy or triumphantly restore the diseased heart of India is yet to be seen.