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3 Historic Peasant Movements That Show Us The Power Of India’s Farmers

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Even before anti-imperialism became an ontologically separate ideology that motivated and informed the struggle of our country’s masses against British imperialism, a rudimentary anti-imperialist and anti-feudal outlook was demonstrated by the various peasant movements and rebellions. They occurred time and again within the context of the colonial and semi-feudal exploitation that the British imperialists and their Indian compradors carried out against the peasant masses of our country.

From the Santhal Rebellion of 1856 to the Indigo Rebellion of 1859-60, these peasant movements and rebellions were able to display—albeit, rudimentarily—the appalling conditions and misery that British imperialism and its support for the upper caste landlord classes had brought for the Indian peasantry, especially the poor and landless peasants.

Unfortunately, the conditions of the India peasantry haven’t changed much even after “independence”, for what we achieved in 1947 was more akin to that of a transfer of power from the hands of British imperialism to the hands of their Indian comprador classes, who became the ruling classes of the nominally and superficially “independent” Indian State.

Although the Indian State and its ruling classes brought forth nominal legislation that had apparently gotten rid of the Zamindari system, the legislation had sufficient loopholes and workarounds that the landlord classes were able to use to bypass the new land laws to ensure that their landholdings were kept intact. So that they could continue to engage poor and landless peasants to work on their landholdings, often for no compensation at all.

Moreover, the legislation that sought to “destroy” the feudal system was not brought forth from a sentiment of enlightenment or benevolence by the Indian State’s ruling classes; it was a response to curb the peasant upsurges and movements that had sprung up in the period during and after “independence”.

However, the liberalization and globalization of the Indian State’s economy in 1991 only went on to worsen the condition of the Indian peasantry, to the extent that more than 3,30,000 peasants across the country have taken their lives as a result of not being able to lead dignified and prosperous lives in a system that leeches their labour to satisfy the interests of a few.

The passage of the two agrarian bills by the Indian State a few days ago is, therefore, the culmination of the ruling class’s efforts to subjugate the Indian peasantry under its boots. The passage of the two bills—while contravening the protocols and procedures of a bourgeois institution like the Parliament—is also indicative of how the Hindutva fascists are serving the interests of imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism envisioned by big landlords.

To understand the all-India strike that the peasantry of our country had called to protest against the passage of the two anti-people and anti-farmer bills, it is imperative to look back at the three significant peasant movements and uprisings that have shaped the collective consciousness of the Indian people, and to understand the lessons that we could learn from them so that the Indian peasantry would be ideologically equipped to fight for their liberation from imperialism and semi-feudalism.

Tebhaga Movement

The Tebhaga Movement was a large-scale peasant movement that began in 1946, in what was then the undivided Bengal Province of British India. For a long time, peasants and sharecroppers were forced to give up about 50% of the year’s harvest to the landlord, while they would have kept the remaining 50% for themselves.

Image credit: VP Hindi

While this might seem like a fair arrangement, it has to be borne in mind that it was the peasants and sharecroppers who had to provide almost all of the labour for sowing, reaping and harvesting the grain while the landlord class played no part, be it direct or indirect, in the production process. Moreover, the Tebhaga Movement could be seen as a consequence of the Bengal Famine, which had killed three million Bengalis and dwindled the already low rations that the peasantry and sharecroppers had to survive upon.

Under the leadership of the Kisan Sabha (the peasant-wing of the undivided Communist Party of India), the Tebhaga Movement was launched in twenty-four districts of undivided Bengal. The demand of the peasantry was that landlords should only get one-third (about 30%) of the year’s produce, and the peasantry and sharecroppers should be able to keep the remaining grain for themselves and their families.

While in a few places the peasantry was able to implement their legitimate demands peacefully, most of the movement was a violent one where the peasantry had to combat the violence of the landlords and the police forces that had come out in support of the landlords. The movement was powerful enough that not even the bloody and communal Partition of Bengal in 1947 could ebb its tide. It finally came to an end when the Government of West Bengal passed the Bargardari Act 1950, which incorporated the demands of the Tebhaga Movement.

Telangana Rebellion

While a contemporary of the Tebhaga Movement, the Telangana Rebellion was the most significant peasant movement in the modern history of India. Telangana, which corresponds to the boundaries of the modern-day Telangana State, was one of the three regions that constituted the erstwhile State of Hyderabad, one of the 600 Princely States that had accepted the British suzerainty in exchange for internal autonomy.

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Hyderabad was a classic example of maintaining feudal relations of production within its territory. The Telangana Rebellion initially began as an anti-feudal movement, which protested against the brutal feudal oppression and exploitation that the peasantry faced at the hands of the landlords. Soon, however, the Movement took a political turn as the Rebellion sought to abolish the State of Hyderabad through the means of agrarian armed revolution.

Under the leadership of the undivided Communist Party of India, the Rebellion was able to liberate 3,000 villages from the oppressive rule of the landlords. It was able to redistribute 10,00,000 acres of agricultural land to peasants. Another significant aspect of the Telangana Rebellion was the Andhra Thesis. This theoretical paper was able to demonstrate that the Rebellion could only be successful if it can follow the Chinese model of armed agrarian revolution and protracted people’s war to achieve its political and economic aims.

Even after the police action, the annexation of the Hyderabad State and the oppressive military administration by the Indian Army that killed thousands of people, the Telangana Rebellion continued unabated until 1951, when the leadership of the undivided Communist Party of India significantly deviated from Marxism-Leninism and opted to contest Parliamentary elections that were to be held next year. This was a significant blow for the Rebellion, and the Indian State was able to suppress the last of the armed peasant squads that the Rebellion had given birth to.

Naxalbari Uprising and Movement

While the Tebhaga Movement and Telangana Rebellion had its genesis before the Indian State had gained “independence” and the “independent” Indian State had attempted to “destroy” the feudal system by “abolishing” the Zamindari system, many areas and regions of the country continued to play host to the oppressive feudal system and the upper caste landlord classes that significantly benefitted from it. Bengal was no exception, as the Bargardari Act of 1950 had no provision to do away with the feudal system and the landlord classes. Moreover, the Indian Communist Movement had significantly changed.

While the undivided Communist Party of India had provided leadership to both the Tebhaga Movement and Telangana Rebellion at its inception, the Communist Party of India—and its breakaway faction, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—had become so engrossed with Parliamentary politics that they had to deviate heavily from Marxism-Leninism to the extent that none of the Parties remained “Communist” in their politics.

Naxalbari was one of the many places that had been hit by the storm of the Tebhaga Movement. However, seventeen years after the Movement had concluded, the peasants and sharecroppers in the area—many of whom were veterans of the Tebhaga Movement—did not dare any better. However, dissidents within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were becoming increasingly critical and disillusioned with the Party’s sole focus on Parliamentary politics.

Many of these concerns were adequately addressed in a series of polemical documents that Charu Mazumdar, a veteran of the Tebhaga Movement, had penned. Known as the Historic Eight Documents, the essays were not only highly critical of the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but it also provided a guide to action that would be used to organize and rouse the peasantry and the sharecroppers to revolutionary action.

When the goons of a landlord brutally beat up a sharecropper who had won a judicial order to reap the crops in his own plot of land, that was the moment when the fury of the peasantry was unleashed. Peasants began to reap and harvest crops en masse, defying the authority of the landlords. Some peasants also stole grain from the stores of the landlords, and they also snatched firearms from them.

The Government of West Bengal sent police forces to quell the uprising. On 23rd May 1967, the police shot dead 11 people: eight women, two infants and a teenager. These sowed the seeds of the Maoist movement in India and which vegan the New Democratic Revolution in the country, which has continued for five decades through various twists and turns.

While we must provide critical support to the all-India strike that our country’s peasantry has called to protest against the passage of the two anti-people and anti-farmer bills, we must also learn from the lessons that the three movements have been able to teach us. One, the peasantry has to ally itself with the working class to stand up against the oppressive and exploitative dictatorship of the ruling classes and its Hindutva fascist henchmen.

Two, the question of peasant rights and peasant liberation cannot be solved within the current system, and they certainly cannot happen through electoral politics or through peaceful means. Third, only a revolution led by the alliance of the working class and peasantry can guarantee liberation from the oppressive and exploitative system that all of us have to bear with, even in a seemingly “independent” country like India.

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