People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 25

June 24, 2007

West Bengal: How The Left Front And Its Government Emerged


Biman Basu


THE Left Front of West Bengal grew and evolved by traversing an arduous path, through the people’s long and intense struggles. It had to surmount many challenges and vicissitudes before it could get consolidated on the basis of united resolve of the Left parties in the state.




Since 1952, as a matter of fact, different Left and other anti-Congress parties off and on unleashed democratic movements through unity in action, in the interest of the common people and sometimes unitedly launched movements, which directly helped to pave the way for a proper understanding with the Left parties and the principles they were based upon. Thus the Bengal Left Front grew and established itself firmly by conducting and getting deeply involved in a struggle against the forces of authoritarianism and anti-people policies of the Congress governments. However, the task of charting the roadmap for democratic movements was not always easy. This was only on the eve of Lok Sabha elections in 1977 when the Left parties, through their own experiences, realised that they have to solidly unite on a common programme; it was then that they formed the Left Front. A decade ago, a United Front (UF) had been set up on the combined initiative of the Left parties and other anti-Congress parties. This was in the post-election situation way back in 1967 and before the elections in 1969.


Thus we can suitably sum up to say that the backdrop to evolution of the Bengal Left Front comprised a variegated and rich realistic developments. These included the experience of working in a United Front, the variety and different forms of functioning of its constituents in different time periods, and the bitter fruit of experience we all had to taste as a result of their taking positions contrary to one another.


These days one can often observe and experience across the country, and also at the central level, the sight of an assortment of alliances and fronts being formed by political parties just before the polls or in the post-poll situation without declaring a common programme at all. West Bengal too sometimes witnessed the growth of such ‘electoral’ alliances. For example, one recalls the formation of the ‘Save Bengal Front’ of some opposition outfits on the eve of the 13th Lok Sabha elections. Can one compare these ‘fronts’ with the Left Front of West Bengal?




To seek a proper answer to this question, one shall have to flip back pages of the history of struggles and movements in the not-too-recent-past of Bengal. Thus we find that during a special period in the 1930s, when the independence movement was raging, the Communist Party placed the theory of a united front against imperialism. It was way back in 1936. In the years that followed, unity was built up among the working people while, on the other hand, a united anti-imperialist programme was formulated in conjunction with other forces.


Among the joint programmes then implemented were the all-India post and telegraph strike, movements of the government employees and, above all, the programmes built up around the naval uprising at the Bombay seaport. Later, the historic Tebhaga movement unified the rural poor and created a point of inspiration for kisans in the then united Bengal. There was a big movement of students and youth as well. These struggles and movements stand as evidence of the splendid historic role played by the Communist Party in the pre-independence period.


Mass struggles took place and advanced along various routes after the country’s independence as well. In West Bengal, the Communist Party discharged its historic responsibility by playing a crucial role in the organisation of various mass movements. Thus, in 1953, when the already profit earning British-owned Calcutta Tramways Company hiked the tram fare (backed suitably by the then Congress raj) in order to further increase its profit margin, the Communist Party and other anti-Congress parties put up an angry resistance.


In 1954, when Dr B C Roy was the Congress chief minister, a massive food crisis overtook the state. There was a near-famine condition in Bengal. An anti-famine committee was then set up, and it organised statewide movements.


In 1954-55, in order to contribute to the struggle for Goa’s freedom from Portuguese occupation, a big march of satyagrahis to Goa was organised thanks to the united effort of all anti-Congress forces. In fact, the number of satyagrahis coming from far-off Bengal was much more than those coming from the states nearer to Goa.


Soon the committee against the Bengal-Bihar merger conducted a statewide movement against the merger proposal. At this time, the Lok Sabha byelections saw Professor Mohit Moitra, president of the anti-merger committee, receive the support of all anti-Congress political parties and defeat the Congress candidate, Ashok Sen, from Kolkata Northwest. In the tumultuous political atmosphere that was thus created, chief minister B C Roy had to withdraw the Bengal-Bihar merger proposal and victory celebrations were observed throughout Bengal.




In 1954-56, the teachers of Bengal launched a movement to demand subsistence salaries. The salary then varied from Rs 62 to Rs 96 a month, and went up to a maximum of Rs 112. The teachers had no job security either. But the state government rejected the legitimate demands of these teachers and unleashed police repression against them. A massive anti-Congress struggle then grew up against the move. Further, a statewide students’ agitation grew up when the Phillips commission called for curtailment of higher education. A food movement was organised in 1958, as was a students’ agitation in the same year.


In 1959, the state suffered from a massive food shortage. Following a month-long campaign movement, a central rally was organised in what is now the Shahid Minar Maidan. The rally, held on August 31, spilled over into the Surendranath Park (formerly Curzon Park) and Rani Rashmoni Road. The massive rally had Jyoti Basu and other leaders of the democratic movements in the forefront. The administration was at a loss about what to do in the face of such a huge rally. There are indications that they initially thought about taking the rallyists into custody, but suddenly they decided to change the tactic. The rallyists kept raising militant slogans for more than half an hour but, just before the dusk settled in, the police arrested the leaders and then started a brutal lathicharge; 80 people were bludgeoned to death on the spot and hundreds left injured. This was one of the rarest examples of so many people being killed in such a short space of time, at the crest of a democratic movement that remained peaceful.


Students organised a strike on September 1. When the police fired upon their rally and killed some students, a protest day was observed in the form of a strike on September 2. A general strike was organised successfully on September 3. Over 130 courted martyrdom between August 31 and September 3.


Mass movements were organised during 1960-61 also. The student movement roared in protest against the setting up of an Indo-American Foundation for import of wheat under the PL 480 scheme. In this background, a united Left alliance contested against the Congress during the 1962 general elections. In 1962, when a Sino-Indian border clash occurred, we raised the demand for a solution of the problem through bilateral discussions. For this, a part of the Communist Party was dubbed as Chinese agents. A movement against the increase in tram fare took place in 1965. In the same year, when an Indo-Pak war broke out, we communists demanded a solution through peaceful talks, and now we were dubbed as the agents of Pakistan.


In February 1966, a student agitation demanded food, kerosene oil and exercise books. But the police opened fire against the students. A school student, Nurul Islam, was killed. A big movement of students now roared across West Bengal, followed by a still bigger mass movement. Several districts like Nadia, Hooghly, Burdwan, and 24 Parganas plus Kolkata became the volcanoes of protests. In March, a one-day strike against police oppression in Bengal evoked two-day or even three-day strikes in some of the districts. The massive discontent among the common people in the state created a negative atmosphere for the ruling Congress party, and it broke into two. Ajoy Mukherjee and some other leaders left the Congress to form the Bangla Congress.




We stood steadfast against all these attacks and never shied away from the issues that were in the interest of the working class, the peasants and the mass of other toilers.


It was in this background that the 1967 elections for the state assembly were held, with no complete understanding among the anti-Congress forces. Though there were two fronts in contest against the Congress, the latter got pushed into a minority position in the assembly. The two anti-Congress fronts --- the United Left Front (ULF) and the People’s United Left Front (PULF) --- now came together to create a United Front (UF) in the post-election scenario, and formed the state government. It is to be noted that, despite being the leader of the largest political party, Jyoti Basu did not become the chief minister. Instead, Ajoy Mukherjee of a minor group (the Bangla Congress) was allowed to sit in this chair.


But the Congress regime at the centre struck back and the UF government was dismissed within nine months. But the mid-term election of 1969 again made the Congress a minority party. UF candidates fought unitedly and a second UF government was set up. However, this government too was dismissed within 13 months. From 1970 onward, an atmosphere of terror was being created. A mid-term election was held in 1971. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who at times opens his mouth to pontificate on this and who later became the chief minister, was then a central minister and looked after the Bengal related matters. He created an atmosphere of terror in the state in a planned manner. This has been referred to by a former US ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his book A Dangerous Place. He notes that the US supplied funds to prevent the rapid growth of communist influence in West Bengal. The book mentions that the US twice helped India with funds in such like situations: once to topple the first communist government in Kerala under E M S Namboodiripad, and then to curtail the communist strength in West Bengal. Maybe, in the days to come, we get to read how many more times had the US put in funds to influence the Indian politics.


However, what was unfortunate was that even after such wealth of experience no united front was set up for the mid-term elections of 1971. The CPI(M) forged an understanding with a few smaller parties and, in the elections that followed, anti-Congress forces together got a majority again. The CPI(M) emerged as the largest single party. Yet the governor ignored the parliamentary norms and did not invite the CPI(M) to form a government.




In the meantime, the CPI(M) had spread amongst the masses in all the 16 districts then existing. Its relations and contacts had grown with different sections of the people through various mass organisations who led the movements and struggles.


The 1972 election was marked by a massive rigging. Booth capturing, false voting, forced voting and manipulation during the counting of ballots took place on a large scale. All-out efforts were made that the CPI(M) was defeated everywhere during the assembly elections. However, these attempts did not succeed and we won several seats. Nevertheless, the CPI(M) boycotted the state assembly set up on the basis of these malpractices. Its winning MLAs did not take oath in protest, nor did they take their wages and other perquisites for five years. This was an example of the morality and principled stand of the CPI(M).


The Congress government that took office now was headed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray as the chief minister. Under him, every effort was made to isolate the CPI(M) from the people.


Not all the political parties, at that point in time, adopted a principled stand as the CPI(M) did. The CPI(M) was able to take a principled stand because it works towards forging a unity of the workers, peasants and other toilers to change the society, and exert itself in the interest of the working people; it is because it acknowledges and accepts Marxism-Leninism as a science and its guiding ideology. The party had had to tackle a variety of situational realities at various points of time in its daily functioning and in its effort to build up mass movements in the interests of the people.


The CPI(M) has had to adopt a different tactic while confronting the semi-fascist terror of the 1970s. We had to tackle such situations as institution of false cases against 80,000 of its supporters, ouster of over 20,000 families of its cadres from their hearth and home, and illegal occupation or forcible closure of about 350 trade union offices. As many as 927 teachers were not allowed to join work, and from the students was taken away the right to form student unions. On the other hand, we had to carry out such programmes as the demand for increase of wages for agricultural workers, and organising programmes including marches and a central programme in Kolkata against the imperialist aggression in Vietnam. On March 28, 1973, a historic movement was carried out as part of the anti-unemployment day. In this way, very many mass movements could be organised with success. At the national level, Mrs Indira Gandhi proclaimed Emergency in 1975, but we in West Bengal had already had a bitter taste of it from 1972 till 1977.




Once the Emergency was relaxed in January 1977, Lok Sabha elections were declared and took place in March. During this time, through their experience, several Left parties in West Bengal understood the new reality and formed a Left Front based on a common programme. The Left Front and the Janata Party, formed through the merger of a breakaway group of the Congress party with several other parties, contested the Lok Sabha elections with an understanding. The Congress lost these elections. A Janata Party government was set up in Delhi, with Morarji Desai as the prime minister.


The defeat of the Congress in Lok Sabha elections restored democracy in Bengal and gave a boost to the mass movements of various kinds. They started to struggle against the suffocating ambience that had been earlier created during the Congress regime. In the elections to the state assembly that were held soon afterwards, the Janata Party underestimated the Left Front, considered it as the junior constituent and adamantly demanded that it would fight 60 percent of the constituencies. Following a series of discussions between the leaders of the Janata Party and the Left Front, the Left Front finally placed the proposal that the Front would file candidates in 48 percent of the seats and the Janata Party in 52 percent. But the Janata Party would not accept anything below 56 percent of the seats, and the talks broke down. In the changed situation, the Left Front resolved to put up candidates in all the 294 assembly seats.


The Left Front manifesto contained 36 precise points. In a press conference, the then chairman of the Left Front, the late Comrade Promode Dasgupta, appealed to the people to defeat both the authoritarian Congress and the anti-unity Janata Party, making the Left Front victorious to establish democracy and democratic rights of the people. The two-stage elections, held on June 11 and 14, 1977, saw all the 59,000 booth areas assume the veneers of a festival. The Left Front won 243 seats. The first Left Front government was thus established, with Jyoti Basu as the chief minister.


After leading the Left Front government for consecutive five terms, Jyoti Basu voluntarily gave up the post of the chief minister and the sixth Left Front government saw Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee sworn in as his successor. Five years later, the seventh Left Front government assumed office after winning 235 seats, reducing the main opposition (Trinamul Congress) to 30 seats. The Left Front government is now in the process of celebrating the completion of 30 years of its pro-people and pro-poor existence.


Not recalling the myriad of successes of the Left Front in the last 30 years (which can wait for another occasion), I would like to stress emphatically and clearly that the West Bengal Left Front and its government have evolved through a lengthy process of vigorous movements. The continuing existence of the Left Front government is backed by precisely its mass initiatives and mass struggles.


Just as in the pre-1977 period, thousands of Left Front leaders and workers had to embrace a martyr’s death during the last 30 years of the Left Front governance as well. We are also aware that the forces of reaction shall continue their anti-Left depredations with ever new attacks. But the massive rallying of the people around the Left Front has always boosted our confidence. We have to take up the reactionary challenge, organise still bigger mass movements, and take the people along to make the pro-people presence of the Left Front government secure. The Left Front and its government are complementary to one another in writing a new chapter in the annals of the democratic movement in India.