People's Democracy

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


Vol. XXXIII

No. 35

August 30, 2009

50TH ANNIVERSARY OF GLORIOUS FOOD MOVEMENT

 

Left Front Plans Massive Rally In Kolkata

 

Arun Maheshwari

 

IT was the year 1959 when West Bengal was to enter a new era with its glorious food movement. The godowns of the landlords and hoarders were overflowing with food grains but their prices were skyrocketing in the market. The price pf rice short up from 20 or 22 per mound to 34 or 35 rupees per mound within a few days. The whole state was in the grip of a new food crisis. A dozen years had passed since independence, the first five year plan had completed, and the second one was well under way, but West Bengal could not get free from its apparently perennial food crisis. On the contrary, shedding tears in the name of a shortage in production, the then Congress government was trying to wriggle out of its responsibility about feeding the people. Instead of acting against the hoarders and black-marketeers, it was gradually moving towards the stance of giving the hungry people bullets in place of grains. The then Congress chief minister, B C Roy, threatened to severely suppress the people’s movement for food when a convention on resistance to price rise and starvation, held in the Muslim Institute hall of Kolkata on August 8, demanded that the state government must resign as it was unable to fulfil the minimum basic needs of the people.    

 

MONSTROUS

REPRESSION

Immediately after Roy’s threatening statement, the government began the large scale drive of arresting and imprisoning the Kisan Sabha leaders under the Preventive Detention Act, and the monstrosity of the Congress government increased with every passing day. However, kisan leaders went underground immediately after the arrest of Benoy Chowdhury, Bhowani Sen, Biswanath Mukherjee, Shyama Prasann Bhattacharya and other leaders.

The repression reached its zenith when more than three lakh people came to a mass rally in the Shaheed Minar Maidan of Kolkata as a part of the food movement’s programme of action. As soon as the rallyists began to disperse on the day, about 14,000 policemen began their barbaric attacks against the people. These helmet wearing policemen were hidden in the lanes adjoining the Curzon Park near Esplanade East and came out as hungry wolves at the order of their officers.

The lathi charge and firing on the day claimed several lives. But it did not stop here. The barbarism reached such an extent that, within a week, whole of West Bengal was converted into an abattoir of the hungry and famished people. During the four days from August 31 to September 3, 1959, police attacks on processions of the unarmed hungry people demanding food claimed 80 lives and seriously injured more than 300. More than 21,000 people were put behind bars under the Preventive Detention Act, without any trial whatsoever. In protest, in Kolkata, people took out an unprecedented silent procession on September 10, posing before the toiling people of the whole country whether the sacrifices of the martyrs would go in vain:

Virer eie raktsrot

Maatar eie ashrudhara

Er joto mulya, se ki

Dharaar dhuler hobe haara”

[The flow of the blood of (our) heroes/ the stream of the mother’s tears/ will the price of all this/ get lost in the dust on the earth?]

 

PEOPLE LOSE

FAITH IN GOVT

Recalling the sacrifices of these martyrs of the food movement, Jyoti Basu, then the leader of opposition in the state assembly, brought a no confidence motion against the Roy government on September 28. Towards the end of his historic speech on this occasion, Basu said, “People are cursing you today. Anybody with even a little blood left in his veins, will never forgive you. Now there stands a wall between you and us. Our duty is to never forget those who have been martyred in this movement, whose blood has reddened the soil of Bengal. It is for demanding justice for them that we have brought this no confidence motion today.”

Basu, on this occasion, detailed the entire background of the food movement in West Bengal and the growing intolerance of the Congress government towards the famished people’s demands. He pointed out how, what to talk of attaining self-sufficiency in this regard, the patently faulty agricultural policy of the Congress regime had pushed the level of food production even below the level reached in 1939, during the Second World War. The central government was claiming that it was adequately supplying grains to West Bengal in order to tide over the food shortage. Then, why this reign of starvation, Basu asked. He pointed out that his party had made necessary calculations and had come to the conclusion that huge amounts of food grains were reaching the black market. Will the people, he queried, meekly bear all this, without any resistance? He accused the state government of plotting a most heinous, inhuman conspiracy against the people of West Bengal --- the conspiracy of “teaching them an unforgettable lesson.”  The government, Basu said, was moving with the idea that the people must never be able to raise their heads again, never come out again for a movement or resistance. It was this very conspiracy of the Congress government that had led to the massacre of August 31, 1959 which, Basu said, one could dub as the Jallianwala Bagh of independent India.

A specific feature of this Jallianwala Bagh of West Bengal was that it was not confined to any single event. The state unit of the Kisan Sabha had, on the demand of food, observed a Resistance Day on June 15, in every district of the state. This initiated a series of agitations in all parts of Bengal, accompanied by a broad-based public campaign and civil resistance programme. This culminated in mass rallies in Kolkata and other district headquarters on August 31, at the call of the Durbhiksh Pratirodh Samiti (Famine Resistance Committee). As said, Kolkata on the day witnessed a veritable flood of people who included peasants from rural areas, factory and other workers, government and other employees, men and women, who had come to court arrest as Satyagrahis.  

Yet another bout of lathi charge took place on September 1, on a procession of students, in front of the Subodh Mullick Square in Kolkata. Howrah, 24 Parganas, Hughly, Medinipur and other districts also witnessed barbaric police attacks on the people demanding food. The whole of West Bengal observed a general strike on September 3, and the police resorted to brutality on that day as well.

 

BACKGROUND OF

THE MOVEMENT

The events of August 31 and later did not come all of a sudden; they were only a culmination of the resistance building up against the anti-people food policy of the government. In fact, the contours of a food movement had started taking shape in all parts of the state since the early days of 1958 in particular. In March that year, the then law and justice minister Siddarth Shankar Ray had tendered his resignation from the cabinet in protest against the government’s faulty food policy. However, the state government did not mend its ways even after that.

As a result, the situation deteriorated, leading to the beginning of a statewide powerful food movement in January 1959. In the same month, when the state was suffering a severe shortage of rice and kerosene oil, the state unit of Kisan Sabha condemned the food policy of the government. Its resolution demanded that as soon as the new crop was ready, through internal procurement the government must store enough paddy for supply of five lakh tonnes of rice to the people. It also demanded that the government must take initiative to directly purchase paddy from the peasantry and charge a 50 per cent levy on the rice mills’ production. Another related demand was that banks must stop giving loans to the rice mills and rice dealers, so that the government could have enough money for procuring paddy from the peasantry.

The Kisan Sabha also demanded that the minimum and maximum support price for average quality of paddy per mound must be fixed at Rs 12 and Rs 13, respectively --- for the whole year. For average quality of rice, the demand was for Rs 20 and 22 per mound. It also demanded fixation of the prices of coarse and fine varieties of rice in the same manner. A complementary demand was that the government must fix the prices of agricultural inputs, oilcake and a peasant’s other necessities in the ratio of the paddy/rice prices.

Apart from demanding cheap credit for the peasantry, for the consumers’ benefit the Kisan Sabha demanded subsidy on PDS ration as well as supply of rice at Rs 17.50 per mound.

Another important demand was for constitution of all-party committees for grain procurement, distribution, relief work and other such things.

But the then Congress government did not concede a single of these demands. As a result, the loot and exploitation of the landlords, traders, hoarders and moneylenders continued unabated. The prices of rice went on skyrocketing and the people from villages, far and near, continued to throng the streets of Kolkata in search of food and job.

It was in such a situation that the Kisan Sabha decided to intensify the agitation and chalked out a plan of action. Delegations met the authorities in every developmental block in the months of May and June 1959. On June 1 and 2, the State Kisan Council met at village Gobindpur in Burdwan district to decide on future actions and June 15 saw a series of demonstrations and hartals in all rural areas of the state. Earlier, in the third week of May, the Resistance Committee based on various political parties had organised a mass meeting on the issue, asking the people to join the resistance movement in large numbers.

The Leftist labour organisations called for a statewide general strike on June 25, and Kisan Sabha decided to support this action with all its strength.

 

ANTI-DEMOCRATIC

CONGRESS MOVES

But the Congress government had, apparently, something else in mind, and moved in the contrary direction. Through an order on June 22, it withdrew the levy imposed on the rice mills and also nullified the order for control on the paddy and rice prices. This naked and shameful surrender to the big landlords and hoarders enraged the people no end, and the June 25 general strike scored unprecedented success throughout the state. We have already mentioned the subsequent developments including the August 8 meeting and August 31 police barbarities.

There was yet another factor that prompted the state Congress government to unleash so severe repression against a democratic movement. Only a month ago, on July 31, 1959, the Congress government at the centre had undemocratically dismissed the elected Namboodiripad government in Kerala, by resorting to article 356 of the constitution. Mrs Indira Gandhi was then the Congress president and, throwing all democratic norms to the wind, she had initiated a campaign to eliminate the communists. The extreme degree of repression against the Left-led democratic movement in West Bengal cannot be divorced from this anti-communist campaign of the Congress party. During his intervention in the West Bengal assembly, quoted above, Jyoti Basu had referred to this episode as well and raised a question mark against the Congress party’s faith in the democratic norms. His point was, “We have not seen or heard about any such example of parliamentary democracy in the USA or the UK or anywhere else….. My question is: Is parliamentary democracy confined to this house only? There cannot be any compromise with these people..… your bullets are killing the peasants in order to defend the hoarders and big traders..… our attitude is totally different from yours.”

These words are applicable as much today as they were at that time. There is a wide gap between the basic economic policies of the Congress and the Left. The country is today face-to-face with yet another food crisis, about half of the districts in the country have been declared drought affected and the policy of little (if any) public investment in agriculture, initiated about two decades ago, has started bearing its bitter fruits. Prices of basic food items are again skyrocketing, there is a wide chasm between the consumer price index and wholesale price index, and hoarders are minting money because the government has virtually dismantled the public distribution system.

It goes without saying that recalling the history of the 1959 food movement and remembering its martyrs can be a potent source of energy and enthusiasm for the democratic movement all over the country today.

One must note that the Left is determined to take the tradition of these martyrs forward. Late Comrade Muzaffar Ahmad, one of the founders of the communist movement in India and lovingly known as Kaka Babu, had inaugurated a makeshift Martyrs Columns in the Subodh Mullick Square on August 31, 1960, on the first anniversary of the police firing and lathi charge against the food movement. This column was subsequently converted into a permanent structure, where leaders and workers of the Left movement come on August 31 every year in order to re-enthuse themselves.

 

ACHIEVEMENTS OF

LEFT FRONT GOVT

Half a century has now elapsed since the historic food movement of West Bengal. Meanwhile, coming to power in June 1977, the Left Front government has rid the state of its earlier perennial agrarian and food crises. This part of the country has, for centuries, been known as a food deficit area, but the land reforms, other reforms and agricultural developments effected under the Left Front government have made the state self-reliant in food. Agriculture has registered a record growth here, leaving behind Haryana and Punjab that were the traditional “Green Revolution” states.

Consider these facts. The average density of population per square kilometre is 47, it is 223 in India as a whole but as high as 948 in West Bengal. The per capita availability of land is very low. Yet, the Left Front implemented whatever land reforms were possible within the confines of the country’s constitution. As much as 13 lakh acres of land, valued at 22,000 crore rupees, were taken from the landlords and distributed among 28 lakh rural poor. The tilling rights of sharecroppers on 11 lakh acres of land were recognised, their eviction was banned, while 10 lakh homeless people in rural areas were given homestead plots. The process continues. Most of the beneficiaries are the poor scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and minority people whose level of poverty has come down and who have acquired a new dignity. Land reforms and a vibrant panchayati raj system have given these people a new sense of life while a large number of women have come out of the confines of their houses. The irrigated area has increased from 30 to 70 per cent, and the yield of various crops has gone up be three to five times. West Bengal today stands in the front row in regard to the production of these crops as well as the production of jute, vegetables, meat and fishes, pine and other fruits, and also in reforestation. Roads have connected remote villages to the cities and towns. Transport, communication and power facilities are now available to the people of various isolated islands, which the people there could not even imagine earlier. All this has created a number of employment opportunities in the countryside where those engaged in non-agricultural jobs have increased from 40 lakhs in 1991 to 73 lakhs in 2001. Rural poverty has thus come down, the people’s purchasing power has gone up, the market for industrial goods has expanded. It was on the basis of such achievements in the field of agriculture and allied activities that the Left Front government chalked out a programme of reindustrialisation.

These successes did not come as a bolt from the blue; there is a background of peasant agitations and the food movement behind it. It was the sacrifices made by the people in the course of these movements that broke the stranglehold of the feudal lords and other vested interests, and brought a life of happiness and justice to the rural poor.

 

THE THREAT

TODAY

And now the vested interests, mobilised behind the Congress and Trinamul Congress, are again out to obliterate these gains; and the ultra-leftists have also joined them. In order to demolish this stronghold of the Left, these vested interests are killing the leftist workers and uprooting them from their hearth and home.

Now that a new food crisis is raising its head in the country, one can also hear an echo of the semi-fascist terror of the early 1970s in West Bengal. Thus the lessons of the food movement of 1959 are extremely relevant even today, and the Left Front has planned a massive rally in Kolkata on August 31 coming, in order to recall the glorious sacrifices of our martyrs.