In this chapter we shall give an outline sketch of the peasant movements in our period and try to understand the communists’ efforts and weaknesses in this most crucial front.
National reformist vs. communist approach
Champaran in Bihar (1917-18) and Kheda and Bardoli in Gujarat (1918 and 1928 respectively) mark the three early milestones in the Gandhian or Congress stream of peasant struggle based primarily on middle and rich peasants. In Champaran, local mahajans and traders who were resentful against competition from British plantation authorities in money lending and trade were in the forefront of the movement. In Kheda relatively prosperous Kanbi-Patidar peasant proprietors producing food-grains, cotton and tobacco were involved in the no-revenue movement. In Bardoli the no-revenue movement against 22% revenue hike by the Bombay government in 1927 was mostly a rich peasant-landlord movement. Gandhi in his Fyzabad speech in 1921 “deprecated all attempts to create discord between landlords and tenants and advised the tenants to suffer rather than fight, for they had to join all forces for fighting against the most powerful zamindar, namely the government.” The Gandhian reaction to peasant militancy as recorded in Chauri-Chaura has already been discussed.
By contrast, the communists in their first-ever formulation of agrarian programme stressed the revolutionary class demands of the toiling peasantry, with elimination of the whole parasitic landlord class and land to the tiller as its main thrust. Keeping in mind the provincial variations, the WPPs formulated the demands of the peasantry as follows:
(1) Abolition of intermediate tenures,
(2) reduction of rents and fixing a minimum scale of rental,
(3) abolition of all ‘nazrana’, ‘Bhent’ etc.,
(4) illegal cesses (abwabs) to be declared cognisable offences,
(5) fixed rate of interest,
(6) stopping of the transfer of land to non-agriculturists,
(7) abolition of ‘batai’, ‘barga’ systems etc.
In the first document of Text IVB, we reproduce an early communist assessment of a typical peasant struggle under Gandhian leadership : the Bardoli satyagraha. Certainly this was a rather immature write-up, but the main thrust is clearly put: “The social basis of the peasant movement should be shifted from the wealthy farmer (as it is at present) to the broad masses of poor and middle peasantry and agricultural labourers.” This was written in mid 1929; a little more than a year later the CPI officially presented its agrarian programme in the Draft Platform of Action (1930-31), which we have discussed earlier (Text VII-2). Describing the agrarian revolution as the axis of the national liberation movement, the CPI from the very outset stressed the fighting worker-peasant alliance.
Regarding organisational forms, the communist pbn was to develop “peasant unions which will include only peasants who cultivate their land …as well as, in the initial phase, the land labourers. The peasant unions must on no account contain the village exploiters, the rich peasants, landlords, money lenders or traders.” During the course of struggle peasant committees should be formed which would act as the training centres of the peasantry. The relation of the peasant committees to the peasant unions/associations was just like the relations of strike committee with the trade union. (See the General Statement of 18 Meerut prisoners).
1. See Modern India, op.cit, p 209
2. Quoted in Communists Challenge Imperialism From the Dock, op. cit., p196
An important struggle that brought the clash between the bourgeois and proletarian approaches regarding peasant movement to the fore was the Kishoreganj uprising in Maymensingh district of Bengal (now in Bangladesh). Here the famine-striken peasants revolted against 60 to 120 percent interest rate and fake loan documents. Whereas the Congress-dominated nationalist press depicted the struggle as a communal riot of Muslim peasants against Hindu zamindars, a communist pamphlet revealed the truth in the clearest terms. We do not give here a description of the struggle because that is availabe in our excerpts from this pamphlet (Text IV B-2). Taking lessons from this and other struggles, the CPI called upon its memebers to work energetically among the peasantry along the following lines :
(1) Organise revolutionary peasant committees in the villages, elected by the mass of the revolutionary peasants in each village. It is highly important that the leadership of the committee should be in the hands of poor peasants, landless labourers and revolutionary peasant youths.
(2) The revolutionary peasant committees should initiate mass movements for the seizure of land from the rich landlords, moneylenders and the government. The peasantry should be organised to refuse payment of rent, taxes and land revnue,
(3) Organise the more conscious and revolutionary elements, especially the agricultural workers in the village nuclei of the Communist Party.
(4) Organise the agricultural workers into labour unions.
(5) Organise and send workers’ delegations from the mills into the neighbouring villages to carry out this work. Mobilise the revolutionary students and youths for this work under the leadership of the Communist Party.
The AIKS : movemental and organisational backdrop
It was in course of the struggle between the two tendencies of peasant movement that the ground was prepared for the emergence of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) in the second half of 1930s. Let us trace the process in some major provinces/regions in India.
The efforts of the first batch of communists in the early and mid-twenties have already been noted in Parts II and III. Langal and Ganavani devoted much attention to the study of peasant problems. The All Bengal Peasants’ Conference (Nadia, February 1923) and the All Bengal Tenants’ Conference (Bagura, February 1925) formulated the immediate demands as follows:
(1) permanency of tenure of the tenant,
(2) right of transfer of land,
(3) reduction of the rate of interest charged by the moneylenders, and
(4) remunerative price for jute growers etc.
In 1932, the tenants’ associations formed in different districts took the lead in the tenants’ unrests in Nadia, Barisal, Bankura, Hoogly, Midnapore, Noakhali and Tripura. According to Md. Abdulla Rasul, by 1933 Krishak Samitis sprang up in Tripura, Burdwan and Noakhali. In 1934, when the communist party was banned, local communist cadres worked in these Krishak Samitis. By 1936, Krishak Samitis spread to other districts of Bengal such as Faridpur, Chittagong, Rangpur etc.
In 1935, when Bengal was in the grip of severe food crisis, peasant mass meetings were held in many places where formation of debt conciliation boards were urged upon. In a confidential report “On the political situation of Bengal, January-September 1936”, it is reported that Congressmen and men of “communist persuasions” took active part in these mass peasant meetings.
Madras (including Andhra)
In 1928, the Andhra Provincial Ryots Association formed in Guntur took up such issues as reduction of revenue, agricultural indebtedness, internal social reforms etc. Later, the Andhra Zamindari Ryots Association, with NG Ranga and EMS Namboodiripad among its leaders, took up the demands of the tenants. Organised peasant movement spread to different regions of Madras province during 1930s. With the depression of 1930s all categories of peasants, specially the rich peasants were drawn into peasant struggles which were directed mainly against landlords. During 1931-32, peasant agitations took place throughout the Krishna and Godavari deltas. Mass meetings were held in which demands of withholding revenue payments were raised. By late 1931, grain seizures by poor peasants had started almost spontaneously in these areas. For instance, in September about 400 peasants attacked the house of a rich moneylender in Krishna district and looted his granary. A similar struggle occured in Guntur in which 3000 peasants clashed with the police.
By 1934, agrarian clashes had occured in Bellary, Madura, Nellore, Salem and Coimbatore. At the Peasants Protection Conference, Ranga pleaded for a moratorium on debt. He warned that peasants were forced to cherish “ideas of violent rising against the Sahukars and banks as well as the government”. The attacks on moneylenders, although sporadic, represented a new type of peasant struggle. In April 1935, the South Indian Federation of Peasants and Agricultural Labour was formed with NG Ranga as general secretary and EMS Namboodiripad as a joint secretary. The federation in its October 1935 conference first raised the question of immediate formation of an all India Kisan organisation.
An important feature of the Andhra movement was the early institutionalisation of theoretical study and practical training of peasant cadres. From 1933 NG Ranga had been running the Indian Peasants Institute in Guntur district. In late 1930s, summer schools for peasants activists were organised and these were addressed by communist leaders like PC Joshi and Ajoy Ghosh.
Malabar, Cochin, Travancore
In early 1930s Karshaka Sanghams (peasant unions) were formed in the villages of this region. The Sanghams used to take out jathas and peasants marches and organised peasant meetings which raised the demands of poor peasants, non-occupancy tenants and agricultural labourers who came mostly from scheduled castes. Exemption of tax for poor peasants, moratorium on debts and introduction of graded tax were the main demands. The Karshaka Sanghams tried to organise all categories of tenants, particularly the Tiyas, against the enhancement of rents, illegal exaction and tenancy renewal fees.
Special mention must be made of the peasant movement of Malabar built up by CSP leaders and cadres, most of whom later became prominent communists (e.g., P Krishna Pillai, A K Gopalan, EMS Namboodiripad). Starting from 1934, the movement reached its peak in 1938 with a very widespread as well as intense campaign demanding abolition of feudal levies and thoroughgoing amendments to the Malabar Tenancy Act of 1929. The Congress ministry was then in power in the State, and many important concessions were snatched from it by means of persistent mass pressure in spite of stiff rightist resistance. The CPI as such did not have any guiding role in the movement, but certainly the experience its future leaders gathered in Malabar would prove invaluable in the years to come.
While NG Ranga became the figurehead of peasant struggles in South India, Swami Sahajanand emerged as the undisputed leader of the Bihar movement. During the depression years when agricultural prices fell, branches of provincial Kisan Sabhas were formed in Gaya, Patna and Sahabad districts and a provincial peasant conference was held which set up a committee to enquire into tenants’ complaints regarding the Danabandi system (an arbitrary form of produce rent). Kalyan Dutta notes that in 1931, the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha launched a movement of the tenants in Tekari estate for the reduction of rent which was linked up with the canal tax movements in other districts. As a counter to the moves of the loyalist zamidar-dominated United Party, a section of Congress leadership initially encouraged Sahajanand in 1933 to revive the Provincial Kisan Sabha. While the United Party kept silent on the much more important question of rent remission, efforts to increase zerait (private holdings), and bakast, Sahajanand was able to quickly mobilise large sections of peasants of central and north bihar around such issues and the membership of the Kisan Sabha shot up to 80,000 by 1935.
3. For a very interesting account of the movement see K Gopalankuttys article “Integration of Anti-Landlord Movement Against Imperialism – Malabar 1935-39” in Indian Left — Critical Appraisals by Bipan Chandra, op.clt.
4. History of Freedom Movement In Bihar, Vol. 2, pp 235-36.
In 1934, the Provincial Kisan Sabha held its second conference in Gaya. It discussed the question of abolition of zamindari in detail, but failed to take any resolution on it. In 1936, on the eve of bakast land movement, the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha was wedded to a radical programme which included the demand of abolition of zamindari.
The movement for restoration of bakast lands (i.e., those lost by occupancy tenants to zamindars, generally during depression years for failure to pay rent) spread from Monghyr to Gaya and other districts. Armed clashes with landlords’ goons and the police became a regular feature of the movement which reached its peak in late 1938 and 1939. Ruthless repression combined with some conciliatory measures (restoration of a total of few thousand bighas of bakast land in separate cases and the passage of the “Restoration of Bakast Land Act” and the “Bihar Tenancy Act”) finally brought the movement to an end, but not before it gave birth to prominent leaders like Karyanand Sharma, Panchanan Sharma, Rahul Sankritayan.
Generally speaking Jullundur, Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Lyallpur and Sheikhpura were the most important districts of peasant struggle in Punjab. The Riyasti Praja Mondal mobilised the Sikh peasantry during the Civil Disobedience Movement on the question of nonpayment of land-taxes in the Phulkian states against the Patiala Maharaja. Peasants in Hisar district refused to pay rent and forcibly seized the crops of landlords, defied forest grazing regulations in Kangra, and in Rohtak Jats assisted by other lower castes attacked moneylenders and grain dealers.
Formation of All India Kisan Sabha
The October 1935 conference of South Indian Federation of Peasants and Workers first voiced the need for holding a conference to form an all-India peasant organisation. The communists and Congress-socialists took up the idea in the Meerut conference of CSP in January, 1936. A preparatory conference was first held in Meerut on 16 January 1936 under the presidentship of Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, which was attended by representatives of peasant organisations of different provinces of the country. The preparatory conference resolved to hold the All India Kisan Congress and appointed an organising committee for this purpose.
The first All India Kisan Congress was held in Lucknow under the presidentship of Swami Sahajanand on 11 April, 1936. Though the Kisan Congress from its inception tried to maintain a close link with the Indian National Congress, it failed to receive the blessings of the Congress which declared in its Haripura session (February 1938) that the “Congress itself is in the main a Kisan organization”.
The inaugural session prepared the All India Kisan Manifesto (Text IVB-3) which contained the Fundamental and Minimum Demands. In its manifesto, the Kisan Congress declared its object as “To secure complete freedom from economic exploitation and acheivement of full economic and political power for the peasants and workers and all other exploited classes.” The Lucknow session decided to publish the All India Kisan Bulletin with Indulal Yagnik as its editor. Swami Sahajanand was elected the president and NG Ranga the general secretary.
The second session of AIKC was held from 26 December, 1936 at Faizpur. Before the opening of the session about 500 kisan marchers under the leadership of VN Bhuskute and J Bukari marched 200 miles to reach the session site. Bankim Mukherjee and SA Dange were present in this session. The most important political resolution of this session was on the new constitution contained in the Government of India Act, 1935. The Kisan Congress emphatically condemned and totally rejected it and called upon the peasants and workers to launch a vigorous movement to smash this slave constitution. A kisan rally of about 15000 was held on the last day of the conference.
By now Provincial Kisan Committees had come into existance in Andhra, Tamilnadu, Maharastra, Malabar, Karanataka, Central Provinces, Gujarat, Punjab, Delhi, UP, Bihar, Bengal, Utkal and Assam. In 1937, the Bengal communists took the lead in organising the first Provincial Kisan Conference in Bankura.
In autumn 1937, the Intelligence Bureau prepared a note on the activities of kisan sabha in different States and said, “Mention must also be made of recent developments in the awakened political consciousness among the peasantry and the organisations in sanghs or unions of peasants, noticeably in Bihar, Bengal, the UP, and Madras. … Although as yet little general success has been achieved in organising a mass peasant movement in India, it is significant that leading communists have turned their energies towards directing and organising the unrest. …” NG Ranga complained bitterly that the CPI captured one third of the 2000 peasant youths he had trained at Nidubrolu, and no less than 90% of the original Andhra CSP membership.
5. See Peasant Movement In India, Sunil Sen, p 80
6. See Revolutionary Peasants, pp 75-6.
The third session was held in May 1938 in Comilla (Bengal, now in Bangladesh) in the context of large-scale peasant mobilisation in many parts of the country as mentioned earlier. Particularly notable was the 20,000-strong peasant demonstration in Patna on 24 August, 1937. “Give us bread, we are hungry; give us water, we are thirsty, remit all our agricultural loans; down with zamindars” — demanded the peasants. Big peasant mobilisations were also held on 1 September and 26 November at Patna.
At the time of the third session, the AIKS represented the organised strength of five and a half lakh paying membership. “In as many as 32 resolutions, the session sought to clarify the fundamental aims of the kisan movement and guide its further course”, wrote PC Joshi in National Front, 5 June, 1938 (see Text IV B-4). This session also adopted the constitution of AIKS. Joshi correctly pointed out that “this session decisively rejected the theory of class-collaboration and proclaimed
class-struggle to be the basis of kisan movement. Through another historical resolution it declared ‘the goal of the peasant movement, can be nothing short of an agrarian revolution …’. In another resolution the session welcomed the emergence of agricultural labourers’ movement and organisation and declared solidarity with them …”
In early 1939 the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha (BPKS) launched satyagraha movement against exorbitant tax rates. The poor peasants who had been particularly effected by the tax joined the satyagraha and lent it a militant mass character. It faced severe repression by the Fazlul Haque ministry. In 1939 the BPKS submitted a memorandum to the Land Revenue Commission in which the permanent settlement was held responsible for the deplorable condition of the peasants.
The fourth session of AIKS was held at Gaya (Bihar) on 9-10 April, 1939. The main part in drafting the political resolution was played by PC Joshi and JP Narayan. Many prominent communists like Muzaffar Ahmad, MA Rasul etc. attended the conference and took a leading role in various committees. The Programme of Action adopted at the session included the following:
i) Campaigning for the coming nation-wide struggle and fighting uncompromisingly against the Federation.
ii) Intensification and integration of the partial struggles of peasants.
iii) Establishing a united front between the Congress and the AIKS, the AITUC and other anti-imperialist organisations,
iv) Insisting upon acceptance and implementation of the immediate demands of the AIKS.
v) Liquidation of the forces of communal disruption through common struggle of the masses for their economic and political demands and through fighting for scrupulous observance of minority rights.
vi) Organisation of a strong Kisan Volunteer Corps,
vii) Solidarity demonstration for and active help to the States peoples’ struggles.
The onset of World war II, increasing repression and the resignation of the Congress ministries created a new and difficult situation for the peasant movement. But precisely at this juncture the Communists Party’s role in it — both theoretical and practical — began to reach a new stage. This will be evident from a host of articles and reports in Party papers, of which we reproduce extracts from three — one by Bhowani Sen (Text IV B-5) and two by PC Joshi (Texts IV B-6 and 7). It is on the basis of this new seriousness on the peasant question that the glorious communist-led peasant movements of the 1940s would take shape.