Peasant Convention in Bengal
Resisting Reactionary Backlash on Land Reforms
The Left Front government in West Bengal had faced, particularly in the last decade, resentments of various degrees from different sections of the people. The opposition mainly came from the urban middle class concerning issues of people's health, education and political democracy. Of late, in the '90s, after the Left Front decided to go the whole hog in pursuing the economic and industrial policy of globalisation, it received a fitting rebuff from the industrial workers in the last municipal and assembly elections.
But in spite of several misdeeds by CPI(M) in the rural areas, the peasant base of the party remains largely intact. If one reason for that is its land reform measures of limited worth, the other important reason is that, the party pretends to be the only inheritor of the cumulative achievements of the left movement in the state in the last four and a half decades. The results of last Assembly election had shown certain chinks in its rural base too. It is no longer able to defend the the interests of the peasantry. Let us take a close look of the following.
On 26 June '96, the Calcutta High Court, in a case of Paschimbanga Bhumijibi Krishak Samiti (an organisation of the jotedars, kulaks and rich peasants) Vs. state government, gave a verdict in favour of the jotedars and rich peasants, nullifying the two previous amendments of the Land Reform Act of 1955, in the years '81 & '86, brought by the state government. The judiciary points out the incompatibility of the same with the Constitution. The amendments they say, have effaced the distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural land. From a constitutional point of view, non-agri land shouldn't come in any way in consideration in defining the land ceiling, the amendments have led to a treatment at par of both agri and non-agri land etc. According to the contestants, some one lakh acres of such non-agri land have been vested and distributed and more than a lakh acres are waiting distribution. The High Court says that the sections 2(7), 2(10), 14I(9), 14M(6), 14P, 14Q, 14T and 14U of the '86 amendment stand in contradiction with the sections 14, 19, 20, 31A, 31B, 831C of the Constitution, and so it declares the vesting of non-agri land as illegal and urges the government to confiscate this land from the beneficiaries and return them to the original holders.
Thus, if the judiciary gradually unmasks its real face, the real limits of land reform based on governmental might also gets unearthed. Objective limitations apart, it also exposes an essential dilemma that CPM inheres. While Mr. Surjykanta Mishra, the land reform minister, reportedly planned to move the apex court, the peasant leaders of CPI(M) exhibit extreme degree of reluctance on the issue. When asked about their reaction, Mr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, a peasant leader of CPM said that the Court order was basically in favour of the peasantry, thus clearly indicating the changing class character of CPI(M)'s 'peasant' base and why there is a calculated silence that they maintain on the issue.
The court case lays bare their dubiousness and inability to take a firm stance in the issue. On 27th June, 1995, on the floor of assembly, they moved the West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill, 1996, which enables any person or a company to hold any amount of ceiling surplus land for the purpose of agri-business, agri-industry or any industry for that matter, not excluding a real estate business. If the High Court order helps restore the old kind of lease holdings, doesn't the left recipe serve the same purpose, albeit in a new form and suited to the demands of MNCs and globalisation? Well, the judiciary does the thing by reinstating the dividing line between agri and non-agri land, and the LF does it through effacing it. This is what, the difference is all about; a difference of gesture and gesture alone.
The peasant organisation of our Party, the Paschim Banga Krishak Samiti (PBKS) held a convention at Bardhaman Town Hall on 25th September, 1996 to discuss all these issues. All the left peasant organisations were invited to attend and spell out their positions. Barring, SUCI's peasant wing, none else turned up. The CPI(M) peasant leaders squarely rejected the invitation and the other junior partners remained evasive.
The Convention however, was attended by around 400 peasant activists, predominantly from landless and small peasant category, in which spoke Comrade Krishna Pramanik (President-PBKS) and other peasant leaders like Comrade Subodh Majumdar and Com. Annada Prasad Bhattacharya. Also spoke in the occassion, Comrade Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury from the SUCI's peasant wing. The convention demanded of the state government:
To move the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict;
Pressuring the UF government to effect proper amendment of the Constitution so as to retain the '81 and '86 amendments of Land Reform Act, 1955;
Instituting special tribunals in each agricultural district instead of urban centres to expedite all cases of injunctions concerning vested land and barga affairs;
Immediate repealing of the latest Land Reform (Amendment) Bill, 1995 being pursued by the state government itself.