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Old Wine in Older Bottles

The Tebhaga Movement

Subhajyoti Ray

he agrarian history of colonial Bengal is bracketed by two sets of agrarian events. The rst comprising the grant of Diwani to the East India Company in 1765, the rst great Bengal famine of 1770, the Rangpur peasant rebellion of 1783 and the Permanent Settlement of 1793; all before the turn of the 19th century. The second set of events primarily comprises the second great famine of Bengal in 1943, the Tebhaga uprising of 1946 and the second Partition of Bengal in 1947. It is, therefore, not surprising that Bengal has had a surfeit of agrarian policymaking since 1793, mobilisation of peasants on economic and social grounds since the 1920s and, subsequently, a host of statisticians, economists and, of course, historians, analysing the agrarian question since John Shore. What is prima facie surprising, given the monumental economic preconditions to rebel, like segmentation and subinfeudation, rack-renting, inappropriate policymaking, natural and man-made disasters, active political mobilisation along class and community lines is that the Bengal peasant has been particularly hesitant to indulge in class struggle. The Rangpur peasant rebellion or the Dhing became the subject of at least two commissions of enquiry happily contradicting each other, and one of the key issues that William Burke took up in his impeachment motion against Warren Hastings, and much of the legislation that followed. Yet it was localised and narrowly focused on the ouster of the agents of a revenue farmer. Not dissimilarly, the Tebhaga movement was preceded and followed by many commissions of enquiry and legislations into the state of the peasantry, became a refracted model of a classic Marxian peasant movement, an icon for the

book review
The Tebhaga Movement: Politics of Peasant Protest in Bengal 1946-1950 by Asok Majumdar (New Delhi: Aakar Books), 2011; pp 372, hardcover, Rs 695.

Communist Party of India (CPI) and, in a stretched sort of a way, inspiration for many more peasant movements of the future. In the point of fact, and I weigh my words carefully here, it was concentrated in pockets, had a narrow agenda and was no more than a vigorous demand for implementation of a law that was rumoured to have been passed. This may be the reason why detailed monographs by social scientists on both the Rangpur Dhing and the Tebhaga movement are almost non-existent. One in case of the former, by Narahari Kabiraj and one, in the case of the latter, by Sunil Sen (of course, Tebhaga has been narrated by many activists, and also forms a part of many monographs on the broader interpretations of agrarian history of Bengal). New and Substantive It is in this limited sense that Asok Mazumdars book is important. It is, after Sunil Sens, perhaps the only detailed monograph on the movement. Two probably unintended characteristics of the monograph stand out: (a) subjecting the rather abstract and iconic movement to ground-level scrutiny from a non-participants perspective; and (b) a strong stand that politics was the driving force behind peasant mobilisation as opposed to economics as is so often argued in the case of Bengal. The monograph does have the usual detailed dose of the agrarian developments since the permanent settlement, the role that various political parties played in peasant politics in the closing
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years of the colonial rule in Bengal, the tensions between the nationalist movement and localised peasant movements. But I submit that these are not the exceptional parts of the book. I shall come back to them later, but rst let us look at the substantial parts of the book. Of note are the following chapters: Tebhaga Movement: An Overview (Chapter 2), CPI and Tebhaga Movement (Chapter 4) and the two case studies of the movement in Dinajpur and Kakdwip (Chapters 6 and 7). Here are the new and substantive points about the movement that emerge from these three chapters. The most important point clearly demonstrated by Mazumdar using the subdivisional ofcers reports from all the subdivisions of Bengal is the extent of the movement. It is commonly believed that it was conned to Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and outlying parts of the 24 Parganas. It has also been demonstrated by historians that the peasant politics in Bengal were correlated to or caused by certain subregional patterns of agrarian structure in the province. Establishing that the Tebhaga movement was much more pervasive, occurring in 24 out of 26 districts is a major point against current historiography and common perception about the movement. It also cuts through many of the arguments about the relationship between subregional agrarian structures and political movements of peasants in Bengal. It may be reiterated here that noted scholars such as Partha Chatterjee, Sugata Bose, Nariaki Nakazato and many others following them have drawn causal links between agrarian structure and nature of peasant movements in Bengal. Politics and Peasants The second point of note in Mazumdars monograph is the clear emphasis on the role of peasant consciousness and the role of a political party in mobilising this consciousness into the Tebhaga movement. Let me explain. The author argues (a) there was a certain level of peasant consciousness about their oppression, what was right and what was wrong and

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what action could be taken to ameliorate the situation, (b) the CPI assiduously and very actively was able to build on this peasant consciousness and represent the peasants. This line of argument is important b ecause the so-called Bengal School has dominantly concentrated on (a) unearthing the economic structure of the countryside (the famous jotedar versus zamindar and stratification of peasantry theses), and (b) in numerous cases tried to link economic structures of the countryside with the political expressions of peasantry (less segmented peasantry linked with communitarian movements like the Partition and more bipolar segmentation linked with the Tebhaga movement). The independence of political cons ciousness and mobilisation in peasant politics was once flittingly but poetically described by Partha Chatterjee. Warning that the course of Bengal politics was not predetermined by its agrarian structure, Chatterjee wrote in 1982: Yet no tendency is ever c onstrained by structural

limits, no situation totally determined. Purposive human action can create tendencies, transform situations and it is precisely this sort of social activity that constitutes politics. This line of argument has never been elaborated for Bengal. Mazumdar tries to bring this back to the centre of his thesis. Grass-roots Level Intensity The other three substantive Chapters (4, 6 and 7) are in support of the two primary arguments of the monograph: the spread and depth of the movement and the role of peasant consciousness. Chapter 4, on the role of CPI, makes an important argument that the presence of three levels of political leadership: urban party ideologues, urban but somewhat declassed activists in rural areas and grassroots leaders. In areas where the movement was most successful the second and the third categories played the leading role. It is somewhat grudgingly conceded that it was the third category that determined the nature of the movement and its success. Thus: It is probably

true that the intensity of the struggle at the grassroots level depended on the nature of the village level Tebhaga Committee. As mentioned, Chapters 6 and 7 are case studies of the movement from the districts of Dinajpur in north Bengal and Kakdwip in 24 Parganas in southern deltaic Bengal. The significant point made by the author here is that while in Dinaj pur it was somewhat a classic case, in Kakdwip the movement started after the Bargadar Bill was assumed to have been passed by the government. It may be r eiterated that the strongest parts of the monograph appear somewhat unintended: neither forcefully argued nor substantially detailed. The three other Chapters (1, 3, and 5) titled Agrarian Structure of Bengal, Communist Party of India and Peasant Movement in Bengal and Congress Muslim League and the Tebhaga Movement are voluminous and superfluous in equal measure. Nothing illustrates this better than Chapter 1. It devotes 33 pages to an understanding of the Agrarian


The Adivasi Question

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Indra Munshi
Depletion and destruction of forests have eroded the already fragile survival base of adivasis across the country, displacing an alarmingly large number of adivasis to make way for development projects. Many have been forced to migrate to other rural areas or cities in search of work, leading to systematic alienation. This volume situates the issues concerning the adivasis in a historical context while discussing the challenges they face today. The introduction examines how the loss of land and livelihood began under the British administration, making the adivasis dependent on the landlord-moneylender-trader nexus for their survival. The articles, drawn from writings of almost four decades in EPW, discuss questions of community rights and ownership, management of forests, the states rehabilitation policies, and the Forest Rights Act and its implications. It presents diverse perspectives in the form of case studies specific to different regions and provides valuable analytical insights.

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Structure of Bengal (compared to the 12 of the most important chapter Tebhaga Movement: An Overview, Chapter 2) and is remarkably unaware of the historiography since 1990. Finally, the conclusion while conceding that in terms of immediate achievements

the Tebhaga movement does not have much to show, takes an ahistorical leap and connects it to the success of Operation Barga (started by the Left Front in 1978 and concluded in the mid1980s). Incidentally, I noted that the most recent book on the agrarian history of

Bengal mentioned in the bibliography is Agrarian Bengal by Sugata Bose published in 1988.
Subhajyoti Ray (, a former historian, is with the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

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