Bengal Famine: In the Service of People and the Country
IN 1943, Bengal faced one of the worst famines in Indian history. Grave situation prevailed in Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Assam. Hunger deaths, scarcity and failure of the official machinery defined this period. Food prices rose by 300 to 1,200 per cent. Food became unobtainable for common people. Food queues became a normal feature. According to news reports, nearly 125 million people were starving and many were eating locusts and leaves for their survival. In this gloomy scenario, the role played by the Communist Party deserves particular mention.
The Communist Party, in its manifesto issued on the occasion of the independence day in 1943, (observed every 26th of January), called the famine a grave internal danger to the country, whose shadow is lengthening over the entire country. “Five million people have already perished in Bengal for want of food. The same fate awaits every province, the whole of India, if Congressmen do not unite our people, and call upon every Hindu and Muslim to protect the bread of his family and the milk of his children”. The appeal for unity of the Congress and Muslim League, a joint front, was an important element in the Party’s campaign. This joint effort was also viewed as a bridge to build Hindu-Muslim unity that was under strain during this period. “Congressmen working in the forefront of the food struggle will be the most convincing argument to secure Muslim support for the release of national leaders; the joint work in the service of our countrymen will remove Congress misunderstanding about the League and its demands. The battle for food will really become the battle for power and freedom”. It ended its appeal with the call, ‘Forward to the irresistible unity of our people, of the Congress and the League, for food, defence and release of national leaders’.
The Party's attitude towards the food problem, as also towards the war and the problems that arose out of the war, was different from that of the government and other political parties. It was linked with the solution to the day-to-day life problems of workers, peasants and other sections of the common people.
Though the Party had extended cooperation to the government in matters relating to the control of prices, distribution of food grains and other essential commodities, it had campaigned against sabotage and mobilised people against it. The Party had participated actively in the work of procurement and distribution of essential commodities by setting up separate organisations for the purpose. It persisted with its slogan of increasing industrial and agricultural production.
Communist Party emphatically stated that it was impossible to control scarcity and price rise without preventing profiteering by big landlords, wholesalers and other vested interests. It put forward practical suggestions to take over the stocks from big landlords and others and to distribute them among the people. It not only demanded action to prevent food grains being transported from the famine stricken areas, but also formed volunteer organisations to undertake this work where the authorities were not prepared to do it. Volunteer organisations also acted against hoarding of food grains and other essential commodities resorted to by sections of merchants and landlords. The Communist Party was actively engaged in building a movement against exploitation by the landlords, wholesalers and against the anti-people character of the British rulers who were abetting these exploiters.
The propaganda campaigns and relief work organised by the Party at the all India level on the Bengal famine created an impact on Indian politics. The approach of the Party during the campaign in connection with Bengal famine was to serve the people under any circumstances and under any condition.
The Party mobilised food grains, collected money and essential commodities from throughout the country to organise relief camps in Bengal. Volunteers and even doctor teams were mobilised and sent to work in organising relief activities in Bengal. The involvement of the Party in these relief activities helped in developing contacts with the people and also retaining their confidence and trust. The Communist Party believed that the immediate task was to expose the vested class interests of the landlords, hoarders and the rulers by rendering all assistance to the victims of famine, price rise and starvation.
Although famine, price rise and starvation deaths were acute in Bengal, they were common throughout India. In each province they showed up in accordance with its own characteristics. The crisis of the socio-economic system manifested itself everywhere in the country. Progressive and anti-imperialist minded people were convinced that the solution to this problem was to change India's existing socio-economic system after ending the British rule. There was no difference of opinion among the various sections of people that this task had to be accomplished as soon as possible.
The famine which broke out during and after the war, the increase in the prices of essential articles, the decrease in the real income of wage earners and similar other hardships gave impetus to organised struggles of workers and middle-class employees. Food scarcity that prevailed during the war became acute in 1945. According to the estimate of the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, about hundred million people were affected by scarcity.
Workers' strikes and popular struggles for food which broke out on a massive scale soon after the war led to frequent clashes between the people and the police and military forces. In August 1945, 17 demonstrators were killed and about 2,000 were arrested in Varanasi. In Bombay, an atmosphere of revolt prevailed following a strike in September. However, the efforts made by reactionary politicians and the rulers to give it a character of tension between Hindus and Muslims succeeded to an extent. Dozens of people were killed and several hundred injured in the riots that followed.
As distinct from the earlier anti-imperialist mass upsurges, people participating in them now were considerably influenced by the fighting organisations of workers and other labouring classes as well as the Left forces which provided a revolutionary perspective to them. Both the Communist Party which developed as a mass party going against the Congress leadership during the war and the Quit India struggle, and the socialists and other leftists who had provided an organised leadership to the Quit India struggle, were able to play significant roles in the post-war anti-imperialist mass upsurges.
In order to curtail the growing influence of the Communist Party, Nehru and other top Congress leaders indulged in a strong anti-communist political campaign. With the support of the socialists and their scheme to split mass organisations, they created difficulties for the Communists. Once again the Communist Party was faced with a situation in which they had to move against the current of anti-imperialist sentiment of a considerable section of the people led by the Congress.
Many of these socialists and Left forces were under the ideological influence of the right-wing Congress leadership. Although identifying themselves fully with the Congress leadership in their attempts to ‘isolate the communists’, accusing them of having ‘betrayed the Quit India struggle’, these forces were caught in the high tide of strikes and anti-imperialist demonstrations and began to co-operate with the communists to add strength and militancy to these movements.
By the end of the Second World War and the Quit India struggle, Communist Party with its independent working-class outlook and programme of action challenging the political leadership of the Congress, had spread all over the country, along with a number of mass organisations on which the Party had considerable influence.
The Communist Party had acquired the status of a party enjoying wide popular support in Kerala, Andhra and Bengal, and locally in many other provinces. It emerged as a party and a political force capable of challenging the Congress in future. The growth of the Party which had considerable influence among the different sections of the people like workers, peasants and students had become a potential threat to the Congress.
The political background of these developments also has to be noted. The historical role played by the Soviet union in the Second World War had helped further spread of socialist ideology. The younger generation who had entered the Quit India struggle, were largely sympathetic towards communism. The Congressmen with such feelings, were unable to imbibe emotionally the approach of the Congress leadership, as the Communists, were actively working among the masses.