April 26, 2020

The Heroic Tebhaga Struggle

DURING the post-war period, late in 1946, the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha decided that a movement should be launched on the basis of the demand for the Tebhaga, that is to say, two-thirds share for the bargadar. Thus, while the discussions with the Cabinet Mission and other political developments were taking place, the tide of the Tebhaga movement in Bengal was rising high.

The peasants in Bengal had been raising the slogan of reducing the share of the landowners. The idea of the Tebhaga was that one-third of gross produce was to be given to the owner or jotedar, while the bargadar (or adhiar or baghidar or baghchashi in different parts of Bengal), a sharecropper (not a tenant in terms of the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885), was to retain the other two-thirds share to himself. The usual practice was that the produce was shared in the ratio of 50:50, between the owner and the sharecropper.

In many areas, even this customary half share of the cultivator was further reduced through various other exactions by the owner, like heavy usurious rates of interest on the crop loan advanced to the bargadar, for food in the lean months of the sowing season and after. Thus even after the harvesting, the bargadar was often left a pauper at the mercy of the jotedar. This exploitative mechanism was heavily resented by the bargadars and the resulting movement is known by the generic name of the Tebhaga movement.

The Bengal Land Revenue Commission reported to the Government of Bengal in 1940 conceding the bargadars rights, which was accepted by the people and even by the government. However, the government did not implement these recommendations.

In this background, the Kisan Sabha's call for a movement on the Tebhaga demand attracted millions of bargadars of Bengal within a short period. The Tebhaga movement was the biggest, most militant and most broad-based class struggle of the kisans of Bengal led by the Kisan Sabha, which was in turn led by the communists. Though it was a movement on a provincial scale, the response of the bargadars was tremendous, particularly in areas where there was big concentration of bargadars and their exploitation was acute, as in the northern districts of Bengal. It drew into its orbit parts of at least 15 of the 28 districts of Bengal and at least five million kisans of the poorer and more exploited strata who fought heroically against the jotedars, their goondas and the police, and defied all hostile propaganda, both official and non-official, in spite of the all round communal hatred and rioting. In order to guide and conduct the movement locally, kisans spontaneously formed local councils of action in many places.

The movement covered the entire period of harvesting from November 1946 to February 1947. In some areas it extended to March 1947. Tremendous police repression was let loose on the struggling kisans everywhere and particularly in the northern districts of Dinajpur, Rangpur and Jalpaiguri, the coastal areas of 24-Parganas and Khulna, and eastern district of Mymensingh, the tribal areas of the Garo Hills on the Assam border. Jotedars and their goondas beat kisans and even killed them.

During the later months, mainly in January and February 1947, armed police force resorted to firing in quite a number of places. Altogether, 70 kisans – Hindu, Muslim and tribal men and women – laid down their lives in the movement. Most of them were killed in police firing, and four died in the jail. It was the Muslim League ministry, which resorted to repressive actions against the struggles with the determination to suppress them. Hindu and Muslim jotedars who were quarreling with each other on the issues of future constitution and the interim government, extended full support to these repressive actions of the League government, exposing their class character.

However, the struggling kisans never surrendered but faced the repression bravely, full of faith in the just demand. Tebhaga movement roused the entire peasantry, both men and women, especially the poorer sections including agricultural labourers, who in many places led the militant struggle. Large numbers of kisan women took active part in the movement and fought heroically against the police. In one well known instance, a kisan woman snatched away the rifle from an armed police man.

Among the lasting effects of the Tebhaga struggle of 1946-47 was that it instilled a fighting spirit and sacrificing nature, as well as a sense of camaraderie into the kisans; taught them that nothing could be achieved without organised class struggle; that agricultural workers and poor peasants including bargadars must unite for struggle, through which they imbibe a sense of class solidarity and self-respect; that kisan women have an important part to play in class struggle; that the exploiting classes are always treacherous in a class struggle; and the movement should be pursued further with adequate preparation and better political understanding.

In spite of all these, certain mistakes were committed by the leadership: not much preparation had been made for a volunteer organisation for defence against police and jotedar offensive; not enough support had been enlisted of the working class until large-scale police repression started, nor were necessary efforts made to draw the urban middle-class behind the movement. No discrimination was made between big and small jotedars in the matter of securing the two-thirds share for the bargadar, with the result that the struggle had to be carried on against the entire jotedar class, thus allowing the big jotedars to carry the majority of the small ones with them, in support of their offensive. These mistakes however in no way undermine the significance of the movement or the heroism that was on display.

The Tebhaga movement was distinct from the peasant movements in other parts of the country. In all other provinces, the peasant movement was confined to certain regions, whereas in Bengal the movement was spread all over the province. For example, in Kerala the movement of the peasants against landlordism was confined to the erstwhile Malabar district, particularly its northern areas. Similarly, in Andhra, the peasant movement (except the Telangana movement) was largely confined to Krishna, Guntur and Godavari districts. Again, in Maharashtra the peasant movement was purely confined to the centres of Worli peasants in one or two taluks.

Most importantly, Tebhaga movement, a class movement of oppressed peasants, closely followed the communal carnage of Calcutta in August 1946, which erupted again and again in short spells, and the riots of October, 1946 in Noakhali, one of the eastern districts. The principal area of the movement was inhabited by peasants not belonging to one particular community, but to both Hindu and Muslim communities. There was, besides, a section of the tribal peasants. A significant factor of the movement was that it radiated its beacon light of Hindu-Muslim unity based on class struggle, which inspired and drew into its orbit millions of kisans of all communities in large parts of Bengal, including Noakhali.

The Tebhaga movement and the Kisan Sabha played a unique role in resisting the communal riots in Bengal and Bihar. It should be specifically noted that riots did not break out in those areas in Noakhali-Tippera districts of Bengal, in which the Kisan Sabha had considerable influence. In such areas, Kisan Sabha and the activists of Tebhaga movement organised relief camps for the refugees from the riot affected neighbouring areas. Similarly in Moghpur in Monghyr district of Bihar, the Communist Party, Kisan Sabha and other mass organisations organised relief activities to protect the people in the riot stricken areas and to provide relief to the victims of communal riots. In both the rural and urban areas, Communist Party was in the forefront in giving leadership to these activities.

The Communist Party considered that the only way to stop riots and forge unity among different communities was to wage an uncompromising struggle against the British rulers and organise struggles of workers and peasants against capitalists and landlords based on their grievances and demands.  As the Communist Party was not strong enough to bring into action what it thought correct and clear, Indian politics, which had been the arena of the British rulers as well as Congress and League leaders, moved from one crisis to another.