May 17, 2020

Peasants Struggles in Assam and Surma Valley

PRE-PARTITION Assam had two provincial Kisan Sabhas formed on linguistic basis – two Bengali speaking districts (Cachar and Sylhet) were in Surma Valley Provincial Kisan Sabha, formed in 1936 and all other districts of Assam in the Assam Provincial Kisan Sabha, formed in 1946. However, the activities of the Kisan Sabha in Assam had started since 1943.

In zamindari areas in the region, the tenants had no occupancy rights over the land they lived or cultivated. They could be evicted at the sweet will of the landlord. They had no right to build a pucca house or dig a tank on the land they occupied and were not even entitled to cut a tree. Tenants were neither allowed to wear sandals or shoes, nor could they use an umbrella while going to the landlord’s house.

Apart from the suaul rent in cash or kind, the landlords extracted ‘abwab’ or ‘nazarana’ during different festivals and on the occasion of different ceremonies in landlords’ family. These extortions became the statutory rights of the landlords. Such were the forms of social oppressions and economic extortions of the landlords that became unbearable for the tenants.

In 1936, the Surma Valley Kisan Sabha raised these demands of the tenants: those who have been cultivating landlords’ land for 12 years (or more), should have the occupancy rights (which means that they can’t be evicted at the will of the landlord); tenants having occupancy rights shall be entitled to dig tanks and build pucca houses; all illegal extortions by the landlords to be stopped; nankar system (semi-serf system), which includes free labour in landlords’ houses and lands should be terminated and provisions made in the tenancy legislation, giving them occupancy right to their homestead and on a portion of land they have been cultivating for their landlords; tenants settled in tea gardens should also enjoy occupancy rights on their settled lands and all oppressions perpetrated on the tenant should be stopped and all social indignities removed.

Campaigning on these demands, hundreds of meetings were held throughout the district of Sylhet and processions in all the zamindari areas were organised. Landlords reacted by attacking these processions, injuring and threatening the participants. Zamindars employed loyal ‘nankars’ to attack these processions, exposing the weak spot in the movement, as the Kisan Sabha was putting more emphasis on the demands of the tenants than on those of the nankars. This approach was subsequently corrected.

Nankars and their entire family members were bound to give free service to the landlords against a tiny plot of agricultural land or often a homestead land of very small size. They were not allowed to send their children to schools, even to give them decent names. They had no means to protect their wives and daughters from landlords’ lust. Beastly torture was common for any violation of traditional rules of slavery and serfdom. An extensive campaign was conducted on the demands of the nankars and as a result, a large number of nankars joined the movement.

In 1938, an unprecedented demonstration was conducted in Shillong, with hundreds of kisans and nankars who marched 86 miles, scaling many hills en route. Nankars joined this movement with their demand of the abolition of nankar system.

The nankar movement was part and parcel of the tenancy movement. The success of both the movements was closely interlinked, though the nankar struggle had its distinctive features. Rising above religious differences, Muslim and Hindu nankars fought shoulder to shoulder, which brought new strength to the movement. Landlords and the government became furious and apart from arrests and merciless beatings, criminal cases were foisted against the nankars and tenants.

The government machinery, in collusion with the landlords, sent elephants to demolish the houses of tenants and also armed forces, who unleashed severe repression and suppressed the struggle. This ended the first stage of struggle in the Surma Valley, but tenants all over the area became firmer in their opposition to zamindari oppression and extraction. It gave rise to a widespread movement in the zamindari areas of entire Assam for a tenancy act to safeguard security of tenure and ensure fair rent.

In Assam valley in the thirties, Kisan movement was primarily under the umbrella of the Congress. Led by rich peasants, demands of the poor and landless peasants, adi-kandua (sharecroppers) and agricultural labourers were not taken up. Lack of popular support forced these ryot sabhas to cease functioning after 1940.

Though the communist workers, individually or in groups, had been working amongst the peasants since 1938 in different places of Assam valley, it was only after the formation of the Assam Valley Committee (soon converted into the Assam Provincial Organising Committee) in 1943 that the preparations for the formation of AIKS and its activities took up. Prior to it, under the leadership of the Communist League in 1940 the Assam Kisan Banua (Peasants’ and Labour Union) was formed independent of and in opposition to the Congress. This organisation was active in some parts of Kamrup, Sibsagar and Dibrugarh.

The first Kisan conference under the leadership of the communists was held in 1943 in Haorarp. It passed resolutions against price rise, black marketing and hoarding, for agricultural loans and distribution of paddy seeds, against the oppression of zamindars, jotedars and moneylenders. The Goalpara Mahakuma Kisan Conference held in 1944 passed resolution demanding the abolition of zamindari system.

In order to organise tribal peasants, communists took the initiative to reorganise the tribal sangha, which was confined to only cultural activities. Under its banner, they started taking up economic issues too. This influenced the tenants of Banglabari, Bijni Duara tea estates to hold a meeting at Magurmari against the tea garden manager for demanding rent in paddy instead of cash and against preventing people from passing by in front of the manager’s bungalow with umbrella and shoes and other forms of harassment. A big demonstration was held with red flags against the manager’s oppression. After that, there was no restriction on passing by the road in front of the manager’s bungalow.

In the post-war period of anti-imperialist mass upsurge, the most oppressed section of the peasants in eastern areas of Surma valley struck a severe blow at the semi-serf nankar system. It was a big organised movement, which started in 1946 and continued into the post-partition period. Tenants who hated the zamindars, supported the struggle and this increased its intensity.

The Congress government which came to power in 1946 let loose severe repression in collusion with the landlords. Even after partition, when Sylhet became part of East Pakistan (Bangladesh), the nankars continued their fight under the red flag – the only change was the replacement of brutal repression of the Congress government by that of the Muslim League government. Failing to suppress the movement, the League government conceded some of the demands of the nankars.

Since 1944, the Kisan Sabha work developed its mass base by opposing war-time attacks on the people, famine like conditions, high prices and black market. Its mass influence grew as Comrade Irawat Singh, legendary builder of freedom struggle as well as communist movement in Manipur, took up Kisan work in Cachar. During the course of serving his sentence in the Sylhet jail, he met many communists and became a communist. As he was not allowed to enter Manipur after release, he remained at Silchar and worked to strengthen the Kisan Sabha. Along with the influence of the Tebhaga struggle in Bengal, this ground work led to the rise of struggle on similar issues in Cachar in 1946, which at once became popular among tens of thousands of sharecroppers, poor peasants and agriculture workers.

The Congress government did everything possible to suppress the struggle by brutal suppression. On the other hand, the determined peasants scaled new heights of mass struggle, showing heroism and discipline.

Women workers fought policemen who assaulted sharecroppers and forced them to retreat. The names of women leaders became known throughout the district. Imachou Devi, a Manipuri woman agricultural worker and four more peasants were killed by the Assam Rifles, when they were defending sharecroppers’ paddy in 1949. The police were helping the landlords snatch away the sharecroppers paddy. On the other hand, the fighting peasants, who obstructed the trucks and demanded their fair share, were attacked and even killed.

This struggle, followed by the Kisan struggle in Brahmaputra valley district of Assam with the slogan ‘will give life, but won’t give paddy’, in 1948-50, forced the Congress government to enact the sharecroppers act and accept many of the demands. By their bitter experiences, the peasants realised that Congress government was for the landowners and not for them.