October 18, 2020

Communists and the Struggle for Democracy

Prakash Karat

INDIA, at the time of independence in 1947, was a deeply backward country, economically and socially – a condition that was deepened by 200 years of colonial rule. For the Communist Party, the key question was completing the tasks of the democratic revolution which remained unfulfilled at the time of independence. The democratic transformation of society had political, economic and social dimensions.

For Communists, unlike bourgeois parties, democracy was not just electoral democracy with the right to vote based on adult franchise. That alone was not sufficient for democracy. Democracy required an end to economic and social inequalities based on class exploitation and social oppression. Without economic and social equality, democracy in India would be as Dr Ambedkar acutely observed, “only top dressing on soil which essentially is undemocratic.”

From the outset, Communists strove to deepen and widen a democracy constrained and distorted by the class rule of the bourgeois-landlord alliance. Some of the major contributions in this sphere related to the struggle for land reforms as part of the democratic transformation of agrarian relations; the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines, the decentralisation and institutionalisation of powers to the panchayat system and local bodies and the consistent defence of democratic rights, particularly the rights of the working people.

At the time of independence, the concentration of land was enormous in the hands of a narrow stratum of zamindars and landlords. The Congress government, due to the bourgeois-landlord alliance in State power, was unwilling to take steps to abolish landlordism and sought to implement some limited land reforms in such a manner which would benefit landlords and rich peasants. Even after the legal abolition of the zamindari system, large amounts of land were still retained by the erstwhile zamindars.  The first National Sample Survey done in 1954 showed that 3.7 per cent of rural households controlled 37 per cent of the total lands, which itself was an underestimate.

For the Communist Party, land reforms became the basic slogan to weaken landlordism and to usher in a democratic transformation in agrarian relations.  The struggle for land reforms and the distribution of surplus land above the land ceiling to be distributed to landless peasants; stoppage of evictions; increasing the share of the produce of sharecroppers etc were issues on which struggles developed in different parts of the country.

The first breakthrough came when the Communist Party was elected in Kerala to form the government. The first Communist ministry initiated land reform measures by which tenant cultivators got land by paying a minimum compensation to the landlords.  One of the reasons for the dismissal of the Communist ministry by the central government was due to the opposition of the landed and reactionary interests. 

The next big wave of land struggles was in West Bengal in the period from 1967 to 1969.  In the period of the first United Front government, big struggles against the jotedars took place for seizure of benami lands held by them.  Subsequently the Left Front government formed in 1977 passed the historical legislation concerning sharecroppers.  It accorded rights to bargadars (sharecroppers) of retaining 75 per cent of the produce and protection from eviction by registering them. Surplus land above the ceiling was taken over and distributed – over 12 lakh acres of land was redistributed to over 25 lakh landless and marginal cultivator households.

Under Left-led governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, implementation of land reforms advanced and brought about important changes in agrarian relations. It is because of the Communist movement that in these three states, land reforms were implemented, unlike what happened in other states.

The Party and the Kisan Sabha conducted many struggles for land in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and other places in the decades after independence. It is the impact of the struggles and the example set by the three Left-led state governments that led to some limited land reform measures being implemented in the rest of the country, particularly in the 1970s and the early 80’s.

Thus the Communist movement played a key role in the struggle for democratic transformation of agrarian relations and achieved success in atleast three states.


At the time of independence, there were three multi-lingual provinces under the British administration and a host of princely states of various categories.  One of the major goals of the freedom struggle was to provide people their own linguistic provinces based on the linguistic-nationality principle. As early as 1920, the Congress party, on Gandhiji’s initiative had formed Pradesh Congress Committees on a linguistic basis. Later, the Congress party had committed to formation of linguistic provinces after independence. However, after the Congress took power in independent India, the Nehru government went back from this promise.  The big capitalists and their representative organisations were against the formation of linguistic states as they saw it as posing obstacles to having a unified market. 

The Communist Party in the pre-independence period had spelt out its nationality policy in which it recognised the linguistic nationality principle. It wanted an Indian Union of all states based on the linguistic principle. 

The formation of linguistic states was to be a major step in the democratisation of the Indian State structure and anchoring the federal system. In the 1940s, Communist leaders spelt out the creation of linguistic states as a major democratic and anti-feudal task.  EMS Namboodiripad wrote a pamphlet about the one and a quarter crore Malayalis and their right to have a single state based on the Malayalam-speaking people comprising Malabar from the Madras province and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin. P Sundarayya set out the concept of Visalandhra through a booklet in 1946 which became the influential tract for the Visalandhra movement. This became the epicenter of the linguistic states movement in the early 1950s.  Somnath Lahiri wrote Natun Bangla, which set out the contours of the state of Bengal based on the linguistic principle.

Given the denial of the linguistic principle for formation of states by the central government, movements developed for the creation of Visalandhra (to unite all Telugu-speaking people in one state), Aikya Kerala and later Samyukta Maharashtra, Mahagujarat and Punjabi Suba.

The Communist Party played an important role in the mass movements that developed for the formation of Andhra Pradesh and Samyukta Maharashtra.

All the struggles for linguistic states became successful despite the opposition of the big bourgeoisie and the RSS who wanted a unified centralised State. The present Indian Union composed of states based on linguistic homogeneity is a significant achievement for which Communists can take due credit. It laid the basis for the struggle to reshape the Indian State towards a federal system and ensuring states’ rights.


Apart from fighting for state’s rights through restructuring of centre-state relations, the Communists advocated decentralising powers to the panchayati raj system and local bodies. The Left Front government pioneered the three-tier panchayat system with devolution of powers and resources. In 1978, the elections to this empowered panchayat system were held. This was more than a decade before the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments were adopted. In Tripura too, the panchayat  system became an effective instrument for grass-roots democracy along with the creation of the tribal autonomous district council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. In Kerala, the LDF government in 1996 initiated a unique step for democratic decentralisation with a people’s campaign for decentralised planning which involved making plans from below with inputs from gram sabhas.


The Communist Party from the outset sought to widen and deepen the democratic system. It did this at two levels: firstly through the parliamentary forums and strengthening of Constitutional and democratic norms. Secondly, the Communist movement struggled relentlessly to defend democratic rights and against draconian laws which suppressed democratic rights and civil liberties.  

In the fight to defend democracy, the CPI(M) has always kept the warning given in the Party Programme in mind:  “The threat to the parliamentary system and to democracy comes not from the working people and the parties which represent their interests. The threat comes from the exploiting classes. It is they who undermine the parliamentary system both from within and without by making it an instrument to defend their narrow interests. When the people begin to use parliamentary institutions for advancing their cause and then move away from the influence of the big bourgeoisie and landlords, these classes do not hesitate to trample underfoot parliamentary democracy …”

Under capitalism, democracy is always sought to be attenuated. This has become more pronounced after the neoliberal regime was instituted. Most of the rights that are provided in the Constitution are denied, or, violated by the State authorities.  This is so especially when struggles of the workers, peasants and other sections of the working people take place. They are denied the right of assembly through prohibitory orders, police and State organs are unleashed against them, preventive detention through various draconian laws are used to  detain political leaders and activists.

In the decades after independence, the Communists have been constantly fighting to assert the rights of the working class and other sections of the working people, often braving State repression. The Party has constantly opposed the use of draconian laws which enable preventive detention like MISA, NSA, TADA, POTA and UAPA. The Indira Gandhi regime imposing internal emergency in 1975 was an extreme instance of how democracy was suppressed to serve the narrow interests of the ruling classes. The CPI(M) opposed and fought the emergency and hundreds of its cadres were jailed.

Democracy becomes meaningless if the people cannot exercise the right to assembly, to conduct peaceful protests and the workers to conduct strikes.

It is due to the relentless struggle of the Left and democratic forces that some of the legislations mentioned above were rescinded, or, allowed to lapse. But NSA and UAPA (which has been made more draconian by the BJP government) continue in the statute books and are being widely used now.

There are certain provisions in the Constitution which are misused to suppress democracy. One of them is Article 356 which empowers the president to dismiss a state government based on a report given by the governor that there is a breakdown of the Constitutional machinery and law and order. It is this clause which was used to dismiss the first Communist ministry in Kerala in 1959.  This clause was also used for imposing president’s rule in West Bengal and numerous other states. It is the CPI(M) which played an important role in mobilising public opinion and other democratic forces to oppose the repeated misuse of Article 356, which is a blow against democracy and state’s rights.

As a result of this continuous campaign, finally in 1994, the Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court put some checks on the exercise of Article 356 and made it subject to judicial review.

The ruling classes have been particularly hostile to the development of a strong Communist movement and especially of Left-led governments in states. That is why we saw periods of semi-fascist terror in both the states – West Bengal (1971-1977) and Tripura (1988-1993).  These attacks on democracy and terror have recurred again in both these states in a more virulent form in the last few years – in West Bengal by the Trinamool regime and in Tripura by the BJP.

This confirms the programmatic warning that the ruling classes will attack parliamentary democracy if the working people use parliamentary institutions to advance their interests.  That is why, in the two strong bases of the Communist movement and the country as a whole, we have been waging the struggle to defend democracy and democratic rights. 

This has become all the more crucial after the Hindutva authoritarian regime has come to office. In the past six years, the defence of democracy and protecting the rights given under the Constitution have become a central focus of our struggle.

The class character of the State is such that parliamentary democracy becomes more and more a playground for big business, the rural rich and predatory capitalist elements. Under the neoliberal order, business and politics have become intertwined. 

The perversion of democracy by money power, the pollution of the electoral system with big money flooding elections provided by corporates and finance capital are becoming a big menace. The Modi government has amended laws whereby both foreign and Indian corporates can fund political parties and they can do so anonymously through the electoral bonds scheme.

The onslaught against democracy by the BJP authoritarian regime is much more serious as it seeks not to suspend or annul some one right or another. What we are witnessing is a wholesale subversion of all Constitutional and democratic institutions. The aim is to institute a Hindu majoritarian republic.


The struggle for agrarian reforms, the refashioning of the Indian State structure on more federal lines,  and the relentless striving for deepening democracy in the face of ruling class repression – this the rich legacy of the Communist movement that we have to carry forward.

At no time has the threat to democracy and the parliamentary system been so grave as it is now.  The Communists – who have a long record of defending democracy and opposing all anti-democratic laws and measures – have today to rise up to face the challenge.  They must play a catalytic role in uniting all democratic and secular forces in defence of democracy and Constitutional rights.