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September 22, 2000
Did CPI-M's land reforms movement backfire?
Rifait Jawaid in Midnapore
Communist Party of India-Marxist mandarins feel that the Left Front's land reforms movement, initiated in 1977, soon after occupying the corridors of Writers' Building, is where the mother of all problems lies.
Christened the Bargada movement, the Jyoti Basu government distributed land among 4,70,000 landless labourers in rural Bengal. Of these, 67 per cent recipients constituted minorities, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The movement is the most important factor that contributed to the Left's 24-year domination in West Bengal.
According to state land reforms ministry data, the government distributed 4,46,602.34 hectares among 14,90,248 landless peasants. In Keshpur, which has borne the brunt of clashes between supporters of the Trinamul Congress and CPI-M, 9702.09 acres was distributed among 13,536 persons under the movement. The beneficiaries included 3084 STs, 3545 SCs, 2573 minorities and 4334 others.
Public welfare department land was also distributed among needy farmers in the area by the Marxists government. Imtiaz Ali, CPI-M zonal committee member in Keshpur, said that of the 12, 885.46 acres in his block, 11,134.03 acres was given away to the landless.
"While distributing land, we ensured that the neglected classes of society benefited the most. Even while recording (for distribution) the public works department land, we selected 11,912 STs, 10,869 SCs, 4921 minorities and 4306 from others castes. Under the Home Estate Act, 1364 people got 59.94 acres for constructing houses. Understandably, such people-friendly schemes were bound to help the Left consolidate its stronghold in rural areas. Now, tell me how is my party to be blamed if downtrodden sections of society continue to support us, primarily, because we took care of their interests?" asked Ali.
"Our aim was never to appease landlords. Today, you are witnessing a cumulative fallout of many years' disenchantment among the affluent and bourgeois, who were deprived of land in the seventies," Ali explained.
Bargadas cultivated land for a small percentage of the produce. But they had no rights over the land they cultivated. The government, however, enacted a special law, whereby landlords could not suppress farmers taking care of their land. Though the movement's concept was formulated by the Congress government in 1959, it failed to implement it.
According to Ali, Bengal topped Asia in land reforms. He claimed that only Bengal had effective laws on land reforms. When Nobel laureate Amartya Sen visited the state, he was full of praise for the Left's 'remarkable achievement' in enabling indigent farmers acquire land which they could call their own.
State Land Reforms Minister Suryakant Mishra told rediff.com, "The maximum ceiling to escape the Land Reforms Act is 12.35 acres for irrigated and 17.35 acres for non-irrigated land. Anybody found in possession of more would have to surrender it to the government, which would distribute it among poor farmers."
About 542 landlords had to give their land in Keshpur under the movement. The CPI-M contented that these landlords were looking for an opportunity to avenge the 'injustice' meted out to them over two decades back.
Ali said that they seemed to have found a potential ally in Mamata Banerjee, who was trying to establish her Trinamul Congress, after parting with the Congress, in the red citadel.
"Hence, the violence in Midanpore. Since there was no dearth of licensed arms with Trinamul supporters, funded by these affluent landlords, they went on a rampage, displacing thousands of workers from villages. They began returning after two and a half years. What happened in Nanoor in July? It was a fight between farmers and landlords desperate to recapture land," he remarked.
However, the Trinamul does not agree. Senior party leader Pankaj Banerjee said the erosion of support base in its fiefdom prompted the Left to resort to violence.
"There is really no element of truth in CPI-M allegations that the movement was the root of problems in Midnapore district. How many supporters who have been rendered homeless by Marxist goons own over 10 acres? None of them have even an acre of cultivatable land, leave alone 12.35 or 17.35 acres to be called landowners," he said.
"What can we say about a government whose chief minister cannot even work for more than an hour in office? Their disenchantment is obvious. We made a severe dent in Keshpur and Garbeta during the 1998 panchayat elections and ended the Left's dominance by winning the Panskura Lok Sabha seat this June," Banerjee added.
Even the Congress, neutral in this controversy, feels that the CPI-M is forwarding an irrelevant achievement.
Congress legislator Saugata Roy said the movement had reached saturation point. He also ridiculed the Marxists' argument that the movement led to violence in Midnapore, Bankura and Birbhoom.
However, Midnapore is least bothered about which party enjoys supremacy. It has been a mute spectator to bloody battles that have characterised the district for more than two years. What matters most is an assurance of safety - of lives and property.
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