Editor's Note: These reminiscences originally appeared on http://www.ganashakti.com/jb/preface.htm, from where they have reproduced without any changes.
My longtime associate, Comrade Saroj Mukherjee, had requested me to write about my political experiences in Bengali. After giving it a long thought, I had decided to do so and Ganashakti serialised them which were later compiled as a book "Janaganer Sangey" ("With the People"). I have had to face many complex problems during my career which centred wholly on the liberation of the people at large. I have seen the people rise in victory as much as I have been witness to their defeat at times. These memories themselves imbibe a sense of achievement. This new book has been updated since then. If my experiences are of any help to all those who are striving to make this world a better place to live in, then I will consider my efforts a success.
Finally, I would like to repeat what I have always believed in: it is man, and man alone, who creates history. Despite the many crests and thrusts, the people will finally emerge victorious and gain freedom in a classless society free from exploitation of any form.
January 22, 1998 Jyoti Basu
The 1957 Elections
Time simply flew and soon, the elections were on us. None of the election promises the first time round had been kept by the Congress; instead, the people were made to suffer continuously, both politically and economically.
The dream that Independence had given the country was slowly fading away under the Congress regime. The hiatus between the haves and have-nots was increasing daily. The rich were getting richer, while the poor were getting impoverished. Crisis after crisis were penetrating the system even though the country had entered the era of the Second Five Year Plan.
West Bengal was also burdened with merger problems. Compared to 1951 which marked the beginning of the Plan period, there was a slight increase in the number of factories but we must remember that while in 1951, the number of labourers was 6,54,901, in 1955, it had come down to 5,92,231; I have got this figure from the then labour minister's statement of July 25, 1956 in the Assembly. The statement said that there had been retrenchment of 29,000 employees in the jute sector, 4000 in the engineering units while more than 2,000 workers been sacked in the tea gardens. There were no land reforms; education and public health had gone for a six, the price rice was a daily index of the government's failure and joblessness was increasing. The government was resorting to discriminating taxation, there was no solution in sight to the refugee problem, the government sponsored welfare scheme was moving at a snail's pace and the corruption and nepotism of ministers were making it to the front pages every other day. But whenever the people were taking to the streets in protest against these problems, the police was resorting to their usual atrocities at the instance of the state government.
We were continuously fighting and highlighting these problems inside and outside the Assembly and Parliament. The responsibility and the efforts to educate the people was a continuous process. On a national level, the elections came in handy for our cause. We jumped into the fray with our limited resources, trying all the time to bring the democratic and ant-Congress forces together. In its election manifesto released on January 3, 1957 the Communist Party of India made its views clear about the need for such unity.
The Communist Party will strive to forge unity among all Democratic forces and individuals to ensure that such representatives are elected who can fight without fear for the welfare of the people, our national manifesto said.
The process started in West Bengal also. We brought out a booklet called "The Programme of Democratic Unity" which said: "The democratic and Left parties in West Bengal have achieved significant success in ensuring unity among like-minded forces in West Bengal. The five main parties - the Communist Party, the PSP, the RSP, Forward Bloc and Forward Bloc (Marxist) - have already arrived at seat adjustments. "
We proposed that the following criteria be adopted while selecting nominees for coming elections. These were:
1) Only those candidates who have a mass appeal and can defeat their Congress rivals should be nominated;
2) Parties having specific and major influence in areas where they are powerful should be allotted responsibility of those constituencies; and
3) Candidates with proven track record and who were successful the previous time should be renominated.
A 37-point working programme was proposed to be implemented. It said:
"An effort should be made to ensure the common minimum programme be announced which will help the progress of West Bengal in every way and move the country forward. Only the left can ensure the implementation of such a programme. The Communist Party hopes that discussions will begin in right earnest in an attempt to establish this democratic unity and that unity should be achieved regarding the common minimum programme."
I will quote significant extracts from this 37-point programme.
"On the agricultural front.... there should be wideranging land reforms, optimum loans for farmers, a good irrigation network and sewage facilities. Efforts to improve agricultural output and anti-flood programmes should get top priority.
"The idea should be to ensure access to the maximum level of vested land that can be distributed, a proper irrigation system - all illegal land allotments should be stopped; the land ceiling system to be based on the family unit and not the individual; agricultural land to be brought under a certain ceiling, applicable as well to water holdings for pisciculture-the only exception being the tea gardens where an effort must be made to make as much land cultivable as possible.
"Land distribution...Farmers, land workers and bargadars, including refugees, should be allotted land through select village committees. The basis of such allotment should be logic and reason to ensure maximum benefit.
"Security to the bargadars should be one of the top priorities, though small landowners, widows and minors will have a right to get back a measure of their land. But at no cost should bargadars be made totally landless. Under these conditions, the bargadars will have a lasting right on their land which will pass from one generation to the next. The bargadars, if they take on the responsibility of supplying ploughs, buffaloes and fertilisers to the farmers, will be entitled to two-thirds of the output.
"Farm labourers ... An opportunity should be made available to make as many land labourers employable as possible. They should be employed on just wages and a timeframe be fixed as work duration.
"Fishermen ... They should be allowed unrestricted access to all water outlets... loans and other benefits should be ensured.
"Industry ... The Centre should be told to ensure that the management rights of those tea, jute and coal units which are still with the British be transferred to the state government and legal steps be taken in this respect... steps should also be taken to ensure larger public sector growth in heavy industries, fertilisers and cement, among others... on the other land, the cottage industry, which provides the maximum employment, should not be neglected.
"Labourers and employees... The state shall accept the right of the workers to exercise their trade union rights without any prejudice. Peaceful strikes and picketing should be allowed. Permanence of jobs should be ensured... all those laws which infringe or curtail trade union activity should be withdrawn...Minimum wages and other benefits to be extended to the unorganised sector where there are no set rules of work duration or labour...
"Education ... Free primary schooling to be ensured which is to be slowly extended to education at all levels. The secondary Board to be constituted by a democratic process and it be given full powers to administer the education system under its purview.... The number of schools and colleges, particularly in the backward areas, be increased, hostel facilities to be made available wherever possible, cheaper textbooks be published and fees lowered. A timeframe should be fixed by which Bengal should top the literacy as well as education growths.... Teachers' pay should be hiked and both teachers and students be given all types of democratic rights."
"Rights of the individual... The state shall withdraw all cases against political detenus. The right to speech and the freedom of the press should be sacrosanct. There should be no restrictions on meetings and rallies. Black laws should not be resorted to.
"Public welfare ... Decentralisation should be the key and public role and participation in daily governance at every level should be kept in mind."
Apart from these, the programme included features like taxation, refuge rehabilitation, public health, de velopment of the Sunderbans and North Bengal, price ceiling, the backward classes, women welfare and cultural activities. After the publication of the booklet, we appealed to the people to ensure a kitty of Rs 6 lakhs for the election fund of the party. Meetings and rallies simultaneously.
On the party's instructions, the state leadership went on tours throughout the districts. On January 6, 1957, I went to an election meeting at Dakshineswar. I said, "Pandit Nehru has said at a recent speech in Indore that the Communists were hanging on to old precepts; I do acknowledge that he has, however, moved a lot away from his earlier beliefs and accepted newer ones. That is why whatever he held forth about Socialism two decades back have now been discarded; in fact, the good words he used to have for the Soviet Union at one time are now history. At that time, he said that black laws should be withdrawn; now they seem to be absolutely necessary for the functioning of his government. In his new avatar, he wants to establish his brand of Socialism with the help of the rajas, Tatas and Birlas. But the Communists will never allow that."
A massive rally presided over by the PSP leader Dr Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, was held on January 12, 1957 in Calcutta. General secretary Ajoy Ghosh, referring to the rally as "historic", said, "It is only the people who can strengthen Left unity fight the misrule of the Congress in Bengal...A radical change is needed in the policies of the Congress government. The way party is ruling the country, it is apparent that only a few rich people and the zamindars are being protected". I was also one of the speakers.
Nehru had termed Left unity as "opportunistic" but we announced at the rally that we were not after only seat adjustments and that our unity had grown out of various agitations and bloody struggles. The rally was also addressed by Hemanta Bose, Satyapriya Banerjee, Lila Roy, Mohit Maitra and Jatin Chakraborty.
In the meantime, we had published the "United Leftist Election Committee Programme". The convenor of the Unified Leftist Election Committee, Mohit Maitra, releasing the programme on January 18, announced, " If a Leftist Government is established in West Bengal, we will take firm steps against corruption and reform the administration, rehabilitate the landless, demarcate the administration from the judiciary, reform the education system, tackle joblessness and ensure increase in salaries of teachers, organize land reforms and distribution, create ceilings for maximum and minimum wages, improve the standard of living of the common man, ensure all-round trade union activity, protect the cottage industry and take care to demarcate land boundaries on the basis of language and geography."
I was again a candidate in the Baranagar Assembly constituency. Since I had to move around a lot, I could not devote much time to Barangar itself but the local party comrades and people worked in my favour with unending enthusiasm. On January 19, I addressed a rally at Baranagar, saying, "Please evaluate the First Five Year Plan on the basis or your own experience. Judge your own buying capabilities and the extent of joblessness that has been created. In the Second Plan period, taxes are being imposed on the people and the indiscriminate printing of currency notes will bring disaster to the people. We should not forget this."
During the campaign, the Congress resorted to its usual dirty politics. In 1956, there was an attempt at resurrection in Hungary. The Congress dubbed even this as a pointer to the failure of the Communist regime there though this did not cut much ice with the public. Congressmen even went to the extent of going from door to door, saying that they would be able to identify who had voted for whom and that the consequences would be dire. Reacting strongly, a joint statement signed by Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, Hemanta Bose, Amar Bose, Tridib Chowdhury (he had just been released from the Portuguese prison in Goa), Mohit Maitra and myself went out on March 31, saying, "The Congress does not stop only at terrorising people for votes. In fact, Congress leaders have been going around town saying that they would be able to identify who had voted for whom. But that is not possible... We appeal to all voters to exercise their franchise without fear."
A sensational disclosure further embarrassed the Congress. West Bengal's first chief minister, Dr Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, who had left the Congress to join the PSP was the joint candidate of the Left and Democratic Front in the second general elections. The Congress openly said that he had betrayed the party to join hands with the Leftists. To this, Dr Ghosh called a press conference and produced a letter written by Gandhiji and said that he had quit because he had refused to yield to pressure to induct a non-Bengali businessman in his ministry. The letter, which Gandhiji is supposed to have written and which Dr Ghosh made public, said, "Sardar (Vallavbhai Patel) has expressed his intention that a Marwari, Badri Das Goenka or Khaitan, should be inducted into your ministry. I feel that this should be done because that would be the correct thing to do." Dr Ghosh said that he had not released the letter so far out of "politeness" but since the Congress was accusing him of betrayal, he had no other options. He added that he had told the then AICC president Acharya Kripalini that he could not possibly carry out such an instruction and was willing to resign on the issue. To add to this, the former secretary of the Congress Legislative Party, Deben Sen, who was now contesting as a PSP candidate, told a rally at Baghbazar on February 18 that most of the Congress legislators had been with Dr Ghosh but backtracked after being "influenced" by two top leaders who were "puppets" in the hands of the Birla empire. It was this letter incident which had led to the fall of the Ghosh government.
The Left United Front contested 234 seats in the Assembly. Of these, the Communist Party fielded 13, PSP 70, Forward Bloc 26, RSP 11, Forward Bloc (Marxist) seven and Independents backed by Leftists had 17 nominees. The Congress contested 251 seats. Of the 36 Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal, the CPI contested 14, PSP six, Forward Bloc four, RSP three while Independents backed by the Leftists had six nominees. The Congress fielded candidates for 35 seats. Our party nominated three women from the Basirhat Lok Sabha (Renu Chakraborty), Kalighat Assembly (Monikuntala Sen) and Panskura Assembly (Geeta Mukherjee) seats.
Just before the elections, we held another mass meeting in Calcutta on February 27 and more than a lakh attended; it was an unqualified success going by the index of those days. The rally was presided over by Syed Nausher Ali and the main speakers were Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, Mohit Maitra, Satyapriya Banerjee, Jatin Chakraborty, Moni Chakraborty and myself.
The elections were held in stages. After the first phase was over, we got news that the ballot boxes used in West Bengal could be opened without breaking the seals. I wrote to the election commissioner on March 5 saying that this had been proved at a demonstration in front of the chief presidency magistrate and a number of candidates on March 3. Saying that this had created a serious situation, I demanded that the voting process should be stopped unless valid ballot boxes were requisitioned. I also demanded reelection in all the places where polling had been held in the first phase. The Election Commissioner directed that extra precautions be taken during polling in West Bengal.
The results started coming out. I defeated the Congress candidate Kanailal Dhar by 9,415 votes. I had got 28, 267 votes to his 18,852 votes. There was a substantial increase in the number of votes polled this time by our party in Baranagar; on the previous occasion, I had got 13,968 votes which meant that this time, I had polled 14299 more votes.
Many of our leaders won, the notables among them being Renu Chakraborty (Basirhat), Kansari Halder (Diamond Harbour), Tridib Chowdhury (Behrampore), Sadhan Gupta (Calcutta North-East), Mohammed Ilias (Howrah), Hiren Mukherjee (Central Calcutta), Provas Chandra Roy (Bishnupur), Niranjan Sen (Bijpur), Harekrishna Konar (Kalna), Prafulla Ghosh (Mahishadal), Hemanta Bose (Shyampukur), Narayan Roy (Vidyasagar), Samar Mukherjee (North Howrah), Hemanta Ghosh (Hasnabad), Gopal Basu (Naihati), Ganesh Ghosh (Belgachia), Monikuntala Sen (Kalighat), Ranen Sen (Maniktala), Somnath Lahiri (Alipur), Bijoy Modak (Balagar), Benoy Chowdhury (Bardhaman), Bankim Mukherjee (Budge Budge) and Sitaram Gupta (Bhatpara).
On the other hand, the Speaker of the Assembly, Congress stalwart Saila Mukherjee, jails minister Jiban Ratan Dhar, the law and law revenue minister Shankar Prasad Mitra were defeated. The chief minister, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, faced a tough competition from our party candidate Md. Ismail in the Bowbazar Assembly constituency; with the help of postal ballots, he won by a margin of only 540 votes. This particular contest was a major talking point in the state at that time. Many of our party workers, particularly those belonging to the minorities, were attacked by Congress antisocials and the police after the result was declared. Dr Roy had been disgraced in his victory. A frustrated man in the face of public disapproval, the chief minister made a dangerous allegation against us in the Assembly on March 21. He said that supporters of Mohammed Ismail had raised slogans in support of Pakistan during the campaign. The police started mass arrests of our supporters belonging to the minorities.
I need to quote some of the relevant portions of the debate in the Assembly of March 21:
I said: "On the one hand, he (Dr Roy) says that the people should vote according to their choice. But this free will cannot be seen anywhere. We have heard such promises earlier. Wherever and whenever we have gone to the people irrespective of caste and creed, they have supported us. In most places, we have been seen to have got their support. The government has spent huge amounts of money and terrorised voters. This government should at least not talk about democracy. This is the way elections are held here. This is the way we have fought elections. This government should desist from making such grand but meaningless statements. That is all we want to say. As for the honourable chief minister, I need to remind him that he is also the home minister. I have told him about this earlier and am repeating this again; the elections are over, please at least ensure that injustice is not heaped on the people any longer. The police should not be let loose on them. We have got what we did not deserve. Some Hindus had voted for you, some Anglo-Indians have also supported you. But there are also who have not backed you. Why should you take it out on them? I am sure some Muslims have also voted for you. In fact, you have been seen moving around with Muslim goondas. "
Dr Roy: "Jyoti Basu has alleged that Muslims are being threatened. But he is not saying that they had been threatened before the elections. He has repeated time and again that Muslims have been threatened only after the elections. If I had wanted to use the police before the elections, would I have allowed my rival to get the number of votes that he finally has?... Sir, I have been told that these people had been saying that if Md. Ismail had won, then as the new chief minister, he would have ensured that the secession og Calcutta in much the same way that parts of Kashmir have already gone to Pakistan. I feel that such a campaign is anti-national, anti-India and that if the police had indeed tried to stop such slogans from being raised, then they should be praised and not criticised.
I will bring a case of rebellion against those we are conducting such a campaign. This is my plan and simple stand."
I replied: "We did not expect this from Dr Roy...We had never imagined that he would stoop to such a level...It is extremely unfortunate that he did not get the number of votes that he expected to, which is why he had gone to the extent of saying that he had himself heard such slogans being raised. I can challenge him that he himself did not hear any such thing. Those who campaigned and voted for us have never raised any such slogans at any meeting."
Dr Roy: "It would be wrong to say that I heard the `Pakistan Zindabad' slogan being raised. What I want to say is that around 8.30 in the evening on March 14, a procession, with Md Ismail in a car, was taken out outside my residence. It was these processionists who raised the slogan."
I said: "This is totally untrue."
Hemanta Ghosal: " A total untruth.., do not utter the untruth."
I said: " I want to assert here that when the demonstration passed the area, the processionists were only raising the Inquilab Zindabad slogan. No other slogan was raised. Bidhan-babu says he heard the slogan sitting in his residence... Will you, Sir, believe him? The chief minister is making untrue statements."
On March 22, I sent a telegram to the Prime Minister saying, "I request you to kindly go through Dr Roy's speech inside the Assembly on March 21. The West Bengal government is trying to create terror in the minds of those who have supported the Leftists in the elections. Dr Roy has been quite blatant in the coercion methods that he has been using against the Muslim community. Your intervention is absolutely necessary to check the antisocials who are being used for this purpose."
We could not from an alternative government in the 1957 elections. It was still apparent that we had weaknesses in the organisation though we had tried our best. But compared to the previous time, the number of our seats had increased. The final tally was:
Total Assembly seats - 251
The Communist Party won 46, PSP 21, Forward Bloc four, RSP three, Forward Bloc (Marxist) two and Independents backed by the Left got five seats. The Congress was victorious in 152 seats.
There were 28 Communist members in the Assembly after the 1952 elections. This had gone up to 46. Apart from this, there were five Independent candidates backed by the party who had won. This was a major forward thrust for the democratic forces as well as our party individually. The number of votes polled by the party was almost doubled; while we had got 7,97,570 votes last time, this time the tally stood at 18,84,723 votes. The Front raised its Assembly membership to 100 from the previous 55. If only we had got some 30-odd seats more, we would have formed the government.
But we could not afford to be complacent. This was to be a time for introspection. We realised that a majority of the labour class, the Bengali middle-class and even government employees had come out in large numbers in support of the Leftists. Most of the refugees had voted for us. The farmers backed us in those areas where we had been able to unmask the so-called Congress land reforms.
Despite this, the Congress won, albeit with the far reduced margin. There were many reasons for this. The first party letter of 1945 said :
"The major reason why the Congress won despite heavy opposition and people's resistance was that our organisation, including that of the Krishak Sabha, was weak. The people, for the lack of a viable alternative, voted widely for the Congress. It must be made clear that we lost in many areas where we thought we were strong. But we could not counter the Congress disinformation and terror tactics. The Congress had not only spent huge party funds and built new roads but also organised relief, sunk tubewells and spent money on various development excuses; we were unable to unmask this corrupt face of the Congress party. The Congress, it should be known, used the election machinery also to set the polling and counting dates according to its own whims.
"We must understand that it is vitally important and necessary to make the people aware that farmers and labourers must be united. But it must also be kept in mind that the bourgeoisie papers played no mean role in supporting the Congress. During the 1952 elections, they had at least put up a charade of impartiality. But this time, they supported the Congress directly and even resorted to disinformation against the Leftists."
It was expected that on the basis of this experience, the unity of the struggling masses would be strengthened, farmers' agitations and organisations be percolated to the last unit in the villages, the problems of the farmers be dealt with in a positive fashion, concerted campaigns be launched against the government's land reforms policy, the party mouthpiece be distributed to people regularly, those sympathizers of the party who had come closer should be inducted, the trade union organisations be strengthened, and a conscious effort be made to ensure that the religious, national and linguistic minorities be given a fair deal.
While we were not successful in West Bengal at that time, Kerala was building a new history. For the first time, the people elected a Communist-led Front government to power in the country and reposed on us a new responsibility for the days ahead. I still remember it was the third week of March 1957. As soon as we learnt of the news, Kaka-babu immediately sent a telegram to Trivandrum saying, "We have just heard of the success of the Communist Party in Kerala. We congratulate you on behalf of members of the party in West Bengal and all democratic forces in the state." The Communists got 60, Independents backed by the Communists got five, PSP nine and the Congress won 43 seats. The total number of seats was 126.
Comrade E M S Namboodiripad was elected the legislative Party leader with Achutya Menon as his deputy. E M S became the first Communist chief minister of the country. The others ministers included K. P. Gopalan, T. A. Majid, P. K. Sathan, Joseph Mundaseri, V. R. Krishna Iyer, K. R. Gouri, Dr A. R. Menon and K. C. George.
On April 7, we called a meeting at the Maidan to celebrate the formation Communist government in the country and the gaining of strength of the CPI in Bengal. The rally, which was presided over by Muzaffar Ahmed, began with a famous song which had been written in the memory of the martyrs of Kerala's Malabar district. I proposed a resolution which said, "We have gone one step ahead with the victory of the Communist Party in Kerala. Our congratulations go out to the people of Kerala and we resolve to forge stronger ties among the democratic and peaceful forces in this state in the fight against imperialism."
After taking over as chief minister, E M S introduced a 16-point programme including major land reforms, farmers' rights on their land and growth of the agricultural industry. He also appealed to the industrialists to take a n active role in progress of the state's economy. The new government started work in earnest. In a matter of few days, the historic Ordinance which gave agricultural rights to 10 lakh labourers and five lakh sharecroppers came into being while one lakh acre agricultural land was distributed to landless farmers. All political detenus were released. The Kerala government also announced that the police would not be used to break any democratic agitation.
All these were noble efforts, particularly compared with the experience of long Congress regimes earlier. This was a major responsibility; on the one hand the government had to function within the bourgeoisie-zamindar political structure while, on the other hand, the onus was on the government to lend a revolutionary role to the people's struggle.
In 1952, the Communist Party had won 27 of the 60 Lok Sabha constituencies that it had contested while out of the 122 it had contested this time, 29 had been elected. But the number of votes polled for the party had doubled.
After the elections, I was unanimously chosen as the leader of the Communist block in the West Bengal Assembly. This was not a new experience for me. However, the number of MLAs was fewer. The previous Assembly had only 30 Communist members. But now we were experiencing a greater interest in our movements with the people flocking to us at every level. The people was keeping a watchful eye on what we were doing inside the Assembly and how we were trying to project the anti-people policies of the Congress government on a day-to-day basis. Obviously, the people expected more from us now.
I was preparing myself mentally for the task ahead. It was important not to let any issue go unnoticed and veer the country's sights and attention to Bengal whenever possible. The deputy leader of the Communist Party in the Assembly was Bankim Mukherjee, while the chief whip was Ganesh Ghosh.
We had been denied the status of Opposition party on ridiculous grounds earlier. All this was done to reduce our importance. But, however, this time good sense prevailed. The Congress government realised that they could not stop us by these tactics and that if they denied us our rightful status, they would only invite the people's wrath.
I wrote to the new Speaker, Sankardas Banerjee, asking for the party's recognition which was given to us on June25, 1957.
Part of the Speaker's ruling went thus :
"In 1952, while the Communist leader had been given the status of leader of the main Opposition party, he had not been recognised as the Leader of the Opposition. We have come to know this from the ruling of Mr Speaker Mukherjee at that time. The member strength of the Communist Party then was 30. But rest of the Opposition had a total strength of 51. Hence the Communist Party could not be deemed as a single largest Opposition party. If the other Opposition groups had formed a party, then that party would have been given recognition. In the present Assembly, the total strength of the Opposition parties and groups stands at 99. Among these, the Communist Party has 51 members; thus even if all the other Opposition parties come together, the Communist Party would still be the single largest. In such a situation, the Communist Party fulfils all the criteria for being recognised as the main Opposition party.
"According to the directive of the ministers of the Crown Act 1957, I thus announce the name of Mr Jyoti Basu as the leader of the Opposition. The rights and privileges of the other Opposition parties shall not be impaired in any way by this announcement and they will continue to enjoy all of them."
In the meantime, the prices had started spiralling again. In May 1957, while announcing the year's Budget, the then Union finance minister Krishnamachari heaped major taxes on tea, coffee, sugar, paper, matchboxes, cement, kerosene and petrol. This anyway had been the trend after Independence with subsidies for businessmen and taxes for the common man being the order of the day. We started organising meetings and rallies against the anti-people tax policy of the Centre. A statement issued by Dr Suresh Banerjee and Hemanta Bose, president and secretary, respectively, of the committee set up to fight inflation and famine, said that the country had been "stunned" by the Budget.
The committee appealed to the people to observe a general strike on May 30, which was organised with great success in the state. In June, a huge rally was taken to the Assembly in protest against the rise in prices and the food crisis. We demanded the opening of the fair price shops throughout the state, wide relief measures, waiver of loans in the affected areas, farm loans on a larger scale, enaction of anti-eviction laws, immediate implementation of the anti-hoarding laws and the promised dole of Rs 25 a month for the jobless.
News started coming in from Nadia, 24-Parganas, Midnapur and Howrah and there was general concern about the food crisis. Reports of nine famine deaths came in the month of August only. The streets of Calcutta were again getting choked with hungry people who were fleeing their villages. Deben Sen, Hemanta Bose, Jatin Chakraborty and I issued a joint statement asking for a session of the Assembly before the Pujas. But this was rejected.
We discussed the food crisis at an extended meeting of the provincial committee of the Communist Party. We held discussions with the all-party committee set up to look into the famine crises. It was decided that a statewise peaceful democratic movement would be started in the middle of September. A statement was issued on behalf of the provincial committee saying that the government would have to take steps to ensure the availability of rice and meat, and other essential commodities at a fair price. The crisis was increasing in proportion by the day, we said.
Law violation programmes began. On the first day on September 16, a batch of 185 volunteers, including Harekrishna Konar and Benoy Chowdhury, were arrested. A total of 450 others were held on the second day. The numbers swelled. We organised a march to the Writers' Buildings in which 1,100 people courted arrest. Niranjan Sen, Lila Roy, Sailaja Devi and I were arrested; we were followed by Ranen Sen, Bijoy Modak, Gopal Basu, Sounak Lahiri, Sukumar Sengupta, Samar Mukherjee, Rabin Mukherjee and Jyoti Devi. Some of us were produced before the chief presidency magistrate of Calcutta on September 19. We were to be kept in judicial custody till October 1.
The food crisis had spread its tentacles to other states too. The central committee of our party at its meeting during October 7-13 adopted a resolution that said "Famine exists in entire West Bengal, a major area of Bihar, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. There have been reports of deaths from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The poor farmers and labourers have been hit the most. The central committee feels that this is the direct fallout of the Congress rule and its policies at the Centre and these states". Steps to counter the crisis were chalked out.
But the Congress governments at the Centre and states remained indifferent. The only exception was the Communists-led Kerala government which had introduced many steps to alleviate the famine-like situation. One fair price shop per 500 families, the setting up of all-party food committees in the villages and introduction of family identity cards were some of these. The people of Kerala heaved a sigh of relief though that state was one of the most crisis-ridden. Prices were also checked. The central committee of the party congratulated the Kerala government on this achievement.
The refugee problem was to now rear its head in Bengal. The Congress leaders, in their hurry to get to the seat of power, had agreed to Partition and made tall promises that all the minorities of East Bengal who would cross over would be rehabilitated in the state. But the promises were made only to be broken. There was no doubt that the rehabilitation of 40 lakhs refugees was not an easy task. But the Congress leaders did not even bother to spare a thought for all those who had been forced to leave their homes and hearth and cross over.
It struck nobody as a good idea that these people would have been an asset for the state had they been brought into the mainstream of the political, economic and social agenda of the state.
But this was not to be because the Congress government was by nature against the people. Thus it never considered the refugee as an asset but on the other hand looked at them with the contempt that is deserving of a nagging beggar. Thus the policy on refugee was simple; the only way to handle a beggar was to give him some alms.
The Congress government did not lend a helping hand to the 29 lakh refugees who had already arrived; almost half of them led a niggardly life or died of hunger. Of the rest, two lakhs were housed in government camps, where good administration and availability of basic needs were given a go-by. While these people led their days amid abject poverty in these camps, lakhs of refugees who did not get a single currency note from the government formed their own colonies after a major movement against the landlord lobby. Even then the government did not agree to give them land rights over these plots.
Their problems were compounded when the Congress government said that there was no alternative but to push these refugees outside the state. No surveys were done, no planning system was adopted and suddenly the refugees found themselves to be victims of a sudden decision. Even we in the Opposition were kept in the dark about this decision. We were not even told what steps have been taken to implement the refugee rehabilitation programme. We made it clear that the government should come out with the facts and say whether it had been stretched to its last while taking this decision.
But the government continued to be indifferent. The Centre was then planning the Dandakaranya project for the rehabilitation of the refugees in West Bengal. Bijoy Singh Nahar of the Congress brought a non-official resolution in the Assembly on July 5, 1957. Dandakaranya was an area overlapping Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh and comprised about 81 square miles. The Congress legislators and leaders tried to establish the viability of this project through some ridiculous reasoning; it would be quite pointless to even discuss them now. I will only communicate what the Communist party had to say in the Assembly.
On July 25, 1957, responding to the debate on the resolution, I said "We do not even know anything about the scheme. We have only read some headlines from various newspapers. We cannot make out anything about the Dandakaranya project. We have heard about the area and its size but we have no idea about the collective planning about the project... There is nothing in this that we can welcome though this resolution says that we are all welcoming it - where are the so-called proposals? I think it is utter callousness which has brought about these proposals. I believe that we should work to a certain plan and go step by step. We must earmark who will live where, how many people will be employed in cottage industry, who will go into big industry...We do not have any facts. We are rushing this through. We are being forced to accept that we are welcoming this. We cannot do that.
"...We must be told about the what survey has been done, how much money will be spent, what has been the planning. But Mr Bijoy Singh Nahar is saying nothing. What we say is simple - bring these facts to us and then we can discuss the proposal.
"...If you ask me whether I am against the movement of refugees outside the state as a matter of policy, I will continue to say that I have nothing against Bengalis moving out... I do not believe in such a policy but they should go only if you can find an alternative living arrangement for them."
"Gadadhar Dutta, MLA, Orissa Assembly Party secretary - He has said that the Rs 5 crores which is being spent for the last two years for these refugees will go to waste since the areas are inhabitable. His letter has come out in newspapers and all of you are aware of it.
"Suddenly in the year 1957, you happen to realise that there were no places for the refugees to stay in Bengal. If that is the logic then I can say that if Prafulla Chandra Sen's family planning scheme fails and if the population increases at this rate, then what you will do after 10 years? If there is a rise of 50 lakhs in the population, where you will send them? Will you throw them into the Bay of Bengal?...I am suddenly told that the state has reached a saturation point. Do you know the meaning of saturation point? We do not have cottage industry, we have not even tried to recover land...
"You have not gone in for any scientific planning. If you had been sincere enough, then you would have set up committees and entrusted scientists to carry on survey work. But you did not even realise the gravity of the situation. The best alternative is always to come to a solution by which the people of a certain province can be allowed to continue to stay there with the consent of the Union Government. We may be making tall claims on India being one but it is a fact that everybody would prefer to live in his own province. I know this is difficult but at least if you had made a fair attempt, then the refugees would have at least felt that you had given it an honest try. But you people did not even make any such attempt.
"... It is taking an extreme position to say that Bengal cannot afford to house a single more refugees. We must try to understand the attitude and the mental state of the refugees first. Many of their experiences outside the state have been bad. If they have to go outside, then they will have to go anyway; but we have to be first satisfied that there is no place for them in Bengal. From whatever I have studied and learnt, I cannot accept this... From whatever information I have got from the government, I am told that a mandatory 40000 square miles out of the total 80,000 square miles will have to be reserved for forests while tribals would have to live in the rest of the area. If Dandakaranya had been such a nice place, then the people of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar would not have flocked to Calcutta. In fact, people from Calcutta would have gone and stayed there. Since they do not get sufficient food there, these people are rushing in Calcutta and the industrial belt. In the last 10 years, you have not been able to improve the situation. That is why we cannot accept this proposal."At this time the government suddenly brought in the Amendment Bill on refugees. We protested strongly and under pressure, the government had to delete the clause relating to eviction. The agitation was partially successful. A huge procession was taken out on July 10, 1957 to the Assembly. When it reached the premises, the Opposition members came out of the chamber and congratulated the rallyists. The agitation subsequently spread its influence and grew stronger.
© Jyoti Basu 1998
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