Siddhartha Chatterjee
Land Reform: The Left’s big lie
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

The Stillborn Baby of the Left

I could not control my laughter after reading an article in Hindu. It was one of those Wikileaks articles where an American diplomat described his meeting with Sri Prakash Karat, the grand architect of the series of self-defeating moves for Left during the last six years. Shri Karat went on to claim that land reform was the strength of the CPI (M) in West Bengal and it has “increased agricultural production, made the state into India’s largest rice producer, and demonstrated that small farms can be productive.” These are tall claims and like most of the tall claims it is too far removed from the hard ground of reality.

It was Adolf Hitler who managed to communicate the infamous “Big Lie” propaganda technique :

that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily…. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

Left’s love for Nazi propaganda techniques is only matched by their hatred for Hitler ever since that mad man attacked Russia. The so-called long-term success of the land reform in West Bengal is non-existent but this lie was repeated so religiously that this non-existent success has entered common knowledge of the well-informed Indians. This post is an attempt to remove the cover of that big lie and examine the land-reform policies of West Bengal governments as well as it’s immediate and long-term consequences.

What exactly happened?
Land reform is a necessity in India. For those who are concerned with micro-economic concerns and property rights, the demand for land reform present significant policy challenges. In Bengal, demand for a comprehensive land reform existed since mid-1930s. As early as the 1940’s Sri Mahalanabish established a series of measures to calculate net agricultural yields in a bid to understand land layout and agricultural productivity. In 1946 the well known Tevaga agitation forced Congress leaders to acknowledge the importance of land reform. With independence in 1947 the Congress leadership inherited a big country with a semi-feudal system.

In Bengal, the large land-owners were called Zamindars (we will look at Zamindari system later in the post). After independence, they were called Jotedars which, I guess, was not feudal enough to offend the sensitivities of Calcutta-based intellectuals. These land-owners were far removed from actual work of agriculture which was accomplished by a mixture of hard laborers (paid in money) and share-croppers also called Bargadars (paid with a share of the crops yielded). There existed a nominal legal contract which would not force the Jotedars to pay fair share of the crop specially when Jotedars were also politically powerful.

In 1955, Land Reforms Act of India was passed. According to this law, share-croppers would possess right to cultivate the land they were cultivating provided they supply a share of the crop to the land-lord. This right is inheritable as long as share-croppers registered themselves with the government. However, the law has a provision that if the land-owners want to cultivate the land they can throw out the share-croppers. What happened in the ground was this: land owners still could throw out share-croppers using muscle power and then claim in the revenue court that they were cultivating the land themselves. Some uncharitable people from the Left argued that it was Jotedars who formed the rural segment of the Congress support base and this loop-hole was deliberately introduced to keep them happy. This conspiracy theory, however, does not explain why the Left lent unconditional support to the Land Reforms Act, 1955.

The other deficiency of this law was that powerful Jotedars could threaten the share-croppers with dire consequences if they register themselves with government and an insensitive administration did not find their conscience disturbed.

The law, as one would expect, did not change anything in power structure of rural Bengal. The excesses of land-owners allowed the rise of Naxalbari agitation led by leaders like Kanu Sanyal and Charu Mazumdar during late sixties. In 1967, the hard-line leader Pramod Dasgupta selected two of his colleagues to become the cheerleaders of the land reform during the first phase of not-so-successful United Front government. Hare Krishna Konar, reportedly a very sharp mind, used government power to recover “benami” land (land held using false name to circumvent land-ceiling limit). Benoy Choudhury, the other cheerleader (and an example of communist recruit from Anushilan Samiti/Jugantar), was tasked to distribute nearly 4000 KM-square of land to the land-less using existing legal means. After 1977, when Left came back to dominate West Bengal government, landscape changed by the arrival of refugees from Bangladesh. In June 1978, Benoy Choudhury led a consortium of Left parties to organize a workshop on land reform and it was decided that a new social engineering called “Operation Barga” was to be initiated.

Under this operation, traditional red-tapes of the bureaucracy would be side-stepped and government officers would go to the areas with higher number of unregistered share-croppers and register them. Bengal Land Holding Revenue Act (1979) as well as Revenue Rules Act (1980) provided legal basis for Operation Barga and closed the loophole of the 1955 law. These acts also provisioned a 50-75% of the crop for the share-croppers.

Nobody would disagree that these provisions were fair. In fact, any political party irrespective of ideological agenda should have carried out these reforms as it would have resulted fair implementation of the law. However, in their zeal to show how peasant-friendly the Left were, the government amended the existing law to provide priority rights for Bargadars if the land he was working on was about to be sold.

We will see how this provision was repeatedly abused to reinforce the rural status quo.

How could these state laws go unchallenged when Dr. Ambedkar repeatedly stressed property right to be included among fundamental rights of our constitution? Very few people notice that after coming to power in 1977, Janata Dal government passed 44th constitutional amendment that removes property rights from list of fundamental rights.

The immediate impact was encouraging. While total count of bargadars was estimated to be 35 lakh, by 1982, 12 lakh bargadars were registered. But the sheen began to wear off during late eighties. Between 1982 and 1992, only additional 2.6 lakh bargadars were recorded. This is little over 30% if one accepts the estimation of 35 lakh by the count of 1982. A study done by Banerjee and Ghatak in 1996 estimated that agricultural output rose by 36% due to registration although there are valid grounds to criticize the report. If agricultural output indeed rose by that much why does it not have any significant impact on poverty reduction? This report argues on the basis of data that Bengal land reform actually impacted agricultural productivity in a negative way. World bank presentation finds that the impact of Bengal land reform on poverty reduction is significantly less compared to the poverty reductions in other states where land reforms made little headway.

In a study prepared by National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, it was claimed that

However, the most remarkable achievement of the programme was that it enhanced social status of the bargadars and security of tenancy.

But there are others who claimed that reaching such conclusions are premature since,

In 2003, a comprehensive survey by the State Institute of Panchayats & Rural Development (SIPRD) warned that as much as 14.37 per cent of registered bargadars had been dispossessed of their barga land, 26.28 per cent were suffering from a sense of insecurity that they might lose it in the near future, and 13.23 per cent of pattadars had also been alienated of the land they had received.

By mid-nineties, operation barga fizzled out. By 2002, CPI(M) central committee recognized the fizzle and tried to re-launch the campaign since the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance had provided a political platform to these sections who had formed a “consolidated alliance against the Left” .

This time more attention was devoted to the distribution of land mass that was over the ceiling (as defined in the legislation). Ex-CM Sri Buddhadeb Bhattacharya even declared that unused government land would be leased to less-privileged section of the society. Eventually this noble effort would meet the same fate that every noble effort initiated by government face. But this effort was blurred compared to the disastrous and half-baked land-acquisition effort Left government was undertaking.

“History repeats itself”, Karl Marx asserted, “first as a tragedy, second as farce”. Yes, Mr. Marx, your followers proved it with land reform in West Bengal.  It is tempting to blame a lack of political will and inefficiencies of government machinery. But I would disagree for I believe that the faults are inherent in the Marxist vision of society and economics. In the next section, I will explore how these faults killed the yet-to-be-born land-reform effort that could have provided a model for other Indian states.

Both Tragedy and Farce

In Annapurnamangal (or Annadamangal), a poem written to praise Devi Annapurna, eighteenth century poet Bharat Chandra Roy describes the tale of a traditional boatman who helps the goddess to cross the river. Recognizing her when the boatman started to worship her, she asked the boatman to ask for a boon, the smart fellow asked that his children must always get to eat rice mixed with milk. The story is important because it conveys something else about Bengal. The concept of prosperity in Bengali perception is always deeply interlinked with abundance of milk and rice (as well as fish). Considering that vast portion of combined Bengal is basically extremely fertile Gangetic-Brhmaputra delta, Bengali obsession with those three foods is natural. But, this also means land is just not equivalent to bank balance in common Bengali psyche, there is a very strong emotional attachment to the land. Any discussion about land reform can not ignore this reality but I am quiet sure that any Bengali who has not see a lush green paddy field would not even understand this.

However, in Marxist world-view, land is one more input to the great machine collective production. So, in their desperate quest for social equality, Marxists struggled to find every bit of resource and find a scalable way to distribute them. In this misguided venture, eventually they consolidated all the resources in few hands and distribute poverty equally. But, even then, Bengal is a special case.

They had a complex relationship with Zamindars or Jotedars. To understand this we must look at how this system started.

The Turk-Afghan forces led by a certain Bakhtiyar Khilji invaded Bengal in thirteenth century. Successive Turk-Afghan dynasties began to allocate land to multiple loyalists called Bhuyans for the invaders did not know how to run administration. As the central authority lost it’s power, 12 of these bhuyans became more powerful than the central authority. When Mughal power conquered these overlords (both Hindus and Muslim), they let the bhuyan model continue as long as the revenue continued to flow. The British, who followed, found that the bhuyan system was similar to the Laird system prevalent in Scotland/England. So they kept it going until they were faced with the famine of 1770. The extent of famine shook the British and after a disastrous experiment with “tax farmers” Charles Cornwallis advised British parliament to enforce a law which yielded in a contract between East India company and landlords better known as Permanent Settlement of Bengal. This forced the British government to take note of Zamindari (ability to collect per-determined amount of tax from a land) as a private property that can be brought and sold.

Zamindari turned out to be a very safe investment for those natives who were quick to learn the language and enter business agreement with the company. This gave rise to a new prosperous class who used to own Zamindaris which used to run by men known as Diwans. The real Zamindars rarely visited their Zamindaris as long as Diwan was keeping the Calcutta-based masters happy. It was the reason why Rabindranath Tagore wrote very sarcastically – those who would not touch soil of the land with their feet are masters of the land today. The Bhuyan system itself was not very humane but it can be argued that Bhuyans and the overseers under them understood agriculture or left agriculture to those who understand it. Some peasants even owned the land and regardless of the barbaric loot knew how to continue and improvise their trade – farming. But Zamindari system was very much akin to bunch of stock brokers buying a steel plant because, well, it may be a good investment. A landless farmer, on the other hand, had very few incentives to improve on his trade.

But it was the very beginning of loss of agricultural productivity. Lot of Zamindars could not keep their cool given all the things money can afford. They were attracted by noble enterprises such as polygamy, becoming patrons of prostitution (well, in the name of art) and employing hapless women as keeps (and much later losing Zamindaris over film/stage actresses). It is not unusual for a Zamindar to have more than two dozens of offspring near his deathbed. But hey, there is a reason Bengalis survived three deadly famines, two world wars and one partition, right?

So Zamindars began to distribute their land resources among sons (since the Zamindari offered very limited scope of distribution). Few generations down the line, almost all of the land was divided into multiple segments, each small segments owned by one miserable individual of a large family. The end result was that each successive generation, people had lesser land to cultivate.

This also created significant friction and small scale rural violence to get control for the land. Curiously, this problem had a religious dimension.During Turk-Afghan/Mughal rule, most Bhuyans were Muslims although sizable Hindus did become Bhuyans. However, during the British rule, while Muslims refused to deal with the company, Hindu banias did not have any such qualms and they cornered most of the Zamindaris. As the old-hand aristocrat Muslims lost their power, the others they employed as private army lost their power. Since Zamindars were under British protectorate and they were the only ones who could afford the, they had to seek employment with the Zamindars. Some found employment as enforcers for the Zamindar but most of them had to take odd jobs, sometimes as a daily helper. The grievances of the old aristocrats were the main drivers for the Muslim league. So when the league sponsored genocide in Noakhali, some intellectuals from Left tried to paint this as an expression of peasant anger against evil landlords. The story did not work then although in today’s age of secular propaganda, I guess it would have gained some traction. But I digress.

By 1947, the part of Bengal province that was in India still had big land holders but significant amount of land was held by middle class working men who inherited the land and used share-cropping system because they had no no knowledge of agriculture. It is at this juncture Land Reforms Act of 1955 unleashed experimental land reforms for the first time. The large land holders could use their vast resources to manipulate their case in the revenue court. The middle class land holders however could not muster enough resources or influence to fight their case. And thus they were slowly squeezed out of their picture. Some sold their land to the big jotedars. In other words, a half-baked reform plan helped rich jotedars to turn into land-sharks. The share-cropper lost his land and become a day-laborer. But this was only beginning in bizarre exercise befitting a Tughlaq.

In 1967-68, Hare Krishna Konar and Choudhury immersed themselves in do-goodism and Calcutta-based intellectuals experienced multiple orgasms over it. It was a noble deed but was it smart? The land was distributed to the people most of whom had no experience with land-cultivation or could not access to the capital that is required to start agriculture. So while Panjab was experiencing “green revolution”, the new owner of the land in the Bengal took the land and sold it to those who could afford it – rich jotedars.

During 1978-81, the operation Barga was smartly conceived. But how much long term real value did it deliver? By late ninteties, only 30% of the estimated share croppers registered. Why did not 70% of them not trust the government initiative? There was only one reason – by the end of eighties, rich jotedars figured out how to become the party leader of the peasants. No matter how hard the communist leaders try to paint themselves as figures of austerity, the ugly truth is that a lot of communist leaders came from well-to-do families. Sri Jyoti Basu’s father Nisha Basu was a very well known business man and had significant land interest in east Bengal (I am not implying that Sri Basu was not serious in his effort towards land reform). In the rural segment, rich jotedars slowly took over the party of the poor at the very moment a city like Kolkata was being taken over land mafia (called “promoters”) blessed by the party. As the party made effort to merge into the government, most share-croppers saw no difference between a rich jotedar and the government.

But what happened to the 30% that registered? Did they live happily ever after in the paradise of the peasants? Those who were working for rich jotdars found themselves at the short end of the stick since it is so easy to bribe the honest officers of the government run by the party of the people. The others who had to deal with small scale jotedars found that in a favorable situation certain transgressions like not providing part of the crop to the jotedar or sub-leasing their land to the third party or poor production (since no-one could evict them) are irresistible.

But at least some barga-dars became land owners, did they not? Some of them did and then sold the land. In at least in one case, the barga-dar found himself owning more land that the law would have permitted (by now, a seasoned reader should understand that he became leader of the poor). But more interesting patterns followed. Some big jotedars, who now found that becoming land shark was a profitable vocation, bribed share-cropper of other small jotedars to produce less yield or even destroy the crop.

When such harassment become regular, a small jotedar would have to try to sell the land. Since a bargadar has the priority and no other buyer would try to buy such property, the seller has to agree to whatever price the bargadar is prepared to pay. The trouble is that even the bargadar has no access to capital. No traditional bank would enter a sector and provide loan only to find that the loan is waived at the whim of the politicians. Could alternate financial schemes be arranged? The 1978 law did talk about a provision for some kind of government-run “land corporation” and government could never afford enough cash to implement it. What about the indirect financing or private capital with government guarantee? Well, if you are a Calcutta-based lefty intellectual worth your entitlement, you will recognize such suggestions for what they are – capitalist conspiracies. But I digress.

What happened to the new land owner then? He had two options. One was to go to the rich jotedar and sell his land. Or he could go and borrow money against this land. Either way system allowed a class of jotedars to become super rich at the expense of peasants and middle class. Despite all this hoopla surrounding land reform and social engineering, all Left did was to create a new class of Zamindars some of whom were the very villains people wanted to get rid of.

In a 2002 report co-authored by Left front minister Surya Kant Misra identified this new class of Zamindars as “rural rich” and accused them of helping (hold your breath) Trinamool Congress and BJP. This new level of absurdity did not help them in retaining any support base. Given the kind of self-important intellectuals surround Mamata Banerjee, we can not expect change that would be deeper than superficial. For real land reform we probably have to wait for few more generations.