APKS Conference in East Godavari
For Land and Liberty

Nainalachetty Murthy

Under Chandrababu Naidu's police raj in Andhra Pradesh, even a regular district conference of the CPI(ML)-led Andhra Pradesh Kisan Sabha (APKS) in East Godavari could be held only as an act of all-out defiance. A few days before the conference scheduled for October 28 and 29, the district officials clamped prohibitory orders banning any meeting, even an indoor one. This they often do as a routine exercise: say, under the pretext of a PWG's AIPRF rally in distant Hyderabad or to stem the tide of anti-price hike protests once the by-elections are over, and so on. But this time in East Godavari it turned out to be no routine affair. They were mainly targeting the APKS.

Their definite designs against APKS became clear when the SP's office started refusing permission for the rally and the conference. More than that the local police officials went around in the Kisan Sabha strongholds in vehicles just on the eve of the conference and announced over loudspeakers that prohibitory orders have been imposed and nobody should venture out to attend any rally or conference. They contacted all the local lorry owners and threatened them that they should not give out their lorries for hire to the Kisan Sabha activists for use as a mode of transport for the people. A cinema hall owner whose theatre had been hired as the venue for the conference was threatened by the police higher-ups and he was forced to refuse it to the Kisan Sabha at the last moment.

The local TDP MLA from Pratipadu constituency took a big delegation of landlords from key villages to the district police officials and demanded that the police prevent the 'conference of the Naxalites'. The ruling partymen in the villages - the TDP members of village and mandal panchayats - started terrorising the people everywhere that the conference has been banned and that curfew would be imposed and that going for the rally would mean facing police firing and arrests etc. Thus the whole nexus of landlords-TDP-police against whom the APKS had intensified the struggles in recent times swung into action trying desperately to build up a powerful opposition to the holding of the conference at Yeleswaram. The idea was to create some terror and disrupt the mobilisation or to bring it down as much as possible. Hence it was quite natural that tension gripped the small Yeleswaram town on the eve of the conference.

But hoping to ban a big event like the district conference of Kisan Sabha which has a huge mass base locally would be a stupid thing for them even to attempt. The Party and the Kisan Sabha promptly declared that they would defy the prohibitory orders, court arrest en masse and conduct the conference inside the jails. And in that spirit all the local organisations of the Party and village committees of the Kisan Sabha started preparations in full gear for a showdown. Only after seeing this, the administration made a partial retreat and gave permission for a public meeting and the conference barely 12 hours before but still maintained that they would not allow the procession. Despite all the threats and obstructions more than 4000 people poured into Yeleswaram town ready to face any eventuality and when they did take out the rally the large posse of policemen became mere spectators. Addressing the rallyists, senior Polit Bureau member of the Party Comrade Nagbhushan Patnaik wondered whether it was a democratic state or police state in Andhra Pradesh and recalling the glorious tradition of mass resistance by the heroic peasants of the State, he congratulated the rallyists for living up to that tradition by defying the police.

The landlord-TDP-police wrath against APKS is not without reason. Not only the peasant movement under CPI(ML)-APKS leadership has registered dramatic recovery in the last couple of years but they are mounting a growing political challenge to TDP in the district. Only the other day, the Kisan Sabha mobilised the rural poor and gheraoed both the TDP MP and MLA. This year itself APKS has five major land struggles to its credit, it braved severe repression in these struggles, the leaders even suffered minor fractures in police tortures but unlike in the past there was no setback due to repression. Rather the resistance developed to a higher plane.

The APKS has come a long way from a situation of near-total collapse in 1991-92 due to extremely severe enemy crackdown: the leaders were all arrested and held for long periods under TADA, hundreds of activists who led heroic land struggles in the late eighties had to face arrests and torture and not a single initiative or struggle, even perfectly legal ones, was allowed by the police. After the village-level and generalised direct counter mobilisation of the landowners and their attempts to mobilise goondas and vigilante forces etc. were smashed by the Party, they mounted political pressure and operated through the police machinery and through a conspiracy they decided to finish off the movement by targeting the leaders and putting them in jail for years. They succeeded but only for a while. It took a dauntless battle: both legal and mass-political, and a down-to-earth reorganising. Like Phoenix the movement is back. Since it had struck deeper roots among the poor peasants and agricultural labourers through several militant land struggles right through the decade of '80s, the revival has been dramatic though the full potential of movement has to be recovered yet. The struggles have also spread to quite a few new mandals. The challenge at present is to raise the peasant movement of East Godavari to a qualitatively higher new level. The Conference was for rallying the cream of the movement to discuss and to collectively address this challenge.

A total of 375 delegates from 52 villages participated in the Conference which had a fairly broad representational character. All the members of a village committee - the lowest unit of organisation of the Kisan Sabha but the centre of leadership in a village which is duly constituted through election in the village GB meeting and which usually comprises 5-10% of the membership in that village - were to be delegates to the conference. This way some 280 delegates were there from 32 village committees. The rest were nominated delegates either from rest of the 20 villages where village committees have not yet been formed or their functioning have not been regularised, or, in a few cases, there were some special nominations from middle sections who have come forward to work under the banner of the Kisan Sabha. These delegates discussed and decided upon some key challenges confronting the APKS.

The Land Struggle

The main challenge confronting both the Party and the Kisan Sabha at the present juncture is to deepen the land struggle while simultaneously launching some movements on development issues. But confusions abound on this question of combining land struggle and struggles for development. There are some wrong notions that we have more or less exhausted the scope for land struggles in this region and it is time to make a shift to developmental issues. Some would however prefer such a shift because they are confident that such a shift would help in winning over the middle sections. Of course, these confusions were of marginal influence. But the real problem was the complexity of the land issue itself as well as of suitable tactics for this stage.

In fact, in Andhra Pradesh, as in most other States, the landowners were given ample advanced warning before land reforms legislations so that they could effect land transfers. The legislations themselves had lots of exemptions and other loopholes, the records were not properly maintained and the identification of ceiling-surplus lands was tokenist. Where such surplus lands were identified the landowners went to the court and the litigations dragged on and on. The Land Reforms Tribunals and Land Reforms (Appellate) Tribunals only served to put the disputes into legal cold storage rather than expediting their solution. The benami and other forms of land transfers even in the case of ceiling-surplus and disputed lands were overlooked and even registered by a revenue administration fully neutralised by the landed gentry. And the administration considers the fresh land accumulation and concentration by newly emerging kulaks as something fully legitimate and totally falling outside the purview of land reforms. While the big bourgeoisie was ready to be content if its economic objective - i.e. establishing a land tenure pattern dominated by owner-cultivators - was even partly fulfilled without expropriation of the landlord class and carried out 'land reforms' in such a manner that left ample space for the landed gentry to comply by effecting transfer of ceiling-surplus land in multiple ways, the landlords had quickly learnt even to make use of the legal-bureaucratic land reforms administration machinery and its convoluted process to safeguard their lands from the sporadic peasant struggles seen all over Andhra. Hence, like in Bihar, land reforms objectively remains a major agenda in the State and land struggle remains the fundamental component of the revolutionary agrarian movement but, after all these developments the land issue remains ever more complicated.

While the CPI-CPI(M) have led the poor peasantry into the blind alley of legalism and left them at the mercy of a high-handed bureaucracy, the PWG enforces land redistribution through sheer red terror without any direct role for the mass of poor peasantry so much so that this 'land reforms through AK-47' becomes so meaningless that even after the landlords have been chased away to nearby cities thousands of acres of land remain fallow because the local poor peasants do not come forward to cultivate them for fear of police in a situation of dual terror. Even where they do take possession of the lands, whether the lands will remain under their control or landlords will recapture the lands depends not on the organised resistance of the peasantry but the stability of the PWG dalam operating in the area. The experience of our land struggles in East Godavari - where the village committees of the peasant association, which represent the collective power of the organised poor peasantry, have come to play a crucial role in land seizure and its retention - is a positive negation of both these approaches.

It is often because they are unable to face the organised might of the landless and poor peasants at the village level on their own that the landlords run to the police and the mandal or district revenue officials. In some cases, after their counter offensive is crushed at the village level they even come down for a compromise. But where the police and the revenue department decide to throw their full weight behind the landlords it is a different question. There we require a different strategy.

Correctly handling the administration, which operates in league with landlords, ruling partymen, anti-socials and other vested interests, is important for the long-term victory of the peasant movement on land. Land seizure through frontal assault on the landlords without bothering about the legality, courts and the revenue department etc. is quite possible in many villages given the strength of the peasant association. Actually, the land question is more a question of power, local power. Through sustained political work and organisational preparation the consciousness of the land-hungry poor peasantry can be raised to that level. But even when the requisite consciousness prevails one has also to take into account the overall balance of power. Taken as a whole, at this stage, the movement cannot totally by-pass in all cases the administration and the courts. In some instances, it is necessary to make out a strong case, through propaganda and representation, against the possession of ceiling-surplus land by the landlords or against their illegal occupation of vested lands as the case may be. As our experiences show, in some cases, where it is needed for a clearly defined limited objective, it may be necessary to go to the courts also, if only the landlords' hands can be tied down for a while, or if it can help keeping the dispute alive.

The police-administration, when they let loose repression, always do it under the pretext that we take law into our hands. Despite the landlords violating every law in the book, despite their illegal possession of ceiling-surplus land and their illegal occupation of public lands, when the peasant fight for their rights and justice, they are held guilty of taking law into their hands and violating law and order, making a mockery of justice. This is the reason why the Kisan Sabha conference launched an ideological counter-offensive with the demand that, as in the case of industrial disputes the police should keep out of the land disputes.

In the past, almost all the land struggles primarily took the form of village level resistance. In recent times we have sought to combine it with some political intervention from above. This has proved to be quite useful in sustaining the local resistance. The struggles too have been given an organised shape. Instead of the struggle depending upon one or two organisers or charismatic leaders who lead from the forefront - wherein it becomes easier for the enemies to target those leaders for repression and derail the struggle, the struggles are being conducted under the banner of struggle committees. Other preparatory work like formally enlisting members for the land struggle under the struggle committee, training a local militia for resistance etc. ensures that the initiative in the course of the struggle remains with a broader section of the participants locally.

The Conference also underlined the need for flexible tactics including timely retreats where necessary, principled compromises etc. The tendency for land seizure at one go in all cases and a sense of quick victory have been discouraged. Certain land struggles may be very protracted. The recent victory in one of the land struggles in Pothaluru village may be a case in point where the victory has been won almost after eight years since the struggle was first initiated. In the same village we had to beat a retreat in another case involving the joint family lands of a backward caste kulak and the showdown has been postponed for another day.

The purely economistic view of land struggle is to be rejected which leads to legalism and all sorts of unprincipled compromises and sometimes even violations in class line. The other variant of this view holds that land is no longer the main economic agenda. A fierce land struggle against kulaks, even if hardly 30-40 acres are involved, galvanises the entire landless and poor peasantry, sharpens the class antagonism and brings about a polarisation like no other 'greater' economic or developmental issue possibly can. A good example is the ongoing land struggle against the family of Kajuluru TDP MLA in Gollappalam village where a running battle against the goondas of the MLA who are desperately trying to take back the land already seized by the Kisan Sabha, has had a tremendous impact in the entire mandal and even in the adjoining areas and has brought about a quick expansion of the Kisan Sabha among dalit agricultural labourers in this irrigated belt. The land struggles against kulaks have a tremendous potential.

The Conference called for amendments to the existing land reforms acts to plug all the loopholes. One of the amendments demanded was that once the land is declared surplus the landowners can go to the courts only after forfeiting their right on the surplus land. Through its own surveys, the Kisan Sabha has exposed that hundreds of acres of bhoodan land have not been redistributed to the poor in this area but are under the illegal occupation of the landlords. Due to protests from the Kisan Sabha, the district administration has ordered an enquiry into this. The Conference also declared that if these lands are not immediately taken into its possession by the administration and redistributed to the poor within a reasonable timeframe, the Kisan Sabha would directly seize the lands.

The Conference identified instances of ceiling-surplus lands in more than a dozen villages and resolved to launch struggles for their seizure in the next phase. The Conference also decided to form a Land Survey and Policy Committee of the Kisan Sabha at the district level to carry out more systematic survey to identify cases for land struggle, concretely analyse each and every case and to evolve broad guidelines for suitable tactics in the struggle.

Struggle for Development

The struggle for development has entered the discourse of the peasant movement in East Godavari in a big way in recent times. The struggles on developmental issues have lots of potential but also several pitfalls. These struggles by themselves, unless linked up with land struggles, cannot deepen our hold on the peasantry and might even shift the class focus of the peasant movement. The challenge is to identify and articulate those issues of development which can unleash the initiative of the poor peasantry, especially those landless peasants who have benefited from our land distribution.

By development struggles we mean those immediate issues by concentrating on which the income of the poor peasants can go up by Rs.10000-15000 a year. As a mass organisation the Kisan Sabha is responsible for fighting to improve the economic well-being of its members and the above objective is well within the realm of the possible as experience in some villages shows. But more important thing is the political struggle that can be developed centring around development. For instance, the credit from the agricultural cooperative banks are cornered away by the kulaks of dominant castes like Kapus who are strong in both TDP and Congress(I) and who dominate the cooperative societies. The Kisan Sabha has raised the demand that more than 50% of the cooperative credit should go to poor peasants belonging to SC and OBC communities. This demand is politically sensitive and has raised the hackles in the TDP camp. Most of the general developmental demands are also posed in such a manner so that they can constitute the basis for a sharp political struggle centring around panchayat institutions.

It is the lack of adequate attention for political struggle at the village and mandal level which was responsible for our not-so-satisfactory performance in the elections. From about an average of 6-7% our vote in our villages went up to about 15% and only in a few villages which are our strongholds it was up to 30%. Because of the neglect of panchayat politics, we were able to win only a few panchayats and mandal seats. Even in those villages where we had conducted fierce land struggles we remained a minority and the middle sections were with TDP because of TDP's hold over panchayat institutions and their control over the flow of developmental funds. After almost two years, due to corruption and non-performance of the TDP leaderships in panchayat institutions, the middle sections are getting disillusioned. For instance, in Pratipadu mandal, out of an allocation of Rs.40 lakhs only Rs.2 lakhs have been spent. The Kisan Sabha Conference decided to organise parallel people's panchayats when the mandal panchayats meet, just opposite to their venue to highlight corruption and inaction, to popularise proposals for schemes locally worked out by the people and to stress the principle of people's supervision over panchayats.

Apart from the yoke of semi-feudal landownership, the poor peasantry is also groaning under the other yoke of capital. Their deprivation under developing market relations is due to the nexus between bureaucrat capital and kulaks. Their struggle for capital resources is inevitably a struggle against this nexus, against institutions of bureaucrat capital like banks and kulaks who dominate cooperative banks. The kulaks corner away all the capital resources and the poor are left only with some meagre IRDP loans. The bank officials contemptuously refuse term loans for the poor even against collateral. It took a militant demonstration by the Kisan Sabha against the local lead bank in Kotanandur to make them say yes to the demands for credit by the poor peasants.
Irrigation development is the major demand here since our work area is predominantly uplands.

Irrigation loans are most sought after but they don't meet the full expenses of digging a borewell and setting up a pumpset and one of the key demands of the Kisan Sabha is related to this. The Conference has also reiterated general demands like implementation of Bhagiratha and Kattu Chinta irrigation projects. Construction of check dams and flood water drainage systems have also been demanded. East Godavari being a cyclone-prone area, full crop insurance coverage has been demanded. Opposing the exorbitant hike in the power rates by the Naidu government, the Conference demanded that the hike should be annulled for farmers up to 5 acres in wet areas and 10 acres in dry areas and APKS' position is that consolidated power rates should be based on acreage and not on horsepower. The Conference also extended its solidarity with the struggling farmers of theWest Godavari district.

The Conference also demanded a high-level enquiry into the distribution of subsidised fertilizer and the arrest of Mandal Development Officers responsible for the irregularities and favouritism. Among other developmental demands are setting up of dairy and cattle loans to poor peasants, cooperative marketing agency and marketing yard in Yeleswaram and a vegetable marketing agency at Kathipudi, four important all-weather link roads in this area, a 40-bedded hospital in the tribal area of Peddamallapuram and proper maintenance of school buildings etc.

Agricultural Labourers

Part of the our work in this district lies in Godavari delta area where agricultural workers, with their large concentration, constitute the main base. And we visualise our strategic expansion in the State through developing a strong political base among them. Wage struggles may be the predominant form in these areas and there have been a recent spurt in spontaneous wage struggles. APKS Conference discussed how to overcome the gap in our practice in organising the agricultural workers and decided to initiate different type of practice and organisational structure - to function more like an agricultural labourers' union - and, if necessary, to develop a separate agricultural labourers wing in the Kisan Sabha. Presently the statutory minimum wages range between Rs.35-70 for different types of agricultural operations. The actual wages are Rs.40 or less. Women get hardly 75% of that or even less even for operations in which both men and women engage. Kisan Sabha has demanded Rs.50 as minimum wages and equal wages for men and women. Housesites is a pressing issue in delta areas.

Mobilising Rural Women

There has been a tremendous awakening and activism among rural women in Andhra Pradesh in recent years. Unfortunately, owing to a lack of programme and coordination among different communist revolutionary organisations which played a leading role in the anti-liquor movement, the energies released in this movement could not be properly channelised to develop a more comprehensive rural women's movement. Hence the bureaucracy as well as the NGOs seek to channelise the new ferment to form Mahila Shakthi units under DWACRA scheme - a small-savings scheme involving a share of government contribution - which are supposed to be an infrastructure for an extended, World Bank-aided micro-credit scheme in future. Initially this scheme turned out to be very popular among rural women but, as always happens in such schemes under bureaucratic auspices, there has been widespread resentment as the promised government's contribution was not forthcoming. Assessing the trend, Kisan Sabha also organised its women members into this Mahila Shakthi units or took control of existing units and then started organising protests when the cash-starved government reneged on its promise. More than that these organised women were mobilised for other demands and against instances of atrocities on rural women. Notable initiative was the campaign against the TDP President of Gollaprovolu mandal whose wife was harassed and killed by him. This incident which would have otherwise been suppressed was not only brought to light by us but due to the agitation of AIPWA-APKS the government was forced to order an enquiry into this. This struggle, in which the women's wing of CPI(ML) TND was also invited to participate at the district level, had a wide political impact in the district. The APKS Conference also noted with concern the spread of dowry even among agricultural labour families and urged its members to encourage Aadarsa Vivaha, a form of reformist marriage.

Tribals' Rights

Andhra Pradesh Girijana Sangha (APGS) has been functioning as a wing of APKS. Until the work among tribals can develop to the level of fullfledged political movement, it would be better if the tribal movement develops as part of the peasant movement. APGS has been carrying on a movement for tribal rights in East Godavari and Vishakapatam districts on issues like scheduling of tribal villages, invoking Regulation 1 (1970) against non-tribal landlords and rich peasants who have grabbed tribal lands, proper implementation of tribal sub-plans, election to the tribal cooperative societies and more bus and medical facilities etc. Some protests have been organised against anti-naxal squads which carry out brutal repression in tribal villages in the name of hunting for PWG dalams. The demand of autonomy for tribal regions of Andhra Pradesh has also been raised. We have also appealed to the left organisations of Andhra Pradesh, each of which has a good base among tribals in some part or other in the State, to come together for a joint move on tribals' rights which can give a great fillip to the tribal movement in the State. Earlier this year a tribal convention was organised in Kakinada. But building up organisation among tribals does not follow the same pattern as among the non-tribals. Stabilising village committees in tribal villages is much more difficult. Hence the emphasis has been on developing a strong team from above, a relatively more mobile team of organisers and leaders which operates over an entire tribal belt of 15-20 hamlets.

Strengthening Organisation and Democratic Functioning

The stability and regular functioning of the village committees hold the key for the vibrancy of the peasant movement. To institutionalise it, the district or mandal leaders of the peasant association will act upon any issue of any village only after discussing the issue in the village committee and in some cases in the village general body. New members are admitted and membership cards are issued only in general body meetings. Dependence on one or two charismatic district leaders for solving the problems is consciously discouraged. Yet given the present level of consciousness and organisation among peasants, the role of mandal organiser becomes decisive in ensuring the regular functioning of village committees. Further independent initiatives and disciplined regularity at the village level depends on deepening the party building at village level. Of late, some village committees have been reorganised to include representatives of middle sections also.

Ideally, the mandal committees of the Kisan Sabha should be the key link in the organisation. But given the organisational conditions of the Kisan Sabha, especially the availability of capable organisers, attention at present is focused on strengthening the district body at one level and village committees at the other. Presently mandal committees comprise all the village committee presidents from that mandal and meets only to coordinate mandal level initiatives. But even the day-to-day guidance of village-level work and struggles is centralised to a high degree in a highly mobile district committee that attends to work in about 10 mandals (East Godavari has about 43 mandals).

There has been no unanimity in opinions or in experience regarding the leadership of village committees. In most of the cases, one-person leadership, where the entire membership of the village is united under the authority of a president as in the case of panchayats, has been proved to be effective and a system of multiple office-bearers at village level in the name of collectivity becomes formal and mechanical and doesn't work. But in a few cases where the president becomes either ineffective or sectarian it creates its own problems. Additionally, in big villages and where there are members from other intermediate castes also, there is a need for a small team of leaders. Taking these into account, a system of two office-bearers - one president and a vice-president - has been proposed. The Conference also passed a set of organisational rules for the Kisan Sabha.
The Conference elected a 15-member district committee including three women members. It also decided that 40% of the membership and 20% of the committee members at all levels should be women. It also adopted a target of 50000 membership and village committees in 100 villages to be achieved by the time of next conference to be held after two years.