Introduction to the Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar

May 13, 1986

If a colossal miscarriage1 allowed social-democracy to flourish in full bloom in the Indian communist movement, to be sure, social-democrats too had to pay a heavy price for their victory: doomed as an essentially regional force, they could never really make any dent in the Hindi heartland. What else can one infer from the CPI(M)’s total failure to make any headway in Bihar despite presiding over a full-fledged model of social-democracy in neighbouring West Bengal for no less than nine years in succession?

"Bihar is one of the most backward of Indian states, beset with rigid caste polarisations and devoid of any history of bourgeois reforms worth the name", argue Namboodiripad and Co.2 Well, these facts are as indisputable as the law — where social-democracy ends, revolutionary-democracy begins its journey. The same backward Bihar has proved to be a forward post of revolutionary-democracy, with the lowest rung of society being drawn into the vortex of peasant struggles. From the Pipra carnage to the Arwal massacre, blood-thirsty landlord-armies to trigger-happy paramilitary forces, protagonists of ‘total revolution’ to ‘His Majesty’s Opposition’ — none could enforce the ‘peace’ of the graveyard on the flaming fields of Bihar and none would be able to drive these unconventional actors to the backstage of historical action.

But, will the struggle of the Bihar peasantry really be able to blaze a new trail? Or, will it also go the way of all its predecessors, ending in a disaster or in a compromise halfway? Today this question is haunting all sincere Marxists as well as all who sympathise with the cause of revolutionary democracy. The present book is the first of a series of attempts to deal with precisely this question. But before we enter the main body of the book, let us have a glance at the crisscross pattern of the Indian communist movement and then examine the specific course of the Bihar peasantry.

The relations with the peasantry and with the bourgeoisie are two fundamental questions of tactics to be solved by the communist parties in backward countries with preponderant peasant populations. Way back in 1919, Lenin had advised the communists of the Eastern countries to work out their own strategy basing on the general lessons of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution. He had warned them that they might not get the answers to their problems in any communist book.

It was precisely this task that Mao Tse-tung undertook in right earnest while the leadership of the Indian communist party miserably failed to grasp its significance. Thus, while CPC succeeded in correctly solving the questions concerning the Communist Party’s relations with the peasantry and the bourgeoisie at various stages of China’s democratic revolution and went on to emerge as the leader of the national liberation struggle, thereby providing valuable guidelines for integrating Marxism-Leninism with the concrete conditions of backward countries, the Indian communists could not develop any consistent line to deal with the two aforesaid problems. As a result, the Indian National Congress stole the show in India’s struggle for national liberation, while the communists came to be regarded as its appendage and even as traitors to the cause of freedom. True, there were various factors that did contribute to this failure. For instance, the colonial rule of the British bourgeoisie; the emergence and development of the Congress as a forum with a queer admixture of a highly developed democratic functioning on the surface (regular sessions, changing presidents, various crosscurrents coexisting and competing among themselves etc.) and the extra-organisational authority of Gandhi based on almost blind reverence at the core; the peculiar national, caste and communal issues; the conflicting pieces of advice from the Comintern and from certain Indian leaders guiding the Party from abroad etc. What was really strange, however, was that the dominant section of the leadership developed a line of thinking that put the Russian and Chinese experiences of revolution in general and Lenin and Mao in particular in contradistinction to each other, and concentrated all energies at pointing at differences in the Indian and Chinese conditions. What a great predicament! The Communist Party of India refused to learn anything from the great revolution in the biggest Asian country, which incidentally was our neighbour too, and from the thoughts of its undisputed leader Mao Tse-tung. It had nothing but ridicule for this great leader.

With the defeat of P.C. Joshi’s line and in the context of the rise and fall of Telangana (1946-51), there emerged three distinct lines in the Indian communist movement. The line peddled by Ranadive and Co. rejected the significance of the Chinese revolution, ferociously attacked Mao as another Tito and advocated the simultaneous accomplishment of the democratic and the socialist revolutions based on city-based working-class insurrections. Drawing its sustenance from Stalin’s initial suspicion about the Chinese revolution and Mao Tse-tung, this left-adventurist line, however, ended in a great fiasco.

The line of the Andhra Secretariat drew heavily from the Chinese experiences and the teachings of Mao in building the heroic struggle of Telangana. But the Andhra leadership, while successfully spearheading the movement against the feudal autocracy of the Nizam in conjunction with the Andhra Mahasabha, failed to tackle the complex question of meeting the challenge of the Nehru government and its army. It could not have possibly done that in the prevailing situation and therefore the two line struggle within the Party could not be taken to its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, Telangana remains one of the glorious chapters in the history of peasant struggles led by the Communist Party till date and reminds us of the first serious effort by sections of the Communist Party leadership to learn from the experiences of the Chinese revolution and to develop a comprehensive line for India’s democratic revolution, taking agrarian revolution as the axis.

The Nehru government embarked on the road to parliamentary democracy, paving it with populist reforms like the zamindari abolition. Telangana having already suffered a setback, objective conditions facilitated the dominance of a centrist line put forward by Ajay Ghosh and Dange. This line made a big issue of the differences between Chinese and Indian conditions and pushed the Party along the parliamentary road.

In 1957 the communists succeeded in forming a government in Kerala, which however, was soon overthrown while attempting radical agrarian reforms. That was a critical juncture in the evolution of the tactics of utilising parliamentary struggles. While experience re-emphasised the need for developing peasant movements and subordinating all parliamentary struggles to extra-parliamentary ones, the Party refused to learn its lesson and continued to proceed along the beaten track. In subsequent years, following the emergence of Khruschovite revisionism and the India-China war, the Party split into two. The Dangeite leadership took a national chauvinist position and began to peddle the theory of the so-called ‘peaceful road to non-capitalist development’. This line of national democratic revolution of the CPI transformed it over the years into an appendage of the Congress. For it, feudal remnants either do not exist in India or can be well taken care of by the Congress government itself.

The CPI(M), the other faction, went ahead with the centrist line. In the old Ranadive tradition it continued to pit Stalin against Mao and therefore did not wholly subscribe to Khruschov either. It does speak of people’s democracy, but the people’s democracy of its conception is more akin to the people’s democracies of the East European variety. It goes on to denigrate the experiences of the Chinese revolution and has nothing but ridicule for Mao Tse-tung Thought. In recent years, Basavapunniah, the chief theoretical spokesman for the CPI(M), has further intensified attacks on Mao3. He has virulently attacked Mao’s philosophical position on contradictions and his tactics regarding the national bourgeoisie. Pointing to the differences between the Indian and Chinese conditions, the CPI(M) continues to preach the impossibility of partisan war in India, and has, once again started highlighting the old CPI appraisal of the Chinese revolution, according to which base areas and red army had played not much of a significant role in China, rather the massing of the Soviet troops in Manchuria during the Second World War had been mainly responsible for the victory of the Chinese revolution.

In their struggle against the national chauvinist leadership of the CPI, revolutionary communists allied themselves with the CPI(M). The Party went ahead with its parliamentary exercises, and, riding on the crest of mass movements, formed a United Front government in West Bengal through an opportunist coalition. The role of this government in suppressing the Naxalbari struggle exposed the revisionist character of the leadership and, by all standards, conditions were ripe for an all-out rebellion in the party. And rebellion it was — in West Bengal and Kerala the CPI(M) found its strength sufficiently eroded while in some states entire State Committees walked out in support of Naxalbari.

The spirit behind Naxalbari was the same as in Telangana, viz., the spirit of highlighting the role of peasant struggle in India’s democratic revolution, of drawing on the experiences of China and the teachings of Mao. However, the times had greatly changed. Naxalbari emerged against a new background: there was the great division in the international communist movement, land reforms and the democratic facade of the Congress had by then lost much of their earlier glamour, the country was facing a serious agrarian crisis that was being sought to be resolved through the imperialist strategy of green revolution, and to top it all, there was a grave political crisis as reflected in the first ever defeat of the Congress in the elections to many State Assemblies. In other words, Naxalbari emerged in a fine revolutionary situation when the ruling classes could no longer rule in the old way. It was a direct assault on the discredited and declining power. Moreover, this time the revisionist leadership of the party was also clearly on the other side of the fence, presiding over the police as it went on killing the peasants and the revolutionaries.

Different as the circumstances were, the impact was also different. Naxalbari did not stop at Naxalbari. With the building of, first, the AICCCR and then the CPI(ML), it spread like wildfire over many parts of India. The new revolutionary Party emphasised the scarlet thread that ran through Leninism and the entire course of its application in semi-colonial China by Mao Tse-tung. Making a clear break with the Indian variety of revisionism, it decided to incorporate, apart from Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought too in its guiding ideology, and put greater emphasis on the similarities between the Indian and Chinese conditions. However, unlike some people who described themselves as Maoist communists, this new Party never declared itself as a Maoist party, but simply as the genuine Marxist-Leninist Party of India. To begin with, in its first steps on an entirely new course of Indian revolution, the new Party had no other option but to follow the Chinese model which at that time also provided the main form of struggles to the peoples of Vietnam as well as of other South-East Asian countries.

Telangana was resurrected in its spirit and colour. The air was charged with the slogans of guerilla war, red army and Yenan and the songs of the long march. The struggle spread to many parts of the country with West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh emerging as the main bastions. Thousands of students and youth jumped into the fray and revolution seemed so close. Naxalism, as a new brand of communist movement, became a national phenomenon and a new word in the political dictionary.

However, the euphoria was soon over. What had seemed to be the final enactment of revolution proved to be no more than a dress rehearsal. With hundreds having sacrificed their lives and thousands languishing in the jails, gloom set in, and as it always happens, it was accompanied by confusion, splits and disintegration. No one could be sure of the stand of this or that Party leader. People changed their positions unbelievably fast. Yesterday’s friends and close comrades became today’s adversaries.

For many, the dreams of liberation turned into veritable nightmares. Appeals were issued by leaders in jail, efforts were made to reorganise the scattered forces, but nothing could check the drift. History rolled on in its due course. For many participants of the movement it was simplify finished and finished for good, others continued to cherish the fond memories of the ’70s with the vain hope that a forceful repetition of the old slogans might resurrect the old situation as well, while still others based themselves on the naive assumption that the situation could be saved if only all the old fragments could be united somehow or other.

In its disorganised state, the movement gave rise to all possible trends and groupings and there ensued a protracted polemical war in the bitterest of fashions. All sorts of people, even those considered long dead or permanently silenced began to stage a comeback as though from oblivion. And with them came back the whole range of questions that were supposed to have been already resolved once and for all.

The point was how to revive the movement. Some felt it was enough to condemn the ‘line of annihilations’, boycott of elections and trade unions, and so on. Some even went so far as to condemn the CPI(ML) itself and thought that the answer lay in reviving the AICCCR.

In the period following Emergency, Charu Mazumdar was projected as a discredited revolutionary in West Bengal itself as the scene came to be dominated by SN Singh and his PCC. And then came the final blow from Kanu Sanyal who informed the world that the very struggle in Naxalbari was his brainchild, that it was he who had built it up, resisting Charubabu’s left-adventurist forays while Charu Mazumdar only destroyed it by overriding Kanubabu’s proposal of coming to a tactical agreement with the United Front government (perhaps in the old fashion of ‘withdrawal’ of the Telangana struggle by the then Party leadership in 1951).

While all this went on under the reign of social-democracy in West Bengal, and to a great extent, in Andhra too (the residual leadership in Srikakulam as well as the CP Reddy faction having already joined hands with SN Singh), Bihar had an altogether different story to tell. And to be sure, from much earlier periods.

As alternatives to the Gandhian strategy of freedom struggle and in contrast to it, if Bengal excelled in terrorism and in the ‘leftism’ of the Subhas variety and Bombay in the strikes of the working class, Bihar came up with a powerful Kisan Sabha movement right in the ’30s.

It was at Champaran in Bihar that Gandhi began his experiments with the peasantry, gradually evolving the strategy of mobilising the peasants in a peaceful, non-violent Satyagraha against British rule, while discouraging any movement against the ‘swadeshi’ zamindars. The peasants of Bihar did respond zealously to every call of the freedom struggle coming from the Congress leadership, but in each and every case they translated the restricted Congress call into an active, often violent, movement against the zamindars. The zamindars being the main social prop of British rule in India, the peasants naturally interpreted these calls in the language they understood. This objective contradiction of real life forced the interim Congress ministry of Bihar, which assumed office in the wake of the 1937 elections, to negotiate a written agreement with the zamindars, an event unparalleled in India’s freedom movement. By contrast, the Kisan Sabha movement, having begun as a wing of the Congress, gradually detached itself from the Congress and came under the fold of the revolutionary democrats, a sizeable section later joining the Communist Party. History clearly shows that during the Kisan Sabha movement caste-based polarisations had all receded into the background. Also the anti-Brahminical movements or Ambedkar-type dalit movements or the harijan cause of Jagjivan Ram could never find much favour in Bihar during the entire phase of the freedom struggle even as the CPI and the Socialists successfully developed a strong base. If the CPI still retains a powerful base, it is more due to the legacy of the Kisan Sabha movement and certain positive achievements in the 50s during the period of Telangana.

In the post-independence period, to prevent the outbreak of Telangana-type struggles, once again Bihar was selected as the focal point for Vinoba Bhave’s Sarvodaya strategy. An erstwhile Socialist and an activist of the Kisan Sabha movement, Jai Prakash became the chief exponent of Sarvodaya in Bihar. But the agrarian reality of Bihar prevailed over their high-sounding rhetoric, and with Bhoodan ending in a big fiasco, Vinoba returned to Wardha and, JP too, temporarily retired from public life. The retreat of Vinoba and JP was followed by the advent of the political crisis of the mid-60s, and it was against this backdrop that Naxalbari immediately found its echo in the Musahari block of Muzaffarpur district in North Bihar. But soon the struggle there suffered a setback and once again JP jumped into the fray armed with his neo-Sarvodaya strategy, which later developed into his famous theory of ‘total revolution’.

While JP went ahead with his avowed aim of combating the ‘menace of Naxalism’, revolutionary communists, too, continued with their attempts to develop peasant struggles in different parts of Bihar, though with little success in the beginning. But just when things seemed to be going exactly the Bengal way by the end of 1971, quite unexpectedly the Central Bihar districts of Bhojpur, and to a lesser extent, Patna started sending encouraging signals. Rooted deep in the prevailing social conditions, the struggle in Bhojpur and Patna began on a different note and there emerged a non-traditional indigenous core of leadership.

All the precious blood of our heroic martyrs spilt over the fields and factories, hamlets and lanes, torture chambers and prison cells all over the country seemed to rise high in the sky, and there appeared a red glow over Bhojpur. And, as subsequent years have proved, the glow was not that of a meteor, but that of a star, a red star that has come here to stay and shine.

The independent course of the peasant struggle and the Party’s attempt to impart consciousness to it went through a peculiar phase of unity and struggle. The Party worked hard to develop communist elements from among the peasant vanguards, always trying to check the spontaneous negative tendencies of the movement and give it an organised shape. There were, however, also strong attempts on the part of the Party to super-impose its set of dogmatic ideas regarding forms of struggle and organisation on the movement and, to be sure, these attempts proved counter-productive.

Finally, the Party-wide rectification movement in the changed political situation of the post-Emergency period helped to restore the balance and provided new momentum to the fledgling peasant struggle, and we arrived at the present phase of a widespread peasant awakening. Paradoxically, the victim of this entire development was S N. Singh4 , who hailed from Bihar, and, that too from Bhojpur itself. The ghost of Charu Mazumdar chased him away from Bihar and in communist revolutionary circles in the state, he became the most discredited person.

Incidentally, the ‘credit’ for the first, and so far, the only fundamental division in the CPI(ML) goes to none other than the Bihar State Committee under the leadership of S.N. Singh. All other divisions are either artificial, temporary or of no great significance. Attempts have been made and are still being made to formulate a comprehensive ‘left’ line by certain groups, but no one can claim, as yet, to have developed such a line. Semi-anarchism is still at best a tendency debating over forms and methods of struggle and organisation, and a major section of those presently obsessed with this tendency will surely come back to the Marxist-Leninist fold as they gain more experience with the passage of time. In contrast, SN’s was a definite alternative tactical line advocating well-defined relations with well-defined social forces. That is why he was resurrected again and again and continues to assert even after his death at one pole of our movement. His essential difference with Charu Mazumdar began on the question of the relation with rich peasants. He emphasised unity with the rich peasants in contrast to CM’s emphasis on neutralising them through struggle. Subsequently, this line developed into that of unity with sections of the class of landlords and with the bourgeois opposition. (Bhaskar Nandy temporarily outwitted SN by theorising this unity on the basis of a totally different premise. However, SN soon withdrew himself from Nandy’s erroneous theoretical exercise.)

Later on, on the question of united front, SN and we both started from the same premise of developing a nationwide political alternative to the Congress rule. But the similarity ended here itself as SN chose to follow a totally different course, joining hands with JP, cultivating relations with the leaders of the Janata Party and a host of liberals, condemning the key role of agrarian revolution, end even going so far as to coin the now famous formulation that the proletariat may or may not lead the democratic revolution. True, under various pressures and compulsions, subsequently SN did have to compromise on many of his pronouncements, but these were more in the nature of tactics and did not affect his essential position.

We, on the other hand, stood for boldly expanding the peasant struggles which no doubt hit substantial sections of the rich peasants too who in Bihar do indulge in serious feudal practices. And precisely on the basis of these struggles did we work for developing the revolutionary bloc of the workers, peasants and the petty bourgeoisie as an alternative to the Congress rule even as we left the door open for tactical manoeuvrings with the parties and factions of the bourgeois opposition.

It is in the context of this struggle between the two tactical lines that the peasant struggle in Bihar developed and expanded.

Emerging as it did in a different setting of the international communist movement the peasant struggle in Bihar did not get open support from the Chinese Communist Party, and in the face of sharp factional divisions, it even failed to receive a sympathetic hearing, let alone necessary support, from various communist revolutionary groups in India. Here was a situation that was really vastly different from what obtained during the struggles of Naxalbari and Srikakulam. However, the movement has indeed gained widespread solidarity from many quarters. In fact, it would have been impossible to sustain the movement for all these long years, had it not been for the valuable guidance provided by many veterans of the Indian communist movement and important leaders of the united CPI(ML), the help and cooperation received from the communist revolutionary ranks belonging to different groups and from Marxist academicians, revolutionary-democrats, civil liberty organisations, truth-seeking journalists, noted cultural personalities and progressive Indian circles abroad, and the support extended by the Communist Parties of China, Nepal, Philippines, Peru and other foreign friends.

The current struggle in Bihar is expanding in districts which have a fighting heritage dating back to the old Kisan Sabha days. These are the districts where the incidence of big landlordism is low, but where landlordism enjoys a wider base, encompassing not only the ex-intermediaries but also erstwhile powerful raiyats. Compared to many other parts of Bihar, agriculture in these districts is marked by a relatively greater use of modern means, better transport facilities and a more pronounced market-orientation of the rural economy. The various agrarian issues that have come to the fore in these districts are similar to those which affect the rural poor all over India, viz., minimum wages, tenancy rights, occupation of vested, benami, communal and government lands, prevention of distress sale of crops, easy availability of various inputs at cheaper rates and so on and so forth. In short, the region to a great extent is a typical representative of the changing pattern of Indian agriculture.

Indian agriculture today is also facing a new type of crisis caused by the saturation of the strategy of green revolution and ‘overproduction’. And as a direct outcome of this crisis, there has emerged a new type of farmers’ movement in certain parts of India. In Maharashtra, in particular, it has found a fertile field as well as a powerful exponent in Mr.Sharad Joshi. The theoretical framework propounded by Mr.Joshi focuses on the contradiction5 between poor rural Bharat6 and rich urban India, stresses economic upliftment of the peasants as the cure-all for all the ills being faced by the country today, and concentrates exclusively on the single-point-demand of remunerative prices for agricultural produce. He does not believe that any substantial ground exists for major conflicts among different sections of the rural population, and it goes without saying that the peasants of his conception are none other than the rich and middle farmers. As to why he is not laying any particular stress on the agricultural labourers, Mr.Joshi holds that, first, any economic gains achieved by the peasants will automatically percolate to the former by way of higher wages, and second, the lowest strata of the people have never played the vanguard role in history in bringing about social transformation.

Despite his agitational mode of operation, it is this emphasis on rural development coupled with his insistence on non-party politics and his persistent anti-communist bias that has endeared Mr.Joshi to the Sarvodayites, who are perhaps in search of a new messiah after the departure of both Vinoba and JP.

So, one now witnesses a battle for supremacy between the East and West winds within the peasant movement, blowing respectively from Bihar and Maharashtra. In sharp contrast to the farmers’ movement in Maharashtra, the peasant struggle in Bihar has in its forefront the agrarian labourers, who are quite numerous, as well as the poor and lower-middle peasants, while sizeable sections of the kulaks including, in certain pockets, elements from certain backward castes, find themselves on the other side of the fence, as a veritable target of attack, at least in the present phase of the movement. But even as the movement lays the highest stress on thoroughgoing land reforms, it does also strive to incorporate the issues arising out of the crisis of green revolution, issues that affect large segments of the middle and upper-middle peasants.

The outcome of this battle between the two winds has not yet been decided, and the final sequences of what may prove to be a most fascinating epic-drama in the history of India have not unfolded themselves either. Still, when the unceremonious death of the poorest among the peasants in the unknown, unheard of, dingy, mud-tracked, tiny country-town of Arwal7 begins to shape the political crisis of the powers that be in Bihar, one can safely proclaim that the heroes have finally arrived on the stage.

Notes -

1. Setback in the first revolutionary upsurge following Naxalbari in the face of brutal repression.

2. This was the logic advanced by the CPI(M) General Secretary EMS Namboodiripad to explain its failure in Bihar.

3. See "On Contradictions – Antagonistic and Non-antagonistic" in the Social Scientist, September 1983

4. Quite interestingly, SN had at one time slandered the Bhojpur struggle as being guided and financed by Jagjivan Ram and later on, the dominant section of the PCC leadership also preferred to dismiss Bhojpur as a purely caste struggle. Late Comrade CP, during my [VM’s -- Ed.] talks with him, revealed how on persistent enquiries by the Chinese comrades about Bhojpur, Bhaskar Nandy had continued to repeat similar allegations. CP, however, differed with them and was even inclined to consider that annihilation, as practiced in Bhojpur, did have practical justification.

5. Interestingly, Mr.Joshi refers to Rosa Luxemburg in his support as against Lenin. He is also very much against Stalin’s tackling of the kulaks. However, his comments on Mao are not known.

6. To be fair to him, it must, however, be acknowledged that his rural Bharat does also include sections of the urban poor slumdwellers for instance, whom he considers as peasants driven away by poverty.

7. The infamous Arwal massacre of 1986 led to nationwide protests.