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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 40, New Delhi, September 26, 2015

Life and Times of a Good Communist

Monday 28 September 2015, by Arup Kumar Sen

Liu Shaoqi, the prominent leader and theoretician of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote his would-be famous book, How to be a Good Communist, in 1939. He was ruthlessly criticised by Mao during the Cultural Revolution and then purged. He died in 1969 under harsh treatment.

What is important to us is not to judge the ‘political correctness’ of Liu Shaoqi’s thought. The fact that the Communists of earlier days were concerned with ethical questions, even though in regimented terms, is the moot point of our argument.

Under the leadership of Benoy Chowdhury as the Minister for Land and Land Reforms, the CPI-M-led Left Front Government took some radical measures for the rural subalterns within the framework of the Constitution after coming to power in West Bengal in 1977. In quantitative terms, over 1.6 million sharecroppers were recorded and given hereditary rights of cultivation under the programme, Operation Barga. They were also promised a fair deal in crop-sharing with the landowners. Moreover, about a million acres of vested land were distributed among 2.5 million landless and land-poor peasants. These radical measures directly benefited a significant proportion of the rural population in West Bengal.

It seems that Benoy Chowdhury could not mentally accept the mode of operation of the CPI-M in the 1990s. His statement carried in the media in 1995—“this is a government of contractors, by contractors and for contractors”—annoyed the then Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu. Basu retorted: “If he thinks the government is corrupt, why is he continuing to be in the government?”

 During his tenure as a Minister in the Left Front Government, Chowdhury maintained a low profile. After retiring from active politics, he lived the life of an ordinary man, residing in a small flat at Bidhannagar. He died in 2000.

Born in 1911, Benoy Chowdhury grew up in a village in the Bardhaman (Burdwan) district of West Bengal. His autobiographical reflections were published as a book in 1999, carrying the title “My Life andExperiences”. In his memoirs, other than political events, one gets glimpses of the social history of his village and the district.

Chowdhury did not hide the fact that he came from a family of landed gentry. Between 1920 and 1930, the total area of land owned by his joint family was 165 bighas. The following account testifies how minutely he observed his village life:

In our village population Hindus and Muslims were in almost equal proportions. There was, on the whole, good and harmonious relation between the two communities. Hindus used to participate without reservations in Muslim festivals like Muharrum. Similarly, men and women from the Muslim locality used to visit the Puja Pandals in the Hindu area. They used to witness the pujas from a distance and enjoy it then too. Personal relations were close and full of warmth... The village had a surrounding of greens with plenty of trees and plants that attracted variety of birds. Now their numbers have come down substantially. Seasonal fruits of different kinds were also available in sufficient numbers even for the consumption of the common man... There were very few brick-built houses. Most of the houses hadmud-walls with straw- roofs... Villagers were generally kind-hearted in those days and did not mind giving away gratis 3 to 4 seers of rice, if they came to know that someone was starving.

While recollecting his student life and historical events, Chowdhury brilliantly narrated the feudal spirit of Burdwan:

People residing in the locality called Sarbamangala para had the financial capacity for constructing brick- houses but they were not allowed to do so in honour of the deity... Most of the people of Burdwan used to worship Sarbamangala... It was the town of the biggest zamindar of Bengal with its concomitant feudal atmosphere that could be felt more or less everywhere in the city.

In his early life, two 19th century Bengali novels written by Ramesh Chandra Dutt—Rajput Jiban Sandhya and Maharashtra Jiban Prabhat—had significant influence on Chowdhury. The story of Shivaji’s heroism and his fight against the powerful Mughal emperors fascinated him so much that he thought of building up an army with the strong, well-built Santals for fighting against the British Government. He ran away twice from home in the mid-1920s to implement this idea.

After passing his Matriculation Examination in 1928, he got admitted to Serampore College. During his student days at Serampore College, he became associated with the contemporary student and youth movements. By virtue of his prior acquaintance with two prominent leaders of the Congress Party in Bengal, Atulya Ghosh and Prafulla Sen, he decided to attend the Hooghly District Conference of the National Congress.

The Communist Party started its journey in the Burdwan district in 1935, and Chowdhury was admitted to membership in October 1938. In the early 1940s, as an underground worker of the Party, he devoted himself in organising the colliery workers in the Ranigunj and Jharia coalfields. Chowdhury documented the compo-sition of workers and mode of labour control in the collieries:

Most of the workers, in those days, belonged to the local Barui and Santal communities. Outsiders were mostly the land-labour and poor peasants from the Districts of Monghyr, Bhagalpur and Gaya. Some were from Bilaspore as it was also a very poverty-stricken area. Till then, the chieftaincy system was prevalent in the collieries. Usually the local boss of the villages, from which the migrants used to come, accompanied them as their chieftain. He was like the recruiter of labourers in the tea-gardens. These chieftains always deducted a part of the wages earned by each worker. Each chieftain had under him about 100 to 150 workers... They were very loyal to colliery managers who used to control the workers through these chieftains even by adopting oppressive measures wherever necessary.

In the course of his work, Chowdhury was impressed by the cleanliness and hospitality of the Santal community:

The Santals, as I have seen them, keep their houses very clean and tidy. Their household utensils are also spotlessly clean. They are also of clean habits in their living style. Their hospitality is spontaneous and sincere without being luxurious.

Chowdhury’s careful eyes observed the ill-effects of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) project:

In order to contain the flood of the river Damodar, the DVC Project was undertaken. The project incorporated schemes which, among others, laid emphasis on planting and growing trees on the rivercatchment and adopting modern methods of preventing erosion of soil. But unfortunately, not much headway has been made in this respect. As a consequence, soil erosion has now increased five to six times more than what was estimated at the time of planning the DVC project.

In Chowdhury’s memoirs, a unique peasant movement in the Burdwan district in the late 1930s was documented. The peasants of Burdwan started the movement against the water-tax levied on them for using the Damodar Canal Water. The government, in order to protect the Grand Trunk Road, railway lines and Calcutta, had erected a dam on the southern side of the Damodar river and had so long kept the peasants deprived of water. The problem had been solved partially with a new irrigation project, but the peasants were not prepared to pay taxes at the new rates. Ultimately, the peasants did not have to bear the financial burden for digging the canal. The government was forced to give exemption, and the peasants had to pay taxes only for the annual maintenance of the canal. From the early part of 1947, fresh attempts were made to increase taxes on the canal water distributed from the Damodar river. This led to protest movements in the canal areas.

Benoy Chowdhury’s memoirs ended with the issue of partition of Bengal. In his early village life, he witnessed good and harmonious Hindu- Muslim relations. But, on the eve of India’s independence, he observed the dark side of the moon. He retired from his active political life at the fag end of the 20th century with utter disillusionment. Herein lies the tragedy.

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