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Of Control and Factions: The Changing 'Party-Society' in Rural West Bengal

The changing conditions in two villages of West Bengal - Galsi and Adhata - give a picture of the emerging issues and dynamics of the state's rural political economy. This paper attempts to explain these complexities in the light of the idea of a "party-society". It also shows that the initial impetus of land reforms failed to result in productive investments in agriculture and the marginalised sections feel increasingly alienated from the institutional politics of the party-society


Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal

Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya

The changing conditions in two villages of West Bengal – Galsi and Adhata – give a picture of the emerging issues and dynamics of the state’s rural political economy. This paper attempts to explain these complexities in the light of the idea of a “party-society”. It also shows that the initial impetus of land reforms failed to result in productive investments in agriculture and the marginalised sections feel increasingly alienated from the institutional politics of the party-society.

I am deeply indebted to Parthasarathi Banerjee, Tania Goldar, Debalina Jana, and Mukhlesur Rahaman Gain for their assistance in field research. Earlier drafts of this paper have benefited from discussions with colleagues at the CSSSC, responses from our project team and detailed comments from Anjan Ghosh, Dilip Mookherjee and Asok Sen. All remaining errors are mine.

Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya ( is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Economic & Political Weekly

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What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.

– Polanyi 1944: 178

ince 1977, when the Left Front government, a coalition of left wing political parties held together by the towering Communist Party of India (CPI(M)) was elected, rural West Bengal has been subjected to extensive governmental intervention in the form of land reforms and democratic decentralisation. This made West Bengal’s rural political economy – marked by a small-peasant economy and a dense partisan network – distinctly different from the rest of the country.

These reforms included, on the economic front, tenurial reforms and imposition of land-ceilings, distribution of ceiling-surplus as well as homestead land among small peasants and the landless. On the administrative front, the decentralised local government institutions consisting of elected representatives at the village, block and district levels were introduced in 1978, the first time in the country. Consequently, the state stood way above other Indian states both in the magnitude and proportion of land identified as surplus and transferred to the poor, and in ensuring legal as well as political security to the marginal community of sharecroppers. Elections to the panchayat rural governmental bodies were also held with regularity and order, unlike many other states.

1 Introduction

It is possible to identify four distinct periods in the three decades of continuous left dominance in rural West Bengal. The first (1977 to mid-1980s) was of rapid acquisition of ceiling-surplus land from the big landlords, distribution of such land among the l andless, recording the names of the sharecroppers and instituting a local administrative structure – the panchayat – that was periodically elected in party-based competitions (Bhattacharyya 1994). The second (mid-1980s to mid-1990s) was the period of high growth in agricultural production propelled by intensive culti vation, higher wages, improved seeds, small-scale irrigation, and deregulation of the local market among other things (Rogaly et al 1999; Saha and Swaminathan 1994). This period, however, was shortlived and ran quickly into the third phase (mid-1990s to 2006) of agricultural impasse caused by growing fragmen tation of holdings, rising input costs, depressed market, decreasing land-fertility and lack of investment in infrastructure (B hattacharyya and Bhattacharyya 2007). The fourth and the most recent phase (2006 onwards) marks a disjuncture in the sense that agricultural land – especially those located in areas around Greater Kolkata or adjacent to the highways – are now potentially becoming an attractive destination for investments for real estate or industrial infrastructure. Such transfer of fertile land from agricultural to nonagricultural purposes by way of linking the local agrarian economy with corporate capitalism operating on a global scale can be far from orderly and smooth, as recent incidents in Nandigram and Singur would testify. This paper builds upon fieldwork conducted between the third and the fourth periods.

Much has been written on the complexities and limits of agrarian reforms in West Bengal. The vital questions were: Is West Bengal exceptional? Why was such redistribution of land possible here, unlike in most other states? Can the unusual durability of the left coalition government be explained singularly by the success of these reforms? Or, do other equally relevant political and social elements need to be factored in? What kind of changes did these reforms trigger off? How did panchayat transform the nature of mediation between government and the local society?

Durability of Left Front: Four Rubrics

One view is that the durability of the Left Front was a result of the left’s pro-poor policies that brought real improvement in the living conditions of the rural poor (Mishra and Rawal 2002). Others suggested, on the contrary, that it was an effect of the state’s economic stagnation; people with little opportunities for economic development voted the left in expectation of favours (Sarkar 2006). It is doubtful, however, if either of these polar views – of developmentalism and clientelism – can be accepted uncritically. This paper, instead, looks briefly into some theoretically informed explanations classifying them under four broad rubrics: institutional, moral-cultural, neo-communitarian, and synergic.

The “institutional approach”, perhaps, was most cogently represented in Atul Kohli’s works (Kohli 1987, 1990). The “success” of the left in West Bengal, he argued, depended primarily on the organisational coherence of the CPI(M) – a combination of centralisation and decentralisation, unified leadership and local flexibility, ideological clarity and organisational ability to carry policies with relative ease from the top to the ground level. While Kohli’s thrust was on the “political” over the “social”, Arild Ruud’s (2003) ethnographic village studies in Bardhaman, by contrast, prioritised the cultural elements of society. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of “symbolic capital”, which is mobilised not in the spirit of accumulation but of “wastage of money, energy, time and ingenuity” to convert interested relationships into disinterested, gratuitous ones, Ruud showed how the CPI(M) enlarged its influence as it simultaneously drew from moral-cultural elements of power, including caste stereotypes.

A third line of argument suggested that it was neither the organisational grid of the party, nor only the cultural and moral resources of the local, but the party’s mediation between the government and the population in a field of political transactions which holds the key to the left’s renewal of power. This field – that Partha Chatterjee calls “political society” (Chatterjee 1997, 2004) – is made of the poor and marginal population groups which – in absence of citizens’ rights – protect their livelihood demands along the lines of communities (not primordial but strategic solidarities in response to concrete governmental policies) as they negotiate with the state and the civil society. In this neo-communitarian perspective, the CPI(M)’s continuing electoral success in West Bengal springs from its day-to-day management of political society with the help of a well-orchestrated, locally embedded and vertically connected party-machinery.

Stuart Corbridge et al (2005) sought to combine Kohli’s and Chatterjee’s position in a seamless synergy. Their field observations in rural West Bengal suggest that the CPI(M) “empowered” the poor in lines Kohli had suggested while simultaneously mediated in and dominated over political society “to good effect”. There are problems, however, in attempting to tie these two fundamentally incongruent approaches: while one is focused on the results delivered (performance), the other is concerned about the effects produced (everyday presence). In a recently published essay Chatterjee (2008) has further expanded his ideas of mediation and welfare. Capitalist development in peasant societies involves the “primitive accumulation of capital” or rapid dissociation of small producers from their means of livelihood. In public policy, a mechanism of welfare is devised to reverse its negative impact, so that a social consensus can be produced for integrating political society with the interests of corporate capital in civil society. The CPI(M) is currently keen on exploring ways for integrating political society with the corporate interests of capital.

The Party-Society

In the specific conditions of rural West Bengal, I suggest, the idea of political society requires some rethinking for a variety of reasons. Here political parties tended to displace other competing channels of public transaction – such as civil societal associations

– which made the rural situation ontologically different from the urban political society. Indeed, political parties in rural West Bengal largely transcended caste, religion or ethnicity-based organisations, which have a greater salience in struggles for social justice in other parts of the country. Consequently, here all types of disputes (familial, social or cultural) took little time to assume partisan forms. This was possible due to the popular acceptance of political parties as moral guardians not only in the public life of the society but also in the private lives of the families. It was not uncommon to solicit a party’s intervention in most intimate and private affairs. While the left parties – especially the CPI(M) – had been most tuned to such operational moves, other political parties were also compelled to play accordingly. In fact, the left’s unusual electoral record made even the local government institutions vulnerable to strong partisan incursions, eroding their autonomy and independence. Conditions such as these have produced in rural West Bengal a specific form of sociability – of “party-society”. Party-society, therefore, is the specific form of political society in West Bengal’s countryside.

A deeper look into the operations of party-society, however, reveals some areas of incongruity with the principles of political society. While political society tends to highlight the values of shared interests and community among the poor, party-society works through a distinction between cooperation within groups (bonding) and across groups (bridging), often privileging the former over the latter. In political society the parties compete to offer their managerial skills, connections and network as a dayto-day affair to protect the livelihood demands of the p opulation.

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Since they function within a larger matrix of other competing agencies of civil society and the state, there is a limit to which the political parties can make electoral calculations their exclusive or even primary consideration for action. In party-society, on the other hand, the overriding goal is to protect the constituency of a party’s support base and expand it periodically from election to election, which is ineluctable for the renewal of a party’s influence. So elections are central to party-society. Moreover, political society operates through modes that are contingent and flexible, and it uses power strategically with considerably large insti tutional options on offer. By contrast, party-society in rural West Bengal operating mainly through panchayat institutions runs the risk of being repetitive and predictable, if not explicitly bureaucratic.

To retain the stasis of party-society and guarantee its periodic renewal, until recently the Left Front had cautiously left most aspects of West Bengal’s rural economy – which could have been a source of dynamism – undisturbed by any governmental regulations. Barbara Harriss-White has shown that the economy consisting mainly of grain market was controlled by private commercial capital, and the left government – despite its stated goals on the contrary – did precious little to bring it under any regulatory regime (Harriss-White 2008). However, in the changing climate of West Bengal’s rural political economy, as we will see shortly, such bureaucratic and monotonous party-society is put to severe test. It can either adapt to the new climate of change or simply dissolve to leave room for some new form of transaction.

2 The Villages

This part of the paper presents a description of the changing socioeconomic and political landscapes of two villages, Galsi (in Bardhaman) and Adhata (in North 24 Parganas). Despite their differences, both had the CPI(M)-led panchayat, and a growing nonfarm commercial sector in the informal economy. Nevertheless, the villages dealt with substantially different political issues, which this paper seeks to explain primarily with reference to partysociety’s formation and transformation in West Bengal.

2.1 Galsi

Galsi is located on National Highway-2 (NH-2), 22 km to the northwest of Bardhaman town. The village is surrounded by lush green paddy fields, occasionally interrupted by rice mills and cold storages. The exit from the highway to the south turns to a noisy bazaar crammed along a service lane with shops in rows selling vegetables, fish, meat, groceries, medicine, hardware, cloth, coal, fertilisers, cycles, etc. The buzz and the bustle of the bazaar indicate that Galsi is a thriving centre of trade and commerce.

Galsi has a railway station, a post office, a block land reform office (BLRO), a branch of the State Bank of India, a police station, a number of youth clubs and business associations and primary and secondary schools. Of approximately 8,000 living in the mauja, a large number (41.23% according to the village panchayat though Census 2001 says 33.62%) is scheduled caste (SC) (mainly Bagdi, Namasudra, and Kaibarta), followed by Muslims (26.94), General Hindus (29.94) and the scheduled tribes (STs) population. Paddy is the main produce as well as the traded item, irrigation from the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) canal and

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its tributaries made cultivation of both aman (winter rice) and boro (summer rice) crops possible. The gram (village) panchayat is run without any interruption by the CPI(M), which also dominates politics at the block and the district levels.

Of the families in the mauja, roughly 33% combine owncultivation with agricultural wage, 10% depend entirely on family cultivation, 7% combine that with petty trade, 7% are landless agricultural workers, and 20% are non-agricultural daily wagers. The aguris were large landowners who lost their traditional d ominance mainly due to the ceiling and barga laws. Though many such families have branched out to Durgapur or Kolkata, several of them turned into village-based entrepreneurs. Almost 18% families have salaried income.

In the 2003 panchayat elections, 17 out of 18 seats were won by the Left Front (CPI(M):11, CPI:2 and All India Forward Bloc (AIFB):4), the opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) won just one seat. In the recently held election (2008), the Left Front won 11 out of 14 seats, two went to the TMC and one to an independent. This reflects the CPI(M)’s almost total grip over Galsi’s party- society. Socially, the village was reported as “peaceful”. If people were asked to recall major disturbances, they routinely referred to the tensions that were prevalent during the “time of the C ongress”.

Despite such appearance of the left dominance, as we will see, Galsi’s political landscape was multilayered. For understanding how various solidarities were constituted around numerous adjustments, compromises, factional feuds, etc, we will present our field-material along three interlinked channels: the perceived changes in the village’s landholding structure, the institutional ambience of local power in relation to solidarities along caste, class and gender, and the emerging dynamics of agricultural and commercial capital in the region.

2.1.1 Perception of Changing Land Relations

Before land reforms, the largest landed family in the village were the Dattas. Locally known as the zamindars, they employed a large number of low caste munish for cultivation. The relations between the zamindar and the munish were highly coercive, but also entailed some public good for the community. The Dattas, for instance, contributed substantially to the Galsi High School (the largest school in the area) and built a temple devoted to Gargeswari. Things have now changed drastically. It is no more possible to make agricultural workers work for a pittance. Kali Datta (57), an heir of the family, reacted to the change with an air of melancholy. The plebeians have captured the panchayat, and the pseudo babus are flaunting cash. These are “just pseudo aristocrats, with no idealism or moral values”, he rued. “Democracy has made things upside down: the lower castes are the rulers now and the middle classes their agents” (nichu sreni raja hoechhe, modhyobitta hoechhe dalal).

Some incidents will help to understand the situation as big landed families were losing out to a new set of functionaries. The Gangulys were considered the main rival of the Dattas since the early 1970s. Though the former owned land above ceiling, their dependence on land was secondary as most adult male members were educated and had salaried income. Some were also members of the CPI(M)’s employees’ association and actively worked for the party’s local unit. Anupam Ganguly (55) was only 17 when he first joined Srijib Mishra and Debdas Mishra to form what he calls “the dal” to protest against the “oppressive” rule of the Dattas. Initially, they operated mainly on social issues, helping the poor students or arranging marriage for girls from poor families. As their activities gathered momentum their popularity grew causing a decline in the poor people’s exclusive dependence on the rich families like that of the Datta’s. Consequently, the large landed interests felt threatened. A conspiracy was hatched; the boys were “falsely” implicated in a case of robbery. Pressure mounted on the police to arrest Anupam, Srijib, Debdas and four others. Srijib and Debdas, were sons of Dayaram Mishra, a m uch-respected disciple of the head-priest of a renowned local temple. Nobody believed they could commit such crimes. The case c ollapsed.

On another occasion, in 1972, some men were captured as they were trying to steal fish from Ganguly’s pond. They were severely beaten by the villagers before handing them over to the police. The trouble began when one of them later died in hospital. The Congress brought a murder charge against Anupam. He, however, escaped “with the help of the local police station”. As land reforms were debasing the families with large holdings, the rise of a new set of middle class families – with different social and cultural capital and political linkages – became unstoppable.

However, land reforms failed to completely eclipse the old landed classes in Galsi. They continued to play a socially distinctive – though contested – role. The Basanti puja was traditionally celebrated in the village as a sarbajanin (community) puja. The local boys used to put up a cultural show with a part of the money collected, which the villagers could enjoy free of cost. In 2004, however, the Dattas almost unilaterally formed the puja committee and invited professional performers from Bardhaman to stage a pala (play). Villagers were made to buy tickets for the show. Many thought that the Dattas made excessive payment to the artistes. People protested against such commercialisation of a community event.

Impact of Land Reforms

Land reforms had a mixed impact on agricultural production in the locality. The extension of irrigation through canals and shallow tube wells generated growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Distribution of ceiling-surplus land turned the low caste munish into a smallholding peasant, and irrigation made a substantial area double cropping. This, however, hiked agricultural wages and, with the rising cost of other inputs, created a new problem: agriculture became less attractive for those who did not employ family labour. Only those who worked themselves on land could now continue to benefit from agriculture. That the government measures proved ineffective in preventing the emerging crisis was strongly felt. No initiatives were made to introduce new institutional mechanisms for credit and marketing that were urgently needed. While the government’s redistributive policies offered some real benefits to the small peasants and the landless, there was no coordinated measure to consolidate land under family ownership. This, it was argued, could have assisted the poor peasant families to access institutional credit and helped in arresting the fragmentation of holdings.

The wage-rate in Galsi was Rs 62 at the time of our fieldwork, but many of these families complained that the workers refused to work for full hours. The employers could do little about that, we were told, as the wageworkers enjoyed political support from the CPI(M). In places where land was not fragmented a growing number of families made use of tractors to cut down on wages in their production cost. So some people in Galsi – in our interviews mostly the upper caste propertied sections across party-line – were not happy the way land distribution was carried out because according to them it had turned agriculture into a non-viable activity.

Our fieldwork, however, also revealed a set of fairly complex responses. On the one hand, there was an increasing trend to purchase land for speculative purposes – the price of land, especially when located next to the highway or if easily accessible from it – was increasing rapidly. On the other hand, many of the recipients of khas land had not got any patta or the legal deed. The status of many such plots were legally contested, but the poor were the de facto cultivators of these plots with the support of the CPI(M). Despite such support, we met several sharecroppers who chose not to register themselves so as to enjoy the “trust” of the landowners. Agricultural workers also entered such informal contracts with landowners by promising to pay a fixed share of the produce or cash in return. As the poor had little chances of getting cash advances from the commercial banks, they were compelled to depend upon such moral resources. Some of these landowners charged interest as high as 10% to 15% per day. Even the wage rates fluctuated to the disadvantage of the local poor particularly when the migrant workers from Bankura, Purulia and even Dumka entered the region seasonally. (The much p ublicised National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme was not introduced at the time of our fieldwork; its low coverage in West Bengal in the later period can be read in the light of a consorted attempt to keep the local wage-rates low.) For the l andless and the poor, it seemed, an exit from agriculture to other areas of informal production and services was the only option.

2.1.2 Institutional Ambience of Power

The village panchayat – which was under the CPI(M)’s control – stood in popular perception as a combination of governmental resources, a crucial intermediary and a local adjudicator. It disbursed excludable as well as non-excludable goods, fulfilled p ublic as well as private needs, and negotiated both within and between villages as well as other panchayat bodies and the state administration. The institution occupied the political centre-stage, accommodating various disputes and dissents. Reciprocity between the panchayat, the political parties and the population at large, therefore, was crucial for the stability of Galsi’s party-society.

Such reciprocity, however, was not always evident or – when present – unproblematic. The panchayat, it was argued, lacked neutrality regarding the disbursement of excludable goods. Ambika Mete (25), who was a land department employee of the state government, alleged that the panchayat was keen to serve only the matabbars of the CPI(M). Nevertheless, “everybody has something or other to do with it as it settles most disputes at the local level… so people rarely have to go to the court or the police

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station these days”. Sukumar Majhi who sharecropped four bighas of land blamed the panchayat for failing to bring electricity to his neighbourhood (only 60% of households in the village were c onnected). He was also unhappy because the panchayat had agreed to share canal water with neighbouring Aushgram, which would directly hit his boro crops. “In taking most such decisions”, Sukumar complained, “our opinion was never sought”.


SC women like Latika and Kabita Majhi and Bula Karmakar blamed the panchayat and the CPI(M) for doing precious little to stop the influx of immigrant workers depressing agricultural wage rates. “Why shouldn’t the panchayat ensure job primarily for our men?” they asked. They were bitter about the primary health centre in the village, and made the panchayat responsible for its lack of supervision. The health workers were irregular and when they showed up they refused to provide medicines to the patients. “Rather they persuade us to visit the private clinics”. The upper caste villagers, by contrast, complained that the panchayat was partial towards the SCs. Nimaichandra Barui, a resident of P ubpara (that has a high SC concentration) alleged that the p anchayat was indifferent to the plight of people like him. “The panchayat goes out of its way to provide electricity to lower caste families; when we ask for it, we are told to pay for the poles”.

Deenabandhu Majhi (55), a SC panchayat-member, however, saw nothing wrong in such caste-biases. Majhi was a sharecropper, yet (surprisingly) not got recorded under Operation Barga. He worked also as a gharami (builder of kuchcha houses). Recalling the Congress period when he was a munish for the upper caste babus working 12 hours a day for Rs 12 and a sher of rice (often less), he said, “I was offered khoraki (lunch) on broken utensils that the babus would not even touch”. People like him were beaten up under the slightest pretext, but many were ever grateful to the babus for the dadan (advances) on offer – the going rates were as high as 100% per month. Deenabandhu believed that it was imperative for the panchayat to be pro-SCs as a garib-dorodi-dal (literally, a party with sympathy for the poor) was now in power. He wanted the panchayat to urgently address “education for our children… the only way they can climb the steps of this society”.

It is doubtful, however, if the panchayat genuinely paid deserving attention to those who were at the margins of the society – migrant wage workers and the settlers – who had no legal rights over land or property. People living in shacks along the canal complained that the panchayat had nothing to offer them. Hena Das Bairagya (42), a baishnab, was the mother of four – a son and three daughters – worked as a domestic cook, and so did her husband, Shibu. She made several futile attempts to get a share of the panchayat’s house-building funds meant for the below poverty line (BPL) population. “We cannot help an illegal settler”, she was told. As she could not be a self-help group (SHG) member, she was not entitled to the loans the panchayat arranged for such groups, nor could she cook mid-day meals for schools. The members got machines to make muri (flaked rice), which did not come her way either. She was upset and bitter, had no idea how to make the panchayat appreciate her needs.

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The line between the panchayat and the ruling party was often porous, the former merely endorsed or formalised decisions taken by the latter. This was evident from the way the Village Development Council (VDC) was constituted in a crucial gram sansad meeting (on 24 April 2005). The meeting, attended by about 45 people, was presided over by Monimohan Banerjee, the pradhan (head) of the Galsi-II village panchayat in the presence of Reena Haldar, the elected member from Booth No 44. Banodevi Bauri, the leader of Ganatantrik Mohila Samity (CPI(M)’s women front), came with a good number of women. Though the villagers themselves were expected to propose names for the VDC, they did not. Monimohan read out names from a piece of paper, and those present were asked to ratify them. None opposed any name, nor enthusiastically supported any. Of the 20 members selected, we were told, 10 were very close to the CPI(M).

Space for Women

We also learnt that most women present in the meeting were SHG members, and they came as groups. The SHGs were constituted and the anganwadi workers were moblised mainly by the Mohila Samity. This enabled the samity to establish a strong link with the poor dalit families, draw information on domestic matters, and launch various campaigns on social issues such as alcoholism or dowry. Correspondingly, it enabled the panchayat and the party to form a fairly intimate understanding of the locality.

The rise of the SHGs as an important associative space for rural women deserves more probing. Take the case of Sarada SHG, which initially had 10 members. Two of its leading members opened a joint bank account in July 2003. Eight other members made an initial deposit of Rs 25 each and Rs 20 every subsequent month. Impressed by their regularity, the bank lent Rs 18,000 to the group in March 2005. The amount was divided equally between its 10 members. Most of them used the money for productive purposes. Moreover, five members of the group cooked mid-day meals and got 10 paise per student per day and a monthly Rs 400. All the 10 members were keen to expand and diversify their business. They were repaying at a monthly rate of Rs 100, which was beyond their imagination even two years ago.

With the rise in income, their aspirations grew as well. They could now make financial contributions to their families, a source of social dignity. Initially, the male family members – especially their husbands and in-laws – were reluctant, if not resistant, to the idea of “a woman going out to earn money”. Now all this had changed. In fact, the “large” loan that they received from the bank turned their husbands into active supporters of the programme. “They now stand by us when our in-laws say bad things”, remarked a member. Especially as many of these women have no bank account (the banks are averse to small depositors, anyway), they find it difficult to “protect” the cash from their own family members.

The condition of women in Galsi, however, was fraught with numerous difficulties. Female literacy was merely 52.20% (against 68.05% male literacy). We found the prevalence of dowry among not only the Hindu, but also the Muslim households. Santana Begam’s (32) father (who after her mother’s death married again and lived separately) paid Rs 30,000 in cash, gold ornaments weighing seven bhari (approximately 77 grammes), a gold n ecklace and a bicycle to the groom. In another incident, a woman was strangled to death in a neighbouring village as her parents failed to meet an additional dowry demand. Rates of dowry, we were told, went up with the groom’s education and family status.

The dal “takes special care to discourage anaitik (immoral) activities in our neighbourhood”. In an incident in Moirapara, a married woman, a mother of two children (two and three years old) who died from severe burns was widely believed to have been frequently abused and tortured by her husband and his family. The police sent the body for post-mortem. The CPI(M) activists gheraoed the in-laws’ house demanding explanation for her death, without which they would not allow the cremation. The in-laws offered money to the woman’s parents and persuaded them to withdraw the police case, accepting it as a case of “s uicide”. They promised to meet all expenses of their younger daughter’s marriage. As some members of the in-laws’ family tried to smuggle the body from the morgue, the party workers stopped them, and insisted that cremation would be allowed only if the in-laws publicly announced that they would look after both the children and make them the legal heir of their father’s p roperty. The in-laws complied and the cremation took place.

2.1.3 Emerging Economies

For decades Galsi had a robust commercial and civic life. Husking mills and rice mills encircled the marketplace that sold a wide array of farm and non-farm products. The village also had several nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), and clubs hosting sports and cultural events, a traders’ association and a branch of the Lion’s Club International. Membership of the traders’ association rose rapidly: 65 in 1984, 175 in 1993, and 330 in 2005. The Lion’s Club organised periodic health camps. As our fieldwork was underway, proposals came for setting up plastic and aluminium factories, and a private hospital. The village had a thriving informal credit m arket, fuelled by the local business classes, s alary earners and those returned from Durgapur or Asansol after retirement.

Such non-farm activities intensified following the “crisis” of agriculture since the mid-1990s (coinciding with our “third phase”). The situation changed with the rising wage and cost of inputs, stagnant production and price of the produce, depleting land fertility, fragmentation of family holdings and declining per capita earning from land. A section of the upper caste landowners sold their land; even deposits at the post office assured higher returns. Those who could invest relatively large capital now began to modernise small factories, husking or rice mills. Some moved out to Durgapur or Kolkata in search of jobs. Some turned to low skilled manual work like carpentry or masonry.

The low caste and Muslim agricultural workers and cultivators coped with the crisis differently. They bought the land they cultivated from the owner at a reasonable price. The bargadars took either a fourth of the land they operated on or its equivalent in cash from the owner, to give up their rights over the land or part of it. Unlike the upper castes, most SC men and women were toilers, so some opportunities opened for them also in the low-end informal market. Both the newly acquired property and nonagricultural opportunities somewhat released these classes from their dependence on some key families in the village. Occasional

64 signs of defiance, consequently, started to surface. This made the upper castes jittery. They blamed the CPI(M) for such “outright violation of age-old norms” and for “killing the society”.

Commercial Linkages

As job opportunities in the organised sector were scarce, the new mantra for the upper caste young and educated was “self- reliance”. The unemployed were taking small steps to set up petty trade and business. They were acquiring computer skills, supplying building materials, working for the private insurance companies, canvassing as sales representatives for various products, teaching in coaching centres, repairing electronic goods, running small-scale car rentals, etc. With such activities proliferating, new commercial linkages rapidly developed. A new demand for education and skills was felt, cutting across classes, castes and gender.

Sanjoy Sarkar (29) sought to spread mushroom cultivation in Galsi, which had a global demand and, therefore, export potentials. For that he needed consolidation of landholding, hygienic environment and extensive use of organic fertilisers. In addition he required the right business contacts and skills, for which he approached Agro-India Limited, a corporate body that specialised in mushroom trade. The company, with branches in Barasat and Goshaba, lapped up Sanjoy’s invitation to open shop in Galsi. He now produces around 40 kg and sells – as an introductory offer – at Rs 40 per kg. He also works for an NGO Aikatan, and was encouraging the NGOs and SHGs in the village to join his b usiness.

Some civic initiatives in Galsi came mainly from the village notables who could raise money for such purposes. For example, following his retirement from the Durgapur Steel Plant, Ajit Roy

(62) undertook a project to clean the cremation ground on the eastern fringe of the village. As few people visited the place, the area adjacent to the burning ghat was a jungle, a meeting point for petty criminals. In the beginning, only a handful of volunteers gave him some help. He mobilised some young men to clear the weeds and build a path to the cremation ground. Ajit then collected around Rs 85,000, a large part of which came from the rice mill owners, to build a concrete pier and to repair the adjacent Kali temple. The block development officer offered Rs 80,000 for the work, but he refused that money. “If we take money from the government, the panchayat or the party, the shadharan (the c ommon people) would lose their control”, he argued. Eventually, the area next to the ghat and the temple was converted into a decent park; visitors paid Rs 10 each for bhog. The local p opulation was becoming less dependent on the panchayat or the party as alternative agencies for civic work were emerging. The poor, however, were left out of such expanding grid of private initiatives. Rather, their reliance on the party or the panchayat was far more acute than the relatively better off.

We indicated earlier that the rising input/wage costs and the declining crop-prices brought some profit only to the selfcultivating Ramasudra and Bagdi peasants. We mentioned Deenabandhu Majhi’s account of indignities as he worked as a munish. Now he is a sharecropper on six bighas (one bigha is one-third of an acre) of – curiously – unrecorded land and also works as a gharami. He was the secretary of the CPI(M)’s branch committee. While he never went to school, his elder son runs a grocery shop

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after completing higher secondary, and the younger one had finished secondary education. Deenabandhu told us that something “very important is happening, there’s now a hunger among our boys and girls for education that I’ve never seen before”. N evertheless, due to the pressing need to earn money the lower caste students had the highest dropout rates in the village.

While caste in Galsi did not produce any identity-based p olitical solidarity, sharp differences along castes were routinely visible in daily social interaction. Lower caste students routinely took mid-day meals served at the school; the upper castes often did not. Some upper caste parents considered it insulting to allow their children eat meals at school sitting next to children from low caste families. A father told us how embarrassed he was for sending his son to the government-run school, as “people think these schools are meant only for those who cannot afford a decent meal at home”. That lower caste women of the SHGs who almost always cooked the mid-day meals did not help to soothe such upper caste feelings.

At times, however, the caste equations went awry, as it did for Piyali Roy. Piyali’s mother told her repeatedly not to eat meals at school, which she diligently followed. But once meat was served, she could not resist eating. When her mother was told, she became angry and beat her up. Her father, however, thought the mother was wrong. “He has told me to eat when they serve good food”.

2.2 Adhata

Adhata is close to Kolkata, on National Highway (NH) 34, a dangerously narrow and immensely busy north-south corridor, just 12 km north of Barasat, a municipal town in North 24 Parganas district. Between Barasat and Adhata is a busy market – Awalsiddhir mor – a four-point crossing. Adhata spreads on both sides of the NH-34. On the eastern side there are three prominent buildings: the panchayat bhavan, the health centre and the village library. On the western side is the girls’ high school. There are plenty of small shops on both sides. Little ahead, to the right of the highway, a large transformer of the State Electricity Board is located behind a barbed-wire fencing. People regularly travel to Barasat and Kolkata for work. Adhata is a rural setting with good communications with the city.

The mauja had a population of little over 4,000, of which around 50% were Muslims, followed by SCs (47% in local estimates and 33.76% according to the state government’s figures). The SCs comprised mainly of Namasudra (immigrants) and a small number of Dule, Muchi, and Bagdi (original inhabitants) communities. Both general Hindu castes and STs had negligible presence, between 1% and 2% of the population. Literacy in the village was 68% (73.77% male and 61.81% female).

The main crop in Adhata was paddy. That apart, the village produced jute, mustard, vegetables and pulses. Earlier the boro cultivation was heavily dependent on shallow tube wells. In recent years as the water level had gone down rather alarmingly, shallow pumps were rendered useless. People purchased irrigation water from deep tube wells and “cylinder” pumps, located on strategic points in the village. The village had a number of small-scale (family-based) workshops manufacturing plywood, shoe heels, biri, etc, in the informal sector. Muslim women were

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engaged in zari work on sarees. The village had a fish hatchery, a cattle raising farm, and a cooperative society.

Most upper caste landowners left the village and settled in nearby Barasat or Kolkata from where they could supervise their property. Among the SCs, some were original inhabitants of the village, a large group were immigrants from East Pakistan and then later also from Bangladesh who settled here in 1960s and 1970s. These Namasudra peasants drastically changed the local social ambience. They brought cash, bought land, were better educated, not averse to their women working, and were soon to improve their economic conditions leaving the locals behind. Three SC neighbourhoods were Dulepara (40 to 50 households), Beltala (mainly Namasudra wageworkers, 20 to 25 households), Podpara (original inhabitants, Poundrakshatriyas, 15 to 20 f amilies).

Only 4% of the village population were employed in various services, and 1% in petty trade. Of the cultivating classes, a substantial section – 75% – were marginal farmers, followed by 16% small, 8.5% medium and only 0.5% large farmers. Of the agricultural workers, more than half (60%) were landless. Clearly, therefore, the village did not have a robust non-farm commercial economy (the main contrast with Galsi). Rather it was almost exclusively agricultural with a large population of poor peasants and landless agricultural workers.

2.2.1 Political Processes

The village panchayat in Adhata had changed hands intermittently between the Congress (occasionally in alliance with the TMC) and the CPI(M) (this surely was another contrast with Galsi). At the time of our fieldwork in 2005, the village had a CPI(M)-led panchayat (of the 15 seats, 10 were from CPI(M), two from the Forward Bloc, one from TMC, and two from Congress). There were factions within all political parties, and cases of swapping from one party to another were not rare. Factions within CPI(M) usually ran along the divisions within the district-level leadership of the party. The left in Adhata included both the CPI(M) and the Forward Bloc. In fact, the Bloc’s presence in the village predated the CPI(M)’s. In the 1950s and the 1960s, both the Congress and the Forward Bloc were involved in a number of village-based welfare-oriented activities. So the identification of the Congress with the “oppressive” landlords was not as complete in Adhata as it was in Galsi. While the loyalty of the Muslims was split between the Forward Bloc, the CPI(M) and the Congress, the bulk of Namasudra immigrants were CPI(M) voters, a section of which was allegedly – of late – turning toward the tMC. Clearly, the CPI(M) did not enjoy the exclusive loyalty of the poor here as was the case in Galsi.

In the 1950s and the 1960s Adhata was a Congress dominated village. The Congress leaders were Haladhar Karmakar (now above 80 years), Pashupati Ghosh and Neelmoni Ghosh. The landed classes benefited from the nagade system that made every agricultural worker permanently attached – similar to a bonded labour – to a landed family. The sharecroppers had no formal rights that made, like everywhere else, their eviction all too easy. The first round of protest against such exploitations was organised by two leaders of the Tebhaga movement, Hemanta Ghoshal and Ashok Bose, who were hiding in a nearby village (Urla) in the late 1950s. They also made the first communist forays into Adhata.

The other left wing influence, as mentioned, was that of the Forward Bloc. Chitta Basu, a senior leader of the party, contested and won in 1957 from the Barasat parliamentary constituency, of which Adhata was a part. In the Food Movement of 1959 Sheikh Abdul Barik (73), who presently is a state committee member of the Forward Bloc with considerable influence over the local Muslims, led a massive mobilisation of the poor peasants. Ohida Bibi, his wife, won in the panchayat election in 2003 as a Forward Bloc candidate and was made the upa-pradhan. Rivalry between the CPI(M) and Forward Bloc, both overt and covert, constituted an interesting aspect of the village politics.

The CPI(M) gained popularity in the village mainly among the immigrants from East Pakistan (later, Bangladesh) and also the Muslims. An organiser from Gadamara, Harihar Das, with assistance from a local schoolteacher, Nimai Biswas, launched the CPI(M) in Adhata way back in 1967. Subsequently, after the panchayat came into existence, two young men – Prashanta Biswas and Shanti Das – emerged as its leaders. With the Left Front in power, the party conducted a series of campaigns and mobilisation in the interest of the agricultural workers and the sharecroppers. The wage rate increased from Rs 3 in 1978, to Rs 20 in 1990, to around Rs 35 in 2000. Currently it is Rs 40 in addition to a meal. Though the party mobilised sharecroppers to get their names officially registered (Operation Barga), the landowners moved the court; some cases are still pending. Both agricultural workers and sharecroppers considered the party instrumental in improving their economic status.

2.2.2 Changing Lives, Changing Politics

To understand the principal changes that took place in Adhata in the last three decades we focused on the lives of some key villagers. An agricultural worker’s life, for instance, illustrated the changing conditions of work in the village. Gopal Chandra D urlabh (49) saw his mother work as a domestic help in a babu’s house. His father, heavily in debt, was a Nagade. As a child he earned Rs 4 a month from grazing the babu’s cattle. The first signs of change were noticed even before 1977 as the deep tubewells were sunk and big landed families installed diesel-run s hallow pumps on their lands. When the village got its electricity after 1977, electric pumps were introduced. With the assured s upply of water, the intensity and frequency of cropping increased , raising the demand for wage work. Eventually “t ractors” (hand-held power-tillers) were deployed during the peak seasons for up to three shifts a day. Workers were also needed to operate these machines. With the rise in agricultural output, a section of the middle peasant households made enough cash to branch off to petty business. Small workshops manufacturing plastic materials, furniture, jewellery, as well as fisheries and poultry sprung up in the neighbourhood. Such enterprises meant opportunities for more and varied work for the landless. Against Rs 40 to Rs 60 paid for a day’s work on the fields, a mason earned Rs 90 and his assistant Rs 70 a day.

Gopal was different from most other agricultural workers in that he had completed school in 1973. He tried his hands in various occupations: as agricultural wageworker, casual worker in the state government’s social forestry project, and daily wager in

66 road construction. Though he was desperately looking for an assured job, nothing came his way. He got two short-term jobs as a trainer in the adult education programme and in the state-run mass literacy campaign. They helped him earn monthly allowances of Rs 50 and Rs 150, respectively. The amounts were so small that Gopal continued to supplement them with agricultural wages. Finally, in 1997 he was appointed as a night-guard for the village market for a monthly salary of Rs 240.

Gopal’s wife worked as an anganwadi worker conducting s urveys on women and children, taking care of pregnant wives, educating and feeding children below three years. She earned Rs 900 a month. During the last four years she was also leading an SHG. The group ran a small business selling rubber bands – which they made from rejected car tyres – and garlands. She had two sons and a daughter. The elder son was studying accountancy in a Naihati college. The daughter worked as an anganwadi worker after completing higher secondary. The younger son was studying in the eighth class. Both Gopal and his wife supported the CPI(M) for its legacy of barga and wage struggles of the 1980s. After all “we haven’t got any special help from the party”.

Campaigns for Social Justice

Many of those wage and barga related campaigns were conducted by a young and energetic leadership that emerged within the CPI(M) in the early years of the left rule. Prashanta Biswas (54), one among them, continues to command considerable political influence. Prashanta was twice elected as the pradhan of the village panchayat (in 1988 and 1998). Educated, with a good deal of tact and conviction, an employee of a library in Srikrishnapur (in neighbouring Habra-II block), Prashanta truly represented a g eneration of local leaders devoted to defend the Left Front and its policies since 1977. Prashanta’s father had eight bighas of land barely enabling him to educate his five sons. Prashanta was introduced to the world of politics by a Maoist activist who came from Chandannagar to take shelter in the village in the early 1970s.

Manoj Mandal, was warm, friendly and interacted widely with young men. He encouraged the local boys to build a club – A darsha Sangha – so that they could do some social work. He convinced the boys that social justice demanded that they seize land from the landlords and give it to the landless. Only Prashanta and two others were aware of Manoj’s political identity. Once, in the night, Manoj and these three boys painted graffiti on the walls of several pucca houses hailing Chairman Mao Zedong and the Chinese revolution. Next morning the villagers were shocked to find Mao’s portrait and slogans on the walls. Shantiranjan Das, one of them, used to distribute Maoist pamphlets in the village travelling surreptitiously with a group of kirtaniyas singing devotional songs. After the Left Front came to power, Manoj Mandal withdrew from politics and left the village.

Manoj’s influence, however, stayed with Prashanta. He joined the student wing of the Forward Bloc and contested elections in a Barasat college. Eventually both Prasanata and Shanti were spotted by the district leadership of the CPI(M) and inducted to the party. In 1978 Prasanata got elected to the village panchayat with the CPI(M)’s nomination. Shanti Das, who also won with a CPI(M) ticket, became the upa-pradhan. Both played key roles in the

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i nitial barga and wage movements. During this the domination of the big landed families – of Haladhar Karmakar, Pashupati Ghosh and Neelmoni Ghosh – weakened significantly.

The party, as elsewhere, had to face formidable resistance during the recording of barga land belonging to the big landowners – Ranen Biswa’s 14 bighas, Ashok Dutta’s 18 bighas, Pashupati Ghosh’s four bighas, Haladhar Karmakar’s five bighas, Panchu Ghosh’s three bighas. They put up a united resistance. Ranen Biswas showed maximum stridency. He sought to communalise the atmosphere by inciting the Muslims to attack two Hindu sharecroppers (Mahadeb and Makhan Mandal) who cultivated his land. But that did not work; a number of Muslim sharecroppers (Rajab Ali, Shaheed Hossein, Asraf Ali, Noor Mohammed, etc) had also benefited from the recording. When violence erupted in 1979, the sharecroppers could protect their rights with the aid of the party and the police. Although some landowners moved the court against recording, and some cases are still p ending, the sharecroppers had maintained their de facto control over land and frequently stopped paying any share to the l andowners.

In the last three decades Prashanta saw significant changes in the village economy. The big landowners stopped purchasing anymore land. Rather, they were keen to sell off some of their holdings. The price of agricultural land was declining, from Rs 40,000 a bigha some years ago to Rs 20,000 in 2005. This was mainly due to the rising input costs for boro cultivation. Over the last couple of decades the immigrants from the east were the net purchasers of land; they now owned half the village’s agricultural property. They diversified from traditional crops like paddy and jute to lentil, mustard and vegetable and also switched to n on-farm sectors, thanks to their basic skills and education.

2.2.3 Factions and Frictions

Although Prashanta was locally popular, his position within the party had weakened following a factional strife around a controversial land deal in the village. When in 2003 it was expected that the party would nominate him to the zilla parishad (district panchayat), he was not even given a ticket to contest at the village level. The dispute was over Ashok Krishna Dutta’s land (about 20 bighas) next to NH34. Ashok Krishna, an influential Congress leader, stayed elsewhere, and Haladhar Karmakar supervised the property. Haladhar rented it out to 11 bargadars (five tribal, three dalit and three Muslim) and they were eventually recorded. A section of the CPI(M) “voting-supporters” (Prashanta refused to call them even “CPI(M)-supporters”) from the village contacted Ashok Krishna to persuade him to sell the land. Since Ashok Krishna did not get regular payment from Haladhar, he readily agreed. The local agents then contacted a few CPI(M) leaders in Barasat, who introduced them to Satya Sen, a town-based real estate developer. Satya offered to pay Rs 16,00,000 to Ashok Krishna; the latter consented. Satya made an immediate payment of Rs 3,00,000 to seal the deal. He then p roceeded to negotiate with the bargadars.

The bargadars refused to even talk. When they appeared unwavering, Satya met Prashanta, who was then the pradhan, and sought his help. Prashanta refused, saying that he would not risk his political credibility to mediate in an illegal deal. After a series

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of appeals, however, Prashanta agreed to reconsider only if the builders agreed to use the entire land to set up a factory, assured job to every displaced bargadar (or a family-member) and paid them the same amount that Ashok Krishna was promised. This would have required the promoter to spend just Rs 32,00,000 to obtain a plot worth at least Rs 60,00,000, he argued.

Satya Sen had very different plans. He wanted to split the land into small plots for housing. While publicly claiming that a factory was being planned he indulged in quite different kinds of activities. He received the power of attorney and charged the bargadars before the block land revenue office (BLRO) for nonpayment of their dues to Ashok Krishna (case no 19/2002) which, if proven, would annul their tenancy rights. The officer made an enquiry (on 26 December 2002) where the bargadars submitted that they had regularly been paying rent to Haladhar Karmakar. Haladhar flatly denied that he ever received any rent. The BLR officer saw through the design. He decided to re-record the names of the existing bargadars as some of those recorded two and half decades ago were now deceased. Recording was now done for 13 bargadars (originally 11).

When attempts through legal means did not work in his favour, Satya used other means. He started to allure particularly the tribal bargadars promising Rs 30,000 for every bigha they p ossessed (the market rate would be 10 times that amount). Eventually seven of these men succumbed and accepted full p ayment, three accepted partial payment, while three refused. When P rasanta learnt about this, he persuaded those who had accepted partial payment to return the money. To appease Prashanta, Satya Sen brought some officials of a biscuit manufacturing company to the village as “potential investors”, but Prashanta declined to even meet them. Following this, the promoter took control of the land he purchased from seven bargadars and made a makeshift shed on it. When Prashanta with some of his followers went to demolish the structure, Satya sent a large number of armed men. Both sides, however, desisted from a final showdown. While a faction of the CPI(M)’s district leadership was supporting Prashanta (Amitabha Bose – Amitabha Nandi), Satya Sen reportedly received backing from a rival faction (Subhash Chakraborty).

Frictions were also apparent in the CPI(M)’s dealings with one of its coalition partners, the Forward Bloc. As was mentioned e arlier the Amdanga region where Adhata is located had traditionally been a Forward Bloc base. It was only in the last three decades that the CPI(M) had increased its influence in the area. Bhuban Das (61) who had always been with the Bloc alleged, “our leaders make friends with the CPI(M) and enjoy the comfort of the Writers’ Building (the administrative headquarter of the state), while ordinary workers like us are left in the lurch to fight it out with the CPI(M); this is unbearable”. Bhuban quit the Forward Bloc in the late 1980s and continued to stay away from party-politics. But the Bloc’s retreat and the CPI(M)’s advances were almost irreversible. “If we try to expand the organisational base of our party”, remarked Sheikh Abdul Barik (73), the leader of the Forward Bloc and a member of the zilla parishad, “we surely will get into a series of clashes with the CPI(M); we keep that in mind”.

We get a sense of the changes that is taking place among the Muslims in Adhata from Barik’s account. “Our people have no moho (temptation) for land anymore”, he told us. Cultivation brought some profit only for the toilers, so he diverted his five bighas to horticulture. Half of the Muslims in Adhata were landless and engaged in various commercial activities. Around 70 to 80 people worked as helpers for some 15 trucks that carried fish daily from the village to places in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They earned about Rs 600 a month. Majority of those who repaired tube wells were also Muslims. Many Muslims drove commercial vehicles. Most of these men had little formal schooling; education did not seem a priority here. A good number of educated Muslims, in fact, were unemployed. Barik thought that a Hindu graduate stood a better chance to land a good job than his Muslim counterpart simply because the latter lacks a quality network in the city. As job opportunities in the formal sector were getting squeezed, even political recommendations were no guarantee for a job anymore. This made the young somewhat reluctant to join politics.

Barik did not worry about the communal situation in Adhata “though some past incidents are still fresh in our memory”. When asked to provide examples of communal amity he said that he interacted “freely” with the Hindus: “I enter the Hindu house without any warning (hutpat kore dhuke pori) and ask the bouma (daughter-in-law) to bring me tea; they also feel happy about it”. He once inaugurated a Durga puja in the village. In an incident the police arrested the secretary of the Kali temple committee for illegally encroaching upon Public Works Department (PWD) land. Barik got him released. “If I invite 800 guests to my son’s wedding, you can bet that 300 will be Hindus”, he said with a broad smile.

As mentioned before, factional fights in the CPI(M) was rather frequent in Adhata. Some activists were marginalised, like Prashanta Biswas. One leading member of the party, Tapan Kumar Ghosh (52), not only quit the CPI(M) but also joined the rival TMC. He campaigned with the left for land reforms, became an auxiliary member of the CPI(M) in 1985, and a member of its local committee in 1994 (the same year as Prashanta). In 1995 he was appointed the secretary of the managing committee of a boys’ school in the village. He considered himself a victim of the party’s factional politics, which he reckoned started since the early 1990s. The CPI(M), however, maintained that Tapan was expelled from the party on proven charges of corruption.

2.2.4 Perils of Party-Society

Tapan’s allegations against the rival faction within the CPI(M) gives an idea of the nature of activities that went on to reproduce dominance in the local party-society. Tapan alleged that Nabarun Das (name changed), a local committee member of the CPI(M) in Gadamara, routinely sent “duplicate candidates” for the school board examinations. Nobody dared to stop him. The party invariably nominated secretaries to the managing committees of the local schools. When Tapan’s name was discussed, the local committee was divided. Though Tapan was sent in the end, the panchayat prevented him from undertaking any developmental work for the school. The panchayat samiti stopped a Rs 66,000 grant meant for repairing the school building. In the school committee elections the CPI(M) allegedly maintained its dominance by ensuring that children from its “trusted” families got admission every year on priority. Though such charges were mostly

68 u nsubstantiated, they nonetheless represent possible designs for running an effective organisation in a party-society.

Tapan severely criticised the panchayat’s mode of functioning. The panchayat was steered by a CPI(M)-run committee. Even this committee had little power of consequence. Tapan was in such a committee when Prashanta was the pradhan. “He used to listen to us patiently, but never did what we said”. The present pradhan, Manilal Mandal, was “just a puppet in Prashanta’s hands”. Money flowed only to those neighbourhoods where the party was strong. To find yourself in the BPL list you had to be a party loyalist. The beneficiary committees were packed with party sympathisers. The party had favoured the Namasudra immigrants in exchange for loyalty, Tapan believed that signs of cracks were now evident. “Earlier the CPI(M) could easily fill three trucks to a Brigade meeting, these days filling even a single truck is headache for the leadership”, he claimed.

In 2003, Tapan contested as the TMC candidate from Ward No 26 and lost by 127 votes. In Ward No 27 another TMC candidate lost narrowly, by just 13 votes. “These clearly are bad signs for the CPI(M)”. In 2001 assembly election the People’s Democratic Front (PDF) (a breakaway coalition of mainly those who deserted the CPI(M)) wanted Tapan to contest. He declined, and worked for the TMC candidate Nurujjuman. Since then relationship with the CPI(M) has reached the rock bottom. At the time of our conversation Tapan was feeling threatened. He always t ravelled with two party workers giving him company. Ironically, Tapan was also very unhappy about the TMC. “I grew up in a politics that made me realise the value of a principled organisation”, he remarked, “Nothing like that is available in the Trinamool Congress”. Still, he was with that party because he wanted to be in public life and he wanted to be secure. “A political party is like a gang of criminals”, he said rather philosophically, “You leave one only to be part of another, you see”.

3 Conclusions

This account of changing conditions in two villages – which are neither alike nor representative in any way – offers snapshots of some emerging issues and dynamics of the state’s rural political economy. The understanding of these issues requires a theoretical framework to identify the new elements of West Bengal’s rural politics and its sociability which are quite unique and distinctive in the Indian context.

The paper attempts to explain these complexities in the light of the idea of “party-society”.

Both Galsi and Adhata show how party-society evolved here by eclipsing the older forms of patron-client relationship based on social and economic hierarchies. Land reform legislations and local government bodies (the panchayats) were the tools and the CPI(M) (as well as its peasant wing, the Krishak Sabha) was the primary agent to bring about this change. The new politics set new norms of transaction to which every political outfit – the r uling side as well as the opposition – had to conform, willingly or unwillingly. In this the organisational grid of political party was largely accepted as the chief mediator, the central conduit, in the settling of every village matter: private or public, individual or collective, familial or associational. Due to its organisational

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cohesion and history of pro-poor mobilisation, the CPI(M) was the principal beneficiary of party-society in the initial years of the Left Front.

Party-society was a big step in democratising rural politics. It gave respite to the rural poor from their dependency on the exploitative landed families, it created a more equitable space for deliberation, produced a governmental locality in the form of the village panchayat, and carried out numerous measures that enabled the underprivileged and the marginal to realise a host of rights in practice that were nothing but legal fictions earlier. It is widely accepted that within a decade of coming to power the Left Front implemented a host of pro-poor reforms that turned one of the country’s most volatile states into a governable entity. This could happen because party-society in its early years carried an assured promise of democracy.

This paper also shows how and why such a promise of the early years of the Left Front rule failed to take off in the decades that followed. The redistributive zeal of the local government eventually got sucked into the managerial functions of the local bureaucracy. The initial impetus of land reforms failed to facilitate productive investments in agriculture once the period of rapid agricultural growth was over. The raison d’etre of a reformist party shifted its focus from the movements of the underpriviledged classes to a conduct tuned primarily to its electoral renewal. The comfort of social stasis – repetitive and mechanical – appeared more reassuring than the uncertainties of expanding the democratic space. Politics, as a process, lost its ethical charge and transformative agenda.

Various local – and not so local – changes in the last two decades have signalled that the existing form of party-society is unsustainable and that new modes of political transactions are emerging in rural West Bengal. The government’s capacity to offer social welfare is receding, agriculture is experiencing an impasse without corresponding pull from industries, a growing number of people carrying nominal skills and capabilities are desperately seeking entry into the informal economy, the insulation between the local market and the predatory corporate economy is getting fragile by the day, agricultural land conducive for real estate or industrial development is being devoured by c ash-rich entrepreneurs at an alarming pace, and “development” in the new economic milieu is appearing as an exclusionary, unsocial techno-managerial project meant to produce a highly unequal distribution of property and opportunity. Consequently, the lure of cash is playing a far more important role in producing local differences than ever before; schisms and factional strives are putting enormous strain on the political parties’ – including the CPI(M)’s – capacity to control local politics.

In response to these changes two very different views – both clothed in the popular language of democracy – are proposed. The first is steeped in a yearning, in essence, for the preservation of older rural forms. Various creeds of romantic anti- developmentalists, environmentalists, and radical left outfits as well as some political opportunists are pushing this. The other view is drawing a rosy picture of rapid transformation – of rural areas to towns, agriculture to industry, livelihood demands to lifestyle preferences, and beneficiary status to stakeholder interests in a manner that, in effect, somewhat exaggerates the idea of “vanishing villages” (Gupta 2005). In this sharply polarised world carving a morally acceptable route for development, without compromising its electoral prospect, is the greatest challenge for the CPI(M) and its coalition.

This calls for an innovative strategic engagement with the globalisation of corporate capital from below, from the end of the poor and the socially marginal. In this largely uncharted path the urgent need is to build mobilised solidarities of the wageworkers, sharecroppers and poor peasants to raise the level of their education, enlarge their skills, provide them with quality public provisions such as healthcare, reduce their economic vulnerabilities, secure their legal rights, procure adequate compensation for them in case of losses and hardships.

As our fieldwork showed, the poor – especially the dalit and the tribal population – felt increasingly alienated from the institutional politics of party-society. Indeed, if institutions cannot innovate ways to accommodate the poor – as was done during the implementation of land reform laws – the atrophy of partysociety may create space for various “forbidden forms of claim making” (Samaddar 2008) that have little regard for the existing

democratic norms.


Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (1994): “Limits of Legal Radicalism: Land Reforms and the Left Front in West Bengal”, Calcutta Historical Review, 16, (1):57-100.

Bhattacharyya, M and S Bhattacharyya (2007): “Agrarian Impasse in West Bengal in the Liberalisation Era”, Economic & Political Weekly, 42 (52), 29 December, 65-71.

Chatterjee, Partha (1997): The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (Delhi: Oxford University Press).

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Economic & Political Weekly

february 28, 2009 VOL XLIV No 9

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