Prospects of Radical Change in Bihar: Recuperating the Diseased Heart of India

by Shishir K. Jha

. . . the battle must break out again and again in ever growing dimensions, and there can be no doubt as to who will be the victor in the end, - the appropriating few, or the immense working majority.
-- Karl Marx: 'The Civil War in France', 30 May 1871.

The sheer persistence of monumental social, economic and political problems of India, provides attestation on the one hand, to the clear exploitative interests of her ruling class and perhaps tragically, on the other, to the seldom realized goals of its social justice movements. The Maoist movements of India have, in the last thirty years, been attempting to give an ardent hope to her revolutionary dreams. Currently there is great euphoria among the upper segments of Indian society regarding the wondrous opportunities being made available by "liberalizing" her domestic economy. This 'opening up' of the economy to mostly western capital is nothing but the slow and sure surrender of her economic and political sovereignty.

After fifty years of Independence, India faces abysmal conditions with over forty percent of the population (around 400 million) living below the poverty line. With high levels of unemployment, no regular source of income for a vast majority of the rural population, a desperate lack of infrastructure for clean water, health care and education, little or no land reform, India cannot afford economic policies that are mostly geared towards satisfying the consumer demands of its elite. India's external debt, a sign of her vulnerability to foreign interests, steadily rose from $20 billion (Rs. 64, 000 crores) in 1980 to around $100 billion (Rs. 320,000 crores) by 1995. India's total debt is around forty percent of her Gross Domestic Product. The rot and corruption among the elite class is becoming more endemic by the day. It is plagued by massive "scams," atleast ten of which with a total worth of around $6.8 billion (Rs. 20, 558 crores) are being investigated by India's Central Bureau of Investigation.

Given such a dismal picture it is expected that the rural and urban working classes will want to resist and organize against the ruling classes. The Indian left however faces a very daunting task of mobilizing, unifying and launching a nationally 'decisive' struggle. In an attempt to examine the response of the Indian left more closely, I will provide an overview of the enduring presence of Maoist revolutionaries in the state of Bihar.

The Withering State of Bihar

Bihar is in the throes of even greater crisis. It is a state where the old (semi-feudal) vestiges are tenaciously clinging to life while the young, dynamic leaders of tomorrow are still waiting to be born. Bihar, a poor state, with an overwhelming 59 per cent of its population living below the poverty line, is largely dependent on a rural based economy. Such an economy, directly or indirectly, sustains 74 per cent of its population and provides for a workforce, of which 44 per cent are cultivators and 35 per cent agricultural laborers.

As the heart of India, atleast geographically speaking, the problems of Bihar have a lasting impact on the body of India. The diseased heart however has been recuperating and gaining fresh strength in the last three decades, thanks to the legacy of the "Naxalite" movement. This revolutionary legacy, borne with the hopes of launching a defiant working class struggle, is but the latest manifestation of a very rich history of 'tribal' and peasant struggles waged in Bihar, since the beginning of the British reign.

A Rich Narrative of Struggle

The Permanent Settlement Act, the famous legislation of 1793 enacted by the British East India company, fostered and consolidated a specific land relation between those who had control over it, the Zamindars, and those who did not. For most of nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Permanent Settlement helped the upper caste land owning classes to continue their traditional dominance over the land in return for 9/10ths of their total rental income. Such attempts at directly controlling Bihar's most fertile and productive lands sowed the seeds of future agrarian struggles.

Peasant and 'tribal' rebellions in Bihar-Bengal, specially the Chotanagpur region, began in the late eighteenth century and were frequent all throughout the nineteenth century. Among the first was the Sannyasi Rebellion (1770), when as a result of a devastating famine, a large number of 'sannyasis' and 'fakirs', along with many village artisans - including the severely exploited silk weavers of Bengal - and thousands of unemployed soldiers from the Mughal army, rebelled and fought against the British. In 1820-21, the Ho tribal peasants of Chotanagpur in Bihar rose twice against the British rulers, the local money-lenders and zamindars. The Oraons - another tribal community - rebelled in the years 1820, 1832 and again in 1890. To quell the ferocious Kol revolt of 1831-32, British troops were requisitioned from as far off places as Calcutta, Danapur and Benares. The Santhal uprising of 1855-57 was one of most widespread. Covering the states of Bihar, Orissa and Bengal, the Santhals were joined on many occasions by poor and landless peasants of lower castes. As many as 10,000 rebels were massacred in a final gruesome battle against the British. The turn of the century (1895) heroic struggle by the Mundas of Ranchi inspired folkloric visions of a new society.

The baton of the peasant struggle was carried to the plains of North and Central Bihar during the twentieth century. This agrarian struggle mainly expressed itself in three forms. The largest of these struggles were around the issue of bakasht lands. These lands were under the occupancy of the tenants but due to a putative lack of payment of rent, had been re-possessed by the Zamindars. From the 1920s until the early 40s, the land alienation was considerable. Between 2.5 to 3.4 lakh (one hundred thousand) occupancy holdings were annually alienated in the time periods of 1938-1940 and 1942-44, respectively. Together with the struggle for the commutation of produce rent and an increasing ecological burden on the peasantry, the structural features were in place for mass upsurges against the Zamindari system.

The Bihar peasantry was mostly led by Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha (BPKS), formed in 1929 by a charismatic leader, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. The Kisan Sabha and the emerging Socialist Party together led a fast evolving peasant organization with a membership, that grew considerably to 400,000 by 1939. The BPKS began to strenuously demand: (1) the abolition of the Zamindari system, (2) the canceling of the agrarian debt, (3) the creation of a system that would allocate land to the tillers and (4) the assurance of employment to landless peasants.

However, the peasantry, both before and after Independence, were repeatedly betrayed by the Congress leaders, who in Bihar, were rather conservative. The leadership of the Kisan Sabha could not muster enough strength to push the Congress into accepting its demands. The Sabha's over-dependence on a few capable leaders, like Sahajanand, and its stronger ties with the tenants and middle peasants at the cost of the landless and agricultural laborers were its major flaws. The first wave of peasant struggle in the plains of Bihar, although not very successful, did certainly put the writing on the wall.

Lighting the Prairie Fire

The specter of radical change haunts the semi-feudal interests of Bihar and India. The Congress party which came to dominate Bihar's political scene after Independence, having read the writing on the wall, offered token measures to ameliorate the land problem. With barely any shame and much pretension, the Bihar assembly passed the Bihar Land Reforms Act (1950) and the Fixation of Land Ceiling Act (1962), acts that were severely watered-down with deliberate loopholes, clearly intending to benefit the landholders. It is no secret that most of Bihar's governing elite were deep in collusion with the semi-feudal landed interests and had deliberately conspired to thwart the peasantry from acquiring their minimum share of the land and its produce. So, except for the replacement of the British Raj with an Indian Raj, the pre-independence rural class characteristics of Bihar did not change dramatically, with landlords, rich farmers and money-lenders, ranged on one side against tribal communities, poor and landless peasants and village artisans on the other.

Twenty-five years of pregnant silence in the Bihar countryside was broken in 1968 with a clarion call by Marxists-Leninists (M-L) for a militant peasant struggle, a struggle that continues to stir the hearts and minds of millions of Bihar's rural and urban poor. The Bihar struggle was but a loud echo of a deeply resonant Marxist-Leninist led, 1967 'Naxalbari' struggle. An armed struggle in the countryside against semi-feudal interests combined with area-wise seizures in order to finally capture state power was the leitmotif of the new Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries.

This new radical group has been very critical of the other "parliamentary" tendencies of the Indian communist movement, specially the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), for having betrayed their revolutionary role. Unlike these "parliamentary" wings, the CPI(M-L) officially formed in 1969, emphasized to a great extent and perhaps for the first time, the pivotal role to be played by the poor and landless peasants in smashing the edifice of the semi-colonial, semi-feudal Indian state. The first Congress of the Marxists-Leninists, held in Calcutta in May, 1970, inspired by the Mao Tsetung led Chinese revolution, adopted a full-fledged programme, which held that the 'principal contradiction' of the period was between feudalism and the broad masses of the Indian people, the resolution of which would lead to the resolution of all other contradictions.

The "Flaming Fields" of Bihar

Musahari and Bhojpur were the first places in Bihar where the silence of the peasants was decisively broken. Heroic lower caste figures like Jagdish Mahto, Ram Naresh Ram, Bhutan Musahar, Rameshwar Ahir, Dr. Nirmal Mahto, were some of the early leaders struggling to ignite that single spark that would light the prairie fire. By late 70s, many central and some northern districts of Bihar were raging with the flames of peasant struggles. Unlike Naxalbari in West Bengal, the place of its genesis, the Marxist-Leninist struggle in Bihar, has been able to endure, against all odds, till the very present.

What are some reasons for such demonstrated success? Unlike the other communist parties, one persisting and defining theme of the M-L struggle, be it in Bihar or elsewhere, has been its ability to draw in and greatly sustain the interest and participation of the poor and landless peasants. These peasants have answered the call for militant peasant activity against the arrogant, brutal, corrupt and pretentious activities of Bihari ruling class. Atleast three dominant M-L sections in Bihar, among half a dozen others: CPI(M-L) Liberation, CPI(M-L) Party Unity and the Maoist Communist Center, have been very active in recruiting and leading the militant peasants. Some of the mistakes committed in the early days of the struggle, specially early to mid 70s, have been apparently rectified, though much organizational and ideological re-direction may still be needed in order to launch a major struggle.

Four issues have come to chiefly dominate the M-L struggle in Bihar. The first and perhaps the most successful has been the relentless war waged on social issues. 64% of Bihar's population is composed of the "backward" and "scheduled" castes, the majority of whom have nursed a justifiable historical grievance against the upper caste (13%) dominated economic, cultural and political structures. The constant battle waged by the lower caste rural poor in acquiring social dignity or "Izzat" against the blood-thirsty and avaricious behavior of upper-caste landlords and rich farmers has been indefatigable and quite measurably successful. The M-L movement has thus greatly helped in dealing a devastating blow to the cultural heart of feudalism.

Secondly, the seizure and distribution of surplus land under the illegal possession of landlords, Mahants and other big landowners, which according to one count, even after the enactment of land reforms, is around 1.4 million acres, is perhaps the most violent and difficult of all the struggles. The land struggle is intense, given that an extraordinary 85% to 90% of Bihar's rural households own less than 5 acres of land each. The success in this struggle has been partial and relatively concentrated in a few central Bihar districts like, Patna, Bhojpur, Nalanda, Gaya, Jehanabad and Palamu. In conjunction with such a struggle and to provide sustenance to the movement at large, the Marxists-Leninists also feel the imperative need to maintain an armed group of peasants.

Thirdly, the struggle for the payment and enhancement of minimum wages of agricultural labourers has been a popular mobilizing demand. Even a minimum wage of Rs. 16.50 ($0.50) per day during non-harvesting periods and 10% of the crops during harvesting periods is not offered to the agricultural labourers. The struggle around wages can however create counter-productive tensions when the middle peasants are not able to pay the minimum to the agricultural laborers. This has been a potentially divisive issue as the M-L strategy clearly depends on achieving a unification of these classes.

Finally, in the last five to ten years a new direction has been established in pressuring the local administration to undertake the promised efforts at rural development. The rural population has been mobilized to ensure that the crores of rupees allocated for rural development projects such as the digging of wells, building of roads, providing of warehouse facilities are actually put to productive use. By articulating this pressure and forcing it to be directly accountable, the Marxist-Leninist's want to intensify the contradictions of the "comprador-bureaucratic" capitalist structure.

The ruling class of India and more specifically Bihar is like the "baron of old" who in the words of Karl Marx, "thought every weapon in his own hand fair against the plebeian, while in the hands of the plebeian a weapon of any kind constituted itself a crime." The names of Belchhi (1977), Parasbigha-Dohiya (1980), Pipra (1986), Kansara (1986), Arwal (1986), Khagri-Damuhan(1988), Tishkhora(1991), Bathanitola (1996) Ekwari (1996), Habaspur (1997) among many others are deeply etched in the memories and bodies of Bihar's poor and landless peasants. These are the unfailing moments when the landed interests have struck barbarically and mercilessly at the rural poor, killing thousands. The big landlords with much connivance of the Bihar state have, since the early 1980s, organized themselves into private armies ('Senas'). The sole purpose of these well equipped feudal 'senas' with names like Ranvir Sena, Kunwar Sena, Sunlight Sena, Brahmrishi Sena, Lorik Sena, Bhumi Sena, is to strike terror among the rural poor. Many of these 'Senas' have been liquidated by the organized struggle launched by different wings of the Marxist-Leninist parties operating in Bihar.

CPI(M-L), Liberation, led by its general secretary, Vinod Mishra, is perhaps the one organization that has traveled the greatest political distance since its early gestating moments. In a 'rectification' program launched in 1977, the Liberation group moved away from an emphasis on "annihilation of individual class enemies" to a concerted attempt at organising mass peasant movements under the umbrella of a 'Kisan Sabha'. In 1982, this group took an even more radical step by deciding to enter the thickets of parliamentary struggle under the banner of Indian Peoples Front. In ten years, at its Fifth Party Congress, the party itself decided to come out into the open and participate in all kinds of progressive mass organizations and parliamentary forums.

Though it has won one parliamentary seat (1989) and sent seven members in 1989 (under IPF) and six members in 1995 to the Bihar state assembly, its overall electoral success has been waxing and waning. The Indian Peoples Front was discontinued in 1994 due to its growing absorption of the energies of the mother, Liberation, organization.

It is rather too early to comment on the success of the new electoral strategy. It is certainly a radical break from CPI(M-L)'s past ideological moorings. On the one hand, the obvious benefit is a national presence and the possibility of intervening and giving shape to national debates. However, on the other hand there is a possibility that the electoral participation may dilute the intensity of the struggles over land, thus compromising the heart of the Marxist-Leninist ideological battle. The desire to win electoral victories will surely be seen by many in the Party as the easier struggle and may push some of them to relinquish the harder grounded struggles. Other M-L organizations in Bihar, like the MCC and the CPI(M-L), Party Unity have refused as yet to enter the electoral battle because of this perceived danger.

After a considerable gap of around sixty years, when the erstwhile BPKS was led by Sahajanand, the peasantry of Bihar are once more asserting themselves. The various CPI(M-L) parties are leading this intense struggle against the centrist and very corrupt practices of the Janata Dal on the one hand and the right wing, Hindu fundamentalists on the other. The stakes are becoming higher with each passing year.

Ultimately the Marxist-Leninist ideology will triumph or be defeated depending on the skill with which they negotiate between the scylla of parliamentary struggles and the charybdis of extra-parliamentary struggles. They must work hard to establish a national recognition as opposed to a strong regional presence in a few states like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. In a country like India with such abysmal conditions, much is riding on the success or defeat of the different communist strategies. Perhaps the call by the CPI(M-L), Liberation, for a National Left Federation of all communist parties, will produce the much needed debate for strengthening India's anti-systemic forces.


  1. Banerjee, Sumanta. In the Wake of Naxalbari. Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1980
  2. Bharti, Indu. Bihar and the Ground Realities in Land Reform in India. (ed.). B. N. Yugandhar & K Gopal Iyer, (ed.). Vol. 1
  3. Liberation: Central Organ of CPI (ML). New Delhi
[November, 1997]

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