Contextualising land reforms in India: Even after the transfer of power in 1947 (which the ruling classes have tried to sell as ‘independence’) till today, India has primarily remain an agrarian country with the vast majority of masses dependent on agriculture. The comprador ruling classes of India and the imperialist forces led by the U.S.A. were deeply alarmed by the severe agrarian crisis that faced India since 1947. Imperialism and its subservient Indian ruling class which has grown sadder and wiser after their defeat in China in 1949 was wary of shimmering peasant discontent across India. It was to contain this widespread discontent, which in the age of Third World Revolutions threatened to sweep away the powers of the landlord-big bourgeoisie led Indian state that the idea of ‘land reforms’ was floated. It was not initiated to address the basic problems plaguing Indian society. The problem of landlessness was not solved by the agrarian legislations: there was no fundamental change in the ownership of land in rural India. Feudalism was not to be liquidated, but to curb its grosser manifestations and introduce capital penetration in agriculture to some extent, so as to give an impetus to a section of landlords and rich peasants to increase agricultural production. The land reforms were intended to serve another purpose, no less important: this was to sow illusions among the peasantry, make “sentimental gains”, as Nehru said, and draw the bulk of the peasantry away from revolutionary struggles. In this task, the ruling classes found a willing ally in the Communist Party of India the leadership of which was steeped in opportunism from the very beginning. It is within this sub-continental context that one needs to locate Kerala, and thereby look at the ongoing Chengara Land Struggle, no matter how much the CPI(M) or SFI wishes to fool us by lies and misinformation.
The farce of land reforms in Kerala: In Kerala the high tide of anti-caste movements had capitulated to the emerging big bourgeoisie and to the post-47 idea of building a new Kerala which was primarily an appendage of the imperialist economy. It is at the same time that the ruling classes felt the immediate need to accommodate a section of the upper strata of the emerging anti-caste movements as the new economic agents of post-47 Kerala. And it was specifically for this purpose of accommodation of the capitulating new economic agents that made the land reforms a necessity. It is thus important for us to note that there was no radical-ness in the conception of the idea of land reforms. In fact it was first discussed by the Congress government in 1951 and was later merely implemented with an unchanged agenda by the Left with a radical façade. The land reforms were instrumental in promoting a particular form of agricultural economy- the cash crop based economy- binding it more closely to the international imperialist market nexus. It is quite interesting to note that the ruling classes in Kerala in Post-47 Kerala—be it the Congress or the erstwhile CPI—had the same development programme for the state, that propelled by a cash crop economy. And today the Congress and the CPI (M) have a similar development programme for the ailing Kerala economy— where IT, ITES and Tourism emerges as the prime movers of growth! This unanimity and convergence of the developmental path for Kerala economy jointly charted out by CPI(M) and Congress shows that both are equally subservient to the interests of the imperialist market.
The integration of the Kerala economy with the imperialist world market has ensured that none of the regressive social structures and production relations holding back the Kerala economy is weakened. Rather all these structures have been reproduced and reinforced in ever new forms. For example, the state-sponsored cash crop economy has only ensured further alienation of the small and poor peasantry from their land, with land getting further concentrated among the economically and politically powerful classes and castes (which often mean the same). The crux of the land reforms that were initiated by the Kerala government in 1957 and implemented from 1 January 1970, was the fixing of ceilings on the amount of land that a family could possess. It promised that surplus land would be taken over by the government and redistributed among the landless. However, the land-ceiling legislations made liberal concessins to the large landowners, religious institutions, plantations and so on, leaving such loopholes that allowed owners of large landed properties to retain their possessions. Once the plantation sector got exempted, all that was left for redistribution were some paddy land towards the Western Kerala, some land in the midland areas, and some fallow fields that belonged to the Nilambur royal house. These ‘famous’ land reforms that we’ve all heard of is actually a law that gave on paper full ownership rights to tenant cultivators. A look at the Chengara Struggle gives us a clear picture of who the prime victims of such an arrangement were, and serves as an eye opener in more ways than one.
90% of the landless people agitating for land rights in Chengara are dalits and adivasis, also joined by the Muslims. But this is not a scenario unique to Chengara. In whole of post ‘land-reforms’ Kerala, the dalits, dalit Christians and Muslims comprise the vast majority of those dispossessed from land or excluded from the purview of land reforms. 85% of the dalits in Kerala are landless, and it’s obvious that any movement for land rights would constitute the dalits as its major participants. It is not enough to term this struggle as merely a struggle for land by the landless. The truth is that it is these historically oppressed sections of the people who have been deliberately kept out of Kerala’s land reforms that are raising their voice today for land. The dalits and adivasis who could never become even tenants within Kerala’s traditional caste-based economy, could not expect to receive any benefit from such laws.
In 1968 the Kerala government had estimated that some 8,75,000 acres of surplus land would be available for redistribution. However, till date, the government has been able to acquire only 1,24,000 acres. The rest of more than 7 lakh acres have all been usurped through underhand practices such as creation of Trusts. Trusts were exempted from ceilings under the land reforms legislation, and overnight hundreds of Trusts were formed in Kerala. Through creating trusts and registering deeds in false names and such myriad other ways, all this land was usurped by landlords, dominant castes and corporates close to the ruling class CPI(M) and Congress. Even out of this 1,24,000 acres acquired, only a meager 96,000 acres was actually redistributed! This is the real state of land redistribution in Kerala. The dalits, adivasis and the coastal people, who could not be tenants within Kerala’s traditional caste system, did not gain anything; not even a cent of land.
Deceiving the landless, the legal way: The Hutment Dweller’s Act was placed specifically by the CPI(M)-led govt. to deal with those sections of the population who remained dispossessed, and hence a potent radical force to challenge the rulers of Kerala. According to this Act, 10 cents of housing plots in panchayat areas, 5 cents in municipal areas, and 3 in corporation areas could be claimed by a landless family. But since lakhs of landless people were still kept outside the purview this law, they are yet to receive even this meager land. And thus out of the 25 lakh families who are claimed to have benefited from land reform, 5 lakh in fact came under the Hutment Dweller’s Act. But that has not stopped the CPI(M) to include them among the beneficiaries of their so-called land-reforms. Significantly, out of this 5 lakh, 4 lakh 25 thousand were dalits and adivasis.
And this is just one of the CPI(M)’s frauds in the name of land reforms. Another populist scheme called the One Lakh Housing Scheme was introduced in 1972. It meant one lakh houses. A wall in the middle. A house on each side. Two houses in one building. Five cents of land per house. The government pledged to build one lakh houses with this calculation. Naturally, the SFI or CPI(M) have claimed that this was a progressive scheme to provide housing for all homeless people in Kerala. Actually, this was a scheme to accommodate the militant landless class which had been excluded by the land reforms. But there were still a huge number of dalits and adivasis who were excluded from the One Lakh Housing Scheme. So, the CPI(M) came up with another scheme of social engineering for them: establishing hundreds of Harijan colonies in Kerala. Thanks to these policies and the benevolence of the Official Left, lakhs of landless today live in some 16,000-20,000 official or unofficial ghettoised ‘harijan’ colonies! Besides, tens of thousands more live in huts beside roads, canals, and other unoccupied marginal land – visible to anyone traveling in Kerala. The same government that talks about legal niceties when it comes to the struggling dalits in Chengara, also issues a special govt. order defying a high court order of eviction in Kozhikode when they think that their vote bank is under threat. The question here is not of legality, but of sheer opportunism and anti-working class politics of the social-fascist CPI(M) which is today the custodian of feudal-imperial interests.
In 2001, when the adivasis led a 48 days agitation, they were denied land. Six years later, when the landless – Dalits, Dalit Christians, Muslims, and others– have come together to struggle for land in Chengara, the same CPI(M) said that they are land owners! This well-calculated opportunism by CPI(M) is not difficult to understand. In effect their government says that there are no landless people in Kerala. That is, it does not accept that those of live in Harijan colonies, One-Lakh Houses, by the roadside, and so on are landless. This is the true ‘achievement’ of the so called land reforms in Kerala. To make matters worse, the CPI(M)-led Kerala govt. has recently placed a bill with the objective of doing away with land ceiling altogether. Another draft legislation prepared by the ruling Party, yet to be presented before the Assembly but modeled on the World Bank-IMF dictated New Agricultural Policy, aims at promoting contract farming and reintroducing the leasing of agricultural land. This proposal to remove land ceiling from the land reform legislations is tantamount to facilitate the unhindered landlordism of corporates. Likewise, contract farming will bring back tenancy, and more importantly, `reverse tenancy', in which big farmers lease land from small and marginal farmers. It will help big companies, driven only by short-term profit motives, to introduce corporate farming in a big way. The small farmers will either become laborers in their own land or will be alienated from agriculture itself.
The landless dalits and adivasis have become the focal point of a struggle like Chengara. By ignoring them, and conveniently picking out the adivasis, the CPI(M)-led Kerala government is shrewdly trying to diffuse the agitation building up at Chengara. Moreover, CPI(M) is trying to propagate the lie that the struggling people in Chengara are ‘landowners’ themselves! Such vicious slandering is being consciously employed to undercut this genuine struggle. Shameless fabrications and imaginative lies by the CPI(M) of this kind are abound, which can even make Hitler’s propaganda mastermind Goebbles turn in his grave! The CPI(M) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, for example alleged that "There were authentic reports on the role of U.S. espionage agencies also playing a role at Chengara and the agitation was an attempt to grab land… The backing given to the Chengara agitation was part of a U.S game plan to defame Left governments in India"! He also added that the U.S. is trying to avenge the strong opposition registered by the Left parties against the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. Not surprisingly, even the Kerala Chief Minister has lent his support to such bizarre claims.
The ruling CPI(M) has unleashed its affiliated trade unions against the struggling people of Chengara, a similar pattern which was also followed in Nandigram when it used the notorious Harmad mercenaries against the fighting peasants. Like in Nandigram, threats, assault, rape and blockade is continuously used against dalits and adivasis to suppress the Chengara land struggle. These goons of CPI(M) has now given an ultimatum to them to vacate the site of struggle -Harisson Malayalam plantation- within ten days, after which force will be used to evict the protesting people. The need of the hour is that we stand in solidarity with the Chengara struggle –a struggle for land, dignity and justice, and defeat the social-fascist CPI(M) once again. The CPI(M) and its stooges in the campus, who still thinks that people’s struggles can be suppressed by unleashing fascist terror-tactics should remember Nandigram. For history does not forgive those who forgets their history