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Politics at the Margin: A Tale of Two Villages

This paper makes a comparative study of political life with its attendant sociological attributes in two villages in West Bengal. In one, in Singur district, the proposed Tata Motors project has led to a violent agitation and to people turning away from the Left Front. In the other, in Hooghly district, even though the tribals and lower castes are disenchanted with the LF, they continue to support it because they find the alternative even more unacceptable. The paper asserts that the phenomenon of the Indian villager eager to "desert the fields for a future outside the mud halls of their homes" is more apparent than real.

Politics at the Margin: A Tale of Two Villages

This paper makes a comparative study of political life with its attendant sociological attributes in two villages in West Bengal. In one, in Singur district, the proposed Tata Motors project has led to a violent agitation and to people turning away from the Left Front. In the other, in Hooghly district, even though the tribals and lower castes are disenchanted with the LF, they continue to support it because they find the alternative even more unacceptable. The paper asserts that the phenomenon of the Indian villager eager to “desert the fields for a future outside the mud halls of their homes” is more apparent than real.


s the Indian village vanishing? Vanishing as a social entity? Is it losing all the salient features for which it has been known so far? Has agriculture, which is supposed to be the mainstay of rural economy, become so non-viable that “villagers are more than willing to desert the fields for a future outside the mud walls of their homes”? [Gupta 2005]. In Gupta’s opinion, the Indian village “is shrinking as sociological reality, though it still exists as space. Nowhere else does one find the level of disenchantment as one does in the rural regions of India…. Rarely would a villager today want to be a farmer if given an opportunity elsewhere.” He then concluded, “Agriculture is an economic residue that generously accommodates non-achievers resigned to a life of sad satisfaction. The villager is as bloodless as the rural economy is lifeless. From rich to poor, the trend is to leave the village, and, if that entails going abroad, then so be it” (ibid).

According to Gupta, as “agriculture has become a relatively non-rewarding profession… the number of rural people working in urban India has doubled between 1987-88 and 1993-94” and this is how “the country is reaching out to the town” (ibid). The other factor he considers responsible for the outward mobility of the rural people is their caste identity that “has resurfaced at every level” though “caste as a system is dying in rural India…” (ibid). He has cited several instances from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu to show that, due to caste assertion, lower caste people prefer non-farm works to employments in the fields of the upper caste people. Finally, he has suggested that the “culture surrounding agriculture” should be understood against this background.

As we shift our attention away from the western and southern states of India and focus instead on West Bengal, we witness in recent times a peasant movement taking shape in Singur of Hooghly district that vows to protect the agricultural land from being acquired by the government. The Left Front government here is determined to help the Tata Motors company to set up a small car factory on prime agricultural land in Singur on the plea that agriculture is no longer remunerative and therefore should yield place to industry – the sector where “lies the future”.1 The government’s arguments are quite similar to that of Gupta who also states that “the village is no longer a site where futures can be planned” [Gupta 2005]. But the peasants of Singur, we tend to argue, have a different story to tell. Their initial reaction to the decision of the government to acquire their land was one of gloom and unhappiness. But very soon they organised themselves into the “Save Agricultural Land Committee” which has continued agitation for the last five months or so. Though it is true that “agriculture has become a relatively non-rewarding profession” due to ever increasing prices of inputs, decreasing fertility of the soil and non-availability of remunerative prices of the crops, the peasants of Singur have expressed their overwhelming preference to stick to agriculture. In another part of the same district where rural life is not perturbed by the threat of acquisition of agricultural land, the peasants are also unambiguous in expressing similar views against agricultural land acquisition.

Similar views were heard during the course of my ethnographic study in two villages located in two separate blocks in the same south Bengal district. Such expressions on the part of the peasants, particularly those who cultivate their land principally with their family labour and constitute the vast majority of the village community, stand in contrast to the following observation that Indian “villagers are more than willing to desert the fields for a future outside the mud walls of their homes”. It seems that the phenomena of a crises-ridden village economy based on a not-so-“modern” agricultural system and a “disenchanted” Indian villager is more apparent than real. While comparing with the standard urban way of life in India, the villagers seem more likely to prefer the rustic life than the urban one, though admittedly some of them are today venturing “outside the mud walls of their homes” for earning a livelihood. But these economic activities may not be equated with a corresponding change in the realm of rural culture.

Though the purpose of my (micro) study is to ascertain the dynamics of political changes that are taking place in contemporary rural Bengal through a comparison between two villages, I would like to examine in this paper the proposition which claims that the Indian village “is shrinking as sociological reality, though it still exists as space”. It is true that there cannot be a pure village economy today as the concept of a pure village culture is also non-existent. Market economy has brought urban life to the village and state-led politics has engulfed village politics to a great extent. All these have entailed significant changes in all aspects of rural society in the last 50 years and have indeed necessitated the study of our rural life more intensely. Though I differ from the purely “economic” point of view that tends to define agriculture as “an economic residue”, the villagers as “bloodless” and the rural economy “lifeless”, I obviously agree with the view that “it is necessary to comprehend the depth of disenchantment that prevails in the villages through in-depth field investigations” (ibid). But to understand the disenchantment or otherwise of the rural people, we cannot restrict our study within the confines of economy only; we also need to give probably more attention to the realm of politics where people’s attitude as a sociological attribute is reflected in a more explicit way. It is in this domain that people’s imagination and aspirations about the material world take concrete shape in the form of demands. It is in this domain where vast rural masses interact with the state institutions and their policies, encounter the organised political parties and their operations, raise and realise their demands and aspirations through counter strategies and in the process make and break the state politics. This domain is marked by the closely knit relationship between the state-led organised politics and the rural subaltern society so much so that the latter may not be identified in its original forms anymore. The departure of the village from its past is more prominent in this domain than in any other spheres of its activities and hence, demands closer scrutiny.

Here I present a comparative study of two villages in order to comprehend the dynamics behind the changes principally in the domains of village politics and try to find the linkages it has with both economy and culture of the rural society. These three spheres of rural life are both distinct and interrelated at the same time and jointly determine the direction of changes. So to comprehensively analyse the rural situation, one needs to study these three arenas as a whole, i e, in their interrelationship. Situated in the same district, the two villages offer widely divergent scenarios as far as contemporary politics is concerned though their economy and social structures have many similarities.

New Polarisation

Kadampur2 is situated on the western side of Durgapur Expressway that links Kolkata city with the industrial town of Durgapur. It is one of the five villages which are going to be affected in the process of land acquisition for the small car project of Tata Motors. The number of the households in this village is 165. Among them, 70 households belong to SC category, namely bargakshatria or bagdi, while the rest is almost equally divided among the gowala and mahishya castes, the former being in the OBC category. Mahishyas are the land-owning community and the dominating caste in the village. The SCs are mainly landless labourers but some of them have small plots of land. Many of them are sharecroppers for generations but have not been registered as bargadars in the government records betraying the limitations of the Operation Barga programme of the LF government. Another important feature though not peculiar to this area only is that the system of cultivation on leased land is rampant here and many of the landless people produce crops taking land in lease. So they have great stake in the land being acquired by the government and are seen in the forefront of the Singur movement from the beginning.

Being located at a distance of only 40 km from Kolkata, people in Singur are closely linked with the city life and many substantial landowners are engaged in services and businesses while their lands are tilled either by the bargadars or by the landless and marginal peasants taking those lands in lease. A section of the poor people in Singur also travels to adjoining town areas to do odd jobs in factories, shops and small businesses. Some of the young men – approximately 30 – of the village have migrated to cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore working there principally as goldsmith or construction workers. There were several cases of reverse migration as well when people came back to their village after the closing down of the industries they were working in or finding it more profitable to work on land than to work in petty industries or businesses and drawing a paltry sum in lieu of hard labour. So the people here are quite aware of the situation in industry now-a-days in which factories are occasionally shedding “surplus” workers in the name of rationalisation and modernisation. Hence, the labouring people of the village seem to be more disenchanted about the industries than about agriculture which gives them at least food security.

The dominant caste mahishyas in the main have united with others to resist land acquisition at any cost. But a section of people residing in Ghoshpara, mainly inhabited by the gowala caste, have offered their land to the government under the influence of CPI(M) party which could maintain its stronghold in that particular hamlet. Initially, almost the whole village community was united against land acquisition. But after aggressive lobbying and persuasions by the local CPI(M) leaders, a section of the villagers finally agreed to sell their land to the government and a division took place in the village society. This time the division is not on party basis, but more on the basis of which side of the movement they are. Interestingly, many CPI(M) activists have become active in the Save Agricultural Land movement whereas some Trinamool Congress (TMC) members have offered their land in lieu of cash. The losing CPI(M) candidate in the last panchayat election who is a sharecropper for generations has changed his side immediately after the land acquisition move started by the government. He cultivates almost two acres of land as a sharecropper, but was not registered as a bargadar. He complained that no party leader had even contacted him after the announcement of the decision of land acquisition. He informed that along with him around 50 unregistered bargadars are there in this village alone who stand to lose everything in the acquisition as they are not entitled to get a single paisa as compensation from the government. He said, “Earlier on every occasion the party used to call me, but on this occasion when I am losing everything, the party has not taken care of me or even said a word to me”. While this is the case of a CPI(M) activist, the local TMC leader who became one of the leaders of Save Agricultural Land Committee at the initial phase finally deserted the movement and sold his land to the government.

In the last panchayat elections, Sukumar (32 years), a SC candidate from the TMC party won the local panchayat seat defeating the CPI(M) candidate. He won the seat more on his personal popularity than on the party basis. Before the panchayat elections, he was not so active in politics and concentrated on social work through a local club. His father, a marginal farmer, was actively associated with the CPI(M). He is a graduate and earns a livelihood through giving tuitions. He said, “I became active in politics in order to protest against the corruption and domination of the local CPI(M) leaders. But I never thought of contesting an election and was more interested in social work. In the last election, the villagers forced me to contest as a TMC candidate and I won. It was an accident in my life.” Subsequently, he expressed his ideological leanings saying, “I support Marxism as I am in favour of a classless society, but do not support the Marxists in Bengal who are a corrupt lot”. In this movement

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

against land acquisition, he became the rallying point for the villagers. As one of the villagers expressed, “we are lucky to get Sukumar elected in the last panchayat election”. Sukumar is one of the main executives of the village club which has a concrete club house where the local youths gather regularly. Now the club house has become a centre for conducting all sorts of activities regarding the movement. It is interesting to note here that the unorganised domain of the rural people elected a panchayat member of their own choice with a view to reflecting their aspirations in the organised domain of politics. Despite being a member of SC community, Sukumar now represents the whole village and acts as a pivot of the movement.

The influence of the CPI(M) party in the village was spread by some mahishya farmers who organised the SC after the advent of Left Front rule in 1977. One of them, Karuna Das, a retired primary school teacher, is the present CPI(M) leader in the village and is organising people in favour of land acquisition. He said, “One cannot survive depending on agriculture now-a-days. With increasing cost of cultivation, agriculture has become nonprofitable. The government is paying a lump sum of money as compensation and a farmer can get more money as interest by keeping it in the bank than what he gets from farming.” He had been a panchayat member several times since 1978 and worked in the position of ‘pradhan’ (chief) and ‘upapradhan’ (deputy chief) of the local panchayat. He is now a member of the panchayat samiti. He was reported to have been arrested in corruption charges for embezzling the money allotted for flood relief. While the SC villagers constituted the main support base of the CPI(M) the leadership position of the party has remained in the hands of the dominant middle caste people all along.

As octogenarian Nanda Das narrates sharecroppers were organised in the area both during the United Front period and Left Front regime by the CPI(M) and there were instances of clashes with the local Ghosh zamindars who resided in Beraberi village. CPI(M) leader Arun Das led the movement and subsequently was elected as the panchayat pradhan in 1978. But once the Left Front rule was consolidated, the landowners allied with the CPI(M) and after that the Operation Barga programme was almost withdrawn. Except the Ghosh zamindar family that remained a Congress supporter, all other landowners became allies of the ruling coalition and their land was spared from barga operations. Bargadars were registered only on the land of the Ghosh family. Now, the Ghosh brothers are the first to offer their land for sale to the government and thus get rid of the bargadars while bagging full proceeds from the sale. Apart from them, a number of wealthy families who depend principally on professions other than agriculture, who have settled in Singur town since long and have no time and interest to look after their land, are indeed offering their land for sale. In the present drive for acquisition of land, the CPI(M) leadership is banking mostly on these non-cultivating landed people while almost entirely leaving behind their earlier allies among the landless and bargadars.

So the movement against land acquisition programme has resulted in new class-caste-party polarisations in the village. During the initial period of Left Front rule, a few among the land owning mahishya caste were in the leadership of CPI(M) and they could rally the major sections of SC and mahishya caste in favour of the government. But vexed with party domination and allegations of corruption, there was slow erosion in the support base of the party that culminated with the announcement of land acquisition programme. In the last two panchayat elections, the CPI(M) candidates in the village were defeated respectively by Congress and TMC candidates. At present, principally the non-cultivator land owning people of the village have allied with the CPI(M) and become voluntary land sellers eyeing economic gain from the land acquisition programme while most of the owner cultivators, the sharecroppers, the lessee cultivators and the agricultural labourers whose livelihood principally depends on agriculture have joined the movement against land acquisition. Even some landowning families who depend principally on nonfarm work have joined the movement and some of them are playing a leading role in the movement. A village youth who has become a doctor and works in a reputed public sector company far away from the village, participated in the movement and was even beaten up and jailed by the police for joining the movement. This is a reflection of the people responding more on the community basis and for the community interest. Many among those working outside are similarly taking active interest and participating in the movement to their best. These attitudes of the villagers, both working in agriculture and outside, amply indicate that the villagers are far from being “bloodless” and the village economy may not be termed “lifeless”. Rather, the “culture surrounding agriculture” that encompasses the economy, politics and culture of the village seems to be vibrant at least in this part of India.

In this critical juncture of village history in Kadampur, the social and family relations have also undergone a change. Noticeably, the village women, irrespective of their caste and class, have joined the movement in large numbers. Those women, particularly from the mahishya caste, who were so far engaged principally in household chores and avoided exposure to the public glare, have come forward to lead processions, raise slogans and organise militant demonstrations. In all the five villages, women’s committees have been formed to mobilise women as much as possible. In Kadampur, the women’s committee was led by a mahishya woman who was above 50 years of age and excluded from public life since her marriage at an early age. Her two sons are established in service, but active in the movement. She said, “We are not dependent on farming, but when the interest of the village is at stake, how can I stay behind?” The women of these five villages have chalked out some strategies to resist land acquisition. Particularly, whenever the government officials tried to enter the villages to serve the notifications for acquiring land to the farmers, the women would blow conchs to alert others and appear with brooms and sticks in their hands. Such spontaneous resistance and emotions of the rural women concerning the land question might remind one of the Tebhaga movements in the late-1940s. These women were severely beaten up along with their children and men folk by the police and around 50 of them were arrested on September 25 midnight while they were on a dharna in front of the local BDO office demanding withdrawal of the acquisition notice.

Summing Up

Instead of a “bloodless” villager and a “lifeless” village economy, we get in Singur an enthusiastic village community that has braved state repressions in defiance of a government order to acquire their land. The village society is here full of life and vigour, which emanates from their love for land and agriculture and of course, for the rustic way of life. Distinctly indeed, the families, which have settled outside in towns or stay in the village with no relation with land, depend on service or business principally or fully for their livelihood, are opting to desert the village life for an urban one, but they certainly do not constitute the main body of the village community. These people, mostly from higher caste background, divorced from agriculture, some for generations, may be described as those who “live in the village and be alienated from agriculture” (ibid) but other villagers show a tenacious affinity towards agriculture when facing the threat to losing their livelihood from agriculture. That the village community is still very much alive and that too on the basis of agriculture is revealed by the Singur movement with unmistakable clarity. That land is still deeply rooted in the culture of the villagers depending on agriculture is discerned most prominently from the participation of the rural women in the land movement. The villagers here though staying very close to Kolkata city and quite acquainted with the urban way of life boldly prefer to stay in agriculture than to turning the area into something else in the name of industrialisation.

The political scenario of the village also represents a changing phase in the face of land acquisition. We have seen how the class and caste forces have aligned in a manner completely different from the past. The stirrings in the rural society have changed the pattern of politics practised so far. Now a leader has to prove his/her sincerity in the field of struggle and in the process, the role of the SC panchayat member became more prominent than that of others. For the first time in the village history, a person from the SC community gets into the leadership role. There are many SC/ST panchayat members elected by dint of reservation, but very few of them get the actual leadership position as the dominant caste persons are seldom ready to leave their traditional leading role in the village hierarchy to a lower caste person even in West Bengal.

Another important factor is the intermingling of the subaltern domain and the organised domain of politics in this village giving birth to a meaningful movement that stands to question the very policy of development pursued by the government and also the sanctity of the act by which the acquisition is taking place. The villagers here seek support from all in the organised domain and the civil society to enhance their cause in their unequal fight with the government forces. On the way, they seem to have apparently grown more close to the TMC party which has a good presence in the area (among the 13 gram sansads, people of which are being affected by acquisition, 11 are represented by TMC members in the panchayat) and is more active in organising the movement than others. But the farmers are not averse to any support from any quarter. They are not opposed to the leftist ideology, but to the Left Front as it is going against its own avowed ideology of providing support to the livelihood of the landless and marginal farmers. In fact, Singur not only has become the rallying ground for all anti-LF political forces in West Bengal, but it also has been able to draw the attention and support from different quarters like social and human right activists, intellectuals and academicians from Kolkata and others parts of India and abroad as well.

Politics of Distribution

Kalipur is a village situated in Dhaniakhali block of Hooghly district. The village has 247 households; among them 113 households belong to the SC category, 53 to ST category, 4 to OBC and 77 to general category that includes 36 Muslim households. Earlier this village was part of a bigger village comprising Kalipur and the neighbouring village Madhupur, the history and politics of the two being closely woven together. In the past, both these habitations had a kayastha zamindar. The upper castes, kayasthas and brahmins, were then dominating the rural society. Even after the abolition of the zamindari system, they continued to dominate the subalterns with the support of the Congress Party then in power. The leftist movement began to spread in this area since 1967- 69 when the Congress Party was first removed from power by successive United Front ministries. The left movement was initially based on the support of the local tribal people though led by an upper caste person of the village. The issues then were wage hike and seizing of land above the ceiling. Even after the advent of the Left Front rule in 1977, several militant struggles took place in the area on the above issues. The kayastha zamindar families began to sell off their land since late 1960s to evade those being vested or recorded as barga land. Some mahishya families of the middle caste purchased those lands. As a result, the class composition of these villages began to change. Some of these middle class mahishya families became economically prosperous, combining farming with business and other economic activities. They were traditionally Congress Party supporters and hence had to confront the agricultural labourers led by the CPI(M) several times in the initial period of the Left Front rule. Ironically, as these families grew to be rich farmers, they slowly came to compromise with the CPI(M), as manifested in the more recent phase through their affinity with the party leaders, economic favours to them and heavy contributions to the party fund. The party was also gradually shedding its old hostility towards this section and looking after their interests as well, though these people were still in favour of the return of Congress/TMC rule.

The subaltern people belonging to the SC and ST categories of these villages view this political compromise between the party leaders and the landowning community with a sense of frustration. As they poignantly remarked, “The party has changed a lot. Persons against whom we struggled earlier have taken over the party now”. It is stated that the upper caste leader who led CPI(M) party during the period of militant struggles in the decades of late 1960s and early 1970s left the party a few years after the installation of Left Front rule. Since then a few middle class persons of the mahishya and swarna banik caste with pro-Congress family backgrounds slowly emerged as leaders of the party and subsequently allied with the landed people.

The pradhan of the local panchayat belongs to the bagdi (SC) community and resides in the village. Among the SCs, the bagdis and dules are more numerous. They along with the tribal people form the main support base of CPI(M) party. During the pre1977 period of militant struggles, the tribals were more active in the party than others. The entire tribal community used to take part in struggles, many of which were led by tribal women. But over time their role in the party has reversed with the change in party’s strategy from struggle to reform. With reservation for the seat of pradhan of the panchayat, the main instrument of rural political power in West Bengal, the SC have been taking more interest in politics in recent times and constitute the main force to tackle any opposition to the party.

These villages witnessed a resurgence of opposition activities with some middle class and rich people campaigning in favour of TMC-BJP combine in the 1998 panchayat election and 2001 assembly election. Immediately after the elections were over, CPI(M) supporters beat them up and consequently many had to flee from the villages. Since then nobody dares to openly

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

campaign in favour of the opposition parties. CPI(M) won the village panchayat seats uncontested in the 2003 panchayat election. During the latest assembly election no opposition campaign took place in these two villages. It is not that the parties opposed to Left Front are only debarred from carrying out their political activities. The Left Front constituents, like Forward Block (FB) and RSP, were also not allowed to campaign for their own interest. Though the local constituency is represented by a FB member in the assembly, the FB could not build up its own independent organisation due to resistance from the CPI(M) party.

The RSP organisation in the village was initiated by a member of the upper caste who led the CPI(M) at the very initial stage but then left the party due to some internal bickering. The tribal leader of the village, namely, Pakhi Murmu, who organised the tribal people and a section of the SC in favour of the CPI(M) since the late 1960s and emerged as a leader of the village, also left the party to join RSP at that time. But he could not continue in RSP due to pressure from the CPI(M) who heckled and beat him and terrorise others who had joined RSP with him. The upper caste person later joined the campaign in favour of the candidate of the TMC-BJP combine in the 1998 panchayat elections, but remarkably Pakhi did not join him and returned to the CPI(M) fold instead. He remarked, “We have no other way but to join the party. We cannot live without the support of a party. And we cannot join the Congress or TMC-BJP, as these are the party of the landowners.” Essentially this was the dilemma faced by the local tribal population. They cannot think of a life without an organised party, but there is no party of their choice.

During elections of 1998 and 2001 when campaigns were conducted in favour of TMC-BJP mainly by the people of middle class and rich mahishya community, a few SC youth also joined them but none from the tribal community. Probably, because of a community feeling still strong in them, tribal people of this area generally move in a body. Earlier they had left the CPI(M) and joined the RSP in unison. During the 2006 assembly election, the whole community sided with the CPI(M) in spite of many grievances against the party. Almost the same ambivalent attitude could be found among the lower caste people of these villages. They are not quite satisfied with the activities of the CPI(M), but still following the party with no alternative available. The panchayat pradhan Khagen Malik is a member of the CPI(M) party and the leader of the lower caste people in these two villages. He is a bargadar. He takes up his party duties after working in the field. In his candid and thoughtful words, “We are in the party but we are not the leaders. It is said to be a party of the poor, but in actuality it is run by people of upper strata who are more educated and can provide more time for party work. I have to manage party and panchayat works only after maintaining my family.” He was not an illiterate like Pakhi Murmu and had studied up to class VII.

The politics of distribution of benefits has also helped to strengthen the party’s base in Kalipur. It is common knowledge that one can get the best benefit of the schemes implemented through the panchayat if he/she is allied with the CPI(M). At the same time, a lot of discontent is also generated through such politics of dole distribution. As a bagdi person became the panchayat pradhan, other sub-groups of SC communities alleged that the bagdis were cornering the benefits more than others. But it seems that the vocal persons of other communities are also taken care of, sometimes even by breaking the rules. One aggrieved tribal leader and a close associate of Pakhi Murmu has received old age allowance of Rs 500 per month much before reaching the age of 60 while the roof of Pakhi’s house got a shining renovation with new asbestos provided under the Indira Awas Yojona scheme.

The party has been presently organising self-help groups (SHGs), involving principally SC-ST women. According to the secretary of zonal committee of CPI(M), around 180-190 SHGs have been formed in this panchayat area, covering 13 villages. Each SHG consists of 7 to 10 women members who get lowinterest loans from the banks that help them in their distress as well as to open up new avenues for earning. All these are central government projects, but the party here is utilising them skilfully to enhance its political-organisational interests. A section of these women are mobilised in party rallies.

Summing Up

Briefly, the study of Kalipur reveals that the CPI(M) has been able to retain its hold by relying mainly on the support of tribal and lower caste people. But this support neither indicates their full confidence in the party, nor any enthusiasm generated by the party’s slogan of development or industrialisation. Instead, there are underlying currents of discontent, disillusionment and an urge for an alternative.

The SC-ST people in Kalipur had entered the arena of state politics long back with the help of an organised party that had rendered support in their struggle against firstly the landlords and then the rich peasants. After the decline of the economic and social domination of the upper caste zamindars, the rich peasants belonging to the middle caste became prosperous and developed contradiction with the SC-ST people who are principally landless agricultural labourers. The leadership of the CPI(M) remains in the hands of the same middle caste people who began to play the role of mediation between the landed class and the labouring people. The role of Pakhi Murmu as a leader got subdued with the transformation of the party’s orientation from struggle to reform. The role of the SC became more vital in this period because of their larger presence in the village. So the panchayat pradhan Khagen Malik was offered the party membership and posed to be a leader of the village, but actual power does not lie with him. The role of bagdi community in village politics, in fact, is a very interesting subject for discussion, as A R Ruud observed and mentioned in his study at Raina in the district of Burdwan [Ruud 2003]. Here they are allegedly cornering better privileges drawing on their loyalty to the dominating party.

The simmering discontents of the subalterns in Kalipur could not be channelised in the organised domain in the absence of a party of their choice while the discontent among the dominant higher and middle caste people remained suppressed in the absence of support from the SC-ST people of the village. Interestingly, some Kalipur villagers belonging to the SC were mobilised in Singur in support of the CPI(M)’s campaign for industrialisation. But these people are not convinced by the party’s stand on acquiring agricultural land. They opined, “It is not correct for the government to acquire fertile agricultural land for industry. The farmers will be ruined if such steps are taken.” Then why did they join the rally in support of industrialisation? They replied, “To stay in the village, we have to comply with the party in power. So we cannot oppose the call to join the rally.” This reply itself shows that agriculture is regarded as a viable source of livelihood and culture surrounding agriculture is still strong even in places where landownership is not threatened by acquisition. In Kalipur, the substantial landowners became prosperous depending mostly on agriculture while the landless lower castes are aggrieved as the party, they claim, is not supporting their struggle against the substantial landowners as before. There is migration to outside towns but the number is never substantial and there are several cases of reverse migration as well.

A Brief Comparison

The following comparisons may be drawn on the basis of the study of the two villages. Culture surrounding agriculture: In both the villages, people’s aspirations are principally based on land and agriculture though their manifestations are quite different depending on the various factors working in the respective villages. In both the villages, the subalterns belonging to SC and ST categories entered the arena of organised politics to fulfil their aspirations and demands regarding land and agriculture. While state intervention in the form of acquisition of land has given birth to a peasants’ struggle in Kadampur, the state-led organised politics has been rather instrumental in Kalipur in keeping the resentment of the subaltern under control. But in Kalipur as well, the subaltern people were aroused to struggle against landed gentry by the influence of organised politics during the United Front rule in late 1960s and in the early period of the LF rule. In Kadampur, on the other hand, the peasants can get organised so quickly and effectively due to the active support that they have received from other sections of the organised domain. The crucial role in these rural stirrings is played by the marginal farmers and landless SC-ST people who still strive to survive drawing their livelihood from the small peasant economy. So it appears that neither the “villagers are more than willing to desert the field” nor are there symptoms of a “vanishing Indian village”, but rather, as suggested by Partha Chatterjee, “In West Bengal, the principal thrust is still to ensure the continued viability of small-peasant cultivation and to explore ways of marginally increasing the productivity of small farms through state subsidiaries and village level organisation” [Chatterjee 1997]. Hence, the principal factors behind the changing pattern of politics in the Bengal countryside seem to be the predominant “culture surrounding agriculture” along with the effective intervention of the organised politics. Caste, class, power: Among the factors responsible for the widely different kinds of development in the two villages, the changing relationship between caste, class and power seems the most crucial one. As observed by Bandyopadhyay and Von Eschein (1992), the rural Bengal society is deeply stratified along the lines of caste, status and power, and these closely coincide. This proposition is starkly opposite to what is concluded by Beteille (1992), “In some ways the traditional relationship between caste and power has been reversed…today the village panchayat is controlled by the non-brahmins and the traditional elite is being pushed into the background. Now, ownership of land is no longer the decisive factor in acquiring power” [Bhattacharya 2003] in the contemporary West Bengal. While the above views present two extreme stands to depict the relationship between caste, class and power in rural Bengal, the reality seems to lie in between the two.

In Kadampur, the lower caste was a subdued social entity and had no role in the leadership until the rise of the movement against land acquisition. This village does not have a history of strong mobilisation of lower class-caste people and struggle against the landed gentry even in the period of the LF rule despite the presence of a strong left party. Rather the local left leadership abandoned the Operation Barga programme in the late 1970s presumably to befriend their class brethren among the middle caste landowners. There seems to be no history of strong classcaste antagonism within the village. Hence, the assertion of the SC people in the arena of politics could not be possible due to the absence of subaltern mobilisation in struggle. A section among the SC people got education long back and there was an influence of Congress Party among them. In the present scenario, the SC people have asserted in the village society through the organised movement. In Kalipur, on the contrary, the ST people were in the forefront of class struggles in the past but relegated to political oblivion in the subsequent period due to absence of any further class mobilisation. The present ascendancy of the SC people in the panchayat through reservation is more formal than real, as the real power lies in the hands of the upper caste. Caste and community: The influence of organised politics deep into the village society and a long history of mass mobilisation on the basis of political parties in West Bengal have definitely entailed a change in the erstwhile village community. Partha Chatterjee (1997) observed this phenomena as follows: “It does appear that while a process of differentiation within the peasantry, the spread of organised political agitations on class questions and electoral mobilisation have together tended to erode and perhaps break down the bases of any earlier notion of the community consisting of an entire village, this is often replaced by the idea of a truncated or fragmented community, comprising perhaps a strata of the peasantry or of a caste, but possessing many of the ideological characteristics of collective solidarity and identity of a community.” From our above studies of the two villages, we shall try to appraise the role of community as existing in the respective villages.

In Kadampur, we have observed that the village people have responded to the land acquisition move as a community. The move to acquire the entire agricultural land of the village has probably helped the process of formation of collective solidarity cutting across the caste-class line as reflected in the present movement, which was again accelerated by the intervention and influence of the organised political parties. But intense manoeuvring of the ruling party and different attitudes of different sections of the villagers towards land acquisition has worked to fragment the village community to some extent. Here the SC people have never been mobilised on class line as was the case in Kalipur. And so, there seems to exist a basis for the collective solidarity comprising all sections of the village people. In Kalipur, on the contrary, the village community has long been fragmented on the basis of class line as the SC-ST people here were mobilised on their sectional demands long back under the influence of organised politics. Here we could find that the ST people act more on a community basis following their traditional culture. Though SC people in the village do not possess such internal solidarity, they could be mobilised on the class demands along with ST people cemented together by their common affiliation to an organised party. The influence of the organised domain on the village society has thus been decisive in fragmentation of the erstwhile village society and at the same time, instrumental in bringing new caste-class consolidations in Kalipur whereas in Kadampur, the village community get further consolidated under the influence of state-led organised politics. Role of the organised domain: Success in the organised statecentric politics in West Bengal largely depends on the mobilisation

Economic and Political Weekly August 11, 2007

of the rural masses in favour of certain political party and alliance. So the parties have the compulsion to move in the villages, creating their own support bases, competing in elections down to the panchayats and consolidating power at the village level. In West Bengal, the real power struggle is centred in the rural areas, particularly since the advent of the LF rule. In Kadampur, CPI(M) was losing its support base since long and the land acquisition move has been the culmination of its isolation from the village society. But this process was accentuated by the influence and intervention of opposition parties of the organised domain. These opposition parties were badly defeated in the last assembly election and have been desperately seeking some issue to refurbish their image to the people of the state. All these parties have plunged in the movement to get the best electoral benefit out of it. This outside support has immensely helped the rural people to get strength and courage to face the powerful state machinery so far. A section of the media and a part of the civil society have also played important role in sustaining the movement. With the deeply entrenched position of the organised politics, the rural people of West Bengal cannot think of fulfilling their aspirations and demands without the support of certain political forces. In Kalipur, the subaltern people were long accustomed to move with the organised parties to realise their demands and had earlier asserted their position in the village society to some extent. But, the absence of any opposition party of their choice and the monopoly power enjoyed by the CPI(M) in the village, have disarmed the subalterns in their struggle to further their demands and safeguard their rights.

Whereas, to the subaltern people of Kadampur, the TMC-Congress Party is regarded as the vanguard of the movement, the same party could not be acceptable to the subalterns of Kalipur as an alternative to the CPI(M) due to the traditional alignment of TMC-Congress with the landed gentry of the village. In Kadampur also parties like TMC and Congress usually aligned with the landed people in the past, but as class antagonism never took a hostile shape in the village, these parties are not seen as inimical by the subalterns as they are seen in Kalipur. So the present consolidation cutting across class-caste forces has been possible in the wake of land acquisition move.


The movement of the villagers of Kadampur and the absence of it in Kalipur are both manifestations of the complex relationship that different caste-class groups of the two villages have with different shades of organised politics. This complex relationship is only partly narrated in this paper. But what is described might be useful to understand the complex relationships and the equally complex and varied developments in the two villages over time. Now, I would like to cast a quick glance at the relationship between the economy, politics and culture of rural Bengal as shown in my study and why I prefer to describe politics as the most important thing to be studied to understand the village.

The village Kadampur is witnessing a peasants’ movement which is perhaps unprecedented in the period of LF rule. This stirring in Singur is the direct effect of the government decision to confiscate the livelihood of thousands of rural families dependent solely or mainly on agriculture. The villagers are resisting the proposed conversion of the area into an industrial township both from economic and cultural point of view. It is neither that the economy and culture of the village stand at the same place where it was some 30-40 years ago nor that the villagers are not amenable to accept a change. At the same time, the Singur villagers are not ignorant about the ills and advantages of urban life as well. So their resolve to stand against the government decision cannot be seen as a result of their ignorance and rusticity.

The apparent calm in Kalipur can be explained by the policy of the CPI(M) to maintain a status quo in the rural economy and provide benefits of governmentality3 to the subaltern people in the form of doles. Though the contradiction between the subalterns and the substantial landowners is not mitigated by this policy and there is a latent discontent against the party for favouring the latter, the subalterns could not express their dislike for the party as they are more averse to the main opposition parties of the state. Their decision to stay with the ruling party originates both from their political compulsion to stay with it and, in a way, from their cultural rejection of the pro-landlord opposition parties.

The state, the organised domain of politics and global capital want to shape the village according to their schemes of development and decentralisation and interact with the village community. This interaction may result in apparent harmony or disharmony depending on the nature of community acceptance of the same. The village community is also transforming itself in this interaction with state and capital generating a lot of stirrings that are sought to be utilised by the organised parties in their struggle for power in the parliamentary democracy. The “community of the east” has thus become the experimental ground for various forces linked to capital and democracy. But what effects are actually brought by all the development and decentralisation schemes from above, what are the changes taking place in the village community as a result, or in brief, “whither the Indian village” can perhaps be comprehensively studied by taking politics as the pivotal point on which the sociological reality called the village so crucially hinges.




[This paper was presented at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta in November 2006 as part of my PhD work, I am grateful to the faculty members for their valuable opinion. I am particularly grateful to Manabi Majumdar and to Partha Sarathi Banerjee for his assistance in the fieldwork as well as in preparing this article.]

1 The principal slogan of the Left Front during the last assembly election

campaign was “agriculture is our foundation and industry our future”. 2 Kadampur is not the real name of the village in Singur block that I studied

and the names of the villagers have also been changed. 3 The term “governmentality” was used by Michel Foucault to define the

techniques of modern governments that “have as its purpose not the act

of government itself, but the welfare of the population, the improvement

of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc…” quoted

from The Foucault Effect (1991) edited by Buchell Graham, Gordon

Colin and Miller, London.


Bhattacharya, Sukanta (2003): ‘Caste, Class and Politics in West Bengal’,

Economic and Political Weekly, January 18. Chatterjee, Partha (1997): ‘The Present History of West Bengal’, Oxford

University Press, New Delhi. Gupta, Dipankar (2005): ‘Whither the Indian Village’, EPW, February19. Ruud, A R (2003): Poetics of Village Politics, Oxford University Press,

New Delhi.

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