In the past two decades, the position of Dalits in West Bengal, a state run by comrades, has been worse than under Congress rule elsewhere in the country
In his recent column in Frontline, (Dec 26, 1997) Praful Bidwai has described Jyoti Basu as today’s “tallest potential leader, with exceptional credibility and acceptability”. It is a view that is increasingly finding acceptance amongst the progressive and left intelligentsia in India. But the naivete or ignorance of this position will in the long run be dangerous as it masks the anti-Dalit agenda of the Left Front. The experience of West Bengal clearly indicates that the CPI (M) is against the genuine emancipation of the agricultural workers.
In the over two decades of its uninterrupted rule in West Bengal, the Left Front has definitely not followed the class approach advocated by Karl Marx and Engels. All it has done is to very systematically carve out a larger constituency of, in economic terms, the rich and small peasants, along with share croppers; and in social terms, the middle castes or the OBCs, who constitute more than half of the state’s agrarian electorate.
In order to keep both these social and economical bases intact, the Left Front has, for the last 20 years, been following a two-pronged strategy of keeping landless agricultural labourers in check (the majority of whom in Bengal are Dalit) on the one hand and confronting the big landlords on the other. This strategy helps both the OBC cultivators and sharecroppers as it ensures for them both cheap labour and protection from the excesses of big landowners. In return, the Left Front is assured of a large electoral base to return them to power.
It is not a mere coincidence that the CPI (M) in particular, and Left Front in general, finds a close ally in Mulayam Singh Yadav, who in U.P. represents the ‘Kisan’ OBCs or middle castes, and is also known for his rabid anti-Dalit stance. This strategy of the Left is not confined to West Bengal and U.P. alone; they are looking for similar non-upper caste, non-Dalit, non-MBC (most backward castes) mobilisation (of land owning OBCs) all over India. This, in a nutshell, is the ‘emancipatory’ agenda of the Left Front.
Atul Kohli’s paper ‘The Rise of Reform Communism in West Bengal’, which is part of Frankel and Rao’s famous work, Dominance and State Power in Modern India, Vol – II (Oxford University Press, Delhi 1990) provides interesting information. Kohli shows that during Congress dominated cabinets in West Bengal (1952-62), the percentage share of ministers belonging to SC/ST and Muslim communities were 2.3 per cent, 6.9 per cent and 12.7 per cent respectively. During CPI (M) dominated cabinets (1977-1982), however, these figures were reduced to 1.5, 1.5 and 7.1 per cent respectively.
This marginalisation of Dalits in Left cabinets is no isolated instance. Dalits, as a matter of fact, do not form any part of the CPI (M)’s leadership. This phenomena has always been explained away by the party’s theoreticians, counterposing it with the ‘class approach’ of Marxism.
In his concluding remarks, Kohli maintains: “Unfortunately, even the communists (of West Bengal) have not as yet been able, or have not attempted, to do much for the poorest of the poor — the landless labourers”. Is Kohli right in his observation? If so, the Left’s radical credentials (the CPI(M))-led Left Front is credited with introducing the most radical piece of land reform legislation in the form of Operation Barga in West Bengal) become dubious and its claim of upholding Marxist principles suspect.
The CPI (M)-led Left came to power in West Bengal in 1977 and has been ruling the state since then. Operation Barga was launched in 1978 and concluded by the mid 80’s. As the term Barga suggests, the entire operation was designed to address the problem of share croppers. Literature available on the said ‘Operation’ shows that the exercise had nothing to do with the problem of the landless agricultural labourers.
That Kohli’s observations are not purely polemical talk is borne out by the hard statistics provided by Census reports. West Bengal has a high proportion of Dalit population (23.62 per cent SCs and 5.59 per cent STs), and the third largest (1.98 crores) in the country in real terms (Census reports of 1971—1990). Besides a mega industrial city, the state has many smaller industrial centres. Yet, of the total Dalit Main Work Force (MFW), 72.39 per cent SCs and 90.85 per cent STs are tied with the least advantageous primary sector in the state as against 46.75 per cent for non-Dalits.
Economics teaches us that when the work force moves away from the primary sector to join the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, that indicates not only growth, but also the relative economic development of the people. On this basis, it can be said that the majority of the non-Dalit population (53.25 per cent), which is settled in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the state’s economy is economically better placed than the all-India average (37.83 per cent) for non-Dalits.
In that sense, Dalits in the state (27.61 per cent SCs and 9.15 per cent STs), too, have done better than the All India average (23 per cent SC and 9.98 per cent STs) for Dalits. But the Left cannot claim much credit in this regard, for, even in the year 1971, the Bengal population had a relative advantage vis-a-vis the all-India average for all social categories. However, a degree of disparity lies in the sectoral work force composition.
D uring 1971-1991, the Dalit
MWF in the state moved away from the primary sector to the other sectors (8.61 per cent SCs and 1.2 per cent STs) in better proportion than the all- India average (5.43 per cent SCs and 0.55 per cent STs). But what lies hidden is the fact that the majority of the Dalits joined the secondary sector (4.4 per cent SCs and 1.5 per cent STs), to become manual labourers and not the service sector to become babus.
To arrive at a clearer picture, it is necessary to investigate the state of Dalits in the agrarian society in West Bengal. As per the Census Report (1991), of the total Dalit MWF in the primary sector, 56.80 per cent SCs and 55.80 per cent STs are landless agricultural labourers as against 33.26 per cent of non-Dalits. Though the Dalits in the state are better placed than their all-India counterparts, the Left Front has nothing to be proud of, as they were relatively better placed even in 1971.
In fact, if we compare the 1991 figures with those of 1971, we arrive at some shocking results. In 1971, of the total Dalit MWF in the primary sector, 52.55 per cent SCs and 53.08 per cent STs were in the category of landless agricultural labourers. By the year 1991, their proportion had gone up by 4.25 per cent for SCs, and 2.72 per cent for STs. This negative ‘Dalit trend’ as witnessed in the state compares poorly with the all-India average, where the proportion of landless agricultural labourers rose only by 0.95 per cent for SCs and 1.0 per cent for STs during the same period.
If we compare the position of non-Dalits in the same category for the same period, we find a reverse trend for them: while the proportion of landless agricultural labourers at the all-India level has gone up by 2 per cent, West Bengal has witnessed a decline of 3.89 per cent in the same period. This clearly shows that the Dalits’ are facing marginalisation in West Bengal to a much greater degree than at the all-India level, while non-Dalits are improving at a much faster rate than their all-India counterparts.
It is not a mere co-incidence that the CPI (M) in particular, and Left Front in general, finds a close ally in Mulayam Singh Yadav, who in U.P. represents the ‘Kisan’ OBCs or middle castes, and is also known for his rabid anti-Dalit stance.
After having examined the fate of landless Dalits in the state, let us look at what is happening to the Dalits who own land. As per the Census Report (1971), of the total Dalit MWF in the primary sector, 41.20 per cent SCs and 32.64 per cent STs were in the category of cultivators as against 60.96 per cent for non-Dalits. By the year 1991, of the total Dalit MWF in the primary sector, the proportion of SC cultivators declined by 3.26 per cent, STs remained almost constant, and the non-Dalit cultivators witnessed a marginal rise by 0.16 per cent.
In comparison, at the all-India level, the decline for SCs was by 0.76 per cent, for STs it was almost constant, and in case of non-Dalits, there was a significant decline of 2.2 per cent. This clearly shows that while the position of Dalits at the all-India level has been worsening over the years, in the case of West Bengal, their position is worsening at a much faster rate.
The growing marginalisation of the Dalits in West Bengal has its echoes on the educational front as well. Excluding Sikkim (which may be treated as a minor player among the Indian states for the moment), the dropout rate (by the secondary level) of Dalits in the state of West Bengal (90.01 per cent for SCs / 92.47 per cent for STs) is highest in the country (1988-89). Worse still, while between 1981-82 and 1988-89 the drop out rate for Dalits at the all-India level witnessed a decline by 5.84 per cent for SCs and 4.93 per cent for STs, during the same period, the decline in West Bengal was by an insignificant 1.8 per cent and 0.88 per cent for SC/STs respectively.
In terms of literacy, Dalits in the state have done better than their all-India average. But again the Left Front can not claim this to be their achievement as Dalit literacy in the state was better than the all-India average even in 1971. Notwithstanding the better literacy position in West Bengal vis-a-vis the all-India average, their ranking among the Indian states is pathetic.
While in the year 1980-’81, SCs and STs of the state ranked 18th and 24th among Indian states, a decade later, (1990-91) they still maintained their inglorious position at rank 18th and 24th respectively. This clearly proves that the Left Front government headed by Jyoti Basu has remained totally indifferent to the question of Dalit education, otherwise considered to be a very crucial emancipatory tool.
The mainstream Left in general, has always rejected Ambedkar’s approach towards resolving the crisis of Indian society by dubbing his vision ‘sectarian’. To this end, the Left systematically censored Ambedkar’s writings. As a result, the cadres did not get an opportunity to grasp the most radical philosophy of our times. The left has also been averse to the policy of the Congress towards Dalits by dubbing it reactionary and anti-Dalit.
This ideological position of the Left further deprived the Dalit masses of the tokenism offered by the Congress for its own ulterior motives. As a result, Dalits have lost out on all counts. It may even be said that, the position of the Dalits in the state ruled by comrades has been worse than under Congress rule elsewhere in the country.
Archived from Communalism Combat, February 1998, Year 5 No. 40, Debate