Land reforms India

Land Question and the Socio-Economic Crisis in India!

As the outcome of the state assembly elections are discussed extensively, it is important to relook at the causes for the persisting social crisis and the indifference of the political parties over it, particularly the ‘so called left’ in allying itself actively once again in political opportunism!

In just two years of the Modi led BJP’s regime the political turmoil in India is significant! Particularly this government which on one hand, ruthlessly pursuing the neo-liberal agenda of the Indian corporates and on the other hand cringing itself to the diktats of the Sangh Parivar

The institutional murder of a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad nakedly exposed once again to every earnest souls, the nature of the caste-ridden society of India. With more than 200 million Dalits in India – the most oppressed of the oppressed in the Hindu caste hierarchy, the note left by Rohith Vemula exposed the discrimination he endured through the entire system machinery with an open support from the BJP government in the center. Massive upsurge of young people, students and others led to some conscious ruling class elements like the pro-business politician – P.Chidambaram, to warn this reckless government that this ongoing radicalisation will end up with millions of masses losing their trust in the established institutions.i

The growing contradictions of the rapid industrialisation and the urbanisation in some pockets of this great land mass, which is still largely a backward society blatantly expose the failures of the establishment parties in India, particularly the Congress and the BJP. Horrific assaults on women and other marginalised communities including Dalits are now sadly regular features, which are brought to the wider layers across the world by mainstream and social media. Although the issues of caste or for that matter oppression against women have burst out recently in the urban metropolitans, the underlying causes are still deep-rooted in the backwardness of Indian society.

With its hundreds of thousands of loyal cadres and millions of workers organised in its affiliated trade unions, the ‘so called’ left and Communist parties is remarkably touching a new low at this critical juncture. It has not only failed to organise against these right wing reactionaries, but once again the Communist Parties are resorting to parliamentary means and forging opportunistic alliances in the state assembly elections.

The path of struggle through which these organisations’ were built is long forgotten. Also discarded is what should be the fundamental task of any serious organisation to combat the oppressive and still persisting age-old traditions of the Indian society like casteism.

The roots of the socio-economic crisis of India including casteism, oppression against women, agrarian distress and the massive impoverishment of the millions of people in the sub-continent are all still inevitably linked to the failures of capitalism and the vital lingering question of land. A question that has remained largely unsettled by successive governments of the landlordists’ and pro-capitalists’ parties, a question that can only be addressed by a socialist program!

Landlordism & the crisis of rural India:

Of more than 67% of the population in India, around 857 million people are in the rural areas. Even the official census reports 60 percent of the rural population are deprived; more than one third of the rural populace is illiterate!

In rural areas, land is the key source of income with roughly 85% of its population depending directly or indirectly on agriculture or related production. The rationale is more than obvious to understand the relationship between land ownership and social status. The Reserve Bank of India survey data (1981) reports indicate the grotesque inequalities of land ownership with the poorest 10% owning less than 1% of land in contrast to the top 10% of the landowners holding around 50 per cent and within that,3.5% of the landlords own 37.72 per cent of the land. With no significant developments from that level of inequality and the extreme concentration of ownership of the agricultural land the status-quo is not just the same, but worsened by growing speculation of land, state sponsored land acquisition and land grabbing from the ordinary farmers to the big businesses, the agrarian crisis is acute.

Deep in the countryside, where there is no electricity or sanitation and millions of villagers are illiterate, living in wretched conditions facing a bleak future of lifelong poverty. It is from societies like this that people are drawn into bonded labour. According to the estimates of human rights activists there are some 10 million bonded labourers working in key industries.

The caste system is particularly severe in the rural areas and is further entrenched by a total lack of opportunities stemming from the vast remnants of the semi-feudal social relations India, with Dalits in rural areas having a lot less access to land and in particular having very little access to fertile agricultural land. The powerful land owning communities are often from a comparatively privileged caste position exerting undue influence in the socio-political areas, elbowing the interests of the oppressed communities and thus maintaining the hegemony of caste in the entire apparatus of the society.

There are studies reflecting an existing trend of landlessness amongst women, with just 9% of women in rural areas owning land, with a substantial section of them being just agricultural workers. The lack of property ownership particularly land amongst rural women, and in cases where they might have access to landed properties still may not possess formal recognition of ownership and titles such as ‘pattas’. When women had some sort of claim over land then it’s often the case that she owns it along with the other males in that family. This maintains the statuesque of the society where men are still in a position of complete control over the property relations in general, yielding a very inferior role to women in terms of social status, thus sustaining a worst form of patriarchal society.

Before dealing with this particularly, it will be a worthwhile effort to look back historically in order to understand the importance of land reforms and its various complexities for the struggling masses across the world.

Marxists and the land question:

Marxism always absorbed the many developments in the struggles against the oppressive property relations. From the obscene appropriation of surpluses and land by a privileged few, the strugglesii between the propertied and the property less classes flared up.

The developments in the society with the rising contradictions of the productive forces though compelled the forces of bourgeoning capitalists to counter the feudal order. But it was the layers of petty-bourgeoisie and the semi-proletarian masses who decisively combated the reactionary forces by rallying the peasantry. When the Jacobins took control of the Great French Revolution, the estates of the nobility and the clergies were stripped off from its affluence through massive land reforms, with the land of the privileged being occupied by the peasants, the land of the clergy seized and auctioned, the feudal courts, tenures and tithes also being abolished.

Nonetheless the big bourgeoisie often resorted to a counter revolutionary role and allied with the privileged, rather than facing the wrath of the deprived. In fiefdoms and countries where the capitalists as a class arrived late and weak, it openly flirted along and developed vested interests with the landowners and ceased to carry out its historic task of overthrowing the shackles of the bourgeois’ property relations.

With the struggles amongst the conflicting classes across the world, the land question inevitably emerged to be a political objective and it is not just anymore the struggle between the landowners and landless peasants with the bourgeoisie squandering for its own interests. With industrialisation arrived the proletariat! Unlike the capitalists, particularly in the industrially backward country the working class were devoid of any vested interests with the landlords and the land question was becoming an important feature of the radical political movements spearheaded by the working class.iii

Despite the rising layers of industrial workers from the giant enterprises, the Russian society prior to the ‘October Revolution’ was primarily a vast feudal landmass under an autocratic Tsarist regime characterised by a massive socio-economic and cultural backwardness. Awaiting the historically delayed ‘bourgeoisie revolution’; the Russian Labour movementiv was torn amongst various political groupings on the class question to provide leadership and carry out the bourgeoisie democratic tasks to its completion. It was the resolute struggle of Lenin and Trotsky which championed the emerging proletariat along with the peasantry and not the irresolute bourgeoisie to liquidate the centuries old Russian feudalism. With the revolutionary leadership of the Bolsheviks, determined peasants and agrarian workers, the proletarian democracy of Russia spearheaded the program of radical land reforms, redistributing millions of acres of land to the democratically organised peasant committees’ and thus laid the foundations for the ruthless cleansing of the medievalism which existed in Russia until that time.  

Prior to the Second World War period in the 1930’s there was a massive radicalisation of the masses across the world in the course of numerous struggles against the crisis ridden establishment and to an extent inspired by the propaganda of the Stalinistv Soviet Union on its relative stability, and the early triumphs of its planned economy. It aroused almost immediately after the war as Trotsky rightly indicated before, as mighty revolutionary waves which swept across the world. This pressed not only the leadership of the workers’ organisations but also the traditional establishment parties internationally to opportunistically accommodate popular programs and demands. If it is the crisis of social housing, nationalisation of industries and services in advanced economies, the yet to be solved question of land remained a threat to the neo-colonial bourgeois’ and its vested interests with landlordism.

Little did the privileged expect from the humble peasants! The resoluteness of the peasantry with the leadership of workers rocked the establishment!

In China the worse off shoots of feudalism were challenged by the 1949 revolution with a ruthless purging of that centuries old medievalism. Mao Zedong, aware of the class forces with extremely hostile reactionary landlords against the Chinese Communist Party and its most popular demand of land redistribution to landless peasants, which won countless cadres from peasantry, initiated radical land reforms in spite of the vastness of the agrarian China. Chairman Mao, a Stalinist whose aim is not to go beyond this stage executed with a tremendous will to liquidate the feudal relations in China. The People’s Republic of China passed the Agrarian Reform Law (1950) redistributing land to millions of landless peasants and also super structurally combated social-backwardness by issuing progressive strict laws against female oppression and to promote gender equality, and those laws were supported by the underlying changes from the substructure- the liberation of the productive forces from the landlords and the construction of the planned economy, which despite being top down and bureaucratic did support the requirements of the farmers. These land reforms in China, primarily a backward country at that time, captured the imagination of the struggling masses across the world. However with the limitations of Stalinism and the authoritarian approach of Mao the contradictions of the Chinese revolution persisted.

Over the years the land and agrarian question took different character and forms during the course of struggle and mass movements. In India the outpouring of massive social tensions once again reflect the underlying contradictions of this land question.

Agrarian Crisis in the sub-continent:

The very rigid character of centuries old agricultural practices in this vast land mass was actually a way of life for a lot of people developing their own custom, traditions and the social relations arising from that underlying substructure which ossified in itself the already existing questions of caste, gender and other forms of oppression. The caste based hierarchical institutions of the landed aristocracies and their vicious laws were themselves like the mythical Vamana – a brahmanical incarnation of a powerful Hindu deity then in the legends who stood to protect the interests of the privileged gods by shrewdly depriving the lesser beings from their land!

The attempts of British colonial rule to commercialise Indian agriculture, to increase production, productivity and competitiveness to ensure supplies to its growing industrial demands back home in Britain, did not materialise to liberate the productive forces from the fetters of the largely feudal agrarian system.

Rather the consequences of the British capitalism, or more appropriately the British finance capital driven commercialisation of Indian agriculture was largely exploitative and super-oppressive. Layers of oppression swelled with the local chieftains, various middlemen and the imperialist bourgeoisie. The reactionary face of monopoly capitalism, which triggered this imperialist colonial race across globe, showed no mercy on the fate of millions and millions of emaciated peasants. Nevertheless the peasantry waged continuous struggles against British imperialism. Massive uprisings like the Indigo revolt in 1859 against the plantation owners, who forced the farmers to plant indigo instead of food crops to meet the European demand for the blue dye, with the plantation owners procuring it from the farmers for a tiny fraction of the market price. These peasants’ struggles shook the popular consciousness and laid the foundations of radicalisation amongst the youth and the urban intellectuals, which sparked off revolutionary and nationalist struggles against colonial rule.

The peasants and agrarian movements spread across the country and in 1936 they formed the ‘All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS)’ at the Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress. Under the influence of the Communist party the Indian Kisan Sabha movement released its Manifesto demanding the abolition of the Zamindari system and the cancellation of farmers’ debts. . However with the position of the CPI to appease British imperialism to safeguard the interests of the Soviet Union in the context of the Second World War, which meant that it firmly stayed away from the popular mass movements against the colonial rulers and thus squandering the hopes of millions in that course.

Even post-independence the dire circumstances of the peasantry and the bottom of their pile- the Dalits and women have hardly changed. The ruling party during most of the post-independence period in India the Congress, remained largely a party of the landlords and the emerging national bourgeoisie in India. The Gandhianvi inspired Bhoodanvii movement – voluntary land reforms initiated by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, who just relying on the altruism of the landowners, failed miserably in tackling the poverty of land amongst the peasants.

The Communist parties’ organised land reforms in Kerala and West Bengal demonstrated what can be achieved with this fundamental task to liberate the lives of millions from the oppressive yoke of feudal land relations. Particularly in Kerala where the land reforms bill, introduced in 1957 by the E.M.S. Namboodripad-lead first elected Communist party government in India is now widely commended for the human development indices in an Indian state which is comparable to the advanced countries across the world. Yet the Prime Minister Nehru led Congress government during that period in the centre along with the reactionary land owners and their collaborators in Kerala kept the land reforms in check by toppling the EMS government in 1959, by invoking the article 356 of the Indian constitution in the background of the infamous liberation struggle (Vimochana Samaram). However the peasants and agricultural labourers’ organisations militantly pursued the land struggles and constrained the subsequent governments to enforce the land redistribution Act. In Kerala the maximum land ownership in general is limited to 10 standard acres for a family of up to five members with a maximum ceiling of 15 standard acres for a large family and the surplus land was expropriated from the big land owners, and distributed to the landless peasants.

The Left-led Governments in West Bengal distributed lakhs of acres of land to landless families and the operation Barga addressed the problems of the sharecroppers (bargadars), who were up until that point exploited by the landlords, with the procurement of the legal rights by the sharecroppers being hampered by the landowners friendly state machinery. The operation Barga launched by the 1977 CPI-M led Left Front took the initiative to record the sharecroppers, which subsequently endowed the tillers of the land with security and social status. Rural poverty subsequently declined in the countryside of West Bengal, with wages and food intake improving substantially. However the inadequate access to material resources, modern technology and the continuing threat of dispossession of the registered bargadars from their lands have all demonstrated the lack of determination of the ‘Left front’ in carrying through the reforms that it started.

Even in Kerala after the land reforms had been implemented the failures to provide agrarian support through credits for farm utilities and crop securities during that period lead to a massive flight of people abroad in search of jobs and a decent life. An era of disillusionment prevailed amongst the people in general over Communist parties, notwithstanding their huge sacrifices among its rank and file.

As the Sino-Soviet split precipitated a new wave of geopolitical tensions, slitting the Stalinists parties across the world and in India with the Maoist Naxalist movement employing guerrilla tactics, which spearheaded the resistance of landless masses. The flawed tactic of slaughtering individual landlords as ‘class annihilation’, however strengthening the state oppression against the ordinary masses and genuine working class activists, it shocked the establishment politics. In the early 1970’s the then prime minister Indira Gandhi reached a consensus with the regional state governments to reduce land ceilings, other minor tenancy reform, as land in India is still largely a state subject. However those measures were largely half hearted, poorly followed up, utterly corrupt and further dictated by the whims of the landowners’ friendly state governments!

Furthermore land ceiling laws are now changed to accommodate corporate interests. The common minimum program of the Communist parties backed Congress lead United Progressive Alliance (UPA) gave no qualms about the gross inequities in land ownership. Despite the resolution adopted at the 20th Congress of the CPI (M), stressing the importance of ‘resolving the land question and implementing thoroughgoing land reforms by breaking the land monopoly’ the CPI (M) is quite unscrupulously forming alliances in these assembly elections retreating on that crucial task ‘central to the emancipation of the rural poor’. In fact in Singur, it was the CPI (M) led Left Front which devised the acquisition of fertile agricultural land for the Tata Nano plant.

These days the peasants and the small scale farmers have to invest a lot more when compared to large scale farming in proportion to the yield. Consequently for the peasants agriculture is turning out to be an expensive affair and the benefit of inadequate land ceilings favours the big landlords, who are influential in the commercial markets. Over the last 2 decades around 300,000 farmers have tragically ended their lives by ingesting pesticides or by hanging themselves. Most of those farmers owned their small patch of land. Even the land reforms in Kerala, West Bengal and the very limited land reforms in other parts of the country actually demonstrated the limitations of just the mere distribution of land to the impoverished layer of the masses. Quite obviously the key is an immediate support to those farmers in poverty like facilities to procure agricultural utilities, free electricity to the impoverished rural population, thorough irrigation, crop security/ insurance and welfare schemes.

However the state of present economy is purely operating on the profit motive and is not the force that it was during the industrial revolution period to liberate the productive forces out of the fetters. The manipulating shrewd operators of capital are not ready to go beyond the scope of the narrow playing field offered to them. The private capital investment in the two years mostly focused upon the urban centric areas and the realities of socio-economic differences between urban and rural India is growing wider. All the post liberalisation reforms were largely ineffective in tackling this unjust agrarian order. Even in Kerala only a maximum ceiling of 5 acres was implemented but it is important to start the discussion around a minimum landholding according to the productivity of the land to be available for every peasant and agricultural worker. However the emancipation of those toilers remains fundamentally on their sustainability, which could only be achieved in a very underdeveloped country like India by the public ownership of productive forces, planned under democratic workers’ control.

It is imperative to understand the question of land, the persisting perils of social backwardness and the iniquitous agrarian structure in India all of which are inevitably linked not only with the liberation of productive forces, but to harness it towards the upliftment of the society in general.

Radical land reforms:

With globalisation and the growing influence of neoliberal policies in all avenues including agriculture the lives of even small land holding peasants is starkly exposed to the fluctuating national and international market forces. Consequentially an epidemic of farmers’ suicides by hundreds of thousands of peasants left with no other choice but to surrender their lives and their small patch of land after a life of hard work and toil. Lost lives and alienated land! Those who managed to survive these nightmarish conditions will still be haunted by poverty wages, unemployment or sometimes even uprooted from their land and communities to urban areas where often their fates are no different. Also with the recent protests against the question of caste and the oppression of women it is still many times severe and deeply ingrained in the rustic areas and those brutalities often don’t find the vents that the urban centres, universities and the metropolitan centric media sometimes allow.

Clearly it is an imperative for any organisations which identifies itself with the struggle of the oppressed to make no compromises whatsoever in this serious issue of eradicating the backwardness and the appalling impoverishment flowing from this persisting landlordism. It is not only the landlordists and pro-capitalist regimes but both the Communist parties, who instead of campaigning for an independent and decisive leadership of the growing working class forces in India along with the agrarian workers and peasants are now openly resorting to the politics of opportunism – blatantly showcasing the decay, and the bankruptcy of Stalinism.

It is only through the determined struggle of working class forces along with all the oppressed layers of the society that the problems of this backwardness will be genuinely resolved. It is important to radically solve the land question and simultaneously nationalise the commanding heights of economy, with planned production and distribution under democratic workers’ control; aiming to fulfil the agrarian requirements to improve and enhance lives. Obviously in a vast land mass like India there is no one fixed solution and the practical complexities of the land redistribution program have to be resolved with the participation of the independent peasant committees’ and agricultural workers associations. Democratically run farmers’ cooperatives and large scale voluntary collective farming should be encouraged. Measures should be undertaken to seriously address the existing inequalities in land ownership among women, Dalits and other oppressed layers. Necessary social and legal measures should be taken to uplift the lives of those oppressed sections of the society, in particular Dalits and women. Every possible means should be diverted towards the provisioning of education, healthcare and decent employment for all to weed out the backwardness that is strangling this society at present

Sajith Attepuram


i P.Chidambaram, Across the aisle: ‘My birth is my fatal accident’- The Indian Express Feb1, 2016.

iiBack in ancient times, the Roman republic exploded in the ‘struggle of the orders’ between the Plebeians – the commoners and the Patrician aristocracy! The struggle to seek political equality has not settled by the Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy statutes of Roman Laws, but erupted as a mass resistance of the Plebeins against the landed gentry of the Patrician class. The Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Gaius introduced the land reforms laws -the lexagraria, and stipulated the maximum and minimum land holdings for individuals, the land in excess of the maximum limits were expropriated, with compensation being paid for the investment, and all of these were duly executed by a standing collegium. Nonetheless the nobilities including the liberal senators who were all set out to lose a lot from the popular land reforms measures ruthlessly opposed Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who were the tribunes of the Plebeians. The bloodshed that followed set the pattern for the brutalities of the privileged ruling elites over the interests of the masses!

iiiIn Britain the Chartists incorporated that issue in their land plan program to promote peasant proprietorship and to attain workers enfranchisement by satisfying the minimum land holdings requirements. These formed the basis of chartist Feargus O’Connor to set up the National Land Company.

Meanwhile among the liberal intellectuals heated debates were happening emphasising the issues of the inequities of land along with the pressures exerted from the still influential landed gentry! Henry George’s limited ‘single-tax’ based Land Value Tax which wasn’t fundamentally questioning the issues of land ownership, was nevertheless hailed by the Liberals!

Nevertheless pioneering work on the analysis of the agrarian issues, its socio-political significance, the impact of capitalism on agrarian society and the importance of an ‘agrarian program’ for the workers struggle were made by Kautsky, a Marxist theoretician, an important leader of German Social Democracy who later succumbed to opportunism, and lead the second international against the revolutionary social-democrats. Cited by Lenin as a systematic study of capitalism in agriculture Kautsky’s seminal work ‘The Agrarian Question’ (1888) analysed the developments in agriculture particularly in developed countries and the evolution of farming from a routine craft to a science. Kautsky’s work also raised important questions about the interests of the landlords and the capitalists to artificially maintain small peasantry, the impact of capitalism over agrarian lives including the huge import of grains from America, India and Russia into European markets etc. Social democracy and the labour movement in general were constantly raising demands to counter the plight of the peasantry!

ivAmong the trends that existed in the Russian Labour movement, the Mensheviks took the position that the bourgeois revolutionary tasks of Russia has to be led by the capitalist class, where the party of the workers is to take up the role of the left wing of the democratic front and to support the liberal bourgeoisie against reaction and at the same time to defend the interests of the proletariat against the capitalists in general. But Lenin and Trotsky stressed on the unshackling of the fetters of serfdom with a radical solution to the agrarian question by a revolutionary redistribution of landownership. Bolsheviks, who under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, championed the industrialised Russian working class aided by the peasantry to carry through the bourgeois democratic tasks of liquidating the feudal structures of Russia and carrying through the bourgeios democratic tasks to its completion. However the theoretical struggle within the different trends of social democracy over the practical tasks of dealing with the problems of the peasantry and the bourgeois revolutionary tasks were tested in the Russian Revolution!

v After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet Union witnessed the development and the rise of the Stalinist tendency which supported bureaucratic control over the workers and the economy. Stalinism espoused the two stage theory/ stages theory of revolution (a Menshevik idea originally) to safeguard the interests of the bureaucracy within the power structures of the Soviet Union. Socialism, in which an important element is workers’ democracy and control over the means of production and distribution, was suppressed by the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The rise of Stalinism also lead to widespread persecution and mass murder of dissidents, including the assassination of Leon Trotsky, who along with Vladimir Lenin led the great October Revolution of 1917.

vi Gandhian philosophy substituted pacifism instead of class struggle. Advocating truce with capitalism and stripping the working class from its arsenals, the utopianism of Gandhi accepts the statuesque of exploitation and oppression. Gandhian methods were a hindrance to the revolutionary struggle of the working class; in some way could be comparable to that of the gradualists and the reformists in the Western Europe who likewise nurtured their idealistic quest to an egalitarian society ignoring the material basis of social relations.

vii Land Gift Movement