History

The Lives of Ordinary People Who Joined West Bengal's Tebhaga Movement

Extracts from Sabitri Roy's 'Harvest Song', which depicts the Tebhaga movement that began when landless peasants and sharecroppers rebelled against landlords.

Political violence has always been an integral part of Bengal’s history. The forms of such violence – over time – have mutated and transformed themselves. In the series Bengal: Genealogies of ViolenceThe Wire attempts to capture some of the milestones that mark the narratives of political bloodshed spanning more than eight decades. Read the other articles here.

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Introduction by Debjani Sengupta

Sabitri Roy’s novel Paka Dhaner Gaan (abridged English translation: Harvest Song) came out in three parts between 1956 and 1958. This was her fifth novel written after Swaralipi (Notations, 1952), a novel that was banned by the Communist Party of India for its critique of internal authoritarianism of the party. Like all her other works, Roy’s profound sense of contemporary history can also be seen in Harvest Song, that opens in the years before the Partition of India and depicts the Tebhaga movement that began when landless peasants and sharecroppers rebelled against landlords, refused to pay half of their harvest as tax and demanded two thirds for themselves (the word ‘tebhaga‘ means sharing by third).

Tebhaga Andolan was led by the workers of the undivided Communist Party of India but was withdrawn in November 1947 after witnessing widespread clashes and violence in the districts of Jalpaiguri, Jessore and Dinajpur between the bargadars (sharecroppers) and jotedars (landowners).  The movement is significant in our history as it was an early example of a full-fledged peasant agitation that used violence as a tool of political resistance as well as for its remarkable show of unity across caste, gender and religion.

Harvest Song encompasses an epic view of ordinary people, both middle class and agriculturists, who gets drawn into the movement and who becomes agents of change not only in their own lives but in the lives of others. Roy’s canvas is wide yet deeply individualised. Her characters, especially women like Bhadra and Debaki depicted in the novel, are wonderfully alive with their own contradictory desires and experiences. Harvest Song’s panoramic canvas moves across manifold locations: the domestic and the political have equal place in its pages. The novel talks of a radical mode of political intervention that uses violence, subverts patriarchal moorings and creates a complex narrative of men, women and children who come from diverse social milieus and whose lives intertwine in a rich tapestry of social, historical and interpersonal relationships.

The novel is not prescriptive in that it provides no easy answers: the peasants who fight for their rights suffer grim hardship and the revolutionary hopes are hard earned yet fragile in individual lives. Yet the text is filled with a kind of light that originates in the author’s deeply held belief that human beings will always rise, sometimes tentatively, sometimes with force, against injustice. The possibilities of resistance remain forever present in the grim contours of history’s vicarious injustices.

Roy’s own life had seen closely the anti-colonial struggles through her family’s espousal of revolutionary terrorism. She married a Communist Party worker and although not a member of the party in a formal way, Roy internalised many of the political and socialist ideals of communism. Yet Roy’s deep awareness of contemporary political issues and her own individualistic assessment of them (that sometimes did not conform to expectations) made her a writer who was largely marginalised during her life-time. Her novels have now been re-published in Bangla after many years of neglect.

Excerpts from Harvest Song

A branch of the Brahmaputra turns north, touching Bilaskhan, Talpukar and Mansadanga. On its bank lived the Malos, the Tantis – the weavers– and Kumors, the potters. There were also Bagdis; Haris; Rajbangshis, a tribal group and Muslim farmers. Their religions might not be the same, but the joys and sorrows of their lives were. Though they stopped short of entering each other’s houses, they looked forward to the small gatherings in the courtyards.

Partha’s father, Sudam, was holding a meeting in his courtyard. Many people had come. There were not only farmers, but weavers, fishermen and potters as well. Everybody was agitated about the announcement of the toll. Lakshman, Partha’s brother-in-law, had been to every house to tell them about the meeting. Nearly everyone had come.

Ali was the first to speak. ‘None of us will pay the toll; let’s see how they make us. Do you remember how Keshto Kumar fell off the bridge with all his pots? Everything was broken to bits, and he hurt his back badly and had to stay in bed for over two months.’

Sabitri Roy
Harvest Song

Keshto’s son nodded. ‘And what about all that medicine and ointment bought from kabiraj? At least twenty rupees gone down the drain.’

Lakshman spoke gravely. ‘They say they’ll shove us into jails if we don’t pay up. Well, let’s see what they can do with their “criminal prosecution”. Or for that matter legal, penal, judicial or whatever prosecution. They may have money, but we aren’t cattle either. If we cut our fingers, it’s the same blood and not water, that comes out.’

Ali was livid. ‘Isn’t it outrageous? Only the other day, they seized Mafi’s mother’s plot on the basis of a forged document. That insolent amin babu! Says, “Why? What’s your problem? Swim the river naked! People of your class shouldn’t suffer from modesty.” As if we’re stray dogs!’

Lakshman flared up. ‘They are the dogs! Slimy, bootlicking curs! The only difference is that their children go to school, and ours loiter about. But it’s better to hold plough than hold a pen and licks boot for life. Why didn’t you tell this to that amin babu?’

Amulya, Sudam’s brother-in-law, replied. ‘We can’t send our children to school because we don’t have money. But they can come first in class as well – our Partha has proved that; he came first in every exam from the start.’ Amulya was very proud of his nephew. ‘And Partha didn’t have any books to speak of. How he struggled!’

Kunja Majhi lowered his voice, ‘I heard that Partha has been to Talpukar recently. Our chowkidhar spotted him at the ferryghat. The next moment, he was gone. Apparently, he’s joined a dangerous gang. They always carry lots of bomb and stuff. It was to catch Partha that Daroga babu raided Dinumaster’s house.’

Sudam sighed. Amulya said, ‘Darogababu is another one; they’re all alike. Always so nattily dressed, like peacocks. Where does the momey come from, I’d like to know? And its not just clothes – he liked women too.’
Amulya’s brother added, ‘He’s a “gentleman”, don’t you know? He can’t be satisfied with a mere wife.’ Laughter broke out at his words. Amulya’s aunt chuckled. ‘My God! The way these young lads speak!’

Amulya tried to change the subject. ‘Let’s not pick over babus’ dirty linen: come back to the point.’ Ali concurred. So it’s settled. We are not going to pay the toll. Not even half a paisa.’

A shout went up. ‘Not even half a paisa,’ they echoed him.

But even before the shout died down, they saw flames leaping over the treetops, and heard the screams as well. Everyone rushed towards the spot. Ali’s house was on fire.

‘First put out the fire. Then you can find out how it happened!’ admonished Sudam. The women emptied pot after pot of water on the flames. The whole neighbourhood jumped to the task. Somehow, Ali’s house was saved, but before anyone had made it to the scene, Mafi’s mother’s hut with its thatched roof, had been reduced to ashes. It had stood just beside Ali’s house.

Also read: How the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement Gained Popularity in Bengal

Ali did not utter a word. His blood was boiling; he knew evil was afoot. He could see two sinister eyes burning in the darkness, a thin moustache a horrid, ugly face…

‘We have to report this to the police,’ said Ali’s uncle Aminuddi. ‘Police!’ Ali muttered though gritted teeth, He felt that a net was slowly around him and his people.

Mafi’s mother was sitting at her gutted door, waling for her son. Ali took her hand, ‘Wipe your tears Mafir Ma. You will find your Mafi in all of us. Come to my house for the night. We will build your house again,’

‘Even if you build my house, it will burn again, Ali. That’s my fate, to be cursed so,’ wailed Mafi’s mother.

‘We’ll build it again, every time it burns.’

Ali’s promise echoed in the darkness for a long time.

§

As the villagers realized that it had indeed been the landlord’s men who had set fire to Ali’s house, they became firm in their resolve not to pay the toll. The landlord’s men came again, beating their drums, threatening prosecution if the villagers did not pay up. But the village was unruffled. ‘O faithful followers of the landlord,’ the little boys sang, mocking the drummers.

Coming to the fields one morning, the farmers saw that a tent had been put up by the riverside. There were about 50 policemen, including the daroga, milling about the camp. Soon the daroga and some of the men began marching through the fields towards Mansadanga. The farmers watched in fear. One told Lakshman who left immediately for home.

On his way he found boys running about everywhere the police had entered their houses and were beating up people. They had gone into Lakshman’s house as well. The daroga has burst into Sudam’s room and kicked him so hard that the weak old man, who had been feverish for some days, had collapsed. Sudam’s wife, Mangala, heard his screams from the cowshed and found him lying there, his nose bleeding profusely and his clothes drenched in blood. But the daroga would not let Mangala near her husband. He had pushed her away and pounced on Sudam again. ‘Tell me where your son is, you scoundrel! , heard his screams from the cowshed and found him lying there, his nose bleeding profusely and his clothes drenched in blood. But the daroga would not let Mangala near her husband. He had pushed her away and pounced on Sudam again. ‘Tell me where your son is, you scoundrel! You know very well where he’s hiding,’ the policeman screamed as he showered blows on Sudam.

The daroga was still at it when Lakshman entered the house. Furious, Lakshman walked up to him. ‘How can he know where Parth is? he asked.

‘This is another of them,’ interjected a chowkidhar. The daroga let go of Sudam immediately and pounced on Lakshman instead. ‘So you won’t give the toll tax?’ the policeman shrieked.

‘Not a paisa,’ Lakshman thundered.

Anger twisted the daroga’s voice. ‘Tie him up,’ he ordered one of the policemen and went on ransacking every room of the house. The, rounding up some more young men, he took them and Lakshman to the riverside tent.
Lakshman’s wife Lakshmi was by the river doing her washing when she suddenly saw her husband and the others being marched towards the police tent. She was stunned; only a few hours ago she had served him some leftover rice and he had left for the fields! Terrified, Lakshmi just sat there, when Lakshman called to her. ‘Go home, Lakshmi,’ he told her.

She hurried back home. Her mother sobbed, ‘Where were you? They took Lakshman away. And look at your father…’ Sudam lay unconscious in the courtyard. His face was swollen dreadfully; Mangala changed the wet compress on his forehead.

It was noon but no one had gone into the kitchen since morning. ‘Lakshmi, go and boil some tapioca and milk for your father,’ Mangala told her daughter. ‘Boil this rice and lentils together also,’ she said, sifting the grains on a bamboo sieve. ‘God knows when they’ll release Lakshman. There should be something for him to eat when he comes back. Thank God your brother Arjun was not home of they’d have taken him too.

At this point Sudam opened his eyes and asked for water. Lakshmi helped him up and poured out some water from the pitcher. Mangala brought out a piece of crystallized sugar and said: ‘Have this first. It’s not right to have water on an empty stomach.’ Sudam’s face was grotesquely swollen and his whole body throbbed with pain.

He looked around and asked: ‘Hasn’t Lakshman come back?’

‘Not yet.’

‘You should have gone to Priyotoshbabu at the Congress Ashram.’

Almost before he finished, Priyotoshbabu arrived. Mangala brought him a wooden stool. ‘See how they have beaten up the old man!’ she said.

‘I came as soon as I heard,’ Priyotoshbabu said. He felt Sudam’s forehead. ‘You have a slight fever too,’ he said. ‘This is the curse of being a subject nation. If we stomach this outrage, they’ll transgress all limits. The curs who lick British boots should be made to know that we won’t take this lying down. We’ll call a meeting tomorrow at the Mansatala against this outrage. Tell all the villagers.’ Priyotoshbabu got up. ‘I heard the boys have been taken to the police station. Let me see if I can arrange for bail,’ he said.

It was evening. Mangala kept glancing at the road but there was no sign of Lakshman. Less than a year ago they had married their daughter to Lakshman. His parents were dead. He had only an elder brother who worked in the docks in Chittangong.

Priyotoshbabu had sent Arjun to buy cotton from the town. On his way back from the station in the evening, Arjun heard that Ali had been beaten up severely at the police station. Appalled, Mangala rushed to pray before goddess Lakshmi for their release.

Lakshmi fed the cattle in the afternoon and quickly finished her chores. She started getting ready for the meeting. Arjun went to bathe in the pond.

At another ghat at the pond was Meghi, from the neighbouring Brahmin family, scrubbing away at her pots.

‘Have they released Lashman?’ she asked Arjun. Dropping her voice, she added, ‘I heard they’ve also taken Ali?’

Arjun, neck-deep in water, said: ‘Yes, and they’ve beaten him to a pulp.’ But he noticed that Meghi’s face clouded at his words and there seemed to be a hint of tears in her eyes. A little confused, he hastily added: ‘There’s a meeting at Mansatala this evening.’

‘Ask Lakshmi to call me before she goes,’ Meghi said softly.

On their way to the meeting, the women from Malopara called Mangala.

‘Aren’t you coming, Lakshmi’s Ma?’

‘Of course,’ Sudam answered for his wife and daughter. ‘You go on, they’ll follow.’

Lakshmi reminded her mother that they would have to call Meghi. When they were passing Amulya’s house, his mother-in-law called out to say she would join them. She doused the fire in the wooden stove, took off the vessel of parboiled paddy, and slipping a paan into her mouth, came out.

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When Lakshmi arrived, Meghi told her mother that she was going to the Manasa temple. If Kala Tharan, Meghi’s mother, found out about the meeting she would surely kick up a row. But Mangala could not understand Kala Tharan’s reservations about Mangala going to the meeting. They were gentlefolk, and Brahmins too, but so what? Did it help them earn any more money?

On their way to the meeting, Mangala thought Meghi looked very pale.

‘Is it ekadashi?’ Mangala asked.

Meghi, widowed in childhood, was expected to fast on each Ekadashi, the eleventh day of each lunar fortnight. The kind words were enough to moisten Meghi’s eyes. ‘No its not Ekadashi. I was not feeling well so I skipped a meal,’ she said.

When people had reached Mansatala they found that the meeting ground was packed with people. A rope separated the women from the men. The speeches had already started. But the police struck before the speaker Krishanatta could finish his speech. The meeting was broken up. Mangala was stunned; even speaking up was a crime then!

Soon after, Section 144 was imposed on the area. Meetings were declared illegal. More than four persons could not assemble in a public place. Pituni – a tax to pay for wear and tear on the landlord’s private police force – was also levied. ‘It’s they who beat us, and then we have to pay for their broken sticks,’ the villagers fumed.

One night, Priyotoshbabu visited every house to say that the next day a civil disobedience movement would be launched. At the crack of dawn, a bugle sounded from the bridge. Everyone, from villagers to Congress volunteers rushed there to find a crowd of policemen on the other side of the canal. The magistrate and the police officer from the subdivision had brought a Gurkha army battalion.

The fields stretched away, waiting, silent but the silence was soon shattered by a full-throated cry of ‘Bande Mataram!’ ‘Honour the Mother,’ the rallying cry of the Congress. The volunteers were promptly arrested. As the air reverberated with the sound of conch shells, Arjun and his friends, their young minds resolute, joined the Congressmen in shouting their slogans.

The daroga left for the police station with the captive volunteers in tow. The air still echoed with ‘Bande Mataram’ as the women from their courtyards watched the men being taken away.

Seven days passed. Ali, Lakshman and his friends had been released, but the fields lay fallow. The farmers refused to do anything in the landlord’s interest, though it was time to sow the seeds. Worried, the landlord’s office summoned Priyotoshbabu. Ali and the others were also called. The landlord himself greeted the Congress leader. ‘My tenants are like my children,’ he said in a conciliatory tone. ‘And you are fighting for the country’s freedom. But this country is ours too. Why should we fight against each other? I have been away for some time; when I came back I heard all this had happened. If the villagers want the road to be repaired, it shall be done, of course. I also mean to build a wooden bridge in place of the wobbly bamboo-pole one.’ But, looking at Lakshman and his friends, he added, ‘Half the cost, though has to come from you. I’ll give the rest.’

A servant brought in tea and sweet for Priyotoshbabu. Ali suddenly got up and left. ‘I smell a rat,’ he whispered to Lakshman as he went.

The landlord handed the plate to Priyotoshbabu. ‘Try these sweets, Notun Ma made them herself,’ he said.

Priyotoshbabu emerged from the meeting a happy man. The landlord had promised to put in a concrete floor for the Congress ashram. That very day, Priyotoshbabu went to meet the village elders. When they later assembled in Sudam’s courtyard, the older farmers who had talked to Priyotoshbabu argued that the toll should be paid. ‘Since the landlord has promised to repair the road, you shouldn’t object to the tax,’ said Aminuddi, Ali’s uncle. But Ali, Lakshman and Kunja were adamant: the landlord had not even agreed to compensate them for the crops damaged by the police. Why should they pay the tax?