The archetypal city, the city of Kolkata, is immortalised by Mrinal Sen’s fim Kolkata Ekattor (Calcutta ‘71), which tells us of a time when the divide between the middle class and the urban poor was not as great as now.
Naxalite activity, food crisis, starvation of the lower classes, workers’ discontent and social and political corruption merged in one common urban situation. The peasant unrest in the countryside acted as the backdrop for not only urban radical dreams but, for those managing the city, also as a menacing reminder of the time. Lower middle class families in many areas lived in or near slum areas. Sen showed the death of truth through the death of a youth chased and killed by the police.
Conventional memory puts 1971 as the year of the Bangladesh War and the one that put the official seal on the irresistible rise of Indira Gandhi. It was also the year of a massive inflow of ten million refugees and the rallying of the entire parliamentary opposition behind Indira. Some also remember it as the year of the abolition of privy purses through the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act.
But all agree that with 1971, the nation had come into its own – with the victory in war, establishment of a strong centralised authority backed by a general will, increased stature of the India in the comity of nations (symbolised by the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation) and internal reforms claimed to be aiming at abolishing the last vestiges of old feudal power.
And of course the nation did not forget that the poor were at the core of this new national journey, as Indira Gandhi pushed her election campaign in the general election held that year with the call, Garibi Hatao. Remove poverty. With this, the poor had arrived on the official scene of governance.
All that the annus mirabilis needed was a warning to the countrymen (and women and children) that they must not disrespect the nation. Hence on December 23, 1971 Parliament passed the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, whereby any disrespect to or bringing “into contempt (whether by words, either spoken or written, or by acts) the Indian National Flag or the Constitution of India or any part thereof, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
If we look into the future past, we shall see that when in 1972, the Tenth Legislative Assembly elections were held in India, other than in Tamil Nadu the Congress won all others. The hold of Indira Gandhi over the country had reached mythical proportion.
Yet, was this a seamless story of a year of national glory? Has this story been able to relegate to the margins the violence of the time, the challenges to power and the social war that reverberated in many parts of the country and had almost upset the agenda of the nation with a chosen destiny - the counter narrative flashes lurking in Sen’s Kolkata Ekattor?
One of the deepest fault lines running through the mythical tale of 1971 was the Naxalite insurgency. The context of the insurgency is of course well chronicled by now. We need not spend words on that, save making an observation – which has an intriguing relation with the context of 1971.
It is well known that the rebellion had its roots in the deliberate neglect of central and state governments of the landlessness and indebtedness of millions of peasants suffering at the hands of landowners and the associated problem of debt bondage, the denial by the jotedars – upper caste kulaks and big landowners – of the share of the sharecroppers and the acute food crisis in several parts of the country through the sixties, epitomised by the Bihar Famine and the food riots in Bengal.
Yet it was not just an agrarian unrest. It had at least two special features: first, the transformation of agrarian unrest into a political movement to seize power; and second, the resultant phenomenon of urban rebellion which ran in parallel to the flaming countryside,. These two combined to make the coming decade of the seventies scary for the rulers. The leader of the insurgents had declared that the decade of the seventies would be the decade of liberation.
If popular discontent was the background of the rebellion, the reality of the rebellion and the need of the rulers to suppress it by all its might was the background of 1971. The year was one of several conjunctions: popular movements through the decade of the sixties and the bloodbath tht followed. Nationalism and radicalism, ruthless centralisation and the militant internationalism of the radical Left as well as the remorseless advance of the project of nationalising India. The year was perched on that template of junctures of several moments.
The call for rebellion
While we need not chronicle the major incidents of the late sixties, it is impossible to not mention certain features to make sense of 1971. But to be honest to the readers the features briefly mentioned below were mainly those of the Bengal scene while in (erstwhile united) Bihar and Andhra Pradesh – which also saw left-wing rebellions – some features were common and some different. The call for armed rebellion was everywhere the same, but in Bengal urban unrest as well as student and youth upsurge were more pronounced while agrarian revolt started subsiding by the end of 1970, though the struggle in Birbhum district continued into the early seventies.
The struggles of Naxalbari and Debra-Gopiballavpur – the two major theatres of armed uprising in Bengal – stood suppressed at the start of 1971. In Bihar’s Bhojpur, the legendary struggle of the landless actually started in the seventies, which continued for long and is well chronicled in the famous Flaming Fields. In Andhra Pradesh the struggle followed soon after the upsurge in Naxalbari and continued well into the seventies. Besides this, struggles erupted episodically in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Odhisa, Punjab and elsewhere.
However, in terms of the historical trajectory of political power, 1971 had its autonomous significance. It was a year of bridges between the radicalism of the sixties and the triple phenomena of plebiscitary authoritarianism, the firm marriage between the traditional left and parliamentarianism and the rise of popular politics around unorganised masses. After 1971, India was never to witness another phase of a simultaneous uprising in both cities and villages. In that sense the Bengal experience was crucial.
Crushing an uprising
The insurgents of the city developed now modes of street warfare, new techniques of area control, campus sit-ins, occupy movements, nocturnal mobility, and other modes of underground communication and mobilisation. However, these insurgent tactics were met successfully by the state with the help of new police methods, deployment of rapid action forces and the army, cordoning of areas and mass arrests, new surveillance techniques, reinforced by police torture, mass shootings by the police and selective extermination of youth by the state.
The death toll of the Cossipore-Baranagar massacre in Kolkata city on the night of August 12-13, 1971 was never officially announced but unofficial estimates record 100-300 deaths. The family members of the deceased never even came to know what happened to the bodies of the dear ones. And, of course, the culprits of the massacres of 1971 were never brought to book.
And remember, all these were used to the same ruthless degree by the state in the countryside. In Bengal where militant agrarian struggles had flared up earlier began subsiding by 1971. The collapse of peasant mobilisations was partly due to the alienation of the middle peasantry and partly due to massive deployment of suppressive measures by the state.
A new populism
Yet we must be truthful to history. 1971 with all these gruesome events marked also the moment of garibi hatao – a slogan that indicated that reforms would be henceforth initiated from the top. Agrarian struggles for land, justice and peasant power were suppressed, to be replaced now with stabilisation and developmental programmes of the government. This was thus the classic moment of passive revolution. The entry of the people as “poor” in institutional politics that henceforth characterised all successive governments armed with national power and glory would not have been possible without the decimation of popular insurgent formations.
To that extent, the period’s internationalism – symbolised by the solidarity movements with the anti-imperialist Vietnam War, French spring of 1968, the slogans in the name of Che Guevera and finally the espousal of “China’s Chairman as our Chairman” with all its absurdity – was liquidated by a remorseless process of nationalisation of power. Dreams and innocence were replaced by hard realism in politics – both in its mainstream and Left varieties. Victory in the Bangladesh War was thus the beginning of a new nationalist India.
Yet, the programme of passive revolution indicated that the issues raised by radical politics would have a long standing bearing on the political decisions of successive governments in the future. This included land reforms, howsoever limited – including reform of the system of sharecroppers – as well as the stabilisation of marginal farmers. There was also the expansion of nationalised banks towards sustaining petty trade and business as well as an expansion of the rural credit market. There was an attempt to create a national market of food grains through the formation of the Agricultural Prices Commission in the mid-sixties. The panchayati raj system was introduced in some parts of the country and modern urban reforms were done by forming separate non-elected developmental bodies like the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority or the Delhi Development Authority along with bustee improvement programmes. All these were occasioned or fuelled further by the conjunction of the revolution and the counter-revolution.
It is, of course, a different matter that history willed the future less predictably. Workers remained furious. And the “last hurrah” of the classic general strike model was called out in 1974 by the railway workers. Peasant militancy, besides continuing in Bihar, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh, took to new routes in other parts of the country, creating spectres of “red corridors”. But perhaps equally significantly or more, with the entry of the people as “poor” in politics, popular struggles assumed forms, both in electoral and non-electoral forms, that were inconceivable in 1971.
In that sense 1971 as the year of conjuncture found its culmination only six years later – in 1977, when Indira Gandhi lost elections post the Emergency. The story of Indian democracy became intriguing, as the “people” arrived in institutional politics with a loud bang.
Political scientist Ranabir Samaddar is the Director of the Calcutta Research Group.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.