In post-independence and post-partition Congress-ruled West Bengal, the echoes of famine continued to be heard. During the 1950s, the collusion between rice mill-owners, jotedars (Kulaks) and food hoarders created an artificial food crisis. These proprietor class segments controlled rice distribution; they also exercised a strangle-hold over the villages and formed the rural backbone of the Bengal Congress. The government refused to take any measure which went against their interests. As hunger assumed famine like proportions, the people organised themselves into a ‘Committee to Combat Famine’ under the leadership of the undivided Communist Party of India. Other left parties also endorsed this initiative. From the second half of the 1950s, between 1956 and 1958, food movements became an annual occurrence. The Food Movement of 1959, however, was a turning-point in the history of class struggle in West Bengal. Food insecurity by this time had reached frightening proportions in rural and urban areas and distress was acute among the marginal and landless peasantry, the workers and lower middle-classes.
On 31 August, a huge mass demonstration was organised in Kolkata where hundreds and thousands arrived from the villages under the leadership of the Kisan Sabha. Though primarily a mass protest by peasants, rural women with babies walked alongside high school students; office workers merged with the columns of manual workers. The whole of Kolkata’s colonial city centre turned into a sea of 300,000 people demanding an end to destitution and hunger. The heart of the rally was at the Shahid Minar, the foot of the monument and the adjoining open space of the ‘Maidan’ having historically served as the convergence point of anti-colonial and anti-establishment protests. That afternoon rain lashed at the demonstrators repeatedly. But their determination to force the Congress government to provide immediate relief or quit remained resolute. At the end of the meeting, a procession began and started making its way towards Writers’ Building. By then evening had descended. First, the demonstrators were cordoned off by the police. Then unexpectedly, without any warning, violent ‘action’ began. Contemporary observers have noted the way the police attacked directionless, panic-stricken people blinded by teargas.
80 people died in the carnage that day; they were mostly starving peasants who had survived the devastating and man-made Bengal Famine of 1943 and were no longer willing to die of hunger without any protest. The police used sticks to beat people to death. 1000 people went missing and 3000 were injured. A social war between the police and the public unfolded. Ordinary bystanders, petty shopkeepers, cinema-hall ushers and sex-workers offered solidarity and assistance to those fleeing the police from the main thoroughfares in bloodied conditions and spilling into the side streets and narrow alleys of north Kolkata. Ticket-checkers and janitors of Hind cinema gave asylum to wounded demonstrators; prostitutes bandaged the head injuries of protesters who had drifted into their localities in dazed conditions. The police arrested thousands. According to one eye-witness who was 74 years old in 2009: ‘In the semi-darkness, I saw mothers, sisters, brothers lying motionless on the road.’ The police later cremated many of the anonymous victims. Bodies could be seen floating in the river Hooghly. The next day, on 1 September, the police fired on students who were protesting against the atrocities and a wave of repression followed. Entire zones of north Kolkata became anti-police bastions of resistance and the government deployed troops in several districts. The police used ambulances as Trojan Horses to enter urban neighbourhoods where barricades had been put up against them. Jyoti Basu compared the events of 31 August 1959 with the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 13 April 1919 in the Bengal Legislative Assembly and the combined opposition managed to corner the Congress-led state government. In 1966, a second Food Movement was launched by the left parties and its impact could be felt in the victory of the First United Front government of 1967. 1959 demonstrated that despite utmost and merciless ferocity, the social forces representing the interests of the proprietor classes in West Bengal, were in a process of retreat. While retreating they claimed the lives of 80 people on 31 August 1959. At a time of rising hunger, their memories surface and seek routes to new resistance.
Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.