Peasant politics after Partition — I

Peasant politics after Partition — I

During its first six years the peasant movement faced severe repression, making it difficult for some units to function. The All-India Kisan Sabha could not hold a session until April 1953. Nonetheless, the foundation for peasant organisations was laid. Gradually these gained support of the masses and some political parties.

These groups organised resistance in East Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, particularly against evictions. Governments were forced in the end to implement land reforms. However, these measures failed to meet their objectives, resulting in mass evictions and turning millions of tenants into landless agricultural workers.

In the late 1950s, peasant movements focused on land rights, fair prices, debt relief, tribal rights and the tax burden. The most significant among these was the 1959 campaign by the Punjabi peasantry against the “betterment levy.” The campaign was led by Kisan Sabha and demonstrated unprecedented peasant unity across political lines. This movement forced the government to withdraw several regulations. The agrarian crisis worsened in the 1960s, leading to agricultural stagnation and food shortages.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Bengal there were widespread clashes over the occupation of forest and government lands and against evictions. The Punjab and East Pakistan saw agitation over land distribution, tenancy acts and revenue issues. Peasants resisted higher taxes and opposed new levies. Militancy spread throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and beyond.

The peasant struggle in Bengal had begun with the creation of the All-India Kisan Sabha. In a January 16-17 meeting in Burdwan, it was decided to form separate organisations for India and Pakistan. Mansur Habibullah was named convener for the All-Pakistan Kisan Sabha. Initially, there was an organisation in East Pakistan only. Moni Singh was its president and Mansur Habibullah the general secretary.

The APKS demands included cancellation of rent and revenue arrears, reduced rent and water rates, protection of tenancy rights, abolition of feudal dues, state-arranged credit, stabilised agricultural prices, minimum wage legislation and the establishment of village panchayats.

In 1969, many industrial workers joined the political struggle, despite strikes being illegal under Ayub’s government. Abdul Hamid Bhashani announced a gherao (encirclement) programme, targeting village markets, tehsil offices, police stations and government offices. This rural substitute for urban strikes began effectively in February and had extended to industrial areas by March.

The slogan “take the land away from landlords” became more significant following the partition. Landless peasants organised to seize lands, focusing mostly on holdings beyond legal ceilings. Peasant organisations in Bengal voiced strong demands for addressing the surplus land issue.

During 1948-50, peasant movements led by various communist factions in Bengal took place in the Nankar areas of Sylhet and in regions inhabited by tribal, scheduled caste and Santal communities in Sylhet, Mymensingh, Rajshahi and some small pockets.

In East Pakistan, many peasants faced famine, food shortages and rising prices of essential commodities. To mobilise the peasantry, it was necessary to raise awareness of their problems and organise them into a radical political movement. This led to widespread agitations, protests and anti-government demonstrations, resulting in violent clashes and numerous arrests and deaths among peasant leaders and activists.

In 1950, the Kisan Sabha and the Communist Party decided to observe Shaheed Day on January 31, honouring martyrs like Rasimoni and Surenda, and others killed since 1946. This resulted in a massive gathering of armed peasants in Mymensingh, guarded by 30 militant groups. Resolutions were passed and sent to the government. However, the armed struggle led by the Communist Party and its allied organisations eventually collapsed due to inherent limitations. The abrupt shift from peaceful protests to armed conflict had confused both leaders and followers and weakened the movement.

The Communist Party described Pakistan’s independence as false and called for overthrowing the state. This alienated many Muslims who, despite being opposed to the government, did not wish for Pakistan’s dissolution. This policy shift isolated the communists and Kisan Sabha from the masses, enabling the government to use communalism to suppress the movements, particularly in non-Muslim tribal areas.

The Communist Party failed to develop a clear programme for land reform or address other peasant issues, focusing instead on agitation. This lack of a concrete plan and definite reforms led to the rapid collapse of the peasant movement. Conferences were held to discuss peasant problems in general terms, but no concrete programmes emerged, leaving the movement without a strong foundation or direction.

Since independence, the peasantry in Sindh had pursued land reforms and an agrarian revolution. It supported the urban working class, aiming to improve their conditions. Despite independence, land monopolies persisted, requiring a new approach to build peasant unity and advance the agrarian revolution in Sindh.

Like other provinces, peasants in Sindh faced repression by landlords and various illegal practices. The Green Revolution had no positive effects on Sindh’s haris, who continued to live under the dominance of landlords, without social, political or economic security.

The Sindh Tenancy Act of 1950 provided limited rights to a small number of tenants. Much of the land brought under cultivation by the Kotri and Guddu Barrages was allocated to military officers, civil bureaucrats and non-Sindhi farmers. This created a new class of absentee landlords. The 1959 land reforms forced big landlords to transfer lands within families but had minimal impact on landownership patterns. Despite calls for land allocation to peasants, the authorities remained unresponsive.

Condition for many haris, who had supported the demand for an independent Pakistan, remained unchanged or got worse. The provincial government and the rehabilitation commissioner controlled the land allotments. The Tenancy Legislation Committee addressed issues like tenancy rights but amendments to the bill often favoured landlords over haris. Notable amendments included provisions that allowed landlords to terminate tenancy rights under various conditions.

Sindh’s peasant organisations, like the Sindh Hari Committee, consistently demanded land ownership for the tillers and the abolition of the zamindari system. They achieved some success in garnering government support for peasant proprietorship. However, land reforms were limited and significant land allotments were made to non-Sindhis, particularly from the Punjab.

The shift was facilitated by extensive government support, including development loans and transport for new landowners. Most of the best lands were allocated to armed forces personnel and other non-Sindhi groups, leaving Sindhi farmers with little access to these resources.

The peasantry in the KP had faced landlord betrayal since the 19th Century. Despite the dominance of Khans and landlords who inherited land titles from the British period, the communists and other peasant organisations decided to organise independently while cooperating with other anti-imperialist groups.

Before independence, the peasant movement in the KP had been led by Dr Khan Sahib’s Kisan Jirga. It aimed to protect peasants from eviction, reduce rents, abolish permanent settlements and forced labour and fight against oppression. The movement gained popularity across the KP, particularly in Peshawar and Mardan. Many peasants refused to pay unfair crop shares, demanding a 50-50 division. This led to widespread protests and arrests. Despite initial setbacks, the movement saw some victories.

After independence, the movement slowed down as most Hindu peasants migrated to India. In 1948, mass evictions by Khans reignited protests. However, the efforts to retain land or secure a fair share of crops were mostly a failure. In Hashtnagar, landlords began using tractors for cultivation, leading to more evictions.

Under the Peoples Party government, landlords in Swat and Malakand brutally suppressed peasants. Unlike the Punjab, peasants in the KP struggled to achieve their goals due to a lack of organisation. Realising that the main political parties did not support them, they formed the Kisan Jirga Committee and grassroots sub-committees.

The peasantry’s Land to the Tiller slogan gained traction. The Hashtnagar movement, beginning in 1948, sought to organise rural peasants, eliminate slavery, protect Kisan rights, end evictions and fines, stop rent increases, improve wages and distribution of self-cultivated lands among peasants.

By 1968, the Mazdoor Kisan Party had emerged. Focusing on grassroots and aligning with the Hashtnagar movement, it significantly advanced the peasantry’s struggle. The positive outcomes included the formation of Kisan organisations, raised political consciousness, setting up of people’s courts, stopping of forced labour, resolution of conflicts between small owners and tenants and some improvement in the living conditions for rural workers.

The writer is professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Peasant politics after Partition — I