August 23, 2020

Anti-betterment Levy Struggle in Punjab

THE heroic struggle of the Punjab peasants against the betterment levy in 1959, added a glorious chapter to the history of the Indian peasant movement. After the epoch making struggle of Telangana, this was the biggest struggle fought in the post-independence period where the widest possible unity of the peasants was forged and the peasants were able to win the support of the agricultural workers and other sections of the population, irrespective of their political affiliations.

This peaceful movement of the Punjab peasantry was the expression of pent up discontent of the peasants and agricultural workers. It was the expression of resentment of the peasantry against the deepening agrarian crisis, a result of the anti-people policies of the government aimed at throwing the burden of the crisis on to the shoulders of the peasantry. Although the discontent of the peasantry found expression in the anti-betterment levy struggle, it had arisen due to the accumulated effect of anti-people policies pursued since independence.

After independence, the tax burden on the people of Punjab increased from Rs 14 per head to Rs 25 per head. Indebtedness increased very rapidly. Apart from this, unemployment grew as lakhs of tenants were evicted from the lands and were forced to join the ranks of agricultural workers. The peasants of Punjab were also plundered by market forces.

In 1952, before the completion of the Bhakra canal system, the Punjab government brought out a legislation for the imposition of betterment levy with the aim of meeting all the expenditure of the canal system through this tax. The Communist Party and the Kisan Sabha opposed this legislation from the initial stage. They argued that with the imposition of this tax, nothing would be left with the peasantry to invest in agriculture and so far the poorer sections were concerned, they would be forced to sell their lands. But the Congress government refused to listen and instead, promulgated an ordinance in January 1959 to realise betterment levy as advance payment. This provocative act of the government added fuel to the fire.

At the end of 1957 and the beginning of 1958, when the assessment notices were served, the whole peasantry of the state was enraged. They expressed their resentment through mass representations, signature campaigns, conventions, conferences and demonstrations. More than 11,000 peasants individually filed legal objections against the assessment notices. The Communist Party and Kisan Sabha submitted a representation to the government in February 1958. An all party convention was held in Chandigarh and a joint committee was formed, which submitted a memorandum to the state government. In September 1958, mass demonstrations of peasants were held throughout the state in which more than one lakh peasants participated. The Kisan Sabha did not allow any argument of the government go unchallenged. Through its arguments, it won the support of all the democratic-minded people of the state.

The Kisan Sabha formed action committees at various levels and volunteers to offer satyagraha were enrolled. The response was immense. By the third week of January, more than 10,000 volunteers were enrolled, ready for any sacrifice for the cause. A state level action committee was formed, which worked from underground.

In January 1959, the food situation worsened in Punjab. In 1958, peasants were forced to sell wheat at the rate of Rs 34 per quintal, but only after six or seven months, agricultural labourers and poor peasants were to purchase it at double that price. Neither the government had built food stocks, nor organised a proper distribution system. The announced prices for food grains were only on paper. The Communist Party and the Kisan Sabha took the initiative in forming a Janata Food Committee to launch the movement. Thousands of agricultural workers, workers and poorer sections in the towns, as also the middle-classes, were mobilised in this movement. The government’s anti-people food policy brought the sympathy of the agrarian workers and the urban population on the side of the peasants engaged in anti-betterment struggle.

The anti-betterment levy struggle started in four districts on January 21, 1959, when notices were issued to the peasants. After two weeks, it spread to another four districts, then to all the nine affected districts and within a short period, drew the attention of the whole state. Whole villages gathered to welcome the satyagrahis and thousands accompanied when they toured the villages in jathas. A new cultural revival took place as boys and girls composed new songs about the plight of peasantry and heroism expressed during the struggle.

Poor and middle peasants participated in the movement from the beginning, while the rich peasants joined at a later stage. Although agricultural labourers were not directly affected by the betterment levy, they courted arrest in solidarity. The Kisan Sabha’s support to the food movement and their demand for wage increase and land distribution also contributed to this. Hundreds of numberdars (revenue collectors), panchs and sarpanchs took part in the movement. Many numberdars tore the slips for the collection of betterment levy. Ministers and leaders of the Congress party were unable to hold a meeting or even enter any village for two months, during the period of this movement. All the parties in the villages supported the movement led by the Kisan Sabha. By the end of February, the atmosphere of the entire state was galvanised and anti-betterment struggle drew the attention of the people of the whole state.

Lakhs of peasants participated in this movement in different forms. They participated in the demonstrations, early morning processions (prabhat pheris) in the villages, gave reception to the satyagrahis, fought against the collection of fines imposed on the satyagrahis, took the message of struggle from house to house and fought against all repressive measures of the government. The government was put completely on the defensive. It tried to create a division amongst the peasants.

When the Congress propaganda failed to weaken the struggle on the basis of concessions and promises, the government resorted to severe repression. Warrants were issued against all the Kisan Sabha and communist workers, but the government failed to arrest them. Angered by this failure, armed police organised a siege on many villages with machine guns directed against the villagers, in order to restrict the movement of people and looted entire villages and auctioned the belongings of the villagers in the name of recovering the fines imposed on the satyagrahis. Peasants and satyagrahis were dragged to the police stations and mercilessly beaten, government officials took the law into their hands, judiciary and executive became tools in the hands of the ruling party. There was no written order issued for any action, officials did whatever they wanted. Lathi charge, tear gas, firing, looting became the order of the day. Hundreds of men and women were arrested in false cases of encounters with police. Jullunder district faced the maximum brunt of the police repression. Women accepted the challenge when police encircled their villages and fought back. They showed unparalleled heroism in the face of police repression. Many communists and Kisan Sabha workers were declared absconders and their properties confiscated.

Functioning of the office of the Kisan Sabha was made impossible. The daily organ of the Communist Party, Navan Zamana, was forced to stop its publication because all its staff were arrested and sent to prison. The mood of the people was such that when the staff of the party organ were arrested, in two-days time many came forward and got the paper started again.

The repression of the government angered the entire people of the state and made it impossible for the government to continue with its repression against the movement. The whole administration was paralysed. The government was left with no other alternative but to surrender before the movement. The chief minister accepted the demands for the reduction in betterment levy and also other demands of the Kisan Sabha. The struggle was called off on March 22, 1959.

All through the struggle, 19,000 volunteers offered satyagraha by obstructing the work of district courts, 10,000 went to jail, 3,000 volunteers got badly beaten by the police and hundreds more were tortured in police stations. Eight comrades, including three women were martyred in police firing; one died in police custody due to torture and two more laid down their lives in prison. Even on the day of withdrawal of the movement, 250 satyagrahis had reached Chandigarh to offer satyagraha and more than 3,000 reached the district courts in different districts of the state and sat on dharna.

This movement created significant impact on other states like Rajasthan and Bihar too. The government failed to collect betterment levy anywhere, except some isolated villages in far away areas. This movement gave a big blow to the communal forces by forging the unity of Hindus and Sikhs, amongst the peasantry and between the peasantry and the agricultural labourers. The movement came as a setback to those who were trying to create a wedge between rural and urban population, as it won the support of the urban population to the demands of the peasantry. This struggle also strengthened the unity between the people of Punjab and the region which is now Haryana. The Communist Party and Kisan Sabha spread to new areas and emerged as a strong opposition force to the Congress party and its policies.