In 1970, the Communist Party of India (CPI) launched an agitation for landless agricultural labourers to occupy surplus land of large farmers. Though it was a countrywide agitation, the centre of attention was Lakhimpur Kheri, where, on Independence Day that year, the then CPI chairman S A Dange himself was to lead a jattha of landless labourers to occupy Birla Farm.
The 1970s were a decade of political, ideological and economic upheaval in India. The divide between the Left and the Right was dissolving. The ruling Indira Congress was now championing the Left programme of nationalisation and land reforms. Even the Jana Sangh, which stood on the extreme right of the political spectrum, had taken a Left turn, calling for strict implementation of land ceiling laws, among other issues.
There was one man who stood solidly against land ceiling laws — Charan Singh, the Bharatiya Kranti Dal leader, who was then heading a coalition government with the Indira Congress in UP. He believed that lower ceiling limits would make agricultural holdings uneconomical.
Charan Singh hated the Communists for calling him a kulak — Russian for a large landowning farmer — and a ‘Jat leader’, which he felt narrowed his stature as a kisan leader. The CPI’s ‘land grab’ call sounded inflammatory to Charan Singh. He ordered his home secretary and the police chief to deal with the agitation with a strong hand.
On August 14, Dange — a veteran of many a trade union battle in then Bombay city — reached Lucknow to address a rally. But the local administration promulgated Section 144. Dange decided to hold a press conference instead in a room at the CPI office, but that too was not acceptable to police. He was taken into custody and whisked away to Sitapur jail. The CPI announced that despite Dange’s detention, thousands of Communist workers would converge at Birla Farm the next day. The CPI call aroused interest not only in the country but in the West too because many saw it as Indira Gandhi’s test balloon to see if she would move further towards a Soviet Union-style authoritarian socialist regime.
Several newspaper correspondents and photographers, including some representing foreign newspapers, arrived in Lucknow that evening. I was there too. I was then working as a special correspondent with the Patriot daily and weekly Link News magazine. On the morning of August 15, all of us left for Lakhimpur in a convoy of hired cars.
The CPI had designated the land near one particular gate of Birla Farm for occupation by its workers. Yet, no one was sure where the real action would occur. I joined two other senior journalists on a car journey to the main gate of Birla Farm. The police bandobast all along the way was extremely strict. Besides the regular police force, the Provincial Armed Constabulary had been summoned. Policemen carrying guns and machine guns roamed the roads in jeeps. Others with guns and lathis stood at numerous barriers and check posts.
The policemen were conducting deep searches to ensure no one was hiding a red flag on his person. Men wearing red shirts or undergarments, and women with a tinge of red on their saris were questioned to ascertain if they could be Communists intending to go to Birla Farm. Many CPI workers found wearing undershirts made out of red flags and men carrying sattu or chiwra in red rags were detained by the roadside.
What baffled the policemen at a check post was a processions of villagers carrying idols of Hanuman, each with a red cloth around the idol’s waist. The policemen did not know whether detaining the processionists would amount to detaining Hanumanji himself! Some of the cops stood up from their roadside chairs to bow before the idol and received prasad of laddoos. The only thing they could do was to request the processionists not to go to the Birla Farm which was, anyway, quite a distance away.
We reached Birla Farm an hour before noon. For a long time there was no sign of CPI workers. A little after noon, we saw some constables walking towards us with a group of villagers wearing soiled, knee-length dhotis and ragbags flung across their shoulders. The hands of some were tied with a rope, with the policemen holding the other end. The policemen said their captives were Communists and were hiding in bushes.
After a while, the policemen sat under a tree and began sharing a meal of sattu with their captives from the very red package that had caused their detention in the first place!
Though the CPI’s land grab agitation aroused much worldwide interest in the plight of the landless labourers, it fizzled out soon, at least, in UP where the landowner kisans unleashed a wave of reprisal against the landless who had joined the agitation. Elsewhere, in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, the Naxalites, now organised as the CPI-ML, took over the initiative, rattling not only the Congress but also the two Communist parties. In UP, the Charan Singh government collapsed in two months as the Congress, sympathetic to Dange, pulled the rug out from under Charan Singh’s feet, ending the uneasy coalition.
The writer is a senior journalist