Red Salute to the Martyrs of Food Movement in Bengal, 1959

The backdrop of the historic movement was provided by collapse of the Public Distribution System and an artificial scarcity of rice created by a nexus between the state government on one hand, and on the other landlords, rich peasants, rice mill owners and traders/hoarders on whom the ruling Congress was dependent for financial support. With prices skyrocketing, there were loud protests on the streets and in the state assembly, with even Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress joining the opposition to demand the use of the Preventive Detention Act for curbing the activities of hoarders and blackmarketeers. The “Price Increase and Feminine Resistance Committee” (henceforth PIFRC) was formed in early 1959 and on 10 February a mass deputation was submitted to the Assembly. A three-day campaign to mobilise public opinion through decentralised mass meetings was held in early March and on the 11th a big peasant rally was held in the city then called Calcutta. A protest day was observed throughout the state on 15 June, followed by demonstrations and street corner meetings on 20 and 21 June. On the very next day, the state government suddenly withdrew the price control order for paddy and rice and the levy order for the rice mills. In response, a statewide general strike was organised on the 25th. A big mass meeting was held on that day at Subodh Mullick Square in Calcutta which was addressed, along with Left leaders, also by S S Ray, who had meanwhile resigned from the Congress. A civil disobedience movement went on without interruption in Medinipur district from 14 July to 20 August, during which 1631 persons including 27 women courted arrest. As part of the movement, demonstrations were held in many places in other districts like Hooghly, 24 Parganas, Birbhum and they faced unprovoked police repression almost everywhere.

The agitation reached its peak on 31 August in Calcutta. Elaborate police arrangements were made to prevent the entry of processionists from neighbouring districts, in several places they were actually beaten up and stopped on their way to the city, yet the rally broke all past records. As a New Age report had it, “By the time the meeting started, the crowd had swelled to over three lakhs of people.... There had been several heavy downpours from the morning… and while the meeting was going on, there was again a heavy shower, but not one person stirred -- only more and more people poured into the Maidan....

“After the rally, a demonstration of over one lakh people marched in a disciplined manner towards the secretariat of the state government. But it was held up near the Raj Bhavan by a huge police cordon.

“The demonstrators, who were led by Amar Basu, Mohit Moitro, Chitta Basu, Makhan Pal and other leftist leaders, then squatted on the road and started raising thunderous slogans.

“Exactly at 7.25 p.m., a small batch of about 50 people, headed by the leaders, broke the cordon and courted arrest. One minute later, when another batch tried to cross the police barricade in a peaceful manner, the barbarous attack on the people began -- without any warning, without any provocation.” (Roy Govt.’s Savagery, 6 September, 1959)

Peasants unfamiliar with the city streets ran helter-skelter to save themselves, but there were no escape route. The whole area was surrounded by the police including mounted police and everywhere they chased and beat the unearned masses with intent to kill. There were many old people and a large number of women carrying babies in their arms or with children; the brutes spared no one. It was Jallianwala Bagh re-enacted, with the difference that here the death pangs were much more prolonged and painful because lathis and teargas shells were used in place of rifles.

According to a report published in Swadhinata (a pro-communist newspaper that provided the most detailed and authentic coverage of the movement along with photographs) on 8 September, more than 50 men and women were killed and more than 3000 seriously wounded on 31 August. Victims included, apart from the rallyists, a large number of passers-by and onlookers. According to newspaper reports there were a few cases of rallyists throwing bricks on the police after the police atrocities began. A press note released by the government on 1 September, however, put all the blame on so-called violent attacks by an unruly mob.

On 1 September, a 10,000-strong procession of students staged a protest march from the Calcutta University campus in College Street to the Chief Minister’s house in Wellington Square. As the procession came near the house of the CM, the police resorted to heavy lathi charge and teargas shelling. Thousands of students including schoolchildren ran for cover and the police chased them in lanes and by-lanes to beat them up mercilessly. The pre-mediated wanton attacks on two consecutive days naturally led to spontaneous sporadic clashes with the police in different parts of the city. The police resorted to firing on more than 10 occasions. Over 1000 men, women and children were injured and at least 12 died.

Teachers, students, lawyers and all other sections of civil society burst out in protests. On 6 September Dr Triguna Sen, Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University, raised the black flag on behalf of his colleagues and students. Similar protests were organised in other educational institutions too. Such leading figures as Atul Chandra Gupta, Surendra Nath Sen, Tripurari Chakraborty and others condemned police cruelties and reiterated the people’s right to organise movements for the fulfilment of their just demands.

Confronted with the public fury, Chief Minister BC Roy admitted on 7 September that since 31 August 30 people had died in police actions, while 97 were reported missing. Unofficial estimates, however, put the figures at approximately 80 and 900 respectively. Scores of dead bodies had reportedly been cremated and thrown into rivers in the cover of night.

Street corner protest meetings continued to be held in Calcutta and elsewhere and on 22 September a martyrs’ column was unveiled in the Calcutta University lawn. A 5000 strong procession then marched towards the house of the Chief Minister with slogans like “Roy government take care, students are on the streets”, “drenched in the blood of the heroes, Bengal has risen again”. The procession was blocked by the police after some distance was covered and 155 students were arrested. The same day, Martyrs’ Columns were erected and peaceful defiance of law was organised in different districts, leading to the arrest of more than 1000 demonstrators. On 26 September, with streams of silent processions converging in S M Square, the foundation of a permanent Martyrs’ Column was laid and fiery speeches made.

The same day the programme of public violation of law was withdrawn by the PIFRC. The focus was now shifted to protests within the legislative assembly, which had started its session on 21 September, with Jyoti Basu taking the lead. In the parliament too, leaders like Bhupesh Gupta, Hiren Mukherjee and others used their oratory powers to expose and denounce the Congress governments in West Bengal and at the centre.

The food movement of 1959 will always be remembered for the huge mass mobilizations organized by Left parties and for the tenacity and heroism of the people. But the way the unprepared peasants and others were left defenceless in the face of a barbaric assault that was very much expected, do point to a fundamental gap in the political understanding of the Left leadership. Comrade Charu Mazumdar drew attention to this in Carry on the Struggle against Modern Revisionism (the fourth of his “Eight Documents”):

“From 1959 onwards, the government has been increasingly launching violent attacks on every democratic movement in India. We have not provided leadership to any active resistance movement against these violent attacks. We gave the call for passive resistance in the face of these attacks, like the mourning procession after the food movement… As a result of the passive resistance of 1959, it was not possible to organize any mass rally on the demand for food in Calcutta in the years 1960-61.”

The conclusion he drew from this experience was: “The programme of active resistance has become an absolute necessity before any mass movement.”

CM wrote these lines in 1965. Within less than a year the people of West Bengal rose again in another food movement against the government of Prafulla Chandra Sen (who was the hated food minister in 1959) -- but this time much more aggressively, with numerous cases of public assaults on police personnel, police stations and other symbols of state power. Evidently, the people had learned their own lessons from the events of 1959.

The mastermind behind the cold-blooded massacre of 31 August -- 1 September 1959 was obviously Dr B C Roy who was awarded Bharat Ratna on the earliest occasion available, which was in early 1961. A few years after his death, Comrade Saroj Dutt wrote an article titled “Bidhan Roy is not dead, he lives on as Jyoti Basu”. At that time nobody expected that Basu will someday sit on the chair once occupied by Roy. But the words of SD proved prophetic in 1990. Left parties outside the ruling Left Front, including our party, were celebrating martyrs day in Kolkata on 31 August. As the procession approached Esplanade, the police resorted to indiscriminate firing and lathi charge, injuring many and killing a teenager, comrade Madhai Haldar of SUCI. Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, blamed it all on the unruly behaviour of the processionists. “Well, they probably thought their programme was getting rather vegetarian” -- he told reporters, tongue-in-cheek -- “so I made it non-veg”.

In revisiting the food movement of 1959, we are actually preparing ourselves for the next round of battle against hunger throughout the country. If starvation deaths, food scarcity and unbridled price rise are any indication, the stage is getting set for such a struggle in new and diverse forms. It is only by playing a vanguard role in this movement that we can really pay tributes to the hungry producers of food, the young students and others who laid down their precious lives half a century ago.

[Acknowledgement: the information used here has been taken from “Food Movement Of 1959”, a comprehensive collection of documents edited by Suranjan Das and Premansukumar Bandyopadhyay and published by K P Bagchi & Company, Kolkata.]

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