In 1970, the Communist Party of India (CPI) started an agitation for landless farm workers to occupy the surplus land of large farmers. Although this was a nationwide unrest, the center of attention was Lakhimpur Kheri, where on Independence Day that year, then CPI President SA Dange himself was to lead a jattha of landless workers to occupy Birla Farm.
The 1970s were a decade of political, ideological and economic upheaval in India. The gap between left and right was dissolving. The ruling Indira Congress now defended the leftist agenda of nationalization and land reform. Even the Jana Sangh, who stood on the far right of the political spectrum, had taken a left turn, calling, among other things, for strict enforcement of land cap laws.
There was one man who strongly opposed the land cap laws – Charan Singh, the leader of Bharatiya Kranti Dal, who then headed a coalition government with Indira Congress in the UP. He believed lower caps would make farms unprofitable.
Charan Singh hated the Communists for calling him a Kulak – Russian for a large landowner – and a “Jat leader”, which he said reduced his stature as a Kisan leader. The CPI’s call for land grabbing seemed inflammatory to Charan Singh. He ordered his Home Secretary and the police chief to face the unrest with a firm hand.
On August 14, Dange – a veteran of many union battles in the then city of Bombay – arrived in Lucknow to address a rally. But the local administration enacted Article 144. Dange instead decided to hold a press conference in a room in the CPI office, but that too was not acceptable to the police. He was taken into custody and taken to Sitapur prison. The CPI announced that despite Dange’s detention, thousands of Communist workers would converge on the Birla farm the next day. The CPI’s call sparked interest not only in the country but also in the West because many saw it as Indira Gandhi’s test ball to see if she would move more towards an authoritarian socialist regime in soviet style.
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 envoy for the daily and weekly magazine Patriot Link News. On the morning of August 15, we all left for Lakhimpur in a convoy of rental cars.
The CPI had designated the land near a particular gate of Birla Farm for occupation by its workers. Still, no one was sure where the real action would take place. I joined two other seasoned journalists on a road trip to the main entrance of Birla Farm. Throughout the journey, the bando police were extremely strict. In addition to the regular police forces, the provincial armed gendarmerie had been summoned. Police officers armed with rifles and machine guns roamed the roads in jeeps. Others with guns and towers stood at numerous barriers and checkpoints.
The police were carrying out extensive searches to ensure that no one was hiding a red flag on their person. Men wearing red shirts or underwear and women with a tint of red on their sarees were interviewed to determine if they might be Communists intending to go to Birla Farm. Many CPI employees wearing red flag undershirts and men wearing red ragged sattu or chiwra were detained by the roadside.
What baffled the police at a checkpoint was a procession of villagers carrying Hanuman idols, each with a red cloth around the idol’s waist. The police were unsure whether detaining the processions would amount to detaining Hanumanji himself! Some of the cops got up from their chairs by the side of the road to bow to the idol and were given the prasad de laddoos. The only thing they could do was ask the processions not to go to the Birla farm which was quite far away anyway.
We arrived at Birla Farm an hour before noon. For a long time, there was no sign of CPI workers. A little after noon, we saw police officers walking towards us with a group of villagers wearing soiled dhotis up to their knees and bags of rags thrown over their shoulders. The hands of some were tied with a rope, with the police holding the other end. Police said their captives were Communists and were hiding in bushes.
After a while, the police sat under a tree and started sharing a sattu meal with their captives from the very red package that caused their detention in the first place!
While the CPI’s land grabbing turmoil sparked much interest around the world in the plight of landless workers, it quickly fizzled out, at least in UP, where landowner Kisans sparked a wave of reprisals against the landless who had joined the agitation. Elsewhere, in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, the Naxalites, now organized under the name CPI-ML, took over the initiative, shaking not only Congress but also the two Communist parties. In UP, Charan Singh’s government collapsed in two months as Dange-friendly Congress pulled the rug out from under Charan Singh’s feet, ending the uneasy coalition.
The writer is a seasoned journalist