Reversal of land reforms has been the trend of recent times. Many states have already passed laws amending the land ceiling laws; some like West Bengal have attempted to do so, but have failed to push through such amendments. In such an atmosphere, the Nitish Government’s announcement to set up a Land Reform Commission appeared to go against that trend. Similarly, as a result of talks with the Maoists, the Andhra Pradesh Congress Government set up a committee to look into implementation of land reforms in the state, and in Tamil Nadu, the DMK made a poll-time promise of distributing 2 acres of land to every poor family. These measures only proved that land remains a burning political question, defying all attempts to declare it irrelevant.
Yet, such seemingly well-intentioned moves all too often end up being part of the larger attempt by the ruling class to circumvent land reforms. The Bihar experience illustrates this all too clearly. The Bihar Land Reforms Commission set up by the Nitish regime is headed by D Bandopadhay, the man credited for carrying out land reforms in neighbouring West Bengal nearly three decades back. The Bandopadhay Commission recently submitted its interim report over Bhoodan land to the Chief Minister.
The fact that the Commission was headed by Bandopadhaya was enough for the spectre of Operation Barga to haunt the big landowners, leading them to release their land from sharecroppers. Rushing to reassure the landowners, Nitish Kumar said in an in interview to a paper that “there was no danger of owners losing control and ownership of their land.” He the task of redistribution was more or less over and all that remains to be done is a proper regulation of tenancy. And he categorically said that interests of landowners will be protected. Thus even before the Commission could table its report, the Government had circumscribed its agenda. ‘Land Reform’ was to happen without disturbing existing land relations, without challenging in any way the interests of big landowners!
We may recall that on assuming power Laloo Yadav too also convened a seminar of academics and experts on the question of land reforms, but the whole exercise had not gone beyond shortlisting a few matths and absentee landowners. Interestingly, at that seminar, Laloo Yadav in a private conversation with a participant warned that if land reform were taken too seriously, “balancewa bigad jayega” (“the balance of power will tilt”, presumably in favour of the dalit and landless poor).
The Bandopadhaya Commission’s interim report only goes to show that the Bhoodan then has the same agenda – and the same result – as that of Nitish’s promises of ‘Bhoodan’ and land reform today. Its aim was to blunt the edge of the radical peasant movement, and also to protect the interests and social and political status of the big landowners. These latter could be seen donating land, making such a huge voluntary contribution to the cause of rural uplift, thereby retaining the initiative and getting a good name to boot. All in all, it was rather like the voluntary disclosure schemes periodically announced by the Finance Ministry to unearth and legitimise black money – we all know how successful such moves have been! Bhoodan primarily became a ploy to circumvent the land ceiling laws. Its dismal results: fraud on a massive scale, misuse of those lands which actually were donated, collusion of authorities with landowners - now stand inexorably exposed by the interim report of the Bandopadhaya Commission.
The Bhoodan movement serves as a sort of test case for the grand gestures of ‘land reform’ made by forces who actually wish to evade thoroughgoing land reform. We reproduce excerpts from the Bandopadhayaya Commission’s interim report; accompanied by relevant excerpts on the Bhoodan phenomenon from Arvind N Das’ Agrarian Unrest and Socio-Economic Change in India and a CPI(ML) Document Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar.
2.1 The basic problem that engaged both the Commission and the Committee was reconciliation of area of land so far donated and recorded in the books of the Committee. The figure according to the Committee was 6,48,476 acres, out of which 2,55,347 acres had been distributed to 3,15,454 families. According to the Committee about 2,78,320 acres of land were found to be not suitable for distribution because of alleged improper physical characteristics of the land. That apart the Committee still had in its books an area of 1,14,708 acres suitable for distribution but not yet distributed.
2.2 The first point (that) arose before the Commission was that who had verified the physical characteristics of little over 2.78 lakh acres of land which had been declared unfit for distribution. Excepting hills, forests, rivers, and structures in public domain like roads, hospitals, waterways, schools, etc., the rest of the land should be available for utilization for farming/horticulture/grassland farming/tree farming or as wastelands to be developed under the various schemes of the government. To declare such a huge area of land as unfit for distribution and then carry the whole area in the books was the potent source of local disputes and social tension. It is also a source of corruption and misuse of public property. Therefore, a two-pronged joint action was called for on part of the Committee and the Revenue Department to verify the actual physical characteristics of this large area for further action.
…(revenue Department must provide appropriate financial and technical back-up to have these lands surveyed, and the Committee along with Revenue Department has chalked out detailed plans so that this survey could be completed by 31.03.09)…
5.1 The figures of land given in donation, area confirmed, area distributed, area unfit for distribution, and number of beneficiaries in different categories maintained by the Committee and that maintained by the Revenue Department do not tally in respect of various categories. Such discrepancies have to be reconciled in the books maintained by both the offices failing which they have to be reconciled by actual field verification. Without such verification the possibility of lands being utilized by unauthorized persons including land mafia cannot be ruled out. …when the Commission visited Rohtas district on 2.06.07 a proforma was submitted to it by the Additional Collector, which showed huge incongruities.
5.2 An analysis of the figures would show that the individual beneficiaries were given 7.7542 acres per household. Tribal households were given a little over 6 acres per household; OBC households were given roughly 2 acres per family. The most astounding feature of this report was that 11,130.9375 acres were distributed among 59 institutions. The categorization of ‘sarvajanik evam anya’ is totally vague and confusing. From the analysis it is apparent that someone is utilizing the Bhoodan land as his or her zamindari. The report also shows that about 15000 acres have not yet been distributed formally. No one knows whether some person or a body of persons is/are utilizing such huge area for their private gain. This one illustration shows the immediate need for physical verification of land donated to the Committee.
5.3 There is another problem regarding the figures maintained by the Committee and that maintained by the Revenue Department. According to Revenue Department figures land not so far confirmed is around 1.11,000 acres. According to the figures maintained by the Committee there is no reliable figure of land not so far confirmed. This anomaly is a major source of local disputes and trouble.
5.4 The point to be noted here is that the Committee’s books do not show the land yet to be confirmed. Therefore it raises serious doubts about the veracity of statistics and data that are being supplied by it. It does not make any reflection on the integrity of the present Chairman of Bhoodan Yagna Committee. He has received all these figures maintained by his office for the last 50 years and he is at his wits end to make any sense of the figures that had been handed over to him by his office. The possibility and the nature of fraud that could be involved could be illustrated by the notorious case of donation of 1 lakh acres of land by the Hathua Raj to Acharya Vinoba Bhave by a simple letter. That it was not a folklore was confirmed by the District Gazetteer of Saran published in 1959-60 which reported this incident. It stated, inter alia, “Reports available from the said office (Bhoodan Yagna Committee) indicate that till the end of April 1959, 1,03,902 acres of land have been donated in the district.” The land data given by the Collector of Gopalganj to the Commission on 23.03.07 indicate that an area of 27, 237.48 acres were given in donation to the Committee of which only 10,263.26 acres could be confirmed by Revenue Officers. Thus, a trick of colossal proportion was committed by the Hathua Raj to Acharya Vinoba Bhave, the State of Bihar and the people of Saran district. A question arises as to what is to be done about such unconfirmed lands.
6.1 (The) first point would be to mount a survey operation to locate such lands on the ground. In case the lands could not be located it would indicate that the donor deliberately played mischief on the people of the State. Therefore, there could be two options to deal with these issues. One, after due diligence, if the land could not be found, then appropriate action has to be initiated against the donor under the appropriate sections of the Indian Penal Code. Secondly, since the donor himself declared of his own volition an area of 1 lakh acres for donation to the Committee, action under the Ceiling Law should be initiated to vest the surplus area to the State for redistribution for landless and land poor persons of the area. Such (a) trick on the public should not go unnocticed and unattended to.
6.2 In a couple of Jan Sunwais a point was raised regarding the repeal of Subsection (3) of Section 15 of the Bihar Bhoodan Yagna Act 1954. It was contended that this Subsection empowered the Committee to a lot Bhoodan and to any person and not necessarily to the landless and poor households. It went against the basic objectives of (the) Act which was “to provide for the settlement of such lands (Bhoodan Lands) with landless person or with a village community, Gram Panchayat or with a cooperative society organized by the Bhoodan Yagna Committee.” (Preamble of the Act)
Subsection (3) of Section 15 seems to go against the main objective. It was however felt that instead of going straight ahead with the amendment of the Act as suggested, the special Deputy Collectors may exercise powers under Section 21 of the Act to eject such ineligible persons. In case they come up against any insuperable legal hurdle, the issue of repeal of Subsection (3) of Section 15 may be examined in the light of the experience for taking appropriate action.
7.6 The Commission noted with concern the wide gap between the unconfirmed Bhoodan land maintained by the Revenue Department and that by the Committee. During this campaign attempt should be made to reconcile this discrepancy and to arrive at a confirmed figure. If after due diligence some areas remain unconfirmed the appropriate civil and criminal action should be initiated in such cases against the original donor.
7.7 During the Jan Sunwai organized by the Commission in different parts of the State a constant complaint was that a number of grantees of Bhoodan Land who had parchas did not have possession. It came out in almost al the 13 Jan Sunwais held in different parts if the State. It is one of the major causes of social tension, which might aggravate itself into social unrest. The Chairman of the Committee was fully aware of this problem but he felt helpless to resolve it because of shortage of manpower. Now that the program of total verification of all the problematic issues related to Bhoodan would be undertaken, this point of ensuring possession to the grantees should be given appropriate priority, thereby eliminating one of the causes of rural friction and possible unrest. Section 21 gives the revenue officers enough authority to eject any unauthorized person from the donated land, after such enquiry as he deems fit and restore the possession of the land to the Committee…Section 22 gives the detailed procedure for ejection. During this campaign specially designated Revenue Officers should be authorized to ensure possession of donated land to the rightful grantee through the process of law. It is recommended that during the reconciliation campaign the specially designated Revenue Officers should take appropriate steps under the law to give possession of land to the grantees who have the lawful parchas and do not have possession. …
A N Das’ Agrarian Unrest and Socio-economic Change, 1900-1980, Manohar, 1983 quotes from the National Commission on Agriculture 1976: Abridged Report which had observed about the experience of land reform, “The lack of political will has been a key factor behind ineffective implementation ... Implementation is in a large measure a function of degree of consciousness and organisation of the potential beneficiaries…” “And yet”, Das remarks, “every time the ‘potential beneficiaries’ showed signs of ‘consciousness and organisation’ not only did the State set out to crush them as during the ‘Red Scares’ of 1948-50 and 1968-78 but even others tried to subvert it. The foremost among them were the Sarvodayists.”
This observation preceded his discussion of ‘The “Gentle Persuasion”: Bhoodan’ (pp 202-207), from which we quote excerpts below:
“Almost on the heels of the zamindari abolition legislation came one of the most repressive phases in the history of the Bihar government. A ‘Communist Plot’ was discovered and any attempt by the lower orders of the tenantry – under-tenants and share-croppers – and the agricultural labourers to organise themselves was seen as a sign of the ‘Red Menace’….A Public Safety Act was passed and its provisions were used to try to stop all mass movements of the peasantry….However, the more repression was intensified the stronger became the resistance by the peasantry and, in places, even a Telengana-type of insurrection started being planned out.
It was at that point of time that Vinoba Bhave who started his Bhoodan movement in Telengana intervened in Bihar also. In the beginning, his scheme of getting zamindars to voluntarily donate land for distribution among the landless seemed to have caught on. The peripatetic agrarian reformer attracted thousands wherever he decided to do his padyatra, and after a few years even the former fire-brand revolutionary Jaya Prakash Narayan was persuaded to give up active politics and do jeewan-dan (gift of life) in the cause of Bhoodan and Sarvodaya. With these two charismatic leaders in the forefront, it was believed that the movement would be able to generate enough enthusiasm to become a way of preventing the spread of communism and emerge as a method “of bringing about a peaceful revolution.” …To this end, Bhave resolved to remain in Bihar till the land problem was finally and completely solved. To solve the land problem in Bihar, Bhave estimated that he and his followers would need to collect 32, 00,000 acres of land. After two years of intensive Bhoodan activity in Bihar, Jaya Prakash Narayan announced in 1954 that the movement had not reached its target…
By August 1954, the Bhoodan workers claimed to have collected 21, 02, 000 acres by way of actual gifts or promised donations, but the quantum was still much below the target even in 1956 when it was claimed that 21, 47, 842 acres had been collected….
By 31 March 1966 the Bhoodan Yagna Committee had to admit officially that its total acreage of land collections had not increased; instead, it had decreased from 21, 47, 842 acres in 1956 to 21, 37, 787 acres in 1966; of this at least 500, 000 acres, mainly contributed by the Raja of Ramgarh, was either forest land or legally contested lands. More damaging to the image of Bhoodan as a successful movement is the fact that by March 1966, Bhoodan leaders could claim to have distributed only 3, 11, 037 acres (less than 10 per cent of the announced target). Even such land as was distributed was at times waste land and, at least in one case, at the bottom of a river. The result was by no means a ‘peaceful revolution’,brought about by the Bhoodan movement or the legislative measure which institutionalised the movement in Bihar. …"
CPI(ML)’s 1986 document Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar identified Bhoodan and other similar measures as “nothing but part of a wider counter-insurgency move to stamp out armed peasant struggle from the face of Bihar.” It quoted Badri Narain Sinha, DIG (Naxalite)’s article ‘From Naxalbari to Ekwari’ (The Searchlight, June 11-13, 1975): “putting in zealous and dedicated social reformers drawn from all shades to bring about transformation on the socio-cultural planes’ is as much a part of ‘the counter-insurgency measures’ as ‘concentrated police operations or operations by the special task forces, may be from the supreme armed formation, the army itself.”