Fifty Years Ago: Food Movement of 1959

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In post-independence and post-partition Congress-ruled West Bengal, the echoes of famine continued to be heard in the 1950s. The collusion between rice mill-owners, jotdars and food hoarders created an artificial food crisis. These proprietor segments, who controlled rice distribution, also exercised a strangle-hold over the villages and formed the rural backbone of the Bengal Congress. So the government refused to take any measure which went against their interests. As hunger assumed famine like proportions, the people organised themselves into a ‘Committee to Combat Famine’ under the leadership of the undivided Communist Party of India. Other left parties also endorsed this initiative. From the second half of the 1950s, between 1956 and 1958, food movements became an annual occurrence. The Food Movement of 1959 however was a turning-point in the history of class struggle in West Bengal. Food insecurity by this time had reached frightening proportions in rural and urban areas and distress was acute among the marginal and landless peasantry, the workers and lower middle-classes.

 

On 31 August, a huge mass demonstration was organised in Kolkata where hundreds and thousands arrived from the villages under the leadership of the Kisan Sabha. Though primarily a mass protest by peasants, rural women with babies walked alongside high school students; office workers merged with the columns of manual workers. The whole of Kolkata’s colonial city centre turned into a sea of 300,000 people demanding an end to destitution and hunger. The centre of the rally was the Shahid Minar, the foot of the monument and the adjoining open space of the ‘Maidan’ having historically served as the convergence point of anti-colonial and anti-establishment protests. That afternoon rain repeatedly lashed at the demonstrators. But their determination to force the Congress government to provide immediate relief or quit remained resolute. At the end of the meeting, a procession began and started making its way towards Writers’ Building. By then evening had descended. First, the demonstrators were cordoned off by the police. Then unexpectedly, without any warning, violent ‘action’ began. Contemporary observers have noted the way the police attacked directionless, panic-stricken people blinded by teargas.

 

80 people died in the carnage that day; they were mostly starving peasants who had survived the devastating and man-made Bengal Famine of 1943 and were no longer willing to die of hunger without any protest. Not a single bullet was fired. The police used sticks to beat people to death. 1000 people went missing and 3000 were injured. Ordinary bystanders, petty shopkeepers, cinema-hall ushers and sex-workers offered solidarity and assistance to those fleeing the police from the main thoroughfares in a bloodied state and spilling into the side streets and narrow alleys of north Kolkata. The police arrested thousands. According to one eye-witness who is now 74 years old: ‘In the semi-darkness, I saw mothers, sisters, brothers lying motionless on the road.’ The police later cremated many of the anonymous victims. Bodies could be seen floating in the Ganges. The next day, on 1 September, the police fired on students who were protesting against the atrocities and a wave of repression followed. Entire neighbourhoods of north Kolkata became anti-police bastions of resistance and the government deployed troops in several districts. Jyoti Basu compared the events of 31 August with Jallianwallabagh in the Bengal Legislative Assembly and the combined opposition managed to corner the Congress. In 1966, a second Food Movement was launched by the left parties and its impact could be felt in the victory of the First United Front government of 1967. 1959 demonstrated that despite utmost and merciless ferocity, the Congress and the social forces it represented in West Bengal, were in a process of retreat. This retreat, however, claimed the lives of 80 people on 31 August 1959. At a time of rising hunger in the country, Pragoti remembers and salutes them.

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Comments

good piece

thanks to the pragoti edit team for this short but very well written piece. we have to commemorate the 1959 food movement not only because of its game changing role in west bengal's politics but also to draw inspiration to launch such movements today. the steep rise in food prices under the congress government at the centre has made life hell for the poor. even daal has become a luxury commodity. real income levels are getting squeezed. the communists should launch big struggles against this all over the country.

Massacre in 1959

Why this incident, which is the worst single day atrocity by any police force anywhere in independent India, is not highlighted by even the Leftists to any significant extent!

Reminiscence of Food Movement - 1959.

I was a student of Medical College, Calcutta, a member of the Working Committee of BPSF and also a member of the CPI (40-41 Branch). I was injured in lathi-charge by police in front of the Eastern Gate of Raj Bhavan. Everywhere around, there were chaos. I managed to reach Casualty Block of the Medical College Hospital. As time rolled on Dead Bodies were being brought bi the police. Our Principal, Prof. Sudhir Bose came, was struck dumb for some moment and then commented "I have not seen such brutal killing even in the British period". at about 1o pm, one Anglo Indian Police Sergent brought a body and threw it on the floor in an unacceptable manner. Indrajit Ray (now deceased who later settled in Canada), one of my friends, was agitated and tried to maul the Sergent, we restrained him. There was a reportedly Bullet-Proof Ambulance in our Hospital and our Principal allowed some of us to take it in search of casualties. We could get one dead as far as I can remember. At the dead of night, we escorted the photographers and reporters of The Swadhinata, the then mouthpiece of CPI, to get pictures of the dead bodies. These photographs were published in The Swadhinata next morning, created commotion amongst common people. Next day, Sept. 1 was also a very tough day but I do not remember the details. I as the Secterary of the Medical College Hostel Students' Association, 217 Bowbazar Street, Cal-12, had to shoulder some additional responsibilities to accommodate some comrades. After the death of Com. Anil Biswas (later Secretary, CPIM, W.B.)I was informed by some one that Com. Malay Chatterjee, mentioned that Anil was one amongst them, but I do not remember.

Thank you for your comments,

Thank you for your comments, Dr. Sil. I am working on the left movement in West Bengal and was wondering if it would be possible to interview you?My uncle was a junior doctor at the Islamiya Hospital at the time and operated on a young boy who was brought in by Dr. Yazdani, then a CPI MLA. The teenager had suffered bullet injuries during the repression that followed the 31 August incident. Though the boy survived, his grandfather, a man in his 70s, didn't.
Best wishes,
Suchetana