Social & Political Mapping of Popular Movements,
Logistical Vision & Infrastructure of India

Concept Note

A Three Year Research Project on Popular Movements in Bihar and West Bengal (2016-2018) Submitted by the Calcutta Research Group




     1.  The concepts and histories of popular movements have often featured in academic discussions in the West, especially among the leftist and socialist scholars. In India, however, notwithstanding many occurrences of such movements in the years after independence, the existing scholarship on contemporary history or politics remains inadequate – particularly on issues and events associated with mobilization of large number of people on the basis of a common political goal. The discussions on social movements and social mobilisations do not give adequate focus on the specificity of the political. More crucially, even though much has been written on the sporadic incidents of mass struggle and political movements in the eastern states of India, no substantial research has been done on the consistency and impact of movements that stirred people’s imagination and forced them to come down on the streets. The present proposal, while acknowledging the value of the past works on political movements in this part of the country, raises few important questions as to the role of popular movements in forming the political consciousness of the masses and the ideological leanings of the ruling elite.


     2.  In the course of our research, we shall look into different aspects of popular movements in two of the biggest states in eastern India – Bihar and West Bengal – and shall try to envisage a comprehensive account of mass mobilization in the two states on different social and political issues spanning over the first thirty years since independence (1951-1981). The reason of choosing these two states as the sites of our research may be sought in the historical continuity of the connections and links between Bihar and West Bengal once forming two crucial parts of a single subah and later what came to be known under colonial administration as the Bengal Presidency. Also, choosing two states for our study will not only give us an opportunity to study intricate details of popular movements in a comparative framework, it will avail us also a scope to locate a structural connection between Bihar and West Bengal, permeated with various social and political affinities and conflicts between them. One classic example of this structural relationship is the incidence of migration of people between these two states, often resulting in strange coalitions and aggressive confrontations.


     3.  Both Bihar and West Bengal are known for radical peasant and student mobilizations during and after the struggle against the colonial rule. While Bihar has also experienced spates of identity based (chiefly along the axis of caste) political movements, which raised the issue of social justice as the core of popular politics, West Bengal is yet to witness any mass-based popular movement against caste hierarchies, while giving birth to huge popular movements on issues of refugee rights, price rise, inflation, civil liberty, land rights, workers’ rights, etc. Our research project will highlight and explore many such differences and similarities between the forms and trajectories of some of the popular movements that had taken place between the early fifties and the early nineteen-eighties in Bihar and West Bengal.


     4.  The more important question will be: in this thirty year period (1951-81) both Bihar and West Bengal witnessed the emergence of non-Congress governments in the nineteen sixties and seventies after the formation of the non-Congress the Janata Party government at the Centre. This was the turning point in the patterns of popular mobilisation in both the states following the non-Congress governments in the two states. How did they come about? How can we characterise the break? What were the continuities and discontinuities in the dynamics of popular politics and movements? And equally crucially, did the change in the two states have the same face? Or here again can we locate structural and historical differences and similarities in this period of transition marked by the presence of personalities like Jayaprakash Narain, Jyoti Basu, Karpoori Thakur, and Harekrishna Konar and Binoy Chowdhury – the great mobilisers of people and politics?


Research Theme


      5.  West Bengal: For West Bengal we propose to cover -

(a) The emergence of the refugee rights movement in the fifties with special emphasis on the dalit refugees;

(b) The anti-price rise and food and fuel movement in the late nineteen fifties to early seventies (popularly known as the food movement) against the practice of monopoly control by traders over primary social goods, and

(c) The Naxalite mobilizations by the peasants, workers and students which took a violent form and faced brutal resistance from the state.

Instead of offering a linear chronology of large-scale mass struggles over three decades, we shall examine the political logic and social context of these movements and try to find out the various forms of associations and identities that were shaped and overturned during popular protests.  We shall explore how the forms of these movements while continuing many of the political movements in the colonial time made a break and ushered in new forms. The question will be: Did the new forms survive when the opposition parties came to power in 1977 and ushered in new governance modes and a new regime of governmentality?


     6.  partition and continuous influx of millions of refugees had permanently changed the matrix of West Bengal politics since inception. In the first decade, the refugees settled in different bordering districts of the state, including parts of Kolkata, both in government-run camps and in colonies set up on forcibly-occupied lands, and organised themselves under the left-dominated United Central Refugee Council (UCRC), which became a deep link between the left parties (first CPI, then the CPI [M]) and the Bengali refugees. A pertinent research question in respect of mass mobilization around the issues of refugee resettlement and demands for basic civil rights would be to ask how the left organizations have dealt with the concerns of refugee identity and post-partition migration in the context of class-based politics. It is interesting to observe when the Left parties themselves came into power within a parliamentary system, they disregarded their earlier position regarding forceful resettlement and continued with the policies adopted by the earlier governments. This ideological displacement culminated in a brutal clash between the state and the refugee settlers in Marichjhapi in 1979 where hundreds of people were killed in police firing. It is important in this context to explore how the dynamics of popular movements not only counteracts against the threads of organized party politics but also exposes its shortcomings under a statist agenda.


     7.  Again, the Food Movement of 1959 was a turning point in the history of popular movements in West Bengal. Food insecurity, by this time, had reached frightening proportions in the rural and urban areas and the marginal and landless peasantry, with the workers and lower middle classes, were in a state of acute distress. The Food Movement continued through the first half of 1960s. In February 1966, a student agitation was launched by the Left demanding food, kerosene oil and exercise books. But the police opened fire on the students. A school student, Nurul Islam, was killed. A huge students’ movement now roared across West Bengal, followed by a still larger mass movement. Several districts such as Nadia, Hooghly, Burdwan, and 24 Parganas including Kolkata became the volcanoes of protests. The effect of the Food Movement in West Bengal was so intense that it changed the political complexion of the state. In 1967, the United Front (a political front of 14 non-Congress and left parties) replaced the Congress Government. In this context, it will be interesting to study how different modes of popular protest including revolutionary cultural practices were adopted to address the pertinent issues and build resistance against the status-quo. Also it was a moment when people from different classes, occupations and social standings joined the movement demanding right to basic amenities of life and primary goods. No study of popular movement will be complete if it does not explore this moment of united struggle against the oppressive forces. We have to inquire, why in the post-1977 period food as the main issue of politics vanished from the public agenda? Was it food became accessible to all, or food became accessible to the articulate middle class dominating the government and administration, while the lower classes, particularly the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes continued to be deprived of the access to right to food?


     8.  Finally, the phase of militant joint struggles culminated in the agrarian movements in the late sixties and early seventies, popularly known as the Naxalite movement. Since 1967, peasants’ struggles in Naxalbari, Debra, Gopiballabhpur and other areas in West Bengal started to take shape inspired by the ideal of the peasant revolution in China. It also included the wave of students’ movement which, inspired by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) of China, launched anti (prevailing) education system and movement against icons of the established culture. A section of these students also went to villages to organise/strengthen peasants’ struggle in different pockets of the state. These mobilizations were countered by the state machinery with brutal police operations including arrests under special laws, torture, and killing. What is once again worth studying in this case is the overwhelming response from people of different social, political and cultural backgrounds to these mobilizations ranging from silent support and sympathy to active participation in militant struggle. Undoubtedly, through these movements a notion of people came into being. And hence, the question to be asked is: What constitutes the people in popular movements. To put it the other way round, is it not the case that it is through movements that the category of people is created? Some movements, big or small, do end up being popular movements while others not, despite their size and immediate influence. We can take the instance of the Railway Strike of 1974. Can it be called a popular movement? It seems that the answer lies in carefully reconstructing the processes through which the identity of the people is constructed. It is also through a study of structure of the people that the nature of the politics the movement espouses comes to light as much as it tells us about the restrictions that this politics creates. The speculation about popular movements their success or failure cannot be grasped without this fundamental analysis.


 9.  Bihar:  For Bihar we propose to cover –

(a)     The Bihar Movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, popularly known as the JP Movement;

(b)    The backward caste movement led by Karpoori Thakur;

(c)     The militant movement by the Dalit poor peasants for land, crop, and dignity;


     10.  Bihar has been known for its radical peasant movements, caste movements and student movements. Yet did Bihar ever have anything resembling a popular movement? Can these movements be categorised as popular movements? If yes, then which of those movements can be called popular movements? What must be the basis of our selection for the study of a popular movement in Bihar? An almost natural choice would be the Bihar Movement under Jayaprakash Narayan or the JP Movement. It has been in equal measure celebrated for its stand against a repressive state and vilified for its lack of coherence in ideology, strategy and tactics and even a positive political programme. What cannot be denied though is the fact that it did capture the imagination of a large section of society and more importantly was able to mobilize them across various divides so that the movement could be called for a brief political moment as constituting the ‘people.’ An important area of investigation will be the frictions that were overcome to create this ‘people’ and friction that got created because of the ‘people.’ The politics of popular movement has to operate between these two registers. It is only through such a study that the nature and structure of JP Movement as a popular movement can be brought to light.


     11.  Another important aspect of any movement is its organization. How are the networks built? In fact, what were the networks developed in previous movements used later to facilitate the current movement? What kind of political and ideological negotiations took place? One should not forget that a popular movement in order to continue has to establish hegemony over competing movements as well as collaborating movements of different ideological and political persuasions. JP Movement was a movement like that where the rhetoric of liberation was borrowed from the Naxalites. Thus, it will be necessary to investigate this transaction and transformation of issues and demands around which a popular movement gets built. The dynamics of the articulation of demands has to be investigated. Who articulates them first? What is the political, economic, social context of such demands? In fact, to put it in broad terms: what is the relationship between the nature of the demands and the totality called a popular movement? Are some demands like end to corruption more amenable to a popular movement than say rise in wages? Similarly, why food distress became a mobilizing factor for a popular political movement in Bengal but not so in Bihar in spite of the fact that Bihar witnessed in the sixties of the last century one of the worst droughts of the century?


     12.  Developing the point a little further, one has to remember that popular movements do not happen in an exclusive political space. On one hand, there are other competing movements trying to mobilize and organize and on the other hand the more hegemonic popular movement might be unable to centralize. This is a crucial aspect. The desire of the leadership to control the movement and that of the rank and file may simply refuse to match. It will be interesting to study the variations within a popular movement, such as in this case JP Movement. The regional variations in Bihar are diverse and hypothetically the organization of the movement would have been uneven. Thus, what was the nature of organization in the “flaming fields” of Jehanabad, Ara and what was the nature of organization in the flood devastated plains of Kosi. In fact, what was the geographical spread of the popular movement? It is, hopefully, through investigating the question that a new understanding and theory of populism can be conceived.


     13.  There are also questions relating to time. Can a popular movement stretch over a period of time say 20-30 years? Or is it the case that popular movements are a period of radical developments albeit of shorter duration? In other words, how do we study the continuity/break phenomenon, which is critical in a research on the popular movements? If it is the case that a popular movement indeed can spread over decades how should we study it? How do we take into account the changes in political, social, economic, juridical milieu and build our case for popular movements? For instance, the Jharkhand Movement was one of the most significant movements of postcolonial India. It gave voice to the numerous indigenous communities of the region and in a way redefined the vocabulary of identity politics. Yet a serious investigation of the composition of the popular movement remains to be done, particularly after the installation of a separate government there. Or, there are several castes spread over a vast region and they may have their distinct social structure and political practices. To be a popular movement these had to be negotiated. What were the contours of such negotiations, say in the radical agrarian protests and movements for reservation? And how in the process new political languages and a new vocabulary were created? How did Karpuri Thakur or the Naxalite leadership of the agrarian rebels emerge? In an area where caste, religion, and caste are in complex interplay, the creation of the ‘people’ must have required intense negotiations and realpolitik. The issues mentioned above on demands, collective claim making and organization and mobilization would have specific textures. For a robust theory of popular movement and populism answers to these questions are a necessity.


Research Questions


     14.  The project therefore does not simply want to chronicle few popular movements, which is to say that the project will be premised on the formulation that popular movements are not an a priori category. It is through the study of these movements in their dynamic political details that a theory of popular movement would be attempted.


    15.  We have already raised the fundamental research thrust. On the basis of that, we can now formulate the specific research questions:

(a)  What is the relation between organized, party-based politics (especially of the Left variety) and what is called popular movements evolving almost organically from the masses, of which a typical instance will be the movements against refugee resettlement in the sixties and seventies?

(b)  How does governmentalization of popular politics happen? On one hand, the neoliberal critics may say that these were driven by populist biases in both Bengal and Bihar; on the other hand, there are typical cases where the party in opposition seems more militant and less 'practical' than the party in power. What happens when the opposition comes to power? Can it afford to maintain its earlier militant nature? In other words, does political populism has the potential to turn into a governmental apparatus? 

(c)  What is the relation between popular politics and evolution of the middle class as a potent political force? It seems at least in the case of Bengal after independence, the journey of the middle class, middle caste on their way to become the most politically influential pressure group cannot be studied without taking account of their participantion, however willy-nilly, in popular movements like the food movement in the sixties. Was it a simple case of vanguardism or does it indicate something fundamental in the constitution of the Bengali/Indian middleclass?

(d)  How are the people created through a popular movement?

(e)  How did the government of Karpoori Thakur set the tone of JP Movement? Can we see in the issues of 1969 turbulent Assembly Elections the seeds of future discontent? What were the manifestos and other political documents saying about ‘people’, democracy, politics and most importantly caste?

(f)   What was the logic of governance that led to the organization of governmental politics to take up caste as its organizing element? Alternatively, how did caste start to become the organizational principle of governmentality? This should be studied with reference to the B P Mandal Commission.

(g)  Continuing with the above it is necessary to see the effect of this kind of governmental organization on Dalits. It should be remembered that knowingly or unknowingly, the militant Left had its base mostly on Dalits and not so much the middle castes which witnessed its rise in the Karpoori Thakur era. An insight on this issue will give us some clarity into the Left politics and its changing shifts both in terms of politics and ideas. This is also a relevant point for comparison with West Bengal during the same period. Unlike in Bihar, why did the militant Left fail to consolidate its base? Has it got something to do with the setting up the newly formed caste-based governmental apparatus in Bihar?

(h)  What was the significance of the lower level recruitments in state services in terms of the development of the network of government as well as electoral politics? What kind of developmental logic was then created? Was it based on client-patron or paternalistic relationship or relationship of trust necessary for collective claim making?

(i)   Finally, how did the JP movement change the style of claim making and build up a network of trust?

(j)   How did the Karpoori government after 1977 ensure that the political energies that were unleashed during the JP movement were contained post-movement? How were the peasants and urban lower middle class contained? What were the mechanism of reward and punishment?

(k) Finally, can we draw the similarities and dissimilarities between the socialist leadership in Bihar and the Marxist leadership in West Bengal? Do we get a clearer idea of the changing face of the popular movements in these two states through a comparison and contrast of the two? For instance, why in one state, social justice became the guiding idea of popular mobilisations and in the other state rights of the people, namely trade union rights and peasant rights?


 Problem statement 2017

(To explore aspects of popular movements and populism relevant to post-colonial democracy like India (West Bengal and Bihar)


a.   Naxalbari Movement that shaped the West Bengal politics of late ‘60s and 70s will be studied in the second year. Since 1967, peasants’ struggles in Naxalbari, Debra, Gopiballabhpur and other areas in West Bengal started to take shape inspired by the ideal of the peasant revolution in China. It also included the wave of students’ movement which, inspired by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) of China, launched anti (prevailing) education system and movement against icons of the established culture. A section of these students also went to villages to organise/strengthen peasants’ struggle in different pockets of the state. These mobilizations were countered by the state machinery with brutal police operations including arrests under special laws, torture, and killing. What is once again worth studying in this case is the overwhelming response from people of different social, political and cultural backgrounds to these mobilizations ranging from silent support and sympathy to active participation in militant struggle. Undoubtedly, through these movements a notion of people came into being. And hence, the question to be asked is: What constitutes the people in popular movements. This had been one of the major research questions in all the papers written in the first year of the project and this will also shape the research on Naxalbari movement in the second year.


b.   Naxalbari Movement inspired multifaceted creativity; from propagandist poetry to reflective verse; from novels or prose narratives hailing the movement to stories and novels severely criticizing the theoretical ballast and its related activism; from revelatory plays transcreating the most decisive moments of the movement on the stage to cut and dried one act plays serving as slices of the experiential truth; from gripping films like Hajar Churasir Ma and Herbert to full-throated songs which exhilarated hundreds. While in the first year debates around Marxian aesthetics in ‘50s and ‘60s have been studied, in the second year special emphasis will be given to the world of literature, films and art that were inspired or were produced as criticism to the Naxalite Movement. Particular importance will be provided to the theatre activities of the time as this was one site were Naxalbari emerged as a major theme. Utpal Dutta’s Teer, Anal Gupta’s Rakter Rang or Amal Roy’s Aat Jora Khola Chokh are but few examples of the theatres of the time.

c.   As of now Calcutta has remained the primary focus of most of the researches. Calcutta was the major site of the refugee movement or tram and teachers’ movement. But with food movement and Naxalite movement, suburbs and districts of West Bengal became major epicentres of protest. There were other intense and popular mass movements outside Calcutta as well in ‘50s, ‘60s and 70s. Labour movement in Burnpur steel factory (near Asansol in Burdwan district) in 1950s, peasant agitation in Durgapur against their displacement for establishing the steel plant, strikes and labour protest in jute belts of Hooghly and Howrah, refugee agitation in Nadia or demands raised in various parts of Bengal for merger of Bengali speaking areas of Bihar with West Bengal require closer focus in order to understand the nature and extent of popular politics beyond the metropolis. What constituted ‘people’ in these protests, did it go beyond the groups of labourers/ peasants/refugees to draw a wider section of the society, which movement drew attention of the city elite and what remained invisible to them, was the student groups, left sympathizers and city intellectuals equally quick in responding to these movements?

d.  Finally, Left Front’s coming to power in West Bengal (1977) needs to be focused on as a possible moment of culmination of the decades of popular movements in this province. How did the new government under the leadership of Jyoti Basu addressed the demands that had been raised through such movements, how did it cater to the needs and expectations of the “peoples” that were created in the course of such movements and what spaces for new protest movements were created are important to understand. While the new government implemented radical land reforms and freed the political prisoners immediately after coming to the power, in 1978 they tortured the Dalit refugees in Marichjhapi, killing hundreds of them, in the name of protecting a tiger reserve. Examining the early years of Left Front government - popular measures that they took as well as state oppression that they unleashed - is important in order to understand the history of the popular politics in West Bengal in the decades after independence.


e.  Coming to Bihar, we will focus on the backward classes movement led by Karpoori Thakur, a close aide of Jayprakash Narayan. Popularly known as ‘jana-nayak’ (peoples’ leader), Thakur had been chief minister of Bihar twice (between 1970-1971 and 1977-1979). The Karpoori Thakur government introduced reservation in government jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in 1978. A year later, B P Mandal submitted his recommendations on OBCs and affirmative action to the central government under Morarji Desai. This twin move brought in its wake seismic changes in the politics of Bihar as well as India. The objective of this research project will be to study the implications of these moves on the popular politics and mass movement of Bihar. The project will also investigate the entire process of defining caste, the debates around the parameters and political maneuver of inclusion and exclusion. The question of social justice also emerged in the background of the contingent defeat of the left movement in general and the Naxalite Movement in particular. This meant that the issue of izzat (dignity) and land for the dalits were also relegated into the background. The research project will investigate if the rise of politics of social justice in Bihar meant a suppression of radical and revolutionary politics and premature end to dalit politics. Also, how the government played a decisive role in the suppression of these alternative politics.

 Goals and Objectives of the proposed project

To explore aspects of popular movements and populism relevant to post-colonial democracy like India (West Bengal and Bihar)

Events and Activities (2017)


Public Lecture: At least one public lecture related to the theme will be organized in the course of the year open to a wider audience than the researchers and experts, particularly students and academics, for network building and dissemination of knowledge.


Workshops and dissemination An attempt will be made to take note of new research and involve interlocutors from diverse backgrounds to critically evaluate the research. For this at least one research workshop will be organized; one in the first quarter of the project to evaluate abstracts and a second in the third quarter to evaluate full papers. In addition the website, online blog and a Google group will be used as important tools for discussion, archiving, and interaction. An attempt will be made to share abstracts, comments, reports of the public lectures and the workshops and other exchanges to the wider public.


Archiving Research material will be documented and archived in the CRG library with particular emphasis on collection of pamphlets, party literatures and books and fieldwork material. An attempt will be made to archive interviews (recording or transcripts) of people who had witnessed the movements and also participated in those.

Fieldwork Field visits will be a significant part of the project in 2017. Fieldwork in districts of West Bengal and Bihar will enhance the content of the research.


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