Tebhaga Movement was a significant peasant struggle led by sharecroppers (bargadars) of Bengal against the oppressive jotedars. The Movement was initiated in 1946 by the All India Kisan Sabha of the peasant front of the Communist Party of India in Bengal. The rebellion was due to the sharecropping system that prevailed in Bengal. ‘Tebhaga’ literally means ‘three shares’ of harvests.
A new class of landlords, known as jotedars, emerged in the Bengal region during the 19th century. The jotedars owned large tracts of land in rural areas, controlled the local markets and money-lending activities, and exercised control over poor cultivators. The jotedars were mainly concentrated in North Bengal, while in other parts of Bengal, they were known as gantidars, haoladars, or mandals.
The sharecroppers, also known as bargadars, worked on the large agricultural areas rented from the jotedars. The bargadars, generally known as adhi, adhiar, barga or bhag, cultivated the lands of jotedars on condition of delivering a share of the crops from such land to jotedars. The sharecroppers handed over half of the crop after the harvest to the jotedars as rent. This system of land cultivation was commonly known as Adhiary Pratha (half-half system), mainly prevalent in North Bengal.
The jotedars used to exploit the labour of the cultivators in several forms, the poor sharecroppers becoming almost a slave of the landowner. After the Second World War and the Bengal Famine of 1943, the grievances of peasants and sharecroppers grew as the economic situation worsened. The political unrest, economic conditions and unbearable social conditions of peasants led to the Tebhaga Movement of 1946.
At that time, sharecroppers had contracted to give half of their harvest to the jotedars (landlords). The demand of the Tebhaga (sharing by thirds) Movement was to reduce the landlord share to one-third. The Bengal Land Revenue Commission of 1938, popularly known as the Floud Commission, had made recommendations in favour of the sharecroppers. The Commission proposed that sharecroppers should retain a two-third share of the total crops.
In late 1946, the sharecroppers in Bengal challenged the prevailing sharecropping system. The sharecroppers began to assert that they would pay only one-third of the harvest to the jotedars and that before division, the crop would stay in their godowns (khamars) and not that of the jotedars. They were encouraged by the fact that the Floud Commission had already made this recommendation in its report to the Government.
In September 1946, Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha, guided by the Communist Party of India, launched the Telangana Movement and gave the call to the sharecroppers to implement the recommendations of the Floud Commission to reduce the rent rate (landlord share) to one-third so that the sharecroppers should retain a two-third share of the produce. The Movement resulted in clashes between jotedars and sharecroppers. In many areas, the agitations turned violent, and landlords fled, leaving parts of the lands in the hands of Kisan Sabha.
The central slogan of the Movement was “nij khamare dhan talo“, i.e., sharecroppers taking the paddy to their own godowns (khamars) and not the jotedar’s house, as before, so as to enforce tebhaga.
The storm centre of the Tebhaga Movement was North Bengal. The peasant uprising broke out in Kakdwip, Bhangar, Sonarpur, and Canning. It was most intensely felt in districts of Rangpur, Jalpaiguri, Dinajpur, Khulna Mymensingh, Jessore and 24-Paraganas. Namkhana and Kakdwip were the storm centres of the agitation. The Movement aimed at improving the share of the peasant engaged as sharecroppers.
The uprising gained more strength in January 1947 when the Muslim League Ministry led by Suhrawardy published the Bengal Bargadars Temporary Regulation Bill in the Calcutta Gazette on 22 January 1947. The Bengal Bargadars Temporary Regulation Bill, which incorporated the demand of the sharecroppers, provided that the share of the harvest given to landlords would be limited to one-third of the total.
Both Hindus and Muslims participated in this peasant agitation. The principle of the Communist Party of India was peasant unity on the basis of which the Movement spread from district to district, leaving aside all fratricidal feuds. Peasant struggles in East and West Bengal were united through the establishment of associations and the formation of women’s classes.
The jotedars appealed to the Government. At the request of the jotedars, the police attempted to suppress the rebellion. The partition of Bengal and promises of the new Government led to the suspension of the uprising. The Movement continued till 1950 and slowly disappeared when the Bengal Bargadari Temporary Regulation Bill was enacted in 1950. This ‘Bargadari Act of 1950‘ recognised the rights of sharecroppers to two-thirds of crops when they provided the inputs.
Prominent leaders of the Tebhaga Movement
The prominent leaders of the Tebhaga Movement were Bishnu Chattopadhyay, Kansari Halder, Ganesh Das, Ajit Bose, Ila Mitra, Haji Mohammad Danesh, Sushil Sen, Debaprasad Ghosh, Noor Jalal, Krishnavinod Roy, Bhupal Panda, Rupanarayan Roy, Ganendranath Sarkar, Kali Sarkar.
The large-scale participation of women was one of the characteristics of the Tebhaga Movement. The first martyrs of this Movement were Samir Uddin and Shivram Majhi of Talpukur village of Chirirbandar upazila of Dinajpur district. Shivram Majhi belonged to the tribal Hasda community.
Although the Bargadari Act of 1950 recognised the rights of sharecroppers to a higher share of crops from the land they tilled, it was not fully implemented. Large tracts beyond the prescribed limit of the land ceiling remained with the wealthy landlords.
In 1967, West Bengal witnessed a peasant uprising against the non-implementation of land reforms legislation. From 1977 onwards, major land reforms took place in West Bengal under the Left Front Government. Land in excess of the land ceiling was acquired and distributed among the peasants. Subsequently, “Operation Barga” aimed to secure tenancy rights for the peasants.