Indian Communists reacted to Independence in 1947 on the wrong foot. While there was all-round celebration, the Communists called it a ‘sham independence’. Following the October Revolution in Russia, Indian Communists believed imperialism could be defeated through bloody armed struggle alone. With their belief firmly rooted in armed revolution, they adopted the famous slogan, Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution), raised by Bhagat Singh. Before Gandhi achieved the unachievable, no one, let alone Communists, thought a peaceful struggle against the mighty Raj could really achieve independence. After ’47, the Communist slogan Ye Azadi Jhoota Hai tried to underscore the point that real independence could not be earned through peaceful struggle and negotiation with British imperialists.
However, within a few years they had to correct themselves and join other parties to contest the first Lok Sabha election. By that time, large numbers of refugees from East Pakistan started arriving; for want of adequate relief and rehabilitation, they forcibly occupied government land and vacant farmhouses of the urban gentry in and around Calcutta. The Communists upheld their cause and raised the slogan: ‘Government must regularise unauthorised refugee colonies, by giving patta (ownership rights) to them’.
The Tebhaga movement positioned the CPI as a pro-peasant party. Its slogans, demanding a change in the existing share pattern of the harvest from a 50-50 share to two-thirds in favour of sharecroppers strengthened the party’s support base in Bengal. Starting with that, the movement eventually developed a more poignant slogan: Chasir Hate Jami Chai (Land to the Tillers).
A crisis in agriculture in West Bengal created a deficit in food productions, even as it was burdened with the influx of millions of refugees. The perennial food crisis that Bengal faced helped Communists to lead two violently fought ‘food movements’ in 1959 and 1966. But the 1962 Sino-India war put Communists on the backfoot. The party was vertically split on this and other questions. They were also politically and socially cornered by a raging xenophobia. The 1966 food movement again saw Communists at the forefront of angry mobs that took to the streets. They raised slogans related to food as well as the Sino-India war: Rajbandider Mukti Chai, Sastadare Khadya Chai, Zhou-Indira Baithak Chai (Release political prisoners, provide cheap food, Zhou En Lai and Indira should hold talks). A popular slogan also countered the Congress’s jingoistic posture: Jakhoni Manus chay Khadya o Bastro/ Simante Beje Othe Juddher Badyo (Whenever there is a growing clamour for food and other basics, a war hysteria is drummed up). From February 1966, the beginning of the food riots till the formation of the first United Front government in February 1967, Communists mobilised people with catchy slogans. Most were taken from leftist poets like Sukanta Bhattacharjee and Subhas Mukhopadhyay: Pet Jwalchhe/ Khet Jwalchhe/ Hujur Shune Rakhun/ Ebar Khajna Maap na hale/ Jwale uthbe agun (The stomach and the fields afire, listen O landlord, if you don’t waive our loans everything will be aflame), or Shon Re Malik, Shon Re Majutdar/ Toder Prasade jama halo kato mrito manuser haar? ...Priya-ke amar Kerechhis Tora/ bhengechhis gharbaari/ toder ki ami jibane marane kakhano bhulite pari? (Listen, hoarders and landlords, you’ve added to the dead, abducted wives, broken homes, how can I forget you?). Even Tagore was roped in: Damama Oi Baje/ Din Badaker Pala elo/ Jhoro Juger Majhe (Wardrums are playing, it’s time for change amidst these tumultuous days). Use of political graffiti gained currency during this time.
The formation of the UF government raised hope among peasants. Communists started aggressively campaigning for land reform, raising the slogan Joteder-er benami Jami dakhal Karo, Dakhal rekhe chaas karo (Take control of landords’ surplus land and cultivate it), and initiated movements to confiscate surplus land and its distribution amongst the landless. At the same time, militant trade unionism gave birth to a new form of protest: gherao (forcibly detaining factory managers in workplaces). Slogans like Gherao Chalchhe, Chalbe (Gherao shall continue.) started appearing on the walls in Calcutta.
Meanwhile, the old Communist party had been split into CPI and CPI(M) in 1964, often leading to spite and acrimony. When the CPI started drifting towards the Congress, the CPI(M) reacted thus: Delhi theke elo gai/ sange bachhur CPI (a cow from Delhi has as its calf the CPI). At the height of the Vietnam War, solidarity with the North Vietnamese struggle resulted in the slogans Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh and the immortal Tomar naam, amar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam.
The Tebhaga movement, food riots, the refugee crisis saw the Left gain prominence and create the best slogans.
Then, an earthquake: the eruption of the Naxalbari movement in north Bengal. A recession-hit industry, few jobs, stagnating agriculture and the unresolved refugee crisis made Bengal ripe for an explosion. Naxalbari ignited that. Quoting Mao Zedong, the radical Left wrote in graffiti: ‘A single spark can make a prairie fire’. Another quote from Mao was made famous on Calcutta’s heaving streets: ‘Political power grows out of the barrel of gun’. Later, the Naxalites, in their eagerness to follow Maoism blindly would raise the absurd cry: ‘China’s Chairman is our chairman’, which was condemned by China. At the height of Naxalite movement, the frenzied ‘one must have blood in his hands by killing a class enemy’ shocked many sympathisers. Also, Charu Majumdar’s call to ‘Turn the 1970s into a decade of liberation’ showed a lack of political maturity. By mid-1972, with most top leaders either arrested or killed and thousands of workers imprisoned, the movement was at its nadir. Taking a cue from Lenin, they drew the curtain over it all with a slogan: ‘Parliament is a pig-sty, one must boycott elections’.
From 1972, when the Congress government unleashed a reign of terror that continued with during the Emergency (1975-77), the Left, including the CPI(M), were mostly on the run. After the 1977 polls, demand for the release of political prisoners resulted in the basic slogan, Rajbandider Mukti Chai (State prisoners must be freed).
Political slogans started changing in 1977, after the first Left Front government assumed office, with Jyoti Basu as CM. Unlike in 1967, the Communists were restrained, apprehensive that the Centre might again sack their government through Article 356. The implementation of land reform and introduction of the three-tier Panchayat system started empowering the rural poor. A new slogan of support was born: Bamfront Sarkar, Sangramer Hatiyar (Left Front government is a weapon to continue the class struggle). During these years, the CPI(M)-led LF was engaged in a bitter struggle with the Congress over various power-sharing issues. The slogan Rajyoke kendrer upanibesh kora chalbe na (we won’t allow the Centre to turn states into its colonies) was soon abandoned in favour of more vigorous plans of action. After getting no financial sanction for the proposed thermal power project at Bakreswar elicited Left defiance: Rakto diye Bakreswar gorbo (We shall build Bakreswar with our blood).
Changes in international and domestic realities during 1989-91 impacted Bengal’s Left hugely. The disintegration of the USSR, demise of the socialist bloc, China’s pursuit of capitalism marginalised orthodox Marxists everywhere. Calcutta’s Communists expressed their solidarity with orthodox Marxism by writing: ‘Marxism is all powerful, for it is true and it is science’. In domestic politics, the Marxists were clueless about countering Mandal and kamandal. And introduction of neo-liberal economic reforms forced the Left to step back awhile. Finally, the LF state government tried to imitate the neo-liberal development model and started wooing investment. They coined a new slogan around 2000-01: Krishi Amader Bhitti, Shilpo Amader Bhabisyat (Agriculture is foundation of our economy; industrialisation is our future). But, imitating other neo-liberal states, it went for forcible acquisition of farmland and lost its vital rural support. After Singur and Nandigram, the Left were thrown out of power in 2011. In the next eight years, under TMC rule, Bengal witnessed many crises that could be turned into popular movements. As millions of the poor were looted through Saradha, Rose valley and other Ponzi schemes, their nexus with leaders of the ruling Trinamool were apparent. Yet, the Left was only feebly present in street-level agitations, reflecting a total denudation of its cadre-based support. As it drags itself painfully on a game leg, the creative slogans that once announced great Left campaigns have vanished with the turn of the wind.