Elisabeth B. Armstrong
In 1988, K. P. Bagchi of Kolkata published Adrienne Cooper’s Sharecropping and Sharecroppers’ Struggles in Bengal, 1930-1950. A Bengali version of the book was published in Bangladesh, but this version tells only the economic history not the political history of rural people’s lives. In Economic and Political Weekly, Ranajit Das Gupta reviewed the English edition favourably. To tell the story of the 1946-47 Tebhaga movement in Bengal, Das Gupta wrote, ‘Adrienne Cooper combines the methods of oral history, particularly interviews with leaders and activists of the movement, with conventional ones like consultation of archival materials’. Das Gupta highlights the second section of Cooper’s book – which deals directly with the Tebhaga agitation of 1946-47 conducted by sharecroppers and their allies. ‘With a wealth of evidence’, Das Gupta writes, ‘Cooper highlights the tensions and conflicts existing between landlords (jotedars) and sharecroppers for many decades and shows that the latter resorted to diverse and myriad forms of protest and struggle much before the historic tebhaga movement and the formation of the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha in 1936’. In other words, agrarian workers set an agenda, which was consolidated in the Kisan Sabha and in the Communist Party.
1940s Bengali poster from G.P. Dutt’s papers in the Labor History Archives, Manchester, UK.
Communists from that era – Abani Lahiri, Renu Chakravartty, Manikuntala Sen and Sunil Sen – have left us with powerful testimonies about being communist militants in Bengal during the British-induced famine that tore apart the lives of the rural poor in the early 1940s. What Adrienne Cooper provides – in addition to these books – is her 180 interviews of peasants and peasant organizers about their lives and their struggles. She collected these stories between 1976 and 1978 from across West Bengal and Bangladesh. These interviews are a precious record of the memories of those peasant communists who developed and sustained struggles in the countryside.
Cooper’s book came out in the era when the Subaltern Studies group held the attention of Indian historians. Volume 1 of Subaltern Studies had come out in 1982 and by the time Cooper’s book appeared in 1988, the sixth volume was being prepared. Cooper’s work would have been ideal for this series, since she had done field-research amongst the agrarian proletariat and had shown that it was this section that had developed its own struggles in the 1930s and 1940s. For a brief time, Cooper had been doing her Ph. D. with Ranajit Guha, the editor of the series. He would have known of her work. But he had not excerpted her book in the series. Why?
What distanced Cooper’s work from that of Subaltern Studies is that she tracked the movement of agrarian workers, with a revealing (and rare) attention to both women and men, into the Kisan Sabha and the Communist Party. She did not see this as a reason to disqualify these struggles from the category of ‘subaltern’. This is what interested me about her work – the meticulous way in which she followed the development of peasant struggles through its organisations. I had read her book, but realized from her notes that she had much more material. I was eager to meet her. But how to find Adrienne Cooper?
Adrienne Cooper left the academy shortly after her Ph. D. was completed under the supervision of Dr. Terence Byers, the founder of the Journal of Peasant Studies (1973). I emailed Dr. Byers. It was a brief correspondence.
Dear Dr. Byers,
My apologies for troubling you — but I’m having difficulty finding any contact information for your thesis student from the early 1980s Adrienne Cooper who wrote Sharecropping and Sharecroppers’ Struggles in Bengal, 1930-1950. As you know, she conducted extensive interviews of Bengali activists in the Tebhaga movement. I was wondering if these interviews are archived somewhere or held by Adrienne Cooper.
Do you have any contact information about how to reach her? I would deeply appreciate any help you can offer.
Dear Professor Armstrong,
I have been retired for some time, and am afraid that I have long since lost contact with Adrienne Cooper.
I don’t know of the interviews being archived anywhere. It is likely that she kept transcripts of the interviews, but the problem is how to contact her.
Sorry that I can’t assist you in your quest.
Terence J. Byres
Emeritus Professor of Political Economy, University of London
Emeritus Editor, Journal of Agrarian Change
I dropped my obsession for a year. One night I sat upright in my bed with an inspiration. I read Adrienne Cooper’s acknowledgments once more. There must be a clue there. I found the name of her daughter – Frania. It was through her daughter, who is a lawyer, that I found that Adrienne now uses the name, Adi Cooper. Adi is now an accomplished Social Services director, who focuses on safeguarding adults. In 2016, she was awarded an OBE for her work in Adult Social Services. I found her email. I wrote to her. She replied almost immediately,
Thank you so much. Yes of course it would be amazing to talk to someone who shares this interest and passion.
I still have my notebooks from my interviews somewhere as I couldn’t quite let them go.
When are you going to be in London?
I look forward to meeting you
Our meeting began badly. I had misunderstood where we were to meet at the London tube station of Manor House. She was at some turnstiles, while I was at another entrance. I rushed to a cafe to send her a message and found that my father had just entered the operating room for brain surgery to remove a large hematoma. I froze, emailed frantically, error-prone as usual on my phone, but even more so from worry. Finally, I found Adi, we hugged, we took a bus and we got to her home.
We sat with her materials. She told me about her work. Adi began her dissertation research with Ranajit Guha as her thesis director and inspirational undergraduate tutor. When she returned from West Bengal and Bangladesh after two years, however, they parted ways. She thought that this was because maybe Guha had difficulty in mentoring a woman through the process of writing a Ph.D., and suggested that perhaps she didn’t meet his high standards.
She returned to England, as she put it, an international socialist feminist. While she conducted her interviews she read Alexandra Kollantai and Agnes Smedley. In Dinajpur (West Bengal), she remembered debating Marxism and feminism with her translator. She had been involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement since 1969 – and joined a consciousness-raising group with Maggie Bowden, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She helped organize the first sexuality conference in Brighton. Her feminism continued through her research. Adi interviewed peasant activists with her mind alert with such questions of Marxism, feminism, and sexuality. She insisted upon interviewing women as well as men, asking how the entire family was swept up by the Tebhaga events.
How did Adi meet so many Indian communists in rural and urban India, I wondered? It had to do with her own roots in a communist family and their connection to the communists in India.
Adi was raised in a communist family – her mother had been a communist – and her father, a Polish tailor, had been a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He had heard Lenin speak in Paris. Adi’s father was also a lifelong communist. He had been involved in the Battle of Cable Street (1936) in London against the fascists led by Oswald Mosley. He had run a leftist foreign film distribution company in New York till the family was deported to Britain for their communist sympathies. Adi was from a red family.
Adi’s family knew Hannah Banerji, the Communist Party member from Wembley who had visited Kolkata shortly before she arrived. Hannah had links with communists in West Bengal. The volley of connections began there. It was easier to meet communists in West Bengal, where the Left Front gained power at that time. Matters were more difficult in Bangladesh, where the Communist Party of Bangladesh slowly came out from being banned, but the connections worked and Badruddin Umar, a political activist, writer and ex-academic accompanied her around the countryside acting as her interpreter. Among other places, Adi spoke to people in a village in Mymensingh that was a multi-faith village because of the legacy of Tebhaga.
Adi recounted her archival work in the Writer’s Building in Kolkata where she went through the archives including files of the Department of Agriculture and Land. She found the file from February 1947 file that contained all of the District Officers’ updates on the Tebhaga movement in their districts. She read speeches from the Assembly and all the newspapers in Bengali and English to gain a better understanding of how the movement unfolded, as well as communist party publications.
Adi said she’d lost the tapes a long time ago, but had her notebooks in the attic, so we went up to look for them. While she told stories, I photographed the pages on my ancient iPhone until the battery died – and because the phone is old, she had no plugs for recharging. These notebooks, I reiterated time and again, are precious. They should be archived, perhaps in the P. C. Joshi archives at JNU or at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi. They should be digitized and shared.
Notebook cover, Adi
In Mymensingh district, East Bengal (now in Bangladesh), the Hajong Adivasis rose up between 1942 and 1945 – the Tanka movement. There is no full book in English on this crucial uprising.
Adi told me stories of what she had learned. She talked about Kalyani Lilya Bagchi and the Tanka movement, led by Hajong Adivasis in the early 1940s in the Mymensingh district of Bengal. Hajong women who were part of the Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti (MARS) tried to stop the exploitation of women agricultural workers, where most of the cultivation work was done by women, with the exception of tilling the soil. Everything else was done by women: harvesting, husking, cooking, clothing production, weeding, and caring for children by wearing them on their backs while working. The Hajong women’s routine was endless: up before dawn to husk rice, stop at daylight, bring in food, clean it, crush it, cook it, take care of livestock, do the washing, work in the fields, and on and on. “This was changed by the Kisan Sabha (peasants organization, fostered by the Communist Party of India and MARS),” one Hajong woman described in her interview.
Beatings by their husbands were frequent, and men were drinking the alcohol brewed by the women. They drank and beat their wives, so we had to hold Kisan Sabha courts where women complain and MARS activists and my neighbor asked what party-work women could do if they were beaten like this. MARS and the Kisan Sabha came up with punishments for men who drank and men who beat their wives: social boycotts, the silent treatment, and changing men’s role in the working patterns. When the Tonka movement started, the systems of the village altered. The Kisan Sabha and MARS said that men were not allowed to sit idle when women were working – the harvesting work was distributed to both men and women – work that had earlier been women’s work.
The Tanka movement demanded this change since we had to complete the harvesting very quickly, at a speed that was impossible to reach individually. In 1945, we formed a cooperative system in the Hajong area of two to three villages who would cooperatively harvest all of the fields to do the work of three months in 15 days. The Kisan Sabha announced prizes for the first sowing – of course, women won, since they had been sowing for so long and men were new to this work. But it felt good to have our expertise given a prize.
What Adi learned was that the Kisan Sabha court was run by the Kisan Sabha and handled problems with family affairs, theft and petty crimes, quarrels and to stop men’s habit of drinking. The social system changed. The thinking changed. The ideas of land, sense of cooperation, and sacrifice for others’ cause were all new. What Adi said as I left still rings in my ears.
What the Tanka movement and the Tebhaga movement developed are profoundly communist techniques. Middle-class activists came from the cities of Bengal. They did not come to the countryside with answers. They came to listen to the problems, to listen to the analysis, of the most disenfranchised people of the region, the landless workers, Adivasis, Dalits, and women. They then worked with the people to develop the demands and the visions for another future. Their politics truly came from the people.
Elisabeth B. Armstrong is the author of the Gender and Neoliberalism: The All-India Democratic Women’s Association and Globalization Politics (2013), a social history of AIDWA, and of the essay on Indian peasant women and communism in the first volume of Communist Histories (2016). She teaches at Smith College, Northampton MA, in the US.