Animating the past and reflecting on its political resonance in the present has been a central preoccupation of feminist scholarship in South Asia. Kavita Panjabi’s Unclaimed Harvest makes a significant contribution to this corpus of work. This book is a nuanced and thought-provoking account of the Tebhaga Movement that was launched in undivided Bengal in 1946 by landless peasants and entered a phase of armed struggle from 1948-1951 after Partition. Panjabi’s primary aim is to write a history of women in the Tebhaga Movement by activating the memories of those who participated in it. By archiving and engaging with an affective tapestry of memories, she explores how the radical transformations wrought by this movement can tangibly inform current deliberations on feminist visions for social change.
The opening section of the book provides the reader with a detailed historical account of critical developments in the 1940s. Panjabi records the activities of the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti (MARS) since 1942 and the Mahila Samitis set up by the Communist Party (CP) that led to a process of politicization that enabled women’s dynamic participation in the Tebhaga Movement. She demonstrates that the gendered history of Tebhaga can be mapped only by engaging with international developments in that time period. The positioning of the Tebhaga Movement in relation to international trajectories of the women’s movement and Left radical struggles shows how the theoretical and methodological issues raised by this book can resonate across time and space.
One of the key contributions of this book is to examine how the subjectivity of urban and rural women is transformed in the aftermath of the ‘man-made’ famine in Bengal and its devastating repercussions. Peasant women enter into the movement ‘out of hunger’ (p. 86), caught in the vortex of a life and death struggle to feed the family. The entry-point and motivating force for urban women were different. Witnessing mass starvation and death, women in cities started working in langarkhanas set up by MARS and CP. Thus domestic tasks such as cooking and sharing food acquire a public dimension here. Panjabi observes that the ‘langarkhanas drew the rural and urban women into inter-subjective processes, one to one, in which the destitute woman became a beneficiary of relief and care, but the woman caring for her was also transformed’ (p. 101). Thus, she argues that the history of hunger and women’s critical role in the processing and sharing of food is a significant dynamic that we need to pay heed to in order to analyse women’s history (p. 93). Her analysis etches the processes through which an ethic of care translated into a politics of care that led to massive mobilization and the awakening of a powerful political consciousness in the first phase of the Tebhaga Movement.
Through the fragmentary accounts that are recounted in the book primarily by urban women activists, we encounter bewildering scenes of deprivation and dispossession in which rural families are pushed into realms that ‘defied signification’ (p. 103). ‘Such loss of dignity defied communication—how could one reach out in caring?’ (p. 103), writes Panjabi. The relational dynamics of this sentence captures some of the conundrums of this book. The categories of the urban and rural women and their attempts to build bonds of solidarity is the running thread in the book, yet even in an oral history project, the positionality of the one ‘who reaches out in caring’ is more available for reconstruction. Rural women emerge as a spectral presence here, torn apart by distress, starvation and sexual exploitation, as we piece together their devastating experiences through the accounts of urban women activists who are haunted by these indignities. One can agree with Panjabi that oral history as a method has the capacity to unravel the dynamics of human subjectivity. Yet the differential access and insertion of women into official practices of historiography and memorialization do impact the access that a scholar has to differently located subjects through oral narratives.
In chapter five that engages with the memories of the renowned Communist Party leader Ila Mitra, who gained a legendary status because of her arrest and resistance to state violence in East Pakistan, the interactive process between different modes of recall is vividly played out. This chapter explicitly draws attention to the transactions between experience, narrativization and scenes of recollection. Ila Mitra’s uneasiness about owning her court testimony, reprinted in her biography by Maleka Begum in 1987, undergoes certain shifts in her conversation with Panjabi in 1996. She suspends her fragmentary account of sexual violence and torture by referring back to the testimony in the printed form, fetches the book, and reads the entire text in a ‘deadpan, distanced tone’ (p. 233). The written text is transmuted in this re-citation by the subject who both claims and distances herself from the account of sexual torture that was previously enunciated by her as a testimony in court.
The architecture of political subjectivity acquires new dimensions in this chapter where in re-telling her story in 1996 Ila Mitra foregrounds the mutual life-endangering loyalty between herself and the Santals in Nachole. Mitra interweaves her own experience of sexual violence with the torture and brutal murder of Harek, the Santal who was arrested with her. This act of witnessing violence on Harek is cast in her narrative as a transformative instance that shapes the trajectory of her commitment to continued resistance. The author does not use this connection between Ila Mitra and the Santals to paper over their vast differences. In 1996, when Santals turn out in phenomenal numbers to felicitate Ila Mitra in Nachole, she is taken aback and does not comprehend their vision of history that kept her alive for them. Panjabi observes that the shared memory of Tebhaga persisted for both the Santals and Ila Mitra and linked them even as they inhabited different axes of time, borders and beliefs (p. 216). Sharply divergent registers of temporality and memory making, that disturb the linear imagination of history and subjectivity, are staged in productive ways in this chapter.
The final section of the book takes us to the affective terrains of the political, channelized through the fractured vision of Anima Biswas, the Namasudra peasant activist who receded into oblivion. Anima Biswas’s desire to write a book titled Premer Jomir Khoje (In Search of the Terrain of Love) remains unfulfilled as her life unravels after her disillusionment with the Communist Party’s call for armed struggle. This chapter offers a sharp critique of the operations of the Communist Party and its structures of paternalism that reduced dynamic women such as Anima Biswas to mere ciphers who felt unmoored without the guardianship of male party leaders. Conceding his culpability and that of the party, the leader of the Tebhaga Movement, Amal Sen, asks Kavita Panjabi to speak to Anima Biswas so as to restore her sense of self-worth (p. 242). Panjabi admits this as a failed mission, a burden that was too much for her to bear (p. 243). In the taciturn silences and terse replies of Anima Biswas, we grasp at slivers of the past that has turned brittle and cannot illuminate the present. For Biswas, structures of romance are intimately entwined with a shared passion for social transformation and the loss of a world of radical possibility leads to a loss of romantic love and intimacy. Yet Punjabi observes that such political despair is often recast as a story of personal trauma. One of the important questions this book raises is how such stories of loss and personal tragedy can impinge on and rescript political history written through a gendered lens.
The recurring concern of the book is about how to create forms of writing on women and political movements that can capture the fragile intimacy of touching the past—the many reverberations of the spoken word and embodied interactions in which the sensuous and the ethical are fused together. The poetics of memory-making take us to the realm of narratives that are throbbing and alive; susceptible to change with every telling. Panjabi’s book needs to be read keeping in mind the vast gaps between women and their differential access to modes of narrating and practices of making history. Oral narratives do not have the Utopic force to undo power differentials; yet they can make us pause and reflect on the haunting potential of words unsaid, gestures unseen and bodies unrecognized. The ‘harvest’ will remain ‘unclaimed’; for there are bound to be future generations who will return again to the past, to rekindle it to make meaning for their present.
Navaneetha Mokkil is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is the author of the forthcoming book Unruly Figures: Queerness, Sex Work and the Politics of Sexuality in Kerala.