The Land Question in India

By Shankar Gopalakrishnan

[The author has provided a brief summary of the the long paper. It can be found below. – Ed]

Click here to download the pdf file of the paper

A Brief Summary

This note is a brief summary of the long paper, which attempts a ‘synopsis’ of the land question in India (and in turn is an attempt at a bird’s eye view of the issue prior to a larger study). Since it is a summary of a summary, it is merely a sketch of certain propositions.


Struggles over land are central to Indian politics and livelihoods today. Such struggles take many forms: struggles for land reform in rural areas, resistance to urban slum demolitions and evictions, demands for land reforms, fights against displacement, struggles for forest rights and democratic forest control, movements for land rights of Dalits and adivasis, and so on. This paper is an attempt at an overall view of the ‘land question’ in India today.

Theoretical Background

Most analyses of land struggles in India, particularly on the left, have focused on questions of tenure over private agricultural land. Such an analysis is seen as the source of both an overall understanding of India’s political economy (as in the famous ‘mode of production debate’) and, as a corollary, as the wellspring of political strategy. After initially discussing some conceptual weaknesses in concepts such as “semi-feudalism”, this paper adopts a different approach, with two key founding propositions. First, as the classical economists observed, land is necessary for all forms of production. This implies that land will enter into a number of different forms of production relations, and the form of land conflicts that occur will be shaped both by each particular set of production relations and by the tensions between them. Second, rather than implicitly assuming that the state has a singular character and always functions in a coherent manner, this analysis approaches the state as an expression of “social struggles, needs and truths” (Marx 1975), or, more accurately, “as a relationship of forces… such as this is expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form” (Poulantzas 2000).

Production Relations Around Land

On the basis of the first implication, the paper attempts a broad and schematic classification of the forms of production relations in the country. These often overlap and should not be seen as mutually exclusive. They include:

  • Private property / quasi property used mainly for petty commodity production: Land use by the majority of agricultural producers and a large part of urban producers would fall into this category (if, following Shah and Harriss-White (2011), we define petty commodity production [PCP] as production “where households control their means of production for exchange as well as exploit their own labour”). Issues around the agrarian forms of such production have of course been discussed extensively. The paper touches on some of these key issues, including unequal land distribution, pervasive tenurial insecurity, linkages with landlessness, wage labour and migration, and integration with non-class forms of oppression (particularly caste and patriarchy). It also notes features of the ’embedding’ of petty commodity production in other relations, such as input and output markets, debt, finance and so on. Non-agrarian PCP shares several features with agrarian PCP, including tenurial insecurity and exploitation through unequal exchange (though data is much more scarce). Recently, we have witnessed a complex and contradictory process of attack, resistance and indirect exploitation on PCP that has culminated in such production continuing to serve as a subordinated but critical part of the Indian economy.
  • Private property / quasi property used mainly for reproduction: Such land use includes cultivation of crops for self-consumption, use of land as a ‘security’ by predominantly wage-dependent labourers, use of land for housing in general, including slums in cities and abadi lands in rural areas, etc. Such land use is also widespread and overlaps with PCP. For instance, in the only study of its kind, the Directorate of Marketing and Inspection (2005) found that between 28% and 60% of the output of major crops in 1996 – 1999 was for self-consumption. Pervasive insecurity characterises land use for most of these purposes (with the exception of housing use by capitalists, professionals and other elite groups). Such insecurity lends itself to a range of other forms of accumulation and exploitation. These include extortion and harassment by state officials; price gouging by traders, who deliberately hike prices when they know that state services will be absent; and extraction of additional fees and bribes for provision of basic services. Such vulnerability also enables further superexploitation of those affected when they work as wage labourers. Recently such forms of land use have also come under increasing state attack in some areas, such as cities and mineral-rich areas.
  • Common property used for productive and reproductive purposes: Using NSSO and forest survey data we can estimate that roughly 34% of the country’s land area is under some form of common use. Productive / reproductive activities on such lands are particularly critical to the livelihoods of those who are oppressed both in class and in non-class terms – such as women, Dalits, adivasis, landless workers, etc. The paper separately discusses four main forms that such land use takes in India today – forest lands, the hill and tribal areas of the Northeastern States, revenue common lands and common lands in urban areas. In all cases it finds a repeated pattern: attempted expropriation by the state, resistance, partial retreats by the state, and a resulting oppressive stalemate that then continues until it is disrupted either from above or from below. This process has been occurring for more than two centuries.
  • Private property used mainly for surplus accumulation: Such land uses includes industrial production, capitalist farming (including estates and plantations), and large commercial and trading activities (which in turn shade into petty commodity production). This form of land use generally has the most secure titles; such activities are often exempted from land ceilings, and they are also often placed outside of democratic and local government frameworks (as “industrial townships”, SEZs, etc.) Such land use has been promoted and facilitated by the state machinery (though in practice such promotion is often a disguise for actually promoting rentierist and speculative activities, which we discuss next). Such facilitation – particularly where it takes the form of expropriation – has been the source of some of the most intense recent land conflicts.
  • Private property for rentierism and speculation:Rentierism, in its ‘old’ form of landlordism and, more so in recent times, in its ‘new’ form of corporate / big capitalist rentierism (such as through control over primary commodities, real estate projects, etc) is an integral and growing part of India’s capitalist economy. This is often linked to accumulation by dispossession. The expansion of such relations can be seen through a number of indicators: 62% of houses built between 2007 and 2012 were vacant in 2013 (Dasgupta 2012); there has been a massive increase in forest clearances (CSE 2011); land, water and coal linkages were allotted to 45 proposed thermal power plants in Chhattisgarh, but only 16 are likely to ever come up (Rajshekhar 2012); there have been massive increases in loan defaults and loan “restructuring” for infrastructure sector projects; and so on (more examples can be found in the paper). Land and resource control laws both permit and facilitate such rentierism. The growth in these relations has led to conflicts with all other relations of production, including even with land use for surplus value-based accumulation.
  • State property: In practice such property mostly functions as an enabler of the continuation of other forms of accumulation. Such land uses include provision of public services and infrastructure, ‘defence’ activities, administrative institutions, etc. The character of relations on such land is not static and often changes. Recently, there has been an increase in the tendency to use such property to enable accumulation by dipossession in general and rentierism in particular.

There have been many transitions in the overall balance between these forms of production relations. The most obvious recent gainers in this respect have been rentierist and speculative forces – whether in the shape of direct expropriation of land for these purposes, or through the larger shifts over control of production. Meanwhile, petty commodity production has declined both as a part of the larger economy and in terms of political strength, being the primary victim of state policies that simultaneously promote the expansion of surplus value accumulation and rentierism while intensifying the indirect exploitation of petty commodity producers. We return to this below.

The State and Political Relations

From the above discussion it is clear that the state plays curiously inconsistent roles. On the one hand it facilitates processes of exploitation and accumulation, including such processes as:

  • legal, formal accumulation by private capitalists and state agencies;
  • legal, informal accumulation by traders and employers;
  • illegal, informal accumulation through extortion, bribery, etc;
  • legal / illegal accumulation by dispossession.

Yet, at the same time, in an inconsistent manner and at particular times, the state also:

  • Provides partial (though never complete) tenurial security to petty commodity producers and for reproductive activities;
  • ‘Shields’ some forms of common property use from immediate / direct expropriation;
  • Provides public services, and at times resists efforts by private capitalists to expropriate the lands used for these;
  • Informally also “shields” some forms of ‘illegal’ land use, most often through informal means of ‘compromises’ brokered by local politicians, police and officials, which are uniformly unfair and oppressive but nevertheless often permit the continuation of land uses such as slum housing, hawking / vending, common land use etc.

This latter set of state actions is often seen as necessary for “preserving legitimacy”, for “deceiving the masses”, and otherwise “diverting” people from the “true struggle.” However, such propositions substitutes truisms for analysis. It is assumed that the state must always facilitate accumulation in each and every instance and hence, even when it is not doing so, it must be assumed to actually be doing so (through some devious method) – and analysis stops there. In reality, such statements beg the question: who in the state is doing this meticulous planning and who is blessed with such remarkable foresight into what issues of struggle will occur? In reality, any engagement with real politics demonstrates that at every stage, every state action is intensely contested both within and outside the state, and both within and outside the ruling class, and what emerges is an unstable, inconsistent reflection of these struggles.

With this in mind, from the viewpoint of the state as an unequal and distorted terrain of struggle, the synopsis paper presents an ‘unpacking’ of some of its arms (with a more detailed theoretical analysis to be presented in the final study). In particular we examine:

  • The bureaucracy: This can be divided into the lower and the higher bureaucracies. The lower ranking officials must simultaneously attempt to carry out three functions: to comply with the agendas of local dominant sections, to respond to resistance and attempt to defuse, crush or deflect it, and finally to carry out orders from above aimed at advancing either the interests of ‘big capital’ or maintaining the overall coherence of the state. Around land questions the result is the politics of ‘compromise’ – which is the default until it is disrupted either by orders from above or resistance from below. This accounts for the continuous state of ‘shadow’ legality around land questions that was discussed in the last section. The higher bureaucracy has some additional functions, including simultaneously serving as both the ‘think tank’ for conceiving of and the engine for implementing new policies. In this role, it has been a key driver of attempts to further subordinate common and petty production to surplus value accumulation and accumulation by dispossession.
  • The legislatures: Due to the features of parliamentary democracy, particularly in its Indian form, the key function of the legislatures is more often to stop policies from being changed than to make new ones. In the neoliberal era, this has often resulted in big capitalists and “reformists” seeking measures by bypassing the legislatures and using the executive / bureaucracy instead – which in turn has been one contributor to the salience of rentierism and accumulation by dispossession, which are easier to achieve through such means.
  • Federalism: In the Indian constitutional structure, State governments resemble the Centre in terms of internal contradictions, but are also crippled by Central control over funds. In recent years the result has been that, particularly on questions of land, they have frequently been ‘captured’ by big capitalist and financial interests. This has also had a complex interaction with the role of parliamentary parties, discussed in the next section.
  • The judiciary: Political economy analyses of the judiciary have so far been rare. In practice, the lower judiciary functions in a manner similar to the lower bureaucracy. The higher judiciary (the High Courts and the Supreme Court) has, from the early 1980s, taken on several additional functions. With respect to land in particular, in recent years, the courts have taken on three key functions (in addition to their narrowly judicial ones): as overlords whose function is to ensure that the system functions coherently; as a kind of sounding chamber that permits the articulation and debate of some forms of capitalist projects that cannot be debated in the political system, such as eviction of forest dwellers; and as enforcers of certain powerful capitalist interests. The last function was particularly prominent from the mid 1990s to 2007-8, as indicated by several cases, such as the Delhi “sealing drive”, the Godavarman forest case, etc. In response to massive resistance the higher judiciary has, in recent years, slightly reduced the intensity and frequency of such attacks.
  • The police, paramilitary forces and the military: As with the judiciary and the bureaucracy, repressive institutions also contain a clear divide between the lower tiers of their institutions and their ‘higher’ or State and Central level counterparts. The local police’s most common function around land disputes (and indeed most disputes) is, once again, engineering extra-legal and usually unjust ‘compromises’ between contending parties. When these compromises are disrupted from above or below, the police revert to being both more ‘legal’ (invoking formal legal provisions) and more repressive; and, if resistance continues or intensifies, progressively ‘higher’ repressive institutions are brought in. Being the repressive arm of the state, the police are by their character a brutal institution, but the manner in which this brutality is inflicted is shaped by resistance as well.

Hence it is not surprising that the final character of the state’s actions is inherently unstable, contradictory and shifting – with respect to land as with respect to any other political question. The result is an constantly changing formation which nevertheless exhibits certain inherent tendencies. With respect to land, we can define these tendencies as follows:

  • Within a particular set of relations, state institutions tend to favour the exploiting / surplus extracting actor;
  • When different relations come into conflict in an area, state institutions tend to favour the relations that benefit the more powerful section of capital;
  • Between phases of transition or conflict, state action tends to favour the maintenance of unequal ‘compromises’. This results in a kind of unstable ‘equilibrium’ characterised by a combination of formal accumulation with various forms of informal accumulation, and the persistence, reproduction and at times expansion of petty commodity production (in a subordinated and exploited position).
  • Most reproductive land uses, and most collective / common uses, are placed in an informal ‘twilight zone’ where they have no effective institutional or legal protection – even as they continue to exist.

In all of this the role of law is particularly crucial. The political function of law in this context cannot be understood in binary terms of laws being either “followed” or “not followed.” Rather, legal concepts and provisions structure conflicts and provide the ‘vocabulary’ for them, even as relations around land are characterised by a kind of pervasive and continuous ‘extra-legality’ and informality. The result is selective, distorted and perverse “implementation” of the law, where certain provisions get used routinely, others are forgotten entirely, and yet others are never followed by the state but frequently invoked by struggles and resistance. The combination of the above results in a situation where legal terms and provisions are constantly fought over both within the ruling class and between it and other classes, in order to redefine legal categories in such a way as to favour certain aspects of existing relations of production and thereby secure protection from, or the assistance of, segments of the state. This is a key point to keep in mind during discussions of political struggles.

Struggles and Conflicts Over Land

Finally, the paper outlines some current forms of struggle and conflict over land. This is not done with the intention of providing a totalising critique of what “struggles should do”, but rather with the aim of analysing the contradictions reflected by various struggles and seeking ways in which current limits might be transcended.

Struggles can be broadly classified as being around certain key ‘axes of conflict’ around land, including:

  • Struggles over exploitation of petty commodity production: Broadly, the paper argues that petty commodity production is currently exploited by three distinct mechanisms: through the extraction of rents; through the denial of physical access to land or the expropriation of land from landholders; and through the mechanism of unequal exchange. ‘Classical’ land reform movements sought to target the first and second mechanisms. However, changes in the overall economy have intensified the importance of the third mechanism while (relatively) reducing the importance of the first. Hence, the scope and intensity of struggles around land reform has declined over the past two to three decades, and instead there have been rising struggles against the second and third mechanisms. This is discussed further below.
  • Resistance against accumulation by dispossession: As is well known, this has become a central theme of struggles by petty commodity producers, common land users and those using land for reproduction. Examples include resistance to evictions in cities, struggles for forest rights, and struggles against large projects.
  • Struggles for defence of collective production: One can broadly see this issue reflected in two otherwise very disparate sets of movements – the armed movements of the tribal and hill areas of the Northeast, which mostly have sought a separate state, and the armed revolutionary organisations of central India, which in the past decade have increasingly both seen themselves as, and in practice become, the defenders of common control over land and reproductive activities in forest areas.

If these are some of the axes of conflict, what forms do these struggles take? Crudely these can be classified as follows:

  • Local and disorganised resistance: This is of course the most widespread form of resistance, taking the form of ‘spontaneous’ and localised conflict, and usually responded to with a combination of state force and the promotion of ‘compromises’ of the type noted above. Such struggle defines the ‘horizon’ of state and ruling class activity, and also sets the parameters for all other kinds of political struggle, which rest on organising, coalescing and uniting these individual struggles (whether in a reactionary, progressive or revolutionary direction).The non-left parliamentary parties: At the local level, the key political role of these parties in most land struggles is to serve, once again, as the agents of ‘compromise’ while simultaneously trying to coopt resistance to exploitation. Regarding higher levels of leadership, the paper briefly traces the changing role of these parties on land questions, starting from the phase of Congress dominance in the 1950s and 1960s; through the period of political discontent in the 1970s; to the rise of ‘rich farmer’ and peasant classes in the 1980s; and finally to the combined Hindutva-neoliberal turn after the late 1980s.
  • The parliamentary Left: The parliamentary left has focused on the struggle for land reform and rights over agricultural land from its earliest years, but has recently faced increasing stagnation. This, naturally, was the result of a range of causes, but in our context, one cause that became increasingly apparent was the difficulty of developing a response to exploitation by the unequal exchange mechanism – which made agriculture increasingly unviable, especially after 1990 – or to the specific process of accumulation by dispossession in forest areas, in pockets of which they earlier had had a strong base.
  • Rural social movements: Emerging in the late 1970s and gaining in importance in the subsequent decade, these organisations have a wide variety of structures, ideologies and approaches (though they should not be confused with funded NGOs, which are different in character). Despite the great diversity among them, in recent years many of these organisations – in both adivasi and non-adivasi areas, though with the exception of the Northeast – have converged on a roughly similar set of demands and programmes. These centre around the notion of the state as an oppressive entity, against which is counterposed a notion of local communities, and the fight is therefore framed as being around the empowerment of institutions of direct democracy (most particularly the gram sabha, or village assembly). These concepts reflect the material realities of forest areas in particular (much as concepts of land reform reflect those of the east and central Indian peasantry), as well as the need to target the bureaucracy. But these three ideological tenets find particular resonance only in such situations – i.e. those characterised by a high level of state-driven accumulation by dispossession. Efforts to generalise them beyond such situations have largely not been successful, leading to increasing stagnation.
  • Urban social movements and organisations: One should note that from the 1980s onwards such “movement” organisations have also emerged in many urban areas, often in the form of independent unions or loose coalitions of slum dwellers. The paper does not analyse these, which will be discussed in the final project, except to note that they are still developing wider organisational and ideological coherence.
  • Northeastern movements and armed organisations: Two dynamics have taken place in these areas around land, both primarily taking the form of armed conflict. One is the opposition to the entry of private property based land relations (specifically, revenue codes and land laws) by armed organisations in the tribal and hill areas. The second is the Assam movement, which has attacked perceived (though not always empirically clear) “immigration” as a key cause of loss of land. In both cases, the paper argues that the ‘submergence’ of land questions within the wider questions of sovereignty and independence has permitted more subtle forms of expropriation, privatisation and enclosure to proceed in these areas as well (albeit, in the hill areas, to a far lesser degree than in the rest of India).
  • Armed revolutionary organisations: The most consciously revolutionary struggle around land is, of course, that of the armed revolutionary groups in central India, particularly the CPI(Maoist). These parties initially saw the land question in terms similar to the parliamentary left parties (though their political analysis differed). But as they increasingly shifted into forest areas over the past fifteen years or so, their view of forest dwellers’ struggles has gradually shifted from seeing them as merely backward sections of the peasantry to understanding forest struggles as the “vanguard” of the revolutionary movement in India. But the rapid expansion in forest areas is not necessarily a sign of political strength. On the land question these parties have faced a similar problem to the rural social movements: difficulty in generalising their politics and modes of praxis outside of areas characterised by relations of accumulation by dispossession (i.e., in this case, forest areas). In this sense the CPI(Maoist) in particular is exactly where the state would like it to be: predominantly contained to a particular social group, in one geographical region, isolated from public opinion and treated by even its sympathisers as a “tribal” movement. This is a significant change from earlier decades.

What do these experiences mean for political struggle? First, it is apparent that there is a potential for struggles to get caught in a vicious cycle. A struggle’s political-ideological understanding develops around a particular set of relations of production, which in turn limits the ability of the organisation to work against other forms of exploitation, which in turn reinforces the original understanding, and so on. This pattern is apparent in the experiences of the parliamentary left parties, the rural social movements, the Northeastern organisations and the armed revolutionary groups. This does not mean such struggles have no impact – they have immense impact, particularly when they target a set of relations that is of importance to capital and/or the components of the ruling class in that particular period. However, it does mean that they then struggle to transcend the limits of one set of production relations, and that they also have difficulty responding to shifts in production relations (such as, for instance, the shift in exploitation of petty commodity production increasingly towards unequal exchange).


Some points can be noted at the end of this tentative sketch. The above analysis of forms of political struggle implies that the key question is to search for forms of praxis that can transcend particular sets of production relations. For instance, militant struggles against accumulation by dispossession – either in localised and concentrated “anti-project” movements or in wider movements in forest and urban areas – are some of the most vibrant forms of left politics in India today. But they too run the risk of self-limitation if we are not able to find a way to build struggles that can cross boundaries between relations of production. The paper ends with a few tentative thoughts in this regard.


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Poulantzas, Nicos. 2000. State, Power, Socialism. Verso.

Rajshekhar, M. 2012. “Chhattisgarh power boom that never was: Only 15 out 60 thermal plants may get operational.” Economic Times (25 October).

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