NATIONALISM AND THE PEASANT MOVEMENTS
The impoverishment of the Indian peasantry was a direct result of the transformation of the agrarian structure due to:
- Colonial economic policies:
- Ruin of the handicrafts leading to overcrowding of land,
- The new land revenue system,
- Colonial administrative and judicial system.
- The peasants suffered from high rents, illegal levies, arbitrary evictions and unpaid labour in Zamindari areas. In Ryotwari areas, the Government itself levied heavy land revenue.
- The overburdened farmer, fearing loss of his only source of livelihood, often approached the local moneylender who made full use of the former’s difficulties by extracting high rates of interests on the money lent.
- Often, the farmer had to mortgage his hand and cattle. Sometimes, the moneylender seized the mortgaged belongings. Gradually, over large areas, the actual cultivators were reduced to the status of tenants-at-will, share croppers and landless labourers.
- The peasants often resisted the exploitation, and soon they realised that their real enemy was the colonial state. Sometimes, the desperate peasants took to crime to come out of intolerable conditions. These crimes included robbery, dacoity and what has been called social banditry.
- Peasant discontent against established authority was a familiar feature of the nineteenth century. But in the twentieth century, the movements that emerged out of this discontent were marked by a new feature: they were deeply influenced by and in their turn had a marked impact on the ongoing struggle for national freedom.
Changed Nature of Peasant Movements After 1857:
- Peasants emerged as the main force in agrarian movements, fighting directly for their own demands.
- The demands were centred almost wholly on economic issues.
- The movements were directed against the immediate enemies of the peasant—foreign planters and indigenous zamindars and moneylenders.
- The struggles were directed towards specific and limited objectives and redressal of particular grievances.
- Colonialism was not the target of these movements.
- It was not the objective of these movements to end the system of subordination or exploitation of the peasants.
- Territorial reach was limited.
- There was no continuity of struggle or long-term organisation.
- The peasants developed a strong awareness of their legal rights and asserted them in and outside the courts.
- There was a lack of an adequate understanding of colonialism.
- The 19th-century peasants did not possess a new ideology and a new social, economic and political programme.
- These struggles, however militant, occurred within the framework of the old societal order lacking a positive conception of an alternative society.
Early Peasant Movements:
Indigo Revolt (1859-60) (or Nilbidroha):
- Indigo planting in Bengal dated back to 1777. The indigo planters, nearly all Europeans, exploited the local peasants by forcing them to grow indigo on their lands instead of the more paying crops like rice. The planters forced the peasants to take advance sums and enter into fraudulent contracts which were then used against the peasants.
- The planters intimidated the peasants through kidnappings, illegal confinements, flogging, attacks on women and children, seizure of cattle, burning and demolition of houses and destruction of crops.
- The anger of the peasants exploded in 1859 when, led by Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas of Nadia district, they decided not to grow indigo and resisted the physical pressure of the planters and their lathiyals (retainers) backed by police and the courts.
- They also organised a counter force against the planters’ attacks. The planters also tried methods like evictions and enhanced rents. The ryots replied by going on a rent strike by refusing to pay the enhanced rents and by physically resisting the attempts to evict them. Gradually, they learned to use the legal machinery and initiated legal action supported by fund collection.
- The Bengali intelligentsia played a significant role by supporting the peasants’ cause through newspaper campaigns, organisation of mass meetings, preparing memoranda on peasants’ grievances and supporting them in legal battles. Harish Chandra Mukhopadhyay thoroughly described the plight of the poor peasants in his newspaper The Hindu Patriot. Dinabandhu Mitra’s 1859 play Nil Darpan is based on the revolution. It was translated into English by Michael Madhusudan Dutta. and published by Rev. James Long. It attracted much attention in England, where the people were stunned at the savagery of their countrymen. The British Government sent Rev. Long to a mock trial and punished him with imprisonment and fine.
- The revolt is considered as a non-violent revolution and that is why the indigo revolt was a success compared to the Sepoy Revolt. Manycall it a forerunner of the non-violent passive resistance later successfully adopted by Gandhi. The revolt had a strong effect on the government, The Government appointed an indigo commission to inquire into the problem of indigo cultivation. Based on its recommendations, the Government issued a notification in November 1860 that the ryots could not be compelled to grow indigo and that it would ensure that all disputes were settled by legal means. But, the planters were already closing down factories and indigo cultivation was virtually wiped out from Bengal by the end of 1860.
Pabna Agrarian Leagues:
- During the 1870s and 1880s, large parts of Eastern Bengal witnessed agrarian unrest caused by oppressive practices of the Zamindars. The Zamindars resorted to enhanced rents beyond legal limits and prevented the tenants from acquiring occupancy rights under Act X of 1859.
- To achieve their ends, the Zamindars resorted to forcible evictions, seizure of cattle and crops and prolonged, costly litigation in courts where the poor peasant found himself at a disadvantage.
- Having had enough of the oppressive regime, the peasants of Yusufshahi Pargana in Pabna district formed an agrarian league or combination to resist the demands of the Zamindars. The league organised a rent strike—the ryots refused to pay the enhanced rents, challenging the Zamindars in the courts.
- Funds were raised by ryots to fight the court cases. The struggles spread throughout Pabna and to other districts of East Bengal. The main form of struggle was that of legal resistance; there was very little violence.
- Though the peasant discontent continued to linger on till 1885, most of the cases had been solved, partially through official persuasion and partially because of Zamindars’ fears. Many peasants were able to acquire occupancy rights and resist enhanced rents.
- The Government also promised to undertake legislation to protect the tenants from the worst aspects of Zamindari oppression. In 1885, the Bengal Tenancy Act was passed.
- Those intelligentsia who had supported peasants in indigo rebellion did not support Pabna rebellion as it was against Indian zamindar and not against European planters. But still a number of young Indian intellectuals supported the peasants’ cause. These included Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, R.C. Dutt and the Indian Association under Surendranath Banerjee.
- The ryots of Deccan region of western India suffered heavy taxation under the Ryotwari system. Here again the peasants found themselves trapped in a vicious network with the moneylender as the exploiter and the main beneficiary.
- These moneylenders were mostly outsiders— Marwaris or Gujaratis. The conditions had worsened due to a crash in cotton prices after the end of the American civil war in 1864, the Government’s decision to raise the land revenue by 50% in 1867, and a succession of bad harvests.
- In 1874, the growing tension between the moneylenders and the peasants resulted in a social boycott movement organised by the ryots against the “outsider” moneylenders. The ryots refused to buy from their shops. No peasant would cultivate their fields.
- The barbers, washermen, shoemakers would not serve them. This social boycott spread rapidly to the villages of Poona, Ahmednagar, Sholapur and Satara. Soon the social boycott was transformed into agrarian riots with systematic attacks on the moneylenders’ houses and shops. The debt bonds and deeds were seized and publicly burnt.
- The Government succeeded in repressing the movement. As a conciliatory measure, the Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act was passed in 1879.
- This time also, some of the modern nationalist intelligentsia of Maharashtra supported the peasants’ cause.
- The peasant movements of the 20th century were deeply influenced by and had a marked impact on the national freedom struggle.
(1) Peasant Movement in 1920’s:
(a) The Kisan Sabha Movement and Eka Movement
(b) Mappila Revolt
(c) Bardoli Satyagraha
The Kisan Sabha Movement:
- Following the annexation of Avadh in 1856 and after the 1857 revolt, the Awadh Talukdars had got back their lands. The second half of the nineteenth century had seen the strengthening of the hold of the taluqdars or big landlords over the agrarian society of the province. The majority of the cultivators were subjected to high rents, summary evictions (bedakhali), illegal levies, renewal fees or nazrana. The high price of food and other necessities that accompanied and followed World War I made the oppression all the more difficult to bear, and the tenants of Avadh were ripe for a message of resistance.
- Mainly due to the efforts of the Home Rule activists, kisan sabhas were organised in UP. The UP Kisan Sabha was set up in February 1918 by Gauri Shankar Mishra and Indra Narayan Dwivedi. Madan Mohan Malaviya supported their efforts.
- Towards the end of 1919, the first sign of grass root peasant activity were evident in the reports of nai-dhobi band (a form of social boycott) on an etate in Pratapgarh district. Led by Baba Ramchandra – a sanyasi who had earlier been to Fiji as an indentured labourer, peasants started Nai dhobi bandhs in various places. These bandhs were organized by Panchayats to deprive landlords of the services of even barbers and washermen.
- By June 1919, the UP Kisan Sabha had 450 branches. Other prominent leaders included Jhinguri Singh, Durgapal Singh and Baba Ramchandra. In June 1920, Baba Ramchandra urged Nehru to visit these villages. During these visits, Nehru developed close contacts with the villagers.
- Meanwhile, the kisans found sympathy in Mehta, the Deputy Commissioner of Pratapgarh, who promised to investigate complaints forwarded to him. The Kisan Sabha at village Roor in Pratapgarh district became the centre of activity and about one lakh tenants were reported to have registered their complaints with this Sabha on the payment of one anna each. Gauri Shankar was also very active in Pratapgarh during this period, and was in the process of working out an agreement with Mehta over some of the crucial tenant complaints such as bedakhli and nazrana. Mehta withdrew the case of theft and attempted to bring pressure on the landlords to change their ways This easy victory, however, gave a new confidence to the movement and it burgeoned forth.
- In October 1920, the Awadh Kisan Sabha came into existence in Pratapgarh because of differences in nationalist ranks. (Congress at Calcutta had chosen path of non-cooperation and many nationalists of UP had committed themselves to it. But there were others like Malviya who preferred constitutional agitation. These differences wre reflected in UP Kisan Sabha as well and soon Non-cooperators formed Awadh Kishan Sabha). This new body succeeded in integrating under its banner all the grass roots kishan sabhas that has emerged in Awadh.
- The Awadh Kisan Sabha asked the kisans to refuse to till bedakhali land, not to offer hali and begar (forms of unpaid labour), to boycott those who did not accept these conditions and to solve their disputes through Panchayats.
- From the earlier forms of mass meetings and mobilisation, the patterns of activity changed rapidly in January 1921 to the looting of bazaars, houses, granaries and clashes with the police. The centres of activity were primarily the districts of Rai Bareilly, Faizabad and Sultanpur.
- In Awadh in the early months of 1921 when peasant activity was at its peak, it was difficult to distinguish between a Non-cooperation meeting and a peasant rally.
- The movement declined soon, partly due to government repression and partly because of the passing of the Awadh Rent (Amendment) Act.
- Towards the end of 1921, peasant discontent resurfaced in some northern districts of the United Provinces—Hardoi, Bahraich, Sitapur.
- The issues involved were:
- High rents—50 per cent higher than the recorded rates;
- Oppression of thikedars in charge of revenue collection; and
- Practice of share-rents.
- The meetings of the Eka or the Unity Movement involved a symbolic religious ritual in which the assembled peasants vowed that they would:
- Pay only the recorded rent but would pay it on time;
- Not leave when evicted;
- Refuse to do forced labour;
- Give no help to criminals;
- Abide by Panchayat decisions.
- The grassroot leadership of the Eka Movement came from Madari Pasi and other low-caste leaders, and many small Zamindars.
- By March 1922, severe repression by authorities brought the movement to an end.
- In August 1921, peasant discontent erupted in the Malabar district of Kerala. Here Mappila (Muslim) tenants rebelled. Their grievances related to lack of any security of tenure, renewal fees, high rents, and other oppressive landlord exactions. In the nineteenth century as well, there had been cases of Mappila resistance to landlord oppression but what erupted in 1921 was on a different scale together.
- The impetus for resistance had first come from the Malabar District Congress Conference held at Manjeri in April 1920. This conference supported the tenants’ cause and demanded legislation to regulate landlord- tenant relations. The change was significant because earlier the landlords had successfully prevented the Congress from committing itself to the tenants’ cause. The Manjeri conference was followed by the formation of tenants’ association at Kozhikode, and soon tenants’ associations were set up in other parts of the district.
- Simultaneously, the Khilafat Movement was also extending its sweep. In fact, there was hardly any way one could distinguish between Khilafat and tenants’ meetings, the leaders and the audience were the same, and the two movements were inextricably merged into one. The social base of the movement was primarily among the Mappila tenants, and Hindus were quite conspicuous by their absence, though the movement could count on a number of Hindu leaders.
- The leaders of the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement like Gandhi, Shaukat Ali and Maulana Azad addressed Mappila meetings. After the arrest of national leaders, the leadership passed into the hands of local Mappila leaders.
- Things took a turn for the worse in August 1921 when the arrest of a priest leader, Ali Musaliar, sparked off large-scale riots. Initially, the symbols of British authority— courts, police stations, treasuries and offices—and unpopular landlords (jenmies who were mostly Hindus) were the targets. But once the British declared martial law and repression began in earnest, the character of the rebellion underwent a definite change. Many Hindus were seen by the Mappilas to be helping the authorities. What began as an anti-government and anti- landlord affair acquired communal overtones. The communalisation of the rebellion completed the isolation of the Mappilas from the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement. By December 1921, all resistance had come to a stop.
- The militant Mappilas were completely rushed and dmoralized that till independence their participation in an form of politics was almost nill. The peasant movement that was to grow in Kerala in later years under Left leadership.
- The peasant movements in U.P. and Malabar were thus closely linked with the politics at the national level. In UP., the impetus had come from the Home Rule Leagues and, later, from the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movement. In Avadh, in the early months of 1921 when peasant activity was at its peak, it was difficult to distinguish between a Non cooperation meeting and a peasant rally. A similar situation arose in Malabar, where Khilafat and tenants’ meetings merged into one. But in both places, the recourse to violence by the peasants created a distance between them and the national movement and led to appeals by the nationalist leaders to the peasants that they should not indulge in violence. Often, the national leaders, especially Gandhiji, also asked the peasants to desist from taking extreme action like stopping the payment of rent to landlords.
- The advice of the national leadership was prompted by the desire to protect the peasants from the consequences of violent revolt, consequences which did not remain hidden for long as both in U.P. and Malabar the Government launched heavy repression in order to crush the movements.
- Their advice that peasants should not push things too far with the landlords by refusing to pay rent could stem from other considerations. The peasants themselves were not demanding abolition of rent or landlordism, they only wanted an end to ejectments, illegal levies, and exorbitant rents — demands which the national leadership supported. The recourse to extreme measures like refusal to pay rent was likely to push even the small landlords further into the lap of the government and destroy any chances of their maintaining a neutrality towards the on-going conflict between the government and the national movement.
Bardoli Satyagraha: (Explained in earlier chapter)
- The Bardoli taluqa in Surat district had witnessed intense politicisation after the coming of Gandhi on the national political scene. The movement sparked off in January 1926 when the authorities decided to increase the land revenue by 30 per cent.
- The Congress leaders were quick to protest and a Bardoli Inquiry Committee was set up to go into the issue. The committee found the revenue hike to be unjustified. In February 1926, Vallabhbhai Patel was called to lead the movement.
- The women of Bardoli gave him the title of “Sardar”. Under Patel, the Bardoli peasants resolved to refuse payments of the revised assessment until the Government appointed an independent tribunal or accepted the current amount as full payment.
- To organise the movement, Patel set up 13 chhavanis or workers’ camps in the taluqa. Bardoli Satyagraha Patrika was brought out to mobilise public opinion. An intelligence wing was set up to make sure all the tenants followed the movement’s resolutions.
- Those who opposed the movement faced a social boycott. Special emphasis was placed on the mobilisation of women. K.M. Munshi and Lalji Naranji resigned from the Bombay Legislative Council in support of the movement.
- By August 1928, massive tension had built up in the area. There were prospects of a railway strike in Bombay. Gandhi reached Bardoli to stand by in case of any emergency. The Government was looking for a graceful withdrawal now.
- It set the condition that first the enhanced rent be paid by all the occupants. Then, a committee went into the whole affair and found the revenue hike to be unjustified and recommended a rise of 6.03 per cent only.
(2) Peasant Movements in 1930’s:
- During the 1930s, the peasant awakening was influenced by the Great Depression in the industrialised countries and the Civil Disobedience Movement which took the form of no-rent, no-revenue movement in many areas. During CDM, no revenue compaign (soon converted into no rent) in UP, movement against Chowkidari Tax (Villagers made to pay for upkeep of their own oppressors) in Bihar and Bengal, no tax compaign in Surat and Kheda, no revenue compaign in Punjab, Forest Styagraha (defied forest laws) in Maharashta, Bihar, Central Provinces, Anti-Zamindari struggle in Andhra.
- Also, after the decline of the active phase movement (1932) many new entrants to active politics started looking for suitable outlets for release of their energies and took to organisation of peasants.
- CDM brought leftists like Jawahar Lal Nehru and Subash Chandra Bose. Also in 1934, Congress Socialist Party was formed. With the formation of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), the process of the consolidation of the Left forces received a significant push forward. The Communists, too, got the opportunity, by becoming members of the CSP to work in an open and legal fashion. This consolidation of the Left acted as a spur to the formation of an all-India body to coordinate the kisan movement, a process that was already under way through the efforts of N.G. Ranga and other kisan leaders. The culmination was the establishment of the All-India Kisan Congress in Lucknow in April 1936 which later changed its name to the All India Kisan Conderence. The first session was greeted in person by Jawaharlal Nehru.
- Formation of congress ministries in 1937 marked the new phase of growth of peasant movements with atmosphere of increased civil liberties and many legislation of agrarian relief.
The All India Kisan Sabha:
- The Kisan Sabha movement started in Bihar under the leadership of Sahajanand Saraswati who had formed in 1929 the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha (BPKS) in order to mobilise peasant grievances against the zamindari attacks on their occupancy rights.Gradually the peasant movement intensified and spread across the rest of India. The formation of Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934 helped the Communists to work together with the Indian National Congress, however temporarily,then in April 1935, noted peasant leaders N. G. Ranga and E. M. S. Namboodiripad, then secretary and joint secretary respectively of South Indian Federation of Peasants and Agricultural Labour, suggested the formation of an all-India farmers body.
- Soon all these radical developments culminated in the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) at the Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress on April 11, 1936 with Swami Sahjanand Saraswati as the president and N.G. Ranga as the general secretary. It involved people such as Ranga, Namboodiripad, Karyanand Sharma, Yamuna Karjee, Yadunandan Sharma, Rahul Sankrityayan, P. Sundarayya, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Dev and Bankim Mukerji.
- A kisan manifesto was issued and a periodical under Indulal Yagnik started. A Kisan Manifesto was finalized at the All-India Kisan Committee session in Bombay and formally presented to the Congress Working Committee to be incorporated into its forthcoming manifesto for the 1937 elections.
- At Faizpur, in Maharashtra, along with the Congress session, was held the second session of the All India Kisan Congress presided over by N.G. Ranga. The Kisan Manifesto considerably influenced the agrarian programme adopted by the Congress at its Faizpur session, which included demands for fifty per cent reduction in land revenue and rent, a moratorium on debts, the abolition of feudal levies, security of tenure for tenants, a living wage for agricultural labourers, and the recognition of peasant unions.
- The Kisan Manifesto released in August 1936, demanded abolition of the zamindari system and cancellation of rural debts,
- Under Congress Ministries: The period 1937-39 was the high watermark of the peasant movements and activity under the Congress provincial rule.The formation of Congress Ministries in a majority of the provinces in early 1937 marked the beginning of a new phase in the growth of the peasant movement. The political atmosphere in the country underwent a marked change: increased civil liberties, a new sense of freedom born of the feeling that ‘our own people are in power’, a heightened sense of expectation that the ministries would bring in pro-people measures — all combined to make the years 1937-39 the high-water mark of the peasant movement. The different Ministries also introduced varying kinds of agrarian legislation — for debt relief, restoration of lands lost during the depression, for security of tenure to tenants and this provided an impetus for the mobilization of the peasantry either in support of proposed legislation or for asking for changes in its content. The chief form of mobilization was through the holding of kisan conferences or meetings at the thana, taluqa. district and provincial levels at winch peasants’ demands would be aired and resolutions passed.
- In October 1937, AIKS adopted red flag as its banner. Soon, its leaders became increasingly distant with Congress, and repeatedly came in confrontation with Congress governments, in Bihar and United Province.
- In the election of 1937, the socialists and right wing leaders acted in unison and Congress had big victory. But after ministry formation, right winger came back to power and they tried to stall zamindari reform. Around the issue of Bakasht land, where permanent tenancies had been converted into short-term tenancies, the conservative congress leaders renegotiated their alognment with the landlords and entered into formal agreement with them. When proposed tenancy legislations of Congress was watered down because of landlord pressure, peasants staged in 1938-39 a militant movement under the leadeship of Kisan Sabha for the restoration of Bakasht land.
- In its 1938 annual conference, it denounced Gandhian principle of class collaboration and proclaimed agrarian revolution as ultimate goal.
- The panicky Zamindars activated Congress government to use its coercive power. Bihar Congress now tried to distance itself from the Kisan Sabha.
- In UP too, Kisan Sabha was disillusioned with Congress ministry that blunted the teeth of 1938 tenancy legislation, which originally expected to reduce rents by half. UP Kisan Sabha leaders like Narendra Dev and Mohanlal Gautam mobilised peasant demonstration.
- In Orissa also, Kisan leaders were frustrated when Congress ministry allowed pro-landlord amendendments to the proposed tenancy legislation. Even the diluted legislation was blocked by governor until there was a huge Kisan Day Rally on 1 sept 1938.
- A resolution at Haripura Session of Congress in February 1938 prohibited Congressmen from becoming members of Kisan Sabhas, but its implementation was left to the provincial bodies.
- By May 1942, the Communist Party of India, which was finally legalized by then government in July 1942, had taken over AIKS, all across India including Bengal where its membership grew considerably. It took on the Communist party’s line of People’s War, and stayed away from the Quit India Movement which started in August 1942, though this also meant losing its popular base and many of its members defied party orders and joined the movement, and prominent members like Ranga, Indulal Yagnik and Saraswati soon left the organisation, which increasing found it difficult to approach the peasant without the watered-down approach of pro-British and pro-war, and increasing its pro-nationalist agenda.
Peasant Activity in Provinces:
- In the Malabar region, the peasants were mobilised mainly by the Congress Socialist Party activists. Many “Karshak Sanghams” (peasants’ organisations) came into existence.
- The main demands, around which movement cohered, were for the abolition of feudal levies or akramapirivukal, renewal fees or the practice of policceluthu, advance rent, and the stopping of eviction of tenants by landlords on the ground of personal cultivation. Peasants also demanded a reduction in the tax, rent, and debt burden, and the use of proper measures by landlords when measuring the grain rent, and an end to the corrupt practices of the landlords’ managers.
- The main forms of mobilization and agitation were the formation of village units of the Karshaka Sanghams, conferences and meetings. But a form that became very popular and effective was the marching of jathas or large groups of peasants to the houses of big jenmies or landlords, placing the demands before them and securing immediate redressal. The main demand of these jathas was for the abolition of feudal levies such as vasi, nuri, etc.
- One significant campaign by the peasants was in 1938 for the amendment of the Malabar Tenancy Act, 1929. The 6th of November, 1938 was observed as the Malabar Tenancy Act Amendment Day and meetings all over the district passed a uniform resolution pressing the demand.
- This region had already witnessed a decline in the prestige of Zamindars after their defeat by Congressmen in elections of 1937. Anti-zamindar movements were going on in some places. Many provincial ryot associations were active. The Andhra provincial Ryots Association and the Andhra Zamin Ryot Association already had a long history of successful struggle against the Government and Zamindars.
- An CSP activist, N.G. Ranga had set up, in 1933, the India Peasants’ Institute in his home village in Guntur district. He organised many marches of peasants in 1933-34 and under his stewardship at the Ellore Zamindari Ryots Conference in 1933, the demand of abolition of Zamindari was raised.
- In 1935, Ranga and EMS Namboodripad tried to spread the peasant movement to other linguistic regions of Madras Presidency and organised a South Indian Federation of Peasants and Agricultural Labour and intiated a discussion for an all India Peasant body.
- After 1936, the Congress socialists started organising the peasants. At many places, the summer schools of economics and politics were held and addressed by leaders like P.C. Joshi, Ajoy Ghosh and R.D. Bhardwaj.
- in 1938, the Provincial Kisan Conference organized, for the first time, a march on a massive scale — a long march in which over 2000 kisans marched a distance of over 1,500 miles, starting from Itchapur in the north, covering nine districts and walking for a total of 130 days en route, they held hundreds of meetings attended by lakhs of peasants and collected over 1,100 petitions; these were then presented to the provincial legislature in Madras on 27 March 1938. One of their main demands was for debt relief, and this was incorporated in the legislation passed by the Congress Ministry and was widely appreciated in Andhra. In response to the peasants’ demands the Ministry had appointed a Zamindari Enquiry Committee, but the legislation based on its recommendations could not be passed before the Congress Ministries resigned.
- Another notable feature of the movement in Andhra was the organization of Summer Schools of Economics and Politics for peasant activists.
- The celebration of various kisan and other ‘days,’ as well as the popularization of peasant songs, was another form of mobilization.
- Kisan Sabha movement started in Bihar under the leadership of Sahjanand Saraswati who formed Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha (BPKS) in 1929 and was joined by Karyanand Sharma, Yadunandan Sharma, Rahul Sankritayan, Panchanan Sharma, Jamun Karjiti, etc.
- The Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha used meetings, conferences, rallies and mass demonstrations, including demonstration of one lakh peasants at Patna in 1938, to popularise the Kisan Sabha Programme. Although rich occupancy tenants provided BPKS main support base and leadership, it attracted middle and poor peasants as well.
- Initially BPKS was meant to promote class harmony so that land-lord and tenant friction didn’t jeopardise the national movement. But in 1933, it came under the influence of Socialists and so by 1935 it adopted abolition of Zamindari as one of its programmes.
- In 1935, the Provincial Kisan Conference adopted the Zamindari abolition slogan. Other demands: Stopping of illegal levies, prevention of eviction of tenants and return of bakasht lands.
- The Provincial Kisan Sabha developed a rift with the Congress over the ‘bakasht land’ (lands which the occupancy tenants had lost to zaminndars mostly during depression years) issue because of an unfavourable Congress Ministry resolution which was not acceptable to the Sabha. The movement died out by August 1939 because of a combination of concessions, legislation and the arrest of about 600 activists. The movement was resumed in certain pockets in 1945 and continued in one form or another till zamindari was abolished.
- The earlier peasant mobilisation here had been organised by the Punjab Naujawan Bharat Sabha, the Kirti Kisan Party, the Congress and the Akalis. Congress and Akali activists, were given a new sense of direction and cohesion by the Punjab Kisan Committee formed in 1937
- The pattern of mobilization was the familiar one — kisan workers toured villages enrolling kisan Sabha and Congress members, organizing meetings, mobilizing people for the tehsils, district and provincial level conferences (which were held with increasing frequency and attended by an array of national stars). The main demands related to the reduction of taxes and a moratorium on debts. The main targets of the movement were the landlords of western Punjab who dominated the unionist ministry. The immediate issues taken up were resettlement of land revenue in Amritsar and Lahore and increase in water rates in canal colonies of Multan and Montgomery where feudal levies were being demanded by the private contractors. Here the peasants went on a strike and were finally able to win concessions.
- The peasant activity in Punjab was mainly concentrated in Jullundur, Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Lyallpur and Shekhupura. The Muslim tenants-at-will of west Punjab and the Hindu peasants of south-eastern Punjab (today’s Haryana) remained largely unaffected.
- Princely states of Punjab also witnessed a major outbreak of peasant discontent. The most powerful was in Patiala and was based on the demand for restoration of land illegally seized by a landlord-official combine through various forms of deceit and intimidation. The muzaras (tenants) refused to pay the batai (share rent) to their biswedar (landlords) and in this they were led by Left leaders like Bhagwan Singh Longowalia and Jagir Singh Joga and later by Teja Singh Swatantar. The struggle continued till 1953 when legislation enabling the tenants to become owners of their land was passed.
Other parts of India:
- Peasant activity was also organised in Bengal (Burdwan and 24 Parganas), Assam (Surma Valley), Orissa, Central Provinces and NWFP.
- In Bengal, under leadership of Bankim Mukherjee, peasants of Burdwan agitated against the enhancement of canal tax on Damodar Canal and secured major concessions. Kisans of 24-Parganas pressed their demands by a march to Calcutta in 1938.
- In Surma Valley, Assam, a no-rent struggle continued for 6 months against zamindari oppression and Karuna Sindhu conducted a major campaign for amendment of the tenancy law.
- In Orissa, the Utkal Provincial Kisan Sabha organised by Malati Chowdhary and others in 1935, succeeded getting the kisan manifesto accepted by the Provincial Congress as part of its election manifesto and the ministry that followed introduced significant agrarian reform. At the very first conference of Utkal Kisan Sabha, abolition of Zamindari was adopted a resolution.
- Kisans of Ghalla Dhir state in NWFP protested against evictions and feudal exactions by their Nawab.
- In Gujarat the main demand was for the abolition of the system of Hali (bonded labour) and a significant success was registered.
- The Central Province Kisan Sabha led a march to Nagpur demanding the abolition of the malguzari system, concession in taxes and moratorium on debts.
During The War:
- The rising tide of peasant awakening was checked by the outbreak of World War II which brought about the resignation of the Congress Ministries and the launching of severe repression against left-wing and kisan Sabha leaders and workers because of their strong anti-War stance.
- Following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union created dissensions between the Communist and non-Communist members of the kisan Sabha. These dissensions came to a head with the Quit India Movement, in which Congress Socialist members played a leading role. The CPI because of its pro-War People’s War line asked its cadres to stay away, and though local level workers did join the Quit India Movement, the party line sealed the rift in the kisan sabha ranks, resulting in a split in 1943. In these year’ three major leaders of the All India Kisan Sabha, N.G. Ranga, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati and Indulal Yagnik, left the organization.
- Nevertheless, during the War years the kisan Sabha continued to play and important role in various kinds of relief work, as for example in the Bengal Famine of 1943 and helped to lessen the rigour of shortages of essential goods, rationing and the like. It also continued its organizational work, despite being severely handicapped by its taking the unpopular pro- War stance which alienated it from various sections of the peasantry
- Many struggles that had been left off in 1939 were renewed. The demand for zamindari abolition was pressed with a greater sense of urgency.
- The peasants of Punnapra-Vayalar in Travancore fought bloody battles with the administration.
- The Tebhaga movement was campaign initiated in Bengal by the Kisan Sabha (peasants front of Communist Party of India) in 1946-1947. At that time share-cropping peasants (essentially, tenants) had to give half of their harvest to the owners of the land. The demand of the Tebhaga (sharing by thirds) movement was to reduce the share given to landlords to one third.
- In September 1946, the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha gave a call to implement, through mass struggle, the Floud Commission recommendations of tebhaga share to the bargardars, the share-croppers, instead of the one-half share.
- The bargardars worked on lands rented from the jotedars. The communist cadres, including many urban student militias went to the countryside to organise the bargardars. The central slogan was “nij khamare dhan tolo”—i.e., sharecroppers taking the paddy to their own threshing floor and not to the jotedar’s house, as before, so as to enforce tebhaga.
- The storm centre of the movement was north Bengal, principally among Rajbanshis—a low caste of tribal origin. Muslims also participated in large numbers.
- As a response to the agitations, the then Muslim League ministry led by Suharawardy in the province launched the Bargadari Bill, which provided that the share of the harvest given to the landlords would be limited to one third of the total. But the law was not fully implemented.
- The movement dissipated soon, because of the Muslim League ministry’s sop of the Bargardari Bill, an intensified repression, the popularisation of the Hindu Mahasabha’s agitation for a separate Bengal and renewed riots in Calcutta which ended the prospects of sympathetic support from the urban sections.
- The Muslim League Ministry failed to pursue the bill in the Assembly and it was only in 1950 that the Congress Ministry passed a Bargadari Bill which incorporated, in substance, the demands of the movement.
- This was the biggest peasant guerrilla war of modern Indian history. The princely state of Hyderabad under Asajahi Nizams was marked by a combination of religious-linguistic domination (by a small Urdu-speaking Muslim elite ruling over predominantly Hindu-Telugu, Marathi, Kannada-speaking groups), total lack of political and civil liberties, grossest forms of forced exploitation by deshmukhs, jagirdars, doras (landlords) in forms of forced labour (vethi) and illegal exactions.
- During the war, the communist-led guerrillas had built a strong base in Telangana villages through Andhra Mahasabha and had been leading local struggles on issues such as wartime exactions, abuse of rationing, excessive rent and vethi.
- The uprising began in July 1946 when a deshmukh’s thug murdered a village militant in Jangaon taluq of Nalgonda. Soon, the uprising spread to Warrangal and Khammam.
- The peasants organised themselves into village sanghams, and attacked using lathis, stone slings and chilli powder. They had to face brutal repression. The movement was at its greatest intensity between August 1947 and September 1948. The peasants brought about a rout of the Razaqars—Nizam’s stormtroopers. Once the Indian security forces took over Hyderabad, the movement fizzled out.
Positive achievements of the Telangana movement:
- In the villages controlled by guerrillas, vethi and forced labour disappeared.
- Agricultural wages were raised.
- Illegally seized lands were restored.
- Steps were taken to fix ceilings and redistribute lands.
- Measures were taken to improve irrigation and fight cholera.
- An improvement in the condition of women was witnessed.
- The autocratic-feudal regime of India’s biggest princely state was shaken up, clearing the way for the formation of Andhra Pradesh on linguistic lines and realising another aim of the national movement in this region.
Assessment of Peasant Movements:
- The struggles were not clearly aimed at the overthrow of the existing agrarian structure but towards alleviating its most oppressive aspects. Nevertheless they eroded power of landed classes in many ways and prepared for transformation of its structure.
- Even when peasant movements did not register immediate successes, they created the climate which necessitated the post-Independence agrarian reforms. Zamindari abolition, for example, did not come about as a direct culmination of any particular struggle, but the popularization of the demand by the kisan sabha certainly contributed to its achievement.
- Forms of struggle and mobilisation adopted by the peasant movements in diverse areas were similar in nature as well as demands.
- Violent clashes were exception.
- The relationship of peasant movement with national movement continued to be one of the vital and integral nature. National movement and peasant movement both fed each other. In its ideology as well, the kisan movement accepted and based itself on the ideology of nationalism. Its cadres and leaders carried the message not only of organization of the peasantry on class lines but also of national freedom. Many Kisan activists were simultaneously enrolled in Congress and Kisan Sabha. Though later there was confrontation also.
- True, in some regions, like Bihar, serious differences emerged between sections of Congressmen and the kisan sabha and at times the kisan movement seemed set on a path of confrontation with the Congress, but this tended to happen only when both left-wing activists and right-wing or conservative Congressmen took extreme positions and showed an unwillingness to accommodate each other. Before 1942 these differences were usually contained and the kisan movement and the national movement occupied largely common ground. With the experience of the split of 1942, the kisan movement found that if it diverged too far and too clearly from the path of the national movement, it tended to lose its mass base, as well as create a split within the ranks of its leadership. The growth and development of the peasant movement was thus indissolubly linked with the national struggle for freedom.
- Demands of peasants: Reduction in taxes, abolition of illegal cess or feudal levies and begar or vethi, ending oppression by Zamindar, reduction of debts, restoration of illegally seized lands, security of tenure for tenants.
- Except in a few pockets like Andhra and Gujarat, the demands of agricultural labourers did not really become part of the movement.
- They eroded the power of the landed class, thus adding to the transformation of the agrarian structure.
- These movements were based on the ideology of nationalism.
- The nature of these movements was similar in diverse areas.