[Note: Work in progress: not for quotation or attribution without the written permission from the author.]
'Baba' and Non-cooperator:
Congress' co-optation of agrarain unrest in
north India in the 1920s and 1930s

Harold A. Gould

Center for South Asian Studies
University of Virginia
Peasant Symposium Draft copy, submitted 13 May 1997


When Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from his long sojourn in South Africa he was a man with a revolutionary idea but no political vehicle through which he could put it into practice. The idea, of course, was Satyagraha, the application of the concept of ahimsa, whose conceptual roots lay in the Bhagavad Gita and the Vaishnav sect in which he was reared, to political action. The logical setting for promulgating his doctrine was the Indian National Congress, the only major party-structured political organization in India which was under the control of native leaders. However, the Indian National Congress, while having come into existence in 1885, had thus far failed to evolve an ideology and organizational structure pervasive enough to generate a truly mass-based political movement of the proportions that would be required to cut across the vast congeries of cultures, nationalities, castes, classes, and religions into which India was subdivided. While not exerting a negligible influence on British policies towards and behavior in India, Congress had remained essentially an instrumentality of the country's urban and professional classes preoccupied with passing resolutions demanding political reforms and at times (as in the Bengal Partition in 1905) generating public protest of sufficient magnitude to unnerve the Raj, even to the extent of provoking it to resort to political repression (as with the Rowlatt Act in 1919 which led directly to the Jalienwala Bagh massacre). Jawaharlal Nehru had characterized the pre-Gandhian Indian National Congress as a "debating society"!

Once he achieved a dominant position in the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi successfully transformed it into a mass-based organization able to translate his ideology into political action on the grand scale. The main reason he was able to make this transition was Gandhi's imaginative invention and manipulation of symbols that resonated in the minds and hearts of Indians from all walks of life. Especially important in this regard was the ability of Gandhi's charisma and symbolic creativity to draw the country's peasantry into the political arena and persuade them that their increasingly vocal demands for social and economic justice would be fostered by the political party in whose name the Mahatma spoke. Gandhi accomplished this daunting task by adopting the persona of a political sadhu, an image that effectively resonated with so-called sadharan janta (ordinary folk) in the countryside whose social consciousness was steeped in the morality and mythology of rustic Hinduism.

This was a fundamentally important linkage not merely because it was the way political discourse had always been expressed in the dehat. It was also fundamentally important at this juncture in Indian political history -- viz. in the 1920s -- because, in UP and Bihar, at least, a widespread pattern of agrarian unrest had been underway since the end of World War I which was drawing on the same reservoir of traditional idioms and symbols for political expression that Mahatma Gandhi was employing in his efforts to "radicalize" the Indian National Congress. There was, in other words, a fortuitous convergence of political articulation occurring among peasants and non-cooperators which in this formative stage of the transition of the Freedom Struggle from the parlor to the streets made it seem that the two might be made for each other. The kisans were a budding insurrection groping for higher order organizational sophistication and enhanced political legimacy. The non-cooperators -- i.e., the Indian National Congress -- were a heretofore rather benign political organization groping for a new identity that would enable them to up the political ante in India by acquiring a genuinely mass following. Each seemed poised to try and coopt the other.

As a prelude to our analysis of this pivotal aspect of Indian political development at the start of the inter-war years, it is interesting to see how this developing convergence was being perceived by those who were on the spot. A letter written by J. C. Faunthorpe, the Commissioner of Lucknow District, to the Chief Secretary of UP on January 14, 1921, illustrates official perceptions of what was taking place. "Having only returned to this country [presumably from home leave]," he declares, "I am not well informed on the history of the non-cooperation movement, but I have formed the opinion that the non-cooperators, finding their efforts to stir up trouble among students and the general public unsuccessful, had to look round for some more promising field for their operations... They have succeeded in stirring up the cultivators of Oudh to a state of considerable excitement because the cultivators have in many cases considerable grievances against the landlords. (Footnote 1}

Although accurately depicting the magnitude of agrarian unrest in Awadh at this time, Commissioner Faunthorpe had a simplistic conception of cause and effect. Nehru understood the situation better. While he also saw that non-cooperation was "reaching the remotest village," he also realized that Congress was by no means the instigator of agrarian unrest. While Swaraj "was an all-embracing word to cover everything," he wrote, nevertheless, "the two movements -- non-cooperation and the agrarian -- were quite separate, though they overlapped and influenced each other greatly in our province." (Footnote 2)

At the grass-roots interface between these two streams of political ferment there was by no means either an identity of ideological intent, or clarity as to who was co-opting whom. For the Awadh peasantry and their Bihar counterparts political dissent had taken on nativistic overtones, a sort of class warfare pursued in the name of Raja Ram instead of Karl Marx against the economic rapacity of taluqdars and Bhumihars. For the non-cooperators, political dissent excluded class conflict as a matter of principle because, according to Gandhi, it allegedly 'divided' Indians who must be politically one if they ever were to succeed in overcoming white man's rule. The latter were willing to place their imprimatur on the political struggles of a dowtrodden peasantry only as long as the peasantry abandoned, in the name of ahimsa, the central purpose of their bitter struggle -- the destruction of the landlord classes who were responsible for their plight. Yet initially, despite the differences, the two were able to cross-fertilize each other.

Since 1919, the Awadh countryside had fallen into political turmoil mainly as a result of what can only be termed a veritable breakdown in the traditional social order. In the post-war period, population was rapidly increasing and land values were consequently rising. To take advantage of this inflationary situation, the land-monopolizing taluqdari class were searching for ways to increase their rents and cesses, and the pressures they put on their tenantry in pursuit of this end threatened even further the already shaky hold which the cultivating peasantry enjoyed on the land they tilled. Simultaneously, market conditions were causing the cost of the coarser food grains consumed by the tenantry and the landless laborers to increase more rapidly than the refined food grains consumed by the elite. (Footnote 3) Such economic distress at a time when in so many ways the country was experiencing rapid and disruptive social change in effect shattered what trust the peasantry retained in the pattern of feudal relations that had contributed to a modicum of stability in the countryside (such as the pattern of religiously sanctified jajmani relationships) and provoked a grass-roots political upheaval. As Siddiqi puts it, "By 1920... the development of social tension in Oudh had taken the form of an economic conlfict between the different interests of the agrarian classes." (Footnote 4) In other words, class warfare had broken out!

The Awadh kisan movement threw up a leadership whose imagery and modus operandi had, as already suggested, drawn upon precedents for political expression contained in the rich folk mythologies of rustic Hinduism. Its leaders presented themselves to the rural masses as "Babas" or what may be termed "political sadhus." They legitimized their political messages by infusing them with a religious content and presenting the messengers in the saffron garb of holy men. In this, they anticipated contemporary ethnoreligious parties like the BJP and the Shiv Sena by more than half a century!

Babas sprang up throughout the Lucknow, Faizabad and Gorakhpur divisions of Awadh. (footnote 5) They rallied the large gatherings of peasants who flocked to their standard with cries of "Ram Chandra ki jai" and "Sita-Ram ki jai" and with readings from Tulsi Das's Ramayana. Employing the traditional panchayat as their structural model, they organized so-called kisan sabhas whose purpose was to articulate peasant grievances with the landlords and press for reforms in the agrarian system. The most famous of these early political babas was a man named Sridhar Balwant Jodhpurkur who was born in Neemuch district of Bombay Presidency, became a "wanderer" (avarra) at age thirteen, found his way to Fiji at eighteen where he changed his name to Ram Chandra Rao in order to disguise his Maharashtrian Brahman origins (because they were politically suspect). He returned to India in 1904 to avoid prosecution for his agitational activities among the indentured workers in Fiji, became a sadhu in Ayodhya in 1909, settled at Pratapgarh in 1919, and, in the words of the police records of the day, "almost immediately started spreading disaffection among the peasantry." By the time he reached Awadh, Ram Chandra had a political agenda and a wealth of experience for carrying it out. Significantly, Jodhpurkur married a woman of the Kurmi caste (one of the major middle castes of this region) and commenced calling himself "Baba Ram Chandra." Moving around the region with a copy of the Ramayana under his arm, he blended readings from this popular Hindu epic, which combined allegorical denunciations of both the Raj and the landlords, with appeals to the peasantry to act in concert against their exploiters. A legend in his own time, Baba Ram Chandra became the model par excellence of the indigenous peasant politician. He was a major force in broadening the the political impact of the first formal Kisan Sabha that had been established in 1917 by Jhingury Singh and Sahdev Singh at an underproprietary village in Gorakhpur district named Rure. V. N. Mehta, the Deputy Commissioner of Pratapgarh district, and a native official with strong sympathies for the plight of the peasantry, includes in his famous Report of November 11, 1920, an excellent depiction of the elemental conceptualization which went into the formation of this prototypical peasant body at Rure village. Inaccurately attributing its founding to Baba Ram Chandra, he states:

The people of Rur[e] were suffering from no disabilities nor had they any grievances. The cause of the selection of Rur[e] as the headquarters of the Sabha is rather interesting. When Rama and Laxmana attended Sita's Swayamvara, Tulsidas described them as follows: "In the assembly of the Rajas the two brothers shown like two moons in the galaxy of stars. [Raj Samaj Virajat Rure]"
"Rur[e]" means beautiful. "Rure" was constructued to mean "in Rur village." (footnote 6)

The non-cooperation movement initially catalyzed the peasant movement not because the Gandhiized Congress was in ideological agreement with either its aims or its tactics, which they emphatically were not, but simply because in the peasantry's eyes Gandhi was Congress. To the sadharan janta, in a rustic Mcluhanesque sense, Gandhi himself, not his message, was the message. He was seen as the penultimate political saint, a grand-scale holy man whose darshan, purported supernatural powers, and promise of swaraj was what really mattered. He was a larger than life manifestation of the political sadhus who were driving the kisan movement. His ubiquitous presence in every corner of society infused their struggle against the landlords with a milennarian energy and conferred upon it an overarching legitimacy. Shahid Amin, in his masterly study of Mahatma Gandhi's impact in Gorakhpur district in 1921, clearly shows this. Thus:

... what people thought of the Mahatma were projections of the existing patterns of people's beliefs about the the 'worship of the worthies' in rural north India. As William Crooke has observed, the deification of such 'worthies' was based among other things, on the purity of the life they led and on 'approved thaumaturgic powers'. The first of these conditions Gandhi amply satisfied by all those signs of saintliness which a god-fearing rural populace was prone to recognize in his appearance as well as his public conduct. As for thaumaturgy, the stories [which] attribute to him magical and miraculous powers which, in the eyes of villagers nurtured on the lore of Salim Chishti and Sheikh Burhan, put him on a par with other mortals on whom peasant imagination had conferred godliness." (footnote 7)

There are two senses in which the Gandhi-factor was important to the kisan sabha movment. The revitalistic atmosphere he generated enabled the numerous babas who sprang up throughout the countryside to wrap themselves in the symbolic mantle of both baba and non-cooperator. "The 'power of a name' was evident again in Awadh in the first years of the 19020s," declares Gyan Pandey, as "Both 'Baba Ram Chandra' and 'Gandhi' came to acquire an extraordinary appeal." Ram Chandra appeared to develop a "multiple personality," says Pandey: he was reported to be in Bahraich on the 5th [January 1921] by Nelson, to be in Bara Banki at the same time by Grant, and in Fyzabad by Peters. (footnote 8)

The other sense in which the Gandhi factor was important is that it drew Congress field workers toward the kisan movement despite the misgivings of Gandhi and other high ranking, urbanized party magnates about its class warfare proclivities. Baba Ram Chandra led a delegation of 500 followers from Gorakhpur to Allahabad in early June of 1920 (allegedy to coincide with a holy bath at Prayag on a Saptami day) in an effort to broaden the movement by putting it in touch with "Mahatma Gandhi and other educated urban leaders." They were unable to meet Gandhi and Nehru disparaged Baba Ram Chandra's 'lack of a program.' However, in Sharma's words, "For three days the marchers propagated their woeful tales in the city." And most important, I think, "They came in touch with the U.P. Kisan Sabha people who arranged for their stay." Despite this, however, "The urban leadership was... somewhat reluctant to take up the cause of the Pratapgarh peasants." But in the end it was agreed that P. D. Tandon, Gauri Shankar Mishra, K. K. Malaviya and Nehru would visit their villages. (footnote 9)

This was a breakthrough that helped pave the way for the mutual cooptation that would eventually lead to the incorporation of the agrarian question (i.e., a class agenda) into Congress's inventory of designated ideological tasks. It catalyzed interplay between the Babas in the kisan sabha cells and the local level operatives in Congress who were in contact with the peasantry under the rubric of the Oudh Kisan Sabha, Congress's answer to the spontaneous kisan sabhas whose appetitite for class conflict the middle-class Congress leadership so heartily deplored and eagerly desired to coopt and reorient towards Gandhi's more benign version of non-cooperation'. These local level persons were not easily distinguishable in their demeanor, dress, and educational level from their non-Congress counterparts. In Faizbad District, there were two highly active Congress political sadhus, Kedar Nath Arya and Deonarain Mishra who exemplified this blurred line between the two at the grass-roots level. After one of Deo Narain's agitational escapades, the Commissioner of Faizabad Division, was prompted to declare to his boss, Sir Harcourt Butler: "Deo Narain is a person of at best unbalanced mind if not actually tinged with insanity." (footnote 10)

The process of Congress's absorption of the kisan movement was not a linear one. At the very time that interplay between it and Congress grass-roots field workers was increasing, the leadership of both underwent growing disenchantment with one another. This was mainly the fault of the Gandhi-dominated Congress which refused to side with the kisans against the taluqdars in the name of ahimsa. This opened the way for the Raj to step in and forcefully crush the peasant movement. In Gyan Pandey's words:

By the winter of 1921-2, the peasant movement in Awadh had overcome many, though by no means all, of its own traditionalist limitations. Yet, its localism and isolation remained. To get over these it needed an ally among other anti-imperialist forces in the country. But the chief candidate for this role, the party of the growing urban and rural petty bourgeoisie, had turned it back on the peasant movement long before that time.(footnote 11)

The final fusion of non-cooperation with peasant revolution required another decade before both sides were ready for each other. It came in the form of the creation of the Congress Socialist Party in 1934. This was the point when a younger generation of Congressmen, among the most noteworthy of whom were Jawaharlal Nehru and Acharya Narendra Dev, imbued with a mixture of Marxist and Fabian socialism, was able to persuade a significant segment of the Congress to address the agrarian question. They were especially successful in UP where class conflict in the countryside had been particularly acute, where many of the sub-movement's young leaders came from, and where many had cut their agitational teeth under the tutelege of some of the more noteworthy political sadhus who had built followings among the peasantry in their home districts. Acharya Narendra Deva is a perfect case of this maturational process. An asthmatic son of a rich, Arya Samajist merchant in Faizabad city, the son had been radicalized while a law student at Banaras Hindu University, had returned to the district and became a follower of Lallanji, a founder of the Congress peasant strategy in Faizabad (through his association and identification with Deonarain, Kedar Nath and other rustic revolutionaries), and in turn became one the founders and principal intellectuals of the Congress Socialist movement by the 1930s.

Time does not permit further elaboration of this consummating stage in the process of conjuncture between non-cooperation and rustic class warfare in the east gangetic dehat. That must await the conclusion of this research. But we can conclude with the observation that Congress neither created the agrarian movement in this region nor failed to influence its nature and outcome. There was an interplay between two separate streams of revolutionary activity. At the outset, neither was culturally prepared to fully understand and appreciate the other's situation and problems. Congress was too urbane and hung up on the politics of Independence to cope with class issues. The kisans were too unsophisticated and preoccupied with bread and butter issues to see the value in deferring immediate social justice for a larger and largely abstract political good.


Footnotes -

1. Uttar Pradesh Archives, GAD, File 50-3, 1921. Back

2. Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography. London: The Bodley Head, 1953, p. 57. Back

3. Data to be added later. Back

4. M. H. Siddiqi, Agrarian Unrest in North India: The United Provinces (1919-22). New Delhi: Vikas, 1978, p. 103. Back

5. Lucknow Division: Kheri, Sitapur, Hardi, Lucknow, Unnao, Rae Bareilly; Faizabad Division: Bahraich, Gonda, Bara Banki, Faizabad, Sultanpur, Pratapgarh; Gorakhpur Division: Basti, Gorakhpur, Azamgarh.Back

6. V. N. Mehta, Report. To the Commissioner of Fyzabd Division, Dated Partapgarh, the 11th of November, 1920, p. 2. Kapil Sharma, in his work, Peasants in Revolt, Tenants, Landlords, Congress and the Raj in Oudh, 1886-1922, Delhi: Manohar, 1984, provides greater detail on the career of Baba Ram Chandra both prior to and after his arrival in Awadh. It is he, for example, who shows that Ram Chandra could not have been the founder of the Rure Kisan Sabha for the simple reason that he did not reach the area until at least a year after its founding. However, his role in publizising it and ramifying its influence cannot be denied.Back

7. Shahid Amin, "Gandhi as Mahatma", in Ranjit Guha and Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, eds., Selected Subaltern Studies. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 316.Back

8. Gyan Pandey, "Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism: The Peasant Movement in Awadh, 1919-22," in Ranjit Guha, et. al., op.cit., p. 255. Back

9. Kapil Kumar, ibid., p, 91.Back

10. Uttar Pradesh Archives: Commissioner of Faizabad Sir Harcourt Butler, January 24, 1921.Back

11. Gyan Pandey, op. Cit., p, 281.Back

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