[Note: Work in progress: not for quotation or attribution without the written permission from the author.]
Power, Agrarian Structure, and
Peasant Mobilization in Modern India

Majid H. Siddiqi

Jawaharlal Nehru University
E-mail:
Keynote Address: Symposium in Honor of Walter Hauser's Contributions to Peasant Studies
Draft copy, 23 May 1997

Mr. Ehnbom, Mr. Barnett, distinguished colleagues, and friends.

Let me say at the very outset that I consider it an enormous privilege to have been allotted the very pleasant though for me formidable task of reading the keynote address to an audience consisting, as it does, of colleagues with large reputations. As I endeavour to rise equal to the task,let me also say how happy I am to be among friends and with Walter and Rosemary Hauser.

When Walter Hauser wrote his Chicago thesis, peasant studies hardly existed, peasant movements were almost unknown to the academy, and agrarian structures were expressed solely in the reigning idiom of British policy or economic history. The very face of social science history has itself changed since the early sixties, in some cases (and it must be added not necessarily to our advantage) entirely beyond recognition. But the history then inaugurated abides.

While Walter Hauser's thesis on the Bihar Kisan Sabha was the first in peasant movement histories in South Asia, the subject had indeed been broached in writings by nationalist leaders during the colonial period itself. Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahadev Desai and tens of other nationalist leaders had written accounts directed at the iniquities of the Indian agrarian social order but mainly directed at the fact of British rule.Simultaneously, in those very years of the Indian nationalist movement,peasant movements had arisen that weakened the symbiosis of the power of the landed elite with the contingencies of the requirements of British rule. In a word, peasant movements and nationalist politics pressured policy making towards, first, modifying and then ending the era of landlordism in colonial India. Agrarian power at Indian Independence stood redefined. But the

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process of the making of the Indian nation had many complexities of character, not the least of which was that of the agrarian class struggle that underpinned it. But, as students of history would know, class struggles are never simple if at all they are, when they are, what, purportedly, they are:(i.e.) class struggles.

Let us first consider how the history of rural political mobilization had been written, mainly in the sixties. In one significant area of scholarship peasant movements were seen to have been peasant wars. Within each of the six major upheavals of this century the middle peasantry was supposed to have played an initially revolutionary role. The idea of evaluating the role of the peasantry in social revolutions came from the political texts of the Russian and Chinese revolutions and it made its impact in the form of the 'middle peasant theory' in the writings of Hamza Alavi and Eric Wolf. Modifications of this idea, whether in empirical refutation or as a qualified redefinition, were applied to India. Usually the answers sought were to affirm (or deny) this middle peasant thesis.

The history of peasant protest was also, following Eric Hobsbawm, divided into 'political' and 'prepolitical'. Thus the major question, implicit in such a treatment of the subject proved to be: were the peasants political?If so, how did the mobilization actually occur? This question had a longer and more lasting impact as over the years it was modified, to assert the case,albeit in structuralist terms, of, as it were, peasant insurgency against the social order as a whole, of which social order it was itself a part. To this theme we shall return.

The questions that became dated pertained to the role that peasants played in the transformation of the social order. They were: Which section of the

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peasantry played a revolutionary/reactionary role? As a political peasantry must be led from the outside, it was also asked: what was the nature (class origins/ideology) of this outside agency? Was it a revolutionary movement which heralded the consolidation of the bourgeois state (Zapata in Mexico)under an urban leadership? Or did the peasantry serve through rebellions to break up the existing state polity (The Russian Revolution)? Or did the peasants provide the social basis (and an area for tactical retreat) for a working class revolution (Cuba, China)? Were peasant movements millenarian? Did they exhibit in their struggles an alternative 'moral economy' (Burma, Vietnam)? The theoretical armoury of social science scholarship on rural political mobilization began to be reconstituted. By the nineties the questions had indeed changed. But the anguish remained:peasants were either tricked or bullied or led under false pretenses into a modern world, which, given its need for development, was (and is) heavily tilted against their interests. Their cultures are dominated, never dominant,their futures always at the mercy of an unrelenting progress in which town dominates country, burghers rural folk, the bourgeoisie the peasantry.

We can neither undo the past nor alter the course of the future in this regard. Yet, within social science concerns, we can try and reformulate some of our questions on lines which do not presume pace all social-historical scholarship a preordained social reality To do this we restrict our reflections to an outline of peasant movements in modern India, 1860-1950,and examine this outline anew in light of existing scholarship. We also try and reformulate some of the questions hitherto asked afresh by specifying those features of agrarian society which make more for discontinuity rather than change and which demonstrate cultural and ideological disjunctions as

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opposed to presumed continuities, especially when these latter have connoted success and failure.

Beginning at the middle of the nineteenth century, which also corresponded with the end of the stage of direct plunder, British policy in India increasingly became one of support for landlords through whom the officialdom of empire sought to protect their dominions. Every now and then there was a deviation from this policy to accommodate the pressure generated by an unequal agrarian society which, under the impact of the market, produced peasant movements. Between 1860 and 1950, with the exception of half a decade between 1930 and 1935 when prices of agricultural produce did indeed fall, there was a rise in prices over this entire period. The single greatest impact which such a rise in prices produced was manifest in a developing struggle between landlord and peasant for control over the increased value of agricultural surplus. The landlord raised rents.Tenants protested. The landlords asserted their proprietary rights, by emphasizing their power to evict tenants while the latter claimed, and were occasionally and with increasing frequency granted, occupancy rights. Over the century, the peasants' ability to resist landlord control of rent and produce increased and the structure of landlordism stood considerably weakened by the end of British rule.

It is hardly necessary to state that our preceding remarks present an oversimplified picture of the background to the emergence of peasant movements. Many of those peasants who won tenancy and property rights against the landlords themselves became rent-receivers. They rented out the land rented in (or acquired after a struggle) from superior proprietors. Many others became rich cultivators. Still others, and these were most numerous,

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continued to lead their lives within the framework of a landlordism which became top-heavy. While the agrarian structure remained unequal and indeed skewed, the greater stratification of rights in Indian rural society both within the category of 'landlord' as well as within the category of 'tenant' altered the relationship between different agrarian social classes. In the various peasant movements which emerged, we find that the actual mobilization was carried out in a hundred myriad forms. Some of these maybe reproduced as an elementary typology thus:

1. The Blue Mutiny, 1859-1862
Poor peasants and small landlords opposed indigo planters in Bengal. In this they were helped by moneylenders whose own credit resources stood threatened by the structure of the monopsonistic rights of the planters.

2. The Pabna and Boora Uprisings, 1872-1875
Rich cultivators, benefiting from the commercialization of agriculture and producing cash crops, protested to secure further their occupancy rights granted nominally in 1859. In this they succeeded by 1885 when the Bengal Tenancy Act was passed.Later, by the middle twentieth century, such tenants were transformed into rent-receivers.

3. The Mappilla Rebellions, 1836-1921
Poor peasants in Malabar (Kerala) protested for security of tenure.This was granted in 1887 and 1929. But only a rich tenantry benefited from these movements. This tenantry itself acquired afresh and consolidated further its rights as rent-receivers vis-a-vis

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the larger landlords. Peasant protest fed into the assertion of rentier claims of one section of rural society against another.

4. The Deccan Riots, 1875
Up against a heavy land revenue demand of the state, 1840-1870,cultivators lost their lands to moneylenders from the towns. The symbiosis of peasants with rural moneylenders was upset as the dependence of these latter on the moneylenders of the towns developed. The protest against the structure of legal authority which allowed such land transfer took the form of antimoney lender riots. The state intervened to legislate in favour of the 'agriculturists' in 1879. The state's pro-landlord stance therefore could also become pro-peasant as long as the framework within which it realized its land revenue did not alter to its disadvantage.

5. Punjab Agrarian Riots, 1907
The state intervened to prevent alienation of land from peasants to moneylenders in 1900 but urban middle classes protested, in nationalist idiom, against government intervention. Riots broke out against moneylenders. The government appeared pro-peasant, as the peasants rioted against 'agriculturalist' moneylenders, who were landlords. Landlords we might recall were over the long term supported by British rule.

6. Peasant Movements in Oudh. 1918 - 1922
The peasants of eastern Uttar Pradesh defied large landlords through a tenants movement for security of tenure. Oppressive traditions of forced labour were attacked through fierce agrarian

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riots. Small landlords and the rural poor supported and led the movement. Statutory rights of occupancy were secured in 1921.The movement marked a phase of retreat for landlordism.

7. Peasant Protest against Indigo Cultivation in North Bihar, 18601920 and Champaran. 1907-1909 and 1917-1918
Moneylenders and rich peasants voiced grievances of indebted small peasantry and agricultural labourers. Planters of indigo were put to rout by the rural hierarchy was left undisturbed. The movement signified the emergence of the peasant as a symbol in a nationalist ideology.

8. Agrarian Unrest in Uttar Pradesh, 1930-1932
When prices slumped, peasants could not pay rents to landlords nor landlords revenue to the state. The Indian National Congress launched a no-rent no-revenue campaign of middle and rich peasants, supported by the rural poor, and small property holders.The movement marked a simultaneous retreat for landlordism and an attrition of the political domination of the colonial state.

9. Peasant Agitations in Kheda, 1917-1934 and Bardoli, 1928
In Bardoli a proletariat in traditional agrestic servitude protested against an increased land revenue valuation alongside a dominant and in relation to the 'serfs' exploitative peasant community. The 'serfs' were partly convinced of the validity of nationalist ideology as represented to them and were in part coerced into joining the movement. In Kheda rich and pauperized strata of a peasantry with shared cultural traditions and kinship alignments agitated against higher revenue rates, resorting to relinquishment of holdings and

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migration en masse to other neighboring regions as a form of protest.

10. Peasant Struggles in Bihar, 1933-1942
When prices fell in 1930, the rents to which tenants had agreed in a period of rising prices (1900-1920) became too heavy to bear.Peasants were evicted by landlords as the latter attempted to increase their power and control. The tenants movement that developed sought to regain control over the lands from which the peasants had been evicted. The popular basis of these struggles was provided by rich and middle peasants and occasionally poor peasants. Agricultural labourers were not even formally included in the programme of the Peasants Association till 1944.

11. Share-croppers Agitation in Bengal, 1938-1950
The share-croppers were mostly poor peasants with very small holdings who fought landlords for security from eviction and aright to at least two-thirds of the produce. The demand originated from the government's land revenue commission of 1938 and was propagated by the Communist Party in 1946-1947. Share-croppers were joined in their movement by small peasants with occupancy rights, small impoverished landlords and a few rich peasants. In legislation in 1950 and in 1978-1979 these rights were recognized and pushed through despite landlord opposition by various governments in Independent India.

12. The Telengana Rebellion, Hyderabad, 1946-1951
A movement involving sustained armed struggle of rich peasants and the rural poor. The peasantry sought to destroy the political

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power of large landlords while the agricultural labourers fought against forced labour. The political consequences of the movement may be appraised at two levels. The popular unrest provided the basis for the absorption of Hyderabad State into the Indian Union.The communist leadership of this movement made for electoral victories in the early 'fifties for party members from this region.

A glance at the preceding synopsis suggests two ideas that are of relevance to our discussion:

1. While each of the movements, and all together, may well be said to be in some way representing anti-landlord tendencies in the colonial agrarian society as a whole, any single one of these movements does not exhibit any such features. Among the more remarkable conundra of our schema, poor peasant protest has strengthened rentier structures, anti-moneylender riots have stood opposed to the nationalist political idiom and movements under a communist leadership have served (however inadvertently this may have come about; here we are not concerned with intentions) to strengthen the domination of the rich peasantry,and, at a remove, even the post-colonial state.

2. Leaving aside the question whether or not we can or ought to infer any one tendency merely because all such instances of protest 'add up' to, finally, a single development, we find remarkable the extreme disjunction between the politics of each episode against rentier landlordism. No leaders were ever in common between these instances of protest; no organization except the All-India Kisan Sabha (1936) spoke for the entire

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Indian peasantry. Even when the Kisan Sabha in Bihar or the Communist Party in Bengal and Telengana did formulate demands for the peasantry, demands that would have an all-India character, the very specificity of each local variant of the agrarian structure as well as the sheer diversity of peasant communities in India prevented any generalized acceptance of their programme. While, therefore, the agrarian structure did indeed consist of unequal peasant and landlord holdings and the economy reflected a dominant landlordism and, temporally, an emerging process in which the stratum of richer peasantry proved ascendant, the ideological distance between the ultimate act of zamindari abolition (and other land reforms of the 'fifties) and the series of peasant agitations over a hundred years of Britishr ule was never bridged. Consequently, while it may be possible for us to say that in the colonial Indian economy a backward capitalism emerged plagued with all evils characteristic of under-development, and in the nationalist struggle against British rule representatives of the Indian middle classes as the urban counterparts of the peasantry came ultimately to dominate and even determine the politics of peasant protest, the gap between this statement and another with which one might highlight the cultural dimension of the mobilization process would still remain. (A cultural dimension that would take into account the lived and experienced little traditions of the peasantry in simultaneity with the articulation of the agrarian class structure and not merely presuppose the domination of such traditions by

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'nationalist' political mobilization, notwithstanding the number of instances one might be able to record of this nationalist mobilization never having been, as it were, 'complete').

In order to move towards a more credible version of the political mobilization process we need to disaggregate our story of peasant struggles.We might use the same sources but our focus would have to shift towards one main aspect of the problem: an evaluation of the cultural moorings of the leadership of the peasantry which, we would argue, came from the ranks of the mofussil middle classes and from elements declasses. This leadership had little link, and a highly tenuous one when it did, with the over arching spread,control and domination of the modern state as that came to evolve, in its institutional form during the period of British rule and in its political expression in the decades since. Nor can its origins be defined in any simplistic 'social class' terms, given its culturally heterogeneous, socially stratified and temporally disjunctive character. Yet, it stood on the rural-urban continuum in its many manifestations and while it aided the process of mobilization through its strategic relevance to the peasantry, it simultaneously reinforced these self-images of culture and community which served to widen the distance between town and country and further the ideological disarticulation of Indian political society.

The process of political mobilization among the Indian peasantry did not,as may be expected, respond to secular formulae of class struggle while the latter was indeed carried on and developed in some of the forms of the social class alignments we have just described. Instead, much of this mobilization was the consequence of those features of Indian society which, in their customary rooting did not share the modernity of the urban "social contract."

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In this, religious belief played no small role. In Champaran (Bihar, 1917)and northern Oudh (U.P., 1922) the sanction of village deities was considered necessary for determining the membership of the peasant associations and for the success of the movement. The reluctance of those who did not wish to join in with the peasants' protest was compared to the sin of having violated food taboos as laid down in Hinduism and Islam (Bihar, 1917; U.P., 1921). Stories of Gandhi's non-violent success in his South Africa campaigns, commonly told in the Champaran movement,tapered into the regard of the laity for the ascetic and the renouncer; indeed,Gandhi's presence in Champaran also often led his following towards a deification of his person. The Congress leader Sardar Vallabhai Patel invoked the message of God, as did Gandhi, in the Bardoli (1928) campaign.The use of religious beliefs and symbols in the mobilization process overlapped with the social identity of the community, strengthening thereby caste and communal identities. In U.P. (1918-1922), Bardoli (Gujarat,1928), Bihar (1920-1935), and Bengal (1938-1947), caste and community associations provided many of the symbols for protest. In Malabar (1836-1921), the Islamic religious identity of the Mappillas was a source of cohesion among the poor peasantry and for the linking up of this community with the urban-based sabhas of the richer Muslims. There is no evidence in this latter experience of any rift or tension between poor peasant protest,born of and in identification with the Islamic community to which they belonged, and their subservience to and acceptance of their richer, socially dominant, counterpart. The necessity of preserving Patidar (Gujarat, 1917-1934) and Kurmi (U.P., 1918-1920) traditions of endogamy was emphasized as an element in mobilization. Even Sanskritization, the cultural emulation

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of Sanskritic practices for upward social and ritual mobility, which confirmed the distinctions between castes, was reinforced during popular unrest. The Bhuinhar-Brahman Sabha in Bihar (1910-1935), Hari sabhas and Kshatriya sabhas in Bengal (1938-1947), and the Kurmi-Kshatriya sabha in U.P. (1920-1940) are all instances of the simultaneity of the reinforcement of caste values and peasant mobilization. Peasants marginal to Hindu society converted to Christianity (Sardari Larai, Chota Nagpur, 1880-1885), or Vaisnavite Hinduism, which strengthened the purity-pollution opposition(Tana Bhagats, Chota Nagpur, 1915-1919), or to Islam (Malabar, 1870-1890).

The propensity of many a peasant movement leader to be peripatetic, a fact hardly explicable in the simple-minded terms of wanderlust, was a remarkable feature of political mobilization. Baba Ramchandra of Oudh, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, Rahul Sanskrityayana and Yadunandan Sharma of Bihar, Motilal Tejawat and Vijay Singh Pathik of Rajasthan, Janardan Sharma of Gujarat and scores of others roamed the Indian subcontinent, in and out of sects, religions, towns and villages, schools and monasteries, but hardly ever from one peasant movement to another. Each of such individuals experienced multiple identity crises - the stories are too many and the space too little for us to narrate any - as they protested against the social process from which they had all emerged: usually one of the pauperization of a traditional village level elite. They looked for answers to the mysteries of life in holistic terms, moving as they did between the world and its renunciation, often several times in a single lifetime. Several of such leaders who knew as many languages as they did their many worlds could be observed in swarms, dotting the political landscape in 1921. With its eternal

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fear of Bolshevism, government thought these leaders to be 'political emissaries disguised as Sadhus or Fakirs...fomenting discontent and antagonism to government especially in Bengal, Bihar, Assam and the United Provinces'. Moreover, they changed their names several times, leaving behind them a trail of aliases, designed as often to evade arrest as to escape from and obliterate traces of their own earlier selves. It was altogether this ubiquitous presence on the rural-urban continuum of such individuals which allowed others, who were not itinerant wanderers, to pose as these persons, to switch roles, as it were, with roles discarded by others. It was this process of moving in and out of one's self and in and out of others' selves which made for the multiplex potential of Gandhi's message(s) which could be transformed to suit the occasion.

Between the mercurial character of the lower level leadership and the working out of high politics was a stratum of a 'rurban' intelligentsia, firmly rooted in the various regions. The members of this intelligentsia derived their livelihood from a combination of an increasingly diminishing rental income from small holdings and professional earnings as small town lawyers,school teachers, lower-rung government officials, and employees and editors of the Indian languages press. Such an intelligentsia, though itself 'traditional' in that it did not represent the interests of any 'fundamental' group or class, produced a spate of mobilization literature for the peasantry whose demands it helped to shape and whose interests it represented in the nationalist press. The politics of this intelligentsia, crucial as it was for the peasant masses as a whole, was not related in the same way to peasant classes as it was to Indian nationalism. The proliferation of regional vernacular papers in the 1920s and 1930s - Tarun Rajasthan, Gana Bani, Langal, Pratap,

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Abhyudaya - served more to integrate the little traditions of the peasantry with Indian nationalism (variously understood, variously defined) than promote the interests of any single stratum, rich or poor, among the peasantry. The attitude of the peasantry towards this intelligentsia was itself ambivalent, suspicious and trusting at the same time. This attitude lent itself very well to the subsequent exploitation of peasant beliefs by electoral politics in Independent India but to see in this latter process only the cynical manipulation of rural masses by urban dominated constituencies is to miss the roots of populism in Indian history which lay in the historically specific character of the mobilization process as that came to be structured over a century.

The historicity of peasant insurgency in modern India has come full circle. The deeper sinews of community economies, traditional moralities and customary bindings has transmuted, through land reform and in a strange marriage with the social contract of political democracy, into becoming a mix of casteist movements, communal politics and class struggles. On this we have little perspective.

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