[Note: Work in progress: not for quotation or attribution without the written permission from the author.]

When Peasants Were Men:
Gender and the Politics of Peasant Movements
Wendy Singer

Kenyon College
E-mail: wsinger@kenyon.edu
Peasant Symposium Draft copy, 25 May 1997

[Part 1: The Bengal Tenancy Act] [Part 2: The Status of Women] [Part 3: Red Saris and Parda] [Conclusion]

From the Kisan Sabha's own records of the 1930s to newspaper accounts of peasant politics, and later scholarship that has analyzed them, most descriptions of peasants have assumed they were men. Indeed, peasant activists who were jailed, for example in Bihar in the 1930s, were overwhelmingly male and the big marches and protests that followed Swami Sahajand Saraswati's lead among others were comprised largely of young male activists.

This paper explicates the dual implications that follow from the fact that, 1) peasant movements were dominated by men and 2) that historical accounts of those movements were almost exclusively by and about male participants. However, women also participated significantly in those movements and women's issues were part of their ideological basis. I am not here suggesting simplistically that scholarship has been "sexist" or that in some anachronistic feminist way, the movements themselves were sexist. It will be far more fruitful to develop the historical implications of the striking fact that agrarian politics is almost always defined in these male-oriented terms and categories and that participants--men and women--both perceived their politics in these terms and created histories of it in gender segregated ways.

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In addition,, the defining of peasant movements as nearly exclusively male has had, both at the time and subsequently, implications for ongoing political-cultural styles that survive in the Indian electoral process after independence. The legacy is clear in the support-roles that women have played in campaigns, mobilizing women voters and also in the actual recruitment of women by the political right. Significantly as well, a further legacy has seen many women activists disdain electoral politics entirely, choosing to create new areas for their programs and visions.

To begin, I will address three examples of peasant issues influenced by gender. First of all, the Bengal (later Bihar) Tenancy Act was implemented in a way that disenfranchised women more often than men of the same class, in large part because the "raiyat" described in the Act was characterized in masculine terms. Second, the position of women in society was a dominant theme in political discussion in the 1930s from Gandhi to the All India Women's Conference. So it is not surprising that rural movements--here illustrated by the movement of Saini Musahar and protests against landlord atrocities--explicitly addressed women's roles in society. However--and critically--the way in which women's issues were articulated to a broader audience was from the point of view of men. And third, the separate domain of women's participation in 1930s politics provided some women with an equally different access to political power and political experiences, for example, in jail or in organizational activities. Ironically, these were often the most conservative political movements. In addition, political movements

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often manipulated inherent assumptions about gender for their own benefit. It is these patterns, practiced in the 1930s, that both foreshadowed and influenced the participation of women in politics after independence.

Recognizing that the history of peasant movements as emerging from the notion that "peasants were men" sheds light on the structure and makeup of those movements as well as on the definitions of both "peasants" and "agrarian politics."


In this company, I need not spend much time defining either the Bengal Tenancy Act, the Survey and Settlement Operations that put it into practice, or the process defined it in local terms. Here at this symposium we have the first scholars who used the Village Notes, the basic records of the Survey and Settlement Operations. However, I do intend to show that the language of the Act and the practice of the Survey privileged male cultivators.

The Settlement Manual that shaped the Survey process charged the Assistant Settlement Officers with carrying it out and determining who had land rights under the Act. Specifically, they were encouraged to record as many people as possible as Occupancy Raiyats or potential Occupancy Raiyats. This category provided peasants with secure rights to land after they had cultivated it as tenants for a period of years.

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The Settlement took place, for example, in Darbhanga beginning in 1896 and in Munger beginning in 1911 and in each District evinced similar characteristics. Settlement Officers traveled from village to village inquiring not only about the particulars of soil and land, but also the system of land control and the tenancy arrangements. ASOs mediated disputes between tenants about the land and between what tenants said and what appeared in the records of landlords. Interestingly, many ASOs favored peasants in these disputes and accepted oral evidence, often over the written records of the landlords.

A main criterion for establishing Occupancy Rights was whether or not a tenant actually cultivated the land himself. If not, the tenant was recorded as a tenure holder, something akin to a sub-contractor for a large landlord. In the Bengal Tenancy Act, tenure holders figured as middlemen who most exploited peasants. By design, as was clear in the debates that produced the Act, the BTA restricted the power of tenure holders in favor of Occupancy Raiyats on the one hand and land owners on the other.

One interesting case that demonstrated the transformative effect of the BTA on women peasants was recorded by an Assistant Settlement Officer in Darbhanga who signed his name Bannerji. Bannerji determined that Mosamat Gopi Thakurain, a woman tenant of the Maharaja of Darbhanga, was a tenure holder rather than an Occupancy Raiyat. According to the Village Note of Balia Belam,

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One Mosamat Gopi Thakurain holds about 33 Bighas of land in Balia [Belam] as a raiyat under the Raj. This area was settled with her by the late Maharaja (she being a relation of his) about 25 years ago and since then some 10 or 12 raiyats have been cultivating these lands under her and paying her produce rent. . . The Raj wants to have the Mosamat entered as an [occupancy] raiyat and all these cultivators as [under] raiyats under the Mosamat. The claim of the Raj is based on the grounds that the lands were settled with the Mosamat regarding her as a raiyat and that her name has all along shown in the jamabandi [the record of land possession]. (1)

Despite the landlord's written record, Bannerji proposed that the Mosamat be recorded as a tenure holder who would receive rent from the land and pay a portion of that rent to the Raj. Further, Bannerji proposed that the Mosamat's current tenants on the land be recorded as occupancy raiyats. In fact those tenants, at the same time that Bannerji was determining the Mosamat's status, had filed suit to convert the produce rent to rent in cash, something only occupancy raiyats could legally do. Bannerji based his proposal on the grounds "that the Mosamat never cultivated the land herself." (2) He also looked for evidence of temporary raiyats hired season by season as renters or laborers, cultivating the land for wages, to show that she had taken charge of the cultivation. Noting that the peasants on the land had "been settled there throughout her tenure and the Mosamat lives far away in the village of Sopura," Bannerji decided that Mosamat Gopi Thakurain was not a settled raiyat of the village. Further, because of the "intimate knowledge of the cultivators about the crops and the lands," Bannerji decided to record the cultivators as occupancy raiyats.

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Implicit in his decision was Bannerji's understanding of what an occupancy raiyat should know about the land and his strong desire to support peasants' interests over the landlord's. He saw the Mosamat as a tool of the Darbhanga Raj in its attempt to take control away from the true cultivators. Consequently, not only did Bannerji support the claims of the Mosamat's tenants to occupancy, but he granted the new occupancy raiyats the cash rents that they requested "at a rate comparable to neighboring villages." (3)

On these grounds, significantly, that an occupancy raiyat must personally cultivate the land and know the means of cultivation, few women were ever recorded as occupancy raiyats. (4) Yet many women before the Survey and Settlement had held tenancies, like the Mosamat's, and as a result they too were recorded as tenure holders, not secure raiyats. (5) And in some cases, men in similar circumstances as the Mosamat but who knew the details of cultivation did attain occupancy rights, having their subtenants recorded as under raiyats. As a tenure holder, on the other hand, the Mosamat's actions regarding the land would be governed by a contract with the Maharaja, not by protection of law. Especially in the Darbhanga Raj, where many tenure contracts had been given to relatives of the Maharaja who had achieved considerable profits or sold their rights to commercial enterprises, the ASO viewed tenure holders as greedy interlopers on the land system. (6)

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Most tenure holders, both inside the Raj and outside it, were speculators. They held commercial tenures--often growing cash crops--that could be bought and sold, and many of them became wealthy by selling tenure contracts for profit. On the Darbhanga Estate some of the tenure holders were British planters. In fact, the BTA contained several sections designed to protect raiyats from the excesses of tenure holders, who were often absentee rent farmers without an interest in investing in local improvements. Other tenure holders, such as indigo thikadars, used the land for cash crops, restricting its access to raiyats.

A strong market for tenure holdings thus existed in the early twentieth century. As a result, rent farmers and commercial agriculturalists became wealthy not only from collecting rent, but also from the sale of cash crops and the exchange of tenure holdings. Tenures that were kept for yearly income only generated the rent paid by raiyats, less the rent paid to the Darbhanga Raj. The economics of the situation adversely affected tenants like Mosamat Gopi Thakurain because the rent paid to her by raiyats was fixed by the government, yet the rent she paid to the Maharaja was assigned by the Raj. An increase in Raj rent decreased her income. The Raj could charge her the same rent it charged commercial tenure holders who because of their cash crop income could afford to pay higher rates. (7) The commercial rent farmers, therefore, drove up rent prices in the vicinity, and many maintenance tenure holders, such as the Mosamat, were forced to sell. (8) As

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a result, through the settlement process Mosamat Gopi Thakurain lost her status as an occupancy raiyat.

PART TWO: The Status of Women

At every level of the Freedom Movement, from village politics to Gandhian and Congress venues, the status of women became an issue. Ramnandan Misra, for example, who was known as a peasant leader in Darbhanga and who organized several peasant protests throughout the district, began his activism in an Ashram in Majhoulia village that was dedicated to social reform. His wife, Rajkishori Devi, against the wishes of her father-in law, left the family home with Ramnandan and lived in the Ashram, which held programs for women's education and encouraged women to spin cotton and travel throughout the region fighting against parda and illiteracy. Rajkishori became an important leader in the social reform movement generated from the Ashram and even spent time on Gandhi's Subramati Ashram, training as a Satyagrahi.

By the standards of the peasant movements in Darbhanga, the Majhoulia Ashram and its upper caste/upper class residents were a conservative force in the countryside. But because of Ramnandan's participation among the Socialists, the peasant activists, and the Kisan Sabha, Rajkishori Devi straddled both political worlds. In the world of khadi and social reform women had more autonomy and avenues for political

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advancement, although that remained largely confined to upper class/caste groups.

At another level--vastly different from this Brahman dominated movement--Saini Musahar, the leader of a movement among the Untouchable Musahar caste, also stressed social reform and peasant issues which dramatically effected the role of women. The Musahar movement grew out of a series of visions that Saini had in 1932. Prompted by these visions he sought and gained lucrative work as a laborer in Bengal and returned to his native villages in Purnea District to organize other Musahars to build a temple to the Musahar Gods, Badri and Dina at a spot revealed to him by the Gods themselves.

Critical to Saini's understanding of the Gods' plan for improved life for the Musahars was a promise of cultivable land. To achieve this he made passing references to Gandhi--in very vague terms--and in much more detail he outlined a series of social reforms among the Musahars, many of which directly affected women.

First of all, Saini's visions often depicted evil and danger manifested in the form of women. For example, at one point witches attacked him, using sexual power to try to derail him from the Gods' mission. But the main thrust of his reforms also addressed the practices of women Musahars, who worked in the fields alongside men. According to Saini, a woman appeared to him in a dream:

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The woman told Saeni that the Musahar husbands and wives were committing sins by working in the same field and cracking jokes with one another. She also told Saeni that finding the Musahar women-folk absent from their houses at dusk when it is time for her to visit each and every house -- Lachhmi the goddess of wealth was annoyed and it is why she was not giving wealth to the members of his community. The woman, therefore, asked Saeni to preach to the community not to allow women to go to the fields to work as day labourers. The woman further suggested that Musahar women should be asked to keep the clothes and belongings of the family neat and clean, to keep the surroundings of their houses neat and clean, to bathe daily, to burn incense daily in their houses, not to commit theft, not to leave a village after incurred debt, to build a common Gahbar in each village, not to accept anything less than 3 seers of grain per day as wages, not to steal grains and grass of the employer, to work honestly in the fields to keep the Gahbar neat and clean and to offer worship to deities every morning in the Gahbar after offering water to Sun God and to abstain from migrating too frequently. In the meantime Saeni's colleagues arrived and he woke up. It was mid-day. Saeni kept his dream to himself. (9)

The prophesy of the Gods, granted new responsibilities to women, both personally and religiously, and provided a minimum wage. But born of these visions, the reforms also established rules for separation and gender distinction that had not previously been customary among Musahars.

Both of these examples suggest the fluidity of peasant movements, especially where women were concerned. Agrarian politics was not just about gaining land or establishing permanent tenancy rights, in other words, but also about social issues such as women's mobility and anti-parda activism in the case of the Majhoulia Ashram or the establishment on the other hand of more segregated relations between men and women in the case of the Musahar movement.

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Furthermore, in most peasant movements in Darbhanga and Munger, a major issue was landlord atrocities. In their oral narratives about these movements, peasant activists often cite the decrease in such atrocities as one of their main accomplishments and as evidence of the success of their struggle. Generally, outside the large estate of the Maharaja, smaller landlords who were vying against one another for power showed their prowess by exercising control over the peasants on their land. Begari-- forced labor--and rape were expressions of this control. In the Raghopur peasant movement in southern Darbhanga, a local leader, Kedarnath Thakur, fought explicitly against such atrocities. Participants claimed that the landlord required new mothers to serve as wet nurses to his children and that young women to report to him for sex on demand.

These physical threats to women certainly illustrated the power of a landlord; but the invocation of these examples by male peasants to illustrate the barbarity of the zamindars also bolstered the moral authority of the peasant movements. In this way the protection of women's bodies as claimed in the Raghopur movement, along with protection and redefinition of their social position as illustrated in the Majhoulia Ashram and the Musahar movement, became integral symbols of peasant politics.

PART THREE: Red Saris and Parda

Although women's participation in political movements usually remained separate from men's, women also expressed their interests within

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agrarian movements. In Nawada women defied a restraining order and transplanted paddy in a forbidden field. (10) In Munger in 1936, during the Bakasht struggle in Barahiya Tal, women marched through Barahiya Town clanging pots and pans after the men from the surrounding villages were arrested for burning the standing crops. The women had effectively extended the protest from the fields into the town. But they were not arrested.

Similarly in Darbhanga, men marched on the Tinkonma field and cut the sawai crops prematurely. When the landlord's men arrived they found the field surrounded by women in red saris chanting slogans and singing songs.

Even the Maharaja's own newspaper, The Indian Nation, reported the event.

A new development in the situation is the free distribution of red saris and kurtis, among a large number of kisan women, who rushed to the scene shouting provocative phrases. (11)

One participant, Ram Roop Yadav claimed that the zamindar's agents, after allowing the peasants to cut some of the crop, began attacking the peasants with their lathis. Within minutes the local police arrived. The police dismissed the henchmen and arrested the peasant men, sending the women back to their homes. Ram Roop and his brother, Dukhi Yadav, were among those arrested. Dukhi's wife, Sukhya Devi, had provided red saris to women who shouted slogans and collected the fallen sawai. The women stood at the edge of the field blocking the way of the landlord's men on horses.

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In each case, women were not arrested for their actions. Their participation was not considered a sufficient offense. It was separate from the peasant movement, yet in a way provided a dramatic emphasis to it. Women's participation demonstrated the support and sacrifice of the families who were affected by their husbands' activism and internment. Both oral narrators telling the story and newspapers recording it, considered women's participation ancillary. This is interesting in comparison to the Telengana and Naxalite Movements in which women took up arms with men. But in both those cases as well, women participants described their participation as seeming less significant, and they expressed frustration at being locked out of decision making positions. (12) Clearly, because women peasants lacked a certain political status, their actions were seen as neither threatening nor significant, and therefore repressive action against them was unnecessary.

But the advantage of such gendered attitudes by the police aided, ironically, the famous peasant leader Suraj Narayan Singh in his dramatic escape from the Hazaribagh jail along with Ramnandan Mishra and Jaya Prakash Narayan on 11 August 1942. The entire district of Darbhanga represented a "safe house" for the fugitives, who were traveling north through Darbhanga to armed camps in Nepal. (13) The histories of their escape provided a unifying narrative in the region; every village had a narrative of its role in hiding the escapees.

Hantivali, near Jhanjharpur police station, provides an example. Suraj Babu was said to have hidden there, sick with fever from days on the run.

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Nunu Babu, an old villager whose only glory had been nursing the great hero, told with pride how he managed to slip Suraj Babu out of Hantivali in the cloak of night and in disguise. Nunu Babu covered a tonga, with cloth concealing his passenger except for the shoe tips--women's shoes. Thus disguised, they headed north toward the border. When stopped by police, the driver claimed the passenger was his wife, cloaked in parda. Not willing to run the risk of offending the travelers, the police gave them passage. (14)

Gender separation and the practice of parda that Suraj Babu exploited characterized women's participation in peasant politics. Indeed, women saw peasant movements as an extension of the family. The aims of the movements benefited the family and them personally in opposition to landlord atrocities and the demand for sufficient land for subsistence farming.


From the legal definition of peasants to the practice of peasant politics the assumptions about peasants as a political force have been largely centered on men. When peasant activists fought for their arrested colleagues to be labeled as political prisoners they were also implicitly referring to men alone because, as we have seen, women peasants were rarely arrested for protest. Women Ashramites, on the other hand, were arrested for picketing cloth stores or blocking traffic in protest marches. Therefore the jail court records that eventually conferred pensions to activists and provided sources for histories of peasant movements excluded women

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who had participated in peasant movements but included women who had worked in the Ashram.

In the records of local Kisan Sabhas, for example the diary of Panchanand Sharma, a leader of the Barahiya Tal Movement, or Kedarnath Thakur, who organized the Raghopur Movement, lists of Kisan activists did not include any women at all. For these reasons Rajkishori, Sukhya Devi and others have been excluded from the written records of agrarian politics.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, we can identify patterns of expectations and behavior that have continued in post independence politics as well. Within the public political system women, until very recently, have taken secondary roles in political parties and run for office at the bidding of male politicians. But an entirely separate realm of women's activism has survived as well-- largely through volunteer organizations--reminiscent of the social service practiced in the Majhoulia Ashram.

In political parties women have made posters and banners and distributed campaign packets to party workers--not a far cry from the red saris and kurtis of the Tinkonma protest.. But interestingly it is the BJP, which affirms most explicitly conservative values and roles for women, that has also done the best job of recruiting them. Again, like the khadi workers, the Mahila Manch of the BJP has all-women cadres that mobilize women for elections.

In this way political parties continue to see women as a separate category both for mobilizing voters and for defining political issues.

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Atrocities against women continue to be issues that parties use to gain support both of women voters and husbands who feel the need to protect them.

While the ancillary role of women is rapidly changing with the initiative of the 1992 amendment to the constitution for Panchayati Raj that requires 1/3 representation for women, the assumption of separation remains. The reservation system assumes women's interests are different from men's and maintains a concomitant separation for women. This year a proposed amendment to the Constitution has been under debate to require 1/3 representation of women in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies as well. Though it was tabled in December it may be resurrected in the next session for renewed discussion. And all the major political parties have given tacit support.

Proponents suggest that only through proactive legislation and required representation of women in legislatures will women become fully included in political debate. Their argument is supported by the experience of peasant politics in which from the level of British legislation women's rights were excluded and at the level of activism women's participation left little mark in the written record.

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1. Balia Belam 83, Madhubani, VN. [BACK]

2. The criteria for identifying occupancy raiyats included detailed knowledge of the crops, because the purpose of the occupancy category was to award secure tenures to the person who actually directly controlled production. [BACK]

3. Balia Belam 83, Madhubani, VN. [BACK]

4. For another example of this practice see Semudra 74, Madhubani, VN. [BACK]

5. At the time of the settlement, in the 150 villages of Pandaul, there were thirty-two tenancies that the Maharaja had given to women or had been inherited by women. Among these, there are only records of four tenancy disputes over occupancy rights and all four women in those disputes were ultimately recorded as tenure holders. According to the land records, at least ten more out of the remaining twenty-eight were ultimately recorded as tenure holders without dispute. See Darbhanga District Village Notes for Madhubani and Bahera Thanas. [BACK]

6. Clearly Finucane had the same impression about one category of tenure holders, thikadars, when he carried out the earlier survey of the Raj. See page 225 of this text. [BACK]

7. Enhancements of occupancy rents could only occur if the lands were increased or somehow changed, but tenure holders' rents could be enhanced simply to reach the level of neighboring tenures. BTA sec. 7, sub-section 1. [BACK]

8. Women who held land primarily inherited it, rather than purchased it, and most women who inherited land kept it for maintenance income, rather than speculation. [BACK]

9. "Court Statement of Saini Musahar," Bhagalpur Jail, September 1938, in MSS EUR F236/3, Papers of William G. Archer, India Office Library, London. This quote comes from a court transcript of Saini Musahar's statement of how he came to lead the Musahars based on a legal case against him for an incident following a pilgrimage. [BACK]

10. Janata (Patna) 12 October 1936. 3. [BACK]

11. Indian Nation (Patna), 4 July 1939, 2. [BACK]

12. We Were Making History [BACK]

13. The best written description of Suraj Narayan Singh's escape through Mithila is in D. N. Singh, Mithila mein Swatanya Andolan ka Udbhav aur Vikas [The Origin and Development of the Freedom Movement in Mithila] (Darbhanga: Rajgiri Prakashan, 1988), 160-165. [BACK]

14. Nunu Babu, [Nerve Narayan Jha], "On Suraj Babu," Hantivali, 10 April 1987. [BACK]

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