At A Cross-Roads

Peasant Revolts in India

Arup Baisya

The on-going peasant uprising is playing an important role in strengthening the voices of the anti-fascist forces and releasing the social energy to shake the ground under the fascist juggernaut at least for the time being. The peasant movement needs to be directed towards a radical social change for mounting a real challenge towards the rise of fascistic tendencies within the changing dynamics of social relations of production.

The historian Irfan Habib in his book 'Essays in Indian History' said, "The peasants might fuel a zaminder's revolt (Marathas), they might rise in a locality (the Doab), or as a caste (Jats), or as a sect (Satnamis, Sikhs), but they fail to attain a recognition of any common objectives that transcended parochial limits". But on the cause of the deficiency, he cogently delineates, "The caste divisions in our society, the immense gulf between the peasantry and the 'menial' proletariat, and the deeply rooted authority of the zamindars all probably have had a part in determining this result. Still, it has to be admitted that no last word can be said on so complex a matter as the role of the peasants in a civilization".

The peasant history is the history of different classes of peasants like rich peasants who uses hired labour, the middle peasants who mainly uses family labour, the poor peasants with land insufficient to absorb the whole of family labour and the landless labourers and the changes of property relations and their relation with exploiting classes. During colonial period, the principal form of expropriation of peasant's surplus was rent, a complex system of rents including labour rent and produce rent. This system of rent extraction essentially showed the existence of pre-capitalist relations of production as dominant features. But the process of expropriation of peasant's surplus was driven by the interest of extracting super-profit for imperialist capital and as such, the production of cash crop for the market, domestic and primarily export, not only simultaneously existed alongside the pre-capitalist relations but also the capitalist relations was germinated within the domain of pre-capitalist relations.

In this era of capitalist globalisation, big monopoly capital not only extract rent only through its control over markets, but also by establishing private property rights over land, forest and water. Rent is also extracted by exercising private property rights over knowledge, science, technology and agricultural inputs after these have been transformed into marketable commodities. Capitalist rent stipulates that capital dominates non-capitalist sectors and uses such dominance to extract part or whole of the surplus produced by them as rent. In analyzing the development of capitalism in Russia, Lenin highlighted Mr Postnikov's proposition that the number of people working including the hired labourers and the implements of production diminishes as the size of the farm increases. The contract farming which has already been implemented in many areas of Indian agricultural production has been endorsed as a main policy drive of the Government in power by promulgating the Farm Act 2020. This in turn, transforms a large section of peasants into workers who cannot be absorbed in industry and becomes the source of reserve army of cheap manual labour. The commercial transformation of agriculture under the control of monopoly capital causes further deflation of income of the vast rural masses to ensure super-profit from export of agricultural commodities and may lead to a situation of starvation due to dismantling of the state-regulated distribution system of food grains for food security of the Indian masses.

In the colonial era, the commercialisation led to depression. The intense account of the catastrophic consequence of such depression that hit UP in 1830s was vividly described in this passage - "Peasants were abandoning their lands. Zamindars had suffered losses. Moneylenders had been ruined because loan they had made had not been repaid; many of them now refused to lend money to the cultivators. Land had depreciated in value; innumerable cases were reported of estates being put up for sale and no buyers coming forward. Finally, there is evidence that cultivation had contracted."

From Irfan Habib's 'Peasants in Indian History', a brief account of transition and transformation of Indian peasants can be summarised. The cities in Harappa and Mahenjodaro disappeared with the fall of Indus culture. But interpreting the Rigvedic hymns, Wheels and then Kosambi saw the Aryans as directly succeeding the Indus culture.

He says, "By the middle of the first millennium BC the long period of agricultural penetration eastward had created a complex social formation marked by peasant communities created within tribes, interspersed with settlement of servile or semi-servile labourers working under landowning masters, while hunting groups enjoyed a fresh through passing economic importance. These varied social forms probably explain the rather heterogeneous nature of the emerging politics of the mahajanapadas, with the rulers' powers strongly circumscribed by powerful aristocracies and by the rising pretensions of the brahmana priesthood already in control over large areas of lands. The king was called 'the devourer of peasants', since it was the peasant alone, and not the great landowners or the brahmanas, who paid him the key in grain. …It seems to me that from 500 BC there was an immense acceleration in the process of change for almost 500 years, which universalized peasant production and also simultaneously created a caste-divided peasantry."

In the medieval period, there was a shift in balance in favour of the towns due to the urban growth based on the surplus extracted by the ruling class in the form of the land tax. Through this imposition of land tax, a new form of triangular relationship between the peasantry, the zaminders and the ruling class had emerged, though zaminders were not present as intermediary class in the areas of peasant-held raiyati agrarian system. Many peasant rebellions occurred due to the increased revenue demand of the ruling class. A widespread rebellion occurred in the Doab about 1330 against Muhammed Tughlaq and in this revolt, the peasant defiance merged with zaminder's conflict with the ruling class over their share of the surplus. Such revolts were followed by Jat uprising under the leadership of zaminders and became successful in establishing Bharatpur estate. The expansion of Jat zaminderi occurred in the Doab and number of Jat peasant moved into the rank of zaminders. The zaminder's uprising in seventeenth century also merged with peasant unrest in many areas. Many peasant revolts combined with religious movements based on religious preaching of social egalitarianism of teachers belonging to low jaitis like Kabir, Raidas, Sain, Dadu et el occurred in medieval period. The Satnami revolt in 1672 in the Narnaul region shook the Mughal empire.

In colonial era, the tremendous pressure upon the peasants as well as zaminders for paying revenues created agrarian crisis in Bengal province. In this background of crisis, Lord Cornwallis proclaimed permanent settlement in Bengal in 1993. Ranajit Guha's book on 'Rule of Property for Bengal' first published in 1963 is a classic work on how the colonial power with an anti-feudal mission established neo-feudalism through the policy of permanent settlement in 1793. The mutiny of 1857 which is considered as the mutiny of Sepoys and first independence struggle, was actually the peasant revolt led by zaminders against the British regime, the main exploiters. The revolt initially took place in two prosperous regions of Oudh and Agra province due to the relentless collection of revenues and seizing of Indian market by the British ruling regime.

In the pre-colonial medieval period, Irfan Habib observed, "The Mughal empire owed its collapse very largely to the agrarian crisis which engulfed it, and of which the uprising with their varied record of failure and success were the consequence. Peasants, as we have seen, were deeply involved in these uprisings. Yet the goals of the uprising in each case were not those of the peasants; and for them the fundamental conditions remained unaltered."

Similarly, peasant revolts were the bedrock on which the national movement for freedom from colonial rule emerged. What will be the fate of the present peasant uprising is entirely dependent on the consciousness of the peasantry, broader unity of Indian masses under the leadership of the working class and how the future reconstruction of the society is visualised within the garb of emerging socio-political situation. To achieve a fundamental change in the condition of peasants and for radical change of social relations of production, a futuristic programme needs to be evolved to free the country from the ruling corporate exploiter class.

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Vol. 53, No. 39, Mar 28 - Apr 3, 2021