Bihar Peasants in Modern History

Peasant struggles are by no means a twentieth century phenomenon in the history of Bihar. In the nineteenth century itself Bihar had witnessed scores of heroic struggles of the peasantry, the Santhal Insurrection of 1855-56, the Munda Uprising of 1899-1901 and the Indigo Revolts in the latter half of the nineteenth century being the most notable among them. However, these were all isolated instances of peasant uprising with the leadership being provided by the local peasant leaders themselves without any national perspective and modern ideas. In contrast, peasant struggles in the present century are marked by outside intervention right from the days of the Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 when Gandhi first began his experiments with the peasantry.

Champaran Satyagraha

The Champaran Satyagraha marked the last phase of the protracted struggle against the indigo planters and with it the peasant struggle in Bihar entered the national arena.

The movement enjoyed a wide popular support as the entire population of the district was against the planters for one reason or the other. Agricultural labourers were dissatisfied because they did not get wages at prevailing rates and they were forced to do unpaid labour for them. Tenants were against the planters for Tinkathia obligation, very low price for indigo, unremunerative cart Sattas, the realisation of Abwab and Dastoori, besides harassment by planters and their amlas. Cobblers were hit hard because of an attack on their right to hides and small shopkeepers were aggrieved because they were restricted in their operations and subjected to illegal taxes. Moneylenders and traders also found the planters in the way of expansion of their business as indigo cultivation with its accompanying svstem of cash payment had lessened the peasants’ depen­dence on them. The Marwaris and the Shahs were not directly concerned with indigo cultivation and as such they were not involved in any direct dispute with the planters, but aware as they were of the very well-judged possibility that the planters’ departure would result in greatly increased power and profit for themselves, they offered all sorts of material help for carrying on the movement.

All these diverse elements joined hands in the Satyagraha. The leadership, however, was provided by the moneylenders, rich tenants, petty zamindars, ex-factory employees and teachers. Raj Kumar Shukla, the most prominent among local leaders and instrumental in bringing Gandhi to Champaran, was himself a moneylender. Other important local leaders like Khendhar Rai of Laukaria, the Shahs of Motihari and the Marwaris of Bettiah and Motihari who financed the movement and gave it all sorts of material support were all moneylender-cum-traders.

At the same time the country was seething with anti-British discontent and Gandhi was fast emerging as a popular leader. His rural image, pro-poperty and even pro-usury stand and the harmless form of Satyagraha agitation made him easily acceptable to the local leadership.

The movement did not last long and remained restricted in scope, never touching even the fringes of deeper agrarian issues. The cultivation of indigo did soon draw to a close, but that was due not so much to the Satyagraha as to the invention of a cheaper, artificial dye.

Gandhi’s whole experiment was in tune with the line of the collaborating Indian bourgeoisie who looked to the peasantry only to wring greater concessions from the British imperialists, and was mortally afraid of arousing the peasantry in any massive, militant movement. In the name of nationalism Gandhi always discouraged any peasant movement against ‘native’ landlords. Thus it was no wonder that when a massive anti-zamindari peasant agita­tion broke out in Darbhanga estate in 1920, the entire Bihar Congress leadership kept itself aloof from the movement.

However, in subsequent anti-British movements the peasants of Bihar did always raise the banner of anti-landlordism despite Gandhi’s express disapproval. Thus, while in the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921 Gandhi had only advocated stopping of tax payment to the govern­ment, the peasants extended it to a no-rent campaign as well.

Sahajanand and Kisan Sabba/strong>

While the Congress refused to lead the peasantry in its struggle against the landlords there was no dearth of issues confronting the peasants of Bihar : Begar (forced labour), Abwab (illegal exactions), conversion of produce rent into cash rent, disputes over diara land, right to forest produce, grazing land, Bakasht land (land originally belonging to the raiyats, but ‘resumed’ by the landlords in lieu of rent arrears) and so on and so forth. There were also certain social issues, e.g., the Bhumihars and the Yadavas, together with some other ‘lower’ castes, were fighting for being accorded a higher social status. Gradually the Bakasht land issue overwhelmed all other issues to emerge as the focal point of agrarian disputes—while landlords were supposed to cultivate such lands themselves, in actual practice they had been engaging others, often the original owners themselves, as unrecognised sharecroppers.

The cumulative effect of all these issues was to create a very fertile ground for peasant struggles. And it was on this ground that the Kisan Sabha first sprang up in the western part of Patna district in 1927. Under the charis­matic and dynamic leadership of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati the Sabha soon spread over entire Bihar. The ‘Permanent Settlement’ finally began to get unsettled.

The evolution of the ideas of Sahajanand provides a glimpse of the changing course of the peasant struggle in Bihar and of the process leading to the radicalisation of the Kisan Sabha. Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, alias Navrang Rai, of Ghazipur district of UP, had initially joined the Bhumihar Mahasabha in an apparent bid to buttress the Bhumihars’ claim to Brahminical status. But he did not stop there and was soon found encouraging the younger genera­tion of Bhumihars to participate in the Non-Cooperation Movement in large numbers. By 1925-26 the two wings within the Mahasabha—the ‘moderates’ led by Sir Ganesh Dutt, a big landlord and a British puppet and the ‘extremists’ led by Sahajanand—parted ways. Soon Sahajanand’s ashram at Bihta near Patna became the focal point of the peasant movement in Bihar, attracting not only Bhumihars but tenants of other castes as well. Sensing the gradual shift in Sahajanand’s direction, the Bhumihar rich land­owners stopped subscriptions. But this only confirmed Sahajanand’s suspicion that

    caste associations and donations given for caste and religious purposes are essentially devices by the rich to control organisations and to (there­by) protect their landed and trading interests and generally continue their supremacy rather than for any altruistic purpose.

It is interesting to note that the original purpose behind the formation of the Kisan Sabha was not to promote peasant struggles, but to prevent the eruption of tension in the countryside. As Sahajanand himself later admitted :

    My sole object in doing so (setting up the Kisan Sabha) was to get grievances of the kisans redressed by mere agitation and propaganda and thus to eliminate all chances of clashes between the kisans and the zamindars which seemed imminent and thus threatened to destroy the all-round national unity so necessary to achieve freedom. Thus I began the organised Kisan Sabha as a staunch class-collaborator.

While the Bakasht issue lay unresolved, in 1929 the .government proposed to introduce a bill to amend the Tenancy Act which, if passed, would have adversely affected the interests of the tenants. It was at this juncture that the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha (BPKS) was formed at the annual gathering of the peasants during the Sonepur fair in 1929 with Sahajanand as the president. Among its numerous local activists were Jamuna Karjee, Jadunandan Sharma, Karyanand Sharma, Dhanraj Sharma, Kishori Prasanna Singh, Indradeep Sinha, Bhogendra Jha and Sheel Bhadra Yajee. They were later joined by famous intellectuals like Rahul Sankrityayana and Nagarjuna on the one hand and Congress Socialist leaders like Jaya Prakash Narayan, Rambriksha Benipuri, Ganga Saran Sinha, Awadheswar Prasad Singh and Ramnandan Mishra on the other. But the organisation remained basically centred round Sahajanand and his close associates like Jadunandan Sharma, Jamuna Karjee, Karyanand Sharma and Dhanraj Sharma.

The very foundation of the BPKS in 1929 was marked by the dropping of the proposed tenancy amendment. This was construed by the peasants as a significant victory and proved to be a tremendous morale-booster for them. And then came a series of stirring political and economic events—the Civil Disobedience Movement, the Great Depression, and Provincial Autonomy—and the Kisan Sabha grew from strength to strength on the crest of these waves. But if these events of national and international significance provided the right external atmosphere, the Sabha drew its strength basically from within, from the scores of struggles in which it led the peasants of Bihar. One can rightly say that the BPKS was more a movement than an organisation. Among the important struggles undertaken by the Kisan Sabha were the ones directed against the tenancy bill in 1933, the Rewara struggles in Gaya in 1933 and again in 1938, the Bakasht movements in Barahiya tal, Rewara, Majiawana and Amwari during 1936-38, the joint peasant-worker action against the Dalmia Sugar Factory at Bihta in 1938-39 etc. Serious struggles were also waged in Shahabad, Saran, Darbhanga, Patna, Champaran and Bhagalpur districts. Of these, the most legendary was the Bakasht movement in Barahiya tal which not only continued for several years but led to a great victory for the tenants and laid a strong foundation for the Communist Party in Bihar.

Meanwhile in 1934 Sahajanand broke away from Gandhi, having followed him for no less than 14 years. He was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Gandhi’s devious pro-propertied attitudes, and after his break with Gandhi, Sahajanand consistently viewed him as a wily politician who, in order to defend the propertied classes, took recourse in pseudo-spiritualism, professions of non-violence and religious hocus-pocus. Following this, the Congress grew rather hostile to the Sabha and sought to obstruct its growth by all possible means. While the Kisan Sabha was leading the peasants in militant struggles defying several firings, count­less lathi-charges and thousands of arrests and trials, the Congress government that assumed office in 1937 was busy negotiating an agreement with the zamindars who offered their ‘help and cooperation in instituting tenancy laws to ameliorate the lot of the kisans’. The terms of this Congress-zamindar agreement based on negotiations carried out by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Rajendra Prasad were never made public. At the same time, cashing in on the Kisan Sabha’s inability to pay adequate attention to the specific grievances of the agricultural labourers and to ensure their fullest involvement in the activities of the Sabha, the Congress sought to weaken it by pitting agricultural labourers against it and encouraging scheduled caste leaders like Jagjivan Ram to set up a Bihar Provincial Khet Mazdur Sabha in 1937. In some places the landlords too set up certain bogus organisations claiming to represent the agricultural labourers. But despite all these attempts on the part of the landlords and the Congress, the Kisan Sabha continued to grow from strength to strength. Estimated at 80,000 in 1935, the membership of the BPKS rose to 2,50,000 by 1938.

In April 1936 the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) came into existence and the BPKS became its foremost provincial unit. The initiative was taken primarily by the CSP leaders, N G Ranga being the prime mover. Sahajanand was named president of the first meeting of the AIKS held at Lucknow, but he had reservations regarding its formation as he felt that in the absence of well-developed provincial units the national organisation could not possibly play any effective role. Once involved, Sahajanand. however, extended total support to the AIKS and worked wholeheartedly for it, but his doubts were proved undoubtedly right. Afterwards, he also cooperated with Subhas Chandra Bose in organising the Anti-Compromise Conference against the British and the Congress, and subsequently during the Second World War he worked with the CPI. Though in the last few years before his death on 26 June, 1950, Sahajanand dissociated himself from the Communists, too, he remained a resolute representative of the rural poor, and his faith in ‘class struggle as the only method to liberate the oppressed masses from the many-folded slavery and subjugation’ that was prompted by his early encounters with the landlords remained unshaken.

Initially the BPKS took little note of the internal differen­tiation within the peasantry, relying more on rich and upper-middle peasants in the name of representing the entire peasantry. By 1941, however, the shift was slowly becoming evident. Said Sahajanand,

    The Kisan Sabha belongs to those exploited and suffering masses whose lot is connected with cultivation and (who) live by it. The more they are oppressed and distressed the nearer they are to the Kisan Sabha and the nearer it is to them.

And in the 1944 session of the AIKS in Vijaywada he was still more forthright when he said,

    They (middle and big cultivators) are using the Kisan Sabha for their benefit and gain, while we are using or rather trying to use them to streng­then the Sabha, till the lowest strata of the peasantry are awakened to their real economic and political interests and needs and have become class conscious …. It is they, the semi-proletariat or the agricultural labourers who have very little land or no land at all, and the petty cultivators, who anyhow squeeze a most meagre living out of the land they cultivate and eke out their existence, who are the kisans of our thinking …. and who make and must constitute the Kisan Sabha ultimately.

After independence, the Socialists set up splittist organisa­tions like the Hind Kisan Panchayat and many Kisan Sabha activists also joined the Forward Bloc. At this juncture Sahajanand set up a separate All-India United Kisan Sabha whose fundamental demand was ‘the nationalisation of land and waterways and all sources of energy and wealth … such nationalisation must also result in a planned system em­bracing not only agriculture and the land but also industries and social services’. And as for immediate demand, the newly formed organisation put it as ‘acquisition of land … from those who possess vast domains (and) distributing them on reasonable basis among landless labourers or holders of very small plots’.

From class collaboration to class struggle, from the limited objective of extracting certain concessions from the zamindars to the demand of abolition of zamindari without any payment of compensation, Sahajanand had really traversed a long way. The one-time champion of the interests of middle peasants and well-to-do tenants finally came to pin all his hopes on the rural proletariat !

    The rural proletariat … is becoming aware of its rights, duties and responsibilities—When it becomes fully aware, there will be the final dance of destruction and then the present iniquitous agrarian system will start crumbling.

Between Independence and Naxalbari

After Sahajanand’s death, his close associate Karyanand Sharma sought to carry on the movement. Sharma had led the famous Barahiya Bakasht struggle of 1937-39 and dis­illusioned with the Congress, he later joined the CPI. It was under his leadership that the CPI waged some important agrarian struggles in the 50s, the most notable among them being the Sathi Farms struggle in Champaran. Attempts were also made to develop separate agricultural labourers’ struggle on wage demands as well as struggles on the question of the bataidars’ rights and also on issues of homestead tenancy, famine relief measures, taqavi loans, canal rent in canal-irrigated areas, sugarcane prices etc. Till his death in 1960, Karyanand was a front ranking CPI leader in Bihar and also the leader of the party’s legislative wing. During his last years, he came to lay increasing stress on organising the agricultural labourers and poor peasants, particularly on building the Khet Mazdoor Sabha.

The 1950s also witnessed intense struggles of the bataidars. In the Kosi belt the landlords were in the habit of getting vast tracts of diara land reclaimed by tenants brought in from various adjoining districts and then evicting these tenants to rent out the land to a new set of tenants at still higher rents. Since 1939 the bataidars, particularly the adivasis among them, began to actively resist the landlords’ eviction bids. Soon non-adivasi bataidars were also on the move in a big way. In the 50s their struggle under the leadership of the legendary Nakshatra Malakar reached such a peak that the government was forced to undertake a fresh survey and settlement operation in Purnea in 1952. At least half of the total bataidar families came to be recorded as occupancy tenants. In a number of places bataidars were also successful in pushing the rent down to one-fourth or even stopped paying it altogether.

As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, it has never really been active in the arena of peasant struggle in Bihar. To start with, the party launched a parallel Kisan Sabha in Champaran which began to offer passive resistance to the local tyrants. But just when this resistance started assuming an active shape on issues of social oppression, minimum wages and security of tenancy, the CPI(M) leaders compro­mised and switched over almost exclusively to electoral politics. In early 70s the CPI and the Socialists gave a call for ‘land grab’ movement, but the whole exercise was simply a grand show and fizzled out with a whimper.

The Advent of Naxalism

The late 60s and early 70s witnessed the first serious attempts at integrating revolutionary Marxism with the concrete conditions of Bihar under the impulses of the new­born Naxalbari upsurge and under the leadership of the new-born Communist Party, the CPI(ML). The protracted struggle of the Bihar peasantry entered a new phase in its development.
The first breakthrough was made in the Musahari block of Muzaffarpur district in North Bihar. But the struggle there soon collapsed under strong pressures from the trinity of landlords, police and neo-Sarvodayites led by JP. The Party, having already undergone a split and the dominant section of the State Leadership itself being the forerunner of Menshevism, was no match for the massive onslaught of the enemy. On their part, the revolutionary ranks of the Party went ahead with their attempts to develop peasant struggles over a wide range of districts, both in northern (Purnea, Darbhanga, Bhagalpur, Munger) and southern (Hazaribagh, Ranchi, Palamau) parts of the State, but they could not achieve any notable success.

Quite unexpectedly the movement was then found to gather momentum in Bhojpur and to a lesser extent in Patna. Unexpected, because practically the entire district committee of the CPI(M) had already come over to the fold of Naxalbari, and yet the movement could not grow beyond the stage of propaganda. However, the entire complexion underwent a great change when a new brand of leadership sprang up. This leadership had its root in the prevailing agrarian and social conditions in the district and it sought to provide popular forms of outlet to the mounting yet pent-up grievances of the people, including a very big rally on the demand of Harijanistan. Leading elements among these indigenous forces were already influenced by Naxalbari and Mao, and had hazy ideas about revolutionary Marxism. Combined with ex-CPI(M) leaders and guided by the Party, this core of local leadership then went on to usher in a new phase of militant peasant movement.

Heroic guerilla actions of the vanguards against notorious landlords, combined with attempts at developing revolu­tionary committees to mobilise the masses for seizing land and crops provided a militant, mass character to the movement right from the beginning, and gradually Bhojpur created a niche for itself in the history of peasant movements in modern India. This was the phase of complete under­ground and illegal activities, with stress on armed struggle in the form of guerilla actions against individual landlords and enemy agents as well as police camps for seizure of modern arms, and on combined resistance of armed units and the people against landlords and the police. The movement went on despite heavy odds, but gradually lost much of its momentum by 1976; Patna too had already suffered serious setbacks. However, as we shall see, this was to prove but a temporary phase in what has come to be recognised as one of the most protracted and militant peasant movements in the history of modern India.

Counter-Insurgency of a Different Variety

If Bihar has such a prolonged history of peasant struggles, it has also been a witness to a sustained and concerted counter-insurgency move, right from the days of Gandhi, spearheaded as much by the dealers in state violence as by the champions of Gandhian non-violence. After Gandhi, it was first Vinoba’s turn, who entered Bihar in September 1952 with his slogan of Bhoodan. The idea was to persuade the landlords to part with their excess land and share it with landless and poor peasants and Vinoba resolved to test the efficacy of his idea in Bihar. It was his declared strategy to concentrate the campaign in Bihar, and he vowed not to leave Bihar till he and his followers had collected and distributed the targeted amount of 32,00,000 acres of land. But when in June 1956 Bhave finally left Bihar, the figure of total collection was put at 21,47,842 acres only to get depleted to 21,32,787 acres by March 1966. Moreover, of this as much as 11,82,000 acres were found to be unfit for cultivation and of the rest, a considerable part consisted of legally contested land. As for distribution, the less said the better. The organisers themselves claimed to have distributed only 3,11,032 acres till March 1966 where after the campaign clearly fizzled out. Visualised as the most successful testing ground of Bhoodan by its protagonist, Bihar actually proved to be its graveyard.

Bhoodan later gave way to Gramdan, and with Vinoba beating a spiritual retreat to Wardha it was now JP’s turn. JP concentrated his activities in Musahari and later in Bhojpur. Interestingly enough, the entire Musahari block was claimed to have been gifted away in the Gramdan movement. Overtly or covertly, the Sarvodayites have all along collaborated with the government to stem the tide of agrarian conflicts. Right from Vinoba’s role in Telangana and Bihar to JP’s move at Musahari and Bhojpur, from the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini’s trips to Sahar in Bhojpur during 1977-78 to Kuldip Nayar’s recent padayatra along with Sachchidanand under the auspices of PRAYAS — all their activities are nothing but part of a wider counter-insurgency move to stamp out armed peasant struggle from the face of Bihar. As Badri Narain Sinha, DIG (Naxalite), disclosed in his article “From Naxalbari to Ekwari” (The Searchlight, June 11-13, 1975), ‘putting in zealous and dedicated social reformers drawn from all shades to bring about transforma­tion on the socio-cultural planes’ is as much a part of ‘the counter-insurgency measures as ‘concentrated police operations or operations by the special task forces, may be from the supreme armed formation, the army itself’.

Agrarian Conflict in Chhotanagpur

Before we conclude this brief historical survey let us have a quick glance at developments in the Chhotanagpur region. Wayback in 1939, the educated elite within the adivasis formed an Adivasi Mahasabha and subsequently there came into existence the Jharkhand Party (1950) centring on the demand of a separate Jharkhand State. Although the process of land alienation was somewhat slow in this region due to restrictions imposed by the Special Tenancy Acts, a land recovery struggle, similar in content to the anti-eviction struggle in the plains, did break out with great force in many parts of the region. This struggle took a militant turn in the early 70s with the formation of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in 1972. Originating in the Tundi block in Dhanbad district, the JMM-led movement soon spread across the length and breadth of Chhotanagpur. Apart from spearheading the land recovery movement, the JMM also took up various constructive programmes among the adivasis such as introduction of a second crop in the region, construction of irrigation works, liquor boycott, spreading basic literacy and opening cooperative granaries. All these gave a tremendous fillip to the movement for a separate Jharkhand State. But in the process of this ‘constructive work’ and under the guidance of liberal labour leader A K Roy, the movement gradually lost its militant edge and as certain scholars put it, Shibu Soren was reduced to more or less an ‘agricultural extension agent’ of the government (K G lyer and R N Maharaj, 1977). Later on, Soren severed his links with A K Roy and entered into an open alliance with the Congress. Alienation due to industrial acquisition has also become a very important cause of tension in Chhotanagpur with extensive expansion of mining and industrial activities.