Peasants and Their Leaders - Book Reviews
By Gail Omvedt
From the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, v.28: Nos. 3-4 (1996), p. 101-104.

[Swami's peasants] [Historical Background] [Debates with the Communists] ["Class" Divisions] [Caste and Gender]

The reviewed books -
Sahajanand on Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor Walter Hauser, ed. Sahajanand on Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor. New Delhi: Manohar, 1994.
Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941
Walter Hauser, ed. Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941. New Delhi: Manohar, 1995.
"The prime movers of these movements do not in their hearts desire that the agricultural labourers should get real relief. They seek only their own ends. Then how will the poor be benefited? They will be benefited in the long run because despite the determined efforts of dim false leaders to the contrary, this movement will gradually cause the oppressed to awaken. And when they begin to understand the reality of what is happening and who is at the root of their sorrows and sufferings, their dishonour, disgrace, hunger and disease, and when they also understand how to eradicate them, then their goals are certain to be realized." (Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, Central Jail Hazaribagh, 1941)
Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, born in 1889 to a poor Brahman rural family in the tumultuous Indian state of Bihar, became the most famous peasant leader in pre-independence India.

Working in an era of nationalist upsurge and of struggle for hegemony over the peasant movement among socialists, communists, and left nationalists, Swami Sahajanand became engaged in debates and clashes over the causes of rural poverty, the nature of class divisions among the peasantry, and the role of the peasantry in revolutionary change -- issues that remain controversial into the 1990s. He wrote and campaigned in Hindi, without formal education in English. Yet, as this collection of his writings from jail demonstrates, the views of this "organic intellectual" of one of the largest mass movements of the world are relevant today.

The reason is simple: In spite of tremendous industrialization, the largest section of exploited toilers in the world still live and work on the land. The rural arm of the third world have the greatest poverty in the world today, with an estimated one billion rural poor (633 million of them in Asia), according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). (1) These are marginal farmers and agricultural laborers, herders and fish workers, indigenous people, and ethnic minorities or low castes. In spite of the often impressive economic advances of many of these countries after World War II, poverty continues to be a troubling problem. And movements of the rural poor continue to be at the forefront of struggles for social change-although the struggles often take new and controversial forms, from campaigns against eviction and environmental destruction to those for higher crop prices in state-controlled markets.

Debates about the causes of rural poverty rage as before.All will agree that landless agricultural laborers and marginal poor peasants, along with special occupational groups such as fish workers, herding communities, and indigenous peoples; represent the main section of the rural poor, but there is still no consensus on the reasons for their ongoing poverty. Two major positions in the debate can be identified: the "exploited peasantry" position, which sees the rural poor as impoverished due to forces external to agriculture, and the "peasants as exploiters" position, which sees the rural poor as exploited primarily by the rural rich. The "exploited peasantry" paradigm argues that rural poverty is primarily caused by the extraction of surpluses from agriculture; thus not only full control over land and its products but also higher prices for the produce of agriculture am key; in spite of often considerable hierarchy and internal differences, there is still a commonality of interest among all rural sections in resisting this exploitation. The growth model linked with this paradigm stresses a balanced agro-industrial development focused on support for small producers (for example, see the IFDA report cited above).

In contrast, the "peasants as exploiters" position sees elites within agriculture -- traditionally landlords but now more and more the rich peasants or capitalist farmers -- as the main enemy. This takes off from the "traditional Marxist" view of classes among the peasantry: the rural poor are primarily those who are [++Page 102] proletarians and who are exploited as agricultural laborers. They may have small plots of land, but these are not their main source of income. Furthermore, peasants are continually at risk of losing their land. (2) This paradigm has been used to justify a larger state-guided industrialist developmental model that assumes the necessity of extracting surpluses from agriculture. The role of agriculture, according to this model, is to provide cheap food and other inputs for industry, including sometimes cheap labor. In turn, industrial growth will dynamize the economy and generate the resources to help the rural poor.

Walter Hauser's publications of the jail writings of Swami Sahajanand Sarasvati show us that these debates are not new. The question of "classes among the peasantry" -- who were the enemies and who the friends of the rural poor? -- had its beginnings in the third world before countries like India gained their independence. Peasants in this period were beginning to mobilize with a new awareness of possibilities for fundamental change and leaders of diverging ideologies confronted and joined their organizations.

Many leaders of people's struggles imprisoned in British India engaged in study and writing. But while Nehru, the aristocrat, used his time in prison to "discover India" (writing the history of the subcontinent from a rather brahmanic Fabian socialist perspective), and the communist leader Dange used his prison time attempting to apply Stalin's "five stages" to an interpretation of Indian history (focusing on the Vedic Aryans and leaving out the Indus Valley civilization and Dravidian culture entirely), the peasant leader Swami Sahajanand focused on two major groups of the rural poor -- agricultural laborers and tribal peoples.

In both these books, Swami Sahajanand defends an "exploited peasant" position. But the two books are quite different. Jharkhand ke Adivasi (Peasants of Jharkhand) is a political tract written in simple Hindi, descriptive of the miseries and exploitation in an area that is today the center of one of the most vigorous tribal autonomy movements in India; the book avoids radical demands or discussion of structural solutions (whether regional autonomy or abolition of landlordism) and suggests reform. Nevertheless, there is a focus on the "looting" of Jharkhand -- the exploitation of peasants primarily by outsiders -- and a stress on unity.

In contrast, Khetmajdur (the Hindi term, more literally translated as "field laborer," does not have a necessary connotation of wage laborer, and Hauser is true to Sahajanand's perspective in using the compound "Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor" in his title) is a theoretical book, an intervention that argues strongly for unity in exploitation and in the struggle of agricultural laborers and the peasantry as a whole: in other words, a defense of the "exploited peasantry" paradigm. To understand the debate, and to discern the targets of Swami's arguments, some historical background will be useful.

Historical Background

"Today in all parts of the world, we are witness to movements for justice and change among the downtrodden and exploited masses of the people," Swami Sahajanand begins his work on laborers (p. 10). The Kisan (peasant) movement, which was crucial in the India of the Swami's time, involved at various times and in various ways, middle and low-caste cultivators, landowning peasants, tenants, agricultural laborers, tribals fighting the economic exploitation of landlords and the British colonial state, and the social exploitation of the upper castes. By the late 1920s many of these struggles were producing organizations known usually as kisan sabhas or "peasant leagues"; by the latter part of the 1930s these organizations were beginning to unite at an all-India level to form the All-India Kisan Sabha, which included among its activists, communists, socialists, and independents like Swami Sahajanand. He took vows of renunciation in 1907, but moved to a life of social activism only a few years later. He began his activist involvement with the ritual sanskritization concerns of the Bhurmihars, a group of peasant cultivators in Bihar who claimed (and eventually won) brahman status then moved into Gandhian freedom struggle politics, and from there, in the late 1920s, into the growing peasant movement.

India's elite-led Indian National Congress, poised to become the ruling party after independence, was beginning to fear this challenge to its hegemony. By the 1930s a strategy for counteracting the growing movements of caste- and class-oppressed sections was emerging. On its own, the Congress never did organize peasants independently, but it sponsored organizations of the poorest rural sections, as agricultural laborers and as untouchables, began to define themselves as "dalits," or the "downtrodden." Gandhi has become famous for his work on the "untouchables," describing them as "Harijans" or "children of God." His movement linked them to paternalistic organizations usually run by brahman reformers and focused on schemes of "uplift." But "Harijan" organizing was only part of the Congress strategy. The other was to form agricultural laborer organizations-most notably in Bihar, where the Kisan Sabha was the strongest. The leader there was the Congress-affiliated "untouchable" Jagjivan Ram, then a young protege of the Birlas, the main nationalist capitalist family of India. Swami denounced leaders like Jagjivan Ram as "misleaders" of the rural poor and charged that Ram's agricultural laborer organizations were nothing but a divide-and-rule maneuver initiated by the Indian upper- caste elite. Congressmen formulated arguments in the 1930s that are used against peasants and united low caste movements even today: rich peasants are the main oppressors of agricultural laborers, "dominant castes" (peasants) are the ones who commit atrocities against dalits. It was primarily against these that Swami insisted so strongly that the rural poor were a part of a broader peasant section.

Debates with the Communists

This theme of peasant-agricultural laborer unity brought Swami Sahajanand into debate with his main "internal" opponents, the communists. The communists saw the peasantry as a crucial ally of the working class, but one that needed the direction of the Party. Thus, they fought for control of the Kisan Sabha. Political differences were coming to a peak in 1941. The communists found themselves opposed not only by socialists but also by Swami and other independent Kisan leaders (N. C. Ranga in [++Page 103] Andhra, Indulal Yagnik in Gujarat). On the one hand, the communists were being isolated from other radicals in the movement because this was the period when the communists were supporting the British as part of an "anti-fascist united front." On the other hand, the fact that their independent and socialist opponents were jailed by the British helped them manage an organizational takeover of the Kisan Sabha. However, behind the strategic differences -- and behind communist resistance to such slogans as "peasant-worker rule" put forward by independent peasant leaders -- was the forceful class analysis of the Marxists, one which was ultimately and profoundly anti-peasant. Peasants, the communists maintained, were a backward and dying class; they were doomed as an independent petty bourgeoisie and could only split into capitalistically defined classes, polarized between the "rich" (bourgeois) kulaks, who were employers of agricultural laborers, and poor peasants and agricultural laborers, who gained their livelihood by working on the land of others. Such divisions were thought to provide the basis for organizing. The "nonproletarian" nature of the peasants meant they could not organize or lead themselves.

Against both Congress and communist efforts to lead the peasantry and rural poor from outside, Swami Sahajanand insisted on autonomous movements. Against the theories and slogans of a class-divided village, he argued for the broad unity of rural producers. The poverty of agricultural laborers, he claimed, was part of the impoverishment of agriculture as such and its roots lay outside agriculture -- as shown in the failure to provide employment in nonagricultural manufacturing and in the growing numbers of people being thrown back on agriculture. Further, agricultural laborers were not a radically separate section, but (except for plantation workers) part of the peasantry as a whole. They were quite different from factory wage workers, dispersed, often small landholders themselves and heirs of a long process of development of relations of production in agriculture that included serfdom (serfs were seen as agricultural laborers) and other forms of unfree labor. They were sarvohara, the totally deprived (a word usually used to translate "proletariat" in India), but this was a different "proletariat" from that conceived of by Marxism.

The main dividing line of antagonism in rural areas was, Swami argued, between noncultivating (and outsider, in the case of Jharkhand) landlords and peasants as a whole, not between kulak rich peasants and agricultural laborers.

"Class" Divisions

Swami Sahajanand did not deny the existence of "class" divisions among the peasantry. Indeed he argued his points with reference to Lenin. What he did deny was their antagonistic nature. He made two important modifications to Lenin's analysis. One was to note that in India middle peasants, for cultural religious reasons, often employed laborers; thus the "middle peasant" core of the Kisan Sabhas could not be considered exploiters. Many of the employers of agricultural laborers were in fact very poor themselves. Second, he radically modified the traditional Marxist interpretation that the "rich peasants" and agricultural laborers were proto- capitalist classes, while the middle peasants were really feudal survivals, producing only for their own subsistence. Middle peasants in India, including those Swami Sahajanand organized in Bihar (which was one of the least capitalistically developed agricultural areas then and is still today), very often sold some cash crops such as tobacco and sugarcane. The difference was in their relation to the money economy: they sold their crops "not to become rich but primarily for their own subsistence" (p. 56). The middle peasantry, in his definition, could include both cash crop producers and small-scale hirers of labor -- in effect, those who owned their means of production and ran small rural "microenterprises. " They were the numerically and socially dominant group in agriculture; the "rich peasants" were unimportant.

The main dividing line of antagonism in rural areas was, he argued, between noncultivating (and outsider, in the case of Jharkhand) landlords and peasants as a whole, not between kulak rich peasants and agricultural laborers.
This class analysis influenced the solutions that Swami Sahajanand recommended to end the poverty of the rural poor, namely, the provision of land and the growth of nonagricultural employment. But land is not sufficient in and of itself; agriculture had to be modernized and developed -- with the use of fertilizer and machinery. This "industrialization" of agricultural inputs did not necessarily mean a large-scale "industrial agriculture" (which the radicals of his time thought of in terms of collectivization) but could be done within an economy of smallholders. Although he quoted Lenin and Stalin and discussed rural soviets in Russia, the Swami was notably unenthusiastic about collective farms. He mentions cooperatives with some approval at one point, but in the tract on Jharkhand he is quite scornful of the actual working of some of these both in tribal and nontribal areas of Bihar. It is also noteworthy that he saw wage struggles as secondary -- a logical outcome of viewing the rural poor primarily as "landless peasants" rather than as "wage laborers." Kisans must indeed pay good wages, but he constantly argued that it was the poverty of most Kisans that kept wages low, and while the Kisan Sabha would take up wage struggles, it should at the same time seek compromises, especially with middle peasants.

These same issues are very much alive today. The debates rage over "urban bias" and the question of prices for agricultural products; over whether economic development requires an extraction of agricultural surplus for industry; whether third world agriculture should be market oriented and/or "export oriented," over assessing the "Green Revolution." An extreme and apparently "radical" position on these issues has argued that only capitalist farmers benefit from higher prices and the market, that integration into a world market economy will necessarily destroy food subsistence production, and that this is a basic cause of the crisis for the rural poor.

Applying the perspective of this indigenous peasant leader, I question these themes. By Swami's definition we would distinguish only the very richest capitalist farmers-- those oriented to accumulation, not even to running a farming "microenterprise" -- as an agrarian bourgeoisie. The large mass of rural producers would be peasants/farmers (Indian languages do not distinguish between the two) who sell in the market -- not for profit-making capital-accumulating business purposes, but in order to earn a livelihood. Since "subsistence" does not just mean the minimum of food and clothing (and no one uses it in that way in justifying workers' demands for higher wages), demands for higher prices [++Page 104] for crops are not necessarily efforts by "surplus producers" to engage in exploitation. Rather the demands of subsistence producers are an attempt to increase the value of their labor power, that is, their living standard. This position is contrary to traditional "class analysis" (3) (and Indian government definitions) that treats farmers who sell for the market and who manage to produce a "surplus" above the minimal level of living of an agricultural laborer as "surplus producers" and "rich peasants." But it fits, interestingly enough, the legal and tax distinction drawn in the United States between "investment farms" and "family farms." (The farm, in the latter case, is the permanent residence of its owners and the owners "materially participate in its operation.") This position does not reject class analysis, but it modifies it for a society in which farmers, as well as workers, are immersed in a market economy.

In Swami's view, then, market production by itself is not harmful nor is it in contradiction with producing food for subsistence; peasant entrepreneurs (family farmers) have to be distinguished from agrarian capitalists; and technological advance is necessary to raise production. He might be faulted for having a naive faith in Green Revolution prescriptions for the application of industrial inputs to agriculture, but this view was shared by many of his time. Even today, sustainable agriculture does not mean a rejection of technology but rather the use of a better form of technology, one that relies more on "low input" production while upgrading and not just reproducing traditional practices.

Caste and Gender

What of "nonclass" issues such as caste and gender? Here lies a genuine weakness. Swami Sahajanand is silent on gender as were nearly all theorists and activists of the peasant movement of his time (the one exception was in nearby Uttar Pradesh, where a remarkable peasant women's organization was linked to the "Oudh Kisan Sabha"). (4) On caste, also, and, as we have seen, on issues of tribal autonomy, he was not very different from other radical activists who came only slowly to admit the crucial nature of these issues. Like all semi-Marxists of the time, like left nationalists such as Nehru, Swami saw economic issues as the core of the superexploitation of the dalits, or ex-untouchable groups, who in some areas were nearly coextensive with an "agricultural laborer class." It is a position on which the dalit movement of his time would have profoundly disagreed, for it saw the fight against caste discrimination to be as central as that against economic exploitation.

Yet, strikingly, the leader of the independent dalit movement saw his potential ally in Swami Sahajanand, and not in Jagjivan Ram, the "Congress untouchable," who was organizing agricultural laborers and the "Harijan movement." This leader was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who was himself involved in radical organizing in the 1930s, on caste and economic issues, including organizing a peasant movement from about 1930 to 1938 that united dalits and caste Hindu tenants in the Konkan region of Maharashtra against their landlords. It was after a climactic march of these tenants in 1938 to Bombay (perhaps one of the largest demonstrations of its time) that Ambedkar met Sahajanand. In this historic talk he did not question Sahajanand's neglect of caste issues or of organizing agricultural laborers; he did not challenge the thesis of peasant unity (in fact Ambedkar's own position was for uniting workers and peasants, dalits and non-Brahmans as a whole) -- what he disputed was the fact Sahajanand at the time still had faith in Congress political leadership. (5) The meeting failed to produce an agreement, and the various popular movements resistant to Congress leadership -- of peasants, of non-Brahmans and dalits, of communist-led union organizing -- failed to come together.

Swami was in a sense a historical loser: his "external" enemy, the Congress came to power in India, his "internal foes," the Communists, captured the All India Kisan Sabha -- and their analytical framework, which characterized peasants as class-divided and at best ambivalently revolutionary and recognized only the rural proletariat as a firm ally of the working class, remains largely hegemonic today. Swami Sahajanand is revered still in Bihar as a heroic forerunner, but the fact that he is often characterized as a leader of a "middle and rich peasant" movement and that his editor and biographer Walter Hauser has to defend him from this charge shows that the "peasant exploiter" framework is hegemonic. This makes his work all the more important because Swami Sahajanand is an "organic intellectual" of one of the most important mass movements in the third world today.

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1. See Idriss Jazairy et al., The State of World Rural Poverty (New York: New York University Press/International Fund for Agricultural Development, 1993). [BACK]

2. A more recent version of this position, linked with environmentalism more than with Marxism, sees poor peasants as subsistence producers who lose in every market transaction. The main cause of hunger, then, is the use of land for commercial production of cash crops, something from which only the rural rich benefit. [BACK]

3. For the classic example in relation to India, see Ashok Mitra, Terms of Trade and Class Relations: An Essay in Political Economy (London: Frank Cass and Co., 1977). For a discussion by an eminent and iconoclastic Indian economist, see V.M. Dandekar, Peasant- Worker Alliance: Its Basic in the Indian Economy (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1981). [BACK]

4. See Kapil Kumar, "Rural Women in Oudh 1917-1947," in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds., Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (New Delhi: Kali for Women Press, 1989). [BACK]

5. For a discussion of this see my Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (New Delhi: Sage, 1994), chapter 6. [BACK]

[Gail Omvedt is a citizen of India with a permanent home in Kasegaon, Maharashtra, where she writes, teaches. and works with social movements, particularly among rural women. Recently she has also been teaching, doing research, and working on training and publishing projects concerning Dalits and tribals at an institute in Orissa. Her most recent books are Reinventing Revolution and Dalit Visions.] [BACK]

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