SAHAJANAND ON AGRICULTURAL LABOUR AND THE RURAL POOR edited and translated by Walter Hauser. Manohal, New Delhi, 1994.
SWAMI SAHAJANAND AND THE PEASANTS OF JHARKHAND: A View from 1941 edited and translated by Walter Hauser. Manohar, New Delhi, 1995.
THE remarkable shifts in Sahajanand's ideological affiliations and programmatic commitments and his indelible role in the public arena has encouraged a considerable number of researches on his life and activities. At the same time the sheer range of his engagements in different phases of his life (from a caste politician, he moved to be the founder of the Kisan Sabha in Bihar and the All India Kisan Sabha, and subsequently emerged as an undisputed peasant leader with professed leftist goals), has left crucial gaps leading to contentions in academic assessments. It is the second phase of Sahajanand's career, when he was closely connected with the peasant movement of the 1930s and was in fact its prime organizer and principal ideologue, that has evoked maximum controversy among historians of modern Indian agrarian history. Did the Kisan Subha represent poor farmers and landless labourers? Could it address the specific problems of tribals? It is in this context that we can appreciate the relevance of the two political tracts, Khet Mazdoor and Jharkhand ke Kisan (the English titles are mentioned above) written by Sahajanand and edited and translated by Professor Walter Hauser. These books, Hauser rightly points out, 'inform us of the thought and mind of one of the leading activists of his day.' (Sahajanand on Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor, p. 64)
Hauser is not unaware of the divergence of opinions regarding Sahajanand. In the editorial introduction to Khet Mazdoor he writes: 'It is presumed that he (Sahajanand) was essentially representing the interests of the well-to-do, or at best middle peasants.... But these are perceptions which dramatically undervalue the mind and activism of an exceedingly complex man....' (Agricultural Labour. p. xiv-xv ) The two tracts, unpublished earlier, clearly show that Sahajanand did not restrict himself to protecting the interests of peasants with tenancy rights; rather he had systematically moved 'in the direction of an activism representing the marginal poor, whether peasants or landless agricultural laborers....' (Agricultural Labour, p. xv-xvi)
Sahajanand argues that the agricultural labourers such as 'the herdsmen. ploughmen, and others who directly work the land' (Agricultural Labour, p. l ) not only constituted the largest majority among the agrarian classes but also served as the very foundation of the agrarian structure. Hence no substantial change in agrarian relations was possible without addressing the problem of their exploitation. Sahajanand was convinced that a fundamental change in agrarian relations could be brought about only by a united front comprising of these agricultural labourers and the poor peasants. This tract elaborates Sahajanand's vision of united front. At the same time it betrays the tension inherent in the process of coordinating the interests of the agricultural labourers and the peasants.
Sahajanand argued that it was futile to organize a movement only of agricultural labourers. Unlike factory workers, they lacked revolutionary potential. Materially they clung on to their paltry belongings, and their differing caste and religious affiliations left them a divided lot. In the agrarian sector they had to content with an array of exploiters which included the zamindars, the sahukars and the poor peasants. Their agitation against the poor and marginal peasants, who also employed them, would not yield any relief since the latter themselves suffered at the hands of the zamindars and the money lenders. Such internecine struggle could only jeopardize the scope of a joint effort by classes whose interests were similar. There was no significant financial difference, Sahajanand argued, 'between the conditions of the real kisans whom we call poor middle kisans and the condition of 98 per cent of agricultural labourers.' (Agricultural Labour, pp. 61-62) As a matter of fact the class
of agricultural labourers was not a 'fixed one'. It comprised of members from all classes, particularly from the class of poor peasants who had lost their land to the zamindars and money lenders. The problem of agricultural labour were thus primarily economic, and concerned people of all castes and religious groups.
Sahajanand could not, however, overlook the conflict between the agricultural labourers and the poor peasants. He confessed that whereas it was essential to keep 'the agricultural labourers and kisans within a single peasant organization, i.e., the Kisan Sabha', it was equally necessary to find 'ways to prevent their exploitation by the kisans....' (Agricultural Labour, p. 113) He urged the poor peasants to financially help the former and to treat them 'on the basis of equality and brotherhood' (Agricultural Labour, p. 93). Nevertheless he was loathe to drive a permanent wedge between the two classes. The fundamental problems of agricultural labourers, such as that of unemployment, inadequate wages and landlessness could be solved only by a united struggle of the people. The objective would be to force the government to create job opportunities and, more importantly, 'to dispossess those zamindars from all their zirat and bakasht lands who are not dependent on cultivation.'
Unlike the Khet Mazdoor tract with its focus on the class exploitation of agricultural labourers (replete with references to the Soviet experience) in Jharkhand ke Kisan Sahajanand emphasizes the exploitation of the Adivasi 'cultural and physical environment' (Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 10) by non-Adivasi outsiders. His motivation to begin another tract, only three months after the completion of Khet Mazdoor, was because as an activist he was clear that no agrarian movement could be launched in a region unless one was acquainted with the specific needs of the people, their condition of existence, their exploitation and misery. Accordingly, Sahajanand deals with themes such as the spatial location and physical configuration of the land which accounted for its uniqueness, relative isolation and its richness in minerals and forest produce; the diversity of languages and culture of its inhabitants (the Adivasis), their land system, village society, and community life; the educational and developmental backwardness of the region and the exploitation of Adivasis by jagirdars, zamindars and sahukars; the rarely comprehensible land tenure system, tenancy regulations, and the legal system. and a betrayal of the people by the government and the Biharis. In order to emphasize the 'open loot', Sahajanand repeatedly drew a parallel between Jharkhand and Viharkhand, i.e., the rest of the state of Bihar.
It may be noted that Sahajanand saw the 'tribals' as the 'original inhabitants' of Jharkhand, and therefore primarily employs the term 'Adivasis' when refering to them. He saw them as true kisans (pakke kisans) since they loved their land as much as they loved their jungle and could not 'live without these two central elements of their lives' (Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 37). (Interestingly, Sahajanand suggests that the Adivasis, unless they were converted, were all Hindus.) Sahajanand pointedly contrasts the helplessness and exploitation of the kisans with their potential for positive change. What had betrayed the Adivasis, in his opinion, was the middle class affiliations of their leaders, and the infiltration of non-Adivasis into the leadership. 'If organized on the basis of their class interest,' Sahajanand suggests, 'they (the kisans) can become a powerful force whom no one can crush' (Peasants of Jharkhand. p. 37).
As Hauser correctly points out, this tract should not be read as a history of Jharkhand or as an examination of land systems, forest policies and so on. Rather, its importance lies in that it reflects the impressions of one of the most active peasant leaders of Bihar on issues concerning the people of Jharkhand. When one remembers that most accounts of Jharkhand have survived primarily in the records of colonial administrators and ethnographers (S.C. Roy's writings being an exception), the historical significance of the tract is reinforced.
Hauser has understandably decided not to rewrite or revise Sahajanand's accounts of the khet mazdoor or the Adivasis of Jharkhand; nor is he interested in checking their historical accuracy. He has provided an editorial endnote at the end of every chapter in order to 'amplify, clarify and provide bibliographic definition to Sahajanand's text' (Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 77), an editor's glossary with a brief introduction. and most importantly the original Hindi text. The editorial notes, which reconstruct the historical context and ideological milieu in which Sahajanand marshalled his thoughts, raise some new problems in historiography. Hauser seems to posit a direct correspondence between Sahajanand's ideas and the prevailing political and material situation. This encourages Hauser to constantly stress the applicability of Sahajanand's concepts to the 1980s and 1990s. Sahajanand's historical role can be assessed even without insisting on his relevance to recent times. Some of the notes are too detailed and appear irrelevant. For example, why is it necessary to discuss Krishna Ballabh Sahay's daily visits to Palamau during the famine of the mid-1960s as an endnote to Sahajanand's comment on the barrenness of the Palamau district of Chotanagpur! (Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 24-25). A final comment on a minor factual error: the Adivasi Mahasabha did not emerge out of the Unnati Samaj in 1938 as Hauser seems to suggest (Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 9); both arose as independent organizations. At a time when the attention of historians is focused around the history of identities, the publication of these two political tracts by one of our most important peasant leaders, assumes relevance. For any serious scholar of peasant history, these books provide useful reference.