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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 23, May 31, 2014

Nehru and the Peasantry

Sunday 1 June 2014, by Dipak Malik


When I met the Panchayat Pradhan of the village, a sprightly young man in his thirties on a dusty bazaar site about 40 km away from Banaras, I could see his self-confidence. He came from a Dalit background. Yet, when we decided to have a lunch meeting under the shadow of the neem tree, the Rajputs, the former principal of a reputed nearby college and other powerful village personalities showed a bonhomie unimaginable 50 years back in that feudal bastion of the green expanse of Eastern UP. This was the area which saw some levelling and blurring of caste lines much before it came to the rest of UP as it was a very active site of peasant movement against zamindari.

Nehru’s very first initiative for enacting the Zamindari Abolition Act of 1948 has some history behind it in this hinterland of Eastern UP. It was also an active area which provided the initial cadre for the Congress Socialist Party in 1934. But much before that the non-cooperation movement had already radicalised the peasantry to some extent. It was not surprising to see a young Nehru getting acquainted with peasant questions which left a deep imprint on him and he admits that he thereafter started understanding India, which was largely a peasant society, and its ethos. India was re-entering in his persona. While wandering among kisans, Nehru saw a new phenomenon, new to him being a well-bred Cambridge trained young man with an element of disbelief in the tidbids of a rural India.

It was his observation of the peasantry and the mode of peasant mobilisation that give Nehru an insight about the vast peasant masses in India. He admits that urban India was ignorant of these events:

What amazed me still more was our total ignorance in the cities of great agrarian movement. No newspaper had contained a line about it; they were not interested in rural areas. I realised more than ever how cut off we were from people and how we lived and worked and agitated in a little world apart from them. (Jawararlal Nehru, An Autobiography, Oxford

University Press, 1989, pp. 54-55)

This differentiation has further increased today when the village as well as entire peasant economy is getting a beating in the epoch of rapid globalisation and urbanisation. It is ironical to see that today in the village, Dalits and peasantry have been reduced to mere show-pieces for tokenism exercised with the help of the media for political mileage for hesitant young apprentices from the leading political dynasty of the country. Nehru’s effort to go beyond his class and to declass as well decaste himself was viable under the umbrella of the broad parameters of socialism. The current generation of political actors sans the classical Left have completely discarded the notions of even the most diluted form of socialism. They seem to be obsessed with the neo-liberal ideology about which now even the West is becoming restless.

Jawaharlal’s forays into small towns and adjoining villages were becoming consummate affairs from the 1920s. He was quick to chart his agenda which included formation of the Awadh Kisan Sabha. Much of Nehru’s world-view, particularly about the Indian masses, was built by his forays into the day-to-day world of peasantry as he was getting away from the hangover of his Harrow, Eaton and Cambridge days. By 1927-28 Nehru was able to shed increasingly the influence of the colonial discourse by mingling with the peasants as well as taking up cudgels on behalf of them in the decript mofussil towns and villages of Eastern UP, so distant from the war-room antics played by a bunch of volunteering investment bankers and and holders of Harvard titles in New Delhi charting out Rahul Gandhi’s itinerary during the recent run-up to the elections of 2014.

Nehru admits that he got his initial education in practical politics from the peasants: ‘These peasants took away the shyness from me and taught me to speak in public.’ (Ibid, p. 57) Admittedly, Nehru learnt his first lesson of political discipline also from these peasant masses. This explains why Nehru’s relationship with Gandhi was more comfortable than his relationship with the exclusive city-bred politicians like Subhas Candra Bose and many others. Nehru was well aware that Gandhi brokered a kind of radical peasantism and villagism which unfortunately cannot be comprehended by our present-day Marxists who find a streak of Narodnism in the Nandigram episode. Finding a Narodnik in Gandhi too.

Ninteen thirtyfour saw the formation of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP). It was actually a historic turning-point in the Congress’ history. It was this tide which induced Gandhi to give the stewardship of the Congress to Nehru who had come up with the package of scientific socialism and Gandhian praxis blended into one. The Kisan Sabha movement was upbeat during this period with the anti-zamindari movement becoming the core under the new polity of peasent protests where the Congress Socialists registered their arrival on the scene.

Nehru’s piloting of the Zamindari Abolition Act was in no way less meaningful than the Decree on Land of the October Revolution. Unfort-unately, Nehru did not have a political party like the Bolshevik Party under his command. Neither had he the support and solidarity of the Communists of the day from outside. The Comm-unists were busy in those days deconstructing Nehru as another Chiang Kaishek. This was the sheer poverty of understanding the post-colonial radicalism in India by the major figures and parties of the Left. This intransigence speaks loudly about the obsession of the Left to brand itself as an Opposition in the popular parlamentary idiom. The policy suited very well with the Lohias of the day who were confabulating about their theory of non-Congressism which ultimately resulted in the arrival of the communal juggernaut having a hegemonic sway under the Sangh worker, Narendra Modi.

The young Dalit Panchayat chief, whom we met, was the legatee of all these massive movements of the past. As a matter of fact the battle against zamindari and thereafter the implementation of the UP Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act in 1950 in the Banaras district, particularly in the areas adjoining Babatpur, had become the main nerve-centre of the radical movement. The radical peasantism became a dominant ideological stream. It was both a movement of social restructuring and political radicalism. The priestdom was done away with in this area. In fact the radicalisation of the peasant masses brought a new civil society into existence in this hinterland between Banaras and Jaunpur. The area saw a change of hand from one radical bloc like the Revolutio-nary Socialist Party in the early 1950s to the CPI which led to a local peasant leader winning Assembly elections continuously. The young Dalit Gram Pradhan, his confidence level, his acceptance by the upper and middle castes is directly a product of this specific history in which a young Nehru of the 1920s always lurks from behind.

Prof Dipak Malik is the Director Emeritus, Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi.

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