A forgotten legacy
Nonica Datta | 12 Feb, 2021
THE FARMERS’ PROTESTS have brought to the fore many unresolved contradictions that shape our democracy. It may be difficult to bring together all the different strands, but certain trends stand out. Punjab has emerged as the epicentre of the movement against the three farm laws made by the Government, since the majority of the farmers spearheading the protests are from that state. It may be relevant now to revisit key aspects of the lost story of agrarian Punjab and its entry into modern politics. This would provide a different perspective on the current situation.
The story of Punjab’s extraordinary transition during the 20th century is worth recalling. Punjab was turned into a bulwark of the British Empire through army recruitments and agrarian reforms. The growing rural indebtedness due to the commercialisation of agriculture, including the increasing power of moneylenders, led to a series of judicial and legal interventions that secured the loyalty of Punjabi peasants. The result was the introduction of the Land Alienation Act of 1900 which prevented the transfer of land to urban classes and protected the rights of the ‘statutory agricultural tribes’. Subsequently, Punjab politics came to be structured around a tactical alliance of dominant agrarian interests with the colonial authority. Their mutually beneficial relationship with the colonial state demonstrates the co-sharing of political power which lasted till 1947.
Thus, a new agrarian leadership emerged in Punjab which built its political base and constituency through legislative councils. The Unionist Party, as the single most constitutional party, invested in the colonial political structure and introduced a series of agrarian measures that safeguarded rural interests against urban commercial castes. The party was led by stalwarts such as Chhotu Ram, Fazli Husain, Sikander Hayat and Sunder Singh Majithia. It forged a cross-communal alliance which sanctioned rural reforms emerging out of political processes of negotiation, dialogue, collaboration for the welfare of protecting the shared economic interests of, what Husain described as, “backward classes”. “The principle that I stand by,” he declared, “is the principle of helping the backward community irrespective of their religion, be they Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.”
The Unionist Party introduced a remarkable experiment of a robust political arrangement that constantly sought a resolution between the state and agricultural communities and reposed faith in law and imperial authority. Vilified by Congress and Akali Dal, the Unionist agrarian legislation in the 1930s exemplifies the progressive agenda of modern agrarian politics. These Bills, called ‘golden Bills’, protected the Punjab peasant, who was perceived as a ‘bechara kisan’ (hapless peasant) in the perspicuous words of Ram, as he was always at the mercy of the moneylender and the urban trader.
The results of the Unionist Party’s agrarian reforms were momentous. The rural sector was consolidated vis-à-vis urban commercial capital and its agents, such as moneylenders and middlemen. The constrained and oppressed farmer, in the language of the Unionists, was liberated from the shackles of insidious commercial forces. The highly articulate Unionist leadership set out to eradicate rural indebtedness via colonial legal intervention. Some of their measures were: the Relief of Indebtedness Act of 1934, which favoured the debtors and curtailed the creditors’ powers, and authorised the government to set up debt conciliation boards.The indebted peasant was further emboldened following the passing of the Debtors’ Protection Act in 1936. Introduced by Ram, it provided security to ‘agricultural classes’ and exerted tremendous political control over urban capital. Other reforms included the Punjab Restitution of Mortgaged Lands Act of 1938, which restored agricultural lands to the poor peasants; the Punjab Registration of Moneylenders Act, 1938, which loosened the grip of moneylenders on the grain markets. Consequently, mandis came to be registered through the Mandi Regulation Committees that protected the farmers and helped them gain control over agricultural produce. The Punjab Agricultural Markets Products Bill of 1939, popularly known as the Mandi Act, further sought to curb the control of brokers, shopkeepers, traders and middlemen over the forces of the market.
An expansive space needs to be created to open a conversation between the Centre and the farmers. It’s not a choice between Chhotu Ram and Bhagat Singh. The legacies of their political languages have sustained peasants’ causes in several different ways. The point is to find a political arena to open a fresh debate to arrive at a fruitful consensus in favour of the wider farm and agricultural sector
As the Unionist experiment protected ‘agrarian classes’ through legislation, Punjab simultaneously became a theatre of a series of popular movements launched against the colonial state. This type of resistance began with Ajit Singh and his urban accomplice Lajpat Rai protesting against the Land Colonisation Bill in 1907, bringing the peasant unrest into the ambit of nationalist politics. The colonial state perceived this upsurge as a farmers’ conservative protest against the attempts to modernise them. Punjab thereafter entered into a frame of revolutionary anti-colonial politics. This radicalism was further boosted via the Ghadar Party with its diasporic links with revolutionaries around the world, and later the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre gave birth to a sustained violent anti-colonial resistance. Subsequently, Punjab witnessed an open confrontation of the Punjabi leadership with the colonial state. Bhagat Singh’s revolutionary fervour emboldened the Punjabi youth together with the Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha that gained popularity in towns and especially among the merchant classes in the 1930s. Soon Udham Singh appeared as a hero and a martyr, inspiring the Punjabi masses to embark on the path of a radically violent clash with the government. A glorious narrative of Punjab’s revolutionary energy and initiative thus came to be written.
This inspiring chapter coexisted with the negotiating stance of the Unionist Party, a party that ruled Punjab for nearly three decades and had a strong popular base. Though the regional agrarian ideology of the Unionists could never accommodate the revolutionary aspect of Punjabi politics, the faultiness offered different alternatives to resolve the intricate agrarian question. So Bhagat Singh, an icon of the extremist anti-colonial resistance, remained a popular hero of Punjab’s radical struggles, but could never become a symbol of the Unionists and their secular alliance of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh agriculturists. Ironically, with the Partition of India in 1947, the Unionist Party died a sad death. The agrarian interests were now largely subjected to an aggressive form of identity politics and mobilisations through different peasant organisations. Above all, the politics of the Muslim League, Congress and the Akalis fractured the farmers’ interests which could no longer be accommodated through a common secular agrarian programme.
Popular movements against the colonial state began with Ajit Singh and his urban accomplice Lajpat Rai protesting against the Land Colonisation Bill in 1907, bringing the peasant unrest into the ambit of nationalist politics
Post-Independence Punjab politics inherited the political framework bequeathed by the imperial system of patronage and protection to the rural order, but without the mediation of the Unionist tradition. Indeed, throughout the 1960s and well into the present crisis, the conflict between the farmers and the successive Central Governments mirrors a confrontation of centralist forces with regional aspirations and rural interests. But let us not forget that Punjab, India’s ‘grain bowl’, has not had any major agrarian reforms in the rural sector since 1947. The one limited exception is the 2016 Punjab Settlement of Agriculture Indebtedness Bill, which partially drew upon the Unionist legacy.
Given such neglect, the Punjabi farmer has felt rejected by successive governments. There is no Unionist frame, of mediating between the Centre and the state, to negotiate for peasants’ economic interests through agrarian legislation and reform. Thus, not surprisingly, Punjabi farmers are drawing on the radical language of resistance and protest, and not that of the Unionists’ principles of peaceful constitutional and legal intervention to secure the objective of agrarian reforms.
Indeed, as the Punjabi farmer leads the current agitation, isn’t it appropriate to learn from the Punjab story, which certainly reveals that resolutions can happen only through the co-existence of different clashing perspectives arising out of reformist, legislative and revolutionary, extremist impulses, and a meaningful interaction between them? Democracy thrives on principles of political expression and intermediation and flourishes in a climate that encapsulates both accommodative and confrontational politics. The Unionist Party’s ideals may have been forgotten. But its enduring tradition of cross-communal rural alliance may have a message for the farmers’ cause and their representation in the present political climate. Of course, you cannot clap with one hand. An expansive space needs to be created to open a conversation between the Central Government and the farmers’ interests. It’s not a choice between Chhotu Ram and Bhagat Singh anymore. The legacies of their political languages have sustained peasants’ causes in several different ways. The point is to find a political arena to open a fresh debate to arrive at a fruitful consensus in favour of the wider farm and agricultural sector.
Four major faultlines emerge from the contemporary upsurge. The first is that negotiation in the sense of a genuine desire on the part of both sides to arrive at a solution does not seem to be on the agenda of the stakeholders so far. Unfortunately, there are no state-centric parties, like the Unionist Party, that can represent the agrarian sector and argue its case on the basis of well-chalked out rural claims and demands with the Central Government. Thus, both Centre-state relations and the Centre’s relations with the farming groups remain fraught, as they have since 1947 in the case of Punjab. Punjab’s post-Partition history testifies to a gradual erasure of a conversation between the Centre and farmers.
Following up on this, the second faultline reveals that there is no inter-state and Central Government dialogue on the current impasse. Agitational politics, though inspiring, cannot wholly answer questions of the repeal of agrarian reforms. The rejection or acceptance of laws, good or bad, has to come through constitutional politics, which indeed has not been historically averse to the language of revolutionary protest. Whether these are compatible or not in the present scenario is a question whose answer can only be given by the future.
Jats are the most vigorous force in contemporary electoral politics and their claims of representation in the political structure draw on their supremo Chhotu Ram’s language of empowerment and rural advancement
The third faultline points to different layers of protest, violent and non-violent. Punjab is a classic example of these twin features. Yet, the continuing mass movement of Punjabi farmers marks a shift, having moved beyond being state-centric, with farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana joining their ranks. It has therefore widened its canvas. Therein lies the rub: the January 26th violence harks back to yet another aspect of the legacy of Punjab’s resistance to colonial authority. But it also marks a significant departure from it.
The fourth faultline reveals the extent to which farmers’ interest coalesces with 20th century identity politics. Sikhs and Jats have emerged as major protagonists in the protest, as the movement gains a mass base and harnesses the support of politically organised peasant communities of north India. Jats are the most vigorous force in contemporary electoral politics and their claims of representation in the political structure draw on their supremo Chhotu Ram’s language of empowerment and rural advancement. Paradoxically, the present upsurge oversteps the rural-urban divide, a profound legacy of Punjab’s agrarian politics rooted in the Land Alienation Act, which was hailed as ‘the Magna Carta of their [agricultural classes’] political and economic life’. This indeed is a far cry from the peasant protests of the earlier decades. The iconography of the movement focuses on multiple symbols of heroism, martyrdom and community identity along with the articulation of their inevitable marginalisation as a consequence of the new farm laws. The varied manifestations of protest inaugurate a new era of popular politics that invoke different languages of dissent.
The Government’s decision to defer the implementation of the laws by 18 months brings another critical dimension to the fore. This may offer possibilities to the farm leaders to steer the movement into a new form of political discourse. Now the question is: given the legacy of Punjab’s enduring political traditions, what could be a possible way forward? Does the answer lie in the revolutionary stance of Punjab’s legacy laced with a varied repertoire of traditional political and cultural symbols, icons, images? Or will the farm leaders draw lessons from the consensual politics and secular alliance of the Unionist Party, which unfortunately was eclipsed in the aftermath of Independence? Movements do not die. Nor do traditions. We can only draw lessons from them and appreciate the prospect of engaging with alternative frameworks. And also reveal their uncomfortable truths.
However, today’s political processes of democracy and divergent party interests may produce unanticipated and even unexpected answers.