Source: Biblio: July 1995, p. 8-9
A man before his times
Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941

(An edited translation of Jharkhand ke Kisan with the original Hindi text and an introduction, notes and glossary)
By Walter Hauser
Manohar, New Delhi, 369 pp., Rs. 450

Reviewed by ARVIND N. DAS

Well before the idea of the political unit of Jharkhand -- the tribal territory comprising Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas in Bihar and adjoining similar regions in West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh -- was even a gleam in the eyes of political manipulators, Sahajanand had applied his mind to the subject of the people of Jharkhand

Simple times, such as ours, have no use for complex characters. As such, it is not surprising that Swami Sahajanand Saraswati has either been forgotten altogether or has been reduced to a simple, one-dimensional cut-out of a leader of the bhumihar caste. For, the Swami was as complex a person as is possible and simple-minded souls who rule today would have immense difficulty in coping with such complexity of personality.

First of all, Sahajanand was a Swami,a danda-bearing sanyasi, who had renounced the world. He was learned in the scriptures and deeply familiar with the traditions of Indian religious philosophy. As such, his interpretative Gita Hridaya still stands as one of the most interesting commentaries on that much commented on text.

But then, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati was much more than a mere literate mendicant. He was also a tireless campaigner on social issues. In particular, he was the foremost leader of the peasants of India in the first half of this century and he helped set up their first formal organisation through the All India Kisan Sabha. Even in this respect, Swami Sahajanand's vision was far more radical than that of his celebrated contemporaries like the late Prof N. G. Ranga who concentrated largely on the problems of the commercial farmers who had marketable agricultural surplus. Sahajanand was equally concerned with poor peasants and, as Walter Hauser's excellent edition of a forgotten manuscript of Khet Mazdoor makes it clear, also with agricultural labourers.

Besides, Swami Sahajanand was also a campaigner for what is nowadays simplistically sloganised as "social justice". Today's dominant castes,which are so vociferous in their opposition to the Mandalisation process,would do well to remember that it was only decades ago that many of themselves were socially discriminated against. The land-tilling brahmins, like bhumihars, tyagis and anavils, were looked down upon by non-cultivating and non-working brahmins and had to struggle under the leadership of people like Sahajanand to assert social self respect. The Brahman Vamsa Charitra by Sahajanand provided the intellectual ammunition for that fight just as the scholarship of Dr B. R. Ambedkar has been the guiding light for the dalits.

Swami Sahajanand Saraswati was also one of the most important leaders of the freedom struggle who brought a "subaltern" content into nationalism.It was Sahajanand who, more than anyone else, elevated the peasants from the footnote to the text of the patriotic struggle of the Indian people for liberation from colonialism. In the bargain,he had severe disagreements with the likes of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Babu Rajendra Prasad and even Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, but the saffron-clad sadhu continued to stick to his "red" convictions.

Most important, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati was a unique communicator who understood and adopted both the peasants' aspirations and elements of their discourse. Challenging the combined might of the British empire and its toady landlords, in his public meetings the doughty old Swami would wave his symbolic danda (religious staff) and call out, "Kaise logey malguzai?" (How will you collect the land rent? ) and the peasants would respond full-throatedly, "Latth hamara zindabad!" (Long live our sticks!). The message went home unambiguously.

This religious leader was quite obviously ahead of his times. Well before the concepts of "economic nationalism" and "subaltern activism" had become popular, he was living out a life which gave meaning to those concepts. Indeed, well before the idea of the political unit of Jharkhand -- the tribal territory comprising Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas in Bihar and adjoining similar regions in West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh -- was even a gleam in the eyes of political manipulators, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati had already applied his mind to the subject of the people of Jharkhand. That is the focus of the book under review.

The book is important not only because of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati but for three other reasons as well.One is that it has been edited by Walter Hauser and the second is that it has been brought out in a rare bi-lingual format and the third, of course, is the subject that it deals with.

Among the many scholars who have worked on India in general and Indian peasants in particular, Walter Hauser should occupy pride of place.Well before "subalternism" and "peasantism" became fashionable in academic circles, this scholar from the United States broke ranks with his fellows who were commenting on India's "quiet crises" and "dangerous decades" and were otherwise occupying themselves with macro concerns. At a time when even Indian academics were mainly groping with caste and kinship, and class was the concern only of "disaffected intellectuals" like Daniel Thorner, A. R. Desai and a handful of others, Walter Hauser applied himself to studying the peasantry in its manifestation as a class. His work on the Bihar Kisan Sabha is pioneering and it is a pity that its greatly delayed publication is only scheduled for now. Nevertheless, those -- like the present reviewer -- who have had access to and benefitted from Walter Hauser's thesis and other published papers can testify that he broke new ground in getting to know the Indian peasantry and its organisations.

Through these years, Walter Hauser has continued to work on related themes and has done invaluable service both to the memory of Swami Sahajanand as well as to scholarship on the peasant question by bringing to lightsome inaccessible manuscripts of that great peasant leader. This book follows another volume, Sahajanand on Agricultural Labour and the Rural Poor (New Delhi: Manohar, 1994).

A significant aspect of both these books is that they contain four segments each: an extensive introduction, English translation of the Hindi text, Sahajanand's original text itself printed in the Devnagari script,and detailed end-notes. This format makes the volumes immensely useful for researchers as well as for others who are interested in following the writings of that unique social sanyasi.

Finally, the book is important because of its subject: the peasants of Jharkhand. For the last several decades,indeed beginning almost immediately after the death of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, the issue of Jharkhand has been posed in different ways. There have been demands for the constitution of the mineral-rich region into a separate "steel state$quot;, for the formation of an "autonomous tribal region" and the transcending of present state boundaries in these processes. However, the focus of attention has always been on the politics of Jharkhand, on which set of people will control its vast assets. Very little thought has been given to the condition of its ordinary people, of its peasants, artisans and other workers, and the issue of how they live their lives now and how the formation of a different political unit will affect their lives has hardly been investigated. Even most Jharkhand activists have been so obsessed with power that they have hardly bothered with these extremely important social and economic issues.

Sociologists and anthropologists too have, by and large, failed the peasants of Jharkhand. When they have cast their finely meshed academics nets in the waters of Jharkhand, they have only come up with the familiar fishes of "tribe" and, at the very most, "caste" even as the water of "class" and "peasant" have eluded their grasp. They have meticulously documented ritual and other practices; they have painstakingly noted endogamy and exogamy; they have carried out detailed examination of commensuality or otherwise; they have turned "people" (janah: the closest Sanskrit word to the one by which the "tribals" describe themselves) into exotic species. They have even carried out feverish debates on "whether tribals can be peasants" even as, right under their eyes, agriculture has been carried out, surplus has been extracted and even agrarian resistance has taken place in both dramatic and everyday forms.

There have, of course, been notable exceptions among the scholars of the "tribes" in this regard. Some have indeed noted production, struggle and organisation but not enough critical information has emerged on social differentiation and relations of production. The work of K. Suresh Singh and Ranajit Guha on elementary and other aspects of peasant insurgency in Jharkhand call for honourable mention in this regard. However, even these outstanding scholars have tended to over-emphasise the "uniqueness" of the $quot;tribals": their commonality and yet distinctive organisation with the $quot;general society", an aspect that D. D. Kosambi called the characterising feature of all of India's history, has not received adequate attention. The publication of Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941, a hitherto unavailable manuscript of that great peasant leader and revolutionary intellectual should go along way in filling that gap.

Sahajanand makes extremely acute observations about the nature of the peasants of Jharkhand: "The most important fact about the Adivasis of Jharkhand is that though they are backward, yet they are not so depressed as are the backward people of Bihar proper or of other areas.There the backward classes [meaning Untouchable castes] are most often found to be khet mazdoors [agriculturallabourers], or just like khet mazdoors, except in those areas where they are in a majority and own their own fields.The Mundas, Oraons etc. are kisans (pakke kisan) in the real sense of the term, indeed they have been so for generations. They love their land as much as they love their jungle. They cannot live without these two central elements of their lives. The varieties of agricultural lands which they own and cultivate is proof of this deep attachment. As I have indicated, a particular tribe (jati) known as the "Kisan" is found in Jharkhand. I have

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Sahajanand's book is an extremely important addition to the corpus of literature on peasant studies and deserves to become a "primary source"

encountered this "Kisan" name only in one other place, in Farrukhabad in the United Provinces. The word "Krishani" prevalent in the Santal Parganas is used in the same sense. The term is also used to describe a type of bhaoli or batai cultivation practiced there. This act is also mentioned in the Santal Parganas Inquiry Committee Report. It is for these reasons and because the Adivasis are true kisans that I have titled this book Jharkhand ke Kisan, i.e., The Kisans of Jharkhand rather than Jharkhand ke Niwasi, i.e., The Inhabitants of Jharkhand. No one other than these Adivasi kisans are the original inhabitants of this place. The Kurmis and the Gwalas are also true (pakke) kisans. The Adivasis are a vital and active people. They are not weak,depressed, and crushed like the Harijans [Untouchables] of Gangetic Bihar. Hence if they are organised on the basis of their class interest (varghii) they can become a powerful force (apurva shakti) whom no one can crush. They have only recently been deprived of their freedom (azadi). Hence a feeling of great strength still flows in their blood."

Sahajanand wrote this book in Hazaribagh Central Jail where he was imprisoned in connection with the freedom movement. Thus, he had very little access to literature and official reports etc. Nevertheless, his historical insights are so powerful as to stand out even today: "It is said that the Nagvanshi kings of this region were the original rulers of Jharkhand and belonged to the families of the Adivasis. According to the traditional panchayati system the people chose the Nagvanshis to be their headmen (sardars) and chiefs (mukhiyas), and in the course of time they became their masters. This has been the history of feudalism in all countries and here it became the foundation of the zamindari system. Until the Mughal period the relationship with the Nagvanshis was an accepted, functioning system of rulership. But then the practice of visiting the Delhi Durbar proved harmful. So long as the Nagvanshis lived in the jungles of Jharkhand they did not fall prey to the pomp and grandeur of court life and its evil influences. But frequent visits to the durbar tempted them to acquire cavalry, elephants and other paraphernalia of the court. It further led them to indulge in luxurious and licentious living. This in turn produced retainers to carry this equipment and maintain the cavalry and elephants. Bands of Sikhs, Pathans and other traders began to infiltrate the area from the western provinces, bringing with them this paraphernalia of the courts and other articles and in the process began to loot the local population. When payment in cash was not available for these goods, village after village was farmed out to these traders on contract as payment in revenue. In this way a group of zamindars from the outside were introduced into the region. Some had come into the area on other accounts, either as allies or participants in local wars. After the Year 1765 A.D.some came either in the garb of flatters of the Mughal potentates of the area or in the service of their British masters. More recently many have settled here as traders and merchants while still others who had come earlier now brought their kith and kin from the outside. Many erected castles and fortresses to live in the safety of the dense and impenetrable jungle.

"It was the exploitation and pressures of these outsiders which ultimately led to the awakening of the peasants of Jharkhand. No less than these, the Marwari merchants and other money-lenders also took the advantage of the peasants. Their hard earned money thus went into the coffers of these zamindars, Marwaris and moneylenders, literally drawing into question the very honour and prestige of the Adivasi kisans. The new British regulations helped these exploiters to squeeze the very lifeblood out of these simple peasant folk,depriving them of their land and in effect reducing them to the condition of slaves. They were frequently sent to prison. All of this ultimately drove the kisans of Chhotanagpur to rise in rebellion (bagavaten) times without number... Last but not the least was the Tana Bhagat movement which started at the time of the Great European War of 1914 and continued with great intensity till the Noncooperation movement of 1921. This was clearly a kisan movement. A powerful group of Tana Bhagats openly refused to pay rent (lagan) to their zamindars, courted imprisonment, and with the auction of their lands, they were ruined.

"When our well known and famous leaders were guiding the course of the nation's political struggle consequent of the nation's political struggle consequent on the promulgation of the Rowlatt Act, martial law in the Punjab, and coupled with it the Khilafat agitation, the simple but brave kisans of Jharkhand were waging a powerful peasant struggle (zabardast larai) at the very same time. It was absolutely remarkable to see them refusing to pay any kind of rent or other taxes. In fact it was they who by their deeds, gave a real shape to our wider political struggle. This massive demonstration of their demands was done both in the absence of any education, which they did not have, or of dramatic words. What after all could they say? Such sophisticated speeches and agitations were no doubt being carried on by our leaders throughout the country. Vocal protest was for those leaders, while demonstration by deed and action fell to the kisans of Jharkhand. As a matter of fact the Tana Bhagat movement of refusing to pay any land rent would not have come to a dead stop had Gandhiji not visited Ranchi in September-October of 1921 and personally persuaded them to withdraw their demands. Subsequently Congress volunteers went about urging that the Tana Bhagats must now pay land rent to the zamindar! This is an example both of our wider politics as well as the true form of the kisan struggle of Jharkhand. "

Swami Sahajanand Saraswati brings such insights as well as many others on systems such as sewakia, kamia and other types of bondage specific to Jharkhand in this invaluable manuscript. Many of these issues have been ignored wilfully or otherwise and only recently have they returned to the public domain. It is a measure of Sahajanand's perspicacity that he noted them decades ago.

This book is, therefore, an extremely important addition to the corpus of literature on peasant studies and deserves to become a "primary source".

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