By Walter Hauser
Manohar, New Delhi, 239 pp., Rs 250
Reviewed by ARUN KAMAL
The publication of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati's tract, Khet Mazdoor on agricultural labour and the rural poor is an intellectual land mark of sorts. The small tract, running into 80-odd pages in the original, was written by Swami Sahajanand in 1941 in Hazaribagh Central Jail. But, like many of his manuscripts, it could not be published either during or after his lifetime. The credit for its publication goes to Walter Hauser, an American scholar who first came to India in the late 1950s as a research student and worked intermittently at the Bihta Ashram where he saw the original "copybook manuscript" of the Swami's work which he microfilmed.
Although Khet Mazdoor was written in 1941, it still remains fresh and valid. Nowhere does the passage of time diminish its original appeal. It endures because it is rooted in the experiences of life and is written in a racy, vigorous Hindi idiom. One of the few books to appear in a bilingual edition, the volume leads the reader into the complexities of translation
It is this copy of Khet Mazdoor that appears in its present form now. It is a bilingual edition with the original Hindi text printed along with its English translation, and supported with extensive notes and a glossary.
The publication of Khet Mazdoor, almost 43 years after the death of the Swami, is significant in more ways than one. As a historical text, it provides access to the thought and mind of one of the more remarkable thinkers and doers of our time. This text is a product of those critical years when the peasant movement was evolving into a broad spectrum agrarian campaign with the focus gradually shifting to wards "the poorest of the poor" or khet mazdoors. Apart from making an immensely valuable document available to English and Hindi readers together in a single, well produced volume, it leads an interested reader into the complexities of translation as well. It is one of the very few books of its kind to appear in a bilingual edition. Equally interesting is the fact that though the tract was composed way back in 1941, it still remains fresh and valid even today. Nowhere does the passage of time diminish its original appeal as is so often the fate of such topical texts. It endures because it is rooted in the experiences of life and is written in a racy, vigorous Hindi idiom.
Khet Mazdoor marks a new phase in Swami Sahajanand's long and ever evolving career as a thinker and activist. A brief recall of the intellectual and political climate of the period shows that the popular, and to some extent even academic, image of the Swami, who set out as an ascetic of the Satnami order, was that of a caste politician and political activist of the Kisan Sabha, working in the interest of well to do or at best middle level peasants. He was constantly under attack from forces. opposed to the Kisan Movement and was often accused of giving precedence to the well-to-do kisans over the more depressed khet mazdoors, the poorest of the poor. It is true that the Swami had long been active in organising the middle peas ants. But in the later phase of his life, he turned towards the marginal peas ants and landless labourers. He writes in his introduction to Khet Mazdoor: "If peasants are closely associated with cultivation and its related problems, agricultural labourers have an even more direct and intimate link with the productive processes of agriculture. They are the root, the very foundation, literally the hand and feet of cultivation. So whenever questions of agriculture and the peasantry are raised, the problems of agriculture labour must inevitably be at the forefront of any such discussion." This signifies a radical departure as the change he sought was transformational and total and it rested on the perception that the agricultural worker occupying the lowest rung was the ultimate measure of things. As the editor comments, "Sahajanand was systematically moving in the direction of an activist representing the marginal poor, whether peasants or landless agricultural labourers or some permutation of the two." This small volume attests to this and presents the Swami in a new robe. He writes in his introduction: "Kisan Sabha must direct its energies first and foremost to the agricultural labourers, because finally, they are the worst sufferers." Walter Hauser rightly observes that his is not simply a political statement but the personal testament of someone who understood what less-than-minimum wages meant, who understood the nature of debts and the bondage it often forced on the poor and, perhaps most profoundly, who understood the mal treatment an agrarian society and culture forced on the poorest of the land.
Khet Mazdoor has Lenin's words from April Theses as its motto: "The agrarian programme must be centred around the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers Deputies." So, from the very outset, it's the agricultural labourers that's going to be the nucleus of the agrarian programme, not the kisans and never the kulaks. But the agricultural labourers have to seek out their allies and identify their enemies. In his brief introduction, the Swami explains that kisans and agricultural labourers are all peasants and must, therefore, pursue their political agenda of justice and freedom in a single, unified peasant movement.
In the first chapter, Swami Sahajanand places the problem of khet-mazdoors in a historical perspective. Scanning across centuries, he comes to the conclusion that khet mazdoors, too, are kisans, "kisans without land". For him, a khet mazdoor is not like an industrial worker or wage-worker and, therefore, the problem has to be seen from a different angle altogether. He concludes with the theme that the distress of a khet mazdoor is not defined by caste, community or religion, and that "it is not limited only to untouchables and lower castes". The Swami, thus, refutes the myth so assiduously built up and propagated today by some that agricultural labourers and de pressed castes are synonyms and that caste and class are interchangeable. He warns against any such reduction of class to caste. As he sees it, the class of agricultural labourers is a massive combination of the poorer segments of all the castes.
The third chapter closely examines the problems of wages, indebtedness, and debt bondage afflicting the khet mazdoors. The only way to break this cycle, he argues, is to meet the agricultural labourer's hunger for land, thereby providing a minimum basis for a stable livelihood.
In the fourth chapter, the Swami directly confronts the inherent conflict in the relation between peasants and the agricultural labourers in their employ. He writes: "It is important to note here that the wage question and that of land are intimately linked. If the land problem is solved, that of wages will also be solved... I have included agricultural labourers in the category of kisans precisely because of this interconnectedness of the land problem."
Swami Sahajanand does not see any basic contradiction between the interest of kisans and that of khet mazdoors. He advocates an alliance of small kisans and khet mazdoors as "in the situation which exists today, the struggle between the agricultural labourers and the kisans is essentially one of fighting over crumbs".
But shouldn't the khet mazdoors have a separate organisation? On page 114, the Swami suggests that the khet mazdoors be in the Kisan Sabha and also have an organisation of their own. But on page 118, he makes a slight re vision when he says, "Those who presume from Russian history that there should be no separate organisation of any kind of agricultural labourers, nor should any effort in that direction be made, do not fully realise the Indian situation."
The Swami frequently refers to the Soviet experience and quotes at length from Lenin and Stalin. He expresses the complex socioeconomic relation ship through a metaphor of a snake-frog-insect triangle where a frog, itself half stuck in the jaws of a snake, snaps at an insect that happens to pass by. In this triangle, the khet mazdoors are the hapless insects, the "poorest of the poor", while the middle peasants are signified by the frog.
This small tract establishes the khet mazdoors as the basic unit of the Indian agrarian situation and also as the prime mover of socioeconomic transformations.
It would not be out of place to recall here that just before his death the Swami had assigned the job of organising khet mazdoors to Khadagdhari Mishra alias Tumaria Baba at the state Kisan Sabha conference at Rajgir in May, 1950. Incidentally, the foundation conference of the All India Khet Mazdoor Union was held under the presidentship of the same Tumaria Baba.
It's a pity that our social sciences have not yet made much use of the discursive material available in Indian languages, particularly in Hindi. This book provides scholars unfamiliar with Hindi texts a rare opportunity of reading the original with the help of an attendant translation. This is perhaps the first attempt of its kind that places a Hindi prose-text side by side with its English rendering, allowing the reader a fuller appreciation of the subject.
This small tract offers a new perspective on the entire agrarian problem. Though Western concepts and terminology has frequently been used, the overall perspective remains essentially Indian. The Swami's knowledge in economics and politics is brought to bear upon his first hand experiences in the field.
Walter Hauser's translation is as close to the original as it could possibly be. It retains the colloquial tenor and emotional fervour of the original. Hauser takes pains to examine the Hindi text and make requisite corrections and improvements. He goes back in the field.
Walter Hauser's translation is as close to the original as it could possibly be. It retains the colloquial tenor and emotional fervour of the original. Hauser takes pains to examine the Hindi text and make requisite corrections and improvements. He goes back to the original sources referred to by the Swami and cleanses the text of referential impurities, if any. For example, Hauser corrects the "percentage figures" as reproduced unsuspectingly by the Swami from his basic source, Rajni Palme Dutt's India Today. It's a thoroughly edited and annotated text in the best traditions of a good re search publication. As to the authenticity of the Hindi text, Triveni Sharma Sudhakar attests to the fact that it is the same original copybook manuscript that he had the privilege of reading while serving as the Swami's personal assistant between 1947 and 1949.
The English rendering is faithful to the original, though a word-to-word comparison shows some minor lapses like the use of "fighting over curbs" for the picturesque kafan-khasoti (shroud-snatching)" or "personal property" for vyaktighat sampati instead of the technically accepted "private property."
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