Why the Farmers' Movement Can't Ignore Landless Dalits of Western UP Anymore

Despite land reforms and longstanding kisan politics, Dalit farm labourers of the region have not seen any material difference in their lives. If the current farmers' mobilisation has to sustain, it has to achieve farmer-labourer unity.

If we analyse the history of agrarian politics in western Uttar Pradesh from the perspective of land ownership in the region from the 1950s till date, we would also have to examine the agency of Dalit landless labourers as stakeholders in this movement and how Dalit assertion in the form of Bahujan movement created new solidarities and frictions in the region.

To understand the concerns of the current farmers’ protests, it is imperative to trace the formation of kisan identity in the region of western Uttar Pradesh. The historical patterns of land ownership and different systems of land revenue collection in various regions of present Uttar Pradesh reveal the varied nature of agrarian politics and mobilisations. We can trace this back to the British period in the 19th century.

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There were three land revenue systems in the area of today’s Uttar Pradesh. There was a Zamindari system in eastern Uttar Pradesh, under which the landlords had vast swathes of land, but lacked the manpower to plough fallow land. Hence, they employed landless labourers and bonded labourers.

The Talukdari system of land revenue collection was prevalent in middle Uttar Pradesh or the Awadh region, where landlords, similar to eastern Uttar Pradesh, gave land to landless labourers in place of work.

In contrast, the Mahalwari system was chosen for western Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Oudh. The local landowning community of Jats had no aversion to ploughing the land, so landless labourers did not get land tenancy.

The varied pattern of land revenue collection in the state also resulted in different sets of local power dynamics vying for state patronage.

Land reforms and formation of ‘kisan’ identity  

The next big change in agrarian land ownership occurred with the land reforms in independent India. The land redistribution and the state’s response to the compounding food crisis facing independent India were the factors that prepared the ground for the articulation of agrarian interests and political mobilisation.

The idea of ‘land to the tiller’ for land reforms propounded by the Congress and Socialists lacked an important aspect of rural realities. A substantial percentage of Dalits in the state were landless labourers in rural areas, even though the social history of Chamars tells us that 80% of them were engaged in cultivation as tenants.

But later they were evicted from the land by the zamindars because they demanded the receipt of the paid rent. The Eka movement led by Madari Pasi was against the zamindars of the area. Pasi mobilised tenants and half of the families who participated in the movement were Chamars. The Bundelkhand Land Alienation Act in 1903 also barred them from buying and owning agricultural land.

Agriculture in India. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Representational image. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The land reforms benefited the intermediate backward farming castes and eluded the most marginalised communities in the society. This reconfiguration of land ownership created new power dynamics in western Uttar Pradesh, where middle-status proprietary castes like Jats grew influential in the region.

However, the land redistribution was not enough to endear the Congress to dominant landholding and backward castes, as Paul Brass explains in his election study, ‘Caste, Faction and Party in Indian Politics (1985)’. The Congress under Nehru and its advocacy of, as Brass calls it, “urban-centric capital-intensive industrialisation” was detrimental to the values and interests of small-scale owner-cultivators.

This rural discontent was harnessed by Chaudhary Charan Singh in his formulation of ‘kisan’ identity. Along with the rural-urban divide in India, his politics also pointed out another socio-economic contradiction in rural India between peasant proprietors and former landlords. Opposing rapid industrialisation and proposed farming cooperatives by Congress, Charan Singh offered an alternative roadmap for India’s material progress.

In his writings, especially in Joint Farming X-Rayed: The Problem and Its Solution (1959), he argued for due attention on agriculture as the first step towards achieving the goal of national prosperity. The surplus from agriculture and subsequent increase in purchasing power of rural India, Charan Singh maintained, would spur the growth of industries and demand for goods. After leaving the Congress, he captured the opposition space in Uttar Pradesh galvanising the backward castes under ‘kisan’ identity.

Though he belonged to a regional dominant landowning caste, he also remained an undisputed leader of backward classes in the entire state under the homogenised category of ‘farmer’ till his death in 1987. He made an ideological instrument in the form of AJGAR (a political-electoral combination of Ahirs, Jats, Gujars and Rajputs).

For two short tenures, he headed the state government and enacted a slew of policies in the farming interest – input subsidies for irrigation, electricity among others. As a result, Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD), later Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD), remained the largest opposition party in Uttar Pradesh and played an important role in the defeat of the Congress in the 1977 general election after the emergency.

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In becoming an undisputed leader of the backward classes of eastern and central Uttar Pradesh, his strategy had been to give representation to the middle caste and the backward classes in allotment of tickets and government headed by him.

Kisan politics

Apart from the personality of Charan Singh, there were also structural factors that heralded ‘kisan’ politics in western Uttar Pradesh. The incessant food crisis led to the testing and introduction of HYV (High Yield Variety) wheat and rice, beginning with Punjab and Haryana.

Similarly, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) mechanism for wheat was introduced in Punjab in 1966-67. Both of these measures contributed to western Uttar Pradesh’s phenomenal agricultural growth during the Green Revolution. Moreover, the region had an extensive irrigation canal system built during the turn of the 20th century.

In a way, the political initiatives under BKD/BLD governments and scientific and technological advances came together and brought intensive capitalist agriculture to the western part of the state. These developments gave the kisan movement the necessary traction to articulate issue-based solidarity in the late 1970s.

Chaudhary Charan Singh

Chaudhary Charan Singh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To mark the consolidation of farming interests, the umbrella body Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) came into existence under the aegis of Charan Singh in 1978. And the autonomy and neutrality practised under Mahendra Singh Tikait’s leadership tried to project its demands as interests of all farmers. It papered over the difference between farmers with large landholdings and small-sized cultivators, let alone landless labourers.

Zoya Hasan highlighted this attribute of BKU’s ‘farmer unity’ in the article written in the wake of BKU’s massive protest in Delhi:

“The idea of a basic unity of interests of all agriculturists glosses over the differential impact of terms of trade. The surplus appropriating classes invariably succeed in passing on most, if not the entire burden of deteriorating terms of trade to the poorer classes.” 

With this example, Hasan characterises the BKU and its interests as follows: “The BKU articulates the grievances of peasants – peasants who participate actively in the market in an attempt to maximise their economic returns.”

The driving force behind the BKU were certain sections of peasantry producing surplus, who gained from existing state intervention in agriculture over the years. The most marginalised in the village community, Dalit landless labourers, were left outside the ambit of farmers.

Landless labourers and Bahujan politics

This brings us to the question of landless labourers and how their interests were overlooked during the post-independence land reforms. The reconfiguration of rural power dynamics with competing elites – old landlords and new large landowners from backward castes – certainly led to an intensification of political participation between the Congress and BKD/BLD, as Paul Brass observes.

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However, Dalits landless labourers, as part of the Congress coalition that also consisted of Brahmins, upper castes and Muslims, didn’t see any significant change in their livelihood. Even though poverty alleviation programmes tried to ameliorate their situation with the allocation of Pattas (or land title), they were not able to possess the allotted land in many cases due to the clout of rural elites.

Jens Lerche also echoes this reading in his article about landless labourers and agrarian transition in the state. The power dynamics and pattern of land ownership can be considered as closely related in rural Uttar Pradesh. Dalits landless labourers were largely locked out as stakeholders in farming interests and the state power apparatus.

Right from the Mahalwari system, landless labourers were deprived of land ownership in western Uttar Pradesh and hence their ability to influence the state was minuscule. The increasing mechanisation and reduced size of landholdings delinked Dalits landless labourers from their agricultural dependency on large landowning groups. On a whole, the agrarian transformation of western Uttar Pradesh, as Lerche remarks, did not bring in improvement in their material condition or their relationship with the state.

The socio-economic stagnation of Dalit landless labourers soon got disrupted with the entry of Kanshi Ram in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. The Bahujan imagination of politics that he advocated in Uttar Pradesh changed the political arithmetic of the state within a decade. His organisations such as DSSSS (Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti), also known as DS-4 (established in 1981), and Bahujan Samaj Party (established in 1984) eventually contributed to the disintegration of the Congress coalition and carved up political space for Dalit assertion in the political sphere.

After the Green Revolution, Dalit agricultural labourers started socially mobilising themselves and one of the key factors behind it was a growing formalisation of labour relations and the demand for better agricultural wages, Manyawar Kanshiram’s entry became successful in the political sphere of Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: ‘We Are One’: Why Punjab’s Landless Dalits are Standing with Protesting Farmers

Agricultural labourers got the voice under the newly emerged Dalit middle class’s leadership. The politicisation of the oppressed class, as Jens Lerche indicates in his 1998 article, brought varied results on the ground. In rural Uttar Pradesh, the ability to influence the state apparatus became imperative for rural elites to deal with Dalit assertion.

In contrast, there was also the growing political acknowledgement of Dalit identity in political circles, as Chaudhary Charan Singh named his newly formed organisation in 1984 as Dalit Mazdoor Kisan Party (DMKP). This was a significant departure from Charan Singh’s earlier approach towards the question of landless labourers.

Zoya Hasan cites Charan Singh’s statement from 1979 in her article: “if a man is landless, he cannot be called a farmer.”  This refusal to recognise the class and caste distinctions in kisan politics might have stemmed from his personal beliefs as a member of Arya Samaj.

In his writings about the caste system, he criticised the rigidity of practices in the modern caste system and sought to align it with occupations, which he considered as the original purpose of the Varna system. Therefore, he chose to appeal to a broader kisan community using the rhetoric of a rural-urban divide, thus inadvertently making the grievances of landless labourers invisible.

Farmers protesting at Ghazipur border. Photo: PTI

His experiences of a rather short premiership and debacle in the 1980 general election gave him the perspective to broaden his coalition beyond nominal kisan identity and dominant landowning and backward castes.

This turn should also be reflected by his advocacy in this period for tabling the Mandal Commission report on the issue of reservation for socially and educationally backward classes. His death in 1987, however, prevented any possibility for a concrete materialisation of a backward caste and Dalit coalition at the grassroots.

Jagpal Singh in his book Capitalism and Dependence: Agrarian Politics in Western Uttar Pradesh explains that after Charan Singh’s death in 1987, non-Jat peasant castes took over the leadership and BKU under Tikait suffered from ‘hyper localism’.

The trajectory of Kisan identity

The vacuum left by Chaudhary Charan Singh’s absence set the stage for the politics of the 1990s of intensive caste and religion-based mobilisations. As a result of Tikait’s insistence on keeping BKU ‘neutral’, the kisan identity receded from the political sphere.

This political deadlock in the state was exemplified in the 1996 election, where every party – from BSP to BJP – realised the limits of political rhetoric in increasing their vote share and moderated their campaign.

Before the 1996 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, Mahendra Singh Tikait attempted to revive the kisan movement. The Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP) was formed by Mahendra Singh Tikait and Ajit Singh in alliance with Samajwadi Party to serve as a political vehicle for the ‘kisan’ constituency.  “Tikait’s demand for agricultural incentives which stimulates fantasies of modern rich lifestyle among the farmers.”

With this, Tikait expected to capture the farmers’ votes. Landowning farmers were yet to go beyond their caste consciousness and there was no common agenda of farmers, with caste being the hurdle in presenting a united front. To satisfy the personal and political goals of the farmer leaders, novel alliances were formed. However, they could not help making the movement successful on the ground.

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The BKKP won only 8 assembly seats in the election but made a dent in the Jat votes of the BJP. The Bahujan Samaj Party under Mayawati claiming to represent the bulk of Dalit poor peasants and agricultural labourers formed three governments for short tenures before gaining a majority on its own in 2007 elections. However, these tenures were marked by a proactive approach towards land ownership among Dalit landless labourers, as the Mayawati-led government gave Pattas for land as well as effective possession to them.

Moreover, villages with more than 30% scheduled castes population were designated Ambedkar Villages with special assistance given for local infrastructure development. In an important step towards reconciling agrarian interests, the BSP government from 2007-2012 gave due attention to farm issues in western Uttar Pradesh.

For instance, the Minimum Support Price for sugarcane, the most important cash crop in the region, was significantly increased. Timely payment of the dues from sugar factories, a frequent bone of contention for farmers, was ensured. BSP also tried to bring Jats into their social coalition in this period. This, in turn, created dissatisfaction with BSP among lower backward castes. The party, however, managed to re-establish a good socio-cultural relationship with them.

The current agitation also brings up the question of landless labourers in the current mobilisation from western Uttar Pradesh. Taking Punjab as an example of farmer-labourer unity and awareness, we should highlight the longstanding limitations of farmers’ organisations in western Uttar Pradesh in the inclusion of farm labourers in their platform. Farmer-labourer unity must be inculcated and practised. It is crucial to sustaining the movement.

Shivam Mogha (shivammogha.j[email protected]) is a sociology student at JNU and associated with Trolley Times. Sunil Choudhary ([email protected]) is a research scholar at JNU.