Ambedkar's Legacy Lives on in Anti-Caste Peasants' Movements

Ambedkarite peasant radicalism of the 1930s provided multiple avenues for Dalits to forge wide-ranging alliances with non-Dalit masses.

April 14 is Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary.

Historically speaking, Ambedkar’s contribution is often associated with the inception of organised Dalit politics in India.

Scholarly writings on Ambedkar have largely directed attention on his association with the caste question and radical politics of social justice that he propounded. His contribution to the drafting of the Indian constitution has already been widely recognised and celebrated.

But very few scholars and historians have underlined his contribution as a mass mobiliser and a leader of a prominent peasant movement. His involvement with the anti-Khoti movement in the Konkan region was beyond tokenism. The organisations (such as Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha and Konkan Praant Shetkari Sangh) led by him instrumentally shaped the peasant movement in the Konkan region in the decade of the 1930s.

As a consequence, he was able to build a formidable organisation of peasants in the Konkan that not only mobilised farmers across various caste groups on a larger plane, but also tried to emphasise that long-lasting peasants’ solidarity in India can only be achieved if and when social questions are taken up seriously. The movement initiated by him lost its influence in the 1940s due to the changed political circumstances. Simultaneously, with the abolition of the Khoti land tenure system in 1950, the orientation of regional politics also changed profoundly.

The anti-Khoti movement led by Ambedkar produced many towering political figures who subsequently shaped the politics of Maharashtra in the 1940s and 1950s. 

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar delivering a speech . Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar’s intervention in the 1930s is instructive for quite a few reasons. First, his resolve to align the rural Dalit agricultural labourers with peasants reflects his pragmatism in establishing a united front of oppressed communities against the larger repressive feudal (and colonial) power structures.

Secondly, his involvement underscored the point that peasants’ solidarity cannot sustain itself without addressing the caste divisions in society. The agitations in the Konkan not only played a role in strengthening peasants’ voices in the anti-caste movement, but also became a sort of a laboratory for Ambedkar to fuse Dalit-peasant (Shudra) unity.

The attempt to invoke a discourse premised on equality and unity was itself a radical move to align anti-caste discourse with class politics.

Also read: While Celebrating Ambedkar as a ‘National Hero’, We Must Not Forget His Central Thesis

Thirdly, peasant politics shaped by the dominant landed castes in the post-colonial era had failed to address the question of caste inequalities within the rural fabric that resultantly led to perpetuation of caste hegemony, violence and atrocities against Dalits.  The rhetoric of ‘peasant unity’ has therefore failed despite some noticeable exceptions to attract substantial support of Dalits during peasant mobilisations throughout the post-Independence period.    

Ambedkar and peasant politics in the 1930s

Anant Chitra. Photo: Author provided

Ambedkar’s involvement with the peasant movement became prominent with the establishment of the Konkan Praant Shetkari Sangh in 1931. The organisation was originally established by Anant Chitre, a caste-Hindu follower of Ambedkar. Within a few months of its establishment, the Shetkari Sangh became a significant mass based peasants’ organisation in the Konkan region. In the first ever pamphlet published by the Shetkari Sangh, which subsequently appeared in Ambedkar’s newspaper, Janata, the goals of the organisation were clearly articulated.

They were mainly centred on seeking legislations to eradicate oppressive Khoti system, to reduce the burden of the land revenue, and to reduce the unnecessary interferences by the rural moneylenders. Most importantly, the pamphlet also observed that the peasant solidarity could only be realised by identifying its strengths and weaknesses. It argued that the strength of the peasant movement across different castes can be derived by identifying common structures of oppression. On the other hand, the pamphlet further argued that the biggest weakness of the peasant movement was caste that discouraged the larger unity of the oppressed. 

Against this backdrop, the Shetkari Sangh made conscious attempts to consistently invoke the caste question in its organisational activism in the 1930s.

On the other hand, the activities of the Shetkari Sangh grew exponentially after its establishment in 1931. The increasing mass support was a causing anxiety to the feudal landlords and the colonial government. On the pretext of spreading ‘extremist ideas’, the Shetkari Sangh was banned by the colonial government for two years from 1932 to 1934. This testifies the significance of the political stance taken by Ambedkar and his organisation.

Despite prohibitions and restrictions in the early 1930s, the Shetkari Sangh, was successful in keeping its following among the peasants intact throughout the decade. In this period of crisis, Ambedkar not only provided the leadership to the organisation but also defended the peasants in the court. Thus, his role in developing the peasant resistance defy the conventional historical narrative about Ambedkar’s politics. 

Interestingly, his involvement with peasants’ politics did not restrict him from taking a critical position against Hinduism.

It was in 1935 at Yeola, that he had famously declared that he would quit Hinduism. Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936. Although, the simmering caste antagonism between Dalits and non-Dalits remained a matter of concern for ILP, it was convinced that it was fighting an important battle for a greater cause.

Ambedkar along with his ILP colleagues in 1937. Photo: Author provided

The party programme envisaged by the ILP significantly argued for the abolition of Khoti land tenure system, state ownership of industries, free and compulsory education, and minimum wages for industrial workers.  In the provincial elections of 1937, the ILP was able to win 15 seats from the Bombay Presidency. The Konkan region was one with the highest representatives of the ILP with six seats, including that of Ambedkar who won a seat from Bombay city.

The peculiar feudal structure of Konkani society and its association with Bombay city, as a reservoir for urban labour, played a very important role in the rise of ILP and anti-caste peasant radicalism. Konkan signified the success of party’s wide penetration amongst the peasant population. Cross-caste solidarity was achieved through common agitations. Consequently, Ambedkar rose to become an undisputed leader of the Konkan based peasant movement.

Also read: Modi’s Phrase ‘Andolan Jivi’ Ridicules Ambedkar’s Slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’

In 1937, Ambedkar was able to table a Bill that proposed the complete abolition of the Khoti land tenure system. It was consequently supported by a mass procession of Konkani peasants which was held in Bombay in January 1938. The procession, organised by the ILP was attended by more than 20,000.

This was another testimony of the support Ambedkar received from Konkani peasants. With the disbanding of ILP in 1942, Ambedkar’s influence among the peasants of Konkan gradually waned. However, the decade of the 1930s has provided an interesting template for a broader agenda based anti-caste politics.

Ambedkarite peasant radicalism of the 1930s provided multiple avenues for Dalits to forge wide-ranging alliances with non-Dalit masses. Throughout his political life, Ambedkar attempted to devise strategies to do just this. Although the ILP was a short-lived political experiment, confined mainly to the 1930s, the ramifications of the caste-class intersection had greatly shaped Dalit politics in the later decades. In the 1970s, the Dalit Panthers, an organisation founded in the 1970s in Maharashtra, drew its inspiration by invoking Ambedkar’s engagement with the workers and peasants’ politics of the 1930s.  

Prabodhan Pol teaches history at Manipal Centre for Humanities, MAHE, Karnataka.