Even after nearly a century, the Indian revolutionary movement as represented by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and its most prominent face in public as well as among academics – Bhagat Singh – continues to evoke interest and inspire research (primarily because he left behind a substantial corpus of writings). This interest and research is largely focused on the ideological and political aspects of the revolutionary movement and its leaders. Even though the young band of revolutionaries are upheld for their socialist, anti-communal and anti-colonial ideology, they are criticised for not engaging with the masses and instead limiting themselves to petty-bourgeois youth, especially college students.
This particular critique of the revolutionary movement occurs despite the presence of numerous writings by the HRA and its members where they have clearly emphasised upon the necessity of organising peasants and workers for a socialist revolution. In ‘An Appeal To Young Political Workers’, Bhagat Singh has listed eight core agenda items apart from freedom around which the Indian revolutionary movement was to be build. Out of the eight, four were directly concerned with the peasantry. These four demands were a) Abolition of landlordism, b) Liquidation of the peasants’ indebtedness, c) Nationalisation of land by the revolutionary state with a view to finally lead it to improved and collective farming and d) Abolition of all taxes on the peasantry except a minimum of unitary land tax.
If we dig a bit deeper into the history of popular movements in the late 1920s in northern India, we come across a curious and interesting connection between two movements and two figures which has till now largely evaded the eye and scrutiny of historians. These two people are Madari Pasi and Bhagat Singh, and the two movements are the Eka movement and the revolutionary movement under the leadership of the HRA and then its successor organisation, HSRA.
That Madari Pasi and revolutionaries of the HSRA were in contact with each other has found mention in some works like Pramod’s Kumar’s Shiv Verma: Sardar Bhagat Singh ke Sahyogi (National Book Trust, 2013), Subhash Chandra Khushwaha’s Awadh Ka Kisan Vidroh: 1920-1922 (Rajkamal Prakashan, 2019), Brij Mohan’s Krantiveer Madari Pasi (Rashmi Prakashan, 2018) and Rajiv Kumar Pal’s Eka (Navarun Publication, 2019), but they have mostly narrated the brief encounters between Madari Pasi and revolutionaries like Shiv Verma and Jaidev Kapoor. What transpired between both groups and details of their interactions have not been touched upon.
There were at least three points of contact (two latent and one manifest) between the Eka movement and the revolutionaries.
The Eka movement was a tenant farmers’ movement in Awadh in the early 1920s, against the oppression of zamindars and taluqdars. It was led by Madari Pasi, who belonged to the ‘untouchable’ Pasi community. The movement derived its name from its attempts to unite poor and marginal peasants, tenants and petty landlords, irrespective of caste and religious identity, against the Taluqdar-Big Landlord-British Raj combine. The movement began in the fall of 1921, reached its peak in the early months of 1922 and later lost its momentum due to massive police crackdown in the wake of its increasingly militant nature. The movement was launched from the Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh, from where it spread to several other districts like Kanpur, Unnao, Sitapur, Lucknow, Bahraich, Barabanki etc. Initially, the movement was supported by some Congress and Khilafat leaders and activists, but as soon as the movement took a militant turn, and started aggressively resisting the goons of the Taluqdars-Landlords, the Congress-Khilafat leaders withdrew their support.
With the withdrawal of support from an influential section of the native elite, the colonial administration intensified its repression, forcing many of the Eka leaders, including Madari Pasi, to go underground. Fearing increased state persecution, nationalist periodicals too stopped covering the movement, while lawyers refused to take up the cases of arrested peasants.
Role of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi
In such a repressive environment, it was only Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the editor of Hindi daily Pratap, who thoroughly covered the Eka revolt. He was also one of the leaders of the Kisan Sabha in Kanpur, and had reported on the Baba Ramchandra-led Awadh Peasant Revolt in great detail. Vidyarthi, despite being a member of the Congress Party, was also very sympathetic to the cause of revolutionaries and provided them with various forms of support: economic as well as ideological. It is likely that through the daily Pratap, a popular newspaper among the nationalists (Bhagat Singh served as its sub-editor), and surely through its editor, a lot of young revolutionaries would have come to understand the peasant issue, which is later reflected in their political writings and speeches.
The other latent contact between the revolutionary movement and the Eka movement resulted from the same geographical area of operation of both movements. When the Kakori train dacoity took place hardly 50 miles from Hardoi in 1925, the colonial police suspected that Madari’s group might have helped the revolutionaries although Madari himself was in jail at that time. Though the police was not able to establish any link, but as the scholars mentioned above have pointed out, Madari and his group were aware of the HRA revolutionaries and their activities and had sympathy for them.
A meeting of Titans
This brings us to an interesting chapter of history hitherto ignored by historians: a meeting between Bhagat Singh and Madari Pasi (which also has an element of comedy). This interaction happened via two young revolutionaries mentioned above, Verma and Kapoor, who belonged to the Hardoi district from where the Eka movement began.
Verma, as a school student during the heydays of the Eka movement, was greatly inspired by Madari Pasi and the movement he led. In 1922 (before Verma joined the clandestine revolutionary party), he went as a delegate to the Lucknow session of the UP Congress and appealed to the leadership to take up the cause of Eka leaders and peasants involved in the movement, who were facing brutal repression from the colonial state. His appeal fell on deaf ears and young Verma was very disappointed and disillusioned with Congress politics. Later, he went to meet Vidyarthi in Kanpur and appealed him to take up the cause of Eka leaders and peasants, which the latter took up with great empathy.
Eventually both Verma and Kapoor joined the underground resistance and worked with Bhagat Singh and others. Bhagat Singh was a young, 20-year-old anti-colonial activist at this time, who was trying to reorganise the Hindustan Republican Association after the Kakori arrests. There were two major centres of underground revolutionary activities: Lahore and Kanpur. In Kanpur, the revolutionaries were guided by leftist intellectuals like Vidyarthi, Hasrat Mohani, Satyabhakt and Radha Mohun Gokul to work amongst the industrial workers and the peasantry.
In order to understand the issues of the peasantry, this band of young revolutionaries tried to engage with them. Hence, Verma and Kapoor established contact with Madari after he was released from jail in 1926. Madari showed sympathy for their cause and told them that he wanted to meet their leader.
Verma and Kapoor were perplexed. As they revealed many years later in their interviews given to Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) and in their autobiographical notes, they took this issue to Bhagat Singh as they did not have a traditional kind of robust and well-built leader who could meet the expectations of a villager like Madari. So, they decided to invite Madari to a park and here they showed him a full-bodied stranger as their leader, from a distance. Madari was really impressed and gave them a lot of weapons for their party.
Bhagat Singh, Verma and Kapoor stayed with Madari for few days as the latter was organising tribal peasants at this time because he was by now sidelined in the tenants’ struggle. Madari Pasi, who once had undermined the traditional caste hierarchy and had unified peasants as a class, bypassing the differences of caste and religion, was increasingly ignored and derided by ‘upper’ and ‘middle’ caste leaders in later phases of the tenant struggle. Now, Madari Pasi dreamt of waging a guerrilla war against the British. But the revolutionaries couldn’t make use of his army as they couldn’t afford to blow the cover on their underground movement owing to Madari’s growing impatience.
From HRA to HSRA
Revolutionaries of the HRA grew more and more sympathetic to the cause of workers and peasants, and finally in 1928, they added the word ‘socialist’ to their organisation’s name. This shift was not merely a result of a theoretical engagement with socialist and Marxist literature, rather it was also a product of engagement with the everyday lives of peasants and workers. In Punjab, the HSRA members were in touch with the factory workers and peasantry via the Kirti Kisan Party, whose leader was Sohan Singh Josh, who also happened to be the editor of famous periodical Kirti (meaning worker), while in Kanpur their engagement with trade union politics happened through Vidyarathi and Hasrat Mohani who were part of the Kanpur Mazdoor Sabha.
Both Bhagat Singh and Vidyarthi were martyred in March 1931, within a span of few days. As far as Madari Pasi is concerned, there are only speculations over his death.
Contrary to the popular view, which even pervades a section of the academia, HSRA members were deeply engaged with workers and peasants of the country and considered them to be the real revolutionary force in Indian society.
Prabal Saran Agarwal and Harshvardhan are research scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The authors would like to thank Firoz Naqvi for his inputs.