Remembering a Peasants' Movement That Went on For Nearly 50 Years

The Bijolia kisan satyagraya and its leaders deserve to be remembered.

It has been over six months since farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, among other states, began mobilising to bring the agrarian question to the doors of the same parliament that had passed three controversial farm laws last year. Over these months, they have been demanding the repeal of these laws and solutions to related farmers’.

The farmers are facing an arrogant state, unwilling to budge even an inch from its position. But this is not the first time that a peasant-led movement has gone on for a long time. In India’s history, there was another such movement which went on for almost 50 years.

This movement has been largely ignored in academia; personalities at the centre of it are not known to the public except in Rajasthan, where the movement took place. A possible explanation for this negligence is that it did not take place in India as we know it, but in the erstwhile princely states of present-day Rajasthan.

Sadhu Sitaram Das. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The movement that we are talking about is known as the Bijolia peasant movement or the Bijolia kisan satyagraha, and forms an integral part of modern history of Rajasthan. It was led by iconic personalities like Vijay Singh Pathik, Manakya Lal Verma and Sadhu Sitaram Das, among others. The movement took place in three phases, first from 1897 to 1915, then from 1916 to 1923 and finally 1923 to 1941. The epicentre of the uprising was the feudal estate of Bijolia, located in the former princely state of Mewar, from where it spread to neighbouring princely states.

At the time of this movement, almost 62% of the total land of modern-day Rajasthan was controlled by jagirdars or feudal landlords. How powerful these jagirdars were can be gleaned from an observation made by James Todd in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: “If sovereign [the King] goes against Jagirdars, sometimes his crown and even life may be in danger.” It was against these powerful Lords (and British forces) that peasants of Bijolia estate raised the banner of revolt, without any outside support.

Socio-economic background of Bijolia movement

The Bijolia estate was made up of 83 villages. In the late 17th century, there was no written law regarding the judiciary, police, revenues etc., and almost everything was based on age-old customs and traditions. The residents of the estate were literally at the mercy of the feudal overlord, the jagirdar. Besides the stipulated revenue, which amount to anything from one-fourth to one-half of the total produce, the peasants were supposed to pay at least 86 different types of additional taxes and perform labour. The extent of the exploitation experienced by Bijolia’s peasants in their everyday life and for their day-to-day activities can be ascertained from certain types of exorbitant taxes that were imposed upon them.

The peasants had to pay a certain amount to the jagirdar on every festive occasion, for harvesting, whenever they had a birthday or wedding ceremonies, and for collecting firewood. They were also supposed to pay for any personal ceremony that was organised by the jagirdar, the owner of the estate. Even the cost of post-death rituals of the jagirdar was extracted from the peasants. If they failed to pay any of these taxes or levies, peasants were harassed and punished publicly.

It was in the backdrop of this culture of extreme oppression that peasants of Bijolia decided to resist. The decision was taken during a public dinner event in the plateau region of Bijolia estate.

Beginning of the satyragraha

The peasants of Bijolia had gathered at Girdharpura village on the occasion of a mrityu-bhoj (dinner given on the 13th day after a death) of one elder villager. The gathered peasants talked about their daily oppression and grievances, and eventually decided to send a delegation to Maharana Fateh Singh of Mewar. After dodging the delegation for almost six months, the Maharana met the peasant leaders and decided to set up an inquiry under an assistant revenue officer. The officer stayed in Bijolia for almost six months and prepared a list of all arbitrary levies and taxes, and sent the report to the Maharana. The ruler, though, did not pay adequate attention to the report and asked his jagirdar to let go of a couple of taxes. Jagirdar Rao Krishna Singh accepted this reluctantly.

Later, Rao bribed a few peasant leaders and was able to break their unity. The two peasant leaders who succumbed to greed – Nanji Patel and Thakri Patel – were banished from Bijolia and their farms were destroyed.  Emboldened by his victory, Rao introduced a new tax called chanwari – Rs 5 to be paid if any peasants’ daughter was getting married. As a mark of protest, the peasants did not arrange marriages for their daughters for the almost two years. In 1905, after a huge protest and the collective decision not to plough the jagirdar’s lands, the peasants won a momentary victory as chinawari was withdrawn and a limit placed on the share of crop revenue.

Also read: Rift in Punjab BJP as Senior Leaders Ask Central Leadership to Repeal Farm Laws

After Rao’s death in 1906, his relative Prithvi Singh became the chief. He withdrew all the previous relaxations and introduced a new tax called talwar lag (succession tax). The peasants protested against this, but the new chief did not pay heed to their demand. In response, the peasants again decided to not plough the Bijolia lands and instead work in nearby states. This created a famine situation in Bijolia, following which the new chief took severe repressive measures. The leaders of the movement were either banished or were put in jail.

The movement subsided with a few concessions, but the anger among the peasants continued to grow as new taxes were imposed on them when the First World War began. Up until now, Sadhu Sitaram was the leader of the peasants – but he was growing old and was looking for an able successor. That’s when he came in contact with a wandering young man in 1915 in Chittoor.

Enter Vijay Singh Pathik

Vijay Singh Pathik, whose original name was Bhoop Singh, was born in Bulandshahr district of present-day Uttar Pradesh in a Gurjar family. There is no information about his birth day or year. His grandfather was a commander in the army of Malagarh Riyasat  and had been martyred during the 1857 revolt. He was initially schooled in a local school but soon moved to Indore after the death of his parents.

Vijay Singh Pathik. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Indore, Bhoop came in contact with the young revolutionary Sachindranath Sanyal. Sanyal later introduced Bhoop to Rash Behari Bose and he soon became a part of the revolutionary movement, even participating in the 1912 plan to assassinate Viceroy Lord Hardinge during his ceremonial procession in Delhi. Bhoop was later deputed to Ajmer with the objective of procuring guns and bullets for the revolutionary party. For this purpose, he started to work in a railway workshop in Ajmer.

Bhoop along with Bhai Balmukund also organised and expanded the revolutionary movement in Rajasthan. During the planned Ghadar Mutiny of 1915, Bhoop was given the responsibility of capturing Ajmer, Beawar and Nasirabaad cantonments. Two days before the planned date, February 19, 1915, Bhoop was able to gather a force of thousands of soldiers and revolutionaries, and was waiting for a signal in a forest near the Kharwa railway station. However, the British got a whiff of the planned mutiny on February 19, which led to the arrest of several key people.

After this episode, Bhoop quickly disbanded the gathered force and was on the run. The British were able to corner him at Shikari Burj, Ajmer and demanded his surrender, but Bhoop refused and was ready to fight till his death. Fearing that masses might come out and join the rebels, the British Commissioner attempted to strike a truce, which was accepted by Bhoop and his associates. They were put under house arrest in the Todgarh fort.

But soon Bhoop was able to escape and was wandering in the hinterlands, since a majority of his comrades and revolutionary leaders were either arrested, on the run or in self-exile. During his underground days, Bhoop disguised himself as a wandering sadhu, formed a band of nationalist youth and opened two schools. It was during one of his days in exile that Bhoop Singh came in contact with Sadhu Sitaram Das, leader of the Bijolia peasants. Das invited Bhoop to Bijolia and requested him to assume the leadership role, which Bhoop accepted gladly. He then assumed his nom de guerre, Vijay Singh Pathik. The is name name by which he became famous and is remembered till today.

In 1916, Bhoop now known as Vijay Singh Pathik entered the Bijolia estate and gave a definitive turn to the peasant movement, which later on served as an inspiration for the Champaran satyagaraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi. In fact when Pathik met Gandhi in 1920 during the Nagpur conference of the Indian National Congress and asked him for advice, Gandhi replied, “What advice should I give you, you have done that which even I cannot do.”

The long struggle

With Pathik by his side, Das formed a Kisan Panchayat Board, which became the node for future peasant agitations. Pathik also created a Seva Samiti and started a school, and along with his fellow comrades undertook a massive study of revenue records of the Bijolia estate, toured villages during the nights, campaigned and prepared reports on the overall condition of villages. During the fall of 1916, the peasants of Bijolia refused to pay any taxes and simultaneously flooded the revenue office of Mewar with petitions against oppressive taxes and revenues. Under pressure, the Maharana of Mewar wanted to concede to the peasants’ demands but the British officials did not permit it. When the British Resident came to know about the entire affair, he persuaded the Maharana to issue an arrest warrant against Pathik – but Pathik escaped. He took residence in Umaji Khera from where he again assumed leadership of the movement.

Also read: A Protest, a Veto and a Committee: The Story of a Farmers’ Protest

Meanwhile, while the peasants had decided not to plough the lands of Bijolia, Pathik convinced them to revise their decision. He advised the peasants to form their own panchayats, look after crops and establish small industries, and influenced by Gandhi he initiated a charkha movement. In a sense, the peasants were able to run a parallel government in Bijolia. These developments only infuriated the Maharana and the British Resident, and massive police action was launched against the agitators. As police were looking for Pathik, he left Rajasthan and moved to Kanpur where he worked closely with Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi. Pathik and Vidyarthi published a series of articles on the struggle of Bijolia peasants which caught the attention of prominent Congress leaders. Tilak and Malviya then wrote letters to the Maharana of Mewar requesting him to accept the peasants’ demands.

The struggle dragged on and a stalemate was reached by the end of 1921. The Mewar state administration had now been paralysed for almost six years and it decided to concede to the peasants’ demands. In 1922, a conference between the state administration, British officials and peasant leaders was organised, and an agreement was reached according to which many small taxes were dropped and begar was only accepted for the Maharana.

This initial success and overall energy of the Bijolia peasant movement had inspired peasants of other estates to raise their voice against similar socio-economic exploitation. Soon the peasants of Begun, Bundi, Barad, Alwar, Shekhawati, Bharatpur and other regions began their own movements in consultation with the Rajasthan Sewa Sangh, which was formed by Pathik. The peasants of Begun began their struggle in 1920 and by the end of 1922, they were able to reach a similar settlement to that of Bijolia.

However, the British Resident was miffed with the development and dubbed it as Bolshevik settlement and deputed Commissioner G.C. Trench to Begun. In July 1923, Trench reached Raita village – the centre of the Begun peasant agitation – and unleashed massive violence in which 11 villagers died, 45 were injured and over 500 were arrested. The entire village was burned to ashes. This unprovoked violence only intensified the movement and under the leadership of Pathik, a new settlement was reached by the end of December 1923, ending begar and dropping many arbitrary taxes.

While Begun was in revolt, the jagirdar of Bijolia was planning to subvert the agreement of 1922. In 1923, old taxes were re-imposed and massive violence was unleashed. From 1923 to 1927, a series of protests happened and many settlements were reached only to be violated by the jagirdars. Meanwhile, Pathik was arrested and lodged in Udaipur Jail only to be released in 1928. By the time he came out, the Rajasthan Seva Sangh, the nodal organisation of the peasant agitation, was in disarray and a divided house. Disappointed with the squabbles over petty issues, Pathik withdrew from the organisation, which itself collapsed after some time. He moved to the United Provinces, but kept in touch with many peasant leaders. Pathik’s withdrawal brought many new leaders to the forefront and the struggle continued till 1941.

The Bijolia and other peasant movements were a long-drawn affair which went on with the strategy of ‘two steps back, one step forward’, in which many peasants lost their lives and suffered huge losses. The atrocities committed by the police of the princely states upon the peasants were immense and brutal. Women were lined up and their clothes were torn, peasants were made to lie on roads and horses were run over them, men were tied to poles and whipped, houses were burned to ashes. However, their patience and courage eventually paid off.

Epilogue: A few more words on Vijay Singh Pathik

Pathik did not receive any higher education. But despite this lack of formal education, Pathik emerged as an intense intellectual force cum institution builder. He had complete command over Hindi, English, Urdu, Bangla, Marathi, Gujarati and Sanskrit. In his career as a revolutionary peasant leader, Pathik launched a number of newspapers and established many institutions.

He founded the newspaper Rajasthan Kesari with Jamlal Bajaj, which was published from Warda, Gujarat. This newspaper became the voice of oppressed people from princely states of Rajasthan but soon the revolutionary content published by Pathik became intolerable for Bajaj and he was asked to leave. Following this, Pathik moved to Ajmer where he formed the Rajasthan Sewa Sangh which became the nodal organisation of the peasants’ movement and launched its journal, Navin Rajasthan. After it was banned in the princely states, he founded another journal, Tarun Rajasthan, and later Rajasthan Sandesh. After he was banished from Ajmer, Pathik moved to Agra and launched another journal, Nav-Sandesh.

Pathik was also an accomplished poet and playwright, whose poems and songs moved and inspired the masses in their struggle against oppressive princely state-British regime combo. He also published a 1,200-page-long research work on the history of republicanism in ancient India. Even though a lot of his works were either lost or destroyed, by the end of his career, Pathik had produced 30 volumes, excluding his articles and essays in newspapers. This vast amount of literature produced by Pathik, who went to school only till the primary level, shows his immense intellectual creativity produced in interaction with society and common people.

Through his immense writings and activism, Pathik infused a progressive nationalist consciousness among vast masses of Rajasthan. He gave a definite ideological and sharp political edge to the struggle of peasants and broader segments of people in princely states against feudalism and British imperialism. He was the vice-president and chief publicist of the All India States Peoples’ Conference (AISPC) or Praja Mandal, an organisation of people from all princely states of India.

Today, there are countless statues and institutions named after Vijay Singh Pathik dotting the map of Rajasthan. He was also given the title of Rashtriya Pathik. But despite of all these memorials, Pathik, a journalist, revolutionary, poet, satirist, playwright, propagandist and agitator, remains a marginalised figure in national memory. His name and the peasant movement he built and led have been reduced to mere ‘objective-type questions’ in state civil services exams of the Rajasthan state.

Today, as the farmers’ struggle at borders of Delhi against an adamant and apathetic state and its neoliberal tenets, it can be said that they are the successors of the same fighting spirit and patience which once found expression among the peasants of Bijolia and other principle states.

Harshvardhan is a research scholar at JNU. Shivam Mogha studies sociology at JNU and is co-editor of Trolley Times.