Sir Chhotu Ram is remembered for his relentless efforts to uplift the farmers of his land
he growing global food crisis and 21st Century peasant and farmer movements in Pakistani and Indian Punjab have once again captured the attention of academicians. A number of historians, economists, and sociologists have covered these developments in academic and non-academic writings. In these efforts, they have written mainly about post-colonial social, economic, administrative, historical and political aspects of the movements. However, the voices of the peasants and farmers of colonial Punjab have not been given due attention and space in these texts. Ram Rachpal – popularly known as Sir Chhotu Ram (1881-1945) – was one of them.
Rachpal was born on November 24, 1881, in a debt-ridden family – who owned only ten acres of land – in Garhi Sampla village in Rohtak district of colonial Punjab (now a part of Haryana state in India). Being the youngest of the siblings, he was called “Chhotu.” Later on, he came to be known as Chhotu Ram. The region he came from had witnessed frequent droughts and famines that had led to the farmer’s dependence on moneylenders. The latter had been exploiting the former regularly.
Patronised and sponsored by Seth Chhaju Ram—a Jat businessman and philanthropist of Alakpura, Chhotu Ram studied at the Christian Mission School in Delhi and St Stephen’s College, Delhi, before securing an LLB degree from Law College, Agra, in 1911.
He enrolled as a practicing lawyer at Agra in 1912. However, very soon, he shifted to Rohtak because the farmers of his area needed his services—owing to his pro-agrarian tendency, he took the responsibility of playing the leading role of the spokesman for farmers. By 1916, he had become a popular advocate of agriculturists. Besides becoming an active member of the Jat Sabha, he launched an Urdu weekly, Jat Gazette, in 1916. He also used to publish his essays in the Tribune under the title Bechara Zamindar (the helpless farmer) to create consciousness among the farmers for their rights. His efforts were aimed at exploring avenues for their welfare.
Chhotu Ram started his political career by joining the Indian National Congress in 1916. He remained president of the Rohtak district Congress Committee till November 8, 1920, when he left the party over his differences with its leadership over the non-cooperation movement. While Congress boycotted the 1920 elections, Chhotu Ram got elected on a Zamindara Party ticket. In 1923, he, in collaboration with Fazl-i-Hussain and Chaudhary Lal Chand, founded the National Unionist Party, which aimed at safeguarding the interests of the rural communities of the province irrespective of class, creed, caste and religion. The party tried to unite the agriculturist classes of the province.
From the Unionist platform, Chhotu Ram, on the one hand, tried to boost the educated people to take interest and pride in agricultural pursuits and, on the other hand, introduced an innovative scheme for the creation of model villages and chaks.
The Unionist won the general elections of 1936 and formed a coalition government along with the Congress and Sikh Akali Dal. Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan was sworn in as prime minister of the Punjab on April 1, 1937, and Chhotu Ram was included in the cabinet as minister for development. In 1941, his portfolio was changed to minister for revenue. He held this post till his death on January 9, 1945.
It is believed that Sir Chhotu Ram’s revolutionary reforms changed the face of rural Punjab. To begin with, he put his earnest efforts to get the benami land allotted to the landless harijans and kammis when the government decided to confiscate the benami land.
It is believed that Sir Chhotu Ram’s revolutionary reforms changed the face of rural Punjab. To begin with, he put his earnest efforts to get the benami land allotted to the landless harijans and kammis when the government decided to confiscate the benami land. Moreover, he urged the government to start big projects including Thal Irrigation Programme and Bhakra Dam to transform the uncultivated land and allot it to the cultivators, mainly landless peasants and small landholders.
In addition, he is credited with the execution of The Regulation Bill, amendments in The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900—commonly known as the Benami Transactions Bills, The Punjab Land Revenue (Amendment) Act of 1929 — which remains a landmark social legislation, and The Consolidation Holdings Act of 1936 — which was amended in 1945. The amendments in The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 prohibited the courts from issuing any orders to permit the sale of land over insolvency. The prime object was to protect the peasant proprietors and prevent agricultural land from passing out of the hands of the tillers to those of moneylenders due to indebtedness.
Moreover, he played a vital role in bringing an end to the exploitation of the farmers by the moneylenders (mahukars, mahajans and banias) with a series of Acts – The Punjab Regulation of Accounts Act of 1930, The Punjab Relief Indebtedness Act of 1934, The Punjab Debtors’ Protection Act of 1936, The Sahukar Registration Act of 1938, The Punjab Restitution of Mortgaged Lands Bill of 1938, The Punjab Relief of Indebtedness Act of 1943 and The Free Rent Mortgage Land Act – when the farmers of the Punjab were depressed due to their indebtedness to the moneylenders and their deliverance from that indebtedness appeared to be a far cry. As a result of these enactments, it became mandatory for the moneylenders to register themselves, without which they could not advance loans or prosecute farmers. The Punjab Restitution of Mortgaged Lands Bill of 1938 provided, on the one hand, relief on payment of a reasonable compensation when necessary by the mortgagor to the mortgagee and, on the other hand, for the termination of the mortgages and land sold to the moneylenders or as benami land after June 8, 1901. Subsequently, all land mortgaged to the moneylenders for 37 years, was restored to its owners—farmers.
Furthermore, The Punjab Agricultural Markets Products Bill – generally labelled as the Mandi Act – of 1939 provided for regulation of markets to ensure that fair prices were paid to the farmers. This bill intended to protect the growers of agricultural commodities from various malpractices of shopkeepers and brokers. As a result of the implementation of this Act, the producers were ensured better prices for the grains sold to the sahukars.
Sir Chhotu Ram’s commitment to being the voice of farmers could be gauged from the words he had uttered while highlighting the importance of the farmers for society. He wrote “People describe the farmer as the Lord of Grain, but no one sees whether he himself eats or not. It is the biggest wonder of the world that the one who produces remains hungry. I tell the rajas, nawabs and all types of governments of Hindustan to not harass the farmer to the extent that he stands up… Other people break the law when they get angry with a government, but when the farmer gets angry, he will not only break the law, he will also break the back of the government.”
For his invaluable services to the farmers, he was rewarded with the titles of Deen-Bandhu and Rahbar-i-Azam.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at mazharabbasgondal87gmail.com. He tweets at MazharGondal87