Peasants’ revolts —II

Peasants’ revolts —II

During the early Mughal era, agricultural produce was subject to state extraction, initially following Manu’s laws, which mandated a sixth but could be increased to a fourth during crises. Emperor Akbar introduced a significant land revenue settlement, classifying land into fertility categories and fixing the government’s share at a third of the gross produce, aligning with ancient revenue practice.

The later Mughal period witnessed a decline in revenue control, leading to the adoption of “revenue farming,” where farmers paid the government nine-tenths of the revenue, retaining the rest. Originating in Bengal during Farrukhsiyar’s reign, this system contributed to the emergence of Jagirdars (landlords), reshaping land ownership dynamics and societal structures.

The shift to private ownership encountered resistance, notably through peasant uprisings in Pashtun regions, the Punjab and Sindh. These were led, among others by legendary figures such as Dulla Bhatti, Bayazid Ansari and Shah Inayat. Dulla Bhatti, hailing from a warrior lineage in the Punjab, spearheaded a guerrilla campaign against the Mughal rule, mobilising peasants against oppressive taxation and advocating for socio-economic reform. Refusing to submit to Akbar’s tax demands, Bhatti’s rebellion aimed at challenging the status quo. Despite severe repression, including the execution of his father and grandfather, Bhatti’s movement persisted. His mother, Mai Laddhi, emerged as a symbol of the Punjabi resistance against Mughal oppression, showcasing an enduring spirit of defiance against tyranny.

Bayazid Ansari, founder of the Roshaniah sect, ignited a peasant revolt against the Mughal rule in the 16th Century, fostering Pashtun national identity and literary expression. Motivated by Mughal ‘injustice,’ Ansari embraced mysticism aligned with Pashtun values, advocating for collective farming and challenging feudalism. His movement gained momentum, leading to armed resistance under successors like Ihad and Bibi Alai, fighting Shah Jehan’s forces and inspiring tales of valour.

Sindh’s turbulent history, shaped by successive dominations, subjected peasants to dire conditions, particularly under Aurangzeb and Shah Jehan. The rise of Jagirdars and Nawabs exacerbated turmoil, fuelling violence and exploitation. Land ownership was classified into categories like Khalsa and Jagirat. The Jagirdari system was traced back to the Umayyad arrangement.

The Mehdawi movement, led by Miran Syed Muhammad Jodpuri, advocated for universal equality and communal living. Shah Inayat of Jhok (near Thatta), challenged feudal authority by promoting agrarian egalitarianism, emphasising that land belonged to God and its yield to the tiller. Despite opposition from local rulers, Shah Inayat’s efforts to redistribute land and promote social equality left a lasting impact on Sindh’s socio-economic fabric.

Shah Inayat established Mehdavi dairas, promoting collective farming, communal livelihood and social welfare. These dairas provided refuge for marginalised peasants, fostering unity and equal rights. Records detail provisions within these dairas, including support for offspring, emergency relief, caretaker roles, assembly for deliberation and religious education. Shah Inayat, explained his principles to Farrukhsiyar and received compensation. Upset by his challenge to the established social hierarchy, local landlords falsely accused him of rebellion, leading to a siege of his fortress in Jhok. Shah Inayat’s followers resisted government forces for six months but were eventually undone by treachery, facing execution in January 1718. His resistance marked a significant early uprising against feudalism in India.

With the advent of British colonialism, local landlords aligned to consolidate British authority. Post-1850s reforms, including land settlement and revenue systems, bolstered elite control over peasants and suppressed dissent. Industrial interests fuelled British expansion, particularly in the Punjab, where canal irrigation and land colonisation spurred agricultural production.

The introduction of complex legal systems and cash-based land revenue exacerbated peasant indebtedness and dispossession, fostering the emergence of new social classes like zamindars and moneylender-landlords. These dynamics set the stage for popular uprisings, such as the 1857 rebellion, reflecting shifting socio-political dynamics and the necessity for updated resistance strategies.

During the British colonial era, the land struggle in the Punjab aimed at reform rather than a revolutionary upheaval. Exploitation by predominantly Hindu moneylenders prompted the enactment of the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900, restricting non-agrarian land acquisition. Various government measures triggered mixed reactions among political leaders, with concerns about their impact on national unity, particularly among Hindu and Sikh peasants.

Peasant resistance intensified under revolutionary figures like Ajit Singh and Sufi Amba Prasad. In Sindh, colonial policies empowered zamindars through land revenue systems, exacerbating peasant exploitation. The Sindh Hari Committee emerged to combat landlord oppression, advocating for land redistribution and agrarian rights. The Punjab Kisan Committee, formed in 1937, demanded debt cancellation and land reforms.

Despite government repression, the PKC expanded rapidly, drawing on earlier movements like the Ghadar Party rebellion and Sikh Gurdwara reform, exerting significant influence within the governing Unionist party, with membership surpassing 100,000 by 1944, reflecting its pivotal role in advancing peasant interests.

The British colonial strategy in quelling freedom movements heavily relied on an alliance with feudal landlords, who effectively controlled the rural masses while bolstering British political authority. This alliance, forged during the 1857 revolt, aimed at maintaining stability and suppressing peasant unrest.

Legally binding treaties solidified this collaboration, with landlords pledging military support to the British in exchange for privileges and protection of their feudal rights. The landlords enjoyed preferential treatment in education, employment and governance. This symbiotic relationship persisted in the 20th Century and was exemplified by the formation of Chiefs’ Associations in the Punjab, further solidifying feudal loyalty to British rule.

Peasant uprisings, driven by grievances against exploitative agrarian relations, posed a challenge to this alliance. Movements like the Ghalla Dher tenant agitation reflected a broader struggle for land rights and social justice, often met with brutal repression. Despite occasional hopes of relief through political change, entrenched class solidarity between landowners and politicians perpetuated rural exploitation, fuelling recurrent cycles of resistance and repression.

In response to the deteriorating conditions exacerbated by landlord oppression, peasant organisations proliferated in the Punjab during the late 1920s. Various government measures provoked multifaceted reactions across the province, sparking widespread protests. Organisations like the Zamindar Sabha and Kirti Kisan Sabha engaged in propaganda tours and conferences to advocate for peasants’ rights.

Significant gatherings, such as the Provincial Kirti Kisan Sabha conference in Nankana in 1932, denounced capitalist exploitation and distributed party manifestos province-wide. Similar conferences continued to demand reductions in land revenues and an end to bribery. Grassroots movements emerged in Kasur and Sahiwal districts, protesting against revenue hikes and refusal of socialist demands. These movements gained momentum, prompting civil disobedience and widespread agitation, reflecting the unified struggle against oppression under British imperialism.

In the frontier province, peasants encountered similar hardships, prompting the likes of Red Shirt movement. Through organised processions and conferences, they tackled issues such as agricultural indebtedness and land revenue demands. The Congress-Khudai Khidmatgars found support among peasants and artisans, despite facing repression from authorities.

Dr Khan Saheb’s advocacy at the All-India Congress Committee session in Delhi in 1938 further amplified the cause. Peasant conferences held in Manshera and Hazara districts denounced feudalism and proposed resolutions to combat landlord malpractices, underscoring the pivotal role of peasant organisations in articulating and addressing rural grievances.

In the Indian subcontinent, peasant agitation centred on land redistribution, tenure security and the elimination of exploitative practices, such as oppressive rents and usurious interest. Under the British rule, significant political and legislative developments unfolded. The British introduced autonomous judicial and political administration focusing on establishing a rule of property and adjudication. However, the imposition of new rules often clashed with indigenous systems, sparking resistance.

The Punjab Tenancy Act of 1887 prohibited inquiries into tenants’ status and outlined procedures for eviction. The Punjab Alienation of Land Act of 1900 aimed to restrict land transfer from agricultural to non-agricultural classes. Communal tensions surfaced as the legislation divided the population along agricultural and non-agricultural lines.

The colonisation bill of 1906 stirred revolutionary agitation, particularly concerning land relationships and potential loss of land by farmers. Subsequent bills like the Punjab Land Revenue (Amendment) Bill of 1927 and the NWFP Agriculturist Debtor’s Relief Act targeted issues of land revenue, money lending and agricultural marketing malpractices. These legislative moves aimed to protect farmers’ interests and curb exploitative practices in agrarian economies.

(To be continued)

The writer is a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

Peasants’ revolts —II