● A Note on Peasants in the Indian Subcontinent ●

In response to a mail from a friend in Europe :

# Victory of British East India Company in the 1757 Battle of Plassey can be seen as the beginning of the transfer of state power from feudal interests to that of market interests in the Indian subcontinent.

Feudal natural economy premised on the production of use values, with the right of feudal lords to gratis appropriation of a portion of the produce, was displaced by sales and purchases in the markets.

With increasing areas under the Company’s rule, rural landscape underwent massive transformations in the subcontinent. A corollary of the replacement of payments in kind by payments in money was the transformation of serfs into peasants. Use of personal and family labour for production for the market is the hallmark of peasants, be they landowning peasants or tenants of landowners. British East India Company auctioned agricultural land for which the biddings were by moneyed people in cities. Last quarter of the nineteenth century onwards, the British Government also gave agricultural land in canal irrigated areas to persons in appreciation of their services to the Empire.

# For expansion of market relations, British East India Company passed the first land acquisition act in the subcontinent in 1824. This underwent revisions. After the 1857 revolt, British Government took the reins of power in its hands. Final version of their land acquisition act came in 1894. In 1947, the Government of India adopted this act in totality and applied it to the whole of India. The land acquisition act of 1894 remained unaltered till 2013 in India.

# The earliest revolts against the imposition of market relations in place of feudal natural economy, led by the fakirs and sanyasis, were suppressed by the army of British East India Company. Such revolts unfolded in different parts of the subcontinent as the Company rapidly conquered the subcontinent.

A significant change in the global scenario of foodgrains and other farm produce, was the commencement of their exports from the USA to Europe in 1863. In the Indian subcontinent, building of canals for irrigation that began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, made significant impact on peasant farming. The two together greatly increased exploitation of the peasants. Other dimensions of peasant conflicts became significant. Migrations of peasants from the subcontinent to other parts of the world became significant.

# In the first quarter of the twentieth century, factory production in some pockets in the subcontinent. Assertions of the representatives of wage-labour based commodity production for greater say in the affairs of the subcontinent became increasingly significant. The representatives of this new mode of production began presenting their interests as “demand for independence”. Like in other parts of the world, in the subcontinent also, increasing discontent of the peasants was channelised into “national liberation/struggle for independence”.

October 1917 revolution in Russia that led to the formation of state-capitalist Soviet Union, contributed significantly to the global dimension of the peasant question in the subcontinent. “Communist Party of India” formed in the 1920s became a representative of state-capitalist Soviet Union and acquired influence amongst peasants in some regions of the subcontinent. Up to the 1980s, “communist parties” in India have led significant numbers of peasants in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Bengal, Tripura, Bihar into the swamps.

# Peasants were recruited in the British East India Company. Later, peasants became soldiers in British India Army and the police force. Post 1947, peasants in significant numbers have been employed in the Indian Army (now a million and three hundred thousand plus persons), central government paramilitary forces (now a million and two hundred thousand plus), in the stated armed police force plus routine police force, and Air Force, Navy…Peasants have also been employed in other central and state services. Numbers may look impressive but this employment is a handful of straw for a hungry camel. And, peasants for quite some time avoided other types of wage-work and hung-on to one-two-five-seven acres of land cultivation in the villages.

Whereas, post-1947 factory production and state takeover of commons land in the villages had forced large numbers of artisans out of the villages and into various kinds of urban employment. By 1960s, the conditions of peasants dependent on land alone had become so bad that the situation of artisans who had left the villages in dire straits, looked “good”. Visits of ex-artisans to their villages caused envy amongst peasants who were earlier their superiors. This was also expressed in conflicts. The slaughter of ex-artisans in a village in Tamil Nadu in 1968. It also finds expression in each peasant social grouping forming its own “socialist” party in Tamil Nadu and other states in the hope of raising their social status.

# Desperation of the peasant mode of production also gave rise to the maoist armed upsurge in the 1960s. This was ruthlessly crushed by the state, fake encounters was one of the modus operandi. A look at Punjab : after the maoists were crushed, the desperation of the peasants expressed itself in the Khalistan movement for an independent Sikh country. And, crushing of the Khalistani movement has provided some breathing space to “mass movement” maoists. Amongst the thirty plus peasants unions now agitating at Delhi borders, majority of them are self-proclaimed maoists.

# Incomparable leaps in the productive forces that began in the 1970s with the introduction of electronics in the production processes, have reconstituted the world. Wage-workers have come to the fore on the social stage throughout the globe. China is the new workshop of the world. Ten years after the state in China, the state in India adopted the path of the state in China. Now India is significant in global industrial production.

In the subcontinent, the state in Bangladesh has gone for rapid industrialisation but the state in Pakistan has lagged in this. The position of agriculture in the economy in India has fallen significantly in these thirty years. The situation of peasant farming has worsened during this period but significant numbers have found space in factory production related activities. Similar situation can be said to be in Bangladesh. And, in Pakistan, peasant desperation is significantly being expressed in the Taliban armed struggle and related activities.

In India, maoist armed struggles and other activities have shrunk to the levels of minor irritants. Peasant social groupings now are asking for reservations in employment etc. A sum-up of this could be the writings from jail of a leading theoretician of the CPI (Maoist), Kobad Ghandy’s six articles published in a mainstream magazine, “The Mainstream” from August 2012 to January 2013, titled “Questions of Freedom and People’s Emancipation” : ” …. Communism seems no longer an attraction for the youth, as it was for us in the 1960s and 1970s.” + “…. by the 1990s most communist/Left movements/organisations collapsed, and the few that remained existed, fighting with their backs to the wall. This is the harsh reality even today — a situation worse than ever before!! Never in this past one-and-a-half centuries of communist thought, has the situation been so pathetic.”

As to the Left in general, recently we wrote to a friend : “The left is irrelevant in India. All splinters of it have, since 2014, rapidly become parts of a tail of the Congress Party, which itself is in disarray.”

# During these ten years, wage workers in general and factory workers in particular in Bangladesh and India are engendering radical ruptures as a matter of routine. Activities of the radical social subject are significantly increasing the possibilities of radical social transformations. Yes, we are in vibrant times, in lively times.

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