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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 50, New Delhi, November 27, 2021

Two Farmers’ Agitations - Bordoli Satyagraha of 1928 and Current Movement Against Farm Laws- Teach us to Stand Against Divisive Politics | SN Sahu

Saturday 27 November 2021, by S N Sahu


(The below article was written on November 26 the occasion of India’s Constitution Day - On 26th November 1949, the Constituent Assembly of India adopted the Constitution of India)

A peep into history reveals that constitutional methods were adopted by farmers during Bordoli Satyagraha launched in 1928 against the decision of British rulers to enhance land revenue by 30 percent without consulting stakeholders. Only when the callous British regime remained unresponsive to the issues raised, the farmers resorted to direct action by eschewing violence. However, the colonial rulers made every attempt, including employment of divisive strategy, to scuttle the Satyagraha. Gandhi described those coercive methods as a manifestation of frightful doctrine. The colonial authorities could not succeed. The bizarre demonstration of majoritarianism by Modi regime and the ruthless persuasion of polarised politics to deal with the farmers’ movement against farm laws is reminiscent of the policy of divide and rule so characteristics of British rule in India and their policy to foil Bardoli Satyagraha.

Consider the paragraph reproduced below.

"The Government in their wisdom and in order to emphasize the fact that this rule is sustained by the policy of divide et impera have drafted in the midst of an overwhelmingly large Hindu population Mussalman officials and Pathan hirelings. As satyagrahis the people can easily checkmate the Government. Let them treat the officials and the Pathans as friends. Let them not distrust or in any the slightest manner fear or molest them. They the officials are our countrymen, the Pathans are our neighbours. Ere long the Government will discover their mistake and know that the honour of a Hindu is as dear to a Mussalman as to a Hindu and vice versa."

Mahatma Gandhi wrote the above passage in Young India on 17th May 1928 for exposing the British regime’s devious policy to break the Bordoli Satyagraha. The said Satyagraha was set in motion after, in the words of professor Bipan Chandra, the peasants took "....oaths in the name of Prabhu (the Hindu name for god) and Khuda (the Muslim name for god) that they would not pay the land revenue. The resolution was followed by the recitation of sacred texts from the Gita and the Koran and songs from Kabir, who symbolized Hindu-Muslim unity." It resonates in the present day farmers’ movement marked by recitation of slogans from multiple religions celebrating unity in diversity and upholding composite culture.

The British colonial rulers sought to break a broad-based and inclusive Bardoli Satyagarha, affirming religious pluralism and India’s syncretism, by deliberately employing divisive strategy based on Hindu - Muslim binaries. The deployment of Mussalman officials and Pathan hirelings in the largely Hindu-dominated areas, where Satyagraha had gained momentum, had the objective of causing religious feuds and concomitant violence and bloodshed. Gandhi with his uncanny understanding of the diabolical polarising agenda of British officials thoughtfully observed, as mentioned in the aforementioned para, that "..the Government will discover their mistake and know that the honour of a Hindu is as dear to a Mussalman as to a Hindu and vice versa". He further added that " The people of Bardoli have the chance of demonstrating this in a concrete manner. Let them vindicate the law of satyagraha which is also the law of Love and they will melt even the stony heart of an autocratic Commissioner."

What was done by British rulers to break the Bordoli Satyagraha of farmers by deviously provoking the Hindus against the Muslim officials and other Pathan mercenaries, who were purposely posted there, was also done against the peaceful farmers’ movement against farm laws by leaders of Modi regime and BJP. So there is a strong parallel between the divisive strategy adopted by colonial rulers against Bordoli Satyagraha and the polarised politics very craftily used by Modi regime to defame and damage the cause of the agitation of farmers against the farm legislations enacted in 2020 without following the deliberative and consultative process of lawmaking.

It is instructive to note that the year-long farmers’ movement of 2020-2021 has been launched by farmers of all faiths after the 2013 communal riots in UP where BJP caused polarisation and broke the unity between Jat and Muslim farmers. It earned huge electoral dividends both in 2014 and 2019 general elections and 2017 election for the State Assembly.

Communal Idioms Employed to Divide Farmers’ Movement

It is worthwhile to examine the communal idioms and phrases used by BJP leaders against the movement of farmers. They described the movement as the handiwork of Khalistanis and in doing so they were giving a religious colour to a secular, non-violent and peaceful agitation which is unprecedented in the history of India.

Senior journalist Jagtar Singh who wrote "Rivers on Fire: Khalistan Struggle" said, "This is the first ever secular mass mobilisation against the Modi government in the country”. He proceeded to add, "They are scared that the protest can shake the divisive agenda of the Sangh Parivar, hence they are dubbing Sikh farmers as Khalistanis. They want to communalise the farmers’ protest and to counter them, and are thus confined to Khalistan.”

The retired army officers were not spared of communal slurs for supporting the movement of farmers. For instance a retired Major was dubbed as ‘Khalistani,’ ‘madrassa chhap’, and ‘sickular’ for taking a stand in favour of farmers opposing farm laws.

A mischievous and twisted Pakistan angle was given to the farmers movement by BJP national general secretary and Uttarakhand state unit in-charge Dushyant Kumar Gautam when he falsely asserted that “pro-Khalistan and pro-Pakistan” slogans were chanted in the sites where farmers protested. Union Minister Piyush Goyal made preposterous claim that anti-national forces infiltrated the farmers protesting against farm laws. Such narratives rooted in Pakistan angle were deliberately framed by BJP leadership and circulated by Godi media to generate perception among people that separatist tendencies are being fanned by farmers. The Pakistani angle is invoked to target Muslims and, thereby, causing religious division in an otherwise non-sectarian, secular and peaceful agitation orgainsed by exercising the constitutional right to protest and upheld by the Supreme Court.

Allahu Akbar, Har Har Mahadev

It is refreshing to note that the farmers’ movement got intensified and gained renewed momentum in spite of the attempts of powers that be to divide it on religious lines. In fact it has bridged the religious division caused by BJP leaders in UP in 2013 when farmers professing Hindu faith moved away from those following the Islamic creed and a bloody riot ensued causing deaths of farmers of both the communities. Their unity was amply demonstrated in the massive Kisan Mahapanchayat organised in Muzaffarnagar on 5 September 2021 when Rakesh Tikait, leader of the farmer’s representative organization Bharatiya Kisan Union, recited Allahu Akbar (God is Great) other leaders and participants responded by chanting Har Har Mahadev (“’Everyone is Lord Shiva’”); Sikhs present there, invoked Wahe Guru (“the true Guru/One God” in the Guru Granth Sahib). Social activist Medha Patkar, who was a leading participant in that Mahapanchayat , raised the slogan “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isai, apas mein sab behen bhai" (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are sisters and brothers).

Secularism the basic structure of Construction

Such religious pluralism evidenced in the chanting of those multiple slogans in a colossal gathering of farmers represented unity and solidarity of "We the people’ and underlined victory for secularism enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution and held by the Supreme Court in the Bommai judgement as the basic feature of the Constitution.

In fact in that judgement the apex court observed, " How are the constitutional promises of social justice, liberty of belief, faith or worship and equality of status and of opportunity to be attained unless the State eschews the religion, faith or belief of a person from its consideration altogether while dealing with him, his rights, his duties and his entitlements? Secularism is thus more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance. It is a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions. This attitude is described by some as one of neutrality towards religion or as one of benevolent neutrality. This may be a concept evolved by western liberal thought or it may be, as some say, an abiding faith with the Indian people at all points of time. That is not material. What is material is that it is a constitutional goal and a basic feature of the Constitution as affirmed in Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973. Any step inconsistent with this constitutional policy is, in plain words, unconstitutional. "

Some aspects of equal treatment of religions manifested in the chanting of those slogans was a significant development in the context of Uttar Pradesh and particularly western part of it where, as stated earlier, in 2013 BJP triggered polarisation based on religion and the unity between Jat and Muslim farmers were broken. In the riots that followed several Hindus and Muslims were killed and BJP reaped electoral dividend in successive elections held on and after 2014.

The polarisation process was deepened by employing communally divisive policies. It is rather tragic that for electoral gains sinister measures were taken to divide people based on their faiths and that division was aggressively fostered by employing terms and idioms that would provoke sectarian tendencies and actuate people to target one another based on their religious persuasions. Rakesh Tikait and other leaders confessed that they had followed divisive politics in the past and resolved to defeat hatred and violence. He sharply observed, “They talk of dividing, we speak of uniting. The hallmark of BJP [Bharatiya Janta Party] politics is hate politics.”

Ambedkar’s Vision Embodied in Farmers’ Movement

Apart from preaching plurality of religious slogans, Tikait and other leaders of the Bharat Kisan Union have been involved in practical action meant to unite people. They have travelled to several villages, mobilised both Hindu and Muslim farmers, and convinced them to overcome the rift caused by the riots. The meetings they organised in the streets in an effort to convince others to join their cause embody Dr. Ambedkar’s call to “Educate, Agitate and Organise”.

Gandhi’s Vision

The unity of the farmers’ protests also mirrors the eighteen points outlined by Gandhi in his Constructive Programme wherein he argued that communal unity does not mean political unity, but an unbreakable unity of the heart. In forging unity among farmers professing diverse faiths by reciting multi-religious slogans an attempt has been made for the cause of heart unity among them.

What the farmers’ movement is recapturing is the composite culture of people professing diverse faiths by reciting multiple slogans representing several religions.

In doing so they are salvaging the communal harmony and secular ethos which, according to the leaders of the Mahapanchayat, fell victim to divisive politics in 2013.

Historical Context of slogans - Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev

It is worthwhile to recall the historical context of recitation of Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev. It is not for the first time that these chants are being recited in the Kissan rallies. Its legacy dates back to Mahendra Singh Tikait who led the farmers of different faiths and fought for their rights. During one protest rally of farmers in the mid-1980s two farmers Akbar Ali, a Muslim, and Jai Pal, a Hindu, fell to the police bullets and breathed their last. Farmers belonging to Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Mahendra Tikait gathered around the dead bodies of their colleagues and spontaneously shouted Allahu Akbar and Har Har Mahadev. That was how the practice of chanting those religious slogans commenced. The farmers in their gatherings carried it forward to signify their common bond transcending their religious affiliations and affirming religious pluralism and secular credentials.

The 2013 riots broke that unity and its prominent casualty was Rakesh Tikait who talked the language of divisive Hindutva forces. Ghulam Mohammad Jola, an influential leader of farmers broke ranks with Tikait and formed his own organisation, Kisan Majdoor Manch. He gave the slogan Ek Ho, Nek Ho (Come together, be pious). He fondly recalled the legacy of Mahendra Tikait who on the occasion of a rally of farmers in Hardwar asked Jola and other farmers professing Islamic faith to offer Namaz in Har ki Pauri as the nearest mosque was located at a distance of eight kilometers. Such tradition of religious pluralism was shattered by the 2013 riots. It is heartening to note that the farmers’ movement against farm laws have brought the farmers to a common secular platform by bridging the gulf caused by the divisive politics of BJP and Hindutva forces.
Bordoli Satyagraha and Farmers’ Movement Inspires to defend Constitution

It has become clear over the last many months that the agitation of the farmers against the three farm laws, and their retrieval of our Constitution’s secular legacy, are lessons that others can use in their journey to reclaim the Constitution and its accompanying constitutional morality, both of which have been under assault since 2014. It is important that this momentum be sustained in order to ensure the eventual defeat of divisive politics.

The farmers of Bordoli through their Satyagraha in 1928 against an increase of land revenue not only succeeded in getting their grievances redressed but also foiled the attempts of colonial rulers to divide them on religious lines. What was accomplished in 1928 by the Bordoli Satyagraha has been replicated in 2021 by the farmers’ movement which literally forced the Modi to concede to their demand for the repeal of farm laws.

The movement itself has salvaged the secular ethos of the farming community. The larger meaning of it is that the farmers through their unparalleled movement has upheld the Constitution and constitutional values.

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