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Mainstream, VOL L, No 28, June 30, 2012

Misappropriating a Legacy: Swami and his Contemporary Enthusiasts

Wednesday 4 July 2012


Observers of the political scene in Bihar would have hardly failed to notice a renewed interest in the life and works of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (1889-1950), the founder President of the All India Kisan Sabha, and arguably the most influential peasant leader of Bihar in the 1930s and 1940s. Over the last decade or so, his birth (February 22) and death (June 26) anniversaries have been celebrated with great pomp and show with full attendance from political luminaries of the State including the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar. Not only have glowing tributes been paid to his legacy but there has also been a spurt of writings on his life and times. New biographies1 have been released, and his collected works been published in six volumes.2 In fact, there is a Swami Sahaj-anand Saraswati Foundation based in New Delhi as well as a Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Forum on the internet. Curiously enough, Swami Sahaj-anand Saraswati figures prominently on the internet in the caste-specific web-portals such as; and where his name appears along with Mangal Pande; Ramdhari Singh Dinkar; Dr C.P. Thakur; Sri Babu; Bhagwan Parshuram; Chanakya in the long list of supposedly Bhumihar icons. Indeed, the Swami’s legacy has always been the bone of contention between the Bhumihars and Communists. What needs explanation is the BJP’s concerted efforts in appropriating this iconic peasant leader as ‘samajik samrasta ke sant’.

A close scrutiny of the newly-emerged admirers of the Swami unmistakably reveals the preponderance of the leaders of the Bhumihar caste cutting across the political spectrum. The fact that the Swami’s entry into public life was mediated through his initial involvement with the activities of the Bhumihar Brahman Sabha (1914-1929) makes him vulnerable to such an appropriation. Yet, these leaders conveniently overlook his trenchant critique of the Sabha that ultimately forced him to bury it for good in the summer of 1929.3 Since the State BJP is headed by Dr C.P. Thakur, a self-proclaimed Bhumihar leader, it is not surprising that he has taken the lead in reviving Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s memory in recent years. More worrisome is the ripple effect of such a competitive game of historical reconstruction of the past leaders and freedom fighters in the exclusionary idiom of caste. So much so that even Laloo Yadav has joined the Swami bandwagon in demanding a life-size statue of the Swami in Patna. Now it has almost become routine in Bihar for the different political parties to organise commemorative functions for the Swami. Indeed, these functions are organised by the Bhumihar leaders alone who are scattered across all the parties. Participation in these functions by the leaders belonging to other castes has come to symbolise their appeal to the caste-based political constituency of the Bhumihars.

To project Swami Sahajanand Saraswati as an icon of the Bhumihars is not only a grave injustice to this ‘organic intellectual’ of one of the largest peasant movements of the twentieth-century India but also amounts to perpetuating a deli-berate ignorance about the multifaceted thinking of an enviable autodidact. The historian Walter Hauser’s two edited collections—Sahajanand on Agriculture Labour and the Rural Poor (New Delhi: Manohar, 1994) and Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941(New Delhi: Manohar, 1995)—have brought to our attention the Swami’s nuanced understanding of the agrarian culture of exploitation that prevailed in the Indian countryside in the first half of the last century. Sadly though, his understanding of the agrarian social stratification, and the place of peasants in revolutionary social transformation, has failed to engage the attention of academic sociologists in our country. No wonder, courses on agrarian social stratification in Indian universities begin with Lenin’s five-fold classification of the peasantry, and through Mao’s modified class analysis, ends up with the unending debate on the role of middle peasantry in revolutionary politics. If only Indian students of agrarian economy and politics would have cared to read the Swami’s most insightful political tract Kranti Aur Sanyukta Morcha,4 they would not have to wait for the Hamza Alavis of the world to help identify the most appropriate allies of the proletarian revolution in predomi-nantly agrarian societies.

AT its innocuous best, one could argue that the Swami’s life and thought largely remained understudied for much of his writings have been available in Hindi alone. But then, this is a serious indictment of the bilingual intelligentsia in the Hindi belt. Without undermining the need for translation of his works in English, we argue that the lack of scholarly appreciation of the Swami’s oeuvre emanates from his serious disagreements with the established Left on the peasant question. Even though the Communists (like the Bhumihar politicians of the day) have been equally visible as the self-proclaimed legatees of the Swami’s radical political legacy, they maintained their own and received positions on crucial strategic issues: they could hardly agree with the Swami on treating agrarian labour the (khetmazdoor) as peasants; those producing for the market could hardly be qualified as middle peasants for the Communists whereas the Swami considered their interface with the market as a strategy of survival rather than a genuflection to capitalist agriculture; the Swami was open to technological inputs to agriculture while the Communists would expend much of their energy in transforming social relations of production in agriculture. More importantly, the Swami falls short of advocating for collectivisation of agriculture a la the Communists; at most he recommends formation of co-operative farms in the villages. Excluding zamindars, the Swami consistently fought his struggles through a united front of peasant classes including the substantive tenants whereas rich peasants as an agrarian category would be anathema to orthodox Marxists.To him, the usual Communist distinction between peasants and farmers was redundant for the large masses of the population who earned their livelihood through land.

At a more fundamental level, the Swami could never reconcile to the idea of peasants playing second fiddle to the proletarian or nationalist revolution. His fierce advocacy of the autonomy of peasant politics, and his open repudiation of the ideology that castigates the peasantry as a ‘reactionary’ and ‘conservative’ force given their hunger for land, propels him into a category of his own notwithstanding his obstinate insistence on the red flag being the flag of the Kisan Sabha. His avowed celebration of peasant militancy sits uncomfortably with the classical Marxist charac-terisation of peasantry as a sack of potatoes. Likewise, the Marxian notion of rural idiocy seldom made any sense to the Swami who found India’s villages as the springboard of some of the most valiant peasant struggles ever launched in Indian history.5 No doubt, his distinctive understanding of peasant politics turned him into something of a loner towards the fag-end of his political career as his dream of a robust All India Kisan Sabha floundered on account of internecine ideological wars during World War II. Gail Omvedt captures the Swami’s political predica-ment succinctly: ‘Swami was in a sense a historical loser: his “external” enemy, the Congress came to power in India, his “internal foes”, the Commu-nists, captured the All India Kisan Sabha—and their analytical framework, which characterised peasants as class-divided and at best ambivalently revolutionary and recognised only the rural proletariat as a firm ally of the working
class, remains largely hegemonic today.’6 Not surprisingly, Swami Sahajanand continues to be dubbed as a leader of a ‘middle and rich peasant’ movement by the orthodox Left intelligentsia.

Nor could the Swami ever be trusted as an ally of such political forces whose quest for social revolution made them champions of various caste associations. The leaders of the Triveni Sangh and the Bihar Dalit Warg Sangh continued to maintain a hostile attitude to the Swami’s Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha and its idiom of class politics. In fact, the Kisan Sabha was charged to have decelerated the processes of politicisation of the Dalit caste groups. So much so that Jagjivan Ram, the then tallest Dalit leader in Bihar, took the initiative to organise an independent Khet Mazdoor Sangh in 1937 to oppose the Kisan Sabha’s subsumption of agricultural labour under the category of peasants.7 What is generally forgotten is that it was Sahaja-nand who made available a refreshingly new vocabulary of peasant rights and agrarian transformation at a time when the politics of competitive backwardness had already started taking shape in Bihar. In this sense, the Swami has played a pivotal role in the constitutive articulation of the identity of kisan as a politico-economic class amidst the caste-ridden agrarian landscape of colonial India. It does not matter if his diagnoses were particularly original, or if he was just a product of his times in his under-standings and goals of peasant politics, so long as ‘he had both an ideology and a methodology with which to develop his ideas and inform his politics’.8 And, he belonged to that rare category of peasant leaders for whom no sacrifice was big enough if it came in the way of his political mobilisation of peasant interests. After all, his steadfast allegiance to the peasant cause and an autonomous peasant organisation led to his expulsion from the Congress party in 1939, and he was compelled to part ways with the Socialists and Communists in 1939 and 1945 respectively.

The Swami’s admirers are likely to gloat over this new politics of remembrance that has been mentioned earlier. This assumes added significance as the Swami did spend the last years of his life in some sort of political wilderness given his refusal to join any political party. Indeed, he turned out to be a misfit in the new wave of multi-party democracy that had arrived in the wake of Indian independence. Despite his being such an influential figure in the peasant politics of modern India, a judicious assessment of his life and work still eludes us. There is a need to retrieve his historical legacy from both the caste-based machinations of the Bhumihar politicians of the BJP and the radical rhetoric of the CPI-ML. To expect of the Indian academics a well-researched political biography of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati is hardly a misplaced claim. Such a scholarly exercise has the potential to illuminate the apparent conundrum that at a time when the State Government in Bihar had no qualms in rejecting the recommendations of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission (2006-2008), and thereby wasting a historic opportunity for legal rein-forcement of the sharecroppers’ rights,9 commemorative events for the Swami are galore.

1. Most of these new booklets are by way of comme-morative souvenirs essentially drawing on two pre-viously published biographies: Raghav Sharan, Sharma, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (Builders of Modern India Series), New Delhi: Prakashan Vibhag, Government of India, 2001; and Dashrath Jain, Himalaya se Unche, Sagar Se Gahre (edited by Ashok Sahjanand), Megh Prakashan, Delhi, 2004. Swami’s autobiography (in Hindi), Mera Jeewan Sangharsh (edited by Awadesh Pradhan), Granth Shilpi, Delhi, 2000, is the most authoritative publication in this regard.
2. Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Rachnawali (Selected works of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati) in six volumes has been published by Prakashan Sansthan, Delhi, 2003 under the editorship of his biographer Raghav Sharan Sharma.
3. Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, 2000, Mera Jeewan Sangharsh. Delhi: Granth Shilpi, pp. 159-62. Readers in English can refer to Walter Hauser (ed.), Religion, Politics and the Peasants: A Memoir of India’s Freedom Movement, Delhi: Manohar, 2003.
4. Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, 2002, Kranti Aur Sanyukta Morcha, Delhi: Grantha Shilpi; originally published in 1943, this is probably the first ingenious engagement with the agrarian question in a Marxist framework in any Indian languages by the leader of an ongoing peasant movement.
5. For the celebrated documentation of the heroic struggles of peasants in central Bihar, especially of peasant women, see Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, 2002, Kisan Kaise Larte Hain, Delhi: Grantha Shilpi (originally published in 1941).
6. Gail Omvedt, 1996, ‘Peasants and their Leaders’, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 28, Nos. 3-4, p. 104.
7. Prasanna Kumar Chaudhary and Shrikant, 2005, Swarg Par Dhawa: Bihar Mei Dalit Andolan, 1912-2000, Delhi: Vani Prakashan, p. 178.
8. Peter Robb, 2007, Peasants, Political Economy and Law, Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 40.
9. D. Bandyopadhyay, 2009, ‘Lost Opportunity in Bihar’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIV, No. 47,
p. 12.

Manish Thakur is currently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.

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