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Swami Sahajanand Saraswati – A Contested Legacy: Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

June 18, 2012

Guest post by MANISH THAKUR and NABANIPA BHATTACHARJEE

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 (22 February, 1889) and death (26 June, 1950) anniversaries have been celebrated with great pomp and show with full attendance of political luminaries of the state including Nitish Kumar, its present Chief Minister. Not only have glowing tributes been paid to his legacy but there has also been a spurt of writings on his life and times.

Swami Sahajanand Saraswati

Swami Sahajanand Saraswati

New biographiesi have been released, and his collected works been published in six volumesii. In fact, there is a Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Foundation based in New Delhi as well as a Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Forum on the internet. Curiously enough, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati figures prominently on the internet in the caste-specific web-portals such as www.bhumihar.com; www.bhumiharmahasangh.com and www.bhumihar.net where his name appears along with Bhagwan Parashuram, Chanakya, Mangal Pande, Sri Babu, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, C.P Thakur, and so forth in the long list of supposedly Bhumihar icons. Indeed, Saraswati’s legacy has always been the bone of contention between the Bhumihars and the 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 Saraswati’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 1929iii. Since the Bihar (state) BJP is headed by C. P Thakur, a self-claimed Bhumihar leader, it is not surprising that he has taken the lead in reviving Saraswati’s memory in recent years. More worrisome is the ripple effect of such kind of competitive game of historical reconstruction of past leaders and freedom fighters in the exclusionary idiom of caste. So much so that even Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and former Chief Minister of Bihar has joined the Swami bandwagon in demanding the installation of his life size statue in Patna. Now it has almost become routine in Bihar for the different political parties to organize commemorative events in honor of Saraswati. Indeed, these functions are organized by the Bhumihar leaders alone who are scattered across all the parties. However, the participation of non-Bhumihar leaders in these functions has come to symbolize the importance that the caste-based political constituency the Bhumihars have among other castes as well. 

To project Swami Sahajanand Saraswati as an icon of the Bhumihars is not only a grave injustice to this ‘organic intellectual’ and leader of one of the largest peasant movements of twentieth-century India but also amounts to the perpetuation of a deliberate ignorance about the multi-faceted thinking of an enviable autodidact. The historian Walter Hauser’s two edited collections – Sahajanand on Agriculture Labour and the Rural Poor (1994) and Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941 (1995) – does bring to our notice Saraswati’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 academic attention of social science practitioners (sociologists in particular) in our country. Quite predictably, courses on agrarian social stratification in Indian universities begin with Lenin’s five-fold classification of peasantry, and through Mao’s modified class analysis, winds up with the never ending debate on the role of middle peasantry in revolutionary politics. If only Indian students of agrarian economy and politics would have cared to read one of Saraswati’s most insightful political tracts, Kranti Aur Sanyukta Morchaiv, 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 predominantly agrarian societies.

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

At a more fundamental level, Saraswati 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 castigated the peasantry as a ‘reactionary’ and ‘conservative’ force given their hunger for land, propelled him into a category of his own notwithstanding his obstinate insistence on red flag being the flag of the Kisan Sabha. His avowed celebration of peasant militancy sat uncomfortably with the classical Marxian characterization of peasantry as a sack of potatoes. Likewise, the Marxian notion of rural idiocy seldom made any sense to Saraswati who found India’s villages as the springboard of some of the most valiant peasant struggles ever launched in Indian history.v 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 the internecine ideological wars during World War II. Gail Omvedt captures Swami’s political predicament succinctly: ‘Swami was in a sense a historical loser: his “external” enemy, the Congress came to power in India, his “internal foes”, the Communists, captured the All India Kisan Sabha – and their analytical framework, which characterized peasants as class-divided and at best ambivalently revolutionary and recognized only the rural proletariat as a firm ally of the working class, remains largely hegemonic today.’vi Not surprisingly, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati continues to be dubbed as a leader of the ‘middle and rich peasant’ movement by the orthodox Left intelligentsia.

Nor could Saraswati 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 Varg Sangh continued to maintain a hostile attitude to Saraswati’s Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha and its idiom of class politics. In fact, the Kisan Sabha was charged to have decelerated the processes of politicization of the Dalit caste groups. So much so that Jagjivan Ram, the then tallest Dalit leader in Bihar, took the initiative to organize an independent Khet Mazdoor Sangh in 1937 to oppose the Kisan Sabha’s subsumption of agricultural labour under the category of peasants.vii What is generally forgotten is that it was Saraswati 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, Saraswati has played a pivotal role in the constitutive articulation of the identity of the 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 simply a product of his times in his understandings 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’viii. And, Saraswati belonged to that rare category of peasant leaders for whom no sacrifice was big enough if it came in the way of his political mobilization of peasant interests. After all, his steadfast allegiance to the peasant cause and an autonomous peasant organization led to his expulsion from the Congress Party in 1939, and he was compelled to part ways with the socialists and the communists respectively in 1939 and 1945.

Saraswati’s admirers are likely to gloat over this new politics of remembrance that has been mentioned earlier. This assumes added significance as Saraswati 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 rhetoric of certain communist groups. To expect of the Indian academics a well-researched political biography of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati is hardly a misplaced claim. In fact, such a scholarly exercise has the potential to illuminate the conundrum – the Bihar government suffering no qualms in rejecting the recommendations of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission (2006-2008), and thereby wasting a historic opportunity for legal reinforcement of the sharecroppers’ rightsix while commemorative events for Saraswati are galore – and also offer a critical understanding of peasant politics – in the light of Saraswati’s ideas – in contemporary Bihar in particular and India in general.

i Most of these new booklets are by way of commemorative souvenirs essentially drawing on two previously 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 Sahajanand), Delhi: Megh Prakashan, 2004. Saraswati’s autobiography (in Hindi) Mera Jeewan Sangharsh (edited by Awadesh Pradhan), Delhi: Granth Shilpi, 2000 is the most authoritative publication in this regard.

iiSwami Sahajanand Saraswati Rachnavali (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.

iii Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, Mera Jeewan Sangharsh, Delhi: Granth Shilpi, 2000, 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.

iv Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s Kranti Aur Sanyukta Morcha, Delhi: Grantha Shilpi, 2002 originally published in 1943 is probably the first ingenious engagement with the agrarian question in a Marxist framework in any Indian language by the leader of an ongoing peasant movement.

v For the celebrated documentation of the heroic struggles of peasants in central Bihar, of peasant women in particular, see Swami Sahajanand Saraswati, Kisan Kaise Larte Hain, Delhi: Grantha Shilpi, 2002 (originally published in 1941).

vi Gail Omvedt, ‘Peasants and their Leaders’, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 28 (3&4), 1996, p. 104.

vii Prasanna Kumar Chaudhary and Shrikant, Swarg Par Dhawa: Bihar Mei Dalit Andolan, 1912-2000, Delhi: Vani Prakashan, 2005, p. 178.

viii Peter Robb, Peasants, Political Economy and Law, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 40.

ix D. Bandyopadhyay, ‘Lost Opportunity in Bihar’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLIV (47), 2009, p. 12.

Manish Thakur teaches sociology at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. He is currently Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.
They can be reached at mt@iimcal.ac.in and nabanipab@gmail.com.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. vibhupande permalink
    June 26, 2012 2:46 PM

    thanks manish and nabanipa, its a well written article. the introductory paras did well to draw me into the topic, even though i’m at some distance from the politics of bihar (and rural india).
    historical reconstruction for political gain is easy tactics on the political stage – i loathe these leaders.

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