Almost a century ago, there lived a man belonging to an ‘untouchable’ caste in the Awadh region of present-day Uttar Pradesh, who successfully led a peasant rebellion in the early 1920s against the mighty Taluqdars and the British Raj.
Even with a Rs 1,000 bounty and a dead or alive warrant against him, he successfully avoided capture for many years and died a peaceful but unfulfilled death. Relegated to the margins of official history with a cursory mention in the accounts of peasant revolts in colonial India, Madari Pasi, a Gandhian cap-wearing non-Gandhian with a bow-arrow, lived most of his rebellious life in jungles evading the colonial police.
Madari Pasi belonged to the ‘untouchable’ Pasi caste that had been classified by the British administration as a “criminal” caste. He was born in the village of Mohanjganj in Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district to Mohan Pasi, a poor farmer in 1860. As historical records show, Madari Pasi’s fortunes grew as he started to own a significant number of cattle, putting him in a much better position in the rural social hierarchy.
The Pasi community was also recognised as a ‘militant’ one, especially due to the role many Pasi figures had played during the 1857 revolt. These factors along with a well-built muscular body – a necessary feature of a ‘leader’ in the countryside – put him in a position to assume the leadership role.
The movement which Madari Pasi built and led was called ‘Eka’ (unity) – derived from his attempt to build a peasant class consciousness bypassing the differences of religion and caste.
The Eka movement formed a part of the series of peasant revolts which broke out in colonial India after the First World War. In UP, the revolt began under the leadership of the Fiji-returned indentured labourer Baba Ramachandra, who operated independently but against the backdrop of the Non-Cooperation and the Khilafat Movement.
The reasons for the revolt were embedded in the deeply exploitative agrarian structure of the Awadh region which was dominated by the Taluqdars (aristocratic hereditary owners of large tracts of land and villages) and zamindars, who were usually ‘upper’ caste Hindus or Muslims. They leased out land to tenant farmers and extracted huge rents and lots of additional charges from them to collect land revenue for the colonial state. Tenants employed agricultural labourers to work on the fields but they themselves had no proprietary rights over the land they cultivated and were thrown out by the zamindars if they failed to pay the rent.
The agrarian and economic distress emanating out of this agrarian structure reached a breaking point in the late-1910s following the first world war, the Spanish flu, six years of drought, price rise and a shortage of food grains and fuel. These factors combined with various forms of institutionalised as well as informal exploitation practices like charging higher than the recorded rent, non-dispersal of rent receipts, charging extra and arbitrary cesses, the prevalence of grain rents instead of cash rent, the practice of nazrana (advance additional payment as service), hari, begari (forced labour) etc. along with widespread corruption by middlemen like thekedars and karindas (agents of landlords), precipitated widespread resentment amongst peasants and labourers of Awadh—most of whom were from backward and Dalit castes respectively.
The Kisan Sabha movement under Baba Ramchandra was basically a tenant and small zamindars’ movement against big landlords and taluqdars. The movement developed a 14 demands-cum-oath charter known as the ‘Kisan Pledge’, that every participant was expected to take an oath on. Among other things, the demand charter included the refusal to pay more than the recorded rent, receipts for the rents paid, refusal to do begari and pay nazrana etc. This movement, however, witnessed a setback with the arrest of Baba Ramchandra and was later resurrected in the form of the Eka movement.
The Eka movement was launched by Madari Pasi, Khawaja Ahmed and others in the Hardoi district from where it spread to other districts like Bahraich, Lucknow, Unnao and Kanpur etc. The Eka organisers adopted the pledge of the Kisan Sabha but there were very significant departures made to it, which gave it a more radical tone.
First, under Baba Ramchandra, the movement was mainly ethical-economic in nature and within the traditional rural universe of the peasants. As historian Gyan Pandey has pointed out, in the Kisan Sabha phase, the peasant movement imagined a traditional moral economy where inequality embedded in the traditional structure of agrarian society was accepted and the landlord was seen as a legitimate authority i.e. as a benevolent tyrant and the protest was solely against the excesses.
However, in the hands of the Eka organisers, this traditionalism began to break as Taluqdars and Zamindars were attacked not only economically but also socially. One of the pledges of the Eka demanded that the peasantry resist any form of oppression from both as any hope of justice from them had disappeared. Despite this significant departure, the Eka movement did not demand abolishing the Zamindari and Taluqdari as a system or redistribution of land as it mainly represented the interest of tenants and petty landowners.
The second departure from the earlier movement was the extension of the movement from economic to political. Inspired by the Non-Cooperation Movement, the Eka organisers added three important demands to the original charter: fight for self-rule; adoption and promotion of Swadeshi; and a pledge to avoid the British judicial system and resolution of all conflicts at the local panchayat level, thereby directly bringing it in confrontation with the British Raj.
In the initial phase, the movement was largely peaceful and worked within the ambit of the Gandhian ideology because of the involvement of Congress and Khilafat campaigners who played a very important role in popularising the movement. Eka employed the time tested method of social boycott (sweepers, barbers and washermen stopped their services to landlords and taluqdars), picketing and holding mass rallies to push for their demands. But as the movement took a militant turn and started aggressively resisting Taluqdar and Zamindar violence, the Congress and Khilafat leaders distanced themselves from it and the movement completely broke away from Congress-Khilafat influence.
The rapid growth of the movement led to violent clashes forcing many big landlords to leave the villages and Madari Pasi began to distribute landowning rights to tenants and petty landholders. The increasingly militant movement threatened to destroy the feudal-colonial order in the region and prompted a correspondent from pro-British newspaper The Statesman to write on March 9, 1922: “no civilized government can afford to permit an Indian imitation of French Jacquerie to go unchecked; so, sooner a force of cavalry and a few machine guns appear in the disturbed area the better”.
And indeed this is what happened. The Eka movement which had begun in the fall of 1921, reached its peak in the first quarter of the year 1922 and later faced massive police crackdown in form of large bodies of mounted and armed police and even a squadron of cavalry. Under such severe state repression, several of its leaders including Madari Pasi were forced to go underground.
Methods of mobilisation
The most innovative aspect of the Eka Movement was its method of mobilisation and the manner in which it forged unity among peasants cutting across the lines of caste and religion. The Eka movement did not reject or brush over the religious identity of the peasants. Instead, it used the ethics and morality of religion to forge a form of class-based unity amongst the exploited poor peasants, middle peasants and petty landlords against the Big Landlord-Taluqdar-British Raj combine. Though even Baba Ramchandra used religious symbols and practices to mobilise and politicise peasants, Madari Pasi put them to more dramatic effect.
Madari Pasi identified a unique opportunity in the popular religious practice and ritual of reading Katha, a public religious event in which people from all castes participated. Public recitation of Satyanarayan Katha was identified as opportunity to mobilise the peasants and spread the message of rebellion. All the meetings of the Eka movement were preceded by the Katha, after which the peasants were asked to take an oath over the Gita to make unity (Eka) and to follow the charter of the movement. Further, the peasants were supposed to swear over “sacred” water from Ganga.
Quite naturally, in this process which was overtly religious, questions of Muslims and caste also came into play. One of the Muslim leaders of the movement innovatively used an episode from famous ballad Alha-Udal to solve the question of Muslim integration. Alha, the 12th-century warrior hero was helped by one Sayyad Mir Talhan in his fight against Prithviraj Chauhan. This episode from a Bundelkhandi ballad, which epitomises the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, became the unifying basis for Hindu and Muslim peasants. Muslims were asked to take an oath over the Quran to do Eka and follow the peasant demands charter after Miland Sharif events.
In popular memory, it is believed that Madari Pasi used to carry the Gita in one hand and Quran in the other; though this is unlikely, but this belief is a reflection of communal unity arrived at during the Eka Movement. Later as the movement progressed and Madari Pasi became a charismatic leader, he was identified as the reincarnation of Madar Shah, a fifteenth-century Sufi, who was revered by people of all faiths in the Awadh region.
The more problematic question of caste was dealt with an attempt to build a peasant class consciousness along the lines of unity of oppressed against oppressors.
In one of his meetings, Madari addressed the gathered crowd and said:
“…this is the unity of Hindus, Turks, upper caste, lower caste, small landlords, farmers, peasants, touchables – untouchables…on one side there are Talukdars-Britishers and people on their payroll, on the other side are we the peasants, workers, farmers and small landlords. If anyone of us is exploited or troubled, all of us should mobilize together against the culprits”.
It must be pointed out here that the movement comprised of many petty landlords and tenants who belonged to the ‘upper’ caste, while the leadership of the movement consisted of people from ‘lower’ castes. This in itself was a major break from established norms and signified a momentary subversion of the caste hierarchy; so was the employment of religious symbols – a monopoly of upper caste – by leaders from the Pasi community.
However, it must be clarified here that the ‘class’ consciousness which Madari Pasi tried to build was that of tenant-peasant or petty landowners, an outcome of his own class location. The interests of other classes like landless labourers were largely subsumed within the broader category of the peasantry.
‘Eka’ was not merely the name of a peasant movement rather it was also a process whereby the essence of the movement was realised. ‘Aika Karo’ was a call for peasants and other agriculture-based exploited classes to mobilise against corrupt officials and big landlords. It was a call to overcome the differences of caste and religion and mobilise as a class against oppression.
While Madari Pasi went underground following a massive police crackdown, he came into contact with the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. There were attempts by revolutionaries to integrate the peasants with their movement, build a peasant army and procure arms. What transpired between Madari Pasi and the HSRA is another story deserving a separate study.
Though there is a bit of confusion, it is generally believed that Madari Pasi died on March 27 or 28 in 1931 while underground.
Madari Pasi, from the very day Eka movement was launched, became a folk hero in the Awadh region. Today, however, he has been reduced to an icon of a particular community and his role as a militant peasant leader who successfully established communal unity and challenged caste hierarchy as well as the authority of Taluqdars and British Raj has been largely forgotten.
In the present context, when communal discourses have been normalised among large sections of the Hindu population and have penetrated rural spaces, when caste-based atrocities have intensified and agrarian distress is worsening, a historical figure like Madari Pasi must be remembered for the inspiration that his struggles can provide to the toiling masses.
Prabal Saran Agarwal is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. Harshvardhan is a research scholar at JNU.