The comparison Ramachandra Guha made in between the farmer’s movement going on now and a similar campaign in India’s colonial past has, of course, momentous relevance (What today’s farm protests share with Vallabhbhai Patel’s Bardoli satyagraha). More so, because the Bardoli satyagraha in 1928 ended with a glowing victory for the rich peasantry. As is his wont, Guha wrote a good and well-documented story on how Sardar Patel rallied and led the major landowners in their successful resistance against the dictates and whims of the colonial state.

The message is clear: the outcome then could and should boost the cause of today’s agrarian elite courageously standing up against the political and bureaucratic injustice of the current state. However, the account of events leading up to the strike against colonial rule – based on Mahadev Desai’s hagiography The Story of Bardoli – is more complicated than Guha has told. Its dark underside needs to be addressed.

My critique concerns in the first place the laudatory role he ascribes to Vallabhbhai Patel. No doubt, he was an indomitable figure who already ranked high in the Congress leadership, and in Gujarat, as Mohandas Gandhi, he was seen as a son of the soil. The pair operated in tandem and this might have tempted Guha to draw another comparison with the team at the apex of the Hindutva regime. It so happens that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah also hail from Gujarat.

The first audaciously aspires to rank at par with the father of the nation and is already visually shaping up to that sanctimonious aura. His prime acolyte, meanwhile, has been given the task, through front- and back-stage machinations of furthering the undisputed acceptance of Hinduised patriotism.

Conservative, elitist mindset

Of course, there the similarity stops, since Sardar Patel with a conservative and elitist mindset was engaged in an altogether different mission mapping out the nation’s future destiny. He endeavoured to fabricate territorial unity but in a society which in terms of citizenship pledged that it would ultimately be shared by all and sundry. It was a worthwhile design his successor Amit Shah is bound to reject from beginning to end.

How did Vallabhbhai Patel deal with the situation when the Bardoli struggle was launched a century ago? To begin with, by stepping out of his master’s shadow. However, Gandhi did precede him in South Gujarat, having accepted shortly after his return from South Africa the standing invitation from the dominant peasant caste to visit the region. He came back in 1920 to probe the scope for further activity against colonial rule and selected Bardoli as a suitable site for a campaign of disobedience.

Gandhi himself had pressed for a political course to turn to the rural masses. India was after all a peasant society and Congress should for ideological and strategic reasons mobilise support in its myriad villages. His design met with evident success, confirmed in his resolute statement in 1931, that the Indian Congress had in fact to be built up to a peasant organisation.

It is interesting that, as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel, the current couple of national leaders, Modi and Shah from their commanding height, have a major impact as well on the political theatre in their state of origin. And both also still consider Gujarat their favourite terrain of operation. Like the motto of their two predecessors was to “Bardolise India”, the pair in charge now aim to Gujaratise the Hindutva nation.

In 1920-’21, Gandhi came to Bardoli once more to prepare for the civil disobedience campaign that was on the agenda. He himself launched the boycott in February 1922. On his tour around the villages, he was aghast to learn that Dalit children were refused admission to public schools and that only the Ujliparaj or twice-born castes were supposed to participate in the agitation. He was told that the others, actually three quarters of all inhabitants, belonged to tribal communities which were in accordance with local custom not counted as part of the population.

Shocked and in a bad temper, Gandhi instantly called off the campaign. The formal ground for his decision was the Chauri Chara incident, which was a criminal breach of the code of non-violence he had ordained. It was no doubt spurred on by his disgust for the treatment meted out to Dalits and Adivasis that prompted Gandhi to urge the main landowners to resume tax payment. To continue would mean, as he wrote in his Navjivan column, that “half of our body could not be mobilised as it remained crippled”.

It was a point of view which the disgruntled high-caste caucus could neither comprehend nor appreciate. Though Gandhi continued to preach for the upliftment of the masses held down in subalternity, when looking back on his encounter in Bardoli, he despondently exclaimed his scepticism. In June 1927 he wrote in Young India, the periodical he himself edited:

 “There is no hope for this land so long as the upper and well-to-do classes do not realise their duty by their unfortunate and ignorant brothers who after all are the backbone of this country.” 

Arrival of peasant settlers

What were the antecedents of the peasants who were aroused to jump on the Congress bandwagon? My tale begins with the arrival of peasant settlers on the tribal frontier, as has happened all over the subcontinent of South Asia from the remote to the more recent past. Originating from northern tracts in Gujarat, the newcomers started to trickle down into the central plain of the Surat district.

The first batches of Kanbi Patels arrived as low-caste settlers practising Hindu customs and rituals in the early decades of the nineteenth century. These pioneers were followed in their footsteps by a steady stream of latecomers who joined the early ones in the foundation of villages and the expansion of the cultivated area.

This steady flow of outsiders had come to a landscape inhabited since time immemorial by indigenous communities who were still at the stage of shifting cultivation. Unfamiliar why and how to claim ownership of the fields under rudimentary tillage, they gradually lost their ancestral but unregistered land rights to Kanbis who had settled in their midst.

While the Adivasis remained stuck in subsistence agriculture, growing food grains for their own subsistence, the more advanced peasantry took to the production of cash crops, cotton in particular, the sale of which paved their way to a much better life.

The higher income gained allowed a growing number of them to set all members of their household free from demeaning and impure labour chores. From self-cultivating peasants, they turned into agrarian managers of their property. The lifestyle of leisure they now could afford obliged them to engage farm hands and domestic servants – men, women as well as their children – to work in the fields, tend cattle, fetch water and clean the home of the master.

These menials were mostly Dublas, the largest tribal community in the central plain. In order to monopolise their labour power, this segment at the bottom of the Adivasi pile had since long been prevented from owning and tilling land in their own right. In their state of landlessness, the Dublas were attached in debt bondage to the better-off peasantry.

In contrast to their servility, the upwardly mobile Kanbis adopted a code of conduct that raised their status in the caste hierarchy. By upgrading their Hindu mores and usage, they aspired to style themselves as Patidars. The recognition of this claim confirmed their admission to the ranks of the Ujliparaj. It meant that the already existent split between caste and tribal peasants, the latter collectively addressed as Kaliparaj, inflated to a much sharper divide.

A free hand

Bardoli’s lobby of rich peasants wanted to resume the aborted agitation to press for a lower tax rate on their holdings. In 1927, a delegation of the Patidar caste association went to Ahmedabad to meet Vallabhbhai Patel. He was already then a prominent politician, elected in 1920 as president of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee. Fearing Gandhi’s bias in favour of the down and out, Patel’s identity as a caste fellow made him the best man to run the campaign. Sardar Patel’s reply to the request made was positive and with the approval of Gandhi was given a free hand.

At the launch of the satyagraha in 1928, Patel set up headquarters in the Swaraj ashram of Bardoli and kept from beginning to end a close watch over the operation. Nobody from outside was welcome and also the Mahatma never came to give his blessings or address an audience. The struggle embarked upon was referred to as a Maha Yagna, a great sacrificial offering. The religious symbolism intended to present satyagraha as a holy and inescapable duty.

Taking stock of the swelling and widespread acclaim, the colonial government was forced to climb down and settle for a compromise a year later. The movement had been a resounding success and Congress had proved to be a diligent and effective protector of the peasantry.

That outcome has a direct relevance for the fight going on since last year by the farmers in and around Punjab against today’s authoritarian and repressive state. The moral of Ramachandra Guha’s story is that standing up and holding out against injustice need not end in defeat but in a victory. Just keep bravely going, is what he wants to convey.

I shall now turn to second point of my critique. Sardar Patel’s alignment with the landowning elite kept the decrepit underclass of agrarian labour covered up. As a matter of fact, disciplines of Gandhi in his staff raised the issue with him, much to his displeasure. Patel curtly replied that that the time was not yet ripe to solve this problem and scoffed that the complaint was motivated by an ideological parti pris. That low-grade bunch of wayward and improvident good-for-nothings lacked the dignity, moderation and sobriety to redeem themselves from their bondage, he suggested.

It is the well-worn argument that slaves become and remain slaves because they lack the resolve to live and work in freedom. How could such people relishing their uncivility be supposed to join a civil disobedience movement?

Patel’s disdain was in striking contrast to Gandhi’s reaction. During his 1922 tour, he went to acquaint himself with the residual underclass in their huts at the village margins. He expressed his anguish, writing a column in Navjian that was republished in Young India (March 1927) with the headline “Face to Face with the Pauper”. Gandhi has been the only politician from one of the leading parties who used this term for unrelieved dispossession and destitution.

To do away with the derogation attached to their identity – Dublas means “weaklings” – he baptised them as Halpatis: handlers of the plough. The name got stuck and is also accepted by themselves. But it has not made them more respected.

The other side

Does their misery also ring a bell for stretching the canvass of comparison? The disobedience movement in which Punjab’s landowners is engaged, should not distract us from bringing up the other side of the coin. Although the fight going on is probably less tilted in favour of the landholding upper-crust than the one waged in Bardoli was, the more prosperous Jat farmers seem to be more vocal and insistent in their righteous agitation.

Punjab’s rich peasantry is well-known for having since long ruthlessly exploited and oppressed the workforce on which their affluence rests. Many local agricultural labourers – mostly Dalits – have left in search of other employment, higher wages and away from the countryside. They have been replaced by land-poor and landless migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, equally cheap and even more pliable, held attached in neo-bondage to their employers.

Sardar Patel, receiving praise from wide and far, minted political capital from his exploits in Bardoli and obtained the Congress top post as its president in 1931. As Guha has noted, according to sources in the colonial apparatus of the government, Patel when mandated to launch the satyagraha, “kept Gandhi out of the movement…because he does not want it to be controlled by a man who would stick at blood-shed and who would cloud the issue by laying stress on spinning, untouchability and so on”.

The Mahatma, in his usual mild and soft-spoken manner, never reacted to this scathing comment, being since long familiar with the authoritarian mettle of his trusted lieutenant. It may explain why on the eve of Independence, he settled on the more august statesmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru for guiding India to a bright future. From his perspective, it was a much better choice than to rely on Sardar Patel’s wily and tempestuous craftmanship.

How did the Patidars of Bardoli fare at the start of the postcolonial era? Besides being excellent farmers, their business acumen led them on the basis of caste-cum-class collaboration, to the foundation of agro-industrial undertakings. Following up from the cotton gins early in the twentieth century, in the mid-1950s sugar factories were started to mill what has become a money-spinning crop which changed their prosperity from well-to-do to obscenely rich.

Affluence in the villages around Bardoli radiates from their havelis, in front of which the owners sit and indulge in their conspicuous leisure and consumption. Invisible is the amount of money they have spent on funding the business of their offspring, settled down as NRIs in the US and Great Britain. Has at least a tiny slice of the amassed fortune trickled down to the agrarian workforce of Halpatis? Absolutely not and more than that, their plight has worsened. They have been ousted from their former employment because the farming managers have replaced them by a massive army of seasonal migrants, coming from outside for about five months for harvesting sugarcane.

They are forced to toil in the fields day and night, callously exploited and attached in neo-bondage via jobbers commissioned by the sugar mills to recruit them. This massive agrarian workforce, the local ones well as the footloose flocks, is not allowed to publicly stage their victimisation nor would they be able to hold out for more than a few days. The collective action required to manifest their civil disobedience is not tolerated. Not only now but also in the past. As Congress president, Sardar Patel saw to it that the trade union set up to mobilise “the least, the last and the lost” was broken up and their intransigent leaders forced to exit from Congress.

Statue of Unity

I have come to the end of my comparison and their relevance for both past and present events. What has happened in the aftermath to the political stakeholders discussed in my response Guha’s column? As is notoriously known, on Gandhi’s assassination, in the urban and rural quarters of Gujarat where the twice-born congregate, sweetmeats were distributed. Though of the same stock, Sardar Patel took belated but appropriate action by declaring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh out of bounds.

Despite this blot on his heritage, Modi admires the man for his authoritarian and majoritarian politics. Having in common with him praise for big business, big ovation and a big annoyance of opposition, he considers Patel an ideal candidate who should have joined the Hindutva conclave already brewing instead of wasting his talents in Congress.

To express his admiration and by implication to demean Nehru’s standing, he ordered the construction of a gigantic sculpture, the world’s largest. He inaugurated it in 2018, brazenly labelling it as the Statue of Unity. Of the Hindutva kind of course, standing in opposition to the Mahatma’s gospel.

At a short distance from Ahmedabad and upstream on the Sabarmati riverbank, Patel’s Goliathan figure is towering over a desolate, vacated landscape. The tribal peasants who inhabited the site lost their abodes and fields to allow for this monstrosity. In a more modest size, Vallabhbhai Patel is also honoured with a statue “by the people of Bardoli” at the entrance of the town. Gandhi has statutes each and everywhere though, lo and behold, not in Bardoli.

And how to commemorate Amit Shah’s accomplishments? Claiming an image of similar magnitude as that of his predecessor on the other side of the riverbank might be his heartfelt desire. It remains to be seen whether Modi would want his legacy to be sculpted. Outsizing Sardar Patel’s statue is next to impossible, but how could he settle for less than that? Well, by reckoning on his celestial omnipotence. In his mythic avatar high up in the Hindu pantheon, his eternal comfort will be to be held in idolatrous veneration by a multitude of backers, eager to stoop down in sycophancy.

Jan Breman is emeritus professor of comparative sociology at the University of Amsterdam and senior fellow at the International Institute of Social History also in Amsterdam. On his main subject of studies, labour in both colonial and postcolonial Asia, he has conducted fieldwork-based research predominantly in India and Indonesia.