This month marks the centenary of a remarkable (and successful) peasant protest in Uttarakhand. The British had inherited from native maharajas a system of forced labour known as begar, which they imposed on the peasantry. Under this system, villagers were compelled to carry the loads of British officials and European travellers, and also provide them with milk and vegetables when they were on tour.
It was an onerous and much-hated system, which so angered the peasants, that, after a series of petitions had been rejected, they went on strike in January 1921, refusing to carry luggage or supply provisions, and brought the system to an end.
Forms of begar and early opposition to it
Begar generally implies unpaid forced labour, extracted either by landlords or the state. In the agrarian system of British Kumaun, there were three distinct forms of begar in operation. Coolie begar meant forced labour without any payment. Coolie utar carried an obligation of a minimum wage payment, although this was often not given.
Finally, coolie burdayash referred to the extraction of different forms of produce – food, fruits, milk, fuel and fodder – for officials, soldiers, hunters, surveyors, tourists and their animals, again, generally taken without any payment.
The Kumaun Division had three administrative districts, Almora, Nainital and Garhwal respectively. Every landowner in thsee hill districts was obliged to render begar or compensation in lieu of it. About 85% to 90% of the local population consisted of peasants (kashtkars). Consequently, with the exception of some Brahmins, village heads (pradhans), nobles (thokdars), retired soldiers and officials, every adult male was subject to the practice of begar.
Kumaun came under the control of the East India Company in 1815. Forty-three years later, the Imperial government in London assumed direct charge of its Indian possessions. However, due to its geographical isolation, this hill region remained untouched by the numerous tribal and peasant revolts in other parts of the country. Till 1890, there was no organised movement against begar. Nonetheless, there were some individual acts of defiance, which stopped short of challenging the begar system itself.
For example, in 1820 coolies did not come to Lohaghat when called to do so. Two years later, a similar incident was reported from Pithoragarh. Army battalions faced a lot of problems in obtaining burdayash in Almora and Lohaghat in 1837-’38. An Englishman travelling from Someshwar to Almora in 1844 also faced a shortage of coolies. A report of 1855 also spoke of enormous difficulties in getting coolies. In 1878 the peasants of Someshwar refused to serve begar and were heavily fined by the Commissioner, Henry Ramsay.
From the 1860s, the operations of begar steadily intensified. The Himalaya emerged as a land of sport and adventure for Europeans. More importantly, the expansion of the army and of survey operations, and the establishment of the forest department in the hills, accelerated the oppressive effects of this system. Colonial officials took forced labour and provisions as a matter of course.
From the late nineteenth century onwards, local newspapers are a most valuable source of information about the begar system and opposition to it. Samay Vinod, the first vernacular paper from the region set up in Nainital in 1868, was followed three years later by the more enduring Almora Akhbar.
Almora also witnessed the foundation of a Debating Club in 1870, in which the town’s intelligentsia discussed social and political questions. In the neighbouring district of Garhwal, the Garhwal Union was set up in 1901. While the publications of newspapers like Garhwal Samachar (from 1902) and Garhwali (from 1905) was to provide a major impetus to the development of social consciousness in the hills.
Almora Akhbar published many articles calling the practice of begar “improper”, a “source of great annoyance and loss to the people” which “adds to the miseries of the people”. In its issue of November 23, 1891, Almora Akhbar very strongly wrote:
“Nothing could be more reprehensible than the government officials receiving large salaries should take grass, firewood, milk and other things for their use from poor peasants without paying for it. What is worse is, that the official hirelings entrusted with the duty of providing supplies collect a larger quantity of everything than is required, and appropriate the surplus to their own use. The evil would be greatly checked if men were empowered to demand from them receipts for the things supplied, and if a full statement of the supplies collected for an officers’ camp at any place were laid before him prior to his departure.”— Translated from Hindi by the author
From individual to collective protests
Through the 1890s, questions about begar in Kumaun repeatedly figured in the provincial council. The matter was also raised in the council of the governor-general in 1893. A resolution against begar was passed in the Congress session in the same year.
This heightened urban consciousness was matched by independent peasant initiative against begar. In 1903 the peasants of village Khatyari (near Almora town) collectively refused to serve begar. Ramsay had crushed the Someshwar protest by imposing fines, and the villagers could not go to court. But in this case, the villagers of Khatyari continued their protests by other means.
The lower court had fined fourteen out of sixteen striking villagers of Khatyari Rs 2 each, with the option of simple imprisonment. However, the peasants, Gopia and others, filed a petition against this decision in the Allahabad High Court, which ruled in their favour.
The significance of the High Court verdict could not be realized in the absence of a mass organisation. Moreover, the verdict itself was not widely known in the villages. A more general consciousness had to await the formation of the Kumaun Parishad, in 1916.
Meanwhile, Gauri Datt Bisht of Giwar, and Mahant Narayan Das of Totashiling, presented a memorandum regarding the begar and forest issues to the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, on the latter’s visit to Kumaun in 1903.
In the first century of British rule, therefore, begar was opposed through sporadic protests by peasants and through petitions by the intelligentsia of the towns. This movement, reformist and localised in its nature, was transformed in a few years into a massive upsurge aimed at the abolition of begar.
One factor in this transformation was the smouldering resentment of the thousand of hill soldiers who returned from service in the First World War. At the same time, local newspapers began to campaign more vigorously. And a crucial role was played by the Kumaun Parishad, set up in 1916 to cope with the continuing repression as well as the rapidly changing socio-political situation.
Other significant developments included the assumption of the editorship of Almora Akhbar by Badri Dutt Pande (one of the future heroes of the begar abolition movement), a visit to Almora by the veteran nationalist, Lala Lajpat Rai, and the setting up of students’ fronts.
Meanwhile, Kumaun Parishad leaders like Laxmi Dutt Shastri, Hargovind Pant and Badri Dutt Pande began visiting the villages, calling upon the people to understand their problems and fight for their resolution.
Frequent visits by local leaders to Congress sessions and the effort of Kumauni students studying in the cities also helped the national movement to strike roots in the region. Around 1914-’15, Almora became extraordinarily active, through meetings of the Indian club and the Shuddh Sahitya Samiti, the anti-begar writings of Prem Ballabh Pande in Almora Akhbar, efforts at social mixing between upper castes and Shilpkars (artisans), and the foundations of the student organisations and the Nayak Sudhar Sabha.
Meanwhile, in Garhwal, different socio-cultural organisations were unified in December 1914 and took a decision to ensure regular weekly publication of the Garhwali newspaper. Finally, in 1916, a branch of the Home Rule League was set up in Almora.
The first session of the Kumaun Parishad was held at Almora in 1917, under the chairmanship of a retired deputy commissioner, Jai Dutt Joshi. Two types of personalities participated in this inaugural session. On the one hand, there were pro-government retired officials and title-holders, and, on the other hand, there were nationalists influenced by Lokmanya Tilak and his Home Rule League.
When Badri Dutt Pande recited a poem, “Raja wahi rahenge shreeman George Pancham, pratyek swet charma raja naa ban sakega” (George V will remain the monarch, every white man cannot be the ruler), aimed directly at the colonial bureaucracy, this aroused the dissent of Rai Bahadur Badri Datt Joshi.
Now, Laxmi Dutt Shastri was deputed to organise the branches of the Parishad and propagate its views in the villages. Independent protests by peasants also began coming to the surface. In November 1917, when a peon beat up a peasant of Bironkhal for bringing burdayash late, the villagers, in turn, beat up the peon. In Berinag, peasants refused to carry the load of a tehsildar from Berinag to Thal. Chamoli and Gangoli also witnessed similar protests in May and October of 1918.
In the month of March 1918, Almora Akhbar was compelled by the district authorities to close down. Although holding very mild views for much of its existence, this 48-year-old newsweekly had gained clarity and sharpness in the last few years, playing a crucial role in creating an environment against begar.
It was widely believed that its criticism of the deputy commissioner for firing upon a coolie was the reason behind its forcible closure. The popular feeling against begar continued to grow. October 1918 saw the publication of the weekly Shakti. The last editor of Almora Akhbar and founder editor of Shakti, Badri Dutt Pande played a very important role in the begar abolition movement as a campaigning editor and activist-leader of the Kumaun Parishad.
The second session of the Kumaun Parishad was held in Haldwani in December 1918 under the presidentship of the lawyer-scholar from Garhwal, Tara Dutt Gairola, who proposed a resolution for the gradual abolition of coolie begar. Despite opposition by some elders, a resolution moved by Hargovind Pant which asked for the total abrogation of begar within two years was passed. In the same year, 1918, one of the Parishad’s main leaders, Badri Dutt Pande, went to Calcutta to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to visit Kumaun, but Gandhi declined the invitation owing to other commitments.
The third session of the Kumaun Parishad was held in December 1919 at Kotdwar in Garhwal. The resolution on begar, when debated upon, appeared to split the Parishad into two groups. Some members wanted the deletion of the time limit given to the government the previous year for the abolition of begar, and of the word satyagraha from the resolution.
But the resolution was finally passed in its original form, with both groups continuing to co-exist in the Parishad. The government was still expected to respond favourably to the anti-begar sentiments expressed by the Parishad.
After returning from that year’s Amritsar session of the Congress, the leaders and activists of the Kumaun Parishad started consolidating their work in the villages. Laxmi Dutt Shastri, Badri Dutt Pande, Hargovind Pant, Mohan Singh Mehta, Mathura Dutt Trivedi etc, opened units of the Kumaun Parishad in different places. In their speeches, they called upon the peasants to organise against begar.
The last few months of 1920 saw much activity on the anti-begar front. In one village, Surna of Patti Kairarao, peasants refused to serve as coolies or pay the fine. Local representatives in the United Province political conference, held at Moradabad in October 1920, succeeded in passing a resolution to abolish begar.
Following this, Mukundi Lal and Hargovind Pant, in articles in Shakti, called upon the people not to render begar and burdayash. In November 1920, the Garhwal Parishad too started telling the peasants that the practice of begar was illegal.
Bageshwar and after
The fourth session of the Kumaun Parishad was convened in Kashipur in December 1920 under the presidentship of the Almora lawyer, Hargovind Pant. It was, notably, the first session of the organisation not presided over by a Rai Bahadur or former government official. This session also bore visible marks of the non-cooperation movement which was now active all across India.
By this time Hargovind Pant himself had emerged as a symbol of the progressive and nationalist elements in the Parishad. Pant not only called for the abolition of coolie utar, he wished the anti-begar upsurge would assimilate more fully with the non-cooperation movement itself. Despite some dissent, the meeting of the Kumaun Parishad passed a resolution in favour of non-cooperation.
Members stood up and took a pledge that they would not render begar and would work to abolish that menace. Pro-government elements tried unsuccessfully to stall this resolution and ultimately walked out of the meeting.
The sentiments against begar were powerful on account of the growing peasant consciousness, as expressed by the village representatives at the Kumaun Parishad sessions. The chairman of the Katyur branch of the Kumaun Parishad, Shiv Dutt Pande, its Secretary, Ram Dutt and Mohan Singh Mehta, Keshav Dutt Pande and others requested the main leaders of the Parishad to come to the Uttarayani fair to be held at Bageshwar next January.
This fair, on the banks of the river Saryu, was attended annually by thousands of people, making it an ideal venue for intensifying the movement. Senior Kumaun Parishad leaders such as Hargovind Pant, Badri Dutt Pande and Chiranji Lal were quick to recognise the significance of village sentiments in the matter and resolved to attend the Uttarayani mela.
A major manifestation of village opposition to begar was the meeting on January 1, 1921, in the Haru temple of Chami village (of Katyur, close to Bageshwar). More than 400 people attended the meeting and took an oath not to give begar. Shakti also gave a call to its readers to come to the Bageshwar fair and abolish begar.
The consciousness against begar was at its peak around this time, particularly in villages around Katyur. In the first week of January 1921, senior officials of the Forest Department were not served with coolies in Dwarahat and Ganai. Despite these signs, the civil authorities did not anticipate any serious trouble, and the Deputy Commissioner of Almora, WC Dible, proceeded with what he believed was a routine visit to the annual fair at Bageshwar.
Meanwhile, nearly 50 activists, led by Hargovind Pant, Badri Dutt Pande and Chiranjilal reached Bageshwar town from Almora on January 10, 1921. Situated at the confluence of the Saryu and Gomti river, Bageshwar was famous for its annual Uttarayani fair.
In the festival town, Shiv Dutt Pandey, Ram Dutt, Mohan Singh Mehta and dozens of village activists had made preparations for the meeting. For the first time, the nationalist slogans of “Bharat mata ki jai”, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai” and “Vande Mataram” were heard in the Katyur valley and in Bageshwar town. Some demonstrators wore cotton “Gandhi” caps brought from the Congress held in Nagpur the previous month. A banner with the caption coolie utar band karo (abolish coolie utar) was carried by a procession on January 12.
The procession itself ultimately turned into a huge meeting on the banks of the river Saryu, attended by more than 10,000 people. Here Badri Dutt Pande gave a stirring speech, whose English translation in the colonial archive includes these sentences:
After abolishing coolie utar they would agitate for the forests. He would ask them not to extract the resin, or saw sleepers, or take forest contracts. They should give up service as forest guards which involved insulting their sisters and snatching their sickles.
The meeting then took an oath not to give utar. The next day too, a large meeting was held on the riverbank. Here more criticisms of the colonial administration were presented, along with a review of the socio-political situation with specific reference to Kumaun. The oath not to give forced labour was repeated, and more spectacularly, village headmen threw their coolie registers into the Saryu.
The deputy commissioner, Dible, came to know on January 14 that these public meetings had had a great impact on the people. Village headmen had lost control over the area around Bageshwar, and could not carry out the orders to make coolies available for officials.
Dible threatened the protesters and asked them to leave Bageshwar but to no avail. In fact, the leaders, influenced by the militancy of the peasants, delivered even more provocative and anti-government speeches. On this day too some coolie registers were floated in the Saryu, while the assemblage pledged not to give begar while taking the water of the river in their hands.
The meetings and processions continued on January 15, 1921. Dible could not take recourse to any repressive measures owing to the limited means at his disposal – 21 officials, 25 soldiers, and 500 bullets. To his dismay, the DC found that even hitherto loyal headmen and village officials were now under the influence of the abolitionists. His own assurances to reform the utar system and the oppressive forest administration failed to have any· impact.
After the success at Bageshwar, it was imperative for the abolitionists to carry forward the decisions taken there to all parts of Kumaun. Movement leaders went from village to village explaining what had happened at Bageshwar and outlining the future course of action. Thus, Hargovind Pant went to Ranikhet via Someshwar, Badri Dutt Pande to Almora via Takula and Mohan Singh Mehta to his own region of Katyur. Mass contact work was conducted in an organised and highly effective manner, and a movement, earlier confined to Bageshwar and its surrounding villages, soon spread all over the Kumaun Division. In the second half of January 1921, a series of well-attended meetings were held in more than a hundred villages of Kumaun and Garhwal.
Prior to the Bageshwar incident, the Commissioner of Kumaun, Percy Wyndham, had written to the provincial government about the likelihood of a movement against begar. However, the matter was taken seriously in official circles only after the shows of defiance at Bageshwar. The manner in which both peasants and leaders refused to carry out the orders of the Deputy Commissioner was the first incident of its kind in the history of British-ruled Kumaun.
Unnerved, Dible wrote off to the Superintendent of Police to be alert. The Deputy Commissioner was greatly alarmed by the participation of school-teachers in the movement. Writing to Wyndham on January 22, Dible complained that he did not have an adequate police force. The intelligence department was asked to keep an eye on Swami Satyadev and other Congress leaders who had come up from the plains.
The police superintendent reached Almora (the district headquarters) with an armed contingent on January 24. He found the situation alarming due to the non-cooperation of headmen and village officials. Meanwhile, orders were issued to block the march of Satyadev beyond Haldwani. Interestingly, Dible appeared more frightened of the movement than his superiors. When students wore Gandhi caps and there was talk of a strike in the Ramsay School at Almora, Dible felt that the situation was out of his control. But the provincial government was more worried about the peasant movement then raging in the plains districts of Awadh. Even Wyndham told Dible that Kumaun was a small part of a vast country. He suggested that begar be deployed only in outlying regions. Attempts were also made to restrict the tours of district officials and to make the system of paid coolies compulsory.
However, in the following weeks and months, the district administration did resort to repressive measures. Threats of eviction from their land were made on the failure to make coolies available. In March 1921, Badri Dutt Pande was disallowed from attending meetings or speaking in them. Section 144 was imposed in the towns of Almora, Pithoragarh, Ranikhet, and Nainital, while leaders were threatened with arrest and in some cases deprived of the freedom to speak at meetings. In pursuance of this policy of repression, meetings without permission were not allowed in Almora district, except in places of worship. In the third week of March 1921, Mohan Singh Mehta was arrested, though he was released on May 21. The gun licences of many villagers in Ramnagar were also seized.
Meanwhile, in Garhwal, the movement was at its peak in April 1921. There was continuous activity in upper Garhwal under the leadership of Anusuya Prasad Bahuguna, and in lower Garhwal under the leadership of Keshar Singh Rawat. Even the Deputy Commissioner of Garhwal could not obtain coolies. As in Almora, several peasants were evicted from their land owing to the refusal to supply coolies, and the guns of villagers seized.
Back in Kumaun, Shakti was asked to stand security of Rs 6,000 for articles it had published between November 1920 and April 1921. By now, the anti-begar movement had largely merged with the non-cooperation movement. The protests and repression continued simultaneously. There were massive arrests in December 1921, which continued till the middle of the next year. However, in the meantime, the United Province government had finally decided to abolish the begar system, a significant victory for the peasants of Kumaun.
In terms of its spread and mass base, the anti-begar movement was unprecedented in the history of Kumaun. An evolutionary sequence can be discerned in the transformation of uncoordinated individual protests into an organised movement.
In the first phase, merely reforms were demanded in the begar system, with village protests being added to urban requests. The second phase was dominated by direct action, with the submission of memoranda being replaced by an aggressive mass movement. Moreover, during this period the movement did not remain confined to the begar question.
The latter was closely linked to the government’s oppressive forest policy, and the neglect of Kumaun with respect to education and political representation. These varied issues and demands, with begar very much in the forefront, crystallized into a broad-based movement encompassing different classes and social groups.
The movement itself saw the participation of all sections of rural and urban society – former government employees, ex-soldiers, teachers, students and above all, all types of peasants. It was no longer confined to meetings of the Parishad or of the intelligentsia in the towns. With amazing rapidity, it spread from the Tarai to the Bhot country, and from Sor valley in eastern Kumaun to lower and upper Garhwal.
Participation in the movement continuously increased, and after the Bageshwar protest, the number of those who supported the government position on begar became negligible. The latter were scared of expressing their views in public. In fact, the village headmen who did not throw their coolie registers into the Saryu at Bageshwar later destroyed them in their homes.
At a time when Gandhi had abandoned the Non-cooperation movement and the Khilafat initiative too had proved to be unsuccessful, the begar abolition movement in Kumaun reached the peak of its success. The end of an exploitative system served to deepen the confidence of the peasantry. It brought in a new wave of self-respect and self-consciousness among the people and accelerated their opposition to colonial rule and their desire for independence.
Noting its hatred of officials and challenge to the authority of government, the district magistrate of Almora called the movement a “revolutionary one”. Talk of “swaraj” in the villages had become common. As one missionary wrote to Dible: “As far as the public was concerned, British rule was as good as finished.”
Despite its resounding success, one major weakness of the movement cannot be overlooked. This was the non-participation of the artisanal lower castes (shilpkars) in the movement. Suppressed and exploited since time immemorial, and deeply affected by begar, this community stayed away from all anti-colonial movements before 1930. Spurned by the upper castes and their representatives, the Shilpkars looked to the British government for patronage and support.
This weakness apart, the begar abolition movement was unmatched for its strength and organisation in the history of British rule in Uttarakhand. The vitality of the movement can be gauged by its notable successes.
Apart from the abolition of begar by the government, the forest policy was made more liberal – with a freer collection of fuel and fodder allowed, coolie agencies established, roads developed, wages increased and a permanent coolie gang started for the forest department. Its impact was also felt in the neighbouring princely state of Tehri, where efforts were made by the state to minimise the impact of begar.
The majority of the abolitionists remained active throughout the freedom movement. Some of them died before independence while others continued in politics or social work after 1947. However, in later years it was claimed that only God, Gandhi, Badri Dutt Pande, Hargovind Pant, Govind Ballabh Pant, Mukundi Lal and Chiranji Lal were responsible for ending the begar system in Kumaun.
In such leader-centric accounts, the contributions of peasants and village activists were continually underplayed. Ironically, when he visited Almora and Bageshwar in 1929, Gandhi had himself stated that the people of Kumaun had themselves abolished the oppressive begar system. Yet, writings on the movement continued to attribute the abolition of the system to a few select leaders.
But as this essay has shown, it was the popular upsurge in the villages rather than the initiative of a few leaders that delivered the decisive blow to the system of forced labour in British Kumaun, at the Uttarayani mela held in Bageshewar exactly a hundred years ago.
Shekhar Pathak taught history at Kumaon University. His most recent book is The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, published by Permanent Black.