Book Review: Shetkaryachi Asud (Peasants’ Whip) – Jotirao Phule

M Aseem //

Jotirao (Jotiba) Phule was one of the foremost intellects of 19th century India. Inspired by the modern bourgeois democratic thoughts of Equality Fraternity Liberty, Phule was the first to give an ideological-theoretical basis to the struggle against Brahminical ideology of caste and patriarchal oppression dominating Indian society for many centuries. He was among the first to demand universal, free and equal public education for all. He also wrote the first detailed account of merciless colonial exploitation of peasants and artisans, and also pioneered the attempts to unite working class. However, the majority is still unfamiliar with his writings. Though Gulamgiri (1873) is somewhat better well known, most people are not familiar with his very important writing ‘Shetkaryachi Asud’ or ‘Peasants’ Whip’ (1881). A brief synopsis and critique of it is presented below. 

Reading Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ in 1847, Phule got introduced to the humanist ideas of 18th century bourgeois-democratic revolutions of Europe and America and radical ideas of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity inspired him. Influenced by these ideas of European humanist thinkers, Phule initially considered European rule in India to be a progressive transformative force. However, he was also troubled by the recognition and patronage given to the reactionary Brahminism by the British colonial rulers as allies in their exploitative rule. He was also witness to the disastrous conditions of the life of Shudra-Atishudra peasants, artisans and working class people as a result of brutal colonial exploitation and plunder. He made an effort to investigate into the reasons of and remedies for this. That the Brahmin influence grew even in the courts of erstwhile Shudra Kunbi rulers like Bhosles, Sindhias, Holkars, Gaekwads, etc metamorphosed into Maratha satraps of principalities as followers of Shivaji and merciless exploitation of shudra-atishudra peasants by them was also noted by him in the Foreword to this book.

Phule describes that while on the one hand illiterate peasants are beholden to the orthodox Brahminical religious ideas, on the other whole system of colonial administration also relies on the Bhat-Brahmin officials. Phule, in his biting sarcasm, details how the poor families not only face extortion through cunning Brahminical rituals throughout their life starting right from the very birth, but it also continues after death through shraddha rituals. Any life event whether birth, death, marriage, or building of a house necessarily requires a brahmin ritual and in each one the greed and lust of the pandas is revealed in the name of dakshina and a large part of the produce of peasants’ hard work is successfully appropriated by the priest class. He gives a detailed account of the year round plunder of peasant families through Brahminical priestly rituals beginning from Chaitra Prathama to Holi at the end of Falguna through Amavasya, Purnima, Ekadashi, Chaturdashi, Ashtmi, Navami, Grahan (eclipse), Devi puja, Satyanarayan puja, Ramayan, Mahabharat Paths, etc.

But the same Brahmins decline to admit Shudra children in their Sanskrit schools. Some of them are allowed to join Prakrit Marathi classes and for that they collect not only monthly fees but also extort seedha (dry raw ration like grains, pulses, etc) as gift on Amavasya-Purnima and similar other occasions. In return they are only taught a few letters on sand, Modi (an old Marathi script), little arithmetic, some useless legends and Lavani like song-dances which enable them to act in village tamashas but which does not make them capable enough to keep their family accounts, what to say of capable of being employed as clerks or mamlatdars in an office.

Enquiring into the causes of this long and sustaining Brahminical exploitation Phule says that the chief reason for this has been the unjust rules for depriving Shudras of education in Brahmin dominated society. Secondly, Brahmins dominated the administration of whoever ruled even if they were Shudra kings like Shivaji. He holds the lack of education of Shivaji and cunningness of Brahmins as responsible for it. He has also detailed the injustice and torture of Brahmin Peshwas who were able to wrest control during the reign of Shivaji’s descendants.

Phule wonders why the British rulers have also turned cowardly and not only permit these unjust Brahminical orthodox rules to be enforced but also allow expenditure of huge money on their rituals, which comes out of the burdensome taxes collected from the poor and hard pressed peasantry. He complains that the Brahmin employees do not allow the true condition of peasants’ life to be reported to the British officers else the ‘merciful’ British government would have definitely taken some measures to alleviate them from their misery. He concludes that the ignorant peasants have been degraded so much with regard to both money and time and so much fear of education and knowledge has been instilled into their mind through the course of generations that they neither dare to educate their children nor have remained capable of doing that. It is pertinent to mention that while talking of peasantry Phule includes not only those who cultivate land but also those engaging in animal husbandry, planting/gardening and other agriculture related professions.

In the 2nd chapter, Phule goes onto detail the oppressive exploitation of peasants, cattle breeders and artisans because of the policies of British colonial rule and native rulers/landlords in alliance with Brahminism resulting in widespread hunger and famines causing huge number of deaths and widespread destruction. He finds the following reasons for this situation. First, changing of the land rent settlement from one calculated on the basis of actual yield to one with amount fixed on size of land holding and provision of increase in same every thirty years. Second, poor peasants and landless being deprived from collecting forest produce like wood, fruits, leaves, etc and cow or sheep herders being denied access to meadows by forest department. Third, large numbers of peasant families being forced to turn to wage labour because of agriculture crisis as a result of above. Fourth, growing indigence of artisans like spinners, weavers, etc unable to face competition from cheap industrial products of British factories. Fifth, moneylenders taking over land of heavily indebted peasants bankrupted by usurious interest payments. Sixth, Shudras-Atishudras being deprived of even the little employment available to them under erstwhile feudal dispensations as British solely employ Brahmins in their administration. Seventh, severe exploitation and repression of peasants in government offices, police and courts through Brahmin employees by the heavily corrupt and luxury addicted British officials. He concludes that all of this has caused huge degradation and downfall in the real condition of Shudra-Atishudra peasants’ life. Hence, they have begun to fall victim to hunger and famines on large scale. He refers to growth of alcoholism and criminal tendencies in many desperate peasants and artisans unable to bear the pain in the life of their families.

Phule especially criticizes the ill condition of education system and denial of education to peasantry. He says that the colonial government collects huge amounts of local funds in the name of extension of education but spends hardly a third of it on building few schools here and there and keeps some panda teachers in those, who pass the whole day in their endless rituals instead of teaching. After coming under heavy criticism British government had appointed one Hunter Commission for reviewing the education system. Phule comments sarcastically that it made no attempt to enquire into the reality of education for common people. Instead it heard some Brahmin, Christian and Parsi elites in Bombay and Madras before quickly retracing its steps back to Calcutta. (One can separately read Phule’s submission to Hunter Commission on the issue of the said commission ignoring public education for common people and paying its attention solely to higher education for Brahmin and other elites.)

To understand the context of what Phule wrote it is necessary to present some historical facts here. In the pre-British period agriculture was usually managed by the village collective and land rent whether in kind or in money was calculated as the share of actual produce. Hence, the feudal rulers found it in their own interest to construct public irrigation facilities like ponds, wells and canals to ensure higher yield. There was also a traditional system of keeping current year produce in storage (kothars) and using previous year produce for consumption as a measure of safety against famines. The villages were class divided – caste being the basis of labour and distribution and there was huge feudal exploitation and oppression. However, the historically developed traditions ensured that famines usually resulted only from at least two consecutive crop failures because of flood, drought, epidemic, etc. However, various land settlements starting from Permanent Settlement of Lord Cornwallis in 1793 fixed the land rent in money and based it on size of land holding irrespective of actual yield in a year. Moreover, there was provision of periodical increase in the rent amount. Landlords and their sub agents/contractors/collectors also collected an additional amount over and above the rent to be paid to British government for their own appropriation and also extracted unpaid labour from peasants. Once the railways were built there was also the beginning of grain trade, wherein peasants, distressed under pressure of immediate rent payment, sold their grain cheaply at harvest, which got exported through ports. However, later in the year grain prices went up and the needy buyers were forced to pay more for it. Thus, not only the practice of keeping buffer storage went out of practice, but the prices were higher because of shortage of grains some months after harvest season. Hence famines were caused even in case of single crop failures and sometimes even in times of good crops as cheap distress sale of produce owing to payment of rent and interest on debt and then buying at high prices became the fate of peasantry. In the 19th century 3.25 crores Indians died because of famines. In Phule’ time 2.60 crores lost their lives owing to famines during the period of 1875-1900. But the real numbers were quite higher. According to a contemporary report in British medical journal Lancet 1.90 crore lives were lost in famines in decade of 1890-1900. Even in a year of good crop in 1943 approximately 50 lakhs lives were lost of hunger in Bengal famine as the produce was seized by administration under orders of Churchill.

Phule was witness to this increasingly disastrous and miserable condition and it is not difficult to understand that the principal victim of this were Shudra-Atishudra peasants, landless workers and artisans and not Brahmin-Savarna elites. Hence, Phule here criticizes not only the Brahminism and British Colonial rule but also sarcastically takes to task the newly emerging social reformers since in his view national or social reform is meaningless unless it confronts the injustice being done to the most exploited and oppressed sections of the society. This initial comment of his on the emerging national movement is very important. He has written more on this in some of his other writings.

Jotiba Phule details the circumstance of British colonialists allying with and using as their agents the privileged by birth Brahminical elites and describes the economic consequences of the intensified exploitation of Shudra-Atishudra peasantry, artisans and workers and warns British Colonial rule of an impending peasant revolt if this oppression does not mitigate.

Phule also discusses the ancient native ganatantra states, invasions of Aryans and Greeks and evolution of Varna-Jati system. Then he goes on to detail the oppressive laws laid down by Brahmins in Manusmriti and denial of education to Shudras-Atishudras resulting in complete dominance of Brahmins on them owing to their complete ignorance. Further he says that British rulers realised the benefit of this control of Brahmins very early and to minimise the resistance against their plundering rule they recruited Brahmins as their allies so that the English top officials could live in undisturbed comfort. Hence, they extended their patronage to Brahmins, recruited them as employees in their administration in large numbers, and fixed high land rent in their land settlement and provided for its periodic increase to ensure high earnings to their Brahmin officials. They began to collect ‘local funds’ in the name of education of peasants’ children and set up Chungi Chowkies (excise collection centres) every 6 miles on the roads which started to realise lakhs of rupees from peasants taking their produce to markets, imposed municipal taxes on the selling of grains or vegetables in urban markets, even imposed a draconian salt tax, deprived those who collected wood, leaves, fruits, etc from forests to sell of their livelihood. Moreover, peasants were compelled to sell their produce on low prices to traders which was exported to England for high profits by the traders. We have already talked of this as a cause of famines described earlier.

Phule further says that the erstwhile feudal rulers in India constructed dams, canal, wells, ponds, roads, inns, public baths, tree groves, etc out of the public funds collected through land rent as a share of produce  and no separate taxes were collected for that purpose. British started imposing additional taxes for these works. Besides, huge loans were taken from big British banks in the name of this expenditure further burdening the Indian people as hundreds of crores was collected as tax from Indian peasants to pay interest on these loans, which was remitted to England. Consequently, most of the peasants cannot even recover their input costs from their crops and they are compelled to borrow from money lenders to pay land rent. But the government says that peasants are in no difficulty at all and their poverty is the result of wasteful expenses in weddings.

Thereafter cheap British goods started to flood Indian market. Custom duties on these were reduced to zero resulting in these becoming cheaper than artisanal products bankrupting blacksmiths, spinners, weavers, shoemakers, leather workers, etc, i.e., all type of Indian artisans who became indigent and suffered from hunger and misery. Phule goes on to describe colonial plunder in detail and compares the lot of a peasant family with 4-5 sons and daughters-in-law cultivating using 8 bullocks with that of the lowest ranking English soldier. He talks of constant poverty and want of food, clothing, education, medicines, etc faced by the peasant family despite their relentless day and night hard labour and contrasts this with the salary, house, bed and bedding, clothing, food and wine, shoes, medicine and such luxuries available to the gora soldier. Detailing the mechanism of this colonial loot and robbery he also describes the role of selfish-corrupt Brahmin employees in the working of whole system of grievous plunder. He says this system compels Indian common people to increasingly opt for dishonest and immoral means. He concludes by warning the British rulers that in case there is no relief from this intense merciless loot, if the peasants, artisans, workers were continued to be robbed in this manner to furnish the rulers with luxuries, they should be ready for a grievous result indicating an 1857 like revolt, though Phule himself was opposed to ‘feudal led’ revolt of 1857.

Phule takes up the example of a peasant family to portray the misery and disaster created in the lives of peasantry, which is impossible to be summarised here. In his view lives of peasants were comparably better off prior to British rule and they did not suffer from constant famines and hunger. But the heavy taxes imposed in land settlement, other levies, their increase every 30 years, plunder by greedy English officials and their Brahmin subordinates, traditional officials like Patils and Kulkarnis also joining this colonial plunder, destruction of cattle wealth necessary for agriculture owing to colonial policies, huge export of grains, leather, cotton, wool and other commodities to England, import of foreign produced goods, white officials, engineers, doctors, etc in colonial administration serving British capitalists, peasantry crushed by burden of debt and being dispossessed of their possessions, merciless exploitation of uneducated and superstitious peasants through Brahmin rituals, etc added together have resulted in heavy loss of peasants’ lives by indigence, hunger, disease and famines. Phule says the desperation caused by this misery and indigence is resulting in number of youths of peasant families wasting away their lives in alcoholism, prostitution, crimes, etc. Talking of collection of lakhs of rupees by British rulers through ‘local funds’ in the name of education but not actually doing so, Phule sarcastically comments that if the peasant gets educated, he will no longer be beaten by the whip but will rather wield the whip and all these English officers-employees will run away crying in fear to America where they will have to work hard to earn their keep.

Another important aspect which Phule remarks on here is the character of new-fangled associations and conferences being formed at that time in the very beginning of the national movement. He considers all this to be a Brahmin movement. In his view the benefit of modernisation from English education, foreign travels, etc had accrued only to the Brahmin elites. These associations and conferences had no scope for discussion on the socio-economic exploitation faced by the peasants and artisans or their lack of education. Instead these elites also considered wasteful expenditure in weddings, etc by peasants to be the cause of their poverty and suffering instead of the then economic system.

In the concluding chapter, Phule sharply questions the newly emerging national movement of well to do educated sections since this very Brahmin-Savarna class was historically responsible for the oppression on Shudras-Atishudras. Even in Phule’s times this class collaborated with colonial rule and shared in the exploitation of peasants, artisans and workers and was not even ready to regard them as human beings. He thought that this class showed outward modern outlook to meet their business and administrative needs but continued to be fully orthodox reactionary Bahminists in their cultural, social and personal life. Phule, therefore, directly questions them how and on what basis Shudra-Atishudra peasants, workers and artisans can unite with them? Simultaneously, Phule also considered that that even the Shudra kings like Bhosles, Sindhias, Holkars, Gaekwads, etc also lived in luxury through exploiting Shudras and Atishudras and their courts were also dominated by Brahmins.

Phule also says that some Shudras like him long deprived of education by Brahmins have been able to become educated because of some well-intentioned Englishmen and missionaries. Some of them have also got an opportunity to get jobs in Railway and army. This has awakened them to their rights. He considered English to be enlightened and modern. Therefore, despite colonial oppression and dominance of Brahmins in it, he hoped that the outlook of British rulers could be changed by bringing the real condition of the life of exploited and oppressed to their notice and making rational humane appeals. Hence, he also gives many suggestions to colonial rule to improve the lot of peasants by general and technical agricultural education, irrigation facilities, improving fertility and productivity of soil and proscribing polygamy, obscene spectacles, etc.

Thus, in Phule’s view the exploitation and oppression of peasants, artisans and workers is not limited to their being cheated by cunning Brahmins through myths, rituals and curses of gods-goddesses and Varna-Jati system. He sees it as part and parcel of social-economic system operated through established state power. Though he does not use these words as such, but he views Varna-Jati system as part of the prevailing social production relations and ruler-subject class relations as ruling class or state power cannot exist independent of production relations. State power does not exist simply for the sake of state power. Its basis is appropriation of surplus produce by the labour of working classes, whether of slaves in slave owning society, or that of peasants-artisans by feudal lords, or that of the surplus value produced by the labour power of proletariat in a capitalist society.

However, this robbery of the produce of labour of majority working classes cannot be sustained only through the repressive or punitive power of the state. Hence the ruling class needs an ideology which makes this robbery acceptable as just and moral to exploited classes and acts as the opium – palliative – for the alleviation of pain and suffering caused by merciless exploitation. In Indian society that role was played by the ideology of Brahminism as its concepts of karma, rebirth, moksha, Shreya-Preya, Varnashram, etc made the exploited accept and tolerate their miserable lot in life as their just reward. That is why all the rulers whether Shaka, Hun, Yavan, Mangol, Gurjar, or even Shudra kings accepted Brahmins as their allies since they found that Brahminism helped them in curbing the revolts of the oppressed and minimised the need for a repressive force. Even the Muslim and British rulers found this out very soon and after some initial hiccups Brahminism gradually became their ally.

Phule confirms the same when he says that even the courts of Shudra kings are dominated by Brahmins and Shudras-Atishudras are equally exploited in their rule. Similarly, British also realised very soon that Brahmin elites were of considerable help in consolidating their rule. Therefore, whatever confrontation with them took place under Company rule prior to 1857, Queen Victoria’s declaration of 1858 assured of patronage to this elite and policy of no intervention where their interests were affected. Thereafter, they started recruiting mainly from their ranks for colonial administration. In return, this section also declared their loyalty to the British rule. This idea had its best ideological expression in ‘Anandmath’ written by colonial official Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, which declared full loyalty and support of Brahminism to British rule. This found continuation in the ideology of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. This is the fundamental reason the colonial education system was designed for higher education to elites and not to educate peasantry and other working classes, as Phule remarks. Whatever education was available to Shudras-Atishudras was because of some individual efforts by well meaning individuals and not because of British rule. This is also confirmed by the fact that the literacy rate in India in 1947 was only 12% and that of Shudras-Atishudras was lower than 1%. Although, initially they got some low level job opportunities in railway, army, etc British government actually stopped recruiting Dalits like Mahars in army in 1893 in the name of martial castes theory.

We can conclude that in his later years Phule found that British colonial rule was a rule of merciless exploitation for peasants, workers and artisans of Shudra-Atishudra castes. He makes sharp remarks and sarcastic comments against it and warns of serious consequences like revolt. However, in his view, the newly shaping up national movement was also dominated by Brahmin elites. It made empty talk of modern democratic ideas owing to its own economic and political interests vis-à-vis British colonial rulers but was actually orthodox and reactionary in its socio-cultural outlook and practices. Therefore, Phule criticized it sharply and declined to join it.

Question then arises why did Phule not attempt to organise an independent radical movement against both colonial rule and Brahminical elites? Although in 1885 Phule was attempting to organise workers along with the religious reforms of Shudra castes under the banner of Satya Shodhak Samaj and it was his associate Narayan Meghji Lokhande who formed first trade union in the then Bombay, the fact remains that in his last years Phule focussed mostly on religious-social reforms. This was not just a personal limitation of Phule but a limitation of the educational and political consciousness of Indian peasantry and workers in those times. Unfortunately, after him the Satya Shodhak Samaj lacked the leadership to accomplish this task and soon withered away as an effective progressive force.

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 7 / November 2020)]

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