Nehru among the Kisans: The Rae Barely Tragedy

On 6th-7th Jan 1921, there was police firing on gathering of kisans in Rae Bareli in which 13 kisans were killed. Reproduced here are excerpts from an article Nehru wrote in The Independent newspaper

Jawaharlal Nehru (Social Media)
Jawaharlal Nehru (Social Media)

NH Web Desk

Jawaharlal Nehru first started working among the kisans of UP during the course of the Non-Co-operation Movement 1920-22. On 6th and 7th January 1921, there was police firing on a gathering of kisans at Munshiganj in Rae Bareli district in which 13 kisans were killed. Reproduced below are excerpts from an article he wrote in The Independent newspaper on the incident, which gives us some idea of his familiarity and involvement with the concerns of the kisans.

History, they say, repeats itself. In the month of April, in the ever memorable year 1919, the heart of Amritsar city was soaked with the blood of Indians, slain most wantonly and cruelly, and a day or two later Sir Michael O’Dwyer blessed the deed. A year and eight months have gone by, twenty fateful months in the history of India and the British Empire. Britain still holds India even though that hold may be slackening…. Sir Michael O’Dwyer has gone but Sir Harcourt Butler (Governor of UP), the just, the wise, the sympathetic, remains to carry on the traditions of British rule and British justice. And so it is that Indian blood is again shed and the Governor hastens, without respite, without enquiry, without thought, to offer his congratulations to all concerned “and especially Sirdar Birpal Singh” (the taluqdar who opened firing on the kisans). And the Commissioner says ditto, and the Deputy Commissioner says Amen.

And what of the kisans? Poor, miserable, downtrodden men and women, ever in want, ever suffering, seldom complaining. What of them? Their blood lies on the banks of the Sai river, their bodies rot under a thin layer of sand or in the open, a prey to the beasts who feast on the dead. And the living have a worst fate reserved for them. They have the police and the minions of the taluqdars torturing them and beating them and imprisoning them. Yet not a word of sympathy came from the Governor….

Cunningly worded communiques are issued by Government and by dint of sheer repetition it is made to appear that the blame rests largely with the kisans….To those who know the kisans the allegations of the wrong doings must have sounded almost incredible. I have had the privilege of working for them, of meeting with them, of living in their mud-huts and partaking in all reverence of their lowly fare. And I, who for long believed in the doctrine of the sword, have been converted by the kisans to the doctrine of non-violence.

I have come to believe that non-violence is ingrained in them and is part of their very nature. For long they have been too peaceful, even to the extent of submitting to evil, but now the fear of consequences is fast disappearing and their long lost courage is coming back. But they hold fast to non-violence. It is not the masses but we, nurtured in an atmosphere of the West, who talk glibly of the inefficiency of peaceful methods. The masses know the power of Ahimsa.

The kisans were shot at Munshiganj because they would not go away at the bidding of the Deputy Commissioner or even of Sirdar Birpal Singh. They sat there patiently regardless of threats, not fearing the serried ranks of the armed police….The mounted police charged into the crowd and trampled many and then it is said that some threw stones. And Sirdar Birpal Singh had to fire in self-defence and the police had to fire though no one ordered it to do so. A strange story which grows stranger as the days go by. It is easy to blame the kisans . I would beg of their critics to transplant themselves from their armchairs for a while to the banks of the river Sai and imagine what I saw on the afternoon of the 7th January. Thousands of kisans were gathered there. The police and military were near them, armed and ready for all contingencies, and on the other side of the little river blood was being shed, the blood of their kith and kin, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. What must they have thought at the time ?...

I know not what they thought but …. they behaved as brave men, calm and unruffled in the face of danger. I do not know how they felt but I know what my feelings were. For a moment my blood was up, non-violence was almost forgotten--but for a moment only. The thought of the great leader, who by God’s goodness has been sent to lead us to victory, came to me, and I saw the kisans seated and standing near me, less excited, more peaceful than I was--and the moment of weakness passed.

Excerpts from an article by Jawaharlal Nehru in The Independent, 22 January 1921, reproduced in Jawaharlal Nehru Selected Works, Volume 1, pp.210-12.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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Published: 26 Jul 2020, 9:30 AM