When Nehru lived with peasants in their villages: his first encounter with farmers

“I had not fully realised what they (the peasants) were and what they meant to India. Like most of us, I took them for granted,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru after living with farmers in villages

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

NH Web Desk

The Farmers’ movement against the agrarian legislation rushed through parliament has brought tens of thousands of farmers to the borders of Delhi, forcing urban India to turn their gaze from malls and online shopping to villages and fields. A century ago, during the Non-Cooperation Movement, Jawaharlal Nehru had his first serious encounter with India’s peasants. This is how he recounts this life-changing experience in his Autobiography:

Early in June 1920 (so far as I can remember) about two hundred kisans marched fifty miles from the interior of Partapgarh district to Allahabad city with the intention of drawing the attention to their woe-begone condition.…They told us of inhuman treatment, and that their condition had become wholly intolerable. They begged us to accompany them back to make inquiries.

I went there with some colleagues and we spent three days in the villages, far from the railway and even the pucca road. That visit was a revelation to me. We found the whole countryside afire with enthusiasm and full of a strange excitement. Enormous gatherings would take place at the briefest notice by word of mouth…They were in miserable rags, men and women, but their faces were full of excitement and their eyes glistened and seemed to expect strange happenings which would, as if by a miracle, put an end to their long misery.

They showered their affection on us and looked on us with loving and hopeful eyes, as if we were the bearers of good tidings, the guides who were to lead them to the promised land.

Looking at them and their misery and overflowing gratitude, I was filled with shame and sorrow, shame at my own easy-going and comfortable life and our petty politics of the city which ignored this vast multitude of semi-naked sons and daughters of India, sorrow at the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India. A new picture of India seemed to rise before me, naked, starving, crushed, and utterly miserable. And their faith in us, casual visitors from the distant city, embarrassed me and filled me with a new responsibility that frightened me.

I listened to their innumerable tales of sorrow, their crushing and ever-growing burden of rent, illegal exactions, ejectments from land and mud hut, beatings; surrounded on all sides by vultures who preyed on them—zamindar’s agents, money-lenders, police; toiling all day to find that what they produced was not theirs and their reward was kicks and curses and a hungry stomach. Many of those who were present were landless people who had been ejected by the landlords, and had no land or hut to fall back upon. The land was rich but the burden on it was very heavy, the holdings were small and there were too many people after them. Taking advantage of this land hunger, the landlords, unable under the law to enhance rent beyond a certain percentage, charged huge illegal premiums. The tenant, knowing of no other alternative, borrowed money from the money-lender and paid the premium, and then, unable to pay his debt or even the rent, was ejected and lost all he had….

Besides the rent there were an extraordinary number of illegal exactions…; it is notorious how taluqadars often make their tenants pay for every special expenditure—a marriage in the family, cost of the son’s education in foreign countries, a party to the Governor or other high official, a purchase of a car or an elephant. Indeed these exactions have got special names—motrauna (tax for purchase of motor), hathauna(tax for purchase of elephant), etc….

I spent three days in the villages, came back to Allahabad, and then went again. During these brief visits we wandered about a great deal from village to village, feeding with the peasants, living with them in their mud huts, talking to them for long hours, and often addressing meetings, big and small….Everywhere we went we were accompanied by policemen, C.I.D. men, and a Deputy Collector from Lucknow. I am afraid we gave them a bad time with our continuous marching across fields and they were quite tired out and fed up with us and the kisans….

I had not fully realised what they {the peasants} were and what they meant to India. Like most of us, I took them for granted. This realisation came to me during these Partabgarh visits and ever since then my mental picture of India always contains this naked, hungry mass.

(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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