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Bardoli Satyagraha: When Non-Violent Farmers Brought The British to Their Knees

Sardar Patel once told the farmers of Bardoli, "A peasant has no need to be afraid of anything because he is a son of the soil who has worked with hard rocks, wild animals, heavy rain, biting cold, scorching heat and against so many odds."

Bardoli Satyagraha: When Non-Violent Farmers Brought The British to Their Knees

Among the most pivotal moments in the Indian freedom struggle was the Bardoli Satyagraha of 1928. For four months starting from February 1928, farmers from 137 villages in this 600-sq-km taluka of Surat district, Gujarat, not only challenged the British colonial administration and won but also played a part in reinvigorating the freedom struggle after the mass Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22) fell apart.

(Image above courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, it would go on to pave the way for the Civil Disobedience Movement two years later highlighted by the game-changing Dandi Salt March. A truly participative and secular peasants movement guided by Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the non-violent Bardoli Satyagraha laid the blueprint of what followed.

‘Fight to resist injustice’

What triggered the Bardoli Satyagraha was the erstwhile Bombay Presidency government’s decision a couple of months earlier to impose an exorbitant 30 per cent increase in land revenue assessment. This decision was taken based on the recommendation of a Provincial Civil Service officer who argued that farmers were enjoying greater prosperity in the region following the establishment of the railway line in the Tapti River Valley.

Not only did the provincial government believe that farmers in the region were more prosperous alongside an appreciable rise in land and produce prices, but also the condition of bonded and landless labourers had improved as well.

However, the bureaucratic assessment of the ground situation was very different from reality.

Despite multiple representations to the Bombay Governor, the demands of these farmers were ignored. With the government in no mood to relent, farmer representatives reached out to Sardar Patel, who in the past had prior experience of leading Satyagrahas in Kheda, Nagpur and Borsad. After listening to their demands, Patel cautioned them but also assured that the Indian National Congress would support them if they decided to take the plunge.

“I still ask you to think twice before you take the plunge. Do not derive comfort from the feeling that you have as your leader a fighter like myself. Forget me and forget my companions. Fight, if you feel that you must resist oppression and injustice. Do not take the plunge lightly. If you miserably fail, you will not rise again for several years. But if you succeed, you will have done much to lay the foundations of Swaraj,” he said.

(Image courtesy Sardar Patel: The Man Who United India)

Undaunted farmers

On 4 February 1928, a day before the farmers were due to pay their first instalment of the increased tax, Patel organised a conference of farmers in Bardoli. He even wrote a letter to the Bombay Governor one more time asking him to reconsider the government’s decision, but no immediate response came forth.

The last date to pay this first instalment of tax was 15 February, after which local officials were given a free hand to seize their land and cattle. Another meeting of farmers was held in Bardoli on 12 February where they resolved not to pay the revised assessment.

Instead, they demanded that the government either appoint an independent tribunal to arrive at a fresh assessment or accept the previous amount farmers were supposed to pay.

“By repeatedly asking people if they were willing to face hardships and face the brunt of colonial anger and not be dependent on just a leadership, Patel made the Bardoli satyagraha more participative. The people became stakeholders in the agitation by this strategy. It is true that when the government targeted the most vulnerable Bania moneylenders, some of them succumbed and paid the tax. But, the movement remained united,” notes writer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay for The Wire.

Meanwhile, he continued to inspire the farmers, instilling within them courage. In one public meeting on 23 February, he said, “Why are you so fear-stricken and inarticulate? A peasant has no need to be afraid of anything because he is a son of the soil who has worked with hard rocks, wild animals, heavy rain, biting cold, scorching heat and against so many odds.”

His approach worked.

Unity in dissent

“During the four months of struggle, the tax-payers did not pay the revenue even at the cost of attachment of their property. They boycotted government officers, locked their houses for days together, and remained absent from farms,” writes Ghanshyam Shah in his 1974 paper published in the Contributions to Indian Sociology journal.

Although the government’s decision to raise taxes largely affected a small but dominant segment of the landed class consisting of the Patidars, Anavil Brahmins and Baniyas, besides some Muslim and Parsi landowners, the movement to challenge the administration’s new law received widespread support from the more deprived classes as well.

“The landless labourers and the tenants stood by the other agriculturists and did not cooperate with the government in the confiscation of the latter’s property,” he adds.

Moreover, the region had already become a centre of political mobilisation during the Non-Cooperation Movement with the Congress leadership choosing Bardoli to launch a “passive resistance movement” for ‘no tax payment’ against the British, says Shah.

However, following the Chauri Chaura incident of February 1922 when agitators destroyed public property and burnt alive some policemen, MK Gandhi called off the entire movement.

The ‘turning point’

Once the Non-Cooperation Movement came to an end, Bardoli continued to see the emergence of different centres propagating activities like the production of khaddar, uplifting the Dalit and other deprived communities and the enforcement of prohibition. In other words, Bardoli was well prepared for the next round of agitation in 1928.

By the time June 1928 arrived, the government had begun to run out of steam under pressure from the Satyagrahis. Even British-owned publications came out in support of the farmers, while local Gujarati publications like The Patrika published every day with a circulation of about 12,000 copies, did an effective job of not just mobilising apolitical segments of the populace, but also offered “specific instructions and directions for anticipating official moves in the localities and being prepared to oppose them”.

As a face-saver for the administration, Chunnilal Mehta, a key member of the Governor’s Council, brokered a settlement with the farmers.

He recommended a 5.7 per cent increase and following payment of this tax, land that was confiscated by the administration would be returned. Meanwhile, those who resigned from the government jobs in solidarity with the farmers would be reinstated.

Faced with total unity of the populace, the government had no option but to accept most of these recommendations. The government, however, refused to ask those who had bought the confiscated land to return them. Instead wealthy sympathizers in Bombay stepped in, bought them out and returned the land to their rightful owners. The success of the movement lay in mobilising “hitherto apolitical masses for the satyagraha against the British government through traditional organisations, institutions and beliefs, and via the linkmen of the local community”, notes Shah.

Having said that, the movement failed to address the bonded labour system and largely neglected the poor farmers. But in the words of Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, “The Bardoli Satyagraha was a turning point in the Indian nationalist struggle and, as Subhash Chandra Bose pre-judged, it was a precursor to a larger battle that Gandhi would wage.”

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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