Freedom 75
Satara Prati Sarkar-II: From the Non-Brahman Movement to Nationalism

(The late Gail Omvedtā€™s article on the Parallel Government of Satara, continued from Liberation January 2022).

On this rich, turbulent territory British rule was imposed. Between 1850 and 1942 heavy impositions of land revenue and the ravages of a commercialized colonial economy brought sporadic famines, widespread peasant indebtedness and partial alienation of land to those who benefited from their positions in the bureaucracy. Two aspects of this colonial impact helped to consolidate a Brahman-moneylender-landlord dominance in the area.

First, though western Maharashtra is thought of as a classic ryotwari settlement area, not only were major princely states left untouched in the south, but the inams were also left intact, and while inamdars (mostly Brahmans) were not given rights as `landlords', the revenues they retained and the land they directly kept gave them significant power. Such inam holdings represented 20 per cent of the British district of Satara.

Second, as the new bureaucracy replaced the old feudal power, with the kulkarni its lowest linch-pin in the villages, access to this bureaucracy was channelled through the new education system, and this in turn was heavily dominated by Brahmans. With the increase in trade, merchants (now including also Marwaris and some Brahmans) gained in power; and with private ownership regulated by British courts, lands began to pass into the hands of Brahmans and merchants, either directly or indirectly in the form of mortgage. Backed by colonial rule and within the ryotwari structure, a commercialized but consolidated landlordism developed in the district which included some of the former Maratha feudatories and the top families of patil lineages in the central villages, but which was still heavily dominated by Brahmans and merchant castes.

Table 1

The limited statistics that are available will substantiate these generalizations. First, a few village surveys conducted by settlement officials in the mid-1920s showed substantial landlordism as well as hired labour especially in the villages of the Krishna valley plains (see Table 1). Census figures are tricky since 'tenant cultivators' were not really recognized in Deccan's ryotwari areas; that is, there were no protected occupancy tenants of the kind that had evolved in the zamindari areas and thus no official noting of their existence. Thus those classed as 'cultivating owners' contained some actual landlords, while those classed as 'agricultural labourers' included many small owners unable to live on their own lands as well as others who had lost their lands through sale or mortgage and were working as labourers or unrecognized tenants. It is against this background that we must assess the 1931 census figures which show that of all male principal earners in cultivation in Satara district, 1.1% were non-cultivating landlords, only 15.1% were 'cultivating owners', only 1.8% were `tenant cultivators' but a huge 82.0% were classed as 'agricultural labourers'! (It has to be remembered also that according to 1926 figures Satara had only an estimated 0.2% of landless males in cultivation and a higher than normal percentage of small landhdldings)[1]

Table 2 shows something of the caste composition of agrarian classes. In spite of the limitations of the data, it does give some indication of actual Brahman dominance among the 'rent receivers' or landlords. As for Brahman dominance in the bureaucracy and education, this is fairly well established. In 1922 Brahmans, who were about 3% of the population, made up 67.8% of all school students in Satara district, while Marathas and other middle castes, about 60% of total population, accounted for only 10%. By 1930, after two decades of intensive anti-Brahman campaign and educational reform efforts, Brahmans still contributed 128 of 219 clerks in the revenue department, while Marathas and allied castes contributed only 53.

Table 2

Thus Satara, once a centre of Maratha power and still characterized by an underlying peasant militancy, was like other parts of Maharashtra, subordinated to Brahman-merchant dominance under colonial rule. The general subordination of the non-Brahman peasants and artisans, and the fact that many of them (including people from supposedly aristocratic Maratha families) were working not only as peasants and tenants but also as hired labourers was enough to define them as a bahujan samaj (majority community), oppressed and exploited by a class which combined landlordism, moneylending and bureaucratic power with high caste status.

This was the background of the fact that the first mass social movement in Maharashtra, the non-Brahman movement, was directed at local exploiters defined in caste terms rather than at the British power. This movement was in essence a revolt at both cultural and economic levels against feudal caste domination, and it found a major centre in Satara district. Jotiba Phule's Satyashodhak Samaj spread to the district soon after its foundation in 1873, but it was in the twentieth century that the movement advanced rapidly. When Shahu Chhatrapati, the ruler of nearby Kolhapur state and a descendent of Shivaji, became a fervent advocate of anti-Brahmanism as a result of Brahman refusal to ratify his Kshatriya status, he began to sponsor Satyashodhak activities. Many of the first generation of educated non-Brahmans found service in his state, and he provided financial patronage for both the non-Brahman Party (founded in 1917) and Satyashodhak educational activities.

It was in Satara district that the class thrust of the Satyashodhak movement became clear with a major peasant revolt in 1919-21. At this time a series of Satyashodhak jalsas, singing and drama troupes organized on the model of the traditional, bawdy, peasant tamasha, began to move through the district. These provoked widespread peasant uprisings that included on the one hand disruption of Brahman religious ceremonies, deliberate 'pollution' of wells and breaking of idols, and on the other the looting of grain, the burning of equipment and buildings of Brahman landlords, and widespread, sporadic rent strikes. The District Collector commented as follows :

I am far from denying that crimes have been committed against Brahmans, but experience gained in the enquiries shows that acts of violence have been committed against them not as Brahmans but as unpopular landlords or moneylenders, and that Brahmans in a village against whom no grievance has been felt have generally been allowed to live in peace.... A movement is now developing not to pay more than half the gross produce as rent rather than the 2/3 or 3/4 as has been the custom hitherto. Most of the non-cultivating landlords being Brahmans, they believe that the movement and the subsequent boycott of their lands is ... directed against them as a class.

Strikingly, this peasant uprising occurred in most of the same talukas that were to be central in the 1942 movement: Tasgaon, Valva, Karad, Khanapur, Koregaon and to a lesser extent in Patan and Satara. This suggests the question: what was the connection between the non-Brahman Satyashodhak movement and the later nationalist uprising? It is usually assumed either that there was no real connection or that the two were antagonistic to each other as movements. In fact, up to 1930 the two movements were subjectively antagonistic, with non-Brahman leaders and mainly Brahman Congressmen looking on each other with suspicion and hostility. Yet in crucial ways it was the non-Brahman movement that laid the ground for Satara's prati sarkar. Its contribution lay in fostering a new, equalitarian and rationalistic political-social consciousness among the masses and in the degree of solidarity created among the bahujan samaj in the course of the anti-feudal, anti-caste struggles.

The caste ideology that legitimized the authority of the dominant classes was attacked with vigour. This meant not only an attack on Brahmanism but also strong efforts to reform and rationalize existing customs among the peasantry. The theme of the peasant resurgence in Satara was the equalitarian and rationalistic ideology of Phule: that the caste system (and the gods and goddesses that backed it up) was not divinely ordained but a historical human creation that had to be destroyed; science, equality and education were the themes of the modern age. As a biographer of Nana Patil puts it,

Such a revolutionary change came over the lower classes that a (new) power of thought was kindled among them... Those who through debate and practice raised among the innumerable lower class majority the questions of who and what was the cause of injustice, what were the people's rights, how injustice was to be overthrownā€”these were the Satyasamajists!

Educational institutions, a central thrust of the movement, were a major medium in spreading this awakening. Hostels and colleges founded by Shahu Maharaj in Kolhapur and by Bhaurao Patil's Ryot Shikshan Sanstha in Satara trained numerous youth from peasant, artisan and even untouchable backgrounds. By 1930 these new students and teachers were turning nationalist, and in contrast to the Brahman or other upper caste teachers they had deep roots and support in the villages in which they worked. Students or young peasants educated to the sixth or seventh standard provided the bulk of the underground activists in 1942, and teachers were often so central as sympathizers or activists that one of the most famous novels of the period, by the Matang writer Annabhau Sathe, is titled simply Master.

These educated youth could claim to represent the bahujan samaj as a whole. What was this bahujan samaj? It included a wide range of people, from landless and still semi-bound dalit labourers, struggling artisans and factory workers to rich peasants and a growing educated middle class. It may be said that the rich peasant section was beginning to emerge as a force by this time, taking advantage of the fight against Brahman and Marwari moneylender-landlords, basing itself on the beginnings of co-operation and the spread of iron ploughs and other improved implements sold in the district from the 1920s by businessmen such as Cooper and Kirloskar, and organizing politically through the Non-Brahman Party to fight for control of school boards and district local boards. But as yet it had not become a consolidated exploiting class in power, its interests still lay with the rest in the fight against feudal power and colonial state. In this context, the social radicalism that was part of the non-Brahman movement in Satara, which also provided the ideology for this rising class, helped to create broad ties of solidarity and (in the broad sense) a kind of class consciousness in the area.

It is true that the non-Brahman movement was anti-nationalist in the beginning, but it was inevitable that the bahujan samaj should become nationalist as they recognized the nature of their colonial enemy. By building up solidarity and strength in the process of struggle against feudalism and the caste system, by stimulating a widespread equalitarian and rationalist consciousness, and by building up a leadership from among the masses, the Satyashodhak movement in fact laid the basis for a deeper and stronger national movement than would be found in most parts of India once the non-Brahman consciousness turned nationalist.

This shift to a nationalist position began in the 1920s when young and militant leaders such as Jedhe and Jawalkar began to express sympathy with the nationalist agitation and organized opposition to the elite, pro-British non-Brahman leaders. In the 1930s it was they who provided the leadership to draw the masses of the Maharashtrian peasantryā€”via the contacts of the non-Brahman movementā€”into the Congress-led nationalist movement. Changes in the Congress movement itself helped this process, the fact that a new leadership was coming forward and new programmes of importance to workers and peasants were being taken up. Gandhi himself became an important symbol becauseā€”unlike in Tamilnadu where he became associated with Brahmans and 'north Indian' dominanceā€”in Maharashtra he and his followers represented a new and social reform-oriented group that was in opposition to the old orthodox section which had sworn by Lokmanya Tilak. The younger, socialist-oriented Brahman Congressmen could also appeal to non-Brahman leaders like Jedhe.

At the same time, the swadeshi agitation was beginning to gain popularity among Bombay textile workers, and many of them participated in the satyagraha of 1930-31. One who died after being run over by a truck that a group of satyagrahis was trying to obstruct, Babu Genu, was memorialized in nationalist songs and legends as a martyr. Such activity was to have an impact on districts like Satara which provided large numbers of workers for the Bombay mills. The salt satyagraha was symbolically important. But it was the jungle satyagraha of 1932 which was one of the first campaigns to involve peasant interests in a direct way. It met with a big response in Shiralapeth taluka, where two demonstrators were killed in police firing at Bilashi in the Sahyadri hills. This area was to become an important centre of the prati sarkar, and generated the only group whose leadership was Gandhian.

But it was Nana Patil who really has to be called the decisive creator of peasant nationalism in Satara, and his main area of operation was not the hills, but the Krishna valley and eastern region. A young man of middle peasant background from Valva taluka educated upto the sixth standard, he had been employed as a talathi but had spent most of his time campaigning for social reform under the influence of the Satyashodhak movement. In 1932 he resigned his service to throw himself into political work. He wandered through the villages, holding meetings everywhere without regard for British police power (later activists said of this period that 'he was the first to go underground') and putting forward an ideology of peasant nationalism. The misery of peasants, he argued, including their subjugation to sawkars and bhatjis, was due to their exploitation by imperialism which took their agricultural products at low prices as raw materials and sent back English manufactured goods to drive out Indian products.

The linchpin of exploitation was thus British rule. Significantly, this was accompanied by reference to Jotiba Phule, for example to his appearance before a ceremonial British gathering dressed only in a loincloth to symbolize the poverty of the peasants under the British raj. Nana Patil was thus putting forward a combination of the Satyashodhak and nationalist traditions, and taking this systematically to the rural areas for the first time in Maharashtra.

In 1934 he was called to Kundal, a village in Aundh state (whose ruler was a nationalist who gave support to anti-British propaganda and action) by Appasaheb Lad, a young Maratha, the first matric of the village who had studied in the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapith, a school for 'national education' in Pune. There Nana spent several years organizing a full-scale programme that included propaganda against the British, moneylenders and landlords; swadeshi and boycott of foreign goods; anti-untouchability campaigns; agitation against alcohol and ganja; and inexpensive, non-religious and often collective weddings which were Satyashodhak in inspiration (they took place without Brahman priests) but which he called 'Gandhi marriages'. This all-round programme, coupled with his daring and constant readiness either to go to jail or go underground, and expressed in a powerful, robust peasant vernacular, gave Nana Patil an unparalleled image in the district. But his relations with the Congress party heirarchy remained tense and tenuous. His biographers describe a telling incident when, released from jail on parole in 1932, he was refused help for food by Congress leaders in the taluka town of Islampur and told he could work as a hama1. In fact he seemed to have almost no contacts with district or provincial Congress leaders either during this period or during the 1942 movement itself.

Thus the Satara bahujan samaj was becoming nationalist in a peculiar way. They were taking the name of Gandhi as a symbol but without becoming Gandhians in any ideological sense. Not only were there few systematic ties with the Congress party hierarchy (except in the case of the Shiralapeth group), there were also none with Left parties: there was little socialist or Communist presence in Satara and none among the bahujan samaj. There was no organized Kisan Sabha in the districtā€” or for that matter in Maharashtra as a whole, the famous case of the Warlis being notably removed from the mainstream of Maharashtrian peasant lifeā€”though there were many scattered peasant rallies held in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, the 'Maratha wave' or 'peasant wave' that now came into the national movement came with few organizational affiliations, to either give it clear leadership from above or to discipline and shackle its actions.

The Founding of the Prati Sarkar: August 1942 to June 1943

9 August : Only hours after the All-India Congress Committee session had passed its famous 'Quit India' resolution, the colonial state swooped down on the major leaders of the national movement. But the removal of the first-rank leaders only served to unleash the biggest mass uprising seen in India.

The marches, attacks, sabotage and sporadic underground activity that followed have been called a 'spontaneous revolution'. But it was also a revolution that with all its violence, was in many ways initiated if not led by Gandhi himself. For in the year prior to August 1942, Gandhi had not only made specific statements justifying violence in the use of self-defence against potential Japanese aggression, but also gradually began to express his moral condemnation of British rule in a way that hinted such methods might be used against it. The mass mood was increasingly militant, the pressure from the Left for a truly radical movement beginning to mount, and gradually Gandhi began to prepare for a satyagraha campaign that all the Congress ranks were led to believe would be the biggest yetā€”an 'open rebellion' in which every known technique and some new ones would be used. Boycott of all government agencies, non-payment of revenue, collective civil disobedience, non-violent incitement of government bureaucratic and military personnel to resign, the 'peaceful' disruption of communications, and establishment of parallel governments were all mentioned, though no authoritative programme was given. 

The arrests removed any possible leadership for such a mass campaign. But what was remembered well by an aroused people (including the Satara underground) were basically two points: karenge ya marenge, and let everyone be his own leader'. And these were sufficient. The result was that the Satara underground activists not only acted in the name of Gandhi but continue to claim up to the present that they were in fact following the 'Gandhi path' as they cut wires, robbed trains, snatched rifles, engaged in gun battles with police and dacoits, beat those judged guilty in peoples' courts and refused in 1944 to follow Gandhi's own expressed wish that they surrender.

It is significant that action in Satara began later than the immediate outbursts in the cities and in north India. This indicates that the crucial sections of the masses who were ready to move were waiting for a clear programme and a signal from the leadership or perhaps for the development of a leadership. Appasaheb Lad writes that while people read of the destruction of British power in Bihar, their immediate response was: 'Though the government no longer exists the people's day-to-day problems have not been lessened. Though the government courts have disappeared the problems that brought people to the courts have not lessened. Though they have brought down the police, the traditional criminals have not been abolished from the world'. It is dangerous to take reminiscences written years later as accurate depictions of the consciousness of the time: nevertheless the course of events as well as the testimony of activists indicates that some ideas of building an alternate power were there from the beginning, though they were brought into action only as activists at the village level responded to the dilemmas and pressures brought on by the needs of the movement. This process can be seen in the way the movement developed from open mass actions, to underground sabotage, to the peoples' courts themselves.

After the arrests of the top Congress leaders, the remaining Satara delegates met in Bombayā€”these included Y. B. Chavan, Ramanand Swami, Vitthalrao Page and Vasantdada Patilā€”and then returned to Satara and held a two-day meeting at Karad. Some of these had established contact with the socialist underground. The Karad meeting decided to form two organizations, an underground group and an open satyagraha group. But this organization at the beginning does not appear to be the organization that created the prati-sarikar either in terms of individuals who survived as leaders or in terms of supplying the basic programme.

The first wave of activities, mass marches to taluka and other governmental centres, were not really satyagrahas. They were not basically non-violent efforts to put moral pressure on the enemy; their goal was, as an activist put it, 'to capture the centres of British power'. People came armed with spears, axes, and other home-made weapons, and moved on government offices with some kind of idea that they could with their own hands put an end to the colonial power and take its place. There were four major marches between 24 August and 10 September at Karad (about 4000), Tasgaon (8000), Waduj (700) and Islampur (5000). But when firing killed nine at Waduj and two at Islampur, the illusion of capturing power died a natural death, and leaders began to feel their naivete of the programme: 'Our idea was to gather thousands, go to the kacheri, bring down the Union Jack and raise the national flag, put Gandhi topi on the mamledar and faujdar and come home ! There was firing, and when we returned the old flags went back !"

If frontal attack would not work, sabotage was clearly the next step. This had also begun quite early, with the cutting of wires and two train robberies in the district on 16 August and 10 September. Now it became for some time the focus of the movement and it was, like the mass actions, justified not simply in terms of pressure tactics or harassment of the government, but as a step toward the conquest of power: if the revolutionaries could not capture the centres of British power, they could break the contacts that bound these urban centres with the heart of India, the villages. So numerous acts of sabotage, wire-cutting, the burning of Public Works Department bungalows in rural areas and other official buildings, the stealing of rifles from military police, and some armed encounters with the police took place. An important jailbreak was made from Yerawada on 1 November by Kisan Vir (of Wai in northern Satara) and Pandu Master (Pandurang Patil, of Yede Nipani in Valva taluka) who went on to become leaders of the movement. In Shiralapeth peasants began to seize forest land, and underground activists took up an earlier programme of demanding the resignation of police patils.

But this sabotage programme in turn led to a new crisis, and the response to it proved the turning point of the movement. The government came down with a heavy hand, collective fines were levied against villages and arrests left 2000 people of Satara in jail by the end of 1942. In spite of sabotage, it became clear that the English power remained strong. 'The English police and their agents, the establishment in the village (the patils, watandars, sawkars) began to get bold. At first the people were on our side, but at the beginning of 1943 they were afraid, began to think that English power was not going to disappear, and so began to help the police in arresting us.

The solution to this was that the state power had to be cut at the village level itself, by striking at the local 'agents' who were its linchpin. According to a Kundal leader, 'when we turned around, and instead of running away began to use weapons against those who were coming after us that was the real beginning of the prati sarkar. A new type of freedom movement started. What happened was that the underground activists began to physically punish police informers (who were most frequently village level officials or some members of the sawkar elite). Activists of the Shirala group were the first to do this. On 25 November in a meeting at Shitur they set up what they called their 'state machinery', a very rudimentary division of labour with people allotted to 'police' and 'revenue' departments, and in November and December two acts of 'police administration' were taken with spontaneous but public 'courts' held by activists to punish informers. The method that was used here came into vogue all over and was called patra lavna. Patra means horse-shoe and the term was used for shoeing a horse, but what was actually done was to tie up the offender, and beat him thoroughly on the legs until he would be unable to walk for at least some days. From this the Satara prati-sarkar came to be known widely as patri sarkar, and at that time at least the activists did not mind the implications of violence for, they said, 'we wanted to strike terror into the minds of informers'.

In the Kundal area, such a process began in the first quarter of 1943, and with similar results: not only was the pressure from the police taken off, and the ebbing confidence of the people restored, but now the people began to come to the activists themselves to solve local social and economic problems. Thus, out of the acts of punishing informers for self-protection grew the nyayadan mandals that were to blossom into real 'peoples' courts', the central institution of the prati sarkar. And this happened, as G. D. Lad of Kundal stresses, not due to the conscious decisions of the leadership, but as a 'natural reaction of living people.

Nevertheless decisions had to be taken. In the formal sense, the founding of the prati sarkar occurred in the first half of 1943, in two major meetings of underground activists from different parts of Satara, at Kival (Karad taluka) in February and then Kameri (Valve taluka) on 3 June.

At Kival it was resolved to carry on the movement even though it was crushed at the all-India level, and to carry it forward to peoples' power by making a coordinated effort to set up nyayadan mandals in villages throughout the region. This ratified the process developing from below. It also involved the creation of a new ethic of struggle: the ideal freedom-fighter was no longer to be the courageous but non-violent satyagrahi but one who succeeded in remaining out of, or escaping from, British jails while carrying on the struggle. It was as if to say: 'On Gandhi's call we have taken a vow to "do or die", and we will carry it out regardless of what is happening elsewhere'.

At Kameri this decision was challenged by Y B. Chavan's group. Chavan, at that time the leading young Maratha within the Congress party, had already been arrested himself (according to many activists, he had effectively surrendered by giving the police a message as to where they could find him). In June his people argued that it was useless to carry on only at a local level, it would only increase repression on Satara peasants, and that even Achutrao Patwardhan, leader of the socialist underground in Bombay, had given the advice to surrender.

But few of the delegates were in any mood to take this advice. First, by this time, the establishment of the initial nyayadan mandals and the punishment of police informants had turned the tempo of the movement in their favour. The underground activists were also beginning to confront the dacoits who were harassing the peasantry, and in several cases stolen goods were returned. The feeling of self-confidence among the activists was growing as they began to feel they were capable of protecting the 'life, honour and wealth' of the people from both dacoits and predators of the British bureaucracy, and the people in turn were putting their confidence in them as a centre of power. Second, and perhaps more important, was the character of the activists themselves. They were almost entirely new people, without organizational links to the Congress heirarchy, and not deeply influenced by Gandhian ideology. The bahujan samaj group among them was imbued with an anti-Brahmanism that made them skeptical of the established leadership of the Congress and reluctant to follow the advice of even radical 'authorities'.

Thus at Kameri the meeting resolved once more to carry on the struggle (though a delegation was sent to Bombay to seek Patwardhan's approval, which was given). And so it was in the period February-June 1943, after the subsiding of the all-India movement, against the advice of the senior-most Maratha in the Congress district heirarchy, and on the basis of local self-determination and an ideology of 'peoples' power', that the Satara prati sarkar was consciously established. (to be continued)

Read : Part - I

Read : Part - III

Read : Part - IV

 Satara Prati Sarkar: From the Non-Brahman Movement to Nationalism