You are on page 1of 20

The Journal of Peasant Studies

ISSN: 0306-6150 (Print) 1743-9361 (Online) Journal homepage:

Indian peasant uprisings: Myth and reality

Joseph Tharamangalam

To cite this article: Joseph Tharamangalam (1986) Indian peasant uprisings: Myth and reality, The
Journal of Peasant Studies, 13:3, 116-134, DOI: 10.1080/03066158608438304

To link to this article:

Published online: 05 Feb 2008.

Submit your article to this journal

Article views: 78

Citing articles: 1 View citing articles

Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
Review Article

Indian Peasant Uprisings.

Myth and Reality
Joseph Tharamangalam*

A.R. Desai (ed.), Peasant Struggles in India, Delhi: Oxford University

Press, 1979. Pp.xxv + 772; Rs. 140.
Sunil Sen, Peasant Movements in India: Mid-Nineteenth and Twentieth
Centuries, Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi, 1982. Pp.275; Rs.75.
D.N. Dhanagare, Peasant Movements in India: 1920-1950, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1983. Pp.xii + 254; £12.

This review of some important recent works on peasant movements in

India examines four major questions concerning (a) the social locus
of rebellions, (b) the role of capitalism and imperialism, (c) the part
played by existing state power, and (d) the role of parties or organisa-
tions. It is argued that while there is no unchanging social base the
disproportionately high degree of tribal participation in armed rebel-
lion may provide some clue to the relative lack of similar participation
among the mainstream peasantry, that capitalist imperialism is a
multi faceted phenomenon impinging on the peasantry in many ways,
that existing state power plays a major part in rebellions, and that a
party or organisation is a necessary precondition for any trans-local
or trans-tribal movement. It concludes by suggesting that varieties of
mobilisation within the framework of parliamentary politics should
be studied in order to assess the really significant role of the peasantry
in the political evolution of post-independence India.

The late Eric Stokes [1980: 271] referred to a 'conceptual revolution' in

Indian peasant studies, caused primarily by the shock waves of China and

*Sociology/Anthropology Department, Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia,

Canada. The author's research on peasant movements in India has been supported by grants from
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Shastri Indo-Canadian
Institute, and Mount St. Vincent University. He gratefully acknowledges their help. He also
wishes to thank the directors and other members of the Centre for Development Studies,
Trivandrum, India, for all the help they extended to him while he was a visiting scholar there
during the year 1984-85.
Indian Peasant Uprisings 117
Vietnam. He added, however, that this conceptual revolution seemed to
have run far ahead of empirical enquiry. While the major thrust of this
revolution may have been to put the peasant back into the centre of Indian
history it also seems to have involved a good measure of polemics against the
'Barrington Moore view' of Indian peasantry as docile and non-
revolutionary. In his pioneering and now well-known work, Barrington
Moore Jr. [1977:202,459 and 330] had declared simply that in India peasant
rebellions were relatively rare and completely ineffective, and he attributed
this alleged weakness to the peculiarities of India's social structure, particu-
larly to the caste system as well as to the 'apparent docility of the Indian
peasants'. Whatever may have been the exact nature of the 'conceptual
revolution' it is clear that Moore's view can be neither proved nor disproved
unless the conceptual revolution is matched by careful and thorough compa-
rative empirical studies. Polemics about the alleged weakness of the Indian
peasantry apart, the most significant and enduring problem Moore [1977:
453] raised was an eminently empirical one namely, 'what kinds of social
structures and historical situations produce peasant revolutions and which
ones inhibit them?'. It is heartening to see that empirical enquiry focusing on
this question is fast catching up with the conceptual revolution. A number of
case studies and even a few works of comparative analysis and synthesis have
appeared in the last few years, many of them since the publication of Eric
Stokes' book.'
The first major book-length contribution to this comparative literature is
the collection of essays edited by A.R. Desai under the title, Peasant
Uprisings in India. This is a large volume of 39 essays and 767 pages
incorporating within its scope both accounts of struggles by major partici-
pants and many of the pioneering theoretical and empirical studies by social
scientists. Sunil Sen's Peasant Movements in India is the first comprehen-
sive, single-author, book-length account of Indian peasant movements from
the mid-nineteenth century to the Naxalite insurgency in the 1970s.2 D.N.
Dhanagare's Peasant Movements in India - 1920-1956 is by far the most
systematic and rigorous comparative study by a social scientist covering one
of the most important periods of peasant mobilisation in India. It is not
accidental that all these authors are radical intellectuals and scholars who
have been sympathetic to, if not directly involved in, the communist move-
ment in India which organised and led all the major armed peasant uprisings
since the 1930s. Nor is it surprising that these authors present a Marxist
reading of the historical evidence. All the authors stress the revolutionary
character of the Indian peasantry, use a class framework of analysis and see
imperialism and capitalism as fundamental causes of peasant unrest.
However, there are significant differences among them as regards specific
theoretical and empirical issues as well as differences of emphasis. Thus in a
famous essay (reprinted in Desai) Alavi formulates his middle peasant thesis
identifying the middle peasants as the real social base of revolution. Kath-
leen Gough (also in Desai) and Dhanagare both take issue with the middle
peasant thesis arguing that, in India at least, it is the agricultural labourers
118 The Journal of Peasant Studies
and poor peasants; who must be relied upon to support the revolution. Sunil
Sen stresses the need for alliance between peasants and workers as a precon-
dition for a successful revolution and attributes the 'failure' of the three
major communist-led uprisings in India to the lack of support by the work-
ers. Who is right? and why?
The main objective of this review is to discuss these contributions as a set,
in order to examine the most important issues and controversies. Given this
objective and given the range of these contributions it is clear that our
treatment of these will perforce be selective. In particular, many essays
included in Desai will receive peripheral or no attention the main focus here
being only on those which are seminal in nature in terms of their empirical
significance, theoretical analysis or both. This, it is hoped, will enable us to
lay bare the current state of our knowledge on Indian peasant uprisings, to
indicate the unresolved issues and to point to potentially fruitful paths for
future research. The basic question raised by Barrington Moore Jr. will be
examined under the following four heads: (1) what is the social locus or base
of peasant revolution? (2) how does capitalism and imperialism impinge on
the peasantry and impel them to rebellion? (3) how does existing state power
and authority affect peasant revolutions, particularly their outcomes? (4)
what roles do revolutionary parties/organisations play in peasant-based


This review begins with a question that is very controversial in the literature,
but one which at the end will be found to be rather narrowly framed: which
peasant class is most prone to participate and/or support revolutionary
movements or uprisings? The authors reviewed here give a prominent place
to the middle peasant thesis originally formulated by Hamza Alavi and Eric
Wolf. The thesis itself is too well known to require any detailed treatment
here. Alavi argued that the middle peasants, defined as independent small-
holders (qualitatively different from other peasant classes because they are
outside both the landlord-tenant and the capitalist-wage labourer sectors)
alone enjoy the structural independence necessary to participate success-
fully in the initial stages of modern revolutions. In both the Russian and the
Chinese revolutions, says Alavi, it was the middle peasants who took the
initial lead. By contrast, the Tebhaga and Telengana movements 'failed'
because of the lack of similar participation by the middle peasants.4 Kath-
leen Gough and Dhanagare contend that in the Indian context the middle
peasant thesis is not supported by empirical evidence. Thus Gough main-
tains, on the basis of more recent instances of peasant resistance in south
India, that poor peasants and landless labourers have been the most consis-
tent supporters of communist-led peasant movements and struggles.5 Simi-
larly Dhanagare (p.219)6 argues that his comparative study of peasant move-
ments in India between 1920 and 1950 'does not support either Alavi's
contention or Wolfs' thesis on the middle peasant'. In all the three major
Indian Peasant Uprisings 119
uprisings examined by him (namely, Moplah, Tebhaga and Telengana) the
major participants were not middle peasants but poor peasants and agri-
cultural labourers - a contention that appears to be borne out by overwhelm-
ing empirical evidence and supported by other authors and participants.7
Dhanagare, however, finds the middle (and-the rich) peasants active in the
reformist Gandhian movements such as Kheda and Bardoli in Gujarat and
Champaran in Bihar. But these are in very different structural settings; 'in
these different loci the principal participants in the agrarian movements
came from substantial landowners and self-sufficient cultivators, whether
landholders or tenants, i.e., the rich and the middle peasants' (p.220). It
seems certain that Gough too would have found a similar pattern had she,
instead of confining herself to armed struggles, considered the Gandhian or
even the earlier kisan sabha-led movements particularly in Malabar which
drew their support predominantly from the Nair tenants against Brahmin
and Nair landlords [Namboodiripad, 1984: Ch.8].
But is the distinction between reformist-Gandhian vs. insurrectionary-
millenarian adequate to understand the relative role of the different peasant
classes? In particular, did not middle and rich peasants also participate in
armed revolutionary movements even if only in their initial stages? Again,
there seems to be substantial evidence and wide agreement that this was in
fact the case, and Dhanagare himself records these facts very carefully. Thus
he notes that 'some Rajbhansi middle peasants had taken a leading part in
the organisation of kisan sabhas in Dinajpur district and some petty jotedars
also joined the bargadars in Bengal' but adds immediately that their con-
tribution to the upsurge was 'not outstanding' (p.221). Rich peasant parti-
cipation seems to have been the most striking in Telengana where '[T]he rich
landowners (pattadars) or rich peasants, the backbone of the CPI in the
Andhra delta and Telengana did provide the initial lead, moral and material
support to the insurgents' (p.221). But as the movement entered its revolu-
tionary third phase, that is, after the Indian army had entered the area and
the insurrection had taken a marked turn to the left, these peasants gradually
left the movement. The result was that '[I]t was the poor peasants and
agricultural labourers who almost exclusively sustained the Telengana strug-
gle in its last three years' (p.221). And 'whatever violence occurred in the
process of resistance was the doing of the poor peasants including the tribal
Lambardi elements' (p.195). Dhanagare is thus arguing that what middle
and rich peasant participation there was in this most important Indian
peasant uprising was not only partial and insignificant but withered away at a
crucial, revolutionary stage in the struggle. He takes the argument to a
further stage when he repeats a widely held 'Marxist' view that the middle
and the rich peasants abandoned the struggle by virtue of their covert class
interests. Such a dogmatic position is inconsistent with the high quality of
Dhanagare's objective and rigorous work, but more about this later. Dhana-
gare's final argument against the middle peasant thesis is based on the
alleged structural weaknesses of the Indian middle peasant class such as its
regional specificity, weak class solidarity, internal heterogeneity, its tran-
120 The Journal of Peasant Studies
sitional and fluid nature, and its gradual decline due to increasing polarisa-
tion of agrarian relations.
Do the above arguments effectively refute the middle peasant thesis?
Such a conclusion, it seems to me, is a clear non-sequitur from each of the
above arguments. Without attempting any comprehensive discussion of the
pros and cons of the middle peasant thesis I shall attempt to assess the above
arguments briefly as follows. (1) It should be noted that the evidence
provided from South India by Gough and others refers to trade unionism
among agricultural workers and poor peasants and involves their participa-
tion in strikes and other agitational methods within the framework of
parliamentary politics. This is by no means an unimportant point since it
shows the potential of these classes for political mobilisation, especially of
agricultural labourers for unionisation. As I myself wrote in an earlier essay
[Tharamangalam, 1981b: 494]:
[T]he communist experience during the last 30 years demonstrates that
the poorest section of the peasantry comprising of agricultural labour-
ers, sharecroppers and poor peasants show the greatest readiness to be
organised by them for militant action, and generally speaking remain
consistent supporters of the Party once organised.
However, what needs to be understood is that Alavi and Wolf are concerned
about sustained peasant participation in organised and relatively large scale
military operations. The evidence from South India in no way proves that
agricultural labourers and/or poor peasants have the ability to provide the
base for an armed revolution. (2) Of the three major cases of armed revolts
discussed by Dhanagare the Moplah rebellion was the only one in which the
major participants were poor peasants at all stages of the revolt. This,
however, cannot refute the middle peasant thesis for two reasons. First, this
was a different genre of revolution by Dhanagare's own account (pre-
political, millenarian) and cannot be compared to modern ones led by
communist/socialist parties and/or military organisations. Second, even if
this was a valid example, it would only confirm rather than refute Alavi's
thesis by showing the disastrous and suicidal finale to which a 'poor peasant'
revolution would leed. (3) As for the Telengana and Tebhaga movements it
is clear that there was considerable middle and rich peasant participation,
particularly in the latter case. (4) If, however, it is argued that the bulk of the
participants were agricultural labourers and poor peasants, as is done by
Dhanagare, it is not clear how this differs from Alavi's position since Alavi
attributed the 'failure' of these two movements to the lack of participation by
middle peasants. (5) No definite conclusion can be arrived at regarding the
middle peasant thesis unless other variables are controlled or taken into
account adequately -- something Dhanagare does not seem to have done.
The middle and rich peasants' preference for reformist/agitational methods
may well be attributable to favourable political conditions under which they
are able to obtain results through these methods. Under different political
conditions (for example, fascist repression, chaos, political instability) these
Indian Peasant Uprisings 121
same classes may particiapte in armed struggle (as in China and Vietnam).
(6) As regards Dhanagare's argument that the middle and rich peasants in
Telegana (including some of the communist leaders) abandoned the struggle
at a certain stage by virtue of their covert class interest it can be contended
that there are more plausible alternative explanations for their actions. For
example, it is quite reasonable to believe that 'they acted as they said they
did in the belief that the conditions for a prolonged struggle had passed'
[Bedford, 1983: 2055]. If this was indeed the case, then it would seem that
subsequent events have proved them right. After all, as we shall see later,
there were many factors, exogenous as well as endogenous, that determined
the fate of the Telengana movement and therefore also the decisions of
different categories of participants. (7) Dhanagare's final argument regard-
ing the structural weakness of the Indian middle peasant sounds convincing
and is probably valid. This is a useful avenue for further investigations; it is
clear that the peasant revolts of the 1920s or 1940s cannot throw much light
on the significant changes that have occurred in the agrarian structure of
India since independence.
Three generalisations seem to be warranted by the empirical evidence.
First, a 'poor peasant thesis' or an 'agricultural labourer thesis' is even less
tenable than a middle peasant thesis at least as regards armed revolutions."
Second, as regards agricultural labour unions and similar organisations of
poor peasants we have seen that under certain conditions they have been
successful in obtaining various benefits to their members, but they may not
necessarily meet the larger political goals (such as winning electoral support)
of the parties that organise them. A case in point is Kuttanad in Kerala
where despite a successful CPM-led agricultural labour movement the party
has generally been unable to win elections. This, as I have argued elsewhere,
[Tharamangalam, 1981b: 198] seems to be the reason why many left parties
are reluctant to go all out to organise such unions. The third generalisation is
related to the first: no armed peasant uprising has been sustained for long by
a single category of the peasantry as initiator, leader or follower [Bedford,
1983: 2055] or even by the peasantry alone without the support of other
classes [Sen: 243]. Dhanagare is well aware of this and he said as much while
discussing Telengana: 'it seems reasonably clear that the Telengana revolt
was not staged by peasants of a single stratum' (p.201). This being so, the
more interesting and useful question would have to do with the nature and
types of class alliances and the conditions under which these can be success-
fully forged and maintained. The key to the question of which peasant class
is revolutionary is provided by two statements that Dhanagare quotes
approvingly from Paul Sweezy and Teodor Shanin respectively without
pursuing their implications. Paradoxically, they also reveal the inadequacy
of the question as posed. '[T]he revolutionary role and leadership of a
certain social class', says Sweezy, 'is essentially the product of historical
circumstances and objective forces' [Dhanagare: 5-6]. And says Shanin, 'the
whole question of revolutionary potential of a certain social class must be
treated as historical, i.e., temporary, relative and changing' [Dhanagare: 6].
122 The Journal of Peasant Studies
This is an appropriate place for us to raise another kind of question
regarding the issue being examined: is it adequate to look for the socio-
cultural location of peasant rebellion exclusively within the framework of
class, especially if class is defined in narrowly economistic terms? Is it not
likely that by doing so we may ignore, minimize or gloss over the relevance
of other cleavages and identities such as those of ethnicity, tribe and caste?
Before debating this question I wish to draw attention to some important
facets of the empirical evidence which, though well known, are not given
serious consideration in the literature. An examination of the major peasant
movements lead to the following generalisations: (1) The armed insurrec-
tions have invariably involved a disproportionately high rate of participation
by tribal people cr ethnic/religious minorities on the one hand, and Harijan
or other low-caste landless labourers, sharecroppers and poor peasants on
the other. (2) A corollary to the above has been that the more militant the
struggle and the greater the recourse to violent action, the greater the
reliance of the movement on the above-mentioned categories of people as
was clearly evident in Telengana. (3) In Gandhian type reformist move-
ments an important role has been played by the locally dominant caste or
The most striking fact about armed uprisings has been the active involve-
ment of various tribal groups which far outweighs their proportion in the
population. This has been so true that major areas of uprising coincide with
important tribal belts. It is significant that Sen's work on peasant movements
in India begins with an account of the struggles of the Santals and the
Mundas between ±e 1850s and the 1880s. As has already been mentioned,
tribal participation was clearly evident in the Tebhaga struggle and even
more so in the Telengana movement; it was also very significant in the later
Naxalite uprisings not only in Naxalbari itself but also in other regions such
as Srikakulam and Debra-Gopiballavpur [Sen: 214-35], The Moplah rebel-
lion saw the mobilisation of an oppressed and dispossessed community of
Muslim sharecroppers with a long tradition of rebellion against mainly
Hindu landlords. There are, of course, notable instances such as the 'mutiny'
of 1858 which are exceptions to the above generalisation, but there is room
to doubt whether the 1858 uprising can really be characterised as a peasant
revolt, or even an instance of class struggle."1 The failure to see or acknow-
ledge any sociological specificity to tribal society and the consequent
tendency to see the m simply as poor peasants is a source of many errors and
unwarranted geneialisations. One of the latest instances of this is seen in R.
Guha's [1983b] otherwise excellent work on peasant insurgency in colonial
India. The fatal flaw in the work is precisely that generalisations about
'peasant insurgency' are arrived at on the basis of detailed analysis of tribal
insurgencies without similar analysis of insurgencies among Hindu and
Muslim peasants." Fortunately, however, the best social scientists among
our authors, in particular Dhanagare and Gough, have not allowed their
narrowly defined class framework to affect their empirical analysis in which
Indian Peasant Uprisings 123

considerable attention is paid to such 'status group'12 factors as tribe, caste,

ethnicity and minority status.
Students of Indian peasant uprisings will find it illuminating to ask why the
tribal people have been so revolutionary and what specific sociological
characteristics and historical circumstances have facilitated their participa-
tion in these insurgencies. The following seem to us to be some of the most
important factors: (1) radical disruption of the tribal socio-cultural order
resulting from pressures that included land alienation and expropriation,
usury and extortion and new political, administrative and legal controls; (2)
unusually acute sense of deprivation resulting from the above still vivid in
their memory; (3) gemeinschaaft type of social organisation with a high
degree of social and cultural homogeneity, social equality, group identity
and sense of group commitment; (4) magico-religious world views and
millenarian traditions and beliefs (even Marxian and other revolutionary
doctrines often lead to millenarian and transformative expectations);11 (5)
war-like cultural traditions combined with inability to pursue (or unavaila-
bility of) alternative, parliamentary avenues for redress of grievances; and
(6) favourable geopolitical situation such as geographical isolation, hilly and
forest habitats conducive to armed uprisings. In the light of these it is also
necessary to ask why the continuing militancy of many tribal people, espe-
cially that of the Nagas, the Mizos and other hill people and of the Jharkhand
movement in the Chota-Nagpur area, has not been tapped by the left in
Apart from the tribal factor, ethnicity/religion and nationality have been
important non-class identities that have played a role in Indian peasant
uprisings. Thus the Telengana movement had both ethnic/religious and
nationalist components, the former in so far as it represented the struggle of
an oppressed Hindu majority against a Muslim autocracy that denied them
equal rights, and the latter in so far as it represented a nationalist struggle for
a united Telugu-speaking 'Vishalandhra'.15 The Tebhaga movement was a
struggle by a predominantly Muslin tenant and sharecropper class against
what appears to have been a mainly Hindu jotedar class. Significantly, many
participants shifted their alliance at the crucial moment from the Kisan
Sabha to the Muslim League in anticipation of the creation of Pakistan
(Alavi in Desai, P.706).
Our excursus into the social structural locus of peasant insurgency has
taken us beyond the middle (or poor or rich) peasant issue and even beyond
the class framework in the narrow sense. It seems evident that in all
relatively successful and prolonged peasant struggles tribal, caste, ethnic
and nationalist issues coalesced with class exploitation. Apparently peasants
are more likely to rise in revolt when class solidarity is reinforced by
primordial types of solidarity based on ties of blood and kinship or socially
defined extensions of such solidarity as in the case of tribe, caste and
ethnicity. But India is not an exceptional case in this regard; there is
overwhelming evidence that in everyone of the successful modern revolu-
124 The Journal of Peasant Studies
tions a revolutionary party has been able to mobilise the disparate grie-
vances of these disparate groups and draw them together into a strong
national movement [Skocpol, 1982: 364]. Students of Indian peasant move-
ments may yet learn something from Max Weber who said that class does not
exhaust the bases for group conflict. We may add that few national or
international conflicts of world-historical significance in the twentieth cen-
tury have been instances of class struggle and that most of these saw class
enemies (especially within nation-states) joining together to fight their
national/ethnic/social enemies.


Regardless of which class (or group) is identified as providing the major base
for a peasant uprising, most students are agreed that the class/group is
impelled to rebellion because of the way its position is radically affected by
larger economic, political, military and socio-historical forces unleashed in
one way or another by what may be broadly called capitalist imperialism.
Eric Wolf traced the source of twentieth-century peasant revolutions to
'North Atlantic Capitalism'. But what is North Atlantic capitalism or west-
ern capitalist imperialism and in what ways does it impinge on peasant
society and peasant consciousness and impel the peasants to rebellion? Most
writers, particularly Marxists, tend to stress the economic factors - market
forces, cash crop farming, a cash economy, the penetration of capitalism into
agriculture. Thus, according to Wolf, where in the past market behaviour
had been subsidkry to the existential problem of subsistence, now existence
and its problems; became subsidiary to market forces. Alavi's study of
peasants and revolution and his middle peasant thesis are also premised on
the assumption of development of capitalism in agriculture. Dhanagare has
stressed the importance of commercial agriculture and argued that '[B]y and
large the growth of commercial agriculture and transition from a consump-
tion oriented economy to cash or market economy in the countryside seems
to be a necessary, though not sufficient precondition for the growth of
peasant revolts' (p.224). He attempts to illustrate the argument by identify-
ing three main periods of agrarian discontent in India between 1920 and
1950, namely, 1920-22, 1928-32, 1945-50, and showing that each of these
periods witnessed an economic transition or crisis (p.225). But was it com-
mercialisation per se or any of its particular modalities that caused peasant
rebellion? Dhanagare does not raise or answer this question directly but
develops the argument that what India witnessed was a distorted commer-
cialisation that inhibited any thoroughgoing transformation of India's social
structure and failed to displace 'the old jajmani type linkages and payments
in kind' (pp.224-5). Indeed, he sees a 'lag between development of market
relations and the capitalist mode of production in the countryside' (p.225).
Dhanagare is clearly on the right track, but the precise connection between
commercialisation and peasant revolution requires closer examination. As
Skocpol [1928: 370] has convincingly argued recently, there is 'room to
Indian Peasant Uprisings 125
doubt whether ... commercialization is a necessary cause, or even an
essential concomitant of peasant based revolution'. Skocpol points to the
example of Chinese agriculture which, in the view of many analysts,
was not on the whole any more commercialized in the first half of the
twentieth century than it had been for centuries before. Certainly the
northern areas of China, where the communists eventually developed
their deepest ties to the peasantry, were not highly commercialized
relative to other parts of China; nor had these experienced significant
'modernizing' changes [1982: 371].
It may be pertinent to remark here that quite probably Chinese agriculture
was on the whole less commercialised than Indian agriculture. Furthermore,
in India itself there seem to have been many regions more commercialised
than Telengana, the Tebhaga area or Malabar which did not produce any
significant peasant movements. For example, Malabar was far less commer-
cialised than Travancore which saw only social reform movements led by
caste associations, not peasant movements. It would seem from the above
that Barrington Moore Jr. comes quite close to the truth when he argues that
it is the failure of commercialisation that leads to peasant revolution. 'Where
the landed upper class has turned to production for the market', he writes,
'in a way that enables commercial influences to permeate rural life, peasant
revolutions have been weak affairs. There are several very different ways in
which this anti-revolutionary transition has been able to take place' [1977:
459]. On the other hand,
[T]he areas where the peasant revolutions have in modern times had
the greatest importance, China and Russia, were alike in the fact that
the landed upper classes by and large did not make a successful
transition to the world of commerce and industry and did not destroy
the prevailing social organization among the peasants [467].
I believe the sense of the argument here is not that successful commercialisa-
tion by the upper class did not involve any peasant suffering or peasant
protest, but that it eventually had the effect of diffusing peasant protest.
Commercialisation, however, does not exhaust the many manifestations
of capitalism and imperialism; and an exclusive stress on commercialisation
is likely to distort the social reality. Thus Dhanagare's attempt to relate the
periods of agrarian revolt with economic/commercial crisis is considerably
weakened by the fact that these periods also suffered from other types of
crises, exogenous in origin and political and military in character which also
impinged on peasant life (including the peasant economy) in many ways.
What is required is a broader perspective that can take into account all these
aspects of capitalist imperialism including its impact on states, on interstate
relations and on organised politics.16
Gough, of all the authors reviewed here, has stressed the multifaceted
nature of imperialism and has been remarkably sensitive to the many ways in
which it has impinged on the lives of the peasantry. 'Directly or indirectly',
126 The Journal of Peasant Studies
she argues, 'all of them [that is, Indian peasant movements] have been either
created or severely exacerbated by British colonial policies or by the policies
of the Indian government, under the influence of imperialism in the post-
colonial period' [Desai: 93-4]. She arrives at this conclusion after discussing
13 major ways in which the colonial background affected the peasantry and
created a structure of underdevelopment in the Indian countryside that
became endemic and difficult to eradicate even after independence. These
include initial plunder and exaction, the creation of private property of a
capitalist kind, encroachment of tribal territories and dispossession of their
lands, destruction of cottage and hand industries, export of capital through
unfavourable terms of trade, conversion of land into a commodity and its
subsequent concentration in the hands of a small number of speculators,
cash crop planters and landlords, rapid population growth resulting from
modern medical and hygienic practices which was not matched by indus-
trialisation, and the building of modern means of transportation and com-
munication such as the railways.
It seems necessary that we equally stress two interrelated but analytically
distinguishable sets of factors in order to understand the impact of the most
crucial world-his :orical phenomenon in the modern world. The first, loosely
termed the economic factors comprise such phenomena as commercial
agriculture, cash crop cultivation, and a cash economy which impinge on the
local economy in such a way as to alter and dislocate local class and power
structure. The authors under discussion are correct in stressing these factors
which largely account for the economic exploitation of the tribals, the
vulnerability of the sharecroppers and the relative impoverishment and
insecurity experienced by the proletarianised or semi-proletarianised land-
less labourers. But it is equally important to stress the second set of factors-
political/military factors generally placed under the rubric of imperialism.
These include changes in state power, interstate relations, and within the
nation state the balance of power among classes, regional, ethnic and other
groups - all of these created and maintained by the legal, administrative and
military stuctures imposed by the colonial power. Thus the imposition of Pax
Britannica adversely affected the traditional position of the Moplahs of
Malabar both economically and politically, it froze and reinforced the
unfavourable position of the Hindu majority in Telengana and so on.
Similarly, it is important to see how the Indian nationalist movement that
rose in response to imperialism had a direct impact on the nationalist
sentiments of the Telugu speakers of Telengana, how the khilafat movement
impinged on the consciousness of the Moplahs of Malabar and how and why
some of the Muslim peasants of north Bengal abandoned the Tebhaga
struggle in anticipation of partition. These considerations provide an angle
of vision that is very useful to an understanding of many aspects of peasant
movements. It can show us especially how economic, political and military
crises in the national and international metropoles created conditions that
impel peasants to rebellion.
There is yet another product of capitalist imperialism, created by the
Indian Peasant Uprisings 127

combined forces of the two sets of factors that plays an important role in
peasant rebellions. This is a new intellectual middle class composed of
clerical, bureaucratic, professional and technical elements. Emerging at first
in the urban enclaves of colonial dominance, its ranks are gradually joined
by the sons (rarely by daughters) of the rural elite also who come out of the
growing numbers of schools, universities and other educational institutions.
The evidence regarding peasant movements seem to warrant the generalisa-
tion that the existence of such a class, often espousing the ideologies of
nationalism and socialism is a necessry condition for the emergence of any
peasant revolt that transcends the purely tribal and local levels and attains
any national significance. We shall have to say more about this class, in
particular about the crucial political and/or military organisations created by
it in the last section.


One of the few generalisations that can be made about successful modern
peasant revolutions is that they were preceded by some crisis in central
political authority. Conversely, it also seems to be the case that such revolu-
tions are not likely to succeed where the central authority is stable, efficient
and enjoys a relatively high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the population
as a whole. The political crisis may be created by a weakening of central
authority and the consequent instability, chaos, uncertainty and erosion of
the government's legitimacy and/or a general weakening, if not a break-
down, in the law and order situation. Although certain countries have
experienced continuous chaos over a relatively long period of time (for
example, China), the political crisis is generally brought about by such
events as war (interstate or internal civil war), impending or actual transfer
of power from colonial to native rulers, and frequent changes in govern-
A careful reading of the evidence regarding the most important peasant
revolts in India show that these too arose under conditions of some real or
perceived crisis in political authority and that their ultimate collapse gener-
ally followed significant changes in this situation. The authors reviewed here
are aware of this in varying degrees Dhanagare going so far as to state
explicitely in his concluding chapter that '[F]inally, the state of the legitimate
political structure seems to be an enormously important condition' (p.226).
It is the preoccupation with class analysis and especially the pursuit of the
middle peasant that prevents them from pursuing this question sufficiently.
If we look at the two most successful peasant movements in recent history,
namely, the Tebhaga and the Telengana movements, it will be seen that
these arose under the most serious political crisis experienced by India in the
twentieth century. They both arose in the aftermath of the Second World
War, on the eve of British withdrawal, partition of the subcontinent and
transfer of power, a period of great uncertainty about the future. Ironically,
the Communist Party of India which led these two movements received
128 The Journal of Peasant Studies
some unusual support from the British government including full legality
since the party was the only political formation in the country supporting the
war effort (after the Soviet Union's entry into the war).
The Tebhaga movement seems to have originated as early as 1939 when
the peasants successfully challenged some illegal exactions 'against the
background of the war and a spontaneous rumour that the government was
going to collapse, which gave confidence to the peasants' (quoted by Alavi
from Bhowani Sen in Desai, p.702). When the movement began in full
earnest the British government was not too hostile or repressive; in fact, it
did not move against the rebels until the Japanese had been defeated
(Gough in Desai, p.117). Furthermore, the Kisan Sabha's drive against
hoarders and blackmarketeers in the aftermath of the great famine received
some support from the authorities who were themselves forced to move
against the hoarders because of the magnitude of the famine (Alavi in Desai,
p.703). It appears, that the peasants had even begun to accept the legitimacy
of the new Kisan Sabha 'Raj' [Desai: 704]. the Tebhaga movement began to
collapse only after there was significant change in the political situation, in
particular, after the government turned the full force of its repression against
the rebels.
In the case of the Telengana movement the authority crisis stemmed from
the Nizam's refusal to accede to the Indian union, the consequent nationalist
upsurge, the deteriorating law and order situation and the widespread belief
in the impending collapse of the Nizam's rule. The communist leaders took
full advantage of the situation and were able to spread the insurrection and
to set up village republics [Dhanagare: 197-9]. They crossed the borders
undetected, set up revolutionary headquarters in Mungala estate, an
enclave of the Hyderabad state surrounded by the territory of the Krishna
district of British Madras and 'smuggled in and out arms, funds, propaganda
literature, and, above all, workers. Without this activity the massive expan-
sion of the insurrection might not have been possible. Thus the Andhra delta
had become the supply base of the peasant struggle in Telengana' [Dhana-
gare: 198]. The Communist Party was also able to espouse the nationalist
cause and to obtain widespread popular support in their endeavour. Initially
it had joined the Congress in the pro-merger agitation and participated in
satyagrahas. But as repression was unleashed by the Nizam and the Raza-
kars it became clear that only the communists had the organisational struc-
ture to withstand the repression from its own bases in Telengana. The entry
of the Indian army in September 1948, not only changed the political-
military situation radically but also re-defined the nature of the struggle. The
communists were now deprived of the pro-merger nationalist cause and they
lost a good deal of popular support as 'the people welcomed the troops
enthusiastically and their attitude towards the Telengana insurrection
changed drastically' [Desai: 505]. Perhaps in panic, the Communist Party
now extended its support to the Nizam, who, significantly, had lifted the ban
on the party as early as May 1948; its cadres now fought the Indian army on
the side of the razakars. Clearly, the fate of the movement was now doomed.
Indian Peasant Uprisings 129
As the movement could not be sustained it did the only thing it could other
than withdrawing (and what all similar movements do under similar cir-
cumstances) - it deteriorated into individual terrorism. What clearly
emerges from our discussion is that the decisive factor in the eventual
collapse of the movement was the drastic change in the nature and role of
state power and authority with which it had to contend as the new govern-
ment of independent India asserted itself as a stable, popular and decisive
It is possible to show that similar situations prevailed in the Moplah and
Naxalbari uprisings though to a far less extent. The former arose in the
aftermath of the First World War when there was a great upsurge in the
nationalist movement under Gandhi and when the demand for khilafat had
led to the expectation of an imminent collapse of British power and the
establishment of khilafat which seems to have been interpreted by the
Moplahs in clearly millenarian terms. The latter arose in the post 1967
context of political instability, the emergence of non-Congress governments
in some states and especially of the installation of a CPM-led government in
West Bengal. Not only was there general anticipation of imminent changes
in the structures of state power and authority in the country, but the West
Bengal government hesitated and was slow in taking action against the
rebels. When the government did move decisively, however, the movement
proved to be unable to sustain itself. Kathleen Gough would appear to be
right when she states that [Desai: 117] 'the more successful revolts of the
recent period occurred under irregular conditions which are unlikely to be
repeated' (emphasis added).


A major perspective shared by most of our authors is that peasant revolu-
tions 'stem from' and 'are made by' class forces. To be sure, their discussions
abound in references to revolutionary-marxist or reformist-Gandhian par-
ties or organisations, but these are seldom seen as independent variables.
This tendency towards reductionism has obscured a central fact about all
successful twentieth-century peasant revolutions, namely, that any signifi-
cant participation of peasants in revolutionary activities, especially in armed
struggle on a trans-local or trans-regional basis was preceded by or at least
accompanied by the development of political/military organisations. These
organisations which led the movements to success have been exogenous in
origin, 'created by the impetus of those from outside the peasant class'," by
an alliance of students, intellectuals, uprooted and disaffected members of
the urban and rural middle and upper classes as well as by dislodged
members of old landed and ruling classes. These organisations may directly
mobilise peasants for long-drawn-out, sustained and institutionalised parti-
cipation in military and political activities (for example, China and Vietnam)
or they may mobilise the peasantry indirectly by imposing themselves rather
coercively on the peasantry and by consolidating widespread peasant revolts
130 The Journal of Peasant Studies
in the aftermath of the collapse of state power (for example, the French
revolution, the Bolshevik revolution). In either case, peasant mobilisation
has been central to the success of the revolution. It is clear, however, that the
first model is more relevant to the more recent revolutions, and hence the
centrality of organisation has become more and more important. Evidently
Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh all understood the crucial role of organisation;
perhaps their greatest contribution lies not so much in their analysis of rural
class structure (so greatly stressed by Alavi and Dhanagare) as in their
theory and practice of political and military organisations and in their
strategy of guerrilla warfare.
The crucial importance of organisation arises from the fact that the
peasantry is deprived of access to and control over crucial economic and
political resources of society by virtue of its class position though to a less
extent than the proletariat. Hence as a class it would be completely impotent
without the weapon of organisation. It is this weapon that can draw and
organise the resources the peasants do possess such as their control over
agriculture and food production and their numbers of potential soldiers or
voters. The peasants also suffer from a sense of powerlessness because of
their experience of the insurmountability of the power structure and because
of their attachment to security. They must be offered an appropriate ideol-
ogy that not only explains their condition but promises to show an effective
way to defeat traditionally insurmountable enemies and to transform and
restructure the social order radically. Such an ideology is offered by Marx-
ism-Leninism-ME:oism or a variety of religious or quasi-religious millena-
rian promises. Above all, the party or organisation must be able to offer the
peasants tangible material benefits and to provide effective defence against
landlords, their agents, and the forces of the state. If and when it is able to
offer these benefits to the peasants it can count not only on their gratitude
but also on their willingness to act together in defence of their collective
benefits. What is thus established is an institutionalised system of exchange
between the party and the peasants [Skocpol, 1982: 366].
If the above analysis is correct, then the important questions to be asked
must be modified accordingly. The most relevant question may no longer be
which peasant class is more revolutionary, but rather under what circumst-
ances a revolutionary party (and its leadership) is able to create the neces-
sary alliances and institutions to draw the support and participation of a
variety of peasant classes, ethnic and tribal groups in different regions into a
larger national liberation or revolutionary movement. Under what social
structural and world-historical conditions does a group of revolutionary
leaders appear and under what conditions do they prove to be capable of
operating politically and militarily in the countryside? It is clear that the
process of peasant mobilisation cannot get under way until a revolutionary
leadership appears in the anti-imperialist movement, and in national or
regional politics. It is also clear that it cannot operate militarily in the
countryside, much less successfully institutionalise peasant participation in
armed struggle except in places and times unusually free from landlord, and
Indian Peasant Uprisings 131
especially state repression, as has been shown in the previous section.
Inaccessible, isolated and hilly regions such as Naxalbari, Telengana and
Srikakulam are the most suitable ones for the process to begin; but the
process cannot spread successfully unless 'extraneous events... intervene to
drastically weaken existing state power' [Skocpol, 1982: 366]. In the light of
this it would seem that the Naxalite strategy was doomed given the nature of
state power and national and international political-military structure in the
late 1960s; equally, that the fate of the Telengana uprising was sealed with
the consolidation of the Nehru government-led Indian state and the
intervention of the Indian army. If this is true, then the question that
Dhanagare considers crucial about Telengana, namely why the Communist
Party decided to withdraw the struggle when it did is of far less significance
than he would have us believe. In attempting to understand the party's
decision Dhanagare focuses almost exclusively on ideological disputes
within the party and on class interests without raising the simplest and the
most obvious question of the feasibility, from a military standpoint, of
continuing the struggle.
It seems clear then that the most important questions about peasant
mobilisation must refer not only to the peasants themselves but also to
regional, national and even international social, political and military forces
that help or prevent the emergence and successful career of a revolutionary
party. A clear understanding of this point should help us answer such
questions as why the Marxist revolutionary leadership was singularly unsuc-
cessful in capturing the nationalist movement from the reformist Gandhian
leadership, why the Communist Party was able to establish itself only in
limited regions such as Kerala, Andhra and Bengal and why parties organis-
ing armed struggle were seldom able to extend their bases beyond certain
isolated tribal belts. Whatever may be the final answers to these difficult
questions, it must be pointed out that the Indian Communist Party's task was
seriously hampered by the enormous success of an alternative organisation,
the populist Gandhi-led Indian National Congress which mobilised peasant
support on an unprecedented scale throughout this vast country.

It is a truism to state that no class can be understood except in relation to
other classes in society. Neither peasants nor peasant revolutions can be
understood without reference to the structure of the whole society and to the
place occupied by the peasants in that society. The burden of this review has
been to argue that Indian peasant movements or the lack of them cannot be
understood by looking solely at peasant classes, however important this may
be, but only by studying the entire Indian society. Its structure in the
broadest sense - economic, political and military - its historical and even
internatioanl context. As we have seen, too narrow a focus on peasant
classes has been responsible for underestimating, if not altogether ignoring,
the part played by urban middle classes, tribal, ethnic, nationalist senti-
132 The Journal of Peasant Studies
ments, and the very important role of the ruling classes - the state and its
political and military agents in (promoting or inhibiting) peasant revolu-
tions. Equally, an undue emphasis on the economic aspects of colonial
capitalism or capitalist imperialism has downplayed the role of the political,
legal and military aspects, at the national and international levels, of
imperialism. As we have-seen, another important factor that requires closer
study is the organisational type represented by modern revolutionary parties
and guerrilla organisations and how and under what conditions these
emerge and are able to mobilise peasants successfully.
To label Indian peasants weak and docile or strong and revolutionary does
not serve the purpose of enhancing our understandng. The fact is that
peasant-based revolutions in India have been neither as extensive nor as
significant as in some other countries such as China. The explanation for this
seems to lie mainly in the larger political-military contexts that we discussed
above. Barrington Moore certainly erred in ignoring some important dimen-
sions of this context, especially the structures of capitalist imperialism.
Nevertheless, the contrast between mainstream Indian peasant society and
tribal groups seems to indicate that at least a small part of the explanation is
attributable to social structural and cultural characteristics (linguistic-
cultural heterogeneity, religious-ideological hegemony) intrinsic to the
Indian peasantry.
Our examination of the structural and historical conditions that produce
peasant-based revolutions clearly warrants the generalisation that barring
drastic and sudden changes in the national and international political and
military situation an armed peasant revolution in India will probably be
costly and suicidal and unlikely to make any serious impact on Indian
society. It is noteworthy that the authors reviewed here have not ventured
such a generalisation. Again it is only Gough who came as far as to say that
the relatively successful armed revolutions of the past may no longer be
replicable. These considerations can also explain 'the greater relative suc-
cess of peasant movements and organizations during the colonial and the
immediate post-independence period' recently noted by the most ambitious
research project on peasant movements ever undertaken in India [Sethi,
1984: 1862].
A word about peasant mobilisation within the framework of parliamen-
tary politics will provide some needed balance to our discussion. Our focus
has mainly been on rebellions, insurgencies and revolutions with only mar-
ginal attention paid to other types of peasant mobilisation. But the role of
different peasant classes in India's historical and political evolution, espe-
cially after independence, cannot be assessed without examining the
varieties and types of peasant mobilisation whether in the form of farmers'
lobbies and pressure groups, Gandhian and Sarvodaya movements, peasant
populism and radicalism, the Kisan Sabha and agricultural labour move-
ments, and even communal and caste politics. Sunil Sen has made a useful
contribution in bringing out the important role played by peasants in the
nationalist movement and in showing that 'the urban elite would have
Indian Peasant Uprisings 133
remained ineffectual without peasant support' (p.240). Future scholars may
find it helpful to clearly distinguish between armed uprisings and other types
of peasant mobilisation and perhaps also to shift their focus from peasant
movements to peasant politics.


1. Since I started working on this essay a series of reports of studies on peasant movements
jointly sponsored by the National Labour Institute, the Planning Commission, the ICSSR
and the ICHR became available. These reports have been published by the National
Labour Institute, New Delhi. In general, they confirm the views expressed in this article.
Some of the important conclusions of these reports as discussed at a workshop are available
in Harsh Sethi, 'Peasants, Organizers, Peasantologists and Planners: Report on a Work-
shop', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XLX, No.44, 3 Nov. 1984. An excellent series
of books brought out under the initiative of R. Guha deal with peasant insurgencies in
colonial India from the peasant's eye-view focusing attention mainly on peasant initiative
and consciousness. While these provide rich and interesting material they are of only
marginal relevance to the problems discussed here. See Ranajit Guha, Subaltern Studies
Series. See also his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India.
2. Kathleen Gough's pioneering and excellent paper on 'Indian Peasant Uprisings', reprinted
in A.R. Desai, was the only comprehensive work on the subject until now.
3. This scheme has been adapted from Tharamangalam, Agrarian Class Conflict: The Poli-
tical Mobilization of Agricultural Labourers in Kuttanad, South India, Ch.5, and from
Theda Skocpol, 'What Makes Peasants Revolutionary?', Comparative Politics, April 1982,
4. Similarly Wolf argued that 'the middle peasant is free from structural links and bondages in
the matter of land control and has both a tactical mobility and sufficient internal leverage to
enter into a sustained rebellion', Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, pp.289-90.
5. 'Peasant Resistance and Revolt in South India', also reprinted in Desai. Similar evidence
from South India has been provided by Tharamangalam, op. cit., and Joan Mencher,
'Problems in Analyzing Rural Class Structure', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.LX,
1974, pp.1495, 1502.
6. All references to Dhanagare and Sunil Sen will be to their own books, and not to selections
from them included in Desai.
7. For example, Sunil Sen and P. Sundarayya make this point. Sundarayya's work on the
Telengana struggle is included in Desai, Chs.27 and 30. See also his book, Telengana
People's Struggle and its Lessons.
8. Given the nature of modern guerrilla warfare it should be clear a priori that a successful
base cannot be established without relatively extensive peasant support and without the
support of at least some peasant classes who are relatively resourceful.
9. The concept of dominant caste is here used as defined by Srinivas. The concept takes into
account both the crucial importance of caste and the cumulative nature of local stratifica-
tion. See M.N. Srinivas, 'The Dominant Caste in Rampura', American Anthropologist.
Feb. 1959, p.166.
10. It may be noted that among others Kathleen Gough considers the 1858 revolt as a peasant
movement. And peasant movements are for her class struggles by definition.
11. Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects, op. cit. This point has also been noted by the reviewer
of Guha's book, Sumantha Banerjee, 'Peasant Consciousness', Economic and Political
Weekly, XIX, Nos.24 and 25, 16-23 June 1984, p.944.
12. This is Dhanagare's usage, and in this he is following Max Weber.
13. Examples of this would be the Khilafat movement and perhaps also the belief in certain
134 The Journal of Peasant Studies

'Naxalite' circles Df the early 1970s that a great transformative revolution was imminent and
even that 1974 was the year of the revolution as forecast by Mao Ze-dong.
14. These tribes, especially those in the hill areas, being predominantly Christians, often of
fundamentalist varieties, their antipathy towards communism is easily attributed to the
Christian influence. It is, however necessary to examine if this is indeed the major factor.
15. Both Sundarayya and Dhanagare make this point. See Dhanagare, [196] and P. Sundar-
ayya on Telengana People's Struggle in portions reprinted in Desai, especially Chs.28 and
16. On the relationship between States and revolutions see Theda Skocpol, Slates and Revolu-
tions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Skocpol tends to go to the
opposite extreme overstating the role of the state.
17. Skocpol [1982]., op cit., p.362. My argument here has been very much helped by Skocpol's


Bedford, Ian, 1983, 'Studying Peasant Movements', Economic and Political Weekly, 3 Dec.
Guha, Ranajit (ed.), 1982, Subaltern Studies I, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Guha, Ranajit (ed.), 1983a, Subaltern Studies Il, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Guha, Ranajit, 1983b, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Delhi:
Oxford University Press.
Mencher, Joan, 1974, 'Problems in Analyzing Rural Class Structure', Economic and Political
Weekly, Vol.IX.
Moore (Jr.), Barringtcn, 1977, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and
Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Namboodiripad, E.M.S., 1984, Kerala Society and Politics: An Historical Survey, New Delhi:
National Book Centre.
Sethi, Harsh, 1984, 'Peasants, Organizers, Peasantologists and Planners: Report on a Work-
shop', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.XLX, No.44.
Skocpol, Theda, 1979, Stales and Revolutions: Comparative Analyses of France, Russia and
China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Skocpol, Theda, 1982, 'What Makes Peasants Revolutionary?', Comparative Politics, April.
Srinivas, M.N., 1959, 'The Dominant Caste in Rampura', American Anthropologist, Feb.
Stokes, Eric, 1980, The Peasant and the Raj, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sundarayya, 1972, Teler.gana People's Struggles and its Lessons, Calcutta: CPIM.
Tharamangalam, Joseph, 1981a, Agrarian Class Conflict: the Political Mobilization of Agri-
cultural Labourers in Kuttanad, South India, Vancouver: University of British Columbia
Tharamangalam, Joseph, 1981b, 'The Communist Movement and the Theory and Practice of
Peasant Mobilization in South India', Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol.13, No.2.
Wolf, Eric, 1969, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century, London: Faber.