“Muzaras fought against the biswedari system. The current agitation is against corporate capitalism,” Kirpal Singh Bir, a farmer from Bir Khurd in Punjab’s Mansa district, told me. In the 1920s, tenant farmers of pre-Partition Punjab demanded land ownership rights from the kings, zamindars and British authorities, in what came to be known as the Muzara Movement. Kirpal and his brother Sarwan Singh Bir were among the leaders of this movement, which spanned almost three decades, against the biswedari system—a set of rules regarding land tenancy. At 93 years old, Kirpal is still energetic. He referred to himself as a comrade. When I spoke to him in the middle of December 2020, he had spent a few days camped at Delhi’s borders in support of the ongoing protests against the farm laws enacted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in September. “Although the two movements have distinctions, I still feel like I am fighting the same old establishment,” he told me.
The Muzara, or tenant-farmers, movement was an organised effort and had its roots in the Praja Mandal movement of the 1920s. The Praja Mandals were localised peoples’ movements across the sub-continent to demand democratic rights from the British and the native aristocracy. It also followed in the tradition of people’s and peasants movements in the region for over two centuries.
The echoes of this historical context are audible in the ongoing farmers’ protests. I spoke to several individuals who are a part of the current protests and whose ancestors or family members had been a part of the Muzara agitation. For them, the current movement is a fight to safeguard those very land parcels from corporate houses. According to them, the recent farm laws are disruptive instruments that endanger the rights of farmers in a manner similar to the conditions prevailing a century ago. Many parallels can be drawn between the two agitations—for instance, the triggers for both the protests and the subsequent mobilisation of the farming community were rooted in the policies enacted by the governing authorities and the fight for land rights. A strain of distrust towards the establishment has run through both protests. The demands and the response of the state, too, were similar. Both times, the state reacted with crackdowns and the use of state machinery to derail and demoralise the protests.
The ongoing protests are now in the sixth month with no meeting ground, and with a government that has persistently tried to delegitimise the agitation, especially in the aftermath of the violence during the farmers’ tractor rally of 26 January. For several of those on the ground, it is historical movements like the Muzara Movement that are a portal into the past with lessons on how to endure a long struggle.
Muzara is an Arabic word that means share-cropping—a practice where a landowner leases out a parcel of land to an agricultural worker, or tenant, who cultivates and maintains the land, in return for a pre-determined share of the produce. According to the historian Muzaffar Alam, in 1709, Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, a Sikh warrior, abolished the zamindari system of the Mughal era in Punjab. Between 1708 to 1715, Banda Singh had led the Sikh uprisings against the Mughal empire after the death of the Sikh guru, Gobind Singh. However, in 1793, Charles Cornwallis, who was then the commander-in-chief of British India, re-established the zamindari system under the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793. This legislation gave legal form to the administrative framework of the British government in the sub-continent.