A century apart, currents of dissent bridge the farmers’ protests and the Muzara Movement

Women from the town of Kishangarh, in the Mansa district of Punjab, attend the farmers’ protests at Tikri, on the outskirts of west Delhi, on 26 December 2020. Several farmers and agricultural workers from the town are camped at the protest sites since the protests began. Their participation is driven by the rising number of debt-related farmer and worker suicides in the town. Gurdeep Dhaliwal
25 February, 2021

“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.

Cornwallis’s land reforms had several regional variants based on the existing land ownership patterns in the sub-continent—a common feature was granting control of the land to zamindars and heads of princely states. In Punjab, the rules favoured the feudal lords by granting them control of the land in perpetuity, and diluted the ownership of the tiller. The primary objective of  this “permanent settlement” was to install a native ruling class which would support British authority and help them gain control of a greater portion of Punjab. 

Historical records show that under this system, there were two types of tenants who would work the land and keep a portion of the produce after the zamindars—also known as biswedar in Punjab—were given their share, and after the British government took a fixed land revenue from the biswedars. One was occupancy tenants, who could not be expelled but paid exorbitant tax to the zamindar. The second was tenants-at-will, or muzaras, who could be expelled from the land under a valid notice. As time passed, more and more tenants were thrown in the latter category and entire villages would end up being muzaras. This system came to be known as the biswedari system or superior tenancy. Over the years, the biswedars began extracting more and more batai—share of produce—even as the kings devised elaborate ruses to take a greater share from the tenants. For instance, if there were births and marriages in the owner or tenant families, certain portions had to be sent to the maharajas as offerings.  

By the early twentieth century, the Punjab region was a conglomeration of British-ruled territories known as British Administered Punjab—which included Delhi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Multan, and Jullundur, among others—and princely or native states like Patiala, Jind, Nabha, Sirmaur, Pataudi and Kalsia. The national freedom movement was gaining momentum and protests for democratic rights were becoming organised. In 1927, several Praja Mandal conferences were held in Sunam, Mansa and Thikriwala, in the Punjab region. On 17 July 1928, Sewa Singh Thikriwala, a leader of the Akali movement—a campaign for the reform of Sikh places of worship—officially launched the Riyasati Praja Mandal Movement, from Patiala. Thikriwala was the president and Bhagwan Singh Longowalia, another Akali leader, was the general secretary.

Tracing the rise of the Muzara Movement, the author Chajju Mal Vaid notes in his book, Pepsu Muzara Ghol that the Praja Mandal movement was the starting point for several alliances and formations that would eventually be encompassed by the bigger Muzara Movement. By 1929, almost 784 villages had joined what came to be known as the Muzara Movement, as biswedars imposed greater taxation on tenants because of the Great Depression.

In 1936, the All India Kisan Sabha was formed and its Punjab chapter was started in 1937.  Leaders of the Praja Mandal merged their demands with the AIKS. In 1948, the eight princely states of Nabha, Jind, Patiala, Kapurthala, Malerkotla, Faridkot, Kalsia and Nalagarh merged to form a new state of independent India called the Patiala and East Punjab States Union. PEPSU was created to maintain the rulership of the Maharajas, and the land arrangements under the new princely ordinances favoured them. This meant that the condition of the tenant farmers did not change after Independence. For them, the rulers, the zamindars and the kings they agitated against remained. In 1948, Teja Singh Sutantar, a freedom fighter and communist leader, formed the Lal Communist Party. The AIKS, the Praja Mandal and the Muzara Movement joined hands with the party. Their demands remained the same—ownership to the plough-bearer.

On 29 May 1952, the biswedars voluntarily gave up parts of their land holdings, without any compensation from the government or the tenants, at a massive conference held in Mansa under the leadership of Jagir Singh Joga, a leader of the Communist Party of India. The 784 villages that were a part of the agitation received this land. The same year, the Lal Communist Party merged with the Punjab chapter of the CPI. Two more reforms followed in 1953 while PEPSU was under President’s Rule, which allowed the tenant proprietor rights following compensation.  Subsequently, the Land Ceiling Act came in 1955, which paved the way for zamindars to keep part of their land holding, giving up the rest to the state to be distributed to the tenants. The Muzara struggle culminated with land ownership rights given to the permanent tenants.

The current farmers protest, too, has been largely mobilised by the left-wing unions and their cadre. In the initial weeks after the farm laws were passed, 31 farmer unions in Punjab got together and, on 25 September, gave the first call for a nationwide strike under a common minimum program. The subsequent two months saw a surge in the number of people joining the protests at toll plazas, railway stations and corporate-owned petrol pumps in Punjab. As of February 2021, with the agitation camped at Delhi’s borders, over five hundred unions have come together nationwide, under the banner of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, or SKM.

Jagir Singh is a 90-year-old resident of Retgarh village, in Punjab’s Sangrur district. He became active in the Lal Communist Party when he was 12 years old. “Call me in two hours, I will memorise and note down the events and my own observations,” he said when I spoke to him. Later, as he recounted the history of the Muzara Movement, he said, “It was the resolve of the Praja Mandal leaders like Sewa Singh Thikriwala, Hira Singh Bhattal, Hazura Singh Mattran who fought with such dedication.” He narrated his mother’s encounters with hired goons of zamindars who would ask for a share even from the mustard strands used to cook saag. “If she plucked ten, five were to be handed over to the zamindar,” he told me.

He told me that in 1955, he spent six months in the Ladda Kothi prison, in Sangrur district, after he was charged under Section 447—criminal trespassing—of the Indian Penal Code, due to his demand for land rights. He said that after the success of the movement, he received four kille land—one killa is equivalent to 0.9 acre—and was able to buy two kille more later on. He has two sons; one lives in Canada while the other one is a single father of two kids and works as a mason. “When I was young, our past was recounted by the elders as something to own and to take forward to the next generation,” Jagir said of his decision to join the farmers’ protest. Talking about his experience with the Lal Communist Party, he said, “Movements change form as they age. The current one will transform too if Modi won’t budge.” But, he was optimistic. “Since comrades organised it, I have more hope for the outcome,” he told me.

The key demand of the Muzara Movement, for ownership of land, stemmed from the authorities propensity to side with the landowners. In the early 1900s, Popham Young, a settlement officer in the princely states of Eastern Punjab, noted that the results of proprietary disputes were heavily tilted towards feudal lords. Young’s documents state that in most cases the state court settled such disputes by giving occupancy tenancy, which was marginally better than tenancy-at-will, to the tenant rather than ownership of the land. In not too different a manner, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act of 2020 allows big corporations to sign contracts with farmers but the legal remedies available are skewed towards big business houses. The new law provides no cover to the farmers, who can only approach a sub-divisional magistrate as the final and sole authority, and do not have resources comparable to corporates to fight legal battles.

Notably, this provision was among the eight amendments that the central government proposed on 8 December 2020, as a part of the negotiations with the farmer leaders. The government’s proposal allowed farmers recourse to civil courts. However, the SKM rejected the amendments the next day and said that the proposals fell far short of the farmers’ demands.

“The Modi government is as oppressive as the colonial and maharaja rule. That’s why I see the seventh round of meetings on January 4 to be failing too,” Satnam Singh Ajnala had said when I met him at Singhu border on 3 January. All 11 rounds of the meetings eventually failed. Ajnala is the state president of Jamhoori Kisan Sabha, which is a part of the SKM. He said that to succeed, “We need more farmers to join us.” According to him there are 17 lakh farmer families in Punjab and 14 crore in India. He assesses that the number of protesters are not yet even one percent of the farming families of Punjab.

Kirpal, the Muzara leader, also stressed on the need for protesting farmers to increase their strength. He explained, “Back then well-to-do tenants did not join the fight of the tenants at first. It was when their land got divided further into the children that they also became miserable and their occupancy rights were snatched, and they joined in. The current movement is also similar. Small farmers are fighting; bigger ones haven’t joined in with the fighting spirit yet.”  

Vaid’s book noted that during the first three decades of the twentieth century, decreasing soil fertility lowered the crop yields. But the zamindar’s demands for batai increased each year. The maharajas’ demands for a cut added to the burden. This left the tenants with a meagre amount of grain to survive, prompting many to take loans at huge interest rates. The means of production, too, were a burden on the tenant. As the biswedars raised taxes, several tenants were pushed out of their occupancy rights when they failed to pay up. More and more families were forced to choose tenancy-at-will.

The result was a a three-pronged structure of tyranny for tenants, with the biswedar, maharaja and British Raj stacked atop each other. The parallels today are hard to miss. The new pyramid of coercion for the farmers of contemporary India seems to be agents of corporations, the central government and corporate houses.

Like the agricultural issues of the early twentieth century, the contemporary irrigation-intensive crop cycles have lead to a significantly depleted ground-water table in Punjab. Only 27 percent of the farm land is irrigated via man-made methods. The rest is dependent on ground water. In a 2019 report, the Central Ground Water Board noted that “all available groundwater resources till the depth of 300 metres in the state will end in 20-25 years.” The land has also recorded a steep dive in soil fertility over the past five decades due to excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

This has lead to a cycle of indebtedness and suicides in Punjab’s farmers. In 2017, three universities in Punjab collaborated on a study which revealed that 16,606 farmers and rural labourers of the state died by suicide between 2000 and 2015. The study found a large proportion of these deaths to be debt-related. All these factors, in addition to the lack of guarantee of ensured income on all crops except wheat and rice, already echoes the agrarian crisis of the past.

In these circumstances, farmers now fear that they will be pushed out of ownership of their lands. Their fear is based on two aspects of the new policies. The first is the eventual dissolution of Agricultural Produce Market Committees— marketing boards established by state governments to regulate transactions and safeguard farmers from exploitative practices by retailers—under the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act of 2020. The second is the absence of a Minimum Support Price, which would guarantee them protection from fluctuating market prices and other contingencies.  

The fear of losing ownership of the land is one of the primary factors which has spurred the current agitation—land that was hard fought for in the first place. Inderjit Singh Jejie, a resident of Chandigarh told me that during the 1950s his family owned land in 70 villages, which was roughly five thousand kille. “We gave up around eight hundred kille voluntarily to the tenant farmers in the 1950s,” he told me. “With what is happening currently, the same land many farmers received at that time will be taken back to give away to the corporates.”

A high unemployment rate among the youth is also fuelling the current struggle. Land-owning parents are worried that, if they lose their holdings, their children will be unable to find any work except labour. “I could study because my family got some land,” Jaipal Singh, told me. He is a retired professor. He is the grandson of Hazura Singh Mattran, the Praja Mandal leader. “Although we were marginal farmers, the land is an assurance. My daughters work in the private sector. During the lockdown, it was the land, however small, that assured them that things would work out if they were laid off.” Jaipal is an active participant in the current agitation. “I am the third-generation agitator. My father participated in the movement against the Betterment Levy in 1958.” The levy was a tax collected on land which had gained value due to the state’s interventions, such as infrastructure. “Now it’s my turn,” he said.

Vaid’s book and records of the time show that one of the key aspects of the Praja Mandal movement was its emphasis on social justice. The constitution of the Praja Mandal mentioned “equal land rights to all tenants regardless of the caste or religion.” In March 1933, Thikriwala held a two-day conference in Raikot, against untouchability. Several Praja Mandals held such conferences at Delhi and Ludhiana. Sutantar, the Lal Communist Party’s head, had ensured that the land rights won by the Muzara Movement would be awarded irrespective of caste. The current protests, too, are attempting to evolve measures of solidarity with the landless workers of Punjab—most of them are from the Dalit community. Dalits constitute almost 32 percent of the state’s population and own just 3.2 percent of the agricultural land.

Rohi Singh, a 36-year-old from Gobindgarh Jejian, in the Mansa district of Punjab, hails from a Dalit family. He is a member of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, which is the Punjab chapter of the the All India Agricultural Labour Association, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation’s agricultural wing. Rohi said that his grandfather received land as a result of the Muzara Movement. He did not join the protests in Delhi due to his responsibilities with the union but he has worked to help support the protests. He told me that the current movement against the three farm laws has raised the farmer-worker unity as a slogan but he was not too hopeful about its prospects. “The time calls for our support and we do it from our side,” he said.

Pyara Singh, a 67-year-old, also from Gobindgarh Jejjian, is from the Ravidassia Sikh community—a Dalit community, which follows the teachings of Ravidas, a fifteenth century poet. His family also received land in the 1950s because they were tenant farmers. He is a retired medical practitioner and still owns the land. He goes to the protests at the Delhi borders regularly. Pyara said that villages such as his have a rich history of resistance and confrontation. He narrated an account of his village which also finds mention in another book by Vaid, Tenants Struggle in Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU). According to the lore, Maharaja Yadvinder, the last maharaja of Patiala asked the local police chief to kill people protesting against the village head, who had murdered a tenant. Arjan Singh Bhangu, a tenant leader, put himself between the people and the police, and the police eventually refused to follow Yadvinder’s orders.

However, for some, it is this very history which makes them cynical about the present protests. The village of Safipur, in Sangrur district, houses several Dalit families who received land rights during the Muzara Movement. Bant Singh, a 72-year-old, is a Dalit landowner from the village who is camped with the rest of the villagers under the Bahadargarh metro line near Delhi’s Tikri border. The eldest of his three sons was in the Indian army and was killed fifteen years ago. “I have asked my granddaughter to go to Canada and settle there,” he told me. “We have been fighting zamindars, maharaja, Indian government and bigger landlords in the village for too long now. I want my grandchildren to settle abroad.”

Bant’s disillusionment is not unfounded. There are some villages in Punjab which are still fighting for the ownership of the land. In Safipur, there are still around hundred kille where the rightful owners do not have papers in their names. “Whosoever wanted the legal papers to be straightened in their names, he had to pay to the zamindar family,” Darshan Singh, a resident, told me.

Another such village is Jeond. The village sent trolleys full of protesters to the agitation that were parked on a bridge on Bahadurgarh-Rohtak highway. “We take turns to keep watch of the land back in our village because the descendants of the zamindars are looking to get occupancy of the land,” Gulab Singh, a resident of Jeond village, said. “Rest of us are camping here against the government and Ambani-Adani.” The people from these villages are currently fighting two fights—proprietorship to the land that they have been tilling, reminiscent of the Muzara struggle, and saving the same land from the corporations of today.

The historical continuity linking the two protests has another aspect—the underlying threat of violence as the struggle becomes protracted. Jagjit Singh Joga, the nephew of Jagir Singh Joga, the CPI leader, is a member of the AIKS and a national council member of CPI. “As the oppression goes on for long, it will take longer to organise and fight the oppressor,” he told me. Jagjit’s land, house and belongings were confiscated by the  police multiple times because of his involvement in the Muzara Movement.

On 26 December, Kulwant Singh, a farmer from Kishangarh, in the Mansa district of Punjab, camps at the farmers’ protest site at Tikri, in west Delhi, along with several people from his town. The town is a famous historical site of the Muzara Movement, a land-rights agitation which took place in the first half of the twentieth century. Gurdeep Dhaliwal

Jagjit is from Kishangarh, near Mansa. Several villagers from Kishangarh are camped at Delhi’s borders—they are at the protests because the town has witnessed a rising spate of farmer and worker suicides due to debt. The town is a site of historic reverence connected to the Muzara struggle. The entrance to the town has a memorial gate which reads, “Dedicated to the memory of martyrs of PEPSU-Muzara Movement, who fought against feudalism and monarchy.”

According to historical records, between 16 and 18 March 1949, the maharaja of Patiala sent 11 military tanks, 400 army personnel and around 100 policemen and they bombarded the village because the tenants had refused to pay batai or vacate the land. Dharam Singh Fakkar, a Muzara leader, voluntarily got arrested with 85 other tenant farmers to bring peace. The incident forced the tenants in the villages to arm themselves. Subsequently, a greater number of tenant villages established armed units to fight the hired goons and the state police, turning the movement into an almost guerrilla struggle.

The state’s response to the Kishangarh incident is somewhat mirrored today, too, in the aftermath of the tractor parade on Republic Day. In the following days, the protest sites at Delhi’s borders were heavily fortified with massive deployment of police forces, barricades and crowd-control weaponry. On 28 January, a group of people, who claimed they were local residents, collected at the Singhu protest site despite the heavy police presence and attacked the protesting farmers, even as the police watched. Several media organisations reported on how the “locals” were actually outsiders, along with workers of the BJP. Around 150 farmers have been detained or arrested by the Delhi Police and as many as 25 FIRs have been lodged against more than 30 union leaders.

The central government has also tried to portray the protesters as separatist and radical elements of the Sikh community. Senior leaders of the BJP have labelled the protesters as Khalistani and a compliant mainstream media has fed into this narrative of communal polarisation. The princely rulers, too, used religion to control the Muzara Movement, albeit in a different manner. For instance, according to Vaid’s book, the muzara villages in Patiala Riyasat were not allowed to construct any gurudwaras because the rulers believed that the religious centers would create avenues for peasants to exchange the stories of their oppression, and ideate on how to get organised and ask for their rights. This is also reminiscent of the internet and phone service shut down by the ministry of home affairs on Republic Day. The subsequent internet service shut-downs in the sixteen districts of Haryana under the pretext of maintaining peace was an effort to curb the mass level organisation of the farmers.

The underdevelopment of the social and educational spaces for the peasant families under the Raj and princely rulers was also to curb the information channels. The current situation is not different. On 30 January, the Delhi Police detained two reporters, Mandeep Punia and Dharminder Singh—Dharmendra was let off that night while Punia spent over two days in jail. Both were reporting on the role of Delhi Police and hired goons’ in the stone pelting, sloganeering and tear-gas shelling of the protesters at Singhu border the previous day. It is worth noting that the peasants who fought in Muzara Movement were fighting hired goons at the ground level. The princely police had worked hand in hand with the goons to scare the peasants. 

However, a stark difference between the two movements is the will to overturn the political power. According to Ajnala, the formation of Punjab Kisan Sabha in 1937 aimed to overturn the British and princely rule, too. After the merger of PEPSU in Punjab state in 1956, Jagir Singh Joga and Dharam Singh Fakkar became members of legislative assembly from Mansa and Budhlada, respectively. They contested elections while still in jail. The current movement, however, has several protesters, specially on the Ghazipur border, who are BJP voters, and the protests’ demand is simple—repeal the farm laws and nothing else. Several of the protesters I spoke to said that it was only over the last few months that they have realised the “fascist” and “theocratic” nature of the Modi government. 

Both the Muzara Movement and the current protests have their own variations, too. The Muzara Movement did not have a visible presence of women. This is in sharp contrast to the assertive role being played by women in the current protests, as they turned up in increasing numbers. Nevertheless, women did contribute to the Muzara Movement in the capacities that they could. Bibi Dharam Kaur, the wife of Bhagwan Singh Longowalia, the Praja Mandal leader, remained committed to the movement alongside her husband and was a major leader. She organised the village women to participate in the movement in the 1920s. Her daughter, Shaminder Kaur Longowal, was born in jail. Shaminder is now 85 years old and has been participating in the current movement. “I went to the Delhi borders twice,” she told me. “I have seen that women are participating more these days. Although it was difficult for women to participate back then but they still did.” 

The Muzara Movement’s legacy is one of perseverance, endurance and courage. It has lessons for the present agitation as the central government tries to wear out the protestors. Harinder Bindu, an active member of Bharti Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan) also belongs to the tenant farmer village Bhagtuana in Faridkot. Her family received land during the Muzara Movement and she lost her father to Khalistani separatists. She simply said, “Our elders fought so hard to get the land, we shall fight to keep it with us.”