Monarchy, Imperialism and Modernity: Munshi Premchand’s Unblinking Eye For Truth

23 August 2015
Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist, was a well-known advocate of the abolition of the zamindari system, leading to many claiming that he was certainly a leftist, if not an outright communist.
Public Domain
Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist, was a well-known advocate of the abolition of the zamindari system, leading to many claiming that he was certainly a leftist, if not an outright communist.
Public Domain

Around two years ago, on 25 August 2013, my mother, a loyal reader of Jansatta—a Hindi daily—asked me to read a small piece in the editorial section of the newspaper. The piece in question was a reprint of an essay originally titled ‘Rajyavaad Aur Samrajyavaad’—“Monarchy and Imperialism”—written by Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist. The original essay had been printed in a journal named Swadesh, in 1928. In the essay, Premchand made the argument that imperialism had proved to be no better than monarchy, and that communism might prove to be equally, if not more, dangerous than imperialism. He argued that all the perils of capitalism would also plague communism, perhaps in an even more aggravated form. The editors of the newspaper, while reprinting the essay, changed the title to ‘Punjivaad Se Bhayankar Hai Saamyavaad—“Communism is deadlier than Capitalism.”

The note accompanying the editorial stated, “In 1911, Premchand praised the Boleshevik revolution in a letter, and this alone became the basis of his being called a communist.” In a 1976 article for Social Scientist, academic KP Singh wrote, “Hindi criticism has failed to delineate a clear picture of Premchand’s works” and that “one section called him reformer and idealist, while the other devoted all its time to proving him a thorough-going Gandhian.” Although it is difficult to locate Premchand in the traditional left-right political spectrum, I was brought up to believe—by cultural lore and by my family, directly related to that of the novelist—that he reserved the largest part of his great heart for the poor. He was a well-known advocate of the abolition of the zamindari system, leading to many claiming that he was certainly a leftist, if not an outright communist. Given my understanding of Premchand through these anecdotes, it was difficult for me to believe that he appeared to be taking a stance that favoured capitalism through the essay.

On a second read, however, ideas that I associate with Premchand’s thought process began to surface. He began, “We live in times of imperialism. Earlier eras belonged to monarchy.

His essay suggested, that although both monarchy and imperialism rest on conquest, the distinction between the two is profound. Premchand noted that in the age of monarchy, conquest was a one-off phenomenon, led by kings to either “prove their valour, or to acquire riches, or to spread their religion.” Once the goal was achieved, conquest ceased; “In five-ten years, there would be no difference, no inequalities between the victor and the vanquished,” he wrote.

The writer argued that imperialism was altogether different because the goal was commercial. “Groups of traders are always in search of markets,” he wrote, and that “they want to establish their hold over the market in perpetuity.” With both the traders and labourers sharing in the profits of trade, he argued, “ruling over a weak nation is as important for the labourers of powerful nations as for their traders.”

Aseem Shrivastava Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based writer and ecological economist. He is the author (with Ashish Kothari) of the book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2012). He has spoken and written extensively on ecological issues connected with development and globalisation.

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