Freedom 75
The Satara Prati Sarkar-I
by GAIL OMVEDT

Liberation will be serialising this seminal article by the late Dr Gail Omvedt in its coming issues as part of its Freedom 75 series. Below is a short introduction by activist Bharat Patankar, who was Gail’s life partner.

[In the background of the ongoing debate about “freedom” and its arrival on the stage of history of India, this research paper by Dr. Gail Omvedt becomes very important contribution, revealing lesser known aspects of the freedom movement. It shows that much research is still required for understanding the factors which really were crucial for forcing the British imperialist rulers to leave Indian subcontinent for good. Gail analyses the “Parallel government” movement in Satara district of Maharashtra as a part of freedom movement in its final stages after the slogans "Quit India" and "Do or die" were given by the then Congress party. Much of the area in the district had sevadals of young people, people's courts which made British government courts redundant, libraries containing progressive books in every village. Police Patils, who were lowest representatives of repressive machinery of British government were forced to resign or they themselves resigned from their posts. Freedom fighters used to move around openly in the area! British government could not defeat this parallel government from 1943 to 1949. Because it was giving justice against feudal lords, money lenders, criminals, casteists, rapists and those who oppressed women, people were protecting their parallel government from the oppressive machinery of the British government. Gail has brought forward this history with class, caste and gender analysis showing its potential to go forward towards realising the dream of liberated humanity.

Gail's analysis brings forward real strength and potential of these kind of aspects of the freedom movement. At the same time she brings forward the potential of exploited masses in creating organic intellectuals from amongst themselves. Her analysis shows that so-called freedom fighters coming from high caste and class background were just celebrated without making even five percent of the contribution made by these organic intellectuals.

This article will stimulate the creative thinking of  readers for the process of understanding contemporary reality and for alternative ways for changing the society towards realising the dream of liberated humanity. - Bharat Patankar ]

Nana Patil: I don't know how the activity I and my co-workers have done in Satara district fits in (with) your philosophy of truth and nonviolence. But in doing our work we tried to implement your principles as far as it was possible. We wrecked trains but we didn't wreck a single passenger train. But we broke the hand that was responsible for a murder, a rape, or a robbery: we also beat police informers. But if we hadn't done that we wouldn't have been able to do anything. We wouldn't have been able to organize a movement. The advice you gave us in August 1942 to 'do or die', and the advice you gave us that if national leaders are jailed then every Indian should consider himself to be independent and organize a movement to throw out the English according to his own understanding, was what we followed. We fought the English through the guerrilla methods of Shivaji Maharaj.

Gandhi: Naná Patil, whether your movement fits in (with) my philosophy or not is not so important as the fact that you kept the 1942 freedom movement alive, and Satara has defended the name of that movement. I am one of those who feel that the violence of the brave is better than the non-violence of the cowardly!

(A reported encounter between Gandhi and Nana Patil, May-June 1944) [1]

In 1942 the 'August Revolution exploded all over India following the arrest of all top Congress leaders on 9 August. Inspired by the 'Quit India' resolution passed by the All India Congress Committee (AICC) at Bombay, millions of ordinary peasants, workers, students, middle class professionals, artisans and employees took part in marches, demonstrations, clashes with the police, sabotage and various other forms of underground activity in the fervent belief that the final battle of the freedom struggle had come. This time they fought not only with the idea that they were free to use all means, including violent ones, but also that in some form or another they would take their future in their own hands and set up their own government. The mass uprising, essentially leaderless, was crushed in a couple of months by British military power at the national level. But sabotage and other guerrilla activity continued strongly for about year and sporadically after that, and some forms of locally based underground activity went on until independence seemed a settled fact and elections were declared in 1946.

Western Maharashtra as a whole was characterized by a widespread and high level of guerrilla activity and insurrection in 1942 and early 1943, though it was not quite as violent as Bihar.[2]  But in Satara district something further developed: the underground activity was prolonged and a parallel government or prati sarkar was set up and continued to function until 1946 in spite of British repression and the indifference of the Congress leadership. Its activities included peoples' courts or nyayadan mandals as well as various types of armed activities and constructive programmes. The major activists of the movement eluded arrest entirely until 1944, when a few turned themselves in on the advice of Gandhi, and a few others were captured. But others replaced them and the majority were never caught. The prati sarkar, in fact, had begun to function effectively at a time when such movements elsewhere in India were being suppressed, and continued to flourish until independence. Its last armed encounter with the police (resulting in two deaths) took place after the naval mutiny in 1946.

The 1942 movement signalled the end of British rule by making it crystal clear that the imperialists did not have sufficient force to govern the country in the face of the increasingly powerful and organized opposition. Yet while a few books in English exist and articles on local revolts are beginning to appear, little of this movement has been seriously studied.[3] It appears that the movement was not only a challenge to the British but also remained an embarrassment to the party which inherited their power, not simply because its upsurge contradicted the ideology of non-violence, but even more because it had its base among particular classes and political forces which were beginning to articulate themselves as demanding a different kind of independence, a 'worker-peasant' state. The case of Satara resulted in the paradox that the main Maratha leaders of the Congress were forced to try to claim the movement as their heritage while most of the actual leaders of the movement remained in permanent opposition. Political conditions have thus hardly been favourable for detailed scholarship. The important questions- how did this movement take place why in Satara district in particular? What was its significance for the development of political power and social structure western Maharashtra? - remain to be answered. This essay is an initial attempt to formulate some of these answers.

Satara District

The Satara of 1942 (which includes present-day Satara and most of present-day Sangli district) has been a Maratha political centre from early times. From the time of Shivaji through the non-Brahman movement of the early twentieth century, the nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s, to the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and the nearly unchallenged dominance of the Congress party in Maharashtra, it has kept this centrality. It has seemed a typically peasant district, lacking both the overtones of Brahman hegemony that still remain in Pune to the north or the more ‘feudal’ remnants in the one-time princely state of Kolhapur to the south. Today, though, many of these peasants have become capitalist farmers, and waving fields of green sugarcane, cooperative sugar factories, educational institutions, dairy and irrigation societies make this a central area of Maharashtra’s ‘sugar barons’, one that has fostered the major political leaders of the state. Y.B. Chavan (Congress leader. Chief Minister of Maharashtra and a leading minister in the Central Government, died in 1984), Vasantdada Patil (Congress leader and former Chief Minister), Rajarambapu Paul (former Congress leader and Minister, President of the state unit of the Janata Party until his death in 1984). N. D. Patil (leader of the Peasants and Workers Party). Satara passed under British control in 1850-51 and was described as follows in the Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency :  

The subdivisions of Satara, Tasgaon, Karad, Valva, Jalvi and Wai, nearest to the Sahyadris, were the most favoured in soil and climate the richest, best tilled and most populous. They were watered by numerous streams and fed by abundant and seasonable rain. They were crossed by lofty mountains whose steep sides were often clothed with crops, while their tops were crowned with fields and villages. In these subdivisions much of the land was alienated on rent-free or service tenure, or what remained and was assessable, the largest part was miras, that is held by hereditary owners who could not be ousted so long as they paid the government rental. The commonness of this favourable tenure kept the west of the district in the highest cultivation. The landholders, most of whom were Kunbis, were hardworking and skilful husbandmen. They understood the rotation of crops, the value of manures, and the necessity of refreshing some soils by fallows. Individual holdings were small....[4]

These central and western talukas on the black soil valleys of the Krishna river and its tributaries, flanked by the Sahyadris, are characterised by very large villages, many of them with a population of four to live thousand even in the nineteenth century and over 10,000 today. The main peasant foodcrop was jawari, but commercial crops such as sugarcane, tobacco and chilli which are central to the economy today, were grown even in 1850, while mango groves, cotton and teak forests were also found. These talukas along with the mainly mountainous Patan and Shiralapeth, then a part of Valva, were the centre of the 1942 movement. The drier eastern talukas of Khanapur, Khatav and Koregaon were also involved, but less prominently. The prati sarkar barely touched the part of Satara district north of Satara town.

In caste terms, the district was dominated by Kunbis (Maratha Kunbis) who constituted 50% of its population in the 1930 census. Satara district, more than any other, had a concentration of this famous ‘peasant warrior’ caste. The British viewed them on the one hand as uncultured freebooters (‘wild and predatory Mahrattas’) who represented a danger to the empire, and on the other as prosperous peasants who wear its economic base. The early East-India Gazetteer was candid in its racist expression of this ambivalence:

The Mahratta military chiefs are generally coarse, ignorant and rapacious, and so much resemble their common soldiers that they might change place without much striking the observation of a European. Of all these classes, however, we see only the worst specimens; and were they again reduced to freebooting desperation, they might become the most dangerous opponents that Asia could produce against the valour and discipline of Europe. The Mahratta peasantry still have pride in the former triumph of their nation and retain some ambition to partake in military exploits, but their present habits are... frugal, sober and industrious.[5]

Almost all those who now call themselves ‘Marathas’ were described as ‘Kunbis’ in the early Gazetteers, but then, as now, a distinction was drawn among the various clans or bhaukis, placing some as aristocratic or shahannavkuli Marathas and some as commoner Kunbis. But the division was open to some argument; intermarriage was possible between the two sections, and most of the shahannavkuli families as well as the ‘common’ Kunbis were basically peasant cultivators sharing a militaristic tradition. Aspects of this militarism included ongoing family feuds, which arose over disputes about land or social rank and was often carried on for generations; tradition has it that if a man was murdered a child from his family would be selected raised, fed, and trained solely for the purpose of avenging the murder. The District Gazetteer itself referred to Kasegaon one of the villages in the district which was later an important centre of rebellion, by saying that the inhabitants have an unenviable character for crime and litigiousness, mischief to crops, cattle-poisoning and arson having been frequent for many years”[6]; and dacoity was prominent in the hilly areas of Valva and Shiralapeth talukas.

Other non-Brahman castes including the Dhangara (shepherds), artisan castes and even the untouchables shared this general ‘Maratha’ culture. Among the untouchables the Mahars were bound to perform forced service for the village and its various feudal overlords. but were free of the kind of abject slavery imposed on untouchables in states such as Tamilnadu and Kerala. This caste was to provide the social base for the most militant dalit movement in modern India, led by Dr Ambedkar. Their hereditary rivals, the Mangs (or Matangs), were even more renowned for toughness and lawlessness and along with the low-caste Ramoshis (classed as a ‘criminal tribe’) were considered almost a synonym for banditti.

Although the Bombay Gazetteer characterizes the area as a ryotwari with small holdings predominating, there was in fact a good deal of landlordism. On the one hand there were the various forms of land alienation noted in the Gazettee with inams having been given for various kinds of military or priestly service. By the time of British conquest, after two centuries of Peshwa rule, much of this was held by Brahmans. Maratha feudalists survived and Kolhapur and a couple of smaller states (and Satara itself until 1850) were ruled by Maratha chiefs, but two other big princely states (Miraj and Sangli) and some smaller ones were Brahman-ruled and numerous Brahman inams dotted the area. Along with this, as Perlin has shown, by late Peshwa times the ryotwari reality was being undermined by the fact that Maratha and Brahman feudalists used the watan privileges that were a part of the village structure to build an economic base of landlordism, by buying up various kinds of patilki, deshmukhi or inam rights often spread over many villages to be managed under one huge landlord household.[7]

Along with this, the trade growing out of the rich agriculture of the region was controlled by merchants at the lower level (local Vanis, southern Jain Vanis, Telis and others) and, higher up, by Brahman bankers.

Thus the social structure of the district can be described as one of caste-feudalism. Feudal rulers and landlords (mainly Brahmans and aristocratic Marathas) were at the top, followed by the merchants and the priests and administrators who backed up their power. This feudal structure entered the village level itself and included local inam holders, and often the family or clan of the village patils, as well as the Brahman accountants and priests. The exploited toilers were not simply an undifferentiated ‘peasant' (or peasant and artisan) class, but were also divided by caste into three broad sections of cultivating peasants, artisans and untouchable field labourers. While many of the artisans and untouchables were classed as balutedars who were considered to have a right to the share of the harvest due to the work they performed, they were not considered to have any rights in the land itself. The majority community, the Kunbi-Marathas were themselves divided into lineages with different ranks and degrees of rights in the land, and the highest section among them could aspire to and attain a share of feudal exploiting sections even before the British conquest, and the division between bahujan samaj and shetji-bhatji - which became the central theme of the later non-Brahman movement - had its roots in this earlier period.

Notes:

1. Reported Notes by Nathaji Lad, in Jaysinghrao Pawar, (ed.), Krantisinh Nana Patil (Arundhati Prakashan, Kolhapur, 1983), p.258.

2. A map of the depth and extent of disturbances is given in Max Harcourt, ‘Kisan Populism and Revolution in ‘Rural India: The 1942 Disturbances in Bihar and East United Provinces' in D.A. Low, (ed.) Congress and the Raj (Colombia, 1977), p.317. [3] English works include Harcourt, op. cit. ; Francis Hutchins, The Spontaneous Revolution: The Quit India Movement (New Delhi, 1971); Arun Chandra, Bhuyan, The Quit India Movement: The Second World War and Indian Nationalism (Delhi, 1987). Most such material is based on police records, which are often inadequate, especially in the case of underground revolutionar- ies whose very purpose was to carry on their activities without being known or caught by the police. An additional factor (at least in the case of Maharashtra) appears to be the reluctance of Congress powerholders to bring up the issue of who were the real participants. A more or less ‘official’ source book—B.G. Kunte, (ed.) Congress Activities, 1942-46, Source Material for a History of the Freedom Movement, Vol. IV (Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1977) is remarkable for the fact that it almost totally ignores the prati sarkar. A book in preparation by Prof. A. Shinde, also based on police records, will apparently be more thorough but also has been criticized by freedom fighters for ignoring non-recorded events — and will apparently slide over some sensitive issues such as the role of Y.B. Chavan ! The Marathi material now coming out will remedy most of these de- ficiencies. These include Pawar, op.cit. Kranti Agrani G. D.Bapu Lad Smarnika (Kundal, 1983); Viplavi Chamundrao (a pseu- donym), Swatantryacya Himachalavar Mavalele Don Divya Vare (Kirloskar 1971), Dattatray Balwant Lohar, Swatantryacya Sangram 1930 to 1948 (Sangam Press, Sangli, 1982); Dhanvantari, ‘Kundalce Krantivir G.D. Bapu’, Rashtrashakti, (10 Jan. 1983); Muktabai Sathe, ‘Bilaschicya Harijan (Mang) Strici Atmakatha’ (unpublished manuscript). Finally Baburao Gokhale, Jagrut Satara (Second Edition) has a very thorough account.

3. In addition to these, my sources included interviews with: Bhagwanrao (Bappa) Patil (Hanmant Wadiye), Baburao Gokhale (Karad), Dhanvantari (Laxmanrao Kulkarni, Kaseg'aon), Indutai Patankar (Kasegaon), Abba Gawade (Kasegaon), Barde Guruji (Wategaon), D.G. Deshpande (Islampur), Namdevrao Karadkar (Sangli), Naganath Naikaude (Walwa), G. D. Bapusaheb Lad (Kundal), Pandurang Borate (Kumta Koregaon), Muktabai Sathe (Bilashi), and Rajamati Patil-Birnale (Anakalkhop). Some family records including two letters from Y.B. Chavan to Babuji Patankar (6.2.46 and 8.2.46), an open let- ter from N. G. Gore to the Satara activists (13.5.46) and other socialist party correspondence and leaflets dating from 1945-51 have also been used.

4. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Vol. XI : Satara (Government Central Press, Bombay, 1885), p.347.

5. Walter Hamilton, The East-India Gazetteer, (published 1825), p.170.

6. Satara Gazettes, pp. 480-81.

7. Frank Perlin, ‘“Interior” and “Exterior” in Rural Formations: Difference as Relation in the countryside of the Late Medi- eval Deccan’, Paper presented at Peasants Seminar, School of Oriental & African Studies, London, 4 March 1977 (subsequently published in Journal of Peasant Studies).

Read: Part - II

Read : Part III

Read : Part IV

Satara Prati Sarkar