Remembering Pepsu Muzara Movement

Pepsu Muzara Movement

The Pepsu Muzara Movement of 1930-1953, also known as Pepsu Tenant Movement was an act of defiance and revolt by sharecroppers of eight princely states, Patiala and East Punjab State Unions, who stood up against the Biswedari system, refused giving crops in form of rent to their landlords and demanded ownership rights of the land which they were tilling for years. Fought in 784 villages, the Pepesu Muzara Movement was an organized efforts of the localized people who stood up for their hereditary property rights and  for democratic rights from the British and the native aristocracy and demanded an end to the Biswedari system.

Key highlights

  • Background Of The Story
  • What Was Pepsu Muzara Movement : The Beginning and What Exactly Happened ?
  • The Highlighted Incident Of Qila Hakiman (1939)
  • The Formation Of The Muzara Committee And The Aftermath
  • The Violent Clash Of Dhandoli Khurd (1845)
  • The Brutal Incident Of Kishangarh : The Struggle Post Independence
  • The End Result

Background Of The Story

After the death of Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, a Sikh warrior had led Sikh uprisings against the Mughal empire between 1708 – 1715 and had abolished the Zamindari system of the Mughal era. However, in 1793, Charles Cornwallis, the then Commander-in-chief of British India re-established the zamindari system in several areas under the Permanent Settlement Act.

In the 1870s, the Maharaja of Patiala implemented the Biswedari System (also known as big landlord system). Under this system, the Biswedaris were appointed as the local authorities of villages. The Biswedaris were mostly government officials and were closely related to the Maharaja and they gradually took full possession of the lands and the original owners of the land were reduced to a mere status of muzaras or tenants. On top of it, the muzaras were forced to pay batai and surrender half of the crops to their landlords. The landlords not only collected crops from the muzaras as a form of rent, but also often overestimated the crop yield to justify taking a larger share and therefore exploited the muzaras.

What Was Pepsu Muzara Movement : The Beginning And What Exactly Happened ?

  • It all started in the year 1930. In 1930, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh ruled the state under the supremacy of the British Raj. At that time, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh refused to tolerate political dissent and jailed anyone who publicly spoke out against the government. In order to avoid arrest and police brutality, the political organizations within Patiala held meetings in secret or outside of the state’s borders.
  • Sewa Singh Thikriwala, the then leader of the Praja Mandal, began organizing tenants in several Biswedari villages, encouraging them to withhold payment of batai to landlords. Praja Mandal members Bhagwan Singh Longowalia and Jagir Singh Joga also helped in organising meetings and leading resistance.
  • The movement started in May 1930, when tenants in the two villages of Rajomajra and Bhadaur began refusing payments of batai to their landlords.
  • The resistance grew to such an extent that the tenants only handed over their crops under police supervision. Over the next few years, tenants in several other villages also began refusing to pay batai to landlords, and landlords with no other available alternative had to increasingly rely on police force to collect batai. Some tenants also destroyed their own crops in order to avoid paying to their landlords.
  • Owing to the growing resistance, Maharaja  Bhupinder Singh enacted a law in 1932, which made any form of political meeting illegal. Despite this, tenants continued to organize and meet in secret or across  state borders. In response, the police arrested organizer and Praja Mandal member, Bhagwan Singh Longowalia in 1933, and he died in prison in after a prolonged hunger strike in 1935.
  • After this, the police continued to repress tenants, confiscate their crops for batai payments and imprison the resisting tenants. The high level of repression from the police and lack of organization among the villages made it difficult to maintain resistance efforts.

The Highlighted Incident Of Qila Hakiman (1939)

On 25th of November, 1939, a violent clash took place between police and the tenants, in the village of Qila Hakiman. Prior to this, three hundred to four hundred tenants were peacefully protesting, and were asking the police not to take away their crops when police and landlords opened fire, killing several tenants.

The incident publicized the plight of the tenants and managed to grab attention of the state. The state made an official inquiry into the incident. The state magistrate condemned the tenants for their defiance of authority and found police faulty of resorting to excessive force. In response, the Praja Mandal formed a counter committee to investigate the issue and came to the conclusion that the tenants were unarmed and were peaceful during the protest, and landlords had illegally participated in the shooting.

The Praja Mandal not only helped the poor tenants by justifying their innocence, but also helped them in printing and distributing pamphlets on the incident of Qila Hakiman for a wider reach.

The Formation Of The Muzara Committee And The Aftermath

Following the Qila Hakiman incident, a group of muzaras went to the leader of the communist Kisan Committee, Master Hari Singh, and asked for his support in their struggle. In response to the incident, tenants in 30 bullock carts traveled to the city of Patiala to protest the forcible confiscation of batai. A group of muzaras also insisted on meeting with the Maharaja and even tried throwing themselves in front of his car, but all efforts went in vain as police curbed their efforts.

The death of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh in 1938 and accession of throne to a young, inexperienced ruler gave strength both to the Praja Mandal and to the tenants to continue in their struggle and in 1938, tenants from villages across the state formed the Muzara Committee to promote further organization among villages.

By 1939, refusing to pay batai was a common trend in most villages and the state had to direct an additional police force to collect batai. During this period, on one hand while several petitions were sent to the Maharaja to restore property rights of peasants, on the other hand several villages continued to refuse to give batai and boycotted landlords socially by refusing to work for them and by destructing their own crops if police tried to take them by force.

Owing to increased police repression, the campaign died out in 1940, and the muzaras remained relatively submissive until 1942, when the muzaras began to align themselves with the communist Kisan Party. Finally, it was in 1942 that a small group of peasants after several failed attempts, were granted a meeting with the Resident, the British official who was in charge of maintaining relationship between the princely state and British Empire, to state their grievances. However, the meeting did not turn out to be a fruitful one as the Resident did little to address their grievances.

The Violent Clash Of Dhandoli Khurd (1845)

In 1945, the Communist Kisan Party organized a meeting to protest a pre-planned looting and beating of tenants in villages by police and landlords. As a result, the tenants clashed with the biswedaris and police in village Dhandoli Khurd where police open fired, killing two tenants. Soon after, tenants in villages of Bakshiwala and Dharamgarh began forcibly seizing landlords’ properties.

As the resistance to pay batai increased, the following three years reported several violent clashes between muzaras and the police.

The Brutal Incident Of Kishangarh : The Struggle Post Independence

As soon as India gained independence on 15th of August, 1947, the Maharaja of Patiala state joined the Indian union. At that time, the people of Patiala demanded establishment of representative government, considering which the Maharaja announced constitutional reforms in January 1948 and became the governor of the newly formed Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU).

While the transitioning government failed to pass agrarian reforms, the tenants continued to resist paying batai to the landlords. By this point, the landlords started employing armed gangs to terrorize tenants into submission. In response, the muzaras organized themselves and stood up with resistance against these gangs.

During this period, the struggling tenant farmers were organized under the leadership of the Red Party and village Kishangarh eventually became the center of the struggle. Murderous attacks were carried out by the goons and the police to suppress the resisting farmers and finally on 19th of March, 1949 martial law was imposed following which the army was deployed.

The brutal incident of Kishangarh, in which four tenants were killed and hundreds were arrested was a decisive event in the PEPSU Muzara Movement and in the fight against the Biswadari feudal system.

The End Result

With a view to address the grievances of the tenants and implement agrarian reforms, the newly elected Congress ministry in 1951 formed the Agrarian Reforms Inquiry Committee. In January, 1952, the committee enacted the PEPSU Tenancy Act that protected tenants against expulsion from their lands while the committee continued to search for a more permanent solution. In the same year, PEPSU acquired 800,000 acres of unworked, potentially rich wheat land for distribution to peasants in accordance with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s land reforms.

In April 1953, the government passed the PEPSU Occupancy Tenants Act, which allowed the tenants to become owners of their own land, after paying compensation to their landlords and effectively abolished the biswedari system.

The communist parties affiliated with the tenants were not happy with this solution as it required tenants to compensate to their landlords. However, the tenants were very happy and the Pepsu Muzara Movement of 1930-1953 ended soon after the enactment of the act by the state.

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