From the archives: Charan Singh | A peasant at the high table
The Mughals used the Zamindari system to gain control of the hinterland and increase income to maintain the armed forces. The system of exploitation adopted by the British colonial forces was simple; recognizing the rights of the zamindars as landowners, they accepted the responsibility of collecting taxes from the peasantry and keeping control of the masses. Today, this would be qualified as outsourcing to the private sector; tax collection, dissent regulation and court services all rolled into one. It was at such an oppressive time that Charan Singh was born. The eldest of Netra Kaur and Mir Singh’s five children, Charan Singh was born a
cold winter day on December 23, 1902, in Nurpur, Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh. His parents enrolled him in school and he obtained his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1926. In the pre-independence era, it was rare for a peasant to become a lawyer.
Sacrificing the option of setting up a lucrative practice, he chose to participate in the independence movement and joined the Congress Party as a full-time member in 1929 – the same party he would later unravel in his own stronghold of the Hindi heart.
On January 26, 1930, in Lahore, the Indian National Congress adopted the “Purna Swaraj Declaration” for complete autonomy independent of the British Empire. Shortly after, in 1930, he was jailed for six months. For his continued political activism, he would be jailed several times. Acting in the Quit India movement, he was imprisoned for 15 months.
Throughout his childhood and in his formative years he experienced the oppressive zamindari system, which kept the peasantry in abject poverty. His own community’s depressed state left deep scars that never healed, and that’s what he vowed to undo. He has developed the personality of being outspoken, never to mince words. As the Minister of Revenue of Uttar Pradesh, he was the main architect of the revolutionary law of 1951 on the abolition and land reform of Zamindari. As the minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, he had the audacity to openly disagree with the powerful Jawaharlal Nehru on his proposal for a national agricultural cooperation policy and was forced to resign. His singular interest in the prosperity of farmers has never wavered and has become his trademark.
In 1967, Charan Singh formed the Bhartiya Kranti Dal with the support of Raj Narain and Ram Manohar Lohia. He became the non-congressional chief prime minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1967 and again in 1970. He fueled rebellion against the Congressional government across India. He grew stronger through mass public support, but always struggled to hold onto power due to his steadfast and uncompromising nature.
Charan Singh argued that the shift in priorities in the Second Five Year Plan was the root cause of persistent poverty in India. Without the shift in priorities, argued Charan Singh, India would have become self-sufficient in food production and not face the humiliation of PL-480 and food imports. These events imprinted a fear on the nation that impacts policymaking to this day. Not only was he a prolific reader, he is also the author of numerous articles and books. Among the many publications he has published are Abolition of Zamindari (1947), X-rayed joint farming: the problem and its solution (1959), India’s Economic Policy: The Gandhian Model (1978) and India’s economic nightmare: causes and cure (nineteen eighty one).
He opposed Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist approach to heavy industries. Explaining the Gandhian model he proposed, “no medium or large scale business will be allowed to exist in the future that will produce goods and services that small businesses or small businesses can produce.” Time would prove that both extremes would not work for India. His clear call for alternative affirmative action has the establishment nervous.
The slow progress of farmers’ livelihoods from decades until India’s independence from the British frustrated him until he was incapacitated by a blow heart in 1985. He blamed the continuum of city-centered policy making on bureaucrats, upper castes and capitalists. His contempt for them has never diminished. Conversely, socialists and neoliberals have never been able to digest a simple peasant at the high table of policymaking.
Having nothing better to conjure, he is falsely vilified for having always represented his own caste, the Jats. While Nehru regularly attended meetings of the Brahmins of Kashmir, Charan Singh never attended a single meeting of the Jat community, let alone the specific requests of the Jat. He even changed the name of Jat College from Baraut to Janta Vedic College. In 1954 he proposed a reservation for jobs published in the Official Gazette, where the jobs would be available only to those who marry outside the narrow circle of a caste. For his annoying nature, he had to face onslaught from the upper caste clique of the Congress Party and continued to pay a heavy price until his last breath. When the caste accusations fell flat, academics projected it as defending the interests of only wealthy farmers and landlord classes. Even when the zamindars were rich landowners, whose hegemony he singularly broke. Charan Singh is the most misunderstood leader of independent India. His definition of peasants went beyond the limited definition of perceived landowner classes or kulaks, he also included artisans and traders in his struggle. Today he is held responsible for creating a rural middle class of small farmers who, to this day, need government support to survive.
The constant stalking of universities, media and corporations would have destroyed Charan Singh without his hard work, integrity and honesty. He was a simple man and it was said that he never had long hair because he was against any kind of partition. The dhoti and the Gandhi cap were his characteristic outfit. He never used bath soap and used neem twigs to brush his teeth. He had very frugal eating habits and hated drinking and smoking. He firmly believed in the ideals of Arya Samaj propagated by Swami Dayananda Saraswati to reform Orthodox Hinduism. He was playing a simple card game with his brothers.
He was one of many leaders imprisoned for more than a year by Indira Gandhi in the Age of Emergency. Subsequently, he led the opposition to defeat Indira Gandhi in 1977. The Bharatiya Lok Dal party led by Charan Singh obtained the largest number of deputies followed by Jan Sangh. To prevent Charan Singh from becoming prime minister, the small Jan Sangh party proposed the name of Jagjivan Ram, correctly anticipating Charan Singh’s response. He had always maintained that those who supported the resolution on the imposition of a state of emergency were unacceptable to him and his supporters.
Falling into the trap set by Jan Sangh, it paved the way for the compromise candidacy of Morarji Desai. Large corporations have for the first time succeeded in obtaining a prime minister of their choice. It wouldn’t be until decades later that they would manage to do it again.
Appointed Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Interior Ministry, he missed the arrest of Indira Gandhi. The experiment of the Janata Party has failed miserably. Latent disagreements emerged when Charan Singh insisted on investigating the scandals involving Morarji Desai’s son. So he was unceremoniously dismissed from the ministry.
Seizing the opportunity to overthrow the Morarji Desai government, Indira Gandhi agreed to support Charan Singh as prime minister. Fully aware of Indira Gandhi’s machinations, he agreed to be Prime Minister. He had come to terms with the fact that time was running out for him to lead a metamorphosis of rural communities and he then settled down to inspire generations of peasants to rise up, to dream and to free themselves from the chains put on by the peasants. high castes and urban society. He succeeded in his goal; a peasant who became prime minister still resonates throughout rural India.
But, the story is written by the urban elite who can’t help but paint Charan Singh as a power hungry man. If so, on becoming Prime Minister he would not have refused to visit Indira Gandhi to thank her for her support, insisting that the support was aimed at breaking down the Janata government. Between principles and convictions, he chose to give up the post of Prime Minister in a few weeks. He refused to give in to the conditions set by Congress to extend his support.
Charan Singh, commonly known as Choudhary Saheb, the country’s greatest farming leader, died on May 29, 1987 and left a void to fill. A farming community waiting for a leader is a pitiful state. Since his death, the rural political landscape has changed to the point of being unrecognizable; The recommendations of the Mandal Commission pierced the very fabric of rural unity dividing communities by caste. Had he lived, it seems unlikely that Charan Singh would have survived the shift in the political center of gravity from community leaders to caste leaders. After being falsely targeted all his life, he once declared that “this propaganda will cease upon the death of Charan Singh.” He was wrong. It still goes on.
Ajay Vir Jakhar is president, Bharat Krishak Samaj