Abhishek Kadyan, Media Advisor to OIPA in India & TV Journalist. | 03.01.2009 15:53
Sir Chhotu Ram led a massive recruiting drive for the army during World War II across Punjab. His support of the British war effort (during world war II) is often seen as controversial as most freedom fighters did not help the British. He actively promoted recruitment of jat in the army as he felt that it was economically beneficial to the community.
The recurring theme of his campaigns was India's independence after the war. He said: "My hope is that after this war Hindustan will be free. And it will be free in a real sense."
Sir Chhotu Ram opposed the concept of Pakistan and formed a separate group of thirteen members in the Punjab Assembly when most Muslim Unionists joined the Muslim League. His death brought about the demise of the Unionist Party.
Growing up in the prevailing economic misery at his time, he was strongly influenced and motivated by the slights and insults, intended and otherwise, that he had undergo on the path to achieving an education. In his time the Jat peasants were victims at the hands of the usurious Mahajans. He exhorted peasants to shed their inferiority complex and fatalistic outlook and become assertive and self-confident.
He played a very significant role in the organization of the Jats as a self-conscious community and helped them acquire self-confidence and self-respect. As he was outside the political mainstream (Congress), his contributions have been rather unfairly neglected from Indian history.
Sir Chhotu Ram (Gotra Ohlan) was born on 24 November 1881 in Ghari Sampla in Rohtak district. His great-grandfather, Ram Rattan, owned a dry and unproductive holding of about 10 acres. Debts and litigation compounded the problems of his father, Chaudhary Sukhi Ram, who died in 1905 leaving behind a heavy debt.
Chhotu Ram joined a primary school in Jan 1891, passing out four years later. He studied for his middle school examination in Jhajjar, 12 miles from his village.
He left Jhajjar to be enrolled in the Christan Mission School in Delhi, though it was not easy for the family to raise the funds for his education. The story goes that when the father and son approached the bania at Sampla mandi for a loan, the bania flung a fan at the father 'with unspoken indignation to cool his large perspiring semi-naked body'. This and other humiliating incidents, later recalled by Sir Chhotu Ram himself, left an indelible mark on his personaily and world view. He reminiscenced in 1942, "I was born and brought up in rural sorroundings which gave me a close and deep insite into the handicaps, difficulties, trials and turbulations, of the rural population. This insight could not have failed to influence the whole course of my psycological and moral growth... Side by side with the imperceptible and constant working of this factor, a deep and passionate love for the Jat tribe in which I was born warmed my heart from early life."
Sir Chhotu Ram's stay at the Christan Mission School was eventful He organised a strike against the incharge of the boarding house for which he was given the nick name 'General Roberts'.
In 1901 he returned to his village and passed his imtermediate examination in 1903. Thereafter, he enrolled in St Stephens College from where he graduated in 1905. It was his stay at this college that he was drawn to the Arya samaj, though he had already identified himself as adherent of Vedic Dharma in the admission form of the intermediate examination.
He studied Sanskrit rather than English, the preferred subject of most fellow students from wealthy backgrounds. He was particularly concerned with the educational and economical backwardness of the Jats. He felt hurt by the (often good humored) epithets potraying fellows from the countryside, and especially Jats, as rustics, clowns and bumpkins. He recounted, "...The epithets were used in perfectly good humour, with no desire to hurt...but it would be idle to rpetend that they did not proceed from an undercurrent of feeling which, though innocent in appearance, had a vein of disrespect and disdain for my class. Unpleasant heart searching followed, and nurtured the sapling which had been firmly planted in me by the couplet which said, 'in the ordinary course of nature, thousands upon thousands are born everyday, but he alone is truely born whose birth leads to the elevation of the race.' This couplet (hitopedesha) which I had read in one of my textbooks for the first time in 1897 had sown in my young breast the seed of that inchoate desire which in later years grew into a powerful passion for uplifting my class educationally, socially, economically, and politically."
In an article published in the college magazine in 1907, he reflected on the ways to improve the life in rural areas, to end the isolation of people and curb the monoply of the village bania, whom he called 'the incarnation of Shylock in our times'. In 1905, he worked as the Assistant Private Secratary to Raja Rampal Singh of Kalakankar in the United Provinces, but left the job within a month because he resented the Raja's attitude towards him on one particular occasion. He moved to Bharatpur, where he did not find suitable employment. He returned to Kalakankar in 1907 and worked for a few months as the editor of the english newspaper Hindustan and then proceeded to study law in Agra, where he took his degree in 1911.
While teaching at St John's High School and reading law in Agra, Chhotu Ram studied the local conditions in the Agra and Meerut divisions. This knowledge strenghened his desire to 'respond to the inner call for action in the direction of improving the condition of the Jats'.
In 1911 he became the honorary suprintendent of the Jat Boarding House in Agra. In 1912 he set up his legal practice with Chaudhary Lal Chand. Both became involved in recruiting soldiers during the First World War. Owning to their efforts, the Jats provided about half of the total recruits in the Rohtak region. Recruitment figures rose from 6,245 in Jan 1915 to 22,144 in Nov 1918.
A patron of several Jat bodies, Sir Chhotu Ram established the Jat Sabha at Rohtak in 1912. He founded educational institutions, including the Jat Arya Vedic Sanskrit High School in Rohtak and donated the first year's revenue of his grant of five squares of Colony Land to the school after the First World War. The Jat Arya samajists from the Rohtak-Hissar region arranged a meeting in Rohtak on 1 April 1913 to discuss the establishment of the Jat School which was then established on 7 Sept 1913.
He encouraged Jat students to join the Young Jat Association and study at the Jat School in Rohtak and at St Stephen's College and provided support to students for the same.
He exhorted his friends to wear the sacred thread to establish their identity. He attached much social significance to the thread. He saw it as 'a sign of Dwija or twice born, a status conceded to a Jat by the orthodox Hindu only grudgingly'.
Sir Chhotu Ram writing in the Jat Gazzatte in 1916, aired other Jat grievances such as a lack of representation in the judicial bench at Sonipat. Between 1916 and 1919, he wrote again the bahis (account book) and the cruel manner in which moneylenders obtained decrees against poor and ignorant zamindars. In general, he dwelt on their backwardness and their explotation by the brahman-bania combine who acted in collusion with the Raj. A Leader should have a vision, be soft spoken, and carry a compassionate soul. Sir Chhotu Ram translated all this in action. During the period lasting well over two decades, Chhotu Ram had not only filled some very difficult roles with distinction - as, for instance, the co-founder of the Unionist Party, Leader of the party in the Legislature, Minister for Agriculture and development alternately, President of the Council for a short span of time - but also expanded a philosophy of secularism that is as much commended today as in his own times. While the non-agriculturists had outclassed the agriculturists in producing really outstanding men in almost all fields of human concern, especially in the spread of quality education, there had been a tragic dearth of such dedicated men in the rural areas during the last many decades, if not centuries.
Sir Chhotu Ram worked as the president of the Rohtak District Congress Committee from 1916 to 1920. He resigned on 8 Nov 1920, because the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee identified with the urban and the commercial classes, had ignored the rights and claims of the rural population. He made it clear that if he had to make a choice between an urban Hindu and a Muslim agriculturist, he would unhesitantly sympathize with the latter.
What possibly also prompted him to leave the Congress was his conviction that a disadvantaged class like the Jats could not afford to fight against the government (and the Congress essentially stood for anti-government).
He was emerging as the sole spokesman of Jat interests by this time. In the 1920s and 30s, he not only founded various organizations but was the chief inspiration behind the assertion of a specifically Jat identity in Punjab society and politics.
After the war Sir Chhotu Ram extended his activities beyond Rohtak. He set out to mobilize Jats in (the areas of present-day) Rajasthan and western Utter Pradesh, where they were already being organized by the Jat sabha. During the war years, and also thereafter, he developed links with Jat and Arya Samajist leaders, such as Chaudhary Piru Singh, manager of the gurukul in Matindu. Soon he became Piru Singh's legal advisor. His association with the gurukul also brought him in contact with Swami Shraddhanand and he began visiting him in Delhi. His close ally in rohtak was Master Nathu Ram, who worked as a 'recruiting orator' and was popular as an Arya samaj preacher.
Sir Chhotu Ram's association with the local Arya Samajists caused some complaints from the official quarters. They dubbed his undertaking for the advancement of the Jat community and the propagation of Arya doctrines as 'bordering on fanaticism'. He tried to assuage their fears by pointing out, "A Jat Arya Samajist has very little in common with the type of Arya Samajist whom the government has been accustomed to distrust."
He did so to ensure that the British did not impose restrictions on recruiting Jats in the army. He was convinced that recruitment to the army was economically beneficial and helped Jats to emphasise their Kshatriya status.
In 1925 he organized a All India Jat Mahasabha Jalsa at Pushkar in Rajasthan, momentous event in Jat history. In 1934 he organized a rally of 10,000 Jat peasants in Sikar in Rajasthan to launch an anti-rent campaign. The campaigners donned the sacred thread, made offerings of ghee and read from the Satyarth Prakash. The rally was a major event and enhanced his stature.
After 1920, Sir Chhotu Ram also tried to create a non-sectarian peasant group consciousness. He was actively associated with the Punjab Zamindar Central Association, established in 1917 to advance the interests of Hindu and Sikh Jat agriculturalists. This was the first step towards the formation of a homogeneous rural block based on economics rather than religious interests. His demands, which were later adopted by the Punjab legislative council, called for seperate rural and urban constituencies, the allotment of seats in propotion to the population and limiting representation in rural areas to 'agriculturists'. The formation in 1923 of the Unionist Party, a cross-communal alliance of Hindu Jats and Muslim agriculturists committed to the Land Alienation Act of 1900 was the culmination of this process. This also reflected the emerging tensions between urban and rural Arya Samajists.There were many leaders in the Unionist Party hailing from far-flung rural areas - notably, Mian Fazl-i-Husain, Surjit Singh Majithia, Joginder Singh, Sikandar Hyat Khan, besides a number of nawabzadas - yet none was interested in seeking redressal of the peasants' grievances. It is not Known to many that the Bhakhra Dam Scheme was initially got approved by Sir Chhotu Ram.He laid the foundation of the 'Green Revolution' . A substantial portion of his salary as Minister, was set aside as scholarships to bright poor students. Sir Chhotu Ram collected a large amount of funds for the victims of Bihar earthquake of 1934. These were the Punjab Relief Indebtedness Act,1934 and the Punjab Debtor's Protection Act 1936, which emancipated the peasants from the clutches of the money lenders and restored the right of land to the tiller. However, it was Chottu Ram, more than any other, who spectacularly symbolized the cause of the peasants during the darkest hour of modern Indian history.
He asserted that the impovishment of the peasantry was itself the sole cause of indebtedness. He challanged official assumptions on the 'wasteful habits' of peasants and the 'overspending' on marriage, death and festivals. He insisted that land revenue was the principal cause of indebtedness and ruin. He rejected the advocay of cooperatives as a method to curb moneylenders, arguing instead that market forces would not release the peasantry from debt.
Nor did he agree with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who regarded the peasants as a passive identity. He saw the peasant as the agent as well as the beneficiary of the change.Sir Chhotu Ram began writing while in college and continued through out his public life. Among his most influencial writings was 'Thug Bazaar ki Sair'. This was followed by another series, 'Bechara Zamindar', of which 17 appeared in the Jat Gazette. The first series of 'Bechara Zamindar' was written in 1935 and the second in 1936.
'Bechara Zamindar' provides perhaps one of the best insights into Sir Chhotu Ram's political ideology. The series indicated his commitment to the Punjab peasant. He described the peasant as a 'peculiar' being, with 'enormous and difficult responsibilities, but whose rights were always invisible'. He wrote in the Jat Gazatte of 22 March 1935, "In some provinces zamindars are different from peasants. But in Punjab the 2 are synonymous. Here the agriculturists who has proprietary rights in land is the one who actually plows it."
In 'Bechara Zamindar' (and other writings) he saw the peasant as basically naive, uninformed and unaware of the changes taking place around him. In the same pamphlet, he underlines those factors that prevented the peasant from being politically organized and economically developed. One was the narrow religious obscurantism which clouded his vision, heightened 'communal sentiments and destroyed his path'. For this reason, he targeted many superstitiuos beliefs and practices in rural areas and reminded the peasants, "Some exploit you by masqueranding as pirs; some as purohits; some as shah; some through bribery. .... Sometimes you are deceived in account. If you are prosperous then doms, miraris, bhats deceive you. If you are poor, then the moneylender sucks you like a leech. O peasant, how will you survive these demons....!"
In the chapter 'A New Message', he asked peasants to discard puranic or orthodox ideas, adopt 'new ideas' shed their fatalistic outlook aquire a vision and gain self confidence and self-respect. Quoting from the Persian and Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal, he urged the peasants to be self-reliant. He asked them to 'aquire the traits of a lion' and not to be influenced either by the moneylender or the government or by organizations like Congress, Hindu Mahasabha, Muslim League, Sikh League (among others). Instead they should rally around the Zamindar League and take advantage of its activities. He wrote, "I want to see the Punjab peasant prosperous and united .... awakened and standing on his feet, in action and organization."
Though 'Bechara Zamindar' could not be widely read by the rural population, its message was communicated by, among others, the bhajniks. Its appeal was further enhanced because the allegories and stories, along with the dialect, were rooted in the belief system and culture of the Jats (and peasants in general). There was an ambivalent relationship between Sir Chhotu Ram and the British, an aspect ignored by historians who have studied his role within the framework of military loyalism and imperial patronage in Punjab. These historians view the Jats as the mainstay of imperial authority in Punjab and regard Chhotu Ram as the spokesman of the rich and middle peasants. The reality, however, is that he was primarily concerned with the plight of the deprived, the downtrodden and the neglected. He responded to imperial structures and forged tactical alliances with the British and with other agriculturists to further the combined interests of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Jats and consolidate the cultural and territorial identity of Haryana Jats.
Sir Chhotu Ram was equally vocal in assailing the pre-colonial state for its unjustifiable claims over land. He critized the British for reinforcing pre-colonial principles of 'darkness' by claiming ownership of land.By putting forth his own conception of peasant identity, he moved away from the prevalent political rethoric of the Unionist Party (between 1925 and 33), which was primarily concerned with the greater employment of zamindars in government service.
The attachment to land, one of the crucial features of Jat identity, concerned him most. He denounced the government's claim that 'the real owner of the land is the king, the emperor or the government', and maintained that the government's view that it had conferred proprietary rights was 'principally and historically wrong'.
He argued that a peasant was called a peasant by virtue of his ownership of the land. He also demanded the recognition of women as cultivators.
By the 30s, he was disenchanted with the colonial state. His pronouncements disturbed officials in Punjab who went so far as to accuse him of spreading socialism among peasants. The Punjab legislative council also came in for criticism for its lack of concern for the peasant. He said, "our brothers (especially in the Punjab council) were no better in so far as they supported the false claims of the government (in this regard)."
While recognizing the role of the colonial state in the life of the peasant, Sir Chhotu Ram exposed the government's discriminatory policy towards agriculturists, and their lack of representation in public services. Sir Chhotu Ram's ideology combined the endorsment of certain Hindu cultural claims of the Jats with the need for a secular, rural identity for agriculturist communities. While his paradoxial political stance provided the context for the strengthening of the Jat identity, his pro-agriculturist ideology was appropriated by the Unionists and contributed to their electoral success in 1937.
His own understanding of the Jat identity combined the themes of caste (Kshatriya) assertions and land ownership. "The Jats are a quam of warriors and zamindars", he wrote.
His political language drew upon peasant culture and the warrior traditions of the Jats. In this respect, he differed from the other Unionist leaders whose activities were confined to the formal imperial structures and not connected with any mass movement in Punjab.
He worked to project the Jats as a community lacking in self-confidence and in need for both protection and recognition, to boster their self-confidence and transform them into a politically, culturally and economically viable entity.
Equally he broadened the meaning of Jat identity by unifying the cultural strands of the Hindu Jats of Rajasthan, UP and southeast Punjab by providing them with a common language against the cultural subordination of the brahman-bania castes. He did not confine Jatness to a class but rather projected it as a homogeneous cultural community with its distinct identity. Moreover, he was able to establish a direct and close connection with other peasant groupings in Punjab.
The sahukar or bania (moneylender) was a major motif in his narratives. Potrayed as an 'evil force' within the countryside with his easy access to law, land and capital, the moneylender was constantly chided and ridiculed for manipulating prices and controlling marketing and debt relations. He bemoaned the Jat peasants' subservience to the banias.
He employed the bhajniks to propagate the concept of biradari (peasant brotherhood) among the different peasant groups, who in turn saw him as a leader who spoke their language and responded to their needs and aspirations.
After his death in 1945, he was equated with Dayanand Saraswati, their names evoking notions of heroism and serving as reference points for the collective identity of the Jats. Muslim Jats too gave him the title of Rehbar-i-Azam (a great protector).
'Practice subordination of the interests of the individual to the interests of the community systematically until it becomes a habit'. (Sir Chhotu Ram)