In British colonial India, the unrest of the peasants and the workers was a well-established common feature, as the colonial set-up was interested in gaining maximum revenue from the cultivator and wanted to obtain maximum profit by paying meager wages to the workers.
But by the time we come to the second decade of the 20th century, due to the ongoing Indian independence struggle and the Gandhian strategy of mass involvement in national struggle, the peasants and workers too became a part of the national movement.
Consequently, separate organizations representing the interests of the peasants and workers took shape in different parts of India.
In 1918, the UP Kisan Sabha was set up by Gouri Shankar Misra and Indra Narain Dwivedi whose effort was blessed by Madan Mohan Malaviya. The Kisan Sabha played very active role in championing the cause of nationalism in 1919, 1920 and 1921 and we notice a change in the nature of the peasant activity towards violence and looting.
In the region of Avadh, peasant discontentment surfaced again under the leadership of the EKA or unity movement but the relation between the EKA movement and the nationalist movement minimized due to the refusal of EKA leaders to follow the discipline of the nationalist movement.
Kerala witnessed the peasant movement of the Mappilas in 1921. This movement was repressed by the local authorities. It was a violent movement and further communalization of the movement isolated the Mappilas in which nearly ten thousand people died. Besides UP and Malabar, Bardoli in Gujarat also witnessed an organized peasant rebellion in 1928, in which Vallabhai Patel played a crucial role. Gandhi spoke of Bardoli as follows: “whatever the Bardoli struggle may be, it clearly is not a struggle for the attainment of Swaraj.
That every such awakening, every such effort as that of Bardoli will bring Swaraj nearer and may it bring it nearer even than any direct effort is undoubtedly true”. Bipan Chandra observes, “the modern worker makes his appearance in India in the second half of the 19th century with the slow beginning of modern industry and the growth of the utilities like the railways, and the post and telegraph network”.
He further observes “the process of the desperate groups of workers in various parts of country emerging as an organized self-conscious, all India class is inextricably linked with the growth of the Indian national movement through the process of the Indian nation in the making because the notion of the Indian working class could not exist before the notion of the Indian people had begun to take root”. Attempts were made in 1870-1880 to better the working conditions of the workers by legislation.
Till the Swadeshi surge of 1903-8, there was no concerted effort to better the working conditions of the labor: Once again between 1915-1922, there was resurgence of workers’ movement along with the Home Rule movement and the Non-cooperation movement. The most important development was undoubtedly, the formation of All-India Trade Union Congress under the leadership of Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai. Since then the working class movement became strong and by 1930 onwards ideological tone was added to the movement.
The last years of the colonial rule also saw a remarkable sharp increase in strikes on economic issues all over the country. The all-India strike of the Post and Telegraph Department employees being the most well known among them. The peasant organizations started in various parts of India could not effectively mobilize the peasants, so it was realized that there should be independent Kisan Sabhas.
Consequently, Bihar Kisan Sabha in 1927, the Provincial Kisan Sabha in UP in 1935, the Madras Presidency Ryots Association in 1935, the Madras Presidency Agriculturists Association in 1937 and a Kisan School at Nidubrolu in 1938 were started to train the ‘kisans’ in
organizational work. As a result of the pressure exerted by these organizations, the Debt Relief Act of UP of 1934, the Regulations of Accounts Act in 1934 in Punjab, the Moneylenders Act in 1939 and the Relief of Indebtedness Act of 1935 in Bengal were passed. The first All India Kisan Congress was founded in 1935.
The Congress ministries between 1937-1939 passed certain acts to improve the conditions of the peasants. The Second World War for a short time put brakes in the peasant movements. The demand for abolition of Zamindaris was pressed with greater sense of urgency. In Andhra region there was a struggle for higher wages and use of standard measures for payment of wages in kind. The peasants of Punnapra-Vayalar in Travancore fought bloody bitter battles with the police.
The famous Telangana armed struggle is an example of peasants’ resistance against landlords oppression and it played a crucial role in the anti-Nizam struggle. One more peasant struggle that deserves our notice was the Tebhaga struggle in Bengal led by the sharecroppers in 1946. Bipan Chandra observes that the peasant movements of pre-independent India were not clearly aimed at the overthrow of the existing agrarian structure but towards alleviating its most oppressive aspects.