June 12 is observed as Bardoli Day. It was the women peasants of the Gujarat village, where farmers launched a satyagraha against the British agrarian tax policies, who bestowed the title on Patel

Almost a hundred years ago, peasant farmers in Bardoli taluk in modern-day Gujarat rose up in revolt against an impassive administration that scoffed at their genuine grievances and demands. Oppressive agrarian tax policies threatened to impoverish these farmers and their attempts to negotiate with the government came a cropper. Their backs to the wall, they initiated a non-compliance campaign. The successful outcome of this campaign was a portent of things to come.

In 1927, the revenue department of the Bombay Government had enhanced land revenue assessment in Bardoli taluk by 22 per cent. Owing to certain specific complexities in the assessment, in some cases this came to as much as 60 per cent enhancement. This meant that land taxes increased considerably. Many Bardoli peasants had contested this change and pointed out that the enhancement was unjust. More worryingly, it had been established without a thorough investigation. In addition, they had also attempted to convey to the authorities that the increase in the tax was unjustifiable and that the tax inspector’s report needed a relook.

The local Congress Party leadership had published a report to demonstrate that peasants could not afford the enhanced assessments. A committee appointed by the Congress had drafted a petition and waited upon the Revenue Member of the state government early in 1927. But the administration was unrelenting. The claims and petition were dismissed and the peasants were brusquely told to obey the law.

Irked, the Bardoli peasants decided to organize a campaign to impress upon the Bombay government to reconsider the land assessment in their taluk. In September 1927, they held a conference in Bardoli, where participants resolved not to pay the enhanced bit of the assessment.

On January 5, 1928, the peasant leadership invited Vallabhbhai Patel to lead them in their struggle. By this time, a government order had been issued that directed tax collectors to proceed with collections. Patel accepted the presidency of the conference of the peasants which met on February 4, 1928. His attempts to write and convince the government about its untenable demands were not entertained. The government was in no mood to change its mind. On February 12, 1928, the peasant organisation passed a resolution: it reiterated both the demand for an enquiry and the refusal to pay the assessment until the government either accepted the amount of the old assessment as full payment or until an investigation was ordered.

The battle lines were clearly drawn. Over the next four months in a campaign that would culminate in a frontal confrontation in June 1928, the peasants and the government went head-to-head.

The people of Bardoli

Those who participated in the Bardoli Satyagraha constituted a heterogeneous group. They belonged to different castes and economic and social strata. The taluk consisted of about 137 villages which supported a population of 87,000. It was by and large, rural, and close to 76 per cent of its population depended on agriculture. Brahmins, Rajputs, Patidars, Banias, tribal groups such as the Dublas, Chodhras and others constituted the bulk of the population as did small groups of Muslims and Parsis. The Brahmins, Rajputs, Patidars and Banias constituted the upper end of the income spectrum. Many of them owned land on which the tribal groups worked. But caste and village councils were functional throughout the region due to which there was a fair degree of unity among the people.

On the political front, Bardoli had been chosen as the centre of the ‘no-tax’ movement in 1922 at the height of the Non-Co-operation Movement. But the violent incidents at Chauri Chaura had then occurred and Gandhi had called off the movement and instructed the peasants to pay the tax. That being the case, the people were politically aware and willing to brave the inevitable hardship that their campaign would bring them.

The movement

In such a socio-economic environment, Kuvarji Mehta, his brother, Kalyanji and Vallabhbhai Patel, began their campaign. Patidars by caste, the leaders belonged to the landed class. Kuvarji and Kalyanji were local leaders and Bardoli natives, in touch with its people and village-level leadership. Back in 1922, the brothers had prepared the ground for the ‘no-tax’ movement which did not fructify. The brothers were ‘the real makers of Bardoli’ and it was their work on the ground that prepared the ground for the massive political struggle which was launched by Vallabhbhai Patel in 1928.

Patel was a state and national level leader. He was the president of the Gujarat Congress, a position he held for over 25 years. He was close to Gandhi and able to communicate in larger circles and win friends and influence the populace beyond the confines of Bardoli. While Patel and the Mehta brothers moved in different circles owing to the fact that the older Mehta was a local schoolteacher while Patel was a barrister, their understanding of the social system was similar owing to their rural agricultural backgrounds.

To begin with, Patel, the Mehta brothers and other local leaders like Narhari Parikh, Ravi Shankar Vyas and Mohanlal Pandya talked to village chiefs. All farmers were instructed not to pay the tax. Patel assured the people repeatedly that he understood their issues and resolved to find a solution. He made sure to address all caste groups and attempted to visit virtually every village in the region.

Bardoli was divided into zones with leaders and volunteers in each zone. A bunch of activists also maintained a close vigil on government officials who were actually going to travel the region to collect taxes. Realizing that collection wasn’t going to be easy, many tax collectors were accompanied by Pathans from northwest India who were instructed to rough up the farmers and their families. As collectors roamed the region, forced themselves into houses, seized property, cattle and anything else they could get their hands on, the populace maintained restraint and did not resort to violence.

Soon, a movement of non-co-operation began. Collectors found no bullock carts or means of travel to get to the villages from the Bardoli railway station. Menfolk decamped to safer places along with what little valuables they had. The womenfolk who stayed behind refused to come out of their houses. Patel himself travelled from village to village to boost morale and keep the movement going. This, he did, in the nights, choosing to travel only after 5 pm to escape police attention.

As time passed, the government’s resolve to collect tax weakened. When they attempted to auction the land and property they had seized, none came forward to purchase. The few who did, faced a social boycott. Bardoli became the talking point of the nation. Members of the Bombay Legislative Assembly resigned in protest against government excesses. Others resigned their government jobs in protest. Strident editorials were written in the popular publications, urging the government to end its reign of terror and find a workable solution. On June 12, a series of solidarity meetings were held and fund-raising organised to assist the Bardoli peasants in their struggle. This day has since been observed as ‘Bardoli Day’.

The Solution

With the government at its wits’ end, a member of the Governor’s Council came forward with a face-saving formula. The government constituted a new assessment committee which recommended a 5.7 per cent increase. While the government refused to return confiscated land, wealthy individuals from Bombay came forward to buy the land from the government and return it to their previous owners. Even as farmers celebrated their victory, Patel oversaw this process of land return before leaving the region to continue his political work in Ahmedabad and Bombay. Before Patel left, the women of Bardoli bestowed him with a title that has since remained attached to his name. Vallabhbhai Patel was now ‘Sardar’.

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