Farmer leader Sir Chhotu Ram’s birth anniversary is being celebrated on Tuesday (February 16). Sir Chottu holds considerable sway in Punjab and Haryana and is highly respected even today for his contributions to the uplift of poor farmers, in particular, and the agriculture sector as a whole.
Though he was born on November 24, 1881, Sir Chhotu had announced that ‘Basant Panchami’ (which falls on February 16 this year) should be celebrated as his birthday. And the tradition continues till date.
Rakesh Tikait, national spokesperson of Bhartiya Kisan Union, paid homage to the farmer leader. “On the occasion of Basant Panchami, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of Sir Chhotu Ram Ji, the entire farmer fraternity bows down before the visionary leader,” he said.
Tikait recollected Sir Chhotu’s efforts in the uplift of farmers, the poor, the downtrodden, the suppressed. “He will always be remembered for creating a new awakening among farmers of the country,” he said.
About Sir Chhotu Ram
Unveiling a 64-foot statue of the leader in Rohtak, Haryana, in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Sir Chhotu as a social reformer. “Kisano ki awaaj” [voice of farmers], “kisano ka masiha” [messiah of peasants] and “rehbar-e-azam” (great leader). He said there is a need to make more efforts to realise the dreams of Sir Chhotu. Modi compared him to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel during his speech.
Born in Ghari Sampla village in Rohtak in a Jat family, Sir Chhotu was one of the most prominent pre-partition politicians in Punjab and an ideologue of the Jat peasantry.
His great-grandfather, Ram Rattan, owned a dry and unproductive farmholding of about 10 acres. Debts and litigations were common problems in his family.
The story of the making of a leader started when Chhotu Ram and his father approached the local sahukar (moneylender) at Sampla mandi for a loan, but the sahukar flung a fan at his father “with unspoken indignation to cool his large perspiring semi-naked body”.
The humiliation ignited a fire in Sir Chhotu and he decided to stand up for farmers and their cause. He left his hometown to be enrolled in the Christian Mission School in Delhi, but it was not easy for the family to raise the required funds for his education, so he organised a strike against the in-charge of the boarding house to lower fees, for which he was given the nickname ‘General Roberts’.
Chhotu Ram passed the intermediate examination in 1903. The same year he joined St Stephen’s College and became a graduate in 1905. He obtained his LLB degree from Agra College in 1910 and became a lawyer in 1912.
It is said that Sir Chhotu lived a very simple life. He was known for donating a large part of his income to a school in Rohtak. Besides practising law, he set up the Jat Sabha in 1912, and in the First World War, he recruited more than 22,000 soldiers of Rohtak into the British army. In 1915 he launched his newspaper, Jat Gazette.
Emergence of a leader
Sir Chhotu joined the Congress in 1916. He was president of the Rohtak District Congress Committee till 1920. He left the Congress because he came to the conclusion that Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement ignored farmers.
Besides, he had a complaint against the Congress committee because it identified itself with the urban and commercial classes and “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 unhesitatingly sympathise with the latter.
Along with Sir Fazle-Hussein and Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, he launched the Zamindaran Party, which later became the Unionist Party with support of Hindu and Muslim Jats, Sikh Jats and a vast majority of farmers from different communities.
Sir Chhotu’s writing in the Jat Gazette dwelt on the backwardness of farmers, Jats, Dalits and their exploitation by the Brahmin-Bania combine, which acted in collusion with the British Raj. He wrote against the British as well.
His campaigns and movements in support of farmers made Sir Chhotu a major force in Indian politics; his writings shook the British as well as Indians. Seeing his growing stature among the masses, the then British deputy commissioner of Rohtak proposed “desh nikala [deportation]” of Sir Chhotu. When the proposal came up for discussion, not a single voice came in favour of the deputy commissioner. The then Punjab government told the British rulers that Sir Chhotu was a revolution in himself. If they get him removed from the country, there will be a revolution and every other farmer will become Sir Chhotu. Of course, the deportation order had to be cancelled. In addition, the deputy commissioner had to tender an apology.
In the 1937 provincial elections of Punjab, of the 175 seats, the Unionist Party won 99, the Congress and the Muslim League together managed 19, the Khalsa Nationalists got 13 and the Hindu Mahasabha secured 12. The new ministry was sworn in with Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan as premier and Sir Chhotu as revenue minister. He held the post till his death on January 9, 1945, aged 63.
Reforms for farmers
As a member of the pre-partition Punjab Legislative Council, his first major achievement was the passage of the Punjab Land Revenue (Amendment) Act, 1929, which remains a landmark social legislation to date.
The exploitation of farmers by moneylenders was brought to an end with a series of measures, starting with the Punjab Regulation of Accounts Act, 1930. It was followed by the Punjab Debtors Protection Act of 1936 and the Punjab Relief of Indebtedness Act, 1943.
It became mandatory for moneylenders to register themselves, without which they could not advance loans or prosecute farmers. All land attached and sold after June 8, 1901, and mortgaged for 37 years, was restored to its owners.
The Punjab Agricultural Produce Markets Act was passed in 1939. Popularly known as the ‘Mandi Act’, the new legislation provided for the constitution of market committees in notified areas and helped free the farmer from exploitation. Consolidation of land holdings was undertaken after passing the Consolidations Holding Act, 1936, amended in 1945.
Sir Chhotu also conceived the idea of building the Bhakra Nangal Dam, the only dam meant for irrigation in Punjab and Haryana states to date. He had the Punjab government sign an agreement with the Raja of Bilaspur, who had the right to the waters of the River Sutlej. Sir Chhotu also banned the killing of peacocks by British.
Not only were all these laws passed, but also implemented. A grateful peasantry rewarded him with the titles of Deen-Bandhu and Rahbar-e-Azam. The British honoured him with knighthood in 1937.
Sir Chhotu’s ideology combined the endorsement of certain Hindu cultural claims of the Jats with the need for a secular, rural identity for agriculturist communities. While his paradoxical political stance provided the context for strengthening of the Jat identity, his pro-agriculturist ideology was appropriated by the Unionists, which contributed to their electoral success.
His own understanding of the Jat identity combined the themes of caste (Kshatriya) assertions and land ownership. He worked to project the Jats as a community lacking in self-confidence and in need of both protection and recognition, to bolster their self-confidence and transform them into a politically, culturally, and economically viable entity.
Also read: How deep has BJP’s ‘Ram ban’ stung Bengal
Chaudhary Ramphal Singh, a khap leader from Haryana, told The Federal, “Today, farmers’ land is being auctioned, tractors are being auctioned, they are suffering from lack of water to irrigate their fields and low market prices for their produce. The Hindu and Muslims of this country are divided to just get votes when we had a leader in the past who used to say ‘Hindus and Muslims have to live together and die together.’”
“Had Chhotu Ram lived today, no political party would have dared to create a divide among Hindus and Muslims and farmers would not have suffered,” he added.