Seeking Political Alternative: Perspectives on Peasants Activism in Ambedkar’s Newspaper Janata

This paper will focus on the anti-Khoti peasant agitations held in rural Konkan by consulting Ambedkar’s newspaper Janata. Through the writings of Janata, we get a clearer picture of how political activism in Konkan in the 1930s was conducted under Ambedkar’s leadership. Janata thus highlights and marks the peculiarities of anti-caste peasant activism. It also demonstrates how Ambedkar’s ideas and activism influenced the Dalit self and were simultaneously influenced by the interlocutors within and outside the Dalit community. This paper will also focus on the fascinating developments in organised Dalit politics of the 1930s. Janata’s writings mainly help track the strengths and weaknesses of Dalit radicalism in Konkan. 

Academic writings focusing on anti-caste movements have conducted significant explorations in the last few decades. Scholars focusing on the implications of lower caste and Dalit activism in the past one hundred and fifty years have played a crucial role in bringing a complex trajectory of modern India to the fore. Consequently, scholarly writings on Dr B. R. Ambedkar are seldom limited to invoking the life and times of the man who was pivotal in building the social and political edifice of post-colonial India. Instead, it has also inaugurated different possibilities for scholars to rethink the course of modern India in the last 75 years and beyond; and subsequently re-engage with the past and the present from a fresh perspective. It has further simultaneously stimulated vibrant discussions on caste, modernity, colonialism, and politics. Therefore, the scope of academic research on Ambedkar and his politics has grown manifold and transcended beyond a person's life story. 
However, many historical aspects associated with Ambedkar’s politics in western India have not been explored yet, thus demanding closer attention and serious scrutiny from academia. Ambedkar’s leadership emerged in the decade of the 1920s, a period that decisively shaped the contours of post-colonial India. In this decade, the foundations of Gandhian nationalism were laid that instrumentally shaped mass politics in the late colonial and post-colonial periods. The decade was signified by the emergence of organisational politics centred around Socialism and Marxism in India that sought to foreground a political discourse around capitalism, colonialism, and the proletariat. The 1920s also furnished a fertile ground for the flourishing of Hindu nationalist politics in India with the formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the foregrounding of Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva. Ambedkar’s leadership thrived in the next three decades amid this churning, finally ending with his death in 1956. To appreciate the dynamism of Dalit political activism in western India that flourished in western India during this period, there is a greater need to look beyond Ambedkar’s writings.  Although his works undoubtedly provide a critical perspective on the caste question and autonomous Dalit politics that emerged in this period, it does not give a comprehensive view of everyday politics from a Dalit political perspective. It becomes difficult to trace the roots of specific arguments formulated by Dalits during that period without probing deeper into other vital archival sources related to it. 
Marathi Dalit newspapers established by Ambedkar can address the gap as they are primary archival sources that extensively deal with the history of organised Dalit politics. Despite vibrant scholarship on Dalit agitational movements in western India, there is no considerable academic engagement with the newspapers established by organised Dalit politics. The newspapers provide interesting real-time and spontaneous reflections on the socio-political transformations unfolding in the background. Newspapers such as Mooknayak (1920-1923), Bahishkrit Bharat (1927-29), Janata (1930-56), and Prabuddha Bharat (1956) provide an exciting trajectory of the ongoing churning from the Dalit political perspective. The distinctiveness of these periodicals is situated in their close association with organised Dalit politics that emerged under Ambedkar’s leadership. These periodicals thus help to not only understand the subaltern political perspective but also provide a vivid picture and a closer view of Dalit political activism in western India. From the early 1920s, when Dalit journalism began to set its foot in the Marathi public sphere, organised Dalit politics also began. Thus, these newspapers also replicate the trajectory of Dalit political discourse from the early 1920s, when the Dalit question was not overtly politicised, to the mid-1950s, when caste and untouchability became one of the dominant concerns of the social and political discourse in India. 
This paper will focus on the anti-Khoti peasant agitations held in rural Konkan by consulting Ambedkar’s newspaper Janata. The anti-caste peasant radicalism of the 1930s under Ambedkar’s leadership provided multiple avenues for Dalits to forge broader alliances with the non-Dalit masses. For Dalit politics in western India, a firm negation of Hinduism distinguished this decade from the previous one. Through the writings of Janata, we get a clearer picture of how political activism in Konkan in the 1930s was conducted under Ambedkar’s leadership. Janata thus highlights and marks the peculiarities of anti-caste peasant activism. It also demonstrates how Ambedkar’s ideas and activism influenced the Dalit self. The interlocutors simultaneously influenced it within and outside the Dalit community. Janata was one of them. This paper will also focus on the fascinating developments in organised Dalit politics of the 1930s. Janata’s writings mainly help track the strengths and weaknesses of Dalit radicalism in Konkan. The early years of the 1930s saw the foregrounding of =Dalit discourse at the national level. But by the late 1930s, Dalit politics had lost substantial political ground to the hegemony of the Congress party, despite its considerable appeal among Dalits.

The Establishment of Janata
The Janata was established on 24th November 1930, on the eve of the first Round Table Conference. Unlike the titles given to his previous newspapers (Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat), the title Janata suggested Ambedkar’s desire to broaden the Dalit political horizon beyond the question of untouchability. Therefore, the first editorial published in Janata saw capitalism and colonialism as fodder for India’s perpetuation of caste structures. From its inception, Janata clarified that it would not be confined to untouchability alone. “Instead”, the editorial remarked, “it would strive to broaden its perspective by focusing equally on different forms of exploitations perpetrated by caste, capitalism and colonialism” (Janata, 24th November 1930). The writings in Janata thus demonstrate how the Ambedkar-led anti-caste activism, dominated primarily by the Mahars, negotiated with broader questions of class, caste, and organisational activism. The Mahars played a crucial role in laying the foundations of assertive anti-caste political activism in western India in the early 20th century. Janata provides comprehensive reporting of different political strategies adopted by the Mahars. Along with the Mahars, agrarian castes, including Agris, Kunbis, and Bhandaris, played a crucial role in foregrounding a sharp critique of caste and class, which led to an evolution of assertive political activism in Konkan in the 1930s. 
Since its establishment, Janata made a different impression in the public sphere than other contemporary periodicals devoted to the caste question. One of the most tangible aspects of its distinctiveness in the 1930s was reflected in its composition of the editorial and managerial staff. Devrao Naik, a Brahmin by caste and Marxist in orientation, was appointed as the first editor of the Janata. Bhaskar Raghunath Kadrekar, an activist associated with the Bhandari caste, became the manager of the Bharat Bhushan Printing press, which Ambedkar established. Dalits like Sitaram Shivtarkar, S.A. Upsham, and Sambhaji Gaikwad remained closely associated with the management of the Janata. Thus, the social diversity in Janata’s staff significantly helped bring about unique articulations on caste, class, and contemporary politics. In the decade of the 1930s, Janata got as many as three editors to lead the periodical. Immediately after the stepping down of Naik in 1932, Bhaskarrao Kadrekar was appointed as the new editor and then followed by Gangadhar Sahastrabuddhe in 1939. 
On the other hand, Ambedkar’s role as a journalist and editor was quite limited. Out of the four newspapers he established in his lifetime, he occupied the editorial position only once.[1]  As far as Janata was concerned, he had delegated the task of running the daily affairs of the newspaper to his close colleagues. Still, he played an enormous role in shaping its journalism, thereby helping consolidate an alternative news platform for Dalits in western India. The newspapers published under his leadership, such as Janata, are repositories of vast material on organised political activism in late colonial India. It methodically encapsulates the evolution of organised Dalit politics in western India from the 1920s onwards. Among many aspects of modern India's social and political history, Ambedkar’s newspapers help determine how organised Dalit politics emerged and evolved in western India in the early 20th century. Like any significant archival source, Janata assists in grasping the larger picture of the period, thereby signifying the nature and patterns of mass mobilisation undertaken by the then Dalit leadership. Simultaneously, it provides lenses to determine how a specific agenda was appropriated in organisational Dalit mass politics. Thus, it facilitates the gap in understanding the relationship between grass root activism and ideological politics. We get a closer overview of the mass mobilisations, political processes, and ideological/political shifts that occurred during the changing circumstances in this period. Hence, Janata is a potent archival source to understand the alternative history of political activism in 20th-century India. 

Forgotten Peasant History: Perspectives on the Anti-Khoti Movement in Ambedkar’s Janata
The decade of the 1920s was dominated by working-class turbulence in Bombay city, which greatly influenced the struggle against the Khoti system in Konkan. The strikes of 1924 and 1928-29 in the Bombay-based textile mills illustrated a new-found language of protest and radicalism of Bombay-based working classes. A significant majority of the strikers belonged to the Konkan region. Due to the high population density in Konkan and high pressure on land, migration was a common phenomenon that increased the population of Konkani workers in Bombay (Chandavarkar 2002; Suradkar 2013). The connections of Konkani workers with their respective villages were never broken due to fluctuating employment opportunities in Bombay city.  Unrest amongst migrant workers, who were shunned in the villages, was an important reason for the emergence of a dynamic platform against the Khoti system in Konkan in the 1930s. It became a fertile background for the anti-Khoti struggle led by Ambedkar and his colleagues in Konkan.
From the beginning of his public life, Ambedkar was politically involved with the Konkan region.  The Chaudar tank satyagraha (water tank agitations) of 1927 at Mahad, situated in Konkan (then Kulaba district), provided substantial recognition to his leadership in western India. The Mahad satyagraha of 1927 played an instrumental role in laying the foundations of organised Dalit politics in western India. However, his involvement with the region grew even more in the subsequent period. His intervention in the peasant protest movement became prominent in the 1930s when peasants began to organise themselves. It was after the establishment of the Konkan Praant Shetkari Sangh by Anant Chitre that Ambedkar’s participation grew. Chitre, a caste-Hindu Kayastha, was Ambedkar’s most crucial associate in the Konkan region. 
Janata was one of the few Marathi periodicals that dealt extensively with the caste-class question in the 1930s. It regularly reported and commented on the peasants’ and workers’ politics in Konkan and Bombay. It provides detailed accounts of political activism often neglected in mainstream historical narratives. Peasant activism led by Ambedkar in Konkan was primarily centred on the plight of Konkani peasants oppressed by the Khoti system. Ambedkar and his colleagues successfully built a formidable platform to demand the abolition of Khoti landlordism. 
The Shetkari Sangh, founded by Chitre, became one of Konkan's most powerful peasants’ organisations in the 1930s. In its first-ever pamphlet, published in Janata (Janata, 27th April 1931), the Shetkari Sangh enunciated its fourfold objectives that summed up its political position. They were: a) eradication of the Khoti system, b) to seek legislation to punish the duplicity and dishonest practices of the Savkars (money lenders) c) to seek legislation to curb and punish forcible evictions by the Savkars and Zamindars (landlords), d) to seek legislation to reduce land revenue. The pamphlet observed that, until peasant society realised its strength, the working classes' assertive activism was impossible. It argued that the power of peasant solidarity in India largely depended on its unity, whereas their most significant weakness was caste which impedes their unity. Brahmanism and feudalism were two critical causes that perpetuated the oppression of the peasantry. The argument articulated by the Shetkari Sangh on Brahmanism and feudalism signified its politics, thereby distinguishing its stance from other conventional peasant movements of that time.
In the 1930s, Ambedkar had increasingly realised that until the Dalit movement wages battle against the larger structures of exploitation, such as capitalism, imperialism, and landlordism, it was difficult for them to carry forward the project of caste annihilation. Few academic and popular writings have tried to invoke Ambedkar’s politics through the problematic theme of colonial patronage and collaborationist politics (Chandra et al. 2007; Shourie 2004). However, the recent scholarship has gone beyond the old simplistic binaries invoked earlier. It has attempted to critically understand the significance of Ambedkar’s politics concerning dominant discourses on majoritarianism, caste class, and colonialism.[2]  The writings published in Janata in the 1930s reflect Ambedkar’s concerns about engaging caste with labour. Janata was not prepared to simplistically equate caste with class, which the Communists had already stated in the 1920s and 1930s.  Janata rather supported the bringing of two perspectives together. It tried to define the relationship between the Khot landlords and the peasants by invoking the inherent oppression encountered by the peasant. It argued that the ideological fabric of Brahmanism and feudalism were interconnected with the larger structures of oppression, which reproduced caste hierarchy and class servitude. According to Janata, caste played a vital role in discouraging the unity of peasants against the oppression of the Khot landlords (Janata: 9th February 1931). Therefore, throughout the anti-Khoti agitations in the decade, Janata continuously appealed to the peasants to seriously consider the evils of caste for an effective struggle against the landlords. For Janata, the worsening condition of the peasants was ushered by colonial, capitalist, and feudal powers, whereas caste and Brahmanism caused the eventual deterioration of the peasantry (Janata, 20th April 1932).
Janata minutely recorded the upheavals caused by peasant activism in the 1930s. In 1932, for example, prominent leaders of the Shetkari Sangh had come under the government scanner. The colonial government alleged that Shetkari Sangh was involved in spreading discontent against the government. On the pretext of these allegations, Shetkari Sangh was banned for two years, from 1932 to 1934. Under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the government prohibited Anant Chitre and Narayan Patil from addressing public meetings (Janata: 16th January 1932). The activities of the Shetkari Sangh were seemingly unaffected by the ban. Reports in the Janata exemplify how the resentment of the peasantry against the Khots became evident in the villages of Konkan subsequently after the ban. It resulted in a violent upsurge of Dalit peasants of Underi village (Kulaba district), causing the death of a Khot landlord in 1933. By December 1933, the peasants of Underi (mostly Mahars and Chambhars) were convicted of murdering the landlord. They were subsequently sentenced to ten years of imprisonment by the Sessions Court. Janata initiated a campaign in 1934 to collect funds to support the convicted Dalit peasants against the conviction (Janata, 20th January 1934; Surwade 1986: p.174). Ambedkar defended the peasants in a legal battle and successfully reduced their sentence (Janata, 4th August 1934). In another instance of emerging peasant radicalism, the Kulaba unit of the Shetkari Sangh was involved in the first peasants’ strike in the Chari village of Alibaug Taluka. The strike lasted for two years. Under Shetkari Sangh's leadership, the Chari peasants refused to perform any services to the Khot landlords. It was mainly due to the exposure by the Janata to oppressive Khot landlords that the Khoti question received greater attention.  
Janata provided numerous accounts of the activities carried out by the Shetkari Sangh. The support for the Shetkari Sangh grew exponentially after its establishment in 1931. This testifies to the significance of the political stance taken by Ambedkar and his organisation. Despite prohibitions and restrictions in the early 1930s, the Shetkari Sangh maintained its mass following among the peasants throughout the decade. In this crisis period, Ambedkar provided leadership to the organisation and defended the peasants in the court. Thus, his role in developing the peasant resistance defies the popular historical narrative that Ambedkarite politics was indifferent to these questions.
Due to the energetic machinery of activists on the ground, the Shetkari Sangh was able to decisively shape the agitations-centric politics in the region. The activities conducted by the organisation were regularly reported in Janata. For example, a report was published in Janata on the Konkan Prantik Shetkari Parishad, which was organised at Khed (Ratnagiri District) by Anant Chitre in 1931. Ambedkar was supposed to preside over the event but could not attend it. His followers, expecting to listen to him, had come from all over the district to participate in the meeting. Although they were disappointed by his absence, the Janata reported how Dalit and non-Dalit peasants enthusiastically shared the same pandal during this meeting. The editor of the Janata, Devrao Naik, who presided over the meeting, enthusiastically spoke about the need to combine caste and class struggles. In his speech, Naik termed Ambedkar’s politics as ‘inclusive’ and indeed ‘nationalist’ compared to the established nationalist voices. The resolutions passed in this meeting urged peasants to maintain unity irrespective of their caste and religious differences. The panel also passed a resolution that proposed a demand to nationalise core economic resources like land, industries, Railways, and mines (Janata, 25th May 1931). Alternative narratives of inclusive nationalism were continuously figured in the writings of Janata, where Ambedkar’s politics was heralded as the true embodiment of inclusive nationalist politics. 
Thus, Janata became a formidable platform to voice the grievances of the peasantry in Konkan. It regularly posted anguished letters from the victimised peasants highlighting the violence and exploitation inflicted by the Khot landlords on the peasants. These letters mentioned how at times, tenants were severally punished by Khot landlords for trivial reasons (For example, Janata, 12th February 1938). Janata’s ability to transcend beyond caste to align with the cause of the Dalit and non-Dalit peasants has often been underestimated by historians and scholars. Despite Ambedkar’s explosive declaration to quit Hinduism in 1935, the support for his organisations in Konkan did not witness a decline. The Shetkari Sangh and Independent Labour Party (ILP) grew remarkably in the 1930s, leading to phenomenal success in the 1937 elections. Janata thus provides enough information on the modus-operandi of the activism undertaken by Ambedkar in the region. The protest rally led by the ILP in Bombay in January 1938 to support Ambedkar’s draft of the anti-Khoti Bill was attended by around 20,000 peasants from all over Konkan (Janata, 19th February 1938). 

Caste and the Inherent Contradictions in the Konkan-Based Peasant Politics
It is also important to note that despite ILP’s electoral success in Konkan in 1937, the party could not translate that success into long-term mobilisation. Despite its efforts to produce radical articulations against capitalism and feudalism, ILP remained overwhelmingly a ‘Dalit’ party in western India except in Konkan. The political language of peasants and workers’ solidarity did not favour ILP in areas outside Konkan. Although attempts were made to raise relevant issues about workers and peasants by ILP outside Konkan, it was unable to attract non-Dalit peasants and workers to its political organisation as it did in Konkan. It is not as if the efforts were not taken to reach out to different non-Dalit groups beyond the Konkan region. It was reflected in ILP’s alignment with peasant leaders like Swami Sahajanand and Indulal Yagnik of the All India Kisan Sabha in 1938 (Janata, 28th May 1938). Simultaneously, in East Khandesh, ILP tried to organise Bhil tribes, who demanded that the government grant them land and carve out a land reform policy for landless tribals. Under the leadership of D.G. Jadhav, an ILP member of the Legislative Council representing East Khandesh, many agitations were organised (Janata, 24th February 1940). But these efforts did not reproduce results as they did in the case of the anti-Khoti movement in Konkan. Therefore, political campaigns of ILP outside Konkan, between 1937 and 1942, were mainly carried forward upon the question of conversion, critique of caste and Hinduism, atrocities against Dalits and demand for equal social rights, knowing well that the ‘Konkan pattern’ would not be replicated in other parts of Bombay Presidency. 
The reports in the Janata show us that the election campaign strategies adopted by the ILP in Konkan were deeply entrenched in forming cross-caste solidarity between Dalits and different peasant castes. Outside Konkan, barring a few seats, the ILP was contesting elections mostly in seats reserved for Dalits. Therefore, the election campaigns held in the reserved constituencies were naturally dominated by discussions on conversion and Dalit-centric grievances. Accounts of the ILP campaigns outside Konkan published in the Janata reports show that the responses of the non-Dalit castes were not very exciting.  Dalits widely participated in constituencies outside Konkan, but there was no cross-caste participation outside Konkan. The ILP won the highest number of seats (Five) from Konkan in the Legislative Council elections of 1937. Even in Konkan, a stronghold of ILP, a popular mass Dalit leader like Vishram Sawadkar could not win a seat from an unreserved constituency. Secondly, outside the Konkan region, election campaigns and public meetings organised by the ILP in the reserved constituencies did not draw in the caste-Hindu peasants despite the pro-peasant agenda of the ILP. This suggests the practical difficulties for the party in translating its inclusive agenda into substantive electoral support outside Khoti-stricken regions. The careful study of the poll results of the 1937 elections could help us to understand why Konkan, once considered Ambedkar’s political bastion turned him down entirely in the next elections of 1946. It could also help track the trajectory of political consciousness and its decisive liaison with caste. 
Therefore, it is essential to note that Konkan’s close association with Bombay city played a vital role in the rise of ILP in Konkan. Also, a significant percentage of the population among Dalit residents in Bombay city had their traditional, family, or ancestral links with Konkan. Their connection with the rural Konkan helped Ambedkar to initiate anti-Khoti agitations in Konkan and further establish a strong base for the ILP there.[3]  The leadership of non-Dalits like Anant Chitre, Surendranath Tipnis, and Narayan Patil was instrumental in invigorating the mass political mobilisation of Konkani peasants, which attracted many non-Dalits to participate in the movement. On the other hand, most non-Dalit workers in Bombay city remained aloof from the political activities of ILP. They largely remained loyal to either Congress or the Communists but seldom associated with ILP. 
Furthermore, the mass base of ILP in Bombay city was mainly concentrated among Dalits. Even Ambedkar was aware of this problem and consistently argued that, unless the battle against caste was waged, the idea of a ‘working class’ was an illusion (Jafferlot, 2005). In his address at Manmad in 1938, Ambedkar poignantly observed that “One of the difficulties in the way of the growth of the Independent Labour Party is social, and not political. The fact that its substratum or nucleus consists of the Depressed Classes is the only thing that stands in the way of the growth and expansion of the party. It is the general feeling of not associating with low-class people, such as the Depressed Classes, which has prevented caste Hindu workers from joining the fold of the ILP.” (Khairmode 1985).
Although the momentum of the anti-caste peasant activism under Ambedkar’s leadership was short-lived, its ramifications significantly shaped Dalit politics in the later decades.  The gradual decline began much before the disintegration of ILP. Janata also began losing its substantial membership by the late 1930s. Reports and commentaries in Janata in the late 1930s and the early 1940s also provide a few hints at developing crises within ILP. The ILP had lost significant political ground in Konkan, mainly among its core non-Dalit voters (primarily peasants), by the early 1940s. In 1942, Ambedkar disbanded ILP to establish Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF). The SCF faced a crushing defeat in the provincial elections held in 1946, and it lost all the seats it contested from Bombay. Therefore, the 1940s decade was a challenge and a moment of crisis for organised Dalit politics. In this regard, it is argued that the organisational weakness of Dalit politics and failure to address majoritarian versions of nationalism led to the collapse of Dalit politics in the 1940s (Bandyopadhyay, 2000). However, despite a considerable organisational decline in SCF in western India, Congress could not wipe it out completely. The legacy of assertive anti-caste activism was carried forward emphatically even after Ambedkar died in 1956. 
The critical reasons for the short-lived life of the anti-caste peasant politics were not based on organisational collapse or the inability of these organisations to reach out to different groups. It could be one of the factors contributing to the decline of assertive anti-caste peasant radicalism in Konkan. However, the failure lay in the inability to integrate the caste question within the agenda of peasant politics. The peasant politics shaped by the dominant landed castes in the post-colonial era could not address the questions concerning caste inequalities within the rural fabric that resulted in the perpetuation of caste hegemony, violence, and atrocities against Dalits.  The rhetoric of ‘peasant unity’ thus fails despite some noticeable exceptions to attract substantial support from Dalits during peasant mobilisations throughout the post-Independence period. 

Ambedkarite peasant radicalism of the 1930s provided multiple avenues for Dalits to forge wide-ranging alliances with non-Dalit masses. Janata’s depiction of the Ambedkar-led peasant activism of the 1930s offers a solid narrative to understand the long-term significance of anti-caste politics in western India. Throughout his political life, Ambedkar attempted to devise multiple strategies to build alliances with different groups. On the other hand, popular historical narratives have often invoked Ambedkar from a narrow perspective. Janata thus provides details of political activism that highlighted how Ambedkar’s involvement in the anti-Khoti activism of Konkan was beyond tokenism. It also underlined the central role played by organised Dalit politics in foregrounding a solid legacy of activism. Ambedkar’s intervention in the 1930s is instructive for several reasons. The resolve to align the rural Dalit agricultural labourers with peasants reflects his pragmatism in establishing a united front of oppressed communities against the larger repressive (feudal and colonial) power structures. Secondly, his involvement underscored the point that peasants’ solidarity could not sustain itself without addressing the caste divisions in society. Thus, the agitations in the Konkan not only played a role in strengthening peasants’ voices in the anti-caste movement but also became a laboratory for Ambedkar to fuse Dalit-peasant (Shudra) unity. 


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