The Other Ayodhya

FRATRICIDAL CLASHES between Hindus and Muslims arising out of an intractably crazy dispute over demolitions, real and imaginary, are not the only things Ayodhya is all about. You’ll get a glimpse of the Other Ayodhya if you situate it in the historical context of the Avadh region, a history of a strong tradition of Hindu-Muslim unity, forged in the heat of anti-British struggle in the First War of Independence as well as the agrarian movements of the region. The blinkered view of Ayodhya always traces the dispute to the Hindu-Muslim clashes of 1853. But what they invariably fail to mention is the fact that within hardly four years, Hindus and Muslims were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder against the British. Here are some facts of history not as widely known or propagated as the myths and one-sided distortions about Ayodhya.

The Other Ramchandra

Baba Ramchandra Das – the people’s hero

Baba Ramchandra Das was born in 1875 in Maharashtra and went as a sadhu to Faizabad in 1909. From 1919 onwards he settled down in Prataphgarh and became a leader of the Kisan Sabha movement in the United Provinces. The oral tradition in Prataphgarh confirms the fact that Ramchandra was immensely popular. Even today he is a veritable legend in the villages there.

According to a folk rhyme of tehsil Patti:

Baba Ramchandra ke rajwa, parja maja urawe na

(In the raj of Baba Ramchandra, the people will make merry).

He quoted the Tulsidas Ramayan and raised he cry of Sita Ram to mobilise Muslim and Hindu peasants alike.

In 1920 he and 32 others were arrested when landlords complained against them for theft. Huge peasant mobilisations – even up to 60,000 – demanded his release. He was released on bail – “symbolic and forceful triumph” for the peasants.

At the Oudh Kisan Congress held at Ayodhya, Ramchandra, along with the demands against nazrana, begaar etc., gave a call for non-cooperation and swadeshi, and asked the huge peasant gathering to assure him that they would “accept the Kisan Sabha programme and maintain Hindu-Muslim unity”.

He was again arrested in Benarus on 10 February 1921, at the opening ceremony of the Kashi Vidyapeeth and he suspected Gandhi and Nehru of helping the police in this. About the arrest the DM of Barabanki said: “the police…cannot be complimented…for the manner in which they collared this Second Mr.Gandhi”. The arrest was followed by a spontaneous strike in Barabanki. He was rleased in early 1923.

In a letter published in the Pratap, 23, Novemebr 1925, Ramchandra described “the sufferings of kisans all over the world under plutocrats and capitalists” and added, “although slavery is said to have been abolished, the peasants are still slaves except in Russia”. He also referred to Lenin as “the dear leader of the kisans”.

THE BRITISH BARBARITY in suppressing the 1857 uprising was unparalleled. After the fall of Lucknow on May 8, 1858 Frederick Engels commented: “The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre – things that everywhere else are strictly and completely banished – are a time-honoured privilege, a vested right of the British soldier.” In Awadh alone 150,000 people were killed – of which 100,000 were civilians. The great Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib wrote, “In front of me, I see today, rivers of blood”. He went on to describe how the victorious British army went on a killing spree – killing every one in sight – looting people’s property as they advanced.

The 1857 revolt had forged a strong unity amongst Hindus and Muslims alike, and it took more than 7 decades of British machinations to disrupt that unity. The rebels of 1857 established a Court of Administration consisting of ten members – six from the army and four civilians with equal representation of Hindus and Muslims. The rebel government abolished taxes on articles of common consumption, and penalized hoarding. Amongst the provisions of its charter was the liquidation of the hated ‘Zamindari’ system imposed by the British and a call for land to the tiller. All proclamations were issued in popular languages. Hindi and Urdu texts were provided simultaneously. Proclamations were issued jointly in the name of both Hindus and Muslims.

According to Bipan Chandra, “it was the wide participation in the Revolt by the peasantry and the artisans which gave it real strength as well as the character of a popular revolt.” The peasant rebels attacked moneylenders and some pro-British zamindars, the British-established law courts, revenue offices (tehsils) and police stations. Maulavi Ahmadullah of Faizabad was an outstanding leader of the Revolt. He was a native of Madras where he had started preaching armed rebellion. In January 1857 he moved to Faizabad where he fought a large-scale battle against a company of British troops sent to stop him from preaching sedition. When the general Revolt broke out in May 1857, he emerged as one of its acknowledged leaders in Avadh.

After receiving a severe jolt from the First War of Independence in 1857 the British rulers systematically went about re-cultivating the local gentry and zamindars to consolidate their social base. The taluqdars (big zamindars) of Avadh, who had joined the 1857 Revolt, abandoned it once the Government gave them an assurance that their estates would be returned to them. This made it difficult for the peasants and soldiers of Avadh to sustain a prolonged guerrilla campaign. On the other hand, they didn’t let go of any opportunity to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. But contrary to their intentions, their renewed nexus with the feudal forces only served to strengthen Hindu-Muslim unity.

The annexation of Awadh in 1856 had led to strengthening of hold of taluqdars over the agrarian society of the province. As a result, majority of the cultivators were subjected to exorbitant rents, illegal levies, renewal fees or nazrana and arbitrary evictions or bedakhali. The peasant struggles led by Kisan Sabha and Eka movements in the Avadh region arose because of this changed strategy of the British.

The Kisan Sabha, set up in 1918, had established 450 branches in 173 tehsils of the province by mid-1919. In the mid-1920, Baba Ramchandra emerged as the leader of peasants in Avadh. Late 1920s saw the setting up of Awadh Kisan Sabha at Pratapgarh by Baba Ram Chandra and other leaders like Dev Narayan Pande, and Kedar Nath bringing under its umbrella over 330 Kisan Sabhas. The Sabha exhorted peasants to refuse to till bedakhali land; not to offer har and begar (forms of unpaid labour), boycott those who did not accept these conditions and to resolve their disputes through panchayats. In 1921, the peasant movement took a militant turn with the peasants looting the houses and granaries of landlords and clashing with the police. The British rulers suppressed these revolts with their characteristic cruelty. Yet, they were forced to pass the Awadh Rent (Amendment) Act under the growing pressure of the movement. Towards the end of 1921, peasant discontent surfaced again in the districts of Hardoi, Bahraich and Sitapur, when the landlords and zamindars started extracting 50 percent higher rent than stipulated by the Act. Congress and Khilafat leaders jointly initiated the peasant movement that acquired the name Eka or unity movement where both the Hindu and Muslim peasantry unitedly fought both the Hindu and Muslims talukdars and zamindars.

[Complied by Kavita Krishnan with references from Modern India, Bipan Chandra and Agrarian Unrest in North India, The United Provinces, 1918-22, Majid Hayat Siddiqi, Vikas Publishing House, Delhi, 1978]