Almost a century ago, there lived a man belonging to an ‘untouchable’ caste in the Awadh region of present-day Uttar Pradesh, who successfully led a peasant rebellion in the early 1920s against the mighty Taluqdars and the British Raj.
Even with a Rs 1,000 bounty and a dead or alive warrant against him, he successfully avoided capture for many years and died a peaceful but unfulfilled death. Relegated to the margins of official history with a cursory mention in the accounts of peasant revolts in colonial India, Madari Pasi, a Gandhian cap-wearing non-Gandhian with a bow-arrow, lived most of his rebellious life in jungles evading the colonial police.
Madari Pasi belonged to the ‘untouchable’ Pasi caste that had been classified by the British administration as a “criminal” caste. He was born in the village of Mohanjganj in Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district to Mohan Pasi, a poor farmer in 1860. As historical records show, Madari Pasi’s fortunes grew as he started to own a significant number of cattle, putting him in a much better position in the rural social hierarchy.
The Pasi community was also recognised as a ‘militant’ one, especially due to the role many Pasi figures had played during the 1857 revolt. These factors along with a well-built muscular body – a necessary feature of a ‘leader’ in the countryside – put him in a position to assume the leadership role.
The movement which Madari Pasi built and led was called ‘Eka’ (unity) – derived from his attempt to build a peasant class consciousness bypassing the differences of religion and caste.
The Eka movement formed a part of the series of peasant revolts which broke out in colonial India after the First World War. In UP, the revolt began under the leadership of the Fiji-returned indentured labourer Baba Ramachandra, who operated independently but against the backdrop of the Non-Cooperation and the Khilafat Movement.
The reasons for the revolt were embedded in the deeply exploitative agrarian structure of the Awadh region which was dominated by the Taluqdars (aristocratic hereditary owners of large tracts of land and villages) and zamindars, who were usually ‘upper’ caste Hindus or Muslims. They leased out land to tenant farmers and extracted huge rents and lots of additional charges from them to collect land revenue for the colonial state. Tenants employed agricultural labourers to work on the fields but they themselves had no proprietary rights over the land they cultivated and were thrown out by the zamindars if they failed to pay the rent.
The agrarian and economic distress emanating out of this agrarian structure reached a breaking point in the late-1910s following the first world war, the Spanish flu, six years of drought, price rise and a shortage of food grains and fuel. These factors combined with various forms of institutionalised as well as informal exploitation practices like charging higher than the recorded rent, non-dispersal of rent receipts, charging extra and arbitrary cesses, the prevalence of grain rents instead of cash rent, the practice of nazrana (advance additional payment as service), hari, begari (forced labour) etc. along with widespread corruption by middlemen like thekedars and karindas (agents of landlords), precipitated widespread resentment amongst peasants and labourers of Awadh—most of whom were from backward and Dalit castes respectively.