India’s struggle for independence from British rule is often associated with the heroics of its prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Subhas Chandra Bose. While their leadership was undoubtedly instrumental, the role of workers and peasants in shaping India’s struggle for freedom can hardly be overstated. These were the foot soldiers of the movement, constituting the backbone of the nationalist struggle and often laying the groundwork for significant events that culminated in India gaining independence in 1947.
The early 20th century was a period of social and economic flux in India. The British colonial rule had led to the economic exploitation of the country, resulting in widespread poverty, high taxes, and economic stagnation. The agrarian community, constituting the vast majority of the Indian populace, was particularly hard-hit. Exorbitant taxes, frequent famines, and forced indigo cultivation had led to agrarian revolts even before the 20th century. By the turn of the century, the Indian National Congress had started to recognise the potential role of peasants in mass movements. Events like the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 were crucial in involving peasants in the broader nationalist struggle. Gandhi’s involvement in resolving the agrarian crisis in Champaran, Bihar, drew attention to the deep-seated grievances of peasants and paved the way for a mutually beneficial alliance between the Congress and the agrarian community.
Likewise, workers in factories and mills faced abysmal working conditions. Long hours, meagre wages, and dangerous work environments were common. The emergence of trade unions was a significant turning point in galvanising workers for the national movement. As early as 1920, strikes were carried out as a form of protest against British policies. The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) became a vocal critic of British economic policies and sought to unite workers across industries to fight against exploitation. The influence of socialist leaders like Bhagat Singh also had a significant impact on mobilising workers towards the cause of independence.
Peasants and workers didn’t just serve as the numbers needed for protests and acts of civil disobedience; they also acted as ideological touchstones. Peasant uprisings in regions like Tebhaga and Telangana emphasised the need for agrarian reform, while workers’ strikes in major cities raised questions about economic justice and rights. The overlap of their economic struggles with the broader anti-colonial struggle enriched the narrative of independence with social and economic dimensions. It wasn’t just about shaking off the British yoke; it was also about envisioning a new, fairer India.
Both groups were closely associated with several watershed moments in India’s freedom struggle. The Quit India Movement of 1942 was one such instance where mass participation was remarkable. The call for “Do or Die” by Gandhi saw an extraordinary mobilisation of peasants and workers who came out in large numbers to participate in strikes, processions and acts of sabotage against British institutions. Their involvement significantly raised the stakes, making it clear that the movement for independence was not just an elite undertaking but a mass struggle.
The importance of peasants and workers was acknowledged by the national leaders, albeit in different ways. While Gandhi saw the soul of India residing in its villages and emphasised rural development, leaders like Nehru and Bose were more inclined towards socialism and saw the workers as the force that would drive industrialisation in post-independence India. These differing viewpoints notwithstanding, there was consensus on the indispensable role of these groups in the freedom movement.
Their contributions were not without repercussions. Repressive laws, frequent imprisonments, and sometimes violent retribution were the prices they had to pay. Yet, their resilience and determination stood the test of time. Women, too, from these communities were not behind in the struggle. They broke the societal shackles of the time to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men in the fight against British rule.
In the aftermath of independence, the role of peasants and workers continued to be significant. Land reforms, the promotion of cooperatives, and the regulation of work conditions were among the first few policies enacted by the newly formed government. Their involvement in the freedom struggle played a crucial role in prioritising these issues in the governance agenda of the newly independent nation.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge that their struggle did not end with independence. Economic hardships, social inequality, and political marginalisation continue to plague these communities. The legacy of their involvement in the freedom movement serves as a constant reminder of the unfinished task of social and economic justice in India.
In summary, the role of workers and peasants in India’s freedom struggle was multi-dimensional. They acted as the mobilising force, enriching the ideological fabric of the movement, and also faced the brunt of the repressive colonial machinery. While their contributions have sometimes been overshadowed by the towering figures of the Indian National Movement, their role was and remains integral to the understanding of India’s journey to independence.