Sir Chhotu Ram(1881-1945) was one of the most prominent pre-partition politicians in Punjab and an ideologue of the Jat peasantry and a champion of its interests. He was born on 24 November 1881 in Ghari Sampla in Rohtak district.
He was associated with organizations representing peasant interests like the Zamindar League and the Unionist Party (after resigning from the Congress in 1920). He was one of the founders of the Unionist Party (along with Sir Sikander Hyat Khan). The Unionists ruled Punjab for its first two decades of (limited) democracy. They represented a coalition between Hindu farmers in the eastern part of the province and feudal Muslim landlords in the west . As an important minister (he held the revenue portfolio) in the then Unionist Party Government in Punjab, he did a lot to improve the economic status of the peasants through numerous legislative measures.
Sir Chhotu Ram led a massive recruitment drive for the army during World War I in modern Haryana region and during World War II across pre-partion Punjab. His support of the British war effort (during world war II) is often seen as a controversial step as the Congress had given a call not to provide any help to the British. He actively promoted recruitment of farming class youth in general in the army as he felt that it was economically beneficial to these communities.
The recurring theme of his campaigns was India’s independence after the war. He said: “My hope is that after this war Hindustan will be free. And it will be free in a real sense.”
Sir Chhotu Ram opposed the concept of Pakistan and formed a separate group of thirteen members in the Punjab Assembly when most Muslim Unionists joined the Muslim League. His death brought about the demise of the Unionist Party.
Growing up in the prevailing economic misery at his time, he was strongly influenced and motivated by the slights and insults, intended and otherwise, that he had undergone on the path to achieve education. In his times, the Jat peasants were victims of exploitation at the hands of the usurious Mahajans. He exhorted peasants to shed their inferiority complex and fatalistic outlook and become assertive and self-confident.
He played a very significant role in the organization of the Jats as a self-conscious community and helped them acquire self-confidence and self-respect. As he was outside the political mainstream (Congress), his contribution has been rather unfairly neglected by the historians by not including it in Indian history books.
Sir Chhotu was born on 24 November 1881 in Ghari Sampla in Rohtak district. His great-grandfather, Ram Rattan, owned a dry and unproductive holding of about 10 acres. Debts and litigation compounded the problems of his father, Chaudhary Sukhi Ram, who died in 1905 leaving behind a heavy debt. It is interesting and important to consider his love’s depth for Farmer community that on the occasion of Basant-Panchmi, in a Farmer-Gathering, he declared his desire to celeberate his Birth Day on the festival of Basant-Panchmi. Only this wish indicates his fathomless attachment towards Farmers.
Chhotu Ram joined a primary school in Jan 1891, passing out four years later. He studied for his middle school examination in Jhajjar, 12 miles from his village.
He left Jhajjar to be enrolled in the Christan Mission School in Delhi, though it was not easy for the family to raise the funds for his education. The story goes that when the father and son approached the bania at Sampla mandi for a loan, the bania flung a fan at the father ‘with unspoken indignation to cool his large perspiring semi-naked body’. This and other humiliating incidents, later recalled by Sir Chhotu Ram himself, left an indelible mark on his personaily and world view. He reminiscenced in 1942, “I was born and brought up in rural sorroundings which gave me a close and deep in site into the handicaps, difficulties, trials and turbulations, of the rural population. This insight could not have failed to influence the whole course of my psycological and moral growth… Side by side with the imperceptible and constant working of this factor, a deep and passionate love for the Jat tribe in which I was born warmed my heart from early life.”
Sir Chhotu Ram’s stay at the Christan Mission School was eventful He organised a strike against the in-charge of the boarding house for which he was given the nick name ‘General Roberts’.
In 1901 he returned to his village and passed his imtermediate examination in 1903. Thereafter, he enrolled in St Stephens College from where he graduated in 1905. It was his stay at this college that he was drawn to the Arya Samaj, though he had already identified himself as adherent of Vedic Dharma in the admission form of the intermediate examination.
He studied Sanskrit rather than English, the preferred subject of most fellow students from wealthy backgrounds. He was particularly concerned with the educational and economical backwardness of the Jats. He felt hurt by the (often good humored) epithets potraying fellows from the countryside, and especially Jats, as rustics, clowns and bumpkins. He recounted, “…The epithets were used in perfectly good humour, with no desire to hurt…but it would be idle to pretend that they did not proceed from an undercurrent of feeling which, though innocent in appearance, had a vein of disrespect and disdain for my class. Unpleasant heart searching followed, and nurtured the sapling which had been firmly planted in me by the couplet which said, ‘in the ordinary course of nature, thousands upon thousands are born everyday, but he alone is truly born whose birth leads to the elevation of the race.’ This couplet (Hitopedesha) which I had read in one of my textbooks for the first time in 1897 had sown in my young breast the seed of that inchoate desire which in later years grew into a powerful passion for uplifting my class educationally, socially, economically, and politically.“
In an article published in the college magazine in 1907, he reflected on the ways to improve the life in rural areas, to end the isolation of people and curb the monopoly of the village bania, whom he called ‘the incarnation of Shylock in our times’.
In 1905, he worked as the Assistant Private Secretary to Raja Rampal Singh of Kalakankar in the United Provinces, but left the job within a month because he resented the Raja’s attitude towards him on one particular occasion. He moved to Bharatpur, where he did not find suitable employment. He returned to Kalakankar in 1907 and worked for a few months as the editor of the English newspaper Hindustan and then proceeded to study law in Agra, where he took his degree in 1911.
While teaching at St John’s High School and reading law in Agra, Chhotu Ram studied the local conditions in the Agra and Meerut divisions. This knowledge strengthened his desire to ‘respond to the inner call for action in the direction of improving the condition of the peasants.
In 1911 he became the honorary superintendent of the Jat Boarding House Agra. In 1912 he set up his legal practice with Chaudhary Lal Chand. Both became involved in recruiting soldiers during the First World War. A patron of several Jat bodies, Sir Chhotu Ram established the Jat Sabha at Rohtak in 1912. He founded educational institutions, including the Jat Arya Vedic Sanskrit High School in Rohtak and donated the first year’s revenue of his grant of five squares of Colony Land to the school after the First World War.
A Leader should have a vision, be soft spoken, and carry a compassionate soul. Sir Chhotu Ram translated all this in action. During the period lasting well over two decades, Chhotu Ram had not only filled some very difficult roles with distinction – as, for instance, the co-founder of the Unionist Party, Leader of the party in the Legislature, Minister for Agriculture and development alternately, President of the Council for a short span of time – but also expanded a philosophy of secularism that is as much commended today as in his own times. While the non-agriculturists had outclassed the agriculturists in producing really outstanding men in almost all fields of human concern, especially in the spread of quality education, there had been a tragic dearth of such dedicated men in the rural areas during the last many decades, if not centuries.
Sir Chhotu Ram worked as the president of the Rohtak District Congress Committee from 1916 to 1920. He resigned on 8 Nov 1920, because the Punjab Provincial Congress Committee identified with the urban and the commercial classes, had 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 unhesitantly sympathize with the latter.
What possibly also prompted him to leave the Congress was his conviction that a disadvantaged class like the Jats could not afford to fight against the government (and the Congress essentially stood for anti-government).
After 1920, Sir Chhotu Ram also tried to create a non-sectarian peasant group consciousness. He was actively associated with the Punjab Zamindar Central Association, established in 1917 to advance the interests of Hindu and Sikh Jat agriculturalists. This was the first step towards the formation of a homogeneous rural block based on economics rather than religious interests. His demands, which were later adopted by the Punjab legislative council, called for separate rural and urban constituencies, the allotment of seats in proportion to the population and limiting representation in rural areas to ‘agriculturists’. The formation in 1923 of the Unionist Party, a cross-communal alliance of Hindu Jats and Muslim agriculturists committed to the Land Alienation Act of 1900 was the culmination of this process. This also reflected the emerging tensions between urban and rural Arya Samajists. There were many leaders in the Unionist Party hailing from far-flung rural areas – notably, Mian Fazl-i-Husain, Surjit Singh Majithia, Joginder Singh, Sikandar Hyat Khan, besides a number of nawabzadas – yet none was interested in seeking redressal of the peasants’ grievances. It is not Known to many that the Bhakhra Dam Scheme was initially got approved by Sir Chhotu Ram.He laid the foundation of the ‘Green Revolution’. A substantial portion of his salary as Minister, was set aside as scholarships to bright poor students. Sir Chhotu Ram collected a large amount of funds for the victims of Bihar earthquake of 1934. These were the Punjab Relief Indebtedness Act,1934 and the Punjab Debtor’s Protection Act 1936, which emancipated the peasants from the clutches of the money lenders and restored the right of land to the tiller. However, it was Chottu Ram, more than any other, who spectacularly symbolized the cause of the peasants during the darkest hour of modern Indian history.
He asserted that the impoverishment of the peasantry was itself the sole cause of indebtedness. He challenged official assumptions on the ‘wasteful habits’ of peasants and the ‘overspending’ on marriage, death and festivals. He insisted that land revenue was the principal cause of indebtedness and ruin. He rejected the advocacy of cooperatives as a method to curb moneylenders, arguing instead that market forces would not release the peasantry from debt.
Nor did he agree with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who regarded the peasants as a passive identity. He saw the peasant as the agent as well as the beneficiary of the change.
Sir Chhotu Ram began writing while in college and continued through out his public life. Among his most influencial writings was ‘Thug Bazaar ki Sair’. This was followed by another series, ‘Bechara Zamindar’, of which 17 appeared in the Jat Gazette. The first series of ‘Bechara Zamindar’ was written in 1935 and the second in 1936.
‘Bechara Zamindar’ provides perhaps one of the best insights into Sir Chhotu Ram’s political ideology. The series indicated his commitment to the Punjab peasant. He described the peasant as a ‘peculiar’ being, with ‘enormous and difficult responsibilities, but whose rights were always invisible’. He wrote in the Jat Gazatte of 22 March 1935, “In some provinces zamindars are different from peasants. But in Punjab the 2 are synonymous. Here the agriculturists who has proprietary rights in land is the one who actually plows it.”
In ‘Bechara Zamindar’ (and other writings) he saw the peasant as basically naive, uninformed and unaware of the changes taking place around him. In the same pamphlet, he underlines those factors that prevented the peasant from being politically organized and economically developed. One was the narrow religious obscurantism which clouded his vision, heightened ‘communal sentiments and destroyed his path’. For this reason, he targeted many superstitiuos beliefs and practices in rural areas and reminded the peasants, “Some exploit you by masqueranding as pirs; some as purohits; some as shah; some through bribery. …. Sometimes you are deceived in account. If you are prosperous then doms, miraris, bhats deceive you. If you are poor, then the moneylender sucks you like a leech. O peasant, how will you survive these demons….!“
In the chapter ‘A New Message’, he asked peasants to discard puranic or orthodox ideas, adopt ‘new ideas’ shed their fatalistic outlook aquire a vision and gain self confidence and self-respect. Quoting from the Persian and Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal, he urged the peasants to be self-reliant. He asked them to ‘aquire the traits of a lion’ and not to be influenced either by the moneylender or the government or by organizations like Congress, Hindu Mahasabha, Muslim League, Sikh League (among others). Instead they should rally around the Zamindar League and take advantage of its activities. He wrote, “I want to see the Punjab peasant prosperous and united …. awakened and standing on his feet, in action and organization.”
Though ‘Bechara Zamindar’ could not be widely read by the rural population, its message was communicated by, among others, the bhajniks. Its appeal was further enhanced because the allegories and stories, along with the dialect, were rooted in the belief system and culture of the Jats (and peasants in general).
There was an ambivalent relationship between Sir Chhotu Ram and the British, an aspect ignored by historians who have studied his role within the framework of military loyalism and imperial patronage in Punjab. These historians view the Jats as the mainstay of imperial authority in Punjab and regard Chhotu Ram as the spokesman of the rich and middle peasants. The reality, however, is that he was primarily concerned with the plight of the deprived, the downtrodden and the neglected.
He responded to imperial structures and forged tactical alliances with the British and with other agriculturists to further the combined interests of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Jats and consolidate the cultural and territorial identity of Haryana Jats.
Sir Chhotu Ram was equally vocal in assailing the pre-colonial state for its unjustifiable claims over land. He critized the British for reinforcing pre-colonial principles of ‘darkness’ by claiming ownership of land.By putting forth his own conception of peasant identity, he moved away from the prevalent political rethoric of the Unionist Party (between 1925 and 33), which was primarily concerned with the greater employment of zamindars in government service.
He argued that a peasant was called a peasant by virtue of his ownership of the land. He also demanded the recognition of women as cultivators.
By the 30s, he was disenchanted with the colonial state. His pronouncements disturbed officials in Punjab who went so far as to accuse him of spreading socialism among peasants. The Punjab legislative council also came in for criticism for its lack of concern for the peasant. He said, “our brothers (especially in the Punjab council) were no better in so far as they supported the false claims of the government (in this regard).”
While recognizing the role of the colonial state in the life of the peasant, Sir Chhotu Ram exposed the government’s discriminatory policy towards agriculturists, and their lack of representation in public services.