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Gandhi’s ingenious move to broaden opposition to British rule<LÄNK> beyond the educated urban middle class was to organize the peasants into trade union movements. In the first place, he turned to the richer peasants, those who were taxed by the British state – they were the only ones who had something to hold back and consequently the only ones who could exert pressure, Gandhi thought. Two local mobilizations around 1919 had a huge impact and made the independence organization Indian National Congress a mass organization: the indigo growers in Champaran in Bihar and the peasants in Kheda in Gujarat. Both of these were tax revolts.
The National Congress’ tax refusal actions spread a method of action in rural areas. Small farmers who did not pay taxes but paid rents to landowners were not mobilized by Congress but increasingly began to mobilize themselves. The organization took place according to traditional caste boundaries – karma and reddi in Andhra, yadav and kurmi in Bihar etc. Some of these castes united in April 1936 in Kisan Sabha or the Farmers’ Union with the aim of abolishing the landowner system and giving the farmers ownership of the land they farmed.
Kisan Sabha was not very effective as an organization, but in an environment of growing opposition to British rule, they were an effective backdrop to peasant self-organization. When the National Congress launched the ”Quit India” campaign in 1942, the peasants for a time took control of villages and districts locally throughout India. In this way, they effectively helped to make India ungovernable for the British and for them to leave the country in 1947.
After independence, the low-caste peasants thus had a mortgage on self-government. It took another couple of decades of local strikes, occupations and boycotts – which city middle-class politicians were forced to court to get votes – before the peasants got their ownership. But today, the big estate system has in practice been abolished in India.