Evelyn Roy

The Colonies

Mota Singh, Leader of
the Indian Peasants

(1 September 1922)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 2 No. 75, 1 September 1922, pp. 563–564.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2020). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The arrest and conviction to five years penal servitude of Master Mota Singh by the Indian Government, on the charge of promoting disaffection, has received brief mention in the Indian press and still less in the outer world. Yet the Indian Government viewed his activities with greater concern and apprehension than those of Mahatma Gandhi, and enjoy a grimmer sense of triumph now that, after more than a year and a half of effort to arrest him, he lies at their mercy, under lock and key. But there is a section of the Indian people which is acutely aware of the loss of a friend and leader, and this is the starving, many-millioned peasantry of northern India, whose struggles and half-articulate demands for land and freedom from rent and taxes found expression through such leaders, and whose outbreaks of mass action during the past two years, in the shape of riots, insurrections, arson and looting, have struck unnamed terror into the hearts of native landlords and foreign bureaucracy alike.

Mota Singh was the acknowledged leader of the Akali Sikhs, that militant section of the Punjab peasants which, under intelligent direction, has been conducting a successful campaign against their own corrupt religious leaders and British coadjutors, for the reclaiming of rich temple lands and their redistribution among the peasant masses, as well as for the lowering of rent and taxes payable to the Government overlord. Organized into a movement of their own class, the peasants of the Punjab were able to formulate a dear-cut program for the redress of their most crying grievances, and to unite together to demand its fulfillment. The Punjab Sikhs being the Government’s main reserve for army recruits, and this section of the population being known for its militant temper, a growing uneasiness was felt in bureaucratic circles over this peasant’s movement, which spread to neighboring provinces with lightning lapidify. Taking their cue from the Akali Sikhs, the landless peasants of the United Provinces inaugurated the Aika or Unity movement, which found similar expression in the formation of village societies united upon a common program of non-payment of rent and taxes, and access to land. Simultaneously the Bhils, an agricultural tribe of central India and Rajhutana, rebelled against their century-old oppression and exploitation, and commenced a series of uprisings which the Government, for all its armed strength, found difficult to suppress. In the south, the Moplahs of Malabar rose in a prolonged and bloody revolt. Throughout the country, since the Amritsar massacre of 1919, a growing peasant movement made itself felt, which responded with enthusiasm to the non-cooperation program of Mr. Gandhi and the Congress leaders, for the sake of the clause about civil disobedience and non-payment of rent and taxes. Joined with the strike movement of the city-proletariat, the popular awakening proved a truly formidable backing to the nationalistic campaign of the Congress extremists, and forced the Government to pay heed to the latter, for the first time in its hitherto innocuous career of resolution-mongering and humble petitioning Some substantial concessions might have been wrung from the foreign rulers, had not Mr. Gandhi’s timidity and religious horror of bloodshed stood in the way. While the latter was beseeching the workers and peasants to abstain from violence to life and property and to purify themselves spiritually for the attainment of Swaraj, at the same time denouncing every manifestation of mass energy as “criminal hooliganism”, the Government, wiser in its estimate of the situation, applied the two-edged sword of amelioration and repression.

Amelioration came first, in the shape of land-legislation, hurriedly introduced and rushed through the various provincial legislatures where the peasant unrest was most acute. The opposition of the feudal landlords, the Zemindars and Talucdars, was brushed aside where it could not be conciliated. Some of the most glaring forms of forced labor were remedied, and slight concessions made to the peasants. Repression was visited upon the heads of the middle-class intellectuals who headed the nationalist movement, as well as upon those leaders of the masses, both in the cities and in the country, who had distinguished themselves as constituting a menace to the British Government “by law established”.

Among these latter, Mota Singh stood head and shoulders above the rest. A son of the people, a water-carrier by trade, and born in a remote village of the Punjab, he received a fairly good education by dint of great sacrifices on the part of his humble parents. A man of strong build, like all the sons of Northern India, with a quick temper and a warm heart, he could find no settled employment for any length of time despite a knowledge of native languages and a gift for writing, none too common among Indian villagers even of the well-to-do class. In his heart burned the history of his conquered race, the Sikhs, and in his veins coursed the martial blood of a proud and soldierly people. All about him, in his everyday life, he witnessed the slow degeneration and decay of a once stalwart peasantry, evicted from its land by the money-lender and landlord, usually the Government at one and the same time, and forced either into the ranks of the Indian army, where for a miserable monthly pittance they assisted in the subjugation of their own kith and kin, or into the ranks of that greater army, daily increasing, of the landless agricultural worker, drifting about the countryside in search of seasonal employment, unable to buy for himself and his family a full meal a day, from one year’s end to the other.

The daily misery of his people ate into his thoughts, but these found no outward expression until the dramatic march of the northern peasantry on that April day in 1910, to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, to protest against the passing of the Rowlett Bill which placed all India under martial law. The peaceful demonstration ended in the massacre of hundreds and the wounding of thousands of innocent people at the hands of a terror-stricken and cowardly government. Thenceforth, Mota Singh became a rebel, who went about the countryside preaching open resistance to the foreign rulers, and organizing the peasantry for a revolution which would end their sufferings and bring about new conditions. He was no follower of passive resistance; if he adopted the slogan of non-cooperation, it was because he saw the need for united effort on the part of the entire people, and like a disciplined soldier, he closed ranks under the banner of Mahatma Gandhi and the National Congress which promised Swaraj for India with land free of rent and taxes to all. It was thus that he and his simple followers interpreted the words of the Congress leaders who bid them join the national struggle.

In November 1920, the order for the arrest of Mota Singh was issued, but there was none in the regions of his native province who dared to execute the mandate. His Akali banas numbering more than one hundred thousand men, rallied to their leader. A strong body guard was provided for him, and for a year and a half, Mota Singh moved about Northern India, now appearing suddenly on some public platform, where he would make a dramatic speech, now disappearing into the wilderness of the frontier territories, or merging into the vast, unfathomable sea of Indian villagers, who welcomed their chief amongst them and protected him to a man, against the evil intentions of the police.

Mota Singh spoke to the Indian peasant about non-payment of rent and taxes, and the overthrow of British rule. But after 1921, while still evading arrest, a new development appeared in his speeches and writings. In November 1921 he made a dramatic appearance at the great annual fair held in Nankana Sahib, a holy shrine of the Sikhs, and delivered a stirring speech of more than three hours duration, which held his simple village auditors spellbound. He spoke not only of the overburdened life of the peasant, of the necessity of organization to resist the payment of rent and taxes, and the evils of British rule, but dwelt at length on the system which underlay it all, the system of private property, which he stigmatized as the true cause of all the wretchedness of the Indian workers and peasants. It was necessary, he said, to make war al one and the same time, against both the foreign government and the native landlords and capitalists who upheld it.

His words were listened to with rapt attention. Police officers who were called to the spot by news of Mota Singh’s presence, tried to arrest him, but the people surrounded their leader, defended him from the police with their kirpans, the short daggers worn by the Sikhs as a religious symbol, and bore him off to a place of safety. The zealous defenders of law and order were powerless to touch this popular hero.

Mota Singh continued in liberty until June of this year. He roamed throughout the northern provinces of India, preaching doctrines of simple Communism, learned practically from the hard life of his people, and made clear to him by the distant echoes of the great Russian Revolution, which woke the East from its age-long slumbers. Hiding in distant villages, moving from place to place, he still managed to conduct the Akali movement from his hiding places, speaking, writing and organizing with great zeal. Up to the moment of his arrest, he was editing a newspaper and contributing articles to many others, besides doing much translation work and active propaganda. News was brought to the police that he was revisiting his native village, and a whole posse was sent down to surround the place. The police found every house deserted. None knew of the whereabouts of Mota Singh. All denied his presence there. A house to house search commenced, and the village was surrounded by a police-cordon to prevent the escape of anyone. At length a man was observed on the outskirts of the place, clad in a loin-cloth, a black turban and a kirpan, claiming to belong to another village. He was detained, and identified by the Chief Inspector as Mota Singh. The latter, upon recognition, admitted his identity and was led off to jail by the authorities. As a non-cooperator, Mota Singh declined to defend himself in the law-courts of the British Government, and was sentenced to five years imprisonment on the evidence presented in court from his own speeches and writings. The whole world knew of Gandhi’s arrest and conviction, but very few know of Mota Singh; yet Gandhi belongs already to a stage of Indian history that is past, while Mota Singh belongs to the future. He is the type of new leader that is springing up throughout the length and breadth of India, straight from the lives and pressing needs of the people, knowing their sufferings and filled with an unbending determination to end them by any means within their power. Mota Singh lies in prison, but his spirit walks abroad among the Indian workers and peasants, who will rear up new leaders in his likeness to break their chains of slavery.

The international fellowship of workers throughout the world greet Mota Singh as one of them.

Last updated on 31 August 2020