Labour Monthly

Sixty-six per cent background
to the India bill

BY Joan Beauchamp

Source : Labour Monthly  March, 1935, No.3.
Publisher : The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML : Salil Sen
Public Domain : Marxists Internet Archive (2010). 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 following article is a continuation of the series 1 which was commenced in January this year on the significance and background of the British Government's new plan to maintain its enslavement of the Indian peoples, as embodied in the Government of India Bill now being debated in Parliament. In this article Joan Beauchamp, author of "British Imperialism in India," recently published by Messrs. Martin Lawrence (5s.), describes the condition of the peasantry, the biggest section of the population, about to be vitally affected by the provisions of this new Bill. For in the All-India Federal Legislature which this Bill creates, the princes and other sections of the landlord class are ensured a decisive if not predominating influence as the principal allies of British Imperialism. They will thus be guaranteed a share in the exploitation of the largest section of the Indian population, the vast majority of whom are denied all rights whatsoever under this constitution as shown by the fact that, except for the most insignificant proportion and that exclusively of the more wealthy sections, the whole peasant population remains completely disenfranchised. ]

An assiduous reading of the innumerable official reports on India which emanate from governmental or semi-governmental sources would lead one to believe that the solution of the problem of rural poverty was a herculean task which a little band of wholly dis¬interested Anglo-Indian officials was tackling day by day with enormous heroism, making a little headway here and there against the innate and indestructible ignorance and waywardness of the Indian peasant, and achieving a steady progress on which they were greatly to be congratulated.

As soon as one begins to study in any detail the Government of India's own official statistics this pretty picture fades away like the chimera it is, and one is amazed at the colossal hypocrisy of the compilers of the official reports who, knowing full well the root causes of the poverty of the Indian peasant masses, write only of the minor effects arising from these causes, and speak cheerfully of improvements which exist only in their own imaginations.

These government reports tell glibly of sub-division of holdings, debt burdens, deterioration of cattle, lack of science, insufficiency of irrigation, and peasant ignorance. But they keep silent about the Government land monopoly, about the £25 million per annum which is taken from the cultivators by the Government alone, without counting the further vast sums absorbed by landlords and middlemen, about the scandalous rates of interest charged by moneylenders, about the heavy taxes on articles of consumption, the water charges and other local demands on the peasant economy.

The root cause of the ever-widening destitution of the Indian masses to be found in the subjugation of India to the position of an agricultural colony under the control of British finance-capital. Under the strangle¬hold of British Imperialism the industrial development of India has been so effectively held back that the census figures of the percentage of the population dependent on agriculture from 1891 to 1921 actually show a steady increase; and the latest figure, taken from the 1931 census, shows that 66 per cent, of the population are now dependent on agricul¬ture, as compared with 61 per cent. in 1891. It is a fact that is not often realised that, in spite of the development of factory production during the war years (when Great Britain was no longer in a position to penalise Indian industry), the destruction of home industries was such that even the census figures of 1921 show a reduction, in the preceding decennial period, of the total number of workers in industry from 17.5 millions to 15.7 millions, which was further reduced by 1931 to 15.4 millions.

While the pressure on agriculture has been substantially increased the relative positions of the classes in the countryside have altered as a result of the intensification of the exploitation of the peasant cultivator. The landlord class, that is to say those who live on agricultural rent, without being themselves cultivators, has increased from 2.8 millions in 1911 to 3.3 millions in 1931. The, number of cultivators, including owners and tenants, decreased from 71 millions in 1911 to 61.2 millions in 1931, while the number of landless peasants increased by roughly 10 millions in the last decade. 2

It is a favourite trick of the Anglo-Indian to talk as if the rate of increase of the Indian population was so great that the land and resources of India are insufficient adequately to support "the teeming millions" rapidly springing up. This, of course, is a deliberate misrepresentation. Not only do the census figures over the last fifty years show that the percentage rate of increase of the Indian population has been more than 10 per cent. lower than that of the population of England and Wales, but the rates of increase in the decades 1901 and 1921 respectively sank to less than a half, and less than a quarter, of the lowest rate that has ever been known in this country.

That the land left over for the peasant cultivators, when the rapacity of the land monopolists has been satisfied, cannot yield them a subsistence leaves no room for doubt. The cultivated land in India is little over a third of the total area, but two-thirds of it is owned by the imperialists and landlords, while tens of millions of peasants have to subsist on the other third. The agricultural statistics show that nearly a quarter of the total area is "culturable but not cultivated," but in spite of this the cultivated area is not increasing at any appreciable rate, nor has the situa¬tion improved during the last ten years, as the following figures show:

Total Area Not Available for Cultivation ForestsFallow Culturable Waste Sown Area Irrigated Area
1922-23 667 152.085 5 47.0154 224.9 47.8
1932-33 667 145.088.4 50.4154 228.0 49.6

These figures show a stagnation in agriculture, and when one looks at them more closely and considers also those for 1931-32, a definitely retrograde tendency is seen. Comparing 1931-32 with the following year one finds that the same area, i.e., 34 per cent. of the whole, is cultivated but in the latter year there was a 3 million acre reduction in the area sown to food crops. Also when one looks at the figures for rice, the staple food of the Indian masses, one finds not only a reduction in the acreage of last year's crop, bit a very substantial reduction in the yield. per acre as compared with 1922-23. The yield per acre of wheat also fell consider¬ably during the same period. Of the 88 million acres of forest one half belongs to the Government, while the rest is in the hands of the landlords and rich peasants, and the ordinary cultivator has to pay even for the use of such grazing as the forest lands afford for a short period of the year.

If the two hundred and seventy-eight million acres of cultivated and fallow lands were divided up equally among the landlords and peasants who live upon it, it would average at a little over 2½ acres per worker and landlord, but as many of the landlords possess more than 50 acres of cultivated land, it can be seen how small a proportion is left for each peasant. The Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture (1928) states:-

The Punjab figures which are the only ones available for a province indicate that 22.5 per cent. of the cultivators cultivate one acre or less; a further 15.4 per cent. cultivate between one and 2½ acres; 17.9 pet cent. between 2½ and 5 acres and 20.5 between 5 and 10 acres. Except for Bombay, which would probably show a very similar result, and Burma which would give higher averages, all other provinces have much smaller areas per cultivator.

The agrarian crisis is rapidly worsening the already desperate condition of the Indian peasantry. The catastrophic fall in the prices of the peasants' products, while the goods of general consumption which he has to buy have remained comparatively stable in price, has brought him to a disastrous position. The Government, as usual, has shown its utter disregard of the welfare of the population by increasing the burden, of the land revenue at the very moment when the cultivator was least able to bear it. The result is that the cultivator is abandoned to the mercies of the moneylender, whose scandalous extortions have always been winked at by the Government.

Already in 1928 the Commission on Agriculture stated that:

to an extremely great extent the Indian agriculturist does not work for profit or for a net return, but for subsistence. The crowding of the people on the land, the lack of alternative means of security of living, the difficulty of finding any avenue of escape and the early age at which a man is burdened with dependants, combine to force the cultiva¬tor to grow food wherever he can and on whatever terms he can. Where his land has passed into the possession of his creditor, no legislation will serve his need, no tenancy law will protect him; for food he needs land, and for land he must plead before a creditor to whom he probably already owes more than the total value of the whole of his assets. That creditor is too often a landlord of a different class who has no historical connection with the estate, and is only interested in the immediate exploitation of the property in his control.

If this were true in 1928, how much more devastatingly true is it in 1935, when the bottom has dropped out of the agrarian market, the fall in prices has vastly increased the burden of rural indebtedness, and the land revenue is £3 million higher than it was before the slump. The better-off peasants have tried to stave off ruin by selling their gold and silver orna¬ments, and by this means more than 2,000 million rupees have been drained from India during the crisis. But the ordinary peasant is unable to stand the strain of usurious rent, taxes and interest, and millions of acres of land are passing from his hands to those of the money-lending shopkeepers and landlords.

The methods of the moneylenders are well described as follows:

The most important group of moneylenders consists of the village shopkeepers, who deal with small cultivators. They are generally grocers, drapers, brokers and grain merchants, all rolled in one. They advance their goods and wares on credit to cultivators of their villages, and they also give cash loans. They generally accept the produce of the land in place of principal and interest. They have one way of calcu¬lating the value of the produce given by the cultivators, and another way when they sell it to the cultivators. They credit them with a much lower price for the produce sold to them and debit them with a higher price for all goods bought from them by the cultivators. One of the settle¬ment reports of a taluka in Surat district says: -- "Food grain taken on credit has to be paid back 1½ maunds for every maund borrowed; for seeds, two maunds for every maund. Tobacco and such other articles are charged at 12 per cent. above the market price for example, a rupee's worth of tobacco is entered in the books as Rs. 1. 2. 0." 3

The vast majority of the Indian cultivators have to go on working year after year, hopelessly toiling for the creditors who have enslaved them, receiving out of their mortgaged harvest only the barest pittance to enable them to keep alive that the creditor may continue to wring profits out of their labour. These vampires are tacitly encouraged by the Government, and even the few laws to limit their extortions, which have been passed in response to popular clamour, are shamelessly admitted in Govern¬ment publications to have fallen into disuse or to have been "completely ineffective."

Nevertheless, from the point of view of both British and Indian capi¬talists, the ruin and expropriation of the peasants is not good business -- a beggar is not a profitable customer, and this obvious fact is beginning to be forced home to the Indian bourgeois as he sees his home market contract. The Annual Trade Report for the United Kingdom (1933-34), in accounting for the low level of exports to India, makes the following significant statement: -- "The consuming capacity of the Indian people both in urban and rural districts, was at its lowest ebb and their purchases were confined to the barest necessities."

In its 1933 Report the Committee of the Bombay Millowners' Asso¬ciation says:

The main factor which adversely affected both yarn and cloth was the low purchasing power of the masses, who have suffered from successive crop failures, coupled with low prices.

In August, 1933, the Indian paper Liberty predicted that the time would soon come when the landlord would demand all that the cultivator grew, and nothing would remain with which to pay taxes or buy factory goods. It continued:

In Bengal we have apparently reached such a situation already. If Bengal agriculturist still buys something, it is at the cost of the landlord and the Mahajan. He has no surplus of money, and this means that Bengal is at the threshold of economic collapse. (August 28, 1933.)

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru told a representative of the United Press as long ago as September, 1933, that "the agrarian system has already collapsed and the new organisation of society is already inevitable."

But what are Jawaharlal Nehru and the rest of the Congress supporter: doing to bring about "a new organisation of society?" Is the Village Industries scheme, which is supported by Congress, likely to bring about this new organisation, or is it calculated to sidetrack rural discontent into a harmless backwater? Gandhi, with his Village Industries movement, is fulfilling the prediction of Marx by performing the historical function of the lower middle class -- "they are reactionary, for they are trying to make the wheels of history turn backwards."

But there are revolutionary elements among the Indian peasant masses, ground down as they have been throughout the ages by foreign invaders, rapacious landlords and imperialists. A new agricultural proletariat is being built up out of the expropriated peasants, a proletariat inspired with the same spirit as that of the town proletariat, who are not so ignorant that they have not heard of the proletarian triumphs of Soviet Russia and Soviet China. The no-tax campaigns and the peasant risings against landlords and moneylenders which took place all over India in 1930-33 were put down by the Government with the greatest brutality, but the ever-increasing recurrence of similar "incidents" indicates that the revolutionary ferment is working. In Madras in August last an incident, typical of many, was reported as follows:

Five persons were killed and five seriously injured when the police opened fire in self-defence on a riotous mob at Kithavadi, near Pollachi, Madras. The police were assisting the holder of a decree order to take possession of a debtor's land. A mob, armed with spears and sticks, assembled to prevent the execution of the decree and attacked the police party. Police reinforcements were summoned, and the mob was dis¬persed. This situation is now under control, but the incident is regarded as grave.

It has always been said that the British ruling class was sufficiently clever and flexible in its methods to know when it had gone too far, and to draw back and make concessions in time. But is the Anglo-Indian type of exploiter quite as cunning,? You cannot drive 60 million peasant cultivators to the verge of desperation without encountering incidents which may be "regarded as grave." The complacent language of the official reports in the face of the collapse of the whole agrarian system of India does not lead one to admire the intelligence of the Indian Govern¬ment. They are perhaps banking unduly on the division of classes among the peasants, and their separation from the town proletariat. It will take time to forge a durable alliance between the industrial workers, the agricultural labourers and the lower ranks of the peasants, but the rapid breakdown of the agrarian system and the enslavement of the peasantry are destroying the last barriers to the union. When the peasants realise that they, as well as the industrial workers, have nothing to lose but their chains the day of reckoning will be at hand.


1. The previous articles in this series are "The New Deal in India," by Reginald Bridgeman, January, 1935; "The New Imperialist Strategy in India" by Lester Hutchinson, February, 1935. Copies of each of these issues can be obtained from the Manager, the LABOUR MONTHLY, 7 John Street, London, W.C.1, 7d. each post free.

2. Census figures.

3. M. Mehta. A Study of the Rural Economy of Gujarat.