Premchand’s farmer, backward classes and Indian culture

The farmers in Premchand’s stories and novels come from the backward classes and were the builders of the Indian farm culture. Through these works focused on the Indian farmer, Kamlesh Verma tries to make sense of the role of backward classes in the building of the Indian culture

Premchand made farmers the primary subject matter of his fiction. His short stories and novels extensively portray different aspects of a farmer’s life. Farmers form the biggest chunk of the Indian population and are the foundation of its farm culture. No analysis of Indian culture can be complete without taking the culture of the farmers into account. That India is a predominantly agricultural country has become a cliché, but it was Premchand who made farmers the protagonists of his short stories and novels. No other Hindi author wrote as extensively and deeply about farmers as Premchand.


Premchand and his wife

Commenting on this aspect of Premchand’s works, Dr Ramvilas Sharma says, “Not many novels were written in Hindi on the problems of farmers, and the ones that were written lacked the understanding of Premchand”.[1] Premchand immersed himself in the life of the farmers and what he wrote was something new for the Hindi literary world. “He had his hands on the pulse of the farmers. He brought to the fore the hitherto untouched realities of their life – realities which many a great author could never fathom.”[2] He saw the life of the farmers from close quarters and wrote about his experiences with great sensitivity. “Premashram is an epic on peasant life. Premchand does not limit himself to the portrayal of select aspects of the farmer’s life but his portrayal is like a huge river, in which, besides the mainstream, the water flowing in the smaller streams alongside and the floating uprooted, hollowed-out trees, and weeds and twigs can also be seen.”[3] Along with Premashram and Karmabhoomi, Godan completes the trilogy on the life of Indian farmers.[4]

It is well known that the life of farmers is central to the novels and stories of Premchand. Hindi criticism is well aware of the fact that Premchand not only portrayed the exploitation of the farmers but also caught the igniting of the protests against it. Ramvilas Sharma repeatedly refers to Premchand’s rebel farmer. He identifies feudal lords, priests and moneylenders as the exploiters of farmers. Premchand also tries to investigate the institutional factors responsible for the exploitation of the farmers. Ramvilas tries to understand the import of Premchand’s writings in the context of institutional factors like economic structure, imperialism, colonialism, feudalism and domination of the priestly class.

Premchand’s farmers are marginal farmers in the Marxist jargon – farmers with small landholdings, who work their fields themselves or along with their families. They typically own small tracts of land, 5 bighas (1 bigha = 0.25 hectare) or less, and cannot afford labourers. Their life is harsh and they have to often take loans. The lender is the villager Mahajan, who charges Shylockian rates of interest. Sava Ser Gehun depicts the horrors of this indebtedness.

It is Premchand’s farmer who makes India a predominantly agricultural country. Before Independence, villages played a much bigger role in the Indian economy and its social and religious system than they do now. All the residents of the villages were dependent on agriculture, though not all of them were farmers. All the rural characters of Premchand are not farmers, though all of them are dependent on farming. The rural populace can be divided into different classes. Acharya Ramchandra Shukla has made one such classification. Writing about the differences between the classes associated with farming and business, he writes, “Agricultural land was made the mainstay of government’s income. The business class was spared so that foreign trade can prosper. Due to this, the business class flourished while those dependent on land – whether landlords, farmers or labourers – became impoverished.”[5]

Acharya Shukla, thus, identifies a broad class “dependent on land” and says that besides “farmers”, it also includes “landlords” and “labourers” and they all inhabit the villages. All these three characters are present in Premchand’s literature but his focus is on the farmers. It was the farmers, and not the landlords, who made India an agricultural nation. Landlords did own huge tracts of land but they never worked the fields. The landlords employed labourers for all farm-related work, including ploughing, sowing and harvesting. The farm labourers were either landless or had very small landholdings. Generally, the land on which their houses were built also did not belong to them. Thus, the association of labourers and the landlords with the land was different from that of the farmers. The landlords owned land but did not do farming. The labourers did farming but were not owners of land. Thus, these classes cannot be described as farmers though they were part of the agricultural system.

downloadPremchand did not regard landlords or labourers as farmers. His farmers till their own land. They handle all farming operations themselves. It was they who built India’s farm culture. Landlords and labourers had no role in it. Agriculture is not just an economy; it is also a civilization and a culture. Premchand is the most prominent portrayer of farmer’s life among Hindi authors. Critics have extensively analyzed this aspect of his works. Among others, critics like Dr Ramvilas Sharma, Dr Namvar Singh and Dr Veer Bharat Talwar have underlined the significance of Premchand’s farmer-centric fictional writings. Even today, no discussion on the portrayal of the life of the farmers is complete without taking Premchand’s works into account. We consider Premchand’s farmer as the genuine farmer. If someone asks who a farmer is, we will say Hori is, Halku is and Shankar is. Then, if we are asked what the biggest problem of the farmers is, we will again go to Premchand for an answer. What have critics to say on this? Ramvilas Sharma’s Premchand Aur Unka Yug identifies indebtedness as the biggest problem of the farmers though it also points at imperialism, colonialism, feudalism, priestly class and capitalism as sources of their travails. Critics frequently use these words to understand Premchand’s farmer. These isms might not have had any direct link with the farmers but they were definitely responsible for their miseries. These isms are well defined. But can they help us fully comprehend the life of Premchand’s farmer? The language of criticism should be sourced from the language of the works it seeks to evaluate. If the language of the works is ignored, criticism will lose track. Premchand’s language is an indispensable tool for critical appraisal of his works. His farmer has different facets and critics have understood them in their own way. Sometimes Premchand’s farmer is groaning under the weight of debt, sometimes he is the victim of the repressive system, sometimes he turns a rebel and on other occasions he is a typical god-fearing Indian. The main source of worry for Premchand’s farmers is finances. In fact, money (or lack of it) is at the root of all his problems. If he is unhappy, it is because of the huge debt he has incurred. If he is god-fearing, he spends unnecessarily on religious rituals and lands in trouble. Thus economic reasons are at the root of all his problems. By implication, if his economic status is improved, all these problems will disappear. But is it true? Are his social problems also rooted in the economic factors? Should we conclude that the social problems confronting him are because of his poverty? Do Premchand’s works throw light on the social aspect of the life of farmers? Is there is a cultural aspect with no connection with economics? Both Hindi criticism and peasant politics have been insisting that improving the economic status of farmers is of paramount importance. Does Premchand’s fiction identify the components of the system that exploits farmers? The social and cultural aspects of the life of the farmers, as depicted in Premchand’s writings, need to be studied. That is because farmers are the real builders of Indian culture. India is an agricultural country and farmers are its foundation. The culture of the farmers is the culture of India. Landlords and labourers are not the builders of this culture, though they were very much part of rural India.

There can be no discussion on culture without at least touching on society. Social structure plays an important role in the building of culture. The Indian culture is basically agrarian and farmers have been major contributors in its formation. We should look for Indian culture in Premchand’s writings on peasants. We should treat the culture of Premchand’s farmer as Indian culture.

Hindi criticism has rarely dwelt on the social base of farmers though Premchand was conscious of its importance. Premchand was also well aware that caste is the most important identity of farmers. Castes form the basic identity of all his farmer characters. Caste is the bedrock of rural society. Whenever Premchand talks of any farmer character, he invariably reveals his caste. Some examples are in order.

Story                            Character

Algyojha                       Bhola Mahto

Subhagi                        Subagi is daughter of Tulsi Mahto

Do Bailon Ki Kahani     Jhuri Kachhi

Mukti Marg                   Jhingur (Mahto), Buddhu (Gadaria)

Babaji Ka Bhog             Ramdhan Ahir

Sava Ser Gehun             Shankar Kurmi

Sujan Bhagat                Sujan Mahto

Panch Parmeshwar       Algu Chaudhary

Premchand does not mention the caste of Halku in Poos Ki Raat and introduces him just as a small farmer who occasionally works as a labourer too. He is neither upper-caste nor Dalit. Whenever Premchand depicts any Dalit character, he always refers to the system of untouchability. Halku must definitely be an OBC. From Hori Mahto of Godan to Halku of Poos Ki Raat, all farmers of Premchand are OBCs. This is not only true of his stories but even more so of his novels. The shorter length of the stories means that there is lesser scope of talking about the caste of the farmers but novels afford a bigger opportunity and in them, Premchand gives a detailed description of the various castes and their inter-relationships. For him, OBCs were synonymous with farmers. His farmer characters do not come from Dalit or upper castes. He has written other stories set in villages but not centred on farmers. Kafan is the story of a village but has nothing to do with farmers. It is only about the landlords and the labourers. Ghisu and Madhav are labourers and the “Zamindar Saheb” is virtually the owner of the village. Bade Ghar Ke Beti is also about rural life but does not talk of the problems of farmers. All its characters are upper-caste.


Ramvilas Sharma

Godan, perhaps, depicts the problems of the farmers best among all of Premchand’s works. Hori exemplifies the problems farmers may face in different times and at different places. All the characters of Godan are linked with the agricultural system but neither Datadeen nor Jhinguri Singh display the tenacity and grit of Hori, who wants to do farming and stick to its culture at any cost. For the upper castes, farming was a source of income, not a profession. But Hori was steeped in the agrarian culture body and soul. The upper-caste characters do not have as strong a bonding with agricultural culture as Hori.

The preface of the fourth edition of Premchand Aur Unka Yug was written in 1987, in which Ramvilas, amending his construct presented in the first edition of the book published in 1952, wrote that besides indebtedness, Godan also depicts some other problems of the farmers. “Some people think that Godan only talks about the problem of indebtedness. That is not so. In this novel, Premchand has studied familial relations in great depth and has set new parameters of social honour. The way, Hori, under the leadership of Dhania, courageously standing up to the Mukhia and Mahajan of the village by providing sanctuary to pregnant widow Jhunia, has no parallel in Premchand’s fictional writings.”[6]

But Ramvilas still insists that “indebtedness is the basic problem” of the farmers in Godan[7] and, by extension, that this is the case of the farmers in general. But Datadeen and Jhinguri Singh don’t have this problem, neither do Ghisu and Madhav. Dukhia of Sadgati is also not indebted. Indebtedness is the problem of farmers like Hori, Halku and Shankar. Ramvilas draws our attention to the important fact that farmers are indebted; that the system of moneylending is pitted against them and that is why farmers are being ruined. One cannot but agree with this analysis of Ramvilas, and in his article Mahajani Sabhyta, Premchand actually says just that.

Ramvilas took two decades (1953-1987) to realize that Godan has set new parameters of familial relations and social honour, and to move from the farmers’ economic status to his culture. This needs some elaboration. Whether it is Godan or Karmabhoomi or Premasharam or his stories, Premchand has a unique cultural vision with respect to farmers. He sustains this cultural vision throughout all his works of fiction, be it in Godan or Premashram. Premchand has great respect for farmers. He has empathy for them – not pity. Hindi criticism has, so far, failed to comprehend this fact. The critics say that Premchand captured the pain, anger and revolt of the farmers. This is the radical aspect of his writings. But Premchand’s writings are not only about radicalism. He has portrayed the peasant culture in all its dimensions. The peasant culture as portrayed by Premchand is yet to get its due recognition. Writing about farmers does not only mean writing about their exploitation and suppression. A writer need not only lament the economic miseries of the farmers and focus only on his rebellion against the system. Hindi criticism, however, has focused only on this aspect. When Ramvilas refers to Godan or Premashram or Karmabhoomi, he only tries to unveil the institutional exploitation of the farmers. Some quotes from the chapter “Godan” in Premchand Aur Unka Yug reveal the focus of Hindi criticism:

“He had written novels on different aspects of farmers’ lives – on their eviction from their land due to their inability to pay land revenue in Premashram; on their growing economic woes and their battle against land revenue in Karmabhoomi.[8]

“Moreover, he could clearly see the widening chasm between the world of profit and the world of labour. He very clearly distinguishes between the two cultures in Premashram, Karmabhoomi, etc. And in Godan he dwells on it with unmatched skill.”[9]

Thus, Ramvilas identifies “two cultures” – one of which is the culture of the “world of labour”. Clearly, he is talking about farmers because his reference points are Premashram, Karmabhoomi and Godan. This is the culture of the farmers but Ramvilas’ Marxist leanings cause him to see it as the culture of the “world of labour”. His adherence to Marxist criticism does not allow him to accept the existence of a culture of farmers. Besides farmers, the labourers are also part of the exploited class and together make up the “world of labour”. Marxism thinks on these lines and so does Ramvilas.

But, for Premchand, the culture of farmers did not mean the “world of labour”. For him, farmer did not only mean an exploited class but a class that has its distinct culture. Premchand’s farmer has his own pains and pleasures, castes and groups, familial relations, social vision, willpower, tradition, humanity, reason and logic, religiosity and spiritualism, progressive values and the will to plough on. If we try to understand Premchand’s farmer in his entirety, we will be able to see his literature in a new light. The special number of Sakhi (issue no: 18-19, 2009), centred on re-reading Godan, needs special mention in this respect. It has more than 30 articles but none displays a new vision for understanding the life of the farmers. The articles test Godan on all old and new touchstones of criticism, including Dalit discourse, women’s discourse, post-modernism, end of ideologies and deconstructionism. But the moot point is that Premchand had written Godan on the farmers and so while “re-reading Godan” we cannot do away with the farmer in it. That was why even this mega effort could not make any meaningful addition to what we already know about Premchand’s farmers.

Premchand’s farmer is conscious of his self-respect. While he is willing to toil, he also wants to protect his “marjaad” (honour or dignity). He wants to earn honour only through hard work. He does not want to do any injustice to anyone to earn honour. He does not kill any member of his family for his “honour”. Hori, respecting his son’s love for Jhunia, brings a pregnant Jhunia to his home. Jhunia is not only a widow but is pregnant with Gobar’s child without being married to him. Hori does not humiliate or despise Jhunia. He has the courage to announce that Jhunia is a member of his family. This act of Hori is one of the brightest aspects of the culture of farmers. The ubiquitous “honour killings” in today’s India are not a part of the culture of farmers; it is the culture of those for whom farming is just a means of earning money.

Premchand’s farmer is a large-hearted toiler. In Godan and his other works, Premchand shows that the farmer is concerned about his honour and dignity. If he wants to buy a cow, it is for honour; if he takes loan, it is to protect his dignity. Whatever risks he takes in his life are aimed at protecting his honour and dignity. Datadeen has no respect for Silia, who has a romantic relationship with his son Matadeen. But Datadeen’s behaviour is despicable and opportunistic. He does not oppose the illicit relations of his son and at the same time, does not provide justice to Silia. Datadeen’s behaviour has the makings of an “honour killing”. Contrast this with the humanistic behaviour of Hori. The courage and humanism of Hori is what helped build Indian culture. Datadeen’s deceit represents the dark underbelly of Indian society.

Just remove your blinkers and you will realize that everything Hori does is to protect his honour but his honour is imbued with humanistic principles and concerns. He is indebted, he makes compromises in his daughter’s marriage but mind you, he doesn’t allow his honesty and humanism to die. He wants to free himself from debt through his hard work and lead a peaceful life. He does not want to usurp anyone else’s property. Datadeen, on the other hand, has negative qualities. Hori represents the culture of the farmers; Datadeen, the backwardness of rural society.

Premchand had a unique way of looking at villages. In most of his works, non-farmer characters have negative traits. Premchand harbours no respect for non-farmer characters of Godan like Datadeen, Jhinguri Singh, etc. Premchand had realized that OBCs had played a pivotal role in making the culture of farmers, that is the culture of India. He also flags those elements that are responsible for the ills plaguing rural society. It may sound surprising but Premchand portrays characters of upper castes as being culturally backward. The Brahmin and Thakur characters are shown as polluters of the culture of farmers. The upper-caste characters in Premchand’s fiction rarely do anything positive for farmers, farming or the culture of farmers. They only pollute the culture of the farmers and exploit them.

premchand-aur-unka-yugNot only in Godan but also in Premchand’s other works, the key challenge confronting farmers about protecting their honour and dignity. But for that, the farmers would not have been caught in the vicious cycle of indebtedness. They take loans only for protecting their honour and are determined to repay their loans – again to protect their honour. The farmers in Premchand’s stories and novels are indebted but they are not thick-skinned enough to even think of not repaying the loans. This, when they are not responsible for their state but the pernicious system of moneylending is. Sava Ser Gehun exposes this system in all its nakedness. The farmer works very hard but still prosperity does not come his way. If he is indebted, the institutional factors are to be blamed for it. The non-farmer forces are out to weaken and ruin him. Those residents of rural areas who are not farmers are always busy figuring out ways to exploit the farmers, to loot them, to live off their hard work. The farmer, on the other hand, is busy trying to protect his honour and live his life with dignity and hard work. For him, honour lies in hard work. If he stops worrying about his honour, he can make the non-farmer forces bite the dust in minutes. But then, it would mean the end of the culture of the farmers, of the Indian culture. Honour and dignity are the cornerstones of this culture. These are the bright aspects of history that make a culture. Luxury, exploitation, evil practices and dogma hurt culture. They are anti-culture. The elements of culture can never be anti-humanity. Ramvilas juxtaposes the “world of profit” against the “world of labour”. There can exist a “culture of labour” but a system of (loot-based) profit can never be given the status of culture. There can be no culture of untouchability. There can be no culture of eyeing others’ wives. These are evils, wrong practices and an insult to humanity.

There is a need to understand Premchand and his works from this angle. It is clear that he has a powerful cultural vision with respect to farmers. An analysis of his stories will show that the OBCs have played a key role in building the glorious Indian culture, which, in turn, is the product of the culture of the farmers. It has been said umpteen times that Indian culture, in fact, is the culture of the farmers. Premchand has amply demonstrated that the OBCs have been instrumental in building it.

Just see an analysis of the story Algyojha (Madhuri, October 1929). Dr Ramvilas Sharma says, “Algyojha is about the disastrous fallout of division of families. Premchand was a protagonist of joint families but they were breaking up owing to economic reasons. Compromises could just have given them a short lease of life.”[10]

In the same vein, Ramvilas expresses his disagreements with Premchand with respect to some other stories. “Often he [Premchand] shows that a change of heart solves the problems of families.”[11] Ramvilas holds the view that the Premchand’s solutions for the “problems of families” are not valid because while the families are troubled due to economic reasons Premchand is suggesting emotional solutions. “At the root of family disputes are economic reasons – small landholdings, growing land revenue, burden of loans, women not getting work, unemployed men and one breadwinner being forced to feed ten who sit at home. Unless these economic problems are solved, their family life can never be happy.”[12]

Ramvilas is measuring the happiness of farmer families with the yardstick of income and expenditure. But Premchand’s stories are not focused solely on economic factors. He does not believe that happiness is a function of earnings. Ramvilas has failed to grasp the cultural vision of Premchand. In Algyojya, Bhola Mahto marries Panna after the death of his wife and troubles begin for 10-year-old Raghu. Panna is widowed eight years after her marriage and, along with her three children, becomes dependent on her stepson Raghu. Contrary to Panna’s apprehensions, Raghu diligently looks after the entire family and Panna is happy. But things take a new turn. The family is torn apart due to the seeds of hate sown by Raghu’s wife Mulia. In the end, Raghu dies. Kedar takes care of Mulia’s household and, with the consent of the family, marries his widowed stepsister-in-law.

The story does not end with the division of the family. In fact, it ends with its reunion. Premchand has minutely portrayed the breakdown of the families but has even more minutely observed the attempts to keep them united. Ramvilas’s “economic hardships” are not a factor here. As for families breaking up, it happens in Bade Ghar Ki Beti too, though no economic problems are involved here. Despite suffering at the hands of his stepmother, Raghu looks after the entire family following the death of his father and brings up Panna’s children like his own. Panna herself says that Raghu is not the brother, but the father of her children. Compassion, feeling of oneness and responsibility towards one’s family is what this story of about. The farmer is consistently worried about his honour and is ever ready to make any sacrifice for the sake of his family. Without caring for his personal comfort and wellbeing, Raghu works hard for his family so that the honour of his late father is protected. Kedar presents a shining example by marrying Mulia, and Panna, by encouraging them to get married, shows how large-hearted she is.

The culture of farmers, as portrayed by Premchand, encapsulates the lofty ideals of Indian culture. Working hard, not being concerned about personal comfort, making sacrifices, treating younger sisters and brothers like your own children, being satisfied with one’s limited resources, making every effort to keep the family unity intact – these are the hallmarks of this culture. They make a culture great. Sacrifice, love, satisfaction, mercy, compassion and large-heartedness are what make up the Indian culture. Premchand’s farmer has all these virtues in ample measure. On the other hand, non-farmer rural characters like Datadeen and Jhinguri epitomize evils like treachery, cruelty, deceit and wretchedness. These evils have only served to damage the Indian culture.

Ramvilas has referred to “women not getting work and unemployed men” but the fact is that the women of farmer families work a lot. Panna toils in the fields and men work without a break. Of course, the women and men of non-farmer rural families had nothing to do, as they did not till the land themselves. In that sense, they were “unemployed”. Lalbihari of Bade Ghar Ki Beti steps out of her home to hunt birds, not to work in the fields.

Premchand’s farmer needs to be analyzed from the cultural angle because he is the foundation and the patron of Indian culture. This will also help us realize the enormous role of OBCs in the building of Indian culture. OBCs account for more than a half of India’s population and their contribution to the building of Indian culture needs to be appreciated. It will not be an exaggeration to say that there is no aspect of Indian life that has not been influenced by this section of society.

[1] Premchand Aur Unka Yug, Ramvilas Sharma, Rajkamal Prakashan, 1993, New Delhi, p 44

[2] Ibid p 45

[3] Ibid p 45

[4] Ibid p 96

[5] Hindi Sahitya Ka Itihaas, Acharya Ramchandra Shukla, Nagari Pracharini Sabha, Varanasi, Vikram Samvat 2047, p 292

[6] Premchand Aur Unka Yug, Ramvilas Sharma, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 1993 p 5-6

[7] Ibid p 96

[8] Ibid p 96

[9] Ibid p 97

[10] Ibid p 116

[11] Ibid 116

[12] Ibid p 116

For a deeper understanding of Bahujan literature, see Forward Press Books’ The Case for Bahujan Literature. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (mobile: 968527911).

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