Marginalised Narratives of the Indian Freedom Movement

More importance should be given to recovering the stories of marginalised people who were involved in the struggle for independence.


Popular history of the freedom movement in India has largely been glorified by narratives about individuals. The historiography is inundated with the life and times of “great leaders,” even in regional contexts, where the hagiographical retellings of local freedom fighters is how the struggle for independence is remembered. This kind of history writing privileges the individual as the shaper of history, and tends to portray leaders as representive of the larger nationalistic aspirations of the people of India. These narratives therefore subsume the aspirations and struggles of the stratified masses who also took part in the freedom movement, but with different ideas and aspirations than the homogenous idea of independence that was constructed. 

During the 1970s, a group of historians grew critical of this his kind of history writing, which gave way to the subaltern school of history writing. The subaltern school sought to rewrite the history of the struggle for independence through the lens of those who have been historically marginalised. An attempt was made to recover the stories of smaller, more regional struggles within the ambit of the national struggle for freedom. Often, these struggles were intersectional. The idea of independence offered an opportunity to renegotiate social structures. So, for many, interpretations of “Swaraj” also included the aspiration to overcome the disprivilege that came with immediate identities. 

In this reading list, we look at some of these struggles that tend to get subsumed under the “great leader” narrative. 

1) Women in the Freedom Movement

Women’s participation in the national movement, the stakes that they had, and their problems under the British Raj have not been sufficiently highlighted in the history of the national movement. “What were the tensions, social and psychological, that they had to counter in opting for a life of struggle? What were the forces which motivated them?” are among some of the questions that an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly evaluates, through the narratives of three women who participated in the freedom movement. The following excerpt is from the account of one of these women, Dasriben Chaudhari, who was involved in the Bardoli Satyagraha. 

In 1928 Sardar Patel launched 'no tax' movement in Bardoli taluka. He organised a meeting in our area. I also went there. Vallabhbhai in the meeting said that we are resisting the British government and so both men and women have to take part in this movement, I got involved immediately. I started gathering our people, the tribals. Our people were illiterate and ignorant, I knew a bit more. So people began to listen to me, I went to various villages. I organised peasants for no tax agitation. The demand was for non-payment of land revenue 'na kar' as the revenue was very high at that time. We created a woman's brigade and held meetings; we were also singing following lines repeatedly. "Let this head be crushed, but our country be liberated; Let this life be gone, but our country be liberated" I was talking to people and assuring them of the success of the struggle, giving them strength, inspiring them not to pay the tax, I told them, "We have to struggle till the revenue is reduced". People responded to the call of the movement and did not pay the tax because they were highly oppressed. 

Another woman, Mallu Swarajyam, was quite active in Hyderabad in a anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggle. Forced-labour, along with the struggle for independence was the primary reason that the movement developed in the estwhile’s Nizam’s land. In her account, she says that her experience is the shared experience of thousands of other women who participated in the movement.

At that time, we also had a consciousness of women's issues. One of the first issue we took up was wife beating which was common across all castes, right from the landlord's caste down to the peasant cultivators, to the agricultural labourers, we had instances, where the husbands on the smallest pretext would beat the wives quite badly and many times the wives were hurt so badly that they had huge wounds on their hands and legs. We had processions in that village and shouted slogans that said men should stop beating their wives. There was also a movement against liquor in those days. We also had movements to promote widow remarriage. Then we had a panchayati committee in village to resolve issues of divorce. Till that point, it was not possible for women to ask for a divorce. But with our panchayati committee that we set up in these villages, it became possible for women to ask for a divorce, if they wanted to and the party committees that we set up in various villages also looked at various issues that people faced from time to time and a lot of these issues had to do with women's problems and the problems that they faced in society.

2) Struggles Among Peasants

In various parts of British India, the pattern of landownership was largely unfavourable to the cultivating population. This was also true in Bengal’s Jalpaiguri region where the population was largely dependent on the land. Ranajit Das Gupta writes that the labourers suffered from various kinds of unfreedom, with a significant part of the agricultural population being tied in semi-serfdom. This was characteristic of the jotedar system which was prevalent in the region, where the peasant was expected to cultivate the jotedar's land with their plough and cattle, and hand over half of their produce to the jotedar as rent. The peasants were however, not given tenancy rights and were often subject to various kinds of exorbitant exactions. Das Gupta writes that “the District Congress Committee led by nationalists coming from immigrant, caste Hindu, town-based educated Bengali or bhadralok families ... remained indifferent to explicit peasant grievances.”

It was only in the wake of the formation of the District Krishak Samiti (December 1938) and of a unit of the illegal Communist Party (February 1939) that a peasant movement involving large sections of Rajbansi and Muslim peasants and adhiars took shape in the winter of 1939-40 in Boda and Debiganj thana areas—areas having also a tradition of Congress-led activity since 1921. The agitation was against collection of excessive tolls at the haats (weekly rural markets), various levies or abwabs exacted by the jotedars from the adhiars over and above the half share and exorbitant interest on karja or consumption loan in paddy and also for the right to stack harvested paddy at nij kholan, that is, at a threshing place chosen by the adhiars. The movement also spread to the adjoining areas of Dinajpur and Rangpur districts. The administration responded by conceding some demands and also by launching quite severe repression against the Krishak Samiti and the Communist organisers. 

3) Tribal Struggles Against Landed Elites

Similar struggles against established systems of landownership which depended on bonded labour were observed in several regions during the British Raj. According to Anand Chakravarti, some of these struggles continued even after independence. Chakravarti narrates the history of the Santhal bataidar agitation in Bihar that continued well after independence. Their struggle was against the landed elite or the maliks, to whom they were tied. The santhals were expected to render a number of services to the maliks, provide labour, equipment, draft animals, among other things. Chakravarti argues that the reason these struggles continued after independence was that the freedom movement, and particularly the Congress, failed to account for these interests.

The use of the label 'Congress and kisan workers' by the Collector for those who stirred the Santhal bataidars suggests a certain lack of familiarity with their background. In this context it has been stated that, "officials... were inclined to see the hand of Congress behind almost any kind [of] protest activity." While both Dhaturanand and Dulla, the two outstanding 'propagandists', could be described as kisan workers—given the broad-based nature of the term—only the former could be designated as a Congressman.

4) Incorporating Labour Movements

The incorporation of the Bombay (now Mumbai) dock workers into the struggle for independence shows how the leaders of the national movement realised the importance of bringing local struggles under their own ambit. The Bombay Dock Workers’ Union was founded in 1932 when trade unions were considered criminal under British law. Shubhankita Ojha writes that, “The nationalists took advantage of the growing awareness of trade unionism among workers and sought to assimilate them in the freedom movement.” Ojha argues that it was crucial for the leaders of the nationalist movement to mobilise the working classes whose awareness of labour rights was growing, particularly in Bombay. He writes that most nationalist meetings therefore took place in working class neighbourhoods. The dock workers were particularly important as participants in the national movement because of the nature of trade on which the British Empire relied. 

The Congress realised the need to claim adherents from among the dock workers as they realised the significance of the working class in the struggle against the colonial state. If dock workers could be properly assimilated in the freedom movement, the Congress believed, their strike had the potential to completely disrupt trade and hence the colonial administration. To this end, the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee opened their branch office at Keshav building at Carnac Bunder, close to where these workers worked and demonstrations were made to popularise Congress ideals among the workers. They targeted the dock workers in their various campaigns, being fully aware of the centrality of the docks. The Congress started a picketing campaign urging workers to boycott foreign cloth. In order to intensify its struggle against the importation of foreign cloth, the Congress volunteers targeted the port trust warehouses where all goods would be stocked before delivery to the respective consignee. The plan that these volunteers adopted was of persuading the dock workers not to touch foreign cargo.


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