#MayDay: Ambedkar and The Anti-Khoti Movement

by Kushal Choudhary

Ambedkar with his followers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Author Unknown, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

The clash between Ambedkar and communist mobilisation over-shadows the immense socio-political role of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Several narratives pitch him as a staunch leader who was vehemently opposed to communists through much of his life, while he organised the Dalit workers in industries to demand for rights and privileges equal to the caste-Hindu worker. As succinctly recounted by Kari Kumar on DHM;

During the 6-month long strike of Bombay textile workers, in 1928, Ambedkar was annoyed by communist organising models. Still, he decided to join the strike and stood, especially with the Dalit workers. He noticed something key then. The weaver jobs were not given to Dalit workers. In particular, the job involved the wetting of the bobbin thread with the weaver’s saliva and non-Dalit workers (also oppressed castes), refused to handle the bobbins if Dalits were working with them. Workers or not, they were untouchables still, were they not? Weaver jobs also paid more. Non-Dalit workers couldn’t imagine a world in which a mere untouchable could earn more than them. Inconceivable.”

Such caste-based discrimination and the nonchalance of communist leadership towards the caste-question rightfully paved way for some resentment towards communists. This dynamic can be seen in the anti-khoti mobilisations as well.

The context was the “khoti” system in the Konkan region (present-day Maharashtra), an exploitative revenue system controlled by the “khots(landlords). The khots were also revenue collectors for the British government. They collected revenue from tenant-cultivators in villages, who tilled the land. The khoti system itself became a way for the khots to exercise control over the tenants. This included extracting “begar” or unpaid labour from the tenants and taking an undue share in the produce of the tenant farmers, under a tenancy contract known as “makta. These privileges allowed the khots to rule over villages as landlords, extracting surplus from tenants, who were mostly from the oppressed agricultural castes such as Kunbis, Bhandaris, and Mahars who were Dalits and other oppressed caste folk. (1)

Ambedkar mobilised the tenants in the Konkan region and called to denounce the khoti system and its tenets. This led to Ambedkar’s entry into agrarian class politics that he would expand on over the coming decade. In 1929, he publicly reject the practices of makta and begar at a farmer’s gathering held in Chiplun in Konkan. Ambedkar’s proclamation against the feudal systems mobilized a stronger march of protesting peasantry and untouchables. (2)

From 1932 to 1937, a five year long mobilisation against makta was seen in in the Konkan region. Communist leaders too joined and mobilised peasants in these areas. Through strikes, the lands owned by the khots were left dry and no crops were produced for almost 4 years.

The peasantry at this point were actively protesting at multiple areas, and the boycotting of khot lands and non-payment of rent were common occurrences.

Ambedkar called for all the tenants to not share their produce with the khots. Khots would ask for police protection and the heated environment between tenants and khots is a marker of the raging anti-khoti movement during this half-decade.

A crucial thing to note was that many alliances between middle-caste peasants and the untouchables can be seen, undivided under the common goal of eradication of the khoti system. Shudra castes such as Kunbis, Telis were attending the movement’s many conferences with the Mahar population. (3)

In administrative terms, the Khoti Settlement Act of 1880 guaranteed the khots will maintain their hegemony over land on the exploitative khot-tenant relations would continue unabated. Hence the struggle against the system needed to be tackled on the administrative and legal levels as well.

In 1936, the much celebrated Independent Labour Party (ILP) conceived by Ambedkar came to being. The party acted as an alternative to other labour outlets of the communist fold, and mobilised the untouchable workers in the cities and farm labourers in the villages.

The first election for the Central Legislative Assembly in the Bombay presidency in 1937 saw the ILP winning several seats in many regions, including Ambedkar winning a seat in Bombay city. Ambedkar’s next radical move to introduce a bill against the khoti-system in the legislative assembly.

Ambedkar was the first leader in all the provincial assemblies across India to introduce a bill for the abolition of serfdom of the peasants. The Congress as the majority in the assembly never discussed this bill and Ambedkar started a protest against the assembly for abolition of the khoti system. Many communist leaders and outfits participated and the protests concluded with a captivating number of around 25,000 peasants, marching towards the Bombay council on 12 January 1938. This was one of the largest marches of peasants ever seen in Maharashtra, before the independence of India. (4)

After 1942, other issues were taken up by Ambedkar and hence he couldn’t give his undivided attention to the anti-khoti movement. However, the anti-khoti movement was already rooted. And in 1949 the abolition of the khoti system was passed as an act in Maharashtra. (5)

This coming together of Dalits and other castes for a specific class interest (to challenge the khoti system) didn’t materialise into something larger, sadly. Even after such historic mobilisations in solidarity, the communist rhetoric remained against Ambedkar later on. Anand Teltumbde, in his introduction to Ambedkar’s unfinished book “India and Communism” writes:“In the 1930s, Ambedkar, despite his ideological reservations, clearly appeared to be extending a hand of friendship to the Communists, but the latter do not seem to be responding positively. Rather, they dogmatically kept themselves away from his struggle, considering it merely superstructural”(6)

However, Ambedkar in this context has remained a political force who deliberated with the communists against a burgeoning capitalist industrial society that exploited the worker and simultaneously attempted to dismantle Brahmanical society at large. His radical mediation was to envision a politics that could enact class-based labour movements while also confronting the hideousness of caste.

1. The Anti- Khoti Movement in the Konkan, C. 1920–1949, Santosh Pandhari Suradkar, p. 1–6;

Mukti Kon Pathe? Caste and Class in Ambedkar’s Struggle — Santosh Suradkar, p. 63

Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 52, Issue №49, 09 Dec, 2017

https://www.epw.in/journal/2017/49/special-articles/mukti-kon-pathe.html

2. Mukti Kon Pathe? p. 63

3. Mukti Kon Pathe? p. 63–64

4. Mukti Kon Pathe? p. 62

5. Mukti Kon Pathe? p. 64

6. India and Communism, p. 27

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