Passion for Freedom: The Story of Kisanin Jaggi Devi by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Published by Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi, pp. 72

The story of the militant Awadh Kisan movement of 1920’s & 30’s, led by the Awadh Kisan Sabha,under the leadership of the legendary Baba Ram Chandra, remains incomplete without the story of its Women’s wing – Kisanin Sabha. Jaggi Devi was among its prominent leaders. It was a peasant movement for agrarian demands with strong anti-colonial connotation. One of the noticeable features of this movement, which has remained largely unnoticed, is that it generated a new kind of feminist consciousness and assertion among the peasant women. The movement enlisted not only the participation of the rural women in large numbers but also the coinage of the term Kisanin and formation of Kisanin Sabha symbolized a feminist consciousness unknown hitherto. The character of JAGGI DEVI epitomizes this consciousness. Through depiction of the life story of Jaggi Devi, Deepti Priya in the book under review examines the role of women in the movement.

Under the British rule, the introduction of Zamindari system, had transformed the independent peasants into indebted tenants. Peasants not only had to pay land revenues but also many illegal tolls. Under the leadership of Baba Ram Chandra, the peasants of Awadh revolted against the excessive exploitation & oppression by the Zamindars & the colonial rulers. The interesting feature of this movement was mobilization of men & women on the basis of the radical reinterpretation of the popular epic- Ram Charita Manas. When Baba Ram Chandra started the Kisan movement against colonial-feudal exploitation, participation of women in large numbers, was unprecedented.

Jaggi Devi joined the movement at a very young age. Her active role in the mobilization of women and participation in the programs of the Kisanin Sabha attracted the attention of Baba so much that eventually the partnership of the struggle turned into the life partnership. The marriage was significant in another sense that it defied the prevalent deep-rooted social taboos and inhibitions against inter-caste marriages. Jaggi Devi dared the critics with her impeccable arguments and understanding acquired in the course of her struggles. The book highlights Jaggi’s participation along with other Kisanins not only in the peasants’ movement but also in the Civil Disobedience Movement and the Quit India Movement.

Baba’s death did not deter her from her political convictions and activism. She remained militantly active in her struggles as a Kisanin leader. She unceasingly continued raising peasants & people’s issues & fighting against bureaucratic corruption all her life. Her story remains inadequately researched and analyzed by the historians and also by media. Present work is a brief but meticulously researched work on her life & struggles. This book documents the undocumented history of Jaggi Devi’s unceasing passion for “freedom”—freedom free from fear and corruption. Like her other fellow girls of the time, Jaggi too was illiterate but during struggles, she acquired the competence to comprehend the socio-economic and political realities, and thus was a leader in her own right. She remained firm on her commitment to the anti-imperialist struggle despite the brutal oppression by the colonial rulers and continued her fight against oppression and exploitation of the post-colonial rule. The book narrates various untold personal and political aspects of Jaggi’s life.

Despite her pregnancy she wished to court arrest during the Civil Disobedience Movement but avoided doing so, as Gandhi had appealed to pregnant women against it. But Jaggi’s relentless struggle went on. On 15th August 1947, when Nehru was addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, Jaggi was addressing a peasants meeting in her village Daudpur, in Pratapgarh district: “Now you are the children of freedom, emperors of freedom. Every district is free now. Delhi is free so is Pratapgarh. You can walk without fear. A woman too should come out fearlessly, and wander from one place to another. …. We fought for the freedom and we got it.” But she had to lament in her old days: “Swatantra Bharat hai kahan?’ (Where is the free India?). Baba Ram Chandra and Jaggi had named their son as Swatantra Bharat.

After independence Jaggi was not recognized as a freedom fighter but only as the widow of a freedom fighter and received from the government only a small patch of land and free railway and bus passes. The family lived in utter poverty. At times there was not enough food to eat. Her son (Swatantra) could not go for higher education due to financial crunch. He had to take up a job in a factory in Indore. Thus Jaggi Devi was left all alone in her mud house at Daudpur. Numerous day-to-day problems, political and personal agony and the pain of dismal life could not overtake her pride and happiness derived from her participation in the freedom struggle. Among the local people she was popular as Jaggi Mata or Neta. Once again Jaggi decided to travel around the countryside and started organizing political meetings on various issues.

In 1980’s Jaggi visited Delhi, the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi agreed to give her an appointment. During the meeting, she drew his attention towards the peoples’ problems and advised him on how to run the country. Second time she did not get an appointment. She petitioned the government to open a Khadi Ashram in her village to generate self-employment for women in spinning and weaving. Jaggi was staunchly opposed to the new consumer culture. She grudged about the loss of self-sufficient character of Indian villages.

She often visited the Tehsildar at Patti, or the District Magistrate at Pratapgarh, to acquaint them with the issues and problems of ordinary people. She was always ready to render her helping hands to almost everyone. What Jaggi talked about, mostly, was freedom.

According to Jaggi Devi as quoted in the book, “We fought for freedom from landlord’s torture. Although the Zamindari system was abolished, but land holdings remained extremely skewed and conditions of labor highly exploitative.” She used to recount, “We fought for schools”. But she was not satisfied with the available schooling. She felt betrayed. The brief life sketch of Jaggi Devi through this book is an inspiration for the people engaged in the people’s struggles. Jaggi’s life has been a life of hope and optimism, which never compromised with her assertion of a Kisanin leader. This book is a useful resource for the history of Women’s movement in India.

Meha Mishra is a  film maker


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