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Blessed by Ambedkar, this communist fought for Bundelkhand farm workers' rights

By Bharat Dogra*

This is a short but very inspiring and interesting biography of a communist activist who struggled for the rights of the poorest people in Bundelkhand region. Keeping in view the weakness of the communist parties in the Hindi belt in recent times, it may be of interest to many young people that the undivided Communist Party of India and after its division the CPI used to be very strong in the undivided Banda district (now including Banda and Chitrakut districts) and could win state assembly and occasionally even Lok Sabha elections.
The Hindi book under review is titled ‘Revolutionary Comrade Durjan Singh -- Life and Struggles’. It has been written by Ram Chandra ‘Saras’ and published by People’s Publishing House. This book tells the life-story of one of the most courageous communist activists of those times Durjan Singh.
While several other communist leaders here came from middle or upper class families, Durjan Singh, a Dalit, came from a landless farm worker household. He in his earliest days used to work as a farm worker in bonded or semi-bonded conditions. His father had done likewise. His wife too had worked in similar conditions.
He knew and had experienced first-hand all the pain, sufferings and humiliation suffered by dalit landless farm workers. It is very inspiring that from such a condition Durjan Singh rose to give new hope to many thousands of landless workers and bonded workers in Banda district and nearby parts of Bundelkhand region and beyond.
Born in or around year 1901 Durjan lost his father at the age of 8 years and his mother brought up her two sons with great difficulty. As soon as he was able to work, he too started working as a landless farm worker attached to a big landowner. Due to lack of nutrition his wife died at the time of her first pregnancy.
Durjan was an exceptionally good singer from early days and his songs used to immediately attract people. Bundelkhand region has a rich tradition of folk song and dance and dalits in particular are known for their special skills in this. Young Durjan was particularly good at singing with a dhapli.
He used this special talent to get some fame and make some extra earnings. His family then persuaded him to marry again and he was married to Subodhia in 1926.
Despite his talent in singing and folk theatre or nutanki, Durjan was by and large confined to his role as a farm worker due to absence of social mobility in rigid and oppressive socio-economic conditions. Like other farm workers working in conditions of semi-bondage, he too had become hopelessly indebted and was beginning to lose hope of seeing any different or better future.
However things were to change soon in a rather dramatic way.
In 1936 while travelling for one of his song and dance performances, Durjan met a saint called Gudri Wale Baba in Korrakanak village. This saint appeared to be a veteran of liberation theology approach. He interpreted religious teachings in such a way as to convince Durjan and some others that the true path of religion is to have deep commitment to serving the poor and protecting them from exploitation. The saint also told him to come back with more people who can walk on such a path.
Although just then Durjan had to return to his bonded work, but he started thinking a lot about other possibilities. When most of the food grain he was supposed to get at harvest time was also being taken away to pay for debts, Durjan finally decided to escape with his family. When he was not seen around for some time, the landlord chased him with some goons. However when Durjan challenged them with a sword, they returned. Durjan then sought shelter in the Dalit hamlet of his wife’s maternal village.
Here Durjan had more opportunity to form a group of singers and folk artists who sang bhajans of Kabir but also weaved in messages against exploitation in their songs and performances. Thy started giving bigger performances at the ashram of Gudri Wale Baba where large numbers of people gathered to hear their songs. These were days of the freedom movements and the performers also contributed to spreading the message of the freedom movement.
After Independence Durjan went to meet Dr BR Ambedkar who encouraged him to work for the Scheduled Caste Federation. He started this work but was more drawn towards the communist movement. So in all honesty he went back to Dr Ambedkar and sought his permission to work with the communists which the great man granted readily and graciously, gifting Rs 100 at the same time, which Durjan promptly gifted in turn to his new comrades.
Up to this stage the writer has narrated a very gripping personal story but after this the biography becomes more of a chronicle of the growth and spread of the communist party in Banda district, including the problems and setbacks created by division and fragmentation.
An interesting information available here is that in the most formative phase of the communist movement in Bundelkhand the famous Hindi poet Kedarnath Aggarwal also made an important contribution.
One of the saddest episodes related here is that of the police firing of 12 July 1966 in which a large number of persons died and suffered serious injuries.
There were several movements to gain control of redistributed land and also to get better terms for farm workers and reduce the burden of debt for them. There were struggles also to improve drought relief work. In these struggles not only Durjan Singh but his wife Subodhia also participated with great courage.
Durjan Singh became the first Dalit in the state to win as MLA from a general, non-reserved seat in assembly elections in 1969 from Baberu constituency.
However later he also suffered some electoral defeats by narrow margins. Undaunted, he continued to work for the poor till the last till he finally breathed his last in 1987.
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. Recent books: “Planet in Peril”, “When the Two Streams Met” and “A Day in 2071”



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