Mukundrao Patil: Peasant Spokesman

Mukundrao Patil (1885–1967)
Mukundrao Patil (1885–1967)

A major intellectual and the leading peasant spokesman of the non-Brahman movement from 1910 to 1930 was Mukundrao Patil, editor of the village newspaper Din Mitra and author of many books and articles. He himself was a rich peasant, holding about 70 acres of dry land, and an inheritor of patil rights.

Though he was the actual son of [Jotirao] Phule’s famous colleague Krishnarao Bhalekar, he had been adopted at an early age by a relative, had grown up in the village and though he had some education, he had not completed his matriculation. Though he developed connections with educated and aristocratic non-Brahman leaders, he remained a villager in his life style, uncomfortable to the end of his life with either courtly routine or Westernized dress and habits. While his relations with the Mali Education Conference and the rich Saswad Malis in particular were not comfortable, he nevertheless had formed a marriage alliance of one of his sons with a Saswad family.

Many of his writings have a symbolic focus on the village patil, the dominant symbol of the rich peasant-dominant caste interest group. Thus, for example, it is the patil who is the oppressed hero of Kulkarni Lilamrut, and other articles stress the decline of the patil from his former power state and his oppression by the demands of visiting government bureaucrats. With this, plus his continued expression of the need for scientific, progressive agriculture, he might be described as a “rich peasant” spokesman.

Yet it is clear that Mukundrao Patil’s work as a whole represents the more progressive strand in the thinking of the period. He poured forth in his writings continuous arguments against religious superstitions, attacking not only the representatives of upper-class revivalism (from the Hindu Mahasabha to Annie Besant) but also urging the abolition of old, harmful peasant customs: child marriage, giving alms to beggars, holding pujas relating to agriculture, the custom of shraddh or dinners for deceased fathers, the caste idea that people should stick to their traditional occupations.

While at times he appears to have come forth as a “dominant caste” spokesman in replying to criticisms of exploitations of artisan castes, he did so while arguing that the traditional baluta system should be abolished. Such writings as Kulkarni Lilamrut and Shetji Pratap inspired untouchables as well as caste Hindus, although Mukundrao’s reluctance to support similar critiques of the patil did not always meet with untouchable expectations. He was, however, a radical defender of untouchable militancy, publishing many articles describing their “slavery” as worse than that of American Negroes and arguing against the position that untouchables should first “uplift” their social standards before they could have rights to social relations with other castes.

Finally, it should be noted that the general Satyashodhak ideology of opposition to Sanskritization and the assertion of the “non-Aryan” unity of Maharashtrian natives, for which Patil was a leading spokesman, was a positive factor in relation to Muslims as well as untouchables (thus a current reform organization has called itself the “Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj”). Muslims were not really a part of the Satyashodhak movement and the whole anti-caste thrust was basically irrelevant to their particular needs. However, the fact that the movement generally took a strong stand against the religious-based nationalism of the Hindu Mahasabha which expressly turned Muslims into an enemy was crucial. Mukundrao opposed the depiction of Shivaji as a Hindu revolt against Muslim emperors, and argued forcefully against the notion of go-brahman pratipalak, protector of cows and Brahmans, as an expression of religious conservatism. Why cows and Brahmans, he inquired, why not goats and other men? Muslims appear in Mukundrao’s writings as characters in such dialogue books as Hindi ani Brahman, and as such they represent one more component of the complex Indian society, not a feared enemy. The role of Muslims and Christians in such dialogues is in fact to assert the equality of their own religious cultures as opposed to the inequality in Hinduism.

Thus, in regard to such issues as opposition to caste inequality and cultural traditionalism, support of untouchable demands and relationships with Muslims, if Mukundrao Patil is taken as a spokesman of a rich peasant stratum, it can be argued that in this period at least it appears as one whose interests are aligned with general mass interests and to a large degree as well with the needs of particular minorities such as untouchables and Muslims. Further, he did not hesitate to defend specific tenant interests.

(Excerpted from Gail Omvedt’s Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non Brahman Movement in Western India, 2019, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, published here with minor edits.)

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