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Premchand's Prose of Counter-Insurgency in

Colonial North India

Shailendra Kumar Singh

To cite this article: Shailendra Kumar Singh (2016): Premchand's Prose of Counter-
Insurgency in Colonial North India, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, DOI:

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Premchand’s Prose of Counter-Insurgency in Colonial

North India
Shailendra Kumar Singh
Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India
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This article suggests that the prose of counter-insurgency, as Awadh; counter-insurgency;
defined by Ranajit Guha, serves as a theoretical yardstick against peasants; peasant uprisings;
which Premchand’s discourses about peasants can be measured. Premchand; prose
This is possible, however, only if Guha’s scope is broadened
beyond historiography to incorporate fictional as well as
journalistic writings. For someone who represents the plight of
the peasant with incisive historical accuracy, Premchand’s
implied corrective for the peasant amounts to a radical
departure from the status quo in the United Provinces. In
Premchand’s non-fictional prose, vis-!a-vis the peasant uprisings
of Awadh, there are only tangential references or a studied
silence; however, his fictional works reveal the rationality of
peasants, despite his insistence on compassion, rectitude and
integrity. Nevertheless, he never presents peasant discontent as
a collective enterprise; the alternatives are provided by the
writer’s leap of faith, either with the zamindar (landlord) or the
sarkar (government). Premchand’s literary corpus thus acts as a
prose of counter-insurgency that reads peasants’ protests as a
threat to the social order and an impediment to the nationalist
movement for swaraj (self-rule), thereby either relegating it to
the peripheral spaces or discarding it altogether.

Premchand (1880!1936) is indisputably one of the most representative voices of Urdu
and Hindi literature to emerge from the second and third decades of the twentieth cen-
tury. His range traverses multiple genres such as novels, plays and short stories, in addi-
tion to a voluminous body of letters and journalistic pieces. He is well known for his
gritty, compelling and poignant narratives that chronicle the harrowing experiences of the
socially marginalised groups of his times/milieu such as widows, prostitutes and the lower
castes. But it is the peasantry that chiefly captures his attention since he believed that by
representing them in his works, he was discharging the debt he owed to his ‘rural

CONTACT Shailendra Kumar Singh

© 2016 South Asian Studies Association of Australia


brethren’.1 However, Premchand’s emphasis on social realism, particularly in his peasant

narratives, is largely restricted to the level of delineation and never sustained in the
concluding sections of the plot. In the heyday of peasant revolts in the United Provinces,
Premchand’s peasant protagonists are simply represented as passive, deferential and
helpless victims of sarkari (governmental), sahukari (moneylending) and zamindari
(landlord) exploitation. This blind spot unequivocally reveals a politics of representation
that merits comparison with what Ranajit Guha has defined as the concept of the prose of
counter-insurgency, because like historiography, Premchand’s fictional and journalistic
writings, which otherwise are a rich source of socio-anthropological information about
the deplorable living conditions of peasants in Awadh, treat insurgency as something
invariably ‘external to the peasant consciousness’.2 The pervasive sense of fear, anxiety
and discomfort that the official narratives articulate/convey in relation to peasant insur-
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gency (insurgency is almost always construed as a terrible phenomenon or event) can also
be traced to a great extent in Premchand’s literary corpus.
While critiquing the much-lauded concept of the passivity and deference of peasants,
James C. Scott observes that mystification ‘is invoked as the reason for resignation partic-
ularly in societies, such as the Indian, where a venerable system of rigid stratification is

1. Premchand, Chiththi Patri (Letters), Vol. II (eds Amrit Rai and Madan Gopal) (Allahabad: Hans Prakashan, 1962), p. 211;
and The Oxford India Premchand (eds David Rubin and Alok Rai) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), along with
Snehal Shingavi’s translation of Sevasadan (2005 ed.), Lalit Srivastava’s translation of Karmabhumi (2006 ed.) and Gor-
don Roadarmel’s translation of Godaan (2007 ed.), are the texts in English that have been used for this essay. Some of
Premchand’s stories translated by David Rubin in The Oxford India Premchand have also been used. The rest of the
translations of Premchand’s Hindi texts are mine.
2. Ranajit Guha, ‘The Prose of Counter-Insurgency’, in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II (New Delhi: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1983), p. 3. Premchand’s position is particularly contradictory because in 1919, in an article titled
‘Purana Zamana, Naya Zamana’ (‘Olden Times and the New Age’), he himself foresees a bright future for the
peasants: ‘The future belongs to the peasants and labourers. The incidents that are taking place throughout the
world bear testimony to this. India cannot remain unaffected by these developments.... Hundreds of thousands
of Indian labourers and craftsmen will return home from France in the near future, hundreds of thousands of
soldiers will come back here after the War. Do you really think that they will remain completely unmoved by the
political circumstances of these independent nations?’ Premchand, Vividh Prasang (Journalistic Writings of
Premchand), Vol. I (ed. Amrit Rai) (Allahabad: Hans Prakashan, 1962), p. 268. The influence of World War I and
the Russian Revolution of 1917 (which, for him, was primarily a peasant revolution) is clearly at work here.
Similarly, in one of his letters to Dayanarayan Nigam, he admits: ‘I am almost convinced now of Bolshevist princi-
ples’. Premchand, Chiththi Patri (Letters), Vol. I, p. 93. It seems that Premchand, who once saw great potential in
the collective and organised strength of the peasantry, almost recants from his earlier position (one is literally
reminded of Wordsworth here since he, too, eventually became disillusioned with the French Revolution, like
Coleridge) in the wake of the peasant protests in Awadh. For instance, in 1932, in the prime of the second wave
of peasant protests in the United Provinces, Premchand states: ‘Their (the peasants’) biggest weakness is that
they lack organisation’. Premchand, Premchand Ke Vichaar (Opinions of Premchand), Vol. I (New Delhi: Prakashan
Sansthan, 2003), p. 494, first published as Vividh Prasang, Vol. II (ed. Amrit Rai) (Allahabad: Hans Prakashan,
1962). His middle-class reformist perspective, which was at best patronising and paternalistic, is not very far
removed from those we find in the official narratives that Guha discusses in his work. While examining
W.W. Hunter’s The Annals of Rural Bengal (1868), Guha comments: ‘His sympathies for the peasants’ sufferings...
do not, when the crunch comes, prevent him from siding with law and order’. Guha, ‘The Prose of Counter-Insur-
gency’, p. 26. One can almost say the same about Premchand’s oeuvre since his sympathy for the peasants’ suf-
ferings do not, when the crunch comes, prevent him from siding with the bourgeois-nationalist leaders who
were opposed to peasant insurgency lest it proved detrimental to the interests of the nationalist movement for
swaraj (self-rule). Similarly, Premchand’s peasant narratives can be compared to Suprakash Ray’s work (another
historian whose work Guha analyses in his essay), since in both of them, the rebel exists as ‘an abstraction called
Worker-and-Peasant, an ideal rather than the real historical personality of the insurgent’. Ibid., p. 33. The politics
of representation that underlies the historical works of Hunter and Ray bears a striking analogy to the one found
in Premchand’s fictional and journalistic writings related to the peasantry because, even though the peasant
exists as an ideal or an abstraction in Premchand’s works, his oppression and exploitation are deeply entrenched
in realism and are therefore historically authentic.

reinforced by religious sanctions’.3 Although this does not hold entirely true in the case of
Premchand’s literary output, Scott’s statement nevertheless has some validity in so far as
his representation of the peasants’ plight is concerned. This is because in Premchand’s lit-
erary corpus, there is a distinctive and recurrent mystification of peasants, by which I
mean the ascription of culture and religion as the rationale for their submissive behaviour.
Indeed, the oppression and exploitation of peasants in Premchand’s oeuvre is portrayed
with such remarkable consistency that it cuts across the various genres in which he wrote.
One discerns its prominence in short stories such as ‘Andher’ (‘Injustice’, 1913), ‘Pachh-
taava’ (‘Regret’, 1914), ‘Upadesh’ (‘Counsel’, 1917), ‘Sava Ser Gehun’ (‘A Handful of
Wheat’, 1924) and ‘Poos ki Raat’ (‘January Night’, 1930).4 Furthermore, similar narratives
can be found in novels such as Premashram (The Sanctuary of Love, 1922), Karmabhumi
(The Field of Action, 1932) and Godaan (The Gift of a Cow, 1936).5 Premchand also wrote
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a play, Sangraam (The Struggle, 1923),6 in which the peasants’ plight takes centre-stage.
This homogeneity in delineation is nevertheless strongly contested by an equally rich mul-
tiplicity in terms of denouement. Premchand often vacillates between several alternatives
for plot resolution, particularly with respect to the peasants in his fiction. His early and
middle works suggest a deep-seated conviction of the innate and irreducible element of
goodness in human beings. Thus, a reversal of outlook often becomes the writer’s modus
operandi, through which an improvement in the living conditions of the peasants is either
brought about or hinted at. In Sangraam and Karmabhumi, this formula is deployed to
provide cogency to the concluding sections of the plot. But though the formula remains
the same for both these works, Premchand’s vacillation can be discerned through the sub-
tle difference between the plot choices he makes: while in Sangraam, it is the zamindar
(landlord) who undergoes a reversal of outlook, in Karmabhumi, we have the sarkari
(government) officials who undergo a volte-face.
In addition to these two possibilities, a third pattern emerges in the later works, most
prominently in Godaan, in which the aggravation of the peasants’ plight is presented in
graphic detail. A climax in their oppression, exploitation and humiliation serves as the
culmination of the plot manifested through the death of Hori. Premchand’s shifting posi-
tions unmistakably disrupt the uniformity with which the predicament of the peasants is
represented throughout his fiction. His journalistic writings offer similarly irreconcilable
contradictions: while they delineate the exploitation of the peasants that was rampant in
the United Provinces and, by extension, in colonial North India, they remain surprisingly
reticent about contemporary peasant uprisings in Awadh. It is precisely this complex
interplay of diametrically opposed impulses that this article seeks to investigate. The first
section draws a comparison between the representation of the plight of the peasants in

3. James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (London: Yale University
Press, 1976), p. 228.
4. All these stories are part of either the eight volumes of Mansarovar (Selected Stories of Premchand) or the two volumes
of Premchand’s collected short stories, Gupt Dhan (Hidden Treasure). Premchand, Mansarovar (Selected Stories of Pre-
mchand), Vols 1!8 (New Delhi: Prakashan Sansthan, 2004); and Premchand, Gupt Dhan (Hidden Treasure), Vols 1!2
(ed. Lal Singh Chaudhary) (New Delhi: Bharati Bhasha Prakashan, 1996). ‘Andher’ is in Gupt Dhan, Vol. 1, while ‘Pachh-
taava’, ‘Upadesh’, ‘Sava Ser Gehun’ and ‘Poos ki Raat’ are in Mansarovar, Vol. 6, Vol. 8, Vol. 4 and Vol. 1, respectively.
5. Premchand, Premashram (The Sanctuary of Love) (New Delhi: Vani Prakashan, [1922] 2002); Premchand, Karmabhumi
(The Field of Action) (trans. Lalit Srivastava) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, [1932] 2006); and Premchand, Godaan
(The Gift of a Cow) (trans. Gordon C. Roadarmel) (New Delhi: Permanent Black, [1936] rpr. 2007).
6. Premchand, Sangraam (The Struggle) (New Delhi: Janvaani Prakashan, [1923] 1997).