Charan SinghArchives

Charan Singh (1902-1987): An Assessment, by Terence J Byres, University of London, 1988

Charan Singh (1902-1987): An Assessment, by Terence J Byres, University of London, 1988


Terence Byres, a Marxist academic and peasant studies scholar, at the Department of Economic and Political Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, published this well researched paper in 1988 in the Journal of Peasant Studies, 15:2, 139-189. Byres surprisingly accurate and detailed research and analysis indicates his knowledge of the Indian political economy and his insightful reading of primary and secondary material. This paper was widely printed and distributed in India when it was published shortly after Charan Singh’s demise in 1987, and till today remains the seminal Marxist critique of Charan Singh.

While recognizing Charan Singh’s achievements and identifying what the author thinks were his class loyalties, he brings out a hitherto unacknowledged aspect of Charan Singh as “ the ‘organic intellectual’ of the rich and middle peasantry.” This was a rare acceptance of Charan Singh’s unique intellectual abilities, one that even today few of the educated elite are aware of.

One of the key objectives of the CSA is to highlight the intellect of Charan Singh and his publications, which Byres clearly does while effectively pushing his Marxist positions. Charan Singh’s books and positions on the political economy of India are unique for a practicing grassroots politician in any nation, not just in India. Few politicians are capable to be both an effective representative of the people who elect him and be a scholar of any level while being immersed in the rough and tumble of grassroots politics. Charan Singh was both, and an excruciatingly honest and efficient administrator to boot.

Byres did not perhaps read enough outside of the books he has listed as written by Charan Singh, though he was one of the few scholars (in India or overseas) who seemed to have read the entire impressive list of primary material in the bibliography. If he had read more, however, he would have found the many places where Charan Singh explained his views on land reform: abolition of landlordism versus land re-distribution; his approach to the development of the village economy and agriculture; and his virulent opposition to caste and its ugly manifestations in rural life.

Charan Singh was often called out as a Kulak – pejoratively, of course – by Indian communists, and he himself had no love lost for them. In fact, if anything, he was solidly anti-communist in his politics though he admired the Spartan existence and simple lives Indian communist leaders – like Harkishen Singh Surjeet - led. That does not at all mean that he was a capitalist, neither was he ever a socialist. For example, he opposed the public sector for its sloth and corruption and wanted this to be handled by the private sector, but he equally opposed large capitalists and the extreme inequality he saw inherent in the development of capitalism. He was no friend of the bureaucracy or indeed organised labor as he saw them as the privileged and pampered elite of their class.

Charan Singh chose solutions that he thought were best suited to Indian conditions, which to his mind were rural and village based at the core. Gandhian thought influenced him greatly, and he was attacked there too by the neo-capitalist class as ‘backward’.

It serves little purpose to debate Byres paper and class approach in this brief introduction, as Charan Singh himself has given these answers in many places and had fought accusations of bias against the lower castes his entire life. To say that there is no bias in the village by the middle and high castes against the low castes is laughable, but our cursed caste system is such that there is a hierarchy even within the lowest. Everyone kicks down, and sucks up just like in a good corporation. A leader has to take all castes along to be successful in grassroots politics, but it is Charan Singh’s place in history to have commenced in the 1970s the consolidation of the ‘other backward castes’ in North India and steered them away from the Indian National Congress, which has brought the Congress to the sorry pass it is today. Charan Singh no doubt wanted to take all castes in the village along, but that he was not able to as much as he desired was the result of the caste system itself and the price of his outstanding success with the peasantry – marginal, small and medium.

Harsh Singh Lohit

View Fullscreen / Download