In the current set of farmers’ concerns, the urban elite sees a tale of farmers’ inefficiency & reluctance to embrace the warmth of the market
Among urban Indians, it was the usual left-liberal suspects who stood out in their support for the recent farmers’ march to Delhi. The rest, the majority, were either indifferent or riled, unmoved by visuals of elaborate bandobasts designed to block protesting co-citizens from reaching the national capital.
The protestors’ grit has moved the needle now. The government has initiated a dialogue. No thanks to urban Indians who struggled to muster solidarity.
The scramble for daily bread may have checked less fortunate urban dwellers from acting on their sympathies, but others, people like us, remained inert for another reason. We, given our luxury of getting heard via back channels, have never quite gotten, or perhaps long forgotten, the point of street protest. The noise of the aggrieved masses must never disturb the peace of us privileged, we reckon, and it’s been good to see laws and the courts come around to our view over time.
Meanwhile, the riled ones, in yet another display of touching faith in propaganda spewing from news channels and social media, were clear that the farmers had been misled, either by the political opposition or anti-national forces or possibly both in cahoots. The idea that individual agency and collective grievance can prompt street protest seemed beyond their grasp.
The visible presence in the march of Sikhs from Punjab, a currently Opposition-ruled state which once saw a separatist movement, was enough to sniff mischief.
No longer the same respect
The generally unsympathetic attitude to the march then is a reflection of our present, a time where the larger idea of street protest stands delegitimised and any protest that threatens to discomfit the government comes to be portrayed as motivated, a conspiracy to shame the government and, by (illogical) extension, harm the nation.
This, however, may not be the sole explanation for the manner in which the protest by farmers, a group long eulogised as the nation’s providers and routinely placed alongside the soldier in the national pantheon, was received in cities. Truth is that India’s romance with Bharat’s farmers has been fraying for a while, overtaking respect for the hard yards served in the nation’s quest for food self-sufficiency and ending the humiliating ship-to-mouth days of the initial post-Independence decades.
Before we get to how this respect dimmed, let us acknowledge that it was never unalloyed respect to begin with, not even in the late sixties to mid-seventies period when the fruits of farmers’ labours and the successes of the Green Revolution were fresh.
This was for two reasons. One: Gratefulness does not come easily to the privileged. The best their sense of entitlement allows is an offhand nod in recognition of exertions made in their service. Two: The farmers’ capacity for toil was not enough to change his overall image as a poor creature lacking ambition and intelligence and shackled to caste and the worst of tradition.
It is difficult to pinpoint when even this half-hearted ardour began to chill, but the rural-urban chasm had widened enough for farmer leader Sharad Joshi to speak of a Bharat versus India divide by the late seventies.
A changing relationship
This formulation was a jolt for the urban elite who till then had imagined the farmer as a selfless provider, never a competitor for political power and state resources. True, they had registered the rural unease over lack of land reform and inadequate public investment in agriculture, but neither was supposed to bear on their own status, not after they had scuttled the land reform agenda early on and been assured of status quo by politicians’ mastery in compensating substance with rhetoric.
In the eighties, the Bharat versus India formulation got echoed in a new and energetic phase of farmer movements, notably silent on land reform, vocal on output prices, and aggregated by larger farmers (but drawing participation from others too).
India could sense Bharat shedding its old diffidence, no longer coy about claiming what it believed were its just dues. The Mahendra Singh Tikait-led 1988 siege of Delhi would remove any doubt on that account, in case earlier assertions in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu had gone unnoticed.
Post the economic liberalisation of the nineties, urban India accumulated enough wealth and confidence to overcome its apprehensions of farmer raj (a “humble farmer” did become prime minister in 1996 but that owed to a wider constellation of factors). This would have been nice, but for the irritation that has replaced it.
A problematic trope
Deluded into thinking that its affluence is entirely a function of its superior drive and enlightenment and embarrassed and frustrated at the country’s unflattering development indicators and delayed global superstardom, the urban elite has found a scapegoat in the farmer. (The farmer is not the only one. Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, organised workers, unorganised workers, essentially anyone who can be othered, is on it.)
In the current set of farmers’ concerns – concerns around widened input cost-output price mismatches, skewed terms of engagement with new actors in the food chain, growing water and land availability constraints, and policy and investment priorities unresponsive to these – the urban elite doesn’t spot a thread of apathy and exploitation but a tale of farmers’ inefficiency and reluctance to embrace change, especially the warmth of the market.
The stereotype of the sluggish farmer sure has been sticky, nourishing itself on the urban elite’s inflated notions of itself. The romance, if you want to believe in it, was short and insincere. No surprise that farmers found themselves alone before the barricades and barbed wires, barriers and tear gas shelling, water cannons and lathis.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.