Shaking up our village culture

If successfully passed, an unintended consequence of the Land Ordinance Bill could also mean the end of some of our long-celebrated village morals, which Ambedkar rightly considered as just plain narrow-mindedness.

Updated - April 02, 2016 01:04 pm IST

Published - March 18, 2015 01:44 am IST

As Anna Hazare, the new age Gandhi consolidates his flock to protest against the government’s anti-farmer land ordinance, one is reminded of the original Mahatma and his love for village life and polity. While Anna’s protest may be more about the right to private property of the farmers, Gandhi had a moral vision that was larger and beyond just the risk of farmers losing their land. Gandhi saw village life as the ideal form of intimate sacrifice and high culture, where an anarchy based on self-sacrificing morals would sustain itself far from the mess of modern industrial life and interest-driven politics. Can the present debate around the Land Ordinance Bill and the sharp criticism from those opposing it help us revisit the relevance of modernity to Indian villages?

Land, power in village life During a lecture on modernisation theories of development and the importance of Adam Smith, I shared with my class the history of progress in the United States and how from only 15 per cent of families having flush toilets in the 1900s, almost 99 per cent had them by the 1970s. A student from a semi-urban background was not convinced. He asked me why rich landlords in Uttar Pradesh don’t have toilets in their homes despite having money. Was the U.S. experience relevant in our context?

What the student was suggesting was that I find a different logic of economic progress for Indian villages. In caste-ruled villages, the management of faeces is generally governed by gendered rules of touch, purity and pollution. Faeces is, therefore, kept away from the home or removed by a manual scavenger. Labour, caste and purity are thus bound coherently and peacefully in village culture, unlinked to economics.

… land acquisition by the state for hyper-industrialisation may not seem unreasonable.

The dependence on landowning castes for survival makes the Dalit assertion for freedom and dignity difficult. Violence against Dalits that includes cutting off their noses or hands for transgressing caste norms is, therefore, nothing unusual. Ambedkar’s cautioning against rural morality, however, is not merely relevant for Dalits.

Our village culture and values are intrinsically linked to a control of land and agriculture. Land in present times has turned out to be a major economic resource — it gives access to institutional credit, subsidies on fertilizers, power, farm equipment and almost institutionalised, decadal loan waivers. Some numerically powerful landowning castes also enrol themselves as Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Land, thus, is a key form of private property that yields persistent rent, which is not necessarily based on its actual merit and which is, of course, not taxed. Above all, land signifies power — how much dowry one gets in villages mostly depends on the extent of land the groom’s family controls. The cultural value attached to lands and its patrilineal ownership has turned daughters into bad debts.

Non-farm economy and rural milieu Land makes certain castes ‘kingly’ in rural communities. The control of such castes on local politics aggravates masculine hubris. Land and agriculture, thus, partially construct the localised cultural peace in rural India.

City life is not free of caste prejudices either but the vulgarity of its form is minimised in an uprooted context of anonymity. Modernity and its key economic constituents of urbanisation and industrialisation bring with them some basic norms of civility. No landlord in a city or small town can insist on tenants defecating in the open. You cannot ask the caste of a person serving you chicken nuggets at a fast-food outlet, or insist on knowing the caste of your fellow commuter in a cramped local train.

The illiberal aspects of rural society are changing slowly due to market pressures. Despite subsidies and the absence of taxation, the social power of farmers is rendered mildly vulnerable by a budding competitive market and non-farm possibilities in rural India. Increasing urbanisation, migration, and non-farm employment have added some degree of mobility and freedom to the landless in general and to rural Dalits in particular. Landless labourers need not search for work that provides respect and value in the lands of dominant landowning castes alone. Increasing urbanisation, labour mobility and monetisation of rural economy have had significant poverty-reducing impacts on Dalits. The prescription of classical economics to decongest (landless) labour from agriculture and farm dependency still remains of utmost relevance. Even now, close to 80 per cent of Dalits live in rural areas providing cheap labour, with limited productivity, to farms and farmers.

Past and present policies The present government is enlarging the scope of the previous government’s economic policies by aggressively pushing for industrial modernisation. There was, however, something peculiar about the Congress/United Progressive Alliance’s politics of displacement and land acquisition — when dominant castes lost their lands for public and private purposes, they were generally paid exorbitant compensation whereas the colossal loss of tribal lands with minimal compensation was treated like willing sacrifice for national development. The present government, on the other hand, has rightly thrown the economics of swadeshi back into the closet. The BJP is working out a delicate balance between free markets, capitalism and Hindutva, with the last limited to the cultural-political sphere. In this new onslaught of the market, Anna Hazare and his supporters would do well to help the rural dominant classes get the best possible price for their land. If successfully passed, an unintended consequence of the Land Ordinance Bill could also mean the end of some of our long-celebrated village morals, which Ambedkar rightly considered as just plain narrow-mindedness. It was the freedom of Dalits and women that was put at permanent risk by the bigotry of the village polity and economy.

For Dalits and other landless groups, therefore, limiting their economic and cultural life to village morals and farm boundaries offers little space for livelihood negotiation. To them, land acquisition by the state for hyper-industrialisation may not seem unreasonable. The NDA’s new economism and hyper-industrialisation may well generate a new wave of liberal values that positively unsettle our village economy and culture.

(Suryakant Waghmore is Associate Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.)

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