• kewal sethi

the indian village

the indian village

idea and imagination

october 2020

despite a long history of vibrant urban centers, india has been known to be a land of villages. indian village was presented as a core signifier of india’s stable past, giving a sense of continuity and homogeneity across different regions of the country. for many people the credit of popularizing the idea of ‘the village’ representing the spirit or soul of india goes to gandhi, who visualized village as mini republic in his vision of hind swaraj.

however, the origin or roots of the notion of india being a land of villages lie elsewhere, in colonial administrative accounts and orientalist constructs. they have encased the village, or rather the idea of the village, like a fly in the amber. the first reference to ‘village republic’ appeared in a report written by thomas munro in 1830. the nomenclature ‘village community’ is from metcalfe from around the same time. according to them villages have been stable systems for centuries and ‘lasted where nothing else lasted’. these writings were vastly distributed amongst englishmen and came to be built as theories of human progress and social change. karl marx made use of them in das kapital. such a vision of the village became an instrument of administration and revenue. incidentally it also helped in domination of the sub continent.

such a notion of india’s past served an important political purpose for its proponents. since the villages were, in any case, self contained republics, it did not matter who ruled them. be them hindu, muslim or sikh. it was therefore immaterial if they were replaced by the english.

the notion of india as mini republics, self contained, self sustaining (except for paying revenue to central authority) was cultivated and was wide spread in europe. it is what influenced scholors like marx in describing social conditions in india. the western oriented and western trained persons in india acquired the same mindset and considered this as ideal format for future. gandhi was no exception. he merely adopted and propagated it.

but all this was far from the reality. actually there were three types of villages. the first one was nucleated village ( the above cited favourite) where houses and streets were close by and the residents were also cohesive to each other. such villages, (or at least approaching this ideal) were found in northwest india (now pakistan) and some parts of tamil nadu. the second type was of various hamlets which had little interaction but were located close by. they were abundant in north india, maharashtra, tamil nadu and andhra pradesh. the third type was of dispersed houses, with hardly a nucleus, found in highlands of central india and in kerala.

now to the reality. the indian villages were never, never homogenous. the religion or the caste made it necessary for their members to stay in compact areas with their own customs and their own leaders. even in nucleated villages, this was the norm. it would be incorrect to say that because of this distancing, they were prone to violence. the leaders interacted and cooperated to have an apparently peaceful co existence but the petty conflicts were common unless one section completed dominated the other. the peace was also a result of the jajmani system – a producer client relationship – which was observed by both sides. an equilibrium was maintained. this peaceful coexistence, notwithstanding the distancing and divisions, is what gave rise to the notion of peaceful villages which could, by stretching one’s imagianation, be called ‘mini republics’.

but then came the like of rudyard kipling who thought that the british had a burden to discharge. they had the duty of bringing modernity to the villages. it led to the policy of intrusion through a chain of government functionaries. gradually the villagers were induced to look towards these functionaries to settle their disputes, which was earlier done by a panchayat of village elders, regarding land and other issues.

having taken up the burden of enlightening the villagers, the scholors like karl marx and other socialists thought this containment to be isolation ans hence an impediment for material progress. in course of time, this became the dominnant idea about progess. nehru and compatriots, as the followers of these socialist philosophers, became keen on this concept and adopted it in policy formulation when they got a chance.

the result of this line of thinking was that immediately after independence, the government launched a number of schemes to overcome this backwardness. unfortunately their main weapon was monetizing the entire process. the underlying idea was that more money in the hand of the villagers would mean more progress, and, therefore, more modernity. this mindset is still persisting with subsidies and grants galore. after so many decades, the indians are so used to it that it is difficult to put a stop to this trend. the idea of money being everything is that be it a railway accident, or a case of murder after rape, the first reaction is to announce ex gratia payment. even the families of criminals killed in action are compensated. the periodic write off of farmers loans can also be placed in this category.

with all this intervention through the new schemes,. friction, as it existed, increased because of the pouring in of money. the age old equilibrium was disturbed, the new rulers were in a hurry to achieve material progress and ensure rapid growth and did not reckon with its consequences on the social lfe of the villages.

one of these interventions was the agrarian reforms wherein the tiller was expected to become a farmer. envisaged in 1952, it had a number of loopholes which negated the good intentions. the progress was minimal. in 1970 or thereabout, that is after a gap of twenty years, these gaps were sought to be done away with. by that time, the fragmentation of land brought most of the land held within the maximum limits laid down and the amendments meant partial success. the farmer labour relations continued to dominate the agricultural scene.

the real change in the equilibrium came from another direction. the green revolution brought in major changes in the agrarian economy. mechinization followed as also the preference for the cash crops. the entire landscape changed. this has been hailed as a grand success, but let us see its consequences and effect on the social scene of te villages. the improved varieties needed more labour consequently the wages of agricultural labour have gone up and local people are scarce to be found due to diversification of professions. this led to large scale emigration of labour from one part of country to another since the economic progress has not been uniform over the regions.

going further, the mnrega has brought in a major shift in the agrarian economy.there were similar schemes like food for work and national rural employment programme but they were on a small scale. in contrast mnrega is a big player. the alternate source of income further pushed up the wages of agricultural labour. turmoil in the rural areas is result thereof. the relationship between dominant classes, who have nostalgia and the land, and the erstwhile deprived classes changed as they sought new relationship.

another result of the green revolution is coming up of surplus producing farmers. it signaled a rise of new social category of rural people who could afford to spend time in other avenues like politics, trade, and sundry non agricultural activities.

the economically backward classes have found new prosperity with the aid and assistance schemes and many have now left the agricultural labour to become shopkeepers, technicians, government servants etc. they demand new status with their growing economic power and varied professions. the established classes, reluctant to lose hold over the other classes are resisting such advances leading to friction. one result of such friction has spilled over to politics. the richer farmers tend to form bonds with others of same kiln across the states and aspire for political power. the same holds true for those who are aspiring to share power. as a result thereof the friction spills over in politics. the idea of common good (for the country or the state) takes a back seat.

another aspect of changing scenario in the rural areas is the democratic decentralization along with its reservations of seats and of rotation of the top post between males and females. in the beginning the dominant classes occupied the seat of power and exercised it. even the rotation was in namesake only with the male exercising all the powers by proxy. but this phenomenon is now changing as women and the members of the deprived classes become more aggressive in assertion of their rights.

one of the important developments has been rapid urbanisation in the past two or three decades. The number of census towns in India grew from 1,362 in 2001 to 3,894 in 2011, almost a three fold increase. there are many reasons for such a growth into which we need not go at present. what is significatn is that despite all this upheaval, the idea of india being a land of villages has persisited. this persistence of the ‘rural’ in indian discourse present a challenge, a sign and source of india’s growth story gone wrong.

the ‘rural’ in today’s india is still increasingly portrayed in the popular urban imagination as a site of poverty, deprivation, and the lag as, indeed, it was done when nehru described villages as hell holes. he, in a letter to mahatama gandhi in 1945, had this to say “i do not understand why a village should necessarily embody truth and nonviolence. a village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment. narrow-minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent” .this view continues to feed the policy decisions who have not been able to get over the mai baap attitude of mind. the agrarian economy is invoked as being in perpetual crisis marked by chronic poverty, indebtedness and despair. though significant changes have taken place in the economy and social order of the caste, the vested interests continue to portray it deprived of any hope for the future. villages are depicted as dark rooms, from which escape is the only way to avoid exploitation. no doubt, the steady migration to urban areas is on the way up. from rich to poor, the only way is to leave the village for better life elsewhere.

what is the way out? perhaps the only method which would work would be circulatory migration. while villagers move to the cities, the reverse migration should also be there. it will bring the world to the village. the class barriers in the villages are breaking down as it is happenning in the cities and the reverse migration will hasten the process. agriculture is still important for sixty percent of population as means of livelihood. as the attention of successive governments have been on the urban areas, despite slogans to uplift villages, double the income of farmers, the attraction of the cities is all the more to overcome these announcements. the government have embarked on smart cities programme with plenty of financial outlay. instead it should embark on smart villages programme. the villages are, without specific efforts, getting new types of houses, new types of roads and streets. main hindrance has been the water supply and the drainage system in the village proper. these need attending to. with good roads connecting to the cities and towns, the other problems, regarding education, health etc. can be easily overcome. the populist schemes like schools within one kilometer, health at doorsteps may not even be necessary..with the provision of basic essentials of good life, these smart villages can be path breaking. a new india can be envisaged.

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