There is a certain stereotype of the farmer that has been peddled during the ongoing farmers’ agitation. The stereotype has a positive side to it as well as a flip side. The positive side tries to assert their resilience, determination, patience, innocence, minimalism, self-respect and fortitude. All these are seemingly associated with the physicality of their profession. Due to the fact that they work in the fields and with their hands, it is philosophised that they absorb the very nature of earth. The flip side of this archetype is that they are not often given credit for logical thinking, flawless reasoning, innovation and ideas. In others words, the cerebral is not associated with them—they are all about brawn and being emotional.
The narrow characterisation of farmers pushes people to think that they cannot organise themselves; they are manipulated by activists with strident ideological positions; they are not fashionable, and they don’t clean their bodies with scented soap. In all, they are ragged, lost and eccentric. The perpetuation of these images and opinions is not just limited to farmers but also farmers’ leaders. They are presented as humbling, mumbling comic characters on their charpai thrones. This has been true of Charan Singh, Devi Lal, Deve Gowda and Mahendra Singh Tikait.
Let us look at Chaudhary Charan Singh, who is referred to as the ‘champion of peasants’. There is a picture of him in Tavleen Singh’s book ‘Durbar’, when as a young reporter, she goes to check out the ‘janata darshan’ of a man who was then the deputy prime minister. She contrasts his style with the clipped, bureaucratic manner of Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s engagement, and that of opposition leader Indira Gandhi who is employing touch and emotion to deal with people. As Charan Singh sat cross-legged on the charpai listening to the peasants who were sitting before him on their haunches, she wonders why the farmers are speaking of power connections, when they should be speaking about the abysmal condition of healthcare, basic hygiene and sanitation (of course, she honestly admits that she was new to journalism and didn’t understand the primary concern of farmers).
Later, when she goes into the bungalow to use the bathroom, she has a peek at Charan Singh’s bedroom with only a mattress on the floor, and a kind of “low wooden desk of the kind Indian accountants used in older times. It was here that he sat every morning to write his books on agriculture and the peasantry”. There are more details in the book, and it is by and large an assessment of a Lutyens native of a peasant leader.
Now, the dismissive mention of Charan Singh’s book writing should get us curious. He has written many, but I picked up a copy of his 1981 book, a 600-page tome titled ‘Economic Nightmare of India: Its Cause and Cure’, and started browsing through it, focusing especially on part one and part three that discuss the state of the union, static economic conditions of India, the capital starvation of agriculture, land reforms, decentralisation and of course, the exploitation of the farmer.
Part two of the book deals with industry, mixed economy, labour policy, unemployment and foreign loans. The entire book is an elaborate critique of the Nehruvian as well as the Marxist economic model, while offering a critical appreciation of the Gandhian method: “I have not attempted to project the Gandhian alternative for the solution of India’s economic problems in any contentious spirit of polemics. I have no desire to run down what has been achieved in India. All I mean to say, and emphatically, is that Gandhi and Nehru cannot be hyphenated—whether in academic debate or in real life,” he writes. At another place, he says: “Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny, however, has turned out to be a date with despair.”
One may agree or disagree with this book, and books are not about canonical endorsements, but it is the thoroughness of the experience, the unique reading of history and the passionate force of argument. That is not to say this book is a harangue. It is filled with hundreds of statistical charts (data from across the globe fill up each page), surveys of existing literature on economics and agriculture, recall of forgotten reports, besides postulation of big, bold ideas—an undoubted mark of abiding scholarship and informed leadership.
Charan Singh quotes a 1926 report by a ‘Businessmen’s Commission of Agriculture’ appointed by the US Chamber of Commerce, which says: “Agriculture is not merely a way of making money by raising crops; it is not merely an industry or a business; it is essentially a public function or service performed by private individuals for the care and use of the land in the national interest; and farmers in the course of their pursuit of a living and a private profit are the custodians of the basis of the national life. Agriculture is, therefore, affected with a clear and unquestionable public interest, and its status is a matter of national concern calling for deliberate and farsighted national policies, not only to conserve the natural and human resources involved in it, but to provide for national security, promote a well-rounded prosperity and secure social and political stability.” He agrees with this view, and it is interesting and instructive to view the ongoing protests in the backdrop of this definition. Outside of this book, it is nearly forgotten that it was Charan Singh who drafted the Uttar Pradesh land reforms legislation in the early 1950s, and the Agriculture Produce Market Bill in 1938. Therefore, the farmers who made him their leader perhaps know what they are talking about.
Sugata Srinivasaraju (email@example.com)
Senior journalist and author