On the morning of 20 November, newspaper headlines in most major English dailies raised a revengeful clamour against the sugar cane farmers from Uttar Pradesh (UP). The uncouth farmers, it was alleged, marched from the Ramlila grounds to Parliament, causing traffic jams and strewing garbage all over. What most reports failed to point out was that these were the producers of half the country’s sugar and had chosen to demonstrate en masse in Delhi, to demand fairer prices for their produce and an abolition of the fair and remunerative price. The latter is a provision that makes the government the sole arbiter of prices for sugar cane, and according to the farmers from UP to Tamil Nadu, has increasingly made sugar cane cultivation a loss-making proposition for them.
The major English dailies that most of the movers and shakers in the Capital start their mornings with do not have a readership in rural areas. The dailies demanded that the lawless rustics who had messed up Delhi’s public parks and peed all over the city before departing be identified and punished suitably. Language has come to stand like a translucent glass wall between India’s English media and its rural population. Nearly everything known to mostly monolingual news gatherers working for the English language media about India’s villages and its farmers is experienced second-hand and then dubbed and subtitled from the local vernacular into Queen’s English. Such distancing results in strange imbalances and contradictions in basically well-meaning reports. For example, on the one hand, we may have reports about farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra alleging that the system is uncaring about farmers’ issues but, on the other, the same media goes ballistic when sugar cane farmers from UP, instead of killing themselves, come marching into the Capital and raise slogans and demand a just pricing system. Only recently, an English daily had run a brilliant expose on the lack of public toilets in Delhi and the Union home minister had said that the residents of Delhi need to polish their manners before hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010. And now the same English dailies are using sophistry to pick only on the sugar cane-chewing, garbage-spreading, publicly peeing farmers from UP? How could we have overlooked the graffiti that marks all public places in Delhi, announcing that he who pisses on this wall is the son of a pig/donkey?
Interestingly, most popular Hindi dailies that enjoy a vast readership in the rural areas among the community of farmers covered the same rally differently. Their banner headlines boasted that the sugar cane farmers had forced the Delhi sarkar to its knees (Kisanon ne sarkar jhuka di), which, given the quick compromise formulae offered to the farmers, was truer, even if a tad exaggerated. One edit also did some math and pointed out that since the price of sugar was allowed to rise from Rs17 per kg to Rs35 per kg within this season, the farmers’ demand that the sugar cane prices also be raised from the present Rs129.85 per quintal to Rs280 per quintal was justified.
However, the next day the entire media—both Hindi and its English cousins—let go of the farmers and got busy chasing some tantalizing leaks about a damp squib called the Liberhan commission report. Thereafter came the anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, and everyone fished out old footage and reports to run special stories about those terrible and gory three days. Some big media houses organized picturesque candle-lit demonstrations and human-handholding chains, all supported and discreetly branded by corporate ads. The milk of human kindness was never more tax-deductible!
Drivers of Delhi’s buses and three- wheelers, some of India’s most vocal street philosophers, were stalled by nasty jams as the tractor-trolleys and buses carrying the happy farmers homewards slowed everyone down. “Try Gandhigiri next time,” a car driver yelled at the farmers as he overtook a bus. “Why ,” asked the Socratic driver of a three-wheeler, of no one in particular, “is it that when they bypass the poor, they begin talking to them of Gandhigiri? For all other kinds of produce, the producer is permitted to set the price in negotiation with his gahak (consumer) in the marketplace, but in the case of setting the minimum price for wheat, rice or sugar cane, the (****) corrupt officers from the government of India must step in and start acting the qazi (arbiter)? Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi, bhaiyon. (Helplessness is a synonym for Mahatma Gandhi!)”
The unkempt driver is like the farmers. As never-consulted victims rather than the initiator of governmental policies, they share a certain disabused view of India’s glorious progress and can ape the gestures and slogans of the power pack to turn them into enormous jokes. This alone is the class that can coin a wonderful phrase such as Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi!
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is a writer and freelance journalist in New Delhi. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org