Are you a village, or a city?
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These days there is much love for farmers among people who do not meet farmers. In their imagination, farmers are earthy, ancient and genuine, like noble organic vegetables. In the English-language media, farmers have attained the same status as “techies”—they are a flock of same people to whom stuff happens.
Rich, poor, male, female, high-caste, Dalit, the Bihari farm worker and Kannadiga planter, are all just farmers. And the farmers themselves have caught on to this. In March, a group of Tamil farmers went to Delhi to protest in green loin cloths and garlands made out of exhumed skulls that they claimed belonged to farmers who had committed suicide. They also held live mice and parts of dead snakes between their teeth to get the attention of the prime minister so that he would waive their loans. No other class of people could have gotten away with wearing human-skull garlands and biting live mice, but they were farmers.
If poor farmers had not become the mascots of all farmers, they would have been identified clearly as the primary foes of the urbane crowd. Farmers, though scholars of the land, are the same entrepreneurs who spray chemicals to make their produce look fresh. The rich among them don’t pay taxes. They are the largest consumers of freshwater—irrigation alone takes up over 80% of Indian freshwater, chiefly to grow high-carb crops, like rice, that are heavily subsidized too. They also consume free or cheap electricity. There is a more important reason why the farmer is the natural foe of the liberal urbane—the farmer is a villager.
In the villager live the instincts and compulsions of a primordial tribal. He can survive only as part of the herd. As a result, identity is everything to him. He must preserve caste, and social hierarchies, and religious venoms, and the place of men over women. He might be an oppressed man but to everybody who is below him, he is an oppressor too. He cherishes a type of order that keeps the hierarchies in place. He considers social order “tradition”, and civil disorder “freedom”.
B.R. Ambedkar had contempt for the Indian village. The liberation of Dalits, he was clear, involved their liberation from the village. Urban migration was then, as it is now, not merely about economics, but also a pursuit of anonymity for those for whom identity is a curse.
The villager does not live in villages alone. In fact, cities have become the more powerful bastions of the feudal village. Villagers fill Parliament, the legislative assemblies and municipal bodies. They fill government offices. They run big and small businesses too. They are in the richest ghettos of Mumbai. Residences are segregated, even in Mumbai, by community, religion and diet. Once I assumed the name of “Mohammed Khan” and tried to rent a house in the plushest parts of south Mumbai. It seemed impossible.
The village is not a place, it is a mind. We know men who study in the best colleges in the US but the moment they return to India, they transform into feudal lords because that is what they are and that is what brings them peace. Equality takes away most of their social fortunes. Many such feudal lords do not look like bad people at all. In fact, they resemble reformers. They couch their wish to preserve their privileges as a desire to preserve culture, heritage and traditions. They are disturbed by the urbanization of rural spaces, and the creeping ambiguity of social hierarchies. In protest, they romanticize the village as though it is a part of geology that should never change.
The city, too, is a mind. It is planted in people who do not wish to gain from their identity, or cannot gain from it; and people who have the capacity to leave their herd. The true city person is someone who can separate his family, which he may love, from the cultural shell that houses the family. He may initially profit from the privileges of his birth, but eventually wishes to break away. If the villager wants social order and civil disorder, the city mind wants social disorder and civil order. He is a cultural sponge who absorbs everything, and an intellectual parasite who lives off the latest streams of knowledge emanating from the most vibrant cities. “He” is often a she. A city, after all, is a woman’s good friend. Not that women cannot be feudal, a laughable thought.
The city mind is not always glorious, however. As the city imitates dominant cultures of its time, it is often held in the sway of impoverishing fancy ideas, like borrowed socialism and hollow political correctness. Also, a club of unoriginal city minds who are besotted with imported ideas are always at risk of becoming villagers themselves.
The battle for modernity is always the battle between the idea of the village and the idea of the city. So who is winning?
Most people in the world are probably villagers. In this light, the city has done very well. It has had a profound and disproportionate influence over the world. It has framed progress as a migration from ancient times to modern times. We must not take this sense of direction for granted. It can collapse, as has happened in Afghanistan and Syria, and to a degree, even in Mumbai. Society is then transported back by years or decades or centuries.
The villagers are clawing back, especially the villagers who are entrenched in the cities. All over the world, the meaning of rising conservatism is that the village is fighting back. Prosperity has made people fear losing what they have, and to feel secure they resort to the mafiadom of large useful groups. They are doing what villagers are best at—ganging up against people who are not like them.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.
He tweets at @manujosephsan