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Home >Opinion >Columns >The ambiguous heroism of the fabled Indian farmer

The ambiguous heroism of the fabled Indian farmer

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Photo; PTI

Something sacred is seen in the work he does but he’s a victim and perpetrator both at once

Peace on the streets of India often means something bad has happened, like a riot or a pandemic. Otherwise, it is as though Indians feel that the absence of chaos, any form of it, is a surrender to someone who has won something. If you remember, before the pandemic turned the streets of Delhi unusually quiet, daily agitations and traffic jams had become the norm. They were an omen that political disquiet will be anything but quiet. Now that Indians are tired of the pandemic and appear to have decided that it is over, chaos has returned to Delhi in the form of agitations.

Peace on the streets of India often means something bad has happened, like a riot or a pandemic. Otherwise, it is as though Indians feel that the absence of chaos, any form of it, is a surrender to someone who has won something. If you remember, before the pandemic turned the streets of Delhi unusually quiet, daily agitations and traffic jams had become the norm. They were an omen that political disquiet will be anything but quiet. Now that Indians are tired of the pandemic and appear to have decided that it is over, chaos has returned to Delhi in the form of agitations.

The farmer protest that Delhi has been witnessing is part of an extra-electoral phenomenon in which organizations that cannot compete against the Bharatiya Janata Party anymore at the polls convert a specific local disenchantment into a giant demonstration that halts normal life in the capital. Might this be India’s immediate future?

The farmer protest that Delhi has been witnessing is part of an extra-electoral phenomenon in which organizations that cannot compete against the Bharatiya Janata Party anymore at the polls convert a specific local disenchantment into a giant demonstration that halts normal life in the capital. Might this be India’s immediate future?

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Today what these farmers, most of whom are landholders from Punjab, are protesting against are a set of agricultural reforms that will wean them away from guaranteed procurement of some of their produce by the government to an uncertain free market, where they will have to sell their crops in an open market. So, stripped of its frills, the current agitation is about a vast network of entrepreneurs in some regions of India looking to retain a socialist deal of procurement instead of facing the risk of free market.

Many of India’s future demonstrations will likely be around the emotions of farmers, whom Indians wish to misunderstand as a single collective. Indians have a complicated relationship with agriculturalists. This means Indians have a complicated relationship with most of their own. For Indians who are far removed from villages, who probably cannot survive in one for more than three days, like our newly conscientious film actors, fashion designers, young global humanitarians and others, there is something sacred about the farmer—his toil, his photogenic poverty, his rumoured suicidal nature, and the fact that he grows food.

But the typical Indian farmer is far more interesting. Many of his actions arguably fall in a morally grey zone.

Much of India’s evil radiates from the ways of the Indian village, its traditions, its pettiness, and its “narrow mindedness", as B.R. Ambedkar put it. As a villager, the farmer is at once a victim and perpetrator. In his role as village patriarch, he is given to playing the curator of caste discrimination, arranging to beat up lovers and denuding and parading women who attempt to elope. Urban India is largely the creation of Indians who fled the miseries of their village. Their urbane scions now, to whom a village is something almost pretty they cross on a highway, have nothing to lose when they say with pious intensity that the Indian farmer is a sacred being. “The hand that feeds us" has taken the place of the inane urban chant that was vacated by “the spirit of Mumbai".

The farmer is not sacred to all, of course. There is another class of Indians who have disdain for him because his farm is heavily subsidized by the government; in agrarian belts of India, his crops are bought at a guaranteed price through public funds, his electricity and water are subsidized, and he pays no direct income tax on his agricultural income. An ongoing attempt of thousands of wealthy Indians is to somehow qualify as farmers and show a portion of their income as agricultural in nature. About 10 years ago, news broke that India’s most famous actor, Amitabh Bachchan, had declared himself a farmer.

The Indian farmer may burst out laughing if you ever told him this, but it is hard to morally defend agriculture today. The most profitable and subsidized crops in India—wheat, rice and sugarcane—are a direct cause of diabetes, our most threatening illness. These crops are widely perceived as “essentials", but are in reality inessential, like many things India deems “essential items". We can have tasty, healthy meals forever without any grain or sugar, if only we liberate ourselves from their addiction.

Also, these crops consume huge amounts of fresh water. When people look at a vast field, they believe they are seeing a part of nature. But a field is the exact opposite—it is a factory that sucks up fresh water and sprays in chemicals, but yes, it does look green.

The moral ambiguity of agriculture comes from its power over us. It makes a type of food that has won the country’s cultural war. The way lovers of tradition talk about food, you would think the foods of the world are all different. They are, on the surface, but all of their power comes from a deep cultural trait—addiction to carbs.

For decades, two sets of people have been trying to “rescue" the Indian farmer. New capitalists seem to want impoverished farmhands and farmers to be cheap workers in factories or security guards in urban residential colonies. The other set would have them remain farmers, preserving for everyone else an ancient way of living. But then urban politicians have not been able to create sufficient industrial jobs, and India’s career do-gooders have not been able to alter the doom of small-patch farming.

Although science has offered solutions through genetically modified crops, they have systematically defamed the science of genetic engineering, a major success of activism that has not been diminished even after over a hundred Nobel laureates signed a letter stating that genetically modified food is safe to eat.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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