A window to village India

Print edition : February 14, 2020

Students on their way to college at Ponduru in Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh. A 2009 picture. The dynamics of rural life has undergone a major transformation. Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam

The book is a study on the changing pattern of society, economy and polity in contemporary rural India.

Generalisations are risky as there are always exceptions, but it seems safe to say that most Indians who are now in their seventies or eighties had their early lives in villages. If they were to go back to their native villages now, they would be in for many surprises. The old lane has become a tarred road lined with electric lights and water taps. Cultivation, especially of paddy, has largely disappeared. Many of the old houses with thatched roofs are gone, and in their place are modern houses with cars or two-wheelers parked in front of them. There are many general stores and hotels; even beauty parlours have appeared. Men who used to wear only loincloths are hardly to be seen, and women have changed into modern attire.

The book under review is a systematic study of such changes. And the author is one of our leading sociologists with 26 books and 90 research papers to his credit. He has also held senior administrative positions including vice chancellorships.

For long it has been held that the defining feature of the Indian village is its caste structure, and since caste was considered to be a permanent aspect of Indian society, the village was treated as almost a static entity. In the introduction, the author states: “In this volume we have focussed on the reconceptualisation of the Indian village, reinterpretation of caste as a system, role of individual and family, rural economy,… political institutions,… education, middle class, and inequality and social mobility…. Our main focus is on the changing pattern of society, economy and polity in contemporary rural India.”

There has been a long history of studying the Indian village, including by many Western scholars. And, after the Westerners came to rule India, the official view was that it was a land of village republics characterised by self-sufficiency and homogeneity. This volume aims at a critical examination of existing literature and reports and a reconceptualisation of Indian villages.

Caste: One of the major objectives of the volume is a re-examination of caste in the context of village India. The traditional view of Indian villages was that they were static entities based on the hierarchical order of society. In a sense caste has retained its amazing resilience, continuing to play a role even after the adoption of a democratic Constitution that recognises “we the people” and assigns equal status to all individuals.

But caste has undergone a transformation, too, partly because of that Constitution but mainly because of changes in the polity and economy. Universal adult franchise is one of the main reasons for the changing role of caste and the need perceived by those of the upper castes to approach even members of the lowest caste and “request” their support, though the attitude may change significantly once the elections are over. In the rapidly changing economic spheres, too, frequent interaction between individuals irrespective of their caste status has become necessary. Not that the equality of all individuals is readily respected or even accepted, but interactions between individuals qua individuals cannot be avoided. On the other hand, the fact of the close link between caste and the ownership of land in a primarily agrarian society makes it difficult to rule out the hierarchical attitude completely. Rural India still has these contradictions.

Caste and occupation

Traditionally, there was a close link between caste and occupations, with manual labour considered the duty of the lower castes. Because an individual’s perception of the self is influenced by what s/he does in day-to-day life, occupations reinforced caste consciousness.

Modern India has provided many opportunities for individuals to change their occupations, and those who are engaged in specific occupations develop a group consciousness which, however, is different from caste consciousness. Political parties that have as their members individuals belonging to different castes also have had the same effect. And as “belonging” in each one of these contexts has different connotations, the powerful impact that caste once had has also changed.

From this perspective the artisans in rural areas may have made a significant contribution to the changing impact of caste. Most villages had weavers, carpenters, potters, tailors, barbers, blacksmiths and shoemakers who served those who needed their services. Thus, village society had a group of people who did not quite fit into the caste hierarchy and who were governed by patron-client relationships. Depending on the economic significance of the craft work, a particular group of artisans would go up or down in social status. Their position also depended on their role with respect to the village temple, and so carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths et al had a standing not quite compatible with the caste system.

Weavers had a special role in the transformation of the village. Attire being one of the food-clothing-shelter essential trinity of daily life, weavers were an integral part of the village. Initially, perhaps, they followed a “made to order” principle, but they would soon anticipate the requirements, at least of the better-off families, and have ready-made items for which they would receive payment in kind.

However, fairly soon they would have a reach beyond the village. This would happen either through the master-weaver who would collect orders from outside the village and would thus provide a market of sorts for the weavers, or through merchants who would buy whatever surplus the weavers had or even place orders, providing yarn and other forms of support. Weavers, thus, were among the earliest who established links between town and country and thus were agents in what many writers refer to as “proto-industrialisation”. Two chapters in the book deal with these changes.

The Economy: The traditional village was also an economic entity. One of the contested issues is whether the village was self-sufficient. The answer will have to be: “largely, but not entirely”. In situations where peasants constituted the majority, most households would have aimed to produce enough foodgrains for their families and some extra for the variety of payments. That is not a satisfactory answer partly because, as the author puts it: “Village studies [by sociologists] have focussed on caste, inter-caste relations, religion and rituals….” There is an attempt to go beyond these aspects concentrating on the role of the artisans—those who made a living based on their crafts. Initially artisans were protected by the patron-client relationship which gradually would get transformed as the merchant-artisan relationship. The need for pottery protected another set of artisans.

One would have expected to see the author using the treatment of peasants to deal with the changes in land relationships, mainly the ones brought about by the British to reinforce the nature of the gradual transformation of rural India. The major changes that have taken place in the ownership of land since Independence also have not been touched upon.

Middle class in rural India

Instead, a whole chapter is devoted to a discussion of formation of the middle class in rural India because the middle class provides “the key to an understanding of the modern culture”. That is possibly a legitimate claim.

However, any discussion of the middle class almost inevitably gets bogged down with a discussion of class as such. Several authors are quoted: “Those who are at the middle level (with their ramifications) are often seen as knowledgeable people, educated, well-mannered, upwardly mobile, politically articulate and ambitious…”; “The conditions created by the British led to the birth of the middle class…”; “…the term middle class referred to the industrial bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, and later on, writers, novelists, intellectuals…”; “The middle class are white collar workers.” There is an attempt to identify the members of the middle class in rural areas. “In the countryside, gram sevaks, Patwaris, schoolteachers, compounders, nurses, shopkeepers, moneylenders, members of the panchayats and cooperative societies, petty contractors, etc., would constitute the middle class.” The author’s own position does not come out clearly in the plethora of views quoted.

Economic aspects

A later chapter dealing with rural development also refers to many economic aspects. Just as the concept of middle class, “development” also lends itself to a variety of interpretations. The author captures the changing notion of development since Independence. In the first two or three decades the concept centred on issues such as poverty, unemployment and “rural development” in general. Possibly after the 1980s there has been a shift. “Structural changes have weakened the grip of the upper castes and classes on the lower castes and classes. Those lower castes who used to ask for employment and education, they now have raised question of honour and dignity….”

The dynamics of rural life itself has undergone a major transformation. The author categorically states: “Fluidity in occupational choices, migration to towns and cities, and vote-bank politics overshadow the issues related to agriculture, Jajmani system, inter- and intra-caste relations.”

Politics and Power: Many studies on Indian villages in the past, especially by foreign scholars, were limited because they viewed the villages in isolation. Villages are no longer isolated entities. They are integral parts of the larger Indian society now governed by the Constitution and the political processes that arise from it.

The Constitution guarantees citizens (as individuals) clearly stated and enforceable fundamental rights that go against the communitarian undertones of the caste system. Of course, even after seven decades it has not totally eliminated the hold of caste on individual members of rural society, but it has become a powerful means to assure and enforce the rights of individuals.

Even the elections that are held periodically where the individual expresses her/his political preferences have notably changed the ethos of rural India. At least they have raised a new set of questions: who controls land and resources in the village; who are the new leaders; who controls the variety of development programmes; who benefits by them; and many more.

The constitutional amendments establishing Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) were attempts at decentralisation of power and to draw villagers directly into decision-making processes that affect their lives. They aimed to provide the lower castes and women more opportunities to make decisions affecting their lives. As the author puts it: “Reservation for women up to 50 per cent in some States, and 33 per cent all over India, has created a new sociocultural awareness regarding gender equality, at least in a formal way.” In States like West Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka where PRIs have been given substantial power, significant changes have been brought about. However, it is a fact too that in most States PRIs have become fiefdoms of the new rural power elite of different orientations. But on the basis of field studies, many scholars, including the author himself, arrive at two conclusions: village politics is no more caste-ridden as it used to be in the past; the new panchayat system with all its weaknesses has helped weave the villages into the broader social fabric.

Apart from the substantive issues that have been briefly referred to in this review, the book is valuable for its comprehensive survey of the literature relating to rural transformation: the bibliography runs to over 30 pages and possibly over 600 items.

Students of sociology will find it a scholarly summary of studies on rural transformation. General readers too will find it helpful to know what has been happening to village India in recent decades. Anyone who studies the book will agree with the sociologist Dipankar Gupta who says in the foreword: “In every chapter one finds Professor Sharma introducing some of the most enduring theoretical and conceptual constructs and interweaving these with a wealth of field material and factual details.”

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