New class conflict?

Published : Dec 18, 2009 00:00 IST

Farmers demonstrating over the sugarcane price issue at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on November 19.-SHABAZ KHAN/PTI

Farmers demonstrating over the sugarcane price issue at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on November 19.-SHABAZ KHAN/PTI

RECENTLY, the capital witnessed a veritable invasion of thousands of people from western Uttar Pradesh who, we were told, were sugarcane growers. A large number of them may well have been, but clearly a substantial number were also hooligans and thugs. They vandalised the 250-year-old Jantar Mantar, smashed cement road signs and, for good measure, damaged cars parked on the roads they took on their avowed mission to gherao Parliament House. Some were drunk, and there were reports of women having been molested.

Last year, the Gujjars of Rajasthan, who want to be listed as a Scheduled Tribe, blocked the National Highway to Jaipur, stopped trains, damaged cars, buses and trucks, and created as much chaos as they could.

There have been earlier invasions of the capital by huge mobs from western Uttar Pradesh, generally, with grievances that they felt would only be redressed if they paralysed the capital and caused as much damage as they could to property that was either public or certainly not their own.

But let us not jump to conclusions. Assuming that a large number of those who came for the sugarcane agitation were indeed farmers, they were certainly not the impoverished, stereotypical toilers in the field, the kind made into icons in films such as Do Bigha Zameen. The really poor do not come to these rallies. They cannot, as they need to work to earn something for the day so that their families will get something to eat.

Those who take part in such rallies are the relatively affluent farmers, the ones whom Mahendra Singh Tikait was fond of bringing to Delhi to sit around, having finished with their carnage and chaos, with their hookahs. But they brought more than hookahs when they came, as did the alleged sugarcane farmers. They brought anger and hatred, a smouldering resentment that erupted into vandalism and violence.

Hatred against what, anger against whom? One may well ask these questions with hurt and astonishment. The answers are fairly obvious. Against city-dwellers, against what they perceive as a luxurious way of life, against a place with paved roads, street lights, smart buildings, smarter cars and glass-fronted shops with all kinds of glittering goods on display.

They, on the other hand, have little by way of power; many places have no running water, or more correctly hardly any water, running or otherwise; no shops; no paved roads of the kind they see in the capital; no street lights; no schools; and no sleek new hospitals, not even the shabby rundown government hospitals that exist in the city.

So, is it very surprising if the brazen inequality they see stirs them to fury and violence? After all, they live in the same country. They are told that in this country everyone is equal and that the state is very anxious that they become prosperous and live lives at least as good as that of people in cities such as Delhi. The anger is at the deception and the monumental hypocrisy of those whom they elect to Parliament.

The urban-rural dichotomy, if one can call it so, that exists in this country is not a recent development. It has been there for centuries, from the days when India was a number of kingdoms. We hear of the great cities of Ujjain, Kannauj, Hastinapur, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Hampi, Halebid and others. We know very little of the rural parts of the kingdoms or empires in which these great cities were located. Through the centuries the wealth generated in the countryside has flowed into cities, which have given little back to the countryside.

The change from monarchies to the new democracy that emerged in 1947 did little to alter a mindset that was shared by urban and rural India. The countryside had to give; the cities only took. Take just two examples that serve as metaphors of this mindset.

The document for the ownership of land is different in urban areas and in the countryside. In cities there is a deed of ownership registered with the relevant authorities. In rural Bengal and there is no reason to suppose it is different in other parts of the country the owner of land has a record of right (ROR), locally called a khatian, in which in column 2, the name of the absolute owner is always shown as the sovereign: it could be the emperor or, as it is now, the state. It is only in column 13 that the name of the actual owner is shown; technically, he holds the land under the sovereign.

The second example is of the very natural, almost instinctive, manner in which the state considers it legitimate, by passing appropriate legislation or orders, to force inhabitants of the countryside to sell a part of what they produce at a price that the state considers to be fair be it rice, wheat, sugarcane or any other product. But the state would think it horrifying to require manufacturers of toilet soap and detergents or cars and machinery to sell a part of their total production to the state at a price the state fixes. For instance, would the state force General Motors to sell some of its Chevrolet Optras, priced at around Rs.8 lakh to Rs.9 lakh, to the state for Rs.3 lakh?

Notice the difference in perception. This is what translates into the rage of the sugarcane growers at glamorous cities where glamorous people live.

The rage of the Gujjars is for a slightly different reason. They see others walking into colleges and technical institutions and then into jobs just because they have been born in certain communities, and they cannot understand why they are denied that perquisite. In a larger sense, both the sugarcane growers and the Gujjars share a perception: that they are being treated as different, as second-class citizens. The other class. The real class being the one with the good life and all that the good life brings.

All right, this is a simplification of what is a very complex issue or set of issues. But the point is not in the details. It is in the perceptions that exist. And two separate and conflicting perceptions, which are, after all, the basis of the existence of class consciousness of whatever kind, are visibly emerging. The perception in the ruling class, the politically and economically powerful class, is that our rural areas must be developed; the aam admi must be given access to education, health care, clean water, power and roads. The perception of those who indulge in the kind of violent agitations we have been seeing, and will continue to see, is that they are deprived, not of those things that are sought to be given them but of those things that are no different from what the privileged have: not just a school, but that kind of school; not just a health clinic, but that kind of clinic and hospital.

As long as these conflicting assumptions persist, the divide angry, confrontational will continue. And the tragedy is that this happens in a democracy where the countryside sends its representatives to Parliament and to State Assemblies where they do not, or cannot, resolve these differing perceptions.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted to start with our villages. We have started from the other end, looking at our villages from the outside and determining what is good for them. Perhaps, there was a very practical basis for Gandhis advocacy of the villages, which needs to permeate the thinking of our ruling elite and not be confined to the ritual adoption of an earnest demeanour and the delivery of noble speeches on October 2 every year.

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