Back to the village

Print edition : August 24, 2012

The essays help dispel the erroneous notion that privileges the village as a site of tradition, caste and religion, custom and communitarian norms.

AT a time when the general disenchantment with village life appears to be the spirit of new India, the editing of a volume on village society is definitely an act of intellectual courage and professional commitment. We keep hearing scholarly pronouncements on the declining sociological significance of the village and village studies. We are told that the Indian village is no longer a site where future can be planned. Rather, it is an area of darkness full of despair, indignation, filth and squalor, and mindless violence.

Our media invoke the idea of the village only in times of crises, be it farmers suicide or the fatwa issued by various khap panchayats. We know for certain that the village is marked by diminishing importance in Indias national culture as also in contemporary political discourse. Even at the level of cinematic and urban-nostalgic representation, we hardly come across films glorifying the village at the expense of the city, something that had almost become formulaic in the wake of Independence.

The general impression being conveyed is that the village is some sort of a waiting room from where everyone hopes to escape if given a chance. It is the very antithesis to the ideals of development and progress. It is a regrettable fetter on our collective leap towards industrial modernism. How else do you explain the villagers opposition to land acquisition that will bring us swanky malls, world-class apartments and seamless rapid urban transport systems, and greenfield airports?

Counterpoint to city

Interestingly, for the urban Indian, the village has always been more than a simple social morphological other to a town or a city. The village has not merely been despised for its lack of electricity and other modern amenities; it has also been perceived as a burden on the national conscience because of its abstract moralised qualities of backwardness, bigotry, illiteracy, superstition, and a general lack of civilisation and culture. For the children and grandchildren of Midnights Children, the village continues to be emblematic of the rustic world of thumb-impression ( angutha-chaap) country bumpkins. At any rate, unparh gavar (illiterate yokel) can hardly be a worthy role model for a nation as aspiring as ours. In a way, the decline of the village in the creative imagination of Indians in recent decades is almost complete.

For Ashis Nandy, the village is no longer a village in itself but a counterpoint to the city a fantasy village for the city. The village has turned out to be more of a dystopia. It is no longer a living presence in mainstream Indian intellectual life, and is gradually taking on the form of a demographic or statistical datum. The vivacity of an Indian village is not part of the various visions of future floating around in South Asia.

Yet, there are scholars whose faith in the inherent worth of village studies is too entrenched to be shaken so easily. They consider village studies far too important to our understanding of the economy and society to have atrophied in the way they seem to have done over the past few decades. For them, villages do matter even as they are increasingly appearing as desperately lost objects in Indian sociology. In the hullabaloo around fashionable post-colonial theoretical concerns that go gaga over de-spatialised cultural flows, it has become tantamount to taboo to write about villages. We tend to forget that the vast majority of Indias population still has powerful links to villages.

This is where the publication of Village Society assumes added significance. In fact, Surinder S. Jodhka, the editor, in his cogently written introduction, makes a plea for a possible renewal of village studies. His editorial intervention is too insightful to consider villages to be ontologically bounded entities any longer. He is aware that villages are not merely physical settlements populated by a given number of inhabitants and/or places of belonging for those who live there. Without undermining the real and the factual of conventional village studies, he grafts new theoretical concerns such as gender and ecology onto the existing preoccupations. He underlines the need to see the village as a viable analytic construct with an empirical referent in reality even when migration and mobility would call for new sites and modes of sociological inquiry.

Social anthropologists may be required to put up tents on railway platforms, rather than staying with the old village pradhan, to understand new ruralities. They will have to make more trips to taluk and district headquarters, and the local thana, to understand the village dynamics than they have been conventionally used to. Maybe, tracking the trail of the villagers rich and poor will mean the demise of single village studies and inaugurate the new methodological era of multi-sited ethnography.

Paradigmatic status

Put differently, it is time we treated the village as an explanandum in sociological research. We cannot go on assuming the village as the container par excellence of the larger processes of rural-agrarian social change. It never was. The introduction brings out in lucid prose the historicity of the study of rural society. It demonstrates that, for long, the study of the village has been an abiding preoccupation of sociologists/social anthropologists in India. So much so that village studies came to stand for Indian sociology in the initial decades of its growth and development as an academic discipline.

In course of time, the village attained paradigmatic status as a template of indigenous society and economy, and village studies very often came to be projected as a shorthand for knowing and understanding Indian society by both professional sociologists and the intelligentsia. The efflorescence of village studies, as a distinctive disciplinary tradition of inquiry, is testimony to the considerable analytical and theoretical significance that the village and the studies of the village enjoyed for more than a century and a half.

The present work offers a small slice of the voluminous corpus of sociological research published in Economic & Political Weekly over the past four decades. Part of the University Grants Commissions (UGC) project to promote teaching and research in social sciences in India, it intends to introduce university students and research scholars to a select set of readings focussing specifically on the social, political and cultural aspects of the village society of India. Though some of the essays touch upon certain aspects of the agrarian economy, the readings are primarily sociological in nature.

WOMEN CARRY COW dung cakes in the Teliarganj area on the outskirts of Allahabad. Cow dung cakes are a major source of domestic fuel for rural households and women contribute to the household economy by making them.-DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

Unlike many edited works, the volume presents a coherent, thematic organisation. Organised into four sections village society: methods and perspectives; social and cultural life; social, economic and political processes; and perspectives on change the 16 essays straddle a range of issues that have a bearing on structure and change in village society. They give us insights into continuing economic disparities, caste relations, and changing power structure which characterise contemporary villages. Some of the essays urge us to look at villages in new ways where questions of gender and ecology, migration and mobility get foregrounded. More importantly, we realise that low caste and even untouchable villagers are now less beholden to their economic and ritual superiors (p.16) as they were in the olden days. Besides, the delinking of land and authority has generated a historic transformation in village India.

Some of these transformations have been manifested in the ways Dalits and the extremely marginalised backward castes in Uttar Pradesh have made use of the democratic political processes to acquire their share of the public resources (Sudha Pai and Jagpal Singh). Mukul Sharmas narrative of the Musahars (rat-eaters) of rural north Bihar is another saga of the decline of traditional caste-based occupational rigidities. Likewise, Leela Gulati looks at the empowering effects of migrations to the Gulf from rural Kerala on women, who are generally left behind.

G.K. Karanth appraises the technological innovations in Karnataka in relation to its destabilising power vis-a-vis age-old jajmani relations. G.K. Lieten examines the ways in which the Hindutva discourse reaches the caste-stratified society of a village and the subtle variations in terms of its receptivity by various caste groups. John Harriss, J. Jeyaranjan and K. Nagaraj put forward a longitudinal account of a village in Tamil Nadu and mull over persisting economic inequalities despite the much-pronounced politics of empowerment and social justice.

K.L. Sharma assesses the positive effects of the abolition of zagirdari in Rajasthan, whereas Jishnu Das critiques the conservationist view that overstates the historical evidence on the efficient common resources management in Garhwal villages. Roger Jeffery, Patricia Jeffery and Andrew Lyon broaden our perspective of rural development by making visible womens economic contributions to the household economy, such as dung work. N.S. Jodha brings in an ecological perspective in the context of declining economic security to the rural poor as an outcome of the increasing privatisation of common property resources.

Conflicting visions

Cumulatively, these essays serve a useful function in dispelling the erroneous notion that privileges the village as a site of tradition, caste and religion, custom and communitarian norms. Pratap C. Aggarwals essay is an excellent analysis of the fluctuating religious identities and the everyday materialities of village life.

Indeed, the volume contains essays on the value and significance of doing village studies by M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille, the doyens of village studies in India. By comparing the place of village in the writings of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, Jodhka maps out the conflicting visions of the Indian village in the nationalist imagination.

Dipankar Guptas contribution turns out to be the most provocative, if not outright polemical. He asserts that the village is shrinking as a sociological reality, though it still exists as space (p. 198). Yet, in his enthusiasm to write an obituary to the village, he accords too much analytical weight to the breaking down of occupational taboos and the growing incidence of rural non-farm employment. He seems to overlook the fact that rurality also embodies a different cultural register. Moreover, his prognosis of a non-rural future does not synchronise with his own analysis where he posits the village as a source of esteem and wealth even for urban Indians.

One does hope that this book inaugurates such debates of lasting interest and importance about Indias rural society. After all, the growing rural-urban disparities remain the foremost public policy challenge in contemporary India. Indias villages do deserve to attract the kind of public and scholarly attention that it did at some point of time. We can only put the agrarian question on the back burner at our peril. We need to bring villages back to university seminars, and into the popular media.

The serious engagement with the village (beyond the mere imperatives of state policy) that the book exemplifies has the promise to arrest the declining social scientific interest in rural India. The editor deserves our appreciation for making available to us an accessible and affordable text.

A letter from the Editor


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