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Meet the original architect of today's farmers' protests

Chaudhary Charan Singh spent his political life arguing on behalf of rural and agrarian interests. His demands resonate to this day, across India

Farmers arrive in a tractor to attend a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near New Delhi, India, December 14, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Speaking to Barkha Dutt on 28 November, three days after the farmers’ protest outside the Delhi border began, veteran journalist and expert on rural India P. Sainath referred to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) approach to agriculture and the agriculturists’ interests as “Congress on steroids”. He went on to elaborate how the new agricultural laws were only a cruel aggravation of “essentially anti-farmer” policies, which prevailed during the Congress’ rule, and cautioned against thinking that a resolution of the ongoing protests would mean an end of the far larger agrarian crisis which has engulfed the country for decades.

Instead Sainath advised looking at the protests in the larger context of “structural inequality” which has evolved over several successive governments and represents a “civilizational crisis” in the Indian development story. These words would be music to the ears of former prime minister and one of Independent India’s most famous peasant leaders, Chaudhary Charan Singh (1902-87), who spent his political life arguing on behalf of rural, agrarian interests against those of urban, industrial ones.

Apart from serving twice as the chief minister of India’s largest agrarian state, Uttar Pradesh, Singh wrote seven rich academic works, over four decades, tracking the development of the “structural inequality” Sainath referred to. Singh’s books criticised the top-down approach to economy that India took since independence under the “Nehruvian consensus”, privileging production over employment, machinery over labour. Singh believed the latter was the genesis of this structural malaise.

As a result, heavy industries like the Bokaro steel plant devoured capital that India could scarce afford, and provided little employment in a vastly underemployed agrarian economy. It concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few in the cities where these industries could be set up, and devastated the principle of parity between the price of agricultural and industrial produce. Thus, prices of foodgrains are kept artificially down to favour the urban proletariat worker, which diverts capital away from the rural economy into urban hands.

Chaudhary Charan Singh (left) with Chandra Shekhar.
Chaudhary Charan Singh (left) with Chandra Shekhar.

The result, Singh’s books argue, is the creation of a “dual economy”, with sharp separation between the fortunes of industry and agriculture, metros and the countryside, which put the capitalist-proletariat divide to shame. Youth from the countryside migrated to cities in search of the few privileged jobs these industries like steel and iron produced. They formed much of the informal economy which employs 83% of India’s workforce, working without basic safeguards and inhabiting increasingly congested metros. This has all been starkly exposed since the migrant crisis after the covid-19 lockdown.

By contrast, Singh’s books present a bottom-up blueprint which Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned for an India that lived in its villages, as it still does today. India’s Economic Policy: The Gandhian Blueprint, which Singh wrote as home minister in the first non-Congress central government of the Janata Party in 1978, puts an independent peasant proprietor tilling independent tracts of land at its heart.

It envisages an ecosystem of self-sufficient villages based on local, decentralised production and cooperative industry on the small and cottage scale. His model also envisages minimal role of the state in a decentralised ecosystem, and cites the independent peasant tilling his own land as the bulwark of democracy in independent India. Finally, it advocates cooperatives in the field of purchasing, process and sale on the lines of the farmers’ unions currently in action under the All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee.

In light of the farmer’s protest against an increasingly authoritarian regime, Singh’s predictions about the place of the peasantry in Indian democracy become especially prescient. His books, India’s Poverty and its Solution (1964) and Economic Nightmare of India (1981) warn against the symbiotic nexus between large corporates and authoritarian regimes, whether it be Indira Gandhi’s Emergency being backed by the Tatas and Birlas, or the regimes of Germany and Japan before World War II.

From the farmers’ perspective, Singh’s prescriptions sharply contrast with the farm laws the farmers want repealed. For example, his faith in an independent peasant goes fundamentally against contract farming, while his demonstration of the fact that small farms produce more per unit acre than large farms using machinery goes against the corporatisation of agriculture.

A farmer stands in front of police barricades during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A farmer stands in front of police barricades during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The most valuable contribution Singh’s writings make, though, is in their exposition of an urban bias in the policies and ethos of the ruling legislature and bureaucracy of India. The latter is reflected “in the discrimination it makes in provision of social amenities like health, housing, transport, power, and, above all, education available to the urban and rural areas—discrimination in investment in the human factor in the town and the village,” as he wrote in India’s economic policy: The Gandhian Blueprint (1978).

Vast gulfs exist in these sectors in the treatment of villages and cities, and Singh singles out education as a precondition of economic development, not an effect of it. Literacy rates in villages lag considerably behind their urban counterparts, and the availability of quality education in the village is virtually non-existent. Other sectors of prime importance, such as the legislature, bureaucracy, media, universities and other technical institutions, are also lopsidedly occupied by urban, westernised men and women fundamentally removed from the realities of most over whom they govern and comment.

Singh locates this situation at the heart of the lack of imagination in governmental policies of welfare, especially those for the rural sector, and the poor implementation of policies which are, in fact, right-headed. He doesn’t locate all the blame in wrongheaded best efforts, but notes that “the present bureaucracy is fast developing into a hereditary caste, and the doors of the higher echelons of government employment are virtually closed to the sons of those who are outside the charmed circle, particularly the villagers.”

A man’s values are determined largely by his surroundings, whatever his intentions and education, and so without passing blame, Singh concludes that urban values and leadership, epitomised by Nehru, had hitherto determined policies for a nation dwelling primarily with rural values. Such a conclusion can be reached in the high-handed approach of a government which passed laws applying to a section of its population without consulting their opinion, and continues to insist that millions of farmers are being “misguided” about their own best interests.

Chaudhary Charan Singh, second from left, with Jagjivan Ram and others.
Chaudhary Charan Singh, second from left, with Jagjivan Ram and others.

Similar echoes can be seen in the editorials of several media outlets which construe the farmers as undereducated simpletons in need of education. This, in turn, reflects a general ignorance which is present in urban mindsets about farmers’ realities, such as the common objections of farmers being disproportionately subsidised by the government, the agriculturists not paying taxes, or the existence of a “free” market for the farmers for their produce. Singh’s works deal with these questions in a systematic manner from the agriculturists’ perspective, marshalling evidence from over four decades of legislative experience and a personal experience of being a peasant’s son from rural Haryana.

Even in its criticism, Singh’s works demonstrate a link with urban-minded critiques of the present farmer protests. The budget he presented in 1979 based on his Gandhian blueprint was criticised as the “Kulak” budget, allegedly designed to benefit only the “rich” farmers whose interests were not shared by the small, marginal and landless farmers. A similar charge is now being made against farmers from Punjab, Haryana and western UP, which also formed Singh principal voter base during his political career. In fact, Singh wrote his last book, Land Reforms in U.P and the Kulaks (1986), as a defense of his career against this charge over a year before his death in 1987.

The stratification of farmers in India notwithstanding, Singh’s works demonstrated that agriculturists as an interest group form an identity where no farmer is “rich”, just relatively less poor than their urban, non-agriculturist counterpart. Today the protestors from Punjab and Haryana are doing the same.

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