Updated: December 12, 2021 7:55:48 am
In one of the makeshift stalls providing drinking water at Singhu, where farmers have been encamped for the past year in protest, a series of unusual posters adorn the walls. These feature portrayals of Guru Nanak tilling the land, creating furrows with his plough and oxen. The accompanying text explains that the sun never sets on hard work which can create gold from the Earth. The images are a reminder that the Guru showed through his own practice that cultivation is a productive activity that allowed him to grow food from the land he was given, and distribute it through the first langar he set up. His example gives the farmers the self-belief that while cultivation required hard work, vigilance and patience, such honest work also created rich rewards.
As we learn of the extraordinary victory of the farmers of India in forcing the central government to repeal the unwelcome laws it had forced on them, we are reminded that farmers have traditionally had a poor reputation as revolutionaries. “Potatoes in a sack” is how Karl Marx put it to describe an inert and insulated peasantry, incapable of building wider solidarities. How then was this movement successful? Could it in fact, counterintuitively, have everything to do precisely with being farmers and the values of cultivation itself?
When they started their protests over a year ago, no one thought the farmers would succeed, for they faced a particularly intransigent government. But they remained undeterred. As cultivators they knew that patience was key to growing anything, for the soil had to be prepared, seeds sown and then watched over as they took root and flourished, the elements had to be weathered, just like the taunts of passers-by; and through all this their eye had to remain on the distant goal to which there were no shortcuts. Cultivation is a combination of dynamism and stasis, hope and fear, trust and vigilance. Becoming a farmer is as much about learning to hold these sentiments together within the self as it is to farm.
These were precisely the qualities of character that the farmers brought to the protests as they set up encampments encircling Delhi. Throughout this past year, these sites were a hive of civic activity as protestors drew on their ethics of seva (service) and kirat (honest dedication) to organise langars to share food, tea, water, entertainment and even books. When asked how long they could possibly continue in such hostile conditions, their answer was always one of quiet resolve: “We will not return until the laws are repealed, however long it takes.”
Cultivation is about hope — it creates expectation from the moment that the seed is planted, and there was hope from the very start of the long protest. Cultivation also requires courage in the face of hostile conditions and figures from religion and history who had fought the Mughals — Mata Gujri and the four young sons of Guru Gobind Singh — and heroes such as Rajguru, Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh who fought the British, were evoked in murals to provide inspiration.
Courage also came through shared solidarity — just as every harvest requires cooperation and support from others, so does a social movement. In a “library” maintained in a large tent throughout the protests, every evening saw attendees sit together in a circle sharing ideas and learning to debate; a microphone was passed around so people could gain confidence and learn to speak to an audience. Thus, the protest created a new movement culture with new ways of behaving and relating to others. The threat of violence by the authorities and incidents of violence and suicides within the camp, were constant but the overall effort was to transcend them and ensure that the majority remained committed to peaceful protest. The new movement culture created an unprecedented social mixing over food and conversation between castes, big and small farmers, owners and workers, and different religions — exactly the kind of fraternity which Ambedkar imagined to be critical for democratic politics in India.
Ambedkar, despite his deep reservation about villages as “dens of vice”, used agrarian metaphors when talking about politics. He spoke of institutional democracy introduced by the Constitution as merely the topsoil on India’s deeply unequal substratum. He advocated the need to cultivate constitutional morality precisely because it was not a natural sentiment, to create both a political democracy of institutions and also a social and economic democracy of culture.
This past year, what we learnt is that such cultivation need not simply provide a metaphor for doing politics, it could also be its grammar. The result is a High Yielding Variety of Politics that the farmers are harvesting today.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2021 under the title ‘Cultivating hope’. Banerjee is the author of Cultivating Democracy: Politics and Citizenship in Agrarian India
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