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Stepsons of Soil Awaiting Their Due
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Continued from “Are We Our Brothers’ Keepers?”

The Languishing Republic – V

The predominant determinant of human relationships − both at individual and social levels and in their institutionalized forms − is, all said, the control of means of production and distribution. You don’t have to be dyed-in–the-wool Marxist to accept this axiom. In our case the ruler-ruled nexus has been all through our history − and I dare add, continues to be − the determining factor of our organized social and economic relationships.

Persistent Dilemma

Allow me to illustrate this axiom with our still-unresolved agrarian problem. It is a clichéd truism that India still lives in villages. If that be so, our fundamental problems of social relationships have agrarian roots. During the last 65 years, while missing no opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the agrarian problems, we have done precious little to tackle what F. Tomasson Jannuzi calls India’s Persistent Dilemma. (That’s the name of the study of our political economy of agrarian reforms by Januzi, Professor Emeritus of Economics and Asian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. The fact that a foreigner has studied in depth our festering agrarian malaise − while most Indian economists took it for granted − illustrates how readily we learn to live with our problems rather than do something to resolve them. Read if you’ve time, his Memories of Bihar Village).

And most (if not all) of the discredit for this failure squarely belongs to Nehru who had the opportunity that came our way once in centuries to initiate action after 1947, but didn’t have the inclination nor the will to do so. The result is as Jannuzi sums up:

India’s existing political economy is one that denies generally its rural majority the socio-economic changes long ago promised by India’s Founding Fathers and made explicit in the Directive Principles. The existing political economy in rural India is shaped mainly, as it was prior to independence, by the interests of a minority of landholders whose political and economic power are derived from secure rights in land.

Heart-rending indeed is the account of our failure to devise a systematic national program to bring about the much-needed agrarian reforms in post-1947 India. Had Nehru the foresight to facilitate such a program and win national support for it, we would have emerged from the long-lingering shadow of British colonialism into a truly democratic era rooted in an empowered mass of humanity which had been ruthlessly exploited for centuries. The account of our failure to do what we could have done on this front is the most telling commentary on Nehru’s post-1947 business-as-usual approach. All that was done in the name of agrarian reform was to conjure up a camouflage to ensure the continuity of the old order.

Our independence movement was given a mass base, first of all by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and later by Gandhi, only by successfully mobilizing the peasantry. Thereafter the flood tide of independence was irresistible. And emphasis on land reforms once we were independent was a recurring theme whenever Congress leaders talked of their priorities. Even after 1947, the exercise continued, but only perfunctorily. The First Five Year Plan document, for instance, loudly proclaimed:

The future of land ownership and cultivation constitutes perhaps the most fundamental issue in national development, and more importantly, reorientation of social order. To a large extent, the pattern of economic and social organization will depend upon the manner in which the land problem is resolved. (Italics added.)

Saga of Failure

Our failure to introduce meaningful agrarian reforms has been, in fact, a blatant betrayal of the trust of those hundreds and thousands of peasants who, on Gandhi’s prompting, threw in their lot with the Independence movement and suffered grim deprivations. What they got was reform in the reverse gear. As Prof. A M Khusro points out in his study The Economy of Land Reforms and Farm Size in India, such a magnificent gesture of appeasement of yesterday’s exploiters of tenants is “unparalleled” in the history of land reform movement in the world. Consequently, lakhs of cultivators of marginal holdings lost what they had clung on to for generations to eke out a bare subsistence.

Altogether, the history of our land reform movement is a saga of sheer betrayal. It was an unpardonable let-down of those who had longingly looked forward to a new dawn once the yoke of foreign rule was discarded. All that freedom did was to condemn them to live in an ever-continuing night. Those who have studied this sordid chapter in detail have looked for explanations. The most obvious of these is the class interest − to use the Marxian cliché − of those who controlled the levers of power. Indeed, if you were an MLA in Bihar with a 500-acre zamindari conferred on your ancestors during Permanent Land Settlement, you would not yourself preside over its liquidation. Hence, all the delay in passing the ceiling laws and the ample provision of loopholes to defeat their implementation! But, what about the Central leadership, and especially Nehru’s oft-declared concern for peasants? The fact is that behind the facade of imposing idealism, the practical politician in Nehru whose exclusive concern was to stay in power, had taken over. Any means useful towards that end were acceptable. All through the 1950s and early 1960s the landed interests controlled what are called the vote banks.

Source of Social Empowerment

Did Nehru realize what Daniel Thorner from Pennsylvania South Asia Regional Studies Program, brought out so poignantly in his piece “Land Reforms” (in Rural Sociology in India). “The heart of power, prestige, and standing in the village lies in land. Put land in the hands of those who are working it and you crack the existing concentration of power”.

Did Nehru want to do that? He was content to see himself atop the pyramid of power, unconcerned with the foundation at its base. The only way Nehru discharged his historic debt to India’s peasants was to provide in his will and testament (written on June 21, 1954):

I want (a major portion of my ashes) to be carried high up into the air in an aeroplane and scattered from that height over the fields where the peasants of India toil....)

The execution of the will, unfortunately, made no difference whatsoever to the lives of the peasants of India. They had been toiling under tyrannical conditions for centuries. Their last hope, after Gandhi, was irretrievably belied by a Prime Minister who vociferously claimed to carry a socialist conscience. Nature had her own revenge. The grand Nehuvian gesture of scattering his ashes was followed by three consecutive years of drought.

Gandhi's Political Ideal

The fountain head of the broad-based socio-economic reform impulse of the independence movement was, all said, Gandhi and Gandhi alone. The inspiration came to him quite accidentally.

While he was working as a lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi received, in 1904, a copy of John Ruskin's Unto This Last from a British friend, Mr. Henry Polak. In his autobiography, Gandhi remembers the twenty-four hour train ride to Durban (when he first read the book), being so in the grip of Ruskin's ideas that he could not sleep at all: “I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.” As Gandhi construed it, Ruskin’s outlook on political and economic issues extended from three central tenets:

  1.  That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

  2. That a lawyer's work has the same value as the barber's in as much as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.

  3. That a life of labor, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

He recorded in his autobiography: “The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it clear as daylight for me that the second and third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.”

Four years later, in 1908, Gandhi rendered a paraphrased translation of Ruskin’s book into his native Gujarati. He entitled the book Sarvodaya, a compound he coined from two Sanskrit roots: sarva − (all) and udaya (uplift) – “the uplift of all”.

Although inspired by Ruskin, the term came to represent for Gandhi, a political ideal of his own stamp. (Indeed Gandhi was keen to distance himself from Ruskin's more conservative ideas.) The ideal which Gandhi strove to put into practice in his ashrams was, he hoped, one that he could persuade the whole of India to embrace, becoming, over the years, a source of inspiration to other nations of the world too. The Gandhian social ideal encompassed the dignity of labor, an equitable distribution of wealth, communal self-sufficiency and individual freedom.

Gandhi came to use the term Sarvodaya for the ideal of his own political philosophy. His assassination in 1948 absolved Nehru of the responsibility to try out the old man’s ideals in reshaping Indian society. Later Gandhians, like the Indian nonviolence activist Vinoba Bhave, embraced the term as a name for the social movement in post-independence India which strove to ensure that self-determination and equality reached all strata of Indian society.

Sarvodaya Movement

Vinoba Bhave (center) during crusade to encourage gifts of land
from the landed to landless peasants. Image (c)

Gandhi's ideals have lasted well beyond the achievement of one of his chief projects, Indian independence (swaraj). His followers in India (notably, Vinoba Bhave) continued working to promote the kind of society that Gandhi envisioned, and their efforts in this direction have come to be known as the Sarvodaya Movement. Anima Bose has referred to the movement's philosophy as “a fuller and richer concept of people's democracy than any we have yet known.” Sarvodaya workers associated with Vinoba, J. P. Narayan, Dada Dharmadhikari, Dhirendra Mazumdaar, Shankarrao Deo, K. G. Mashruwala undertook various projects aimed at encouraging popular self-organisation during the 1950s and 1960s, including Bhoodan and Gramdan movements. Many groups descended from these networks continue to function locally in India even today.

But as the adage has it one swallow − and for that matter few of them − do not a summer make. Sarvodaya as an ideal to transform Indian polity died with Gandhi. His survivors had more modern ideas and techniques.


The concept and practice of Sarvodaya in India survives in pockets. Elsewhere it is drowned in the flood of so-called Government-sponsored developmental projects which benefit more the implementers than those for whom they are meant to help. However, an interesting off-shoot of Sarvodaya survives in the Kinddom of Bhutan in the name of “gross national happiness ”.

The term GNH was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It was he who introduced Bhutan to the age of modernization soon after his ascension to the throne. He used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously, as the Centre for Bhutan Studies, under the inspiring leadership of Karma Ura, developed a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population's general level of well-being. Interestingly, two Canadians, Michael and Martha Pennock played a very significant role in developing the Bhutanese survey based on fairly elaborate interviews spread over six to seven hours. The instrument devised by them is a shorter version of the survey which has been used in their native region of Victoria in British Columbia as well as in Brazil.

Like many psychological and social indicators, GNH is somewhat easier to state than to define with scientific precision. All said it is a welcome departure from the purblind pursuits of Gross National Product, which the great environmentalist, Paul Hawken famously described: “At present, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”

Whoever may be at the political helm of affairs in India, we follow the World Bank-prescribed blue print of economic development. You know who are its beneficiaries? Meanwhile, the pasmandathe Farsi term for the left-overs of society who are condemned to trail behind — are languishing neglected and uncared.

So, will the Indian Cain continue to kill his brother, Abel? Yes, indeed. At stake is the continuing, undisputed control over means of production. This will continue unless legislated institutional arrangements are in place (as in Kerala and West Bengal) to protect Abel’s long-denied rights.

If you’re looking for theoretical justification for me to be my Brother’s Keeper, don’t go far. Just turn to the very first verse of Ishopnishad:

Know that all this, whatever moves in this moving world, is enveloped by God. Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation; do not covet what belongs to someone else. − Ishopanishad

Historically, Indians conceived of universal love and service in terms of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Svadesha Bhubana trayam. Even Kautilya’s Arthasastra, a masterpiece of ancient Hindu treatise on diplomacy and state craft, prescribes that the load star to guide a ruler should be the welfare of the ruled. The Bhagvad Gita too is replete with references to the concept of the welfare of all.

We’re, however, notorious for thinking that ideas alone can conjure into being the desired framework of change. We cannot summon a Vishwakarma to magically build a new edifice.

Regrettably, spiritual insights − howsoever uplifting (like the above verse) − nor purposive sitcoms (like Office, Office) can re-orient societal relationships unless there obtains the institutional framework to bring, first, the desired change into being and, thereafter, sustain it. And this is exactly we haven’t done in the last sixty-five years. Can there be a graver betrayal of declarations of intent?

Will the new dispensation that may emerge after the 2014 elections address to this long-pending task?

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Comment SARVODAYA MEETING WAS HELD ON 3-4 MAY 2014 AT HYDERABAD. Meeting on 3rd May was held at Gandhi Darshan, Exhibition Ground, Nampally, Hyderabad. On 4th May all Gandhians visited Budhan Pochampally Village, Nalgonda Dist for darshan of the place where Vinobha Bhave started his Budhan Movement. Dr. Dr.S.N. Subba Rao, conducted prayers and bhajans in memory of Vinobha and V.RamachandraReddy (1st inpirator of Budhan Momement). Later half day session was held at Osmania University Center for International Programmes till 8.30pm. Sarvodaya dignitaries from all over India such as Radha Bhatt, S.N.SubbaRao, Mahadev Vidrohi, Narsimha Prabhu, Menon, Sundara Rajan, Ashwatha Narayana, BhimaKant Kunwer, Dr.Sugan, Gadkari and many others attended this.

Deekonda NarsingaRao
05/07/2014 02:43 AM

Comment Let me quote from my blog Zamindar Rabindranath 4 -
'In this context it needs to be mentioned that at this time amendment of the Bengal Tenancy Act had become a burning issue. Under growing pressure of population on land sub-letting had become very rampant and the number of landless agricultural labourers and under-raiyats called bargadars or share-croppers were growing apace. The bargadars were paying as rent as much as 50% of the gross produce and they could be evicted at will at any time by the raiyats whose lands they cultivated. An amending bill was introduced in 1928 in which, among other things, there was a proposal to confer tenancy rights on the bargadars. Pending passing of this amendment even records were being corrected accordingly. But while passing the bill this particular provision was rejected on the ground that it would cause detriment to the interests of the middle class people. The babus must be saved before the bargadars whose blood they sucked! And the man who as chairman of the Select Committee recommended making the bargadars tenants was a Briton while the majority of the men who as members of the provincial Legislature rejected it were Bengali bhadraloks and babus!'

10/03/2013 04:27 AM

Comment The penultimate paragraph once again provides us with a synopsis of the problem. 'And this is exactly (what) we haven’t done in the last sixty-five years.' I put it to you that this manifests the reality over the idealism of the amelioration of the status of the peasants in the context of Indian democracy.

'Can there be a graver betrayal of declarations of intent?' is the accusation.

But what if the intent were an ideal of democracy that has worked out to be unfeasible? Surely, this is no betrayal of intent, but a reality check. The ideal of the rise of the peasant class is at the expense of the elimination of the current ruling class who, no doubt, see themselves as responsible in the face of what would be an experiment in democracy. This overwhelming risk factor has proved itself to be unnerving to government, from Nehru on, explaining its retention to this day of what you call 'government sponsored' schemes.

10/01/2013 20:53 PM

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