By Moin Qazi*
The inertia of a jungle village is a dangerous thing. Before you know it your whole life has slipped by and you are still waiting there.
― Tahir Shah, House of the Tiger Kin
The Indian village has been celebrated by every poet who has admitted to having been touched by India including Rudyard Kipling and Rabindranath Tagore. Social scientists of the past wrote about Indian villages as virtually self-sufficient communities with few ties to the outside world. There is nothing unusual or novel in the city-bred person’s belief in the regenerative powers of the village. This nostalgia has been expressed since the 19th century in literary form in fiction and poetry and in political form through the slogan: `Back to the villages‘.
Interestingly, these writers, poets and nationalist leaders were all city-dwellers, not villagers themselves; nor had they ever considered trekking back to the villages to live there. The Indian intelligentsia has a somewhat mixed attitude towards villages. While educated Indians are inclined to think or at least speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagers. There has been a general tendency to romanticise village life as a means of returning to our roots. What is noticeable, though, is that most people who romanticise village life in India tend to live in cities. They also seem incapable of noticing the irony implicit in this romanticisation, since their forefathers, too, were once villagers —who migrated to cities for a good reason.
The Indian village has for long been viewed as a convenient entry point for understanding the ‘traditional’ Indian society. It has been viewed as a symbol of the authentic native life, a social and cultural unit uncorrupted by outside influence. For the professional sociologists and social anthropologists, village represented India as a microcosm, an invaluable observation centre where one could see and study the ‘real’ India, its social organisation and cultural life.
Apart from its methodological value, ‘it’ being a representative unit of the Indian society, the village has also been a crucial ideological category in the modern Indian imagination. It was not merely a place where people lived; it had a design which reflected the fundamental values of the Indian civilisation. Across the world, life in the countryside has been contrasted with the urban experience, with the former believed to be symbolic of a purer form of native culture. However, it was perhaps only in the case of India that the village came to acquire the status of a primary unit representing the social formation of the entire civilisation.
Villages have indeed existed in the subcontinent for a long time. But it was during the British colonial rule and through the writings of the colonial administrators, that India came to be a land of ‘village republics’. Inden has rightly pointed out that although most other civilisations of the Orient were also primarily agrarian economies, it was only the Indian society that was essentialized into a land of villages. The British colonial rulers had their own political reasons for representing India as they did and introduced qualities such as autonomy, stagnation and continuity to the village life in the subcontinent. It helped them justify their rule over the subcontinent to their people back home in Britain.
Since the villages had been autonomous republics, the rulers of India were treated as outsiders. Notwithstanding its historical origins, the idea of the village has persisted in the Indian imagination. The historians of modern India have repeatedly pointed to the continuities between the colonial knowledge and nationalist thinking. Like many other categories, the idea of the village too was accepted as a given, characterising Indian realities. Leaders of the nationalist movement, for example, invoked it in many different contexts. Despite disagreements and differences in their ideological orientations or political agenda, the ‘village’ remained a core category through which most of them conceptualised or thought of the ‘traditional’ Indian social life.
However, unlike the colonial administrators, the nationalist leadership did not see village simply as the constituting ‘basic unit’ of Indian civilisation. For most of them, village represented ‘the real’ India, the nation that needed to be recovered, liberated and transformed. Even when they celebrated village life, they did not lose sight of the actual state of affairs marked by scarcity and ignorance.
The village has been seen as a signifier of the authentic native life, a social and cultural unit uncorrupted by outside influence. While much significance is attached to Gandhi’s ideas of the Indian village, other strands of the nationalist movement tend to generally get ignored or subsumed within the Gandhian notion of the village. Ambedkar’s ideas on the village, for example, were very different from those of Gandhi. Similarly, though Nehru agreed with Gandhi on many issues related to rural India, his writings on the Indian peasantry, on the whole, present a very different approach to the subject. Nehru described quite lucidly the prevailing structure of agrarian relations while describing one such encounter with peasants in the following passage:
“I listened to their innumerable tales of sorrow, their crushing and ever-growing burden of rent, illegal extraction, ejectments from land and mud hut, beatings; surrounded on all sides by vultures who preyed on them – zamindar’s agents, moneylenders, police; toiling all day to find that what they produced was not theirs and their reward was kicks and curses and a hungry stomach.”
Even Gandhi’s ideas on the Indian village are not as simple as they are often made out to be. He is rightly known as the ideologue of the village. He wrote and spoke a great deal on various aspects of village life. Though, as mentioned above, he was not born in a village and did not even have ‘an ancestral village’ to identify with, much of his social and political philosophy revolved around the idea of the village. His idea of an alternative India is perhaps best spelt-out in one of his pieces published in Harijan in 1942 where he wrote:
“My idea of village swaraj is that it is entirely republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity. Thus every villager’s first concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth… Then if there is more land available, it will grow useful money crops, thus excluding ganja, tobacco, opium and the like… Education will be compulsory up to the final basic course. As far as possible every activity will be conducted on the cooperative basis. There will be no castes such as we have today with their graded untouchability. The governance of the village will be conducted by a panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications.…To model, such a village may be the work of a lifetime. Any lover of true democracy and village life can take up a village, treat it as his world and sole work, and he will find good results.”