Charan Singh played a crucial role in the politicisation of the peasantry and made it a formidable political force.
Though 23 December is observed as ‘Kisan Diwas’ to commemorate the birth anniversary of Chaudhary Charan Singh, the fifth Prime Minister of India, also sometimes called the ‘champion of India’s peasants’, both the day and the leader remain obscure in the public discourse at large.
However, as Indian politics veers towards addressing rural distress and farmers’ anger, it is increasingly important to rescue Singh from obscurity.
Charan Singh’s politics and ideas were informed by a deeper appreciation of the problems of agriculturists. For instance, the manifestos written by him did not promise easy solutions such as loan waivers, but rather chalked out a complex and sophisticated blueprint for the Indian economy keeping the interests of agriculturists and other small producers at the core. Despite his political swings, Singh’s policy proposals were almost always informed by his deeper thinking on developmental questions.
Early life and foray into politics
Born on 23 December 1902 in Nurpur, Meerut district, United Province, in a tenant farmer’s home, Singh acquired university degree at an early age and joined the Indian National Congress. He was active in the Indian freedom struggle and was imprisoned in 1930, 1940 and 1942 for his participation in the freedom movement. He remained a member of the Legislative Assembly of United Provinces/Uttar Pradesh from 1936 to 1974 and was a cabinet minister in multiple Congress governments from 1946 to 1967. He was the first non-Congress chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1967 and again in 1970.
Finally, between 1977 and 1980, he served as home minster, finance minister and then Prime Minister for a brief period. Through much of the ’70s and the early ’80s, he remained a figure of major political significance in Indian politics.
Singh’s key contribution was that he made occupational categories, along with rural-urban, the principal axis of his politics. This is relevant at a time when there are attempts to define the texture of politics through pulls of religious identity, and occupational identities like that of ‘farmer’ are ‘organised out’ and ascriptive identities are increasingly being ‘organised in’ the contemporary political discourse.
Charan Singh’s politics shows the possibilities of some alternative vehicles for political mobilisation.
The political importance of Charan Singh is that without him agricultural and rural issues would not have found a platform in the political landscape of an independent India. He played an important role in the politicisation of the peasantry in north India and made it a formidable political force.
During his early career, as the minister responsible in UP, he was the principal architect of the radical UP Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act, 1952 and its execution. This decisively altered the land system in UP and distributed land to the tenants. He also crafted and implemented UP Land Consolidation Act (1953). At the national level, in the late ’70s, where he played an important role in the formation and debacle of the Janata Party, Singh remained a key spokesperson of the peasantry and the countryside. A landmark kisan rally was organised on 23 December 1978 where an estimated one million peasants came to Delhi, bringing rural issues to the heart of national agenda. Thus Singh’s ability to command the voice of farmers made him and his agenda a phenomenon of major political significance in national politics in 1970s.
Importance of Singh’s writings
Singh articulated his ideas in a range of books where he approached the development discourse from the vantage point of agriculturists, small producers and rural India. Along with producing a critique of ‘urban bias’ of the then-mainstream development, Singh also presented a sophisticated alternative development strategy. He persistently poked at the asymmetric and hierarchical power relations between the town and the country. On the issue of land, Singh was for an agrarian order based on family farms. By deploying a range of statistical evidence of comparative data of yields from various countries in his writings, he was among the first in India to argue that, given all other conditions remain the same, as the size of farm increases productivity decreases. This, almost after two decades when Singh initially articulated it, became an important debate in Indian academia. In Singh’s defence of family farms, one also comes across other interesting arguments of political economy like the relationship between economic origins of democracy and authoritarianism.
Further, in the wake of certain trends in the context of globalisation leading to an onslaught on family farming, his thesis on the viability and feasibility of family farming assumes greater significance.
Singh remained a protagonist of the primacy of agriculture in India’s development. The compelling logic of an agriculture-led approach in his discourse is that it sets in motion a triggering impetus in the entire economy, and thus is the best guarantee to reduce poverty.
Agriculture-led development as a pro-poor, bottom-up viable approach has been increasingly stressed, in recent years, by both professional academics and international organisations. There are interesting insights in his writings, which are of great value in our times. For instance, he asserts that three things – small-scale farming (which in India is an inescapable condition), high productivity (which is essential in India because of obvious reasons) and low prices of agricultural produce – cannot co-exist. Hence the only way out, given the conditions in India, is to give ‘remunerative prices to farmers’. This assertion encapsulates an important cue for the policy framers in the current context.
Here, it must be stated that Singh was not appreciative of the green revolution strategy. He was critical of the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and advocated organic farming techniques. Further, in Singh we also find an early voice against big irrigation and hydroelectric projects. These ‘temples of modern India’ were termed as ‘monuments of folly’ by him. Many of these ideas were against the grain in Singh’s time, but in the context of the current agro-ecological crisis appear to be farsighted.
Insights on industrialisation
Along with agriculture, Charan Singh delved at great length on the nature of industrialisation in India and similarly-placed societies. Amidst the zeal to turn India into a land of ‘industrial affluence’, Singh points out some conditions that overshadow India’s desire for rapid industrialisation. He was rather an advocate of labour-intensive small-scale production. Along with agriculturists, there is almost an equal concern for other small producers in Singh’s ideas.
However, concern for the landless remains somewhat peripheral in Singh’s discourse and his perspective remains gender-blind. In spite of these limitations, his writings offer both fascinating vignettes and deeper theoretical formulations about a range of development quandaries.
His intellectual practice wrestles with the core issues and debates in the development terrain, namely poverty, employment, inequality, relationship between democracy and development, environment and sustainability, appropriate technology, work ethics, distributive land reforms, viability of family farms, collectivisation of land, various facets of urban bias, relative importance of agriculture and industry in development, puzzles of structural transformation and so on. Given the unusual political practice and intriguing ideas of this agrarian intellectual, although this appellation is somewhat a misnomer as the breadth of his vision was far broader, it is important to bring him back in our conversations on today’s developmental predicaments and agrarian movements.
The author teaches Political Science at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi.
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