One of the most significant developments in the ongoing protests against the Narendra Modi government’s three agricultural laws has been the decision of farmer leaders holding khap mahapanchayats in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and elsewhere. These rallying points have emerged as a great platform to unite the farmers, who are mostly Shudras, and the agrarian labourers, who are mostly Dalits. Although this unity between the historically divided Shudra-Dalit communities is primarily to fight against the three farm laws and the monopoly and capitalist control of agrarian markets, it will have a major transformative impact in India’s village economy by bringing about new societal relations.
In the agrarian sector, the cultivable land is largely in the hands of ‘higher’ Shudra farmers while most landless labourers come from Dalit families. There are several production-related tasks and a number of conflicting areas among Shudras and Dalits in the villages. But it is a truism that they worked together to sustain this nation in production fields. Their collective labour saved India during one of the most destructive pandemics of global magnitude.
It is true that the Dalits suffered atrocities and humiliations at the hands of the multi-layered Shudra civil society in the villages for millennia, even as the Shudra civil society faced discriminatory and humiliatory treatment by Dwijas above them in the hierarchical caste system. Unless the Shudra farmers realise that they must fight for equality with the Dwijas, including for their spiritual rights for priesthood and ritual training, and grant equality to the Dalits by overcoming the brutal practice of untouchability, real change will not take place.
What this unity can do
The new farmer-labourer collective movement for the survival of the Shudra and Dalit communities as well as for the future of their children will be of immense value to the whole nation. It’s a matter of grave shame that even after 75 years of our constitutional democracy, human untouchability and caste-cultural rapes and murders of Dalit women take place. This cannot be allowed to continue. The ongoing farmers’ movement has the potential to re-shape societal relations among people in the countryside. Once change occurs in the villages, the towns and cities would follow the way.
Historically, human untouchability and graded inequality is imposed by the Brahmanic Hindu Shastras. From temples to the agricultural fields, it is practised as per a layered caste consciousness by the Brahmanical Hindu society. Although the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine claim all caste communities as Hindus, they never talk about abolition of caste inequalities. But now the initiative has come from the Shudra farm leaders to unite with the Dalits in the villages, which can potentially initiate a new course of social reform.
If the farmers who employ Dalits as labourers in their fields decide to abandon untouchability, then Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s vision of annihilation of caste will begin to take shape at a practical level. One Dalit leader suggested that at the mahapanchayats, farmers and Dalit leaders must hold the portraits of Ambedkar and Shudra leaders like Mahatma Phule and Chaudhary Charan Singh — the first Shudra-farmer prime minister of India whose cremation ground is called Kisan Ghat — and show a new path to the rest of the Indians. Charan Singh was the first Shudra leader to organise farmers and establish a regional party, Lok Dal, for their well-being and self-respect in north India.
Along with the the peasant-Dalit unity, India’s education system should start reframing the curriculum. Lessons of dignity of labour with respect to leather work or soil work or kitchen work must be taught to children in village schools. The classroom learning and field work practice right from the school days make our rural education more creative compared to the urban education system.
Expand the base
Members of the minority communities like Muslims must be integrated into this larger unity agenda so that their future generation can become part of the larger village production culture. In the agrarian fields, men and women work together. The sexual division of labour is not very marked in the productive fields. Muslim women should become part of these productive fields along with Shudra-Dalit women so that their isolationalism can be done away with. In the backdrop of so-called ‘love jihad’ laws in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, social interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims will get more and more restricted. This will also affect the production-related ties at the village level. The Shudra farmers and Dalit labourers’ unity is a perfect medium to draw the Muslim workforce into the production fields and build more integrated social relations.
The Hindutva ideology does not engage with production and labour issues. Their cultural nationalism mainly revolves around spiritual cultures. Temples, cow and ‘love jihad’ kind of issues do not improve production and India will face stagnation if they occupy the main space of discourse. The farmers’ agitation has, in a way, shifted discourse to the agrarian economy and the culture of people’s unity.
India’s productivity has faced stagnation because a large section of its population, Dalits, has been socially excluded due to the barbaric practice of human untouchability. The unity programme initiated by the farm leaders can take the shape of a cultural revolution in rural north India. This is definitely good news.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist. His latest book is The Shudras: Vision for a New Path, co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)