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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

Gandhi and Farmers | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 12 February 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


For the Mahatma, Farmers Were Saints

“If I had my way, our Governor-General would be a peasant, our Prime Minister would be a peasant,” Mahatma Gandhi said at his prayer meeting in New Delhi on January 29, 1948, a day before he was shot dead by a fanatic. Addressing a crowd, he went on: “In my childhood I learnt a poem which says ‘O farmer, you are king, the master of the whole world’.”

Gandhi had been asked a question about the state of Indian farmers, and the Mahatma poured out his heart. “What would we eat if the peasant did not produce food? But today we have made him a slave. What can a peasant do? Must he acquire academic degrees for wielding the pickaxe? If the man who produced foodgrain out of the earth becomes our Chief, our Prime Minister, the face of India will change.”

What would Mahatma Gandhi do if he were to visit Delhi’s borders now? Call the farmers names for daring to take on a mighty state, aided and abetted by a so-called international conspiracy hatched by Greta Thunberg and Rihanna, or join their ranks, admiring their ability to endure so much suffering for so long peacefully, almost in an echo of what he did against the British Raj? He may have of course pulled them up for what happened on January 26 but Gandhi was too astute a politician not to notice that the leaders of the leading farmers unions have never advocated violence and on January 26 were nowhere near the Red Fort.

My guess is Gandhi would have thrown his lot with the farmers.

A man who practiced grassroots politics, Gandhi frequently spoke about farmers, who in millions lined up behind him in the struggle for the country’s independence. He was aware of their problems and plight. He knew that most were illiterate and may fell into bad habits. But he never lost his ingrained respect for their diligence, hard work and earthy intelligence. To him, they were akin to God.

“Of course the farmer is the father of the world. But it is his greatness that he is not aware of the fact,” Gandhi said on December 3, 1910. “Those who devote themselves to good works of any worth are not aware of their own goodness… They are not conscious that they deserve any credit. They do not care to be honoured.”

Gandhi considered farmers intelligent because they knew the importance of the Sun and the Moon as well as the changes in weather for their occupation. The farmer took care of not only his own health after working in the mud and stagnant water in the fields but also of the cattle he used to till the land. Gandhi did not feel that any Tom, Dick and Harry could tell the Indian farmers what was right and what was wrong.

On November 21, 1920, Gandhi wrote: “An illiterate farmer can represent the difficulties of the agricultural classes much better than an Indian learned but without experience in that particular field.” Chilling words, right? It makes you wonder if the Mahatma knew decades in advance that a day will come when the Indian farmers will be told what is best for them even if they vehemently argue that the cure being suggested is worse than the disease.

The overwhelmingly Sikh farmers from Punjab were among the first to take to the streets in response to the hurriedly legislated farm laws. They were ignored until they changed tracks and parked themselves at the borders of Delhi after being refused permission to enter the capital unless they agreed to confine themselves to a place called Burari. They refused to get tired and leave. As the farmers dug in, braving northern India’s bitter winter, we were told that only the Sikhs were protesting. That was not true; however, after January 26, the movement has galvanized farmers all across Haryana and the fertile western region of Uttar Pradesh, overshadowing Punjab.

Was there a need to drag this mess for so long? Would Mahatma Gandhi have been so obdurate?

Even if the authors of the farm laws genuinely think that the legislation is in the best interests of the farmers, they should have taken it back after the protests erupted and brought it back perhaps after genuine and wide-ranging consultations with all stakeholders. After all, the very pledge by the government to discuss with the unions the legislation clause by clause is an implicit admission that such a discussion did not take place. Further, if the government is willing to keep aside the law for one-and-a-half years, it is another admission that there is no hurry for the reforms until there is an overall consensus. What then was the tearing hurry to bring the legislation through a Presidential ordinance, and at the peak of the Corona-induced shutdown?

To view this as a struggle against the government would not be the whole truth – although that is how it is being portrayed by those who back the Prime Minister. If aged farmers in the 70s and 80s were willing to sit through the winter chill and continue to do so, it can only mean that they are sick and tired of a system which rules in their name but refuses to listen to them. This is an old disease. It just happens that the volcano has burst now. If the BJP and RSS have their ears to the ground, they will conclude that even now it is not too late to make amends. Bowing to the man who tills the soil is akin to bowing before God. There should be no shame in doing that.

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