Redefining the Peasant Question

Back in 1967, expectations for a radical change in society, otherwise stagnating at different levels, were so overwhelming from the naxalite peasant uprising that even well paid bank employees were discussing revolution that surprised Mary Taylor who came all the way from Britain to participate in the ‘Spring Thunder’ inspired Indian revolution. No doubt the naxalite movement brought to the fore the peasant question against its proper perspective by exposing the worshippers of the status quo in the ideological field. But that perspective lost its dynamism and direction within a short period for more than one reason. One reason that is being ignored by most naxalite groups and the most powerful group—the CPI (Maoist)—is their stubborn refusal to recognise the change the peasantry itself has been undergoing over the years against the backdrop of globalisation. India is still basically an agrarian economy but agriculture no longer contributes much to the GDP and the rural economy as a whole bears the brunt of job-hunters. The hard fact is that jobs are vanishing from countryside very fast leading to a complex situation where the peasant question which is a basic one, merits serious attention for evaluation, rather re-evaluation of class analysis of Indian society in the 21st century.

The Indian economy is expanding at an annual rate of 4.7%, which is a serious comedown for a country whose GDP growth peaked at 11.4% in 2010. While inflation is high, workers are not finding jobs, and industrialisation and urbanisation are stalling. Between 2005 and 2012, as India’s industrial and service sectors boomed, farm employment reduced by 37 million jobs. Now the estimates are that by 2019, 12 million more people will be working in agriculture than in 2012, even though agriculture’s share of GDP is shrinking. The latest Five Year Plan (2012-17) places great emphasis on the creation of jobs outside of agriculture. 90 million people will enter the workforce over the next fifteen years. Agriculture accounts for just a fifth of India’s GDP, but half of employment. The IT, finance and other service related businesses represent half of India’s output, but employ just a quarter of the country’s workforce. The manufacturing sector, with sophisticated factories, remains less developed, and is not a conduit to urban life for millions of people from farm families. Manufacturing has hovered at around 15% of India’s GDP for decades, much of this output coming from small, low-tech places. 32% of India’s population are living in cities, compared to 52% in China. Between 2010 and 2013, inflation-adjusted wages for men in the countryside rose 9% annually in India, after a long period in which rural wage growth was almost wiped out by price increases.

But most groups and the maoists in particular, decline to see any changes in agrarian scenario. Their peasant revolution continues to evolve around the fundamental concept they borrowed from China in the late ’60s and early ’70s. True, naxalites no longer go euphoric over everything Chinese but they certainly have fathomless love for theoretical formulations scripted by the Chinese Communist Party and Mao in pre-liberated China. They continue to nurse the utopia that they could conduct Indian revolution by re-emphasising the peasant question in the Chinese mould though redefining the peasant question is more than urgent because of sweeping changes taking place in the overall economy.

Whether they like it or not the peasant question can no longer be addressed only in terms of landowners and tenants—jotedars and bargadars (share-croppers) and landless labourers. Old slogans on which communists and socialists, before the maoists, relied for mobilisation of peasant masses, are less effective, if not ineffective, in most cases. But new slogans to combat a number of issues including remunerative prices, subsidy, onslaught by global agri-business, destruction of ecology, abolition of traditional cropping pattern and all that are not really emerging. The slogan of ‘land to the tiller’ does no longer find favour with the radicals. Maybe the real-world political compulsions do not allow them to reiterate this popular slogan. Even their pro-poll and anti-poll manifestos don’t emphasise on it. As for remunerative prices of farm products, they think, it is the demand of the kulaks, they have nothing to do with it.

Strange it may seem, communists of all shades do not take the entry of MNCs into India’s agriculture seriously. It was not the case in the late sixties, those were days of PL-480, food crisis, food-riot. Nor anybody could imagine of the emerging menace—GM crop. Today only a few NGOs, not funded by overseas donors fight against seed multinationals and GM crop while radicals, not excluding maoists, look on, as if the peasant question could be adequately addressed without taking into consideration all these factors.

For one thing, how Bt cotton is forcing hundreds of thousands of cotton farmers in central and south India to commit suicide does hardly get proper importance in their political discourse and yet they hope to address the peasant question in its entirety in the old way. Most communist revolutionaries and maoists, not to speak of official communists, do not see any feasibility in motivating peasants against multinationals. Even if they do, it is just issue-based local one having no long-term appeal. The issue of climate is intricately related to the peasant question, perhaps not yet in this part of the globe. So is ecology. But they have simply no idea as to how to mobilise peasants for a sustainable development on a permanent basis. It was somewhat easier to launch agitational propaganda against jotedars but things are not that easy-going to struggle against POSCO and broaden the concept of united front strategy. Eviction by jotedars is one thing, but eviction by government and industrial houses, both domestic and foreign, is quite another. Also, contact farming has just compounded the peasant problem further. Small peasants, middle peasants, land-lords, share-croppers, wage-labourers, village-gentry—maoists continue to derive comfort from their analysis of Indian peasant society with the Chinese blue-print prepared in a different historical epoch with a different approach to revolution.

Vol. 46, No. 48, Jun 8 - 14, 2014