“Quarantining Indian Villages”

Remembering Ravindra Sharma (Guruji) of Adilabad

Patlolla Niroop

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time when the world is hovering under a pandemic virus, to recollect the sage conversations with Late Ravindra Sharma, endearingly called “Guruji”, who was an artist by profession (with qualifications in Fine Arts from JNTU as well as the Baroda University of Fine Arts), but otherwise an ethno-socio anthropologist in every sense of the term.

A word more about Guruji before one moves on to the lessons that emanated from him and of great relevance at this point of time when the nation is combatting coronavirus by dividing the urban and rural areas into segments, so as to deal with the fast-spreading virus by way of protection and also by tracking the source of the spread, and finally resulting in the testing and treatment of the disease itself, with the limited wherewithal and resources at our disposal.

Late Ravindra Sharma (Guruji) was born in Adilabad in a family that had migrated from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, as his paternal grandfather was involved in the contract for laying of the railway line in the Chandrapur, Adilabad region, around the time of the frightful partition of India in 1947-48, a catastrophe which resulted in a mass exodus from either side of the border.

These unforeseen events compelled Guruji’s family to settle down in Adilabad itself. This was a great gain to the region, as Guruji understood the area better than even the local people with perhaps the exception of the legendary Austrian anthropologist Christopher Von Haimondorf, who came to study the Gonds at the invitation of the Nizam of Hyderabad, after an armed rebellion by this valiant tribe under the leadership of Kumarum Bheem.

The other exceptions could also be the well-known bureaucrat Sethu Madhavrao, or the tribal officer Chinna Veerabadhrudu, The Hindu correspondent Harpal Singh, Summanaspati Reddy of All India Radio, or for that matter, Late N. Sadashiva who have all written extensively on Adilabad with an empathetic understanding of this predominantly tribal dominated area.

The insights of Guruji are worth recollecting at this point in time, especially when they have a great bearing on the present crisis emanating out of the spread of the pandemic disease and also 29th April happens to be his second death anniversary having passed away on this date in 2018.

Late Ravindra Sharma had a ‘perception’ which he developed assiduously, by keen observation without any prejudicial or preconditioned thinking and as a result of which the observed yielded to the keen observer, in all its complexities and dimensions, which would normally miss the untrained eye, which took the surrounding for granted, thus, missing the reality and the beauty of it. Guruji was truly endowed with what the Vedic sears called the ‘Pashyanti Drishti’ or ‘the seeing eye’. Coming to the brass-tacks, what are his insights and perceptions which could be mentioned as of great relevance at the present juncture? They can be summarized as follows-

1. The present crisis is akin to what Guruji used to refer to frequently as the ‘Mahapralaya’. That is the total dissolution of creation itself after an aeon or ‘Kalpa’. So, he always warned us to collect all the essential ideas on various aspects of Indian life in a seed form, so that they could be replanted once the deluge subsides.

What he meant by ‘Pralaya’ or dissolution was the sweep of Western globalization with its idea of development, growth, science, and material prosperity which would sweep the Indian culture and its traditional knowledge systems off the ground and before that happens, he was always in a tearing hurry to collate the essential aspects of the indigenous knowledge system for posterity to work upon. For this, upon his completion of education in Fine Arts, he spurned a scholarship to work on folk arts in Paris, France, and instead returned to Adilabad, and for 20-30 years did not travel beyond the radius of 20-30 kilometers. In the process, he collected the artifacts of the artists and artisans and studied deeply their ways of life of various jatis or communities, and made note of their indigenous knowledge and exhibited the same at Kala Ashram, Adilabad. It is pertinent to mention that the British-endowed educational system in India has no access to this traditional knowledge systems as demonstrated by Sri Dharampal ji, an ardent follower of Gandhi ji in the post-Independent era when he had few serious takers in the Government or society.

2. It was Guruji’s firm belief that the idea of ‘a village’ was a product of Indian genius.
(For the time being, one should keep the romantic notions of a village as portrayed by Mahatma Gandhi or for that matter the critical view of it by B.R. Ambedkar, in abeyance while considering the insight and perception of Late Ravindra Sharma.)

When conceiving this idea of an Indian village, thousands of years ago, what inspired the conception was the marvelous organization of the human body. That is to say, a village was conceived to be akin to the human organism. In a human body one finds everything related to everything else. Is it not a marvel that five uneven fingers make for eating food? Nevertheless, the clue to this one gets in the names used to refer to an Indian village in the regional languages, especially in the context of Sanskrit, the lingua franca of India. A village is called ‘pind’ in Pakistan, it is called ‘dehat’ or ‘gaon’ in North India, while words such as ‘ooru’ and ‘gram’ which are in vogue in South India, and all of which mean ‘the village’. To sum up, it was nature or Prakriti that inspired the concept of a village in India.

3. Guruji gave a lot of importance to the accounts of foreign travellers on the conditions they saw in the Indian subcontinent at the time of their visit. However, I don’t think he was aware of the impressions of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French Scholar-Minister, who did not visit India but spoke highly of the potential of Indian villages, in becoming units of democratic self-governance at the village/community level. Tocqueville’s views find mention in a book titled Customs, Institutions and Ceremonies of India, by Abbe Dubois (published in 1825). But otherwise, he’s globally known for his magnum opus on the study on democracy in America in several volumes. In fact, he had warned of the dangers of democracy turning into statism, and as regards India, he felt local democracies could be a good antidote to national statism. But he, nevertheless, foresaw the existence of caste-based communities across the subcontinent as a major hindrance to the growth of nationalism. It is no wonder that the concept of nation-state never took strong roots until the British colonial era came to an end. To sum up, Tocqueville did look at India’s villages or little republics across the country (in fact 5 lakh villages) as potential units of self-governance and also as an antidote to the growth of national statism.

4. Coming back to the utilization of Indian villages as basic units for preventing and tackling the global pandemic virus, when it does find entry into rural areas, is a proposition that is being advanced in this essay, in the light of the precious insights of Guruji.

5. After the dawn of Independence in India from the British and the coming into force of the Constitution, Article 40 as a Directive Principle of State Policy, held out a solemn promise to organize village panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority, so as to enable them to function as units of self-government.

6. As a follow up to this Constitutional goal, though not justiciable, the recommendations of the Balwant Rai Mehta Report was implemented with the establishment of a three-tier system of local government at the village, district with an intermediate institution in between, so as to complete the three level local administration. This was subsequently, following the Ashok Mehta Report, the subject of Panchayats was inserted in the Constitution by the 73rd Amendment as Article 243 with Schedule XI listing out the subjects to be transferred to the Gram Panchayats or the Gram Sabhas, as the case may be.

7. Even after the introduction of the 73rd Amendment in 1992, one finds even today to ones utter dismay that most of the State governments in India, have not yet empowered their respective State Finance Commissions, to distribute the financial resources between the State and the Village Panchayats, with the exception of the State Governments of West Bengal, Karnataka, and Kerala. In fact, the subject of local government under the constitution finds mention in the State List at Item 5 and hence the implementation of this grand scheme of decentralized local self-government is a non-starter, unless the State Governments decide to devolve power upon the village units.

8. A corrective to this may be, to bring the subject under the concurrent list so that the Central Government could give directives for the implementation of the Constitutional scheme of empowering the Village Panchayats as basic units of self-governance.

9. In case the word village is an anathema to social scientists who envisage an egalitarian society in rural India, they could adopt any other word such as village community or village ecosystem or whatever other name. The fact remains that Village Panchayats have existed through centuries culturally and after 1950 legally under the Constitution as well as the State Laws.

10. Without dilating further on various other aspects of Guruji’s insights and perceptions of Indian way of life as seen in its villages, the emphasis of this article is upon the existing framework of Village Panchayats, as not only units of self governance, but as an integral part of a mechanism, to combat the pandemic virus at the village level. In fact, Item 23 of Schedule XI (under Article 243 G) of the Constitution deals with health and sanitation, including hospitals, Primary Health Centres, and dispensaries, while Item 24 deals with family welfare, and Item 25 deals with women and child development. At least these subjects could be transferred to the Village Panchayats with adequate funds to support the same to quarantine Indian villages to protect them from the spreading virus. One other subject, that is agriculture including agricultural extension, at Item 1 of Schedule XI could also be transferred so as to provide food security, at a time when the market has determined the crops grown towards commercial crops, away from everyday food requirements, thus creating a food shortage. The villages are capable of being self-sufficient in their food requirements if it is left to them to decide as to what crops they would grow to meet the requirements of the village as well as the local market.

11. In this context, it is pertinent to mention that apart from the four Items mentioned, there are 25 other subjects in Schedule XI pertaining to land improvement, land reforms, land consolidation and soil conservation, minor irrigation, water management, animal husbandry, social forestry, small scale industries, roads, rural electrification, education, cultural activities, markers and fairs, public distribution system, welfare of SC/STs and maintenance of community assets, all of which are waiting transference to the Village Panchayats with adequate financial backup by the State Finance Commission.

12. Once the framework of Village Panchayats as envisaged in the Constitution as well as inherited culturally from the past is in place, the other ideas of Guruji with regard to the change of social mindset, the promotion of folk arts, the livelihoods of artisans could be discussed and implemented by the Village Panchayats. This ideal is not a far cry as we have standing examples in Anna Hazare’s Ralegaon Siddhi, Popatlal Pawar’s Hiware Bazaar, or the Gond village of Kera Merri in the state of Maharashtra.

13. To end the article, one is reminded of Guruji’s saying that in a crisis it is the Vaid (medical doctor), Vigyanik (scientist), and the Darshnik (philosopher) whose words are heeded to. One finds that even from the present crisis it is only a change of mindset and a philosophy of well-being (yoga-kshema) and sustainable development that can take India’s villages and the nation forward. Late Ravindra Sharma looked upon every Indian village as a repository of traditional knowledge and skill and hence called it a Gram Gyanpith quite distinct from other educational institutions or Vidyapith.

P. Niroop, Advocate, Supreme Court of India, New Delhi

Back to Home Page

May 6, 2020

Patlolla Niroop 

Your Comment if any