In December 2019, the city of Delhi witnessed a novel protest led by Muslim women against the newly enacted legislation that revised the provisions under which Indian citizenship is granted. Indian Muslims were afraid that the new law would have adverse implications for their status in the Indian union. One of the most visible manifestations of the movement was a loud assertion of the Muslim claim to Indianness, their nationalism and their being rooted in Indian soil.

The major sites of the agitation were awash with images and signboards asserting this claim. Muslim children painted their cheeks with images of the Indian flag and every leader who spoke from the stage affirmed their unflinching patriotism.

However, it did not seem to make any difference to the ruling establishment and a section of the national media who continued to project the protestors as “illegitimate” Indians, often using popular stereotypes, to make them appear synonymous with Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A year later

A year later, Sikh farmers of Punjab have arrived on the border of the national capital in large numbers, protesting against another set of newly enacted legislations by the Central government, this time related to agriculture and its trade and commerce.

Though they were soon joined by farmers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Punjabi farmers continue to invoke and loudly use religious slogans, proudly invoking their Sikh identity and their warrior traditions to whip up enthusiasm among the participants from their state. They carry a variety of flags, representing the political orientations of their affiliating organisations.

However, they all seem to identify with Sikhism and speak in one voice: that they are here because they are farmers and they demand that new acts be repealed because they are against agriculture. Those who have joined them from other states similarly bring their own flags and they too have joined the Sikh protestors as farmers, making the same demand.

Protestors at the Singhu border. Credit: PTI

In the prevailing political ecosystem, the Punjabi farmers encountered a hostile national media, who tried to brand them as Khalistani separatists and anti-nationals. However, the narrative has not picked up and is unlikely to gain much traction. There are many reasons for this.

First and foremost is the very idea of nationalism and its foundational idioms that overlap with agriculture. Nationalism invokes and sacralises territory, the land. “Mother India” is not only the “sacred” map of India but is also made of its soil, toiled upon by its hardworking and cultivating farmers.

Remember the posters of the movie Mother India, made in 1957, with Nargis Dutt carrying a plough and sickle on her shoulder? How can you think of gau mata, the holy mother cow, without the image of a farmer crossing your mind at the same time? Nationalism everywhere has privileged its farming classes and it is hard to mobilise nationalist sentiment without referring to the land and its agriculture.

When populist leaders invoke the ideas of Bharat and counterpose it with India, they also claim the rural/agrarian as being the authentic nation. The urban, on the other hand, is viewed as elite, inauthentic, and exploitative of the former. The binary makes the rural appear morally superior over the urban.

Even countries of western Europe and the United States, where a very small proportion (less than 5%) of the working population work on the land, have to privilege agriculture in their national imaginations. Agriculture also gets large subsidies from the state, mainly because of its cultural status in the national imagination.

Military recruitment

Another critical aspect of the relationship of agriculture with nationalism is that of its being the recruitment base for the armed forces. A large proportion of those who join the military are from farming families almost everywhere in the world. This is true about India as well. In fact, a good number of soldiers in the Indian military come from the farming households of the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

This is so even in the popular imagination. Most Hindi movies showing India’s soldiers foreground a turbaned Sikh as a loyal and brave soldier, a leader who wins the war for the country. Even those in the paramilitary forces and the police have similar backgrounds.

Finally, in a country like India, the sphere of agriculture is much larger than its economic worth or the proportion of the working population it employs. In fact, over the past three decades, agriculture has seen a rather rapid decline in terms of its share in the national economy. During the post-1990s period when India’s growth rate saw a significant acceleration, led by the private corporate sector, the share of agriculture saw a rapid decline and has come down to around 15% of the national income.

The number of people employed full-time in agriculture also declined, even though at a much slower pace. However, if we were to add the number of people who continue to partly depend on agriculture, it adds up to nearly half of India’s working population, if not more.

A country like India also has substantial numbers of people employed outside agriculture, including a section of the upwardly mobile middle class, who continue to have an active relationship with the village, since their extended families maintain a rural base.

As anthropologists tell us, agriculture is not simply an economic enterprise: it is also a source of identity, in a very different way from other occupations, a way of life, which sticks to one’s memory over generations and actively reflects in popular songs and music. They remain a source of identification with one’s roots, even for those migrated to other countries a long time ago.

Farmers are the bearers of national cultures, almost everywhere. How can they be branded anti-national? They are the “authentic” nation.

Surinder S Jodhka is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.