India lives in its village. It was Mahatma Gandhi who popularised this image of India. Most of his contemporaries agreed with him.

Even BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, who disagreed with Gandhi on the social composition of the village and the path that India ought to choose for its economic development, accepted nearly completely the underlying demographic claim made in this statement. This was despite the fact that a great many Indians had, in fact, lived in urban settlements, almost forever.

At the time of India’s Independence, urban Indians made for nearly 15% of the population, or approximately 60 million people. However, in popular nationalist common-sense, city dwellers did not represent the “real” India. For Gandhi, urban residents were not only a demographic minority but were also “inauthentic” Indians. Villages were where the soul of India lived.

Gandhi also went much further than this. He also founded his theory of India’s colonisation and its freedom around the idea of a village. Cities, for him, accompanied western civilisational influence and thus was a symbol and signifier of colonisation, both of mind and space. In his view, therefore, cities symbolised moral corruption. India’s true independence could only be through the recovery of its “lost” self, the village.

Gandhi was obviously being ideological in his celebration of the village life. He would certainly have known that cities had been a part of Indian life even much before the British landed on the western coast. He was himself not born in a village and his family had perhaps always been urban. So was the case with Nehru.

However, there were serious problems with Gandhi’s advocacy of the idea of “village as India”. As Ambedkar had pointed out, his conception of the village as a cohesive, harmonious community had been borrowed from the British colonial administrator, Charles Metcalfe. For the colonial rulers, India was a land of “village republics”, small, isolated and independent of outside influence. According to them, the Indian villages had seen no change or dynamism for centuries in their internal social and economic organisation.

As American anthropologist and scholar of British colonialism Bernard Cohn had famously argued, this notion of India had been very useful for the British rulers. It helped legitimise their colonisation of India. They were here to help us because, in order to change, we needed an external agency.

Rural-urban binary

As the colonial and the earlier orientalist constructs had told the world, Indians, stuck in their tiny villages, were incapable of changing on their own and moving on the path of progress. Rationality-driven Europeans, with their scientific temper and knowledge of technology, could help village India move out of its eternal old and stagnant economic order.

Gandhi’s advocacy of the village-city binary also overlapped with the acceptance of the tradition-modern binary, which was being proposed and propagated as a western hegemonic narrative around the same time. In his attempt to celebrate the rural, Gandhi inadvertently reinforced the colonial view that those who lived in the village were bound to their past traditions, incapable of thinking rationally and instrumentally. They were simple people, always driven by community culture and old moral codes.

Gandhi’s view of the village being the site of “authentic” India was not only empirically untrue. It was also politically tenuous. It undermined the reality of caste, which had always divided the village. There could never have been a sense of community that included those on the village periphery – the untouchables. Dalits not only experienced untouchability in the village, but they were also materially deprived and excluded from the economic life of the village.

More importantly, such a binary construct of the “rural” as simple and “urban” as rational and scientific also naturalised the hegemony of the new native-nationalist elite over the rural. The rural had thus to be developed by the state and it was only the urban elite who could understand what was good for the village. The very idea of development infantilised the villager.

Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj has long been forgotten but the simplistic binary of the rural and urban that he popularised has become part of our common sense. This is very evident once again in the manner in which the current mobilisations of the Indian farmers are being viewed by the ruling establishment and a large section of the urban elite, including the mainstream electronic media.

Farmers marching to New Delhi to protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms. Photo credit: Money Sharma/AFP

Prejudice against farmers

When the farmers came out to protest and pointed to how the new agricultural laws enacted by the National Democratic Alliance government would hurt their interests, they were firmly and repeatedly told that these legislations are, in fact, good for them.

Even when the farmer organisations were called for discussions by the Central government, they were given presentations by government officials as a way to explain the various clauses and to emphasise that they had not actually understood the new laws.

A senior minister even suggested that the ministry concerned and its officials, who were engaging with farmers, ought to prepare better-quality PowerPoint presentations, in simple and clear language, to remove the farmers’ doubts about the new laws.

Some mainstream television channels repeated this narrative, through their reporting and their discussions, with “experts”. They invariable tended to accuse the “leaders” of farmers of collaborating with opposition politicians to fool the “bhole-bhale kisan” (innocent farmers).

Even some well-meaning experts have described the ongoing farmers’ movement as a peasant uprising. The protesting farmers are not subsistence-oriented peasants. They are enterprising cultivator, who use a wide range of farm inputs and produce primarily for the market. They have been doing this for decades. Beyond farms, they are also integrated with the larger economic, social and political life of the nation and the world.

Their organisations are named “unions” because they function like the trade unions of urban/ factory workers, as interest groups, meant to bargain with relevant “others” on their behalf. Today, an average farmer of Andhra Pradesh, Punjab or Madhya Pradesh is likely to be as educated, if not more, as an average trader of Gujarat. However, the old rural-urban binary continues to dog a large section of the urban elite and hinders their capacity to make sense of the farmers’ assertions.

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