Chapter One: Falling into Gujarat
My desire to delve into the life and times of Gujarat’s farmers had many of my friends quizzing me. Why Gujarat? Why peasant communities? I’ve tried to read the look on their faces, trying to second-guess their take on my pursuit as I have mumbled something incoherently. To be honest, while the interest in peasant communities was something that had been brewing for a while, I did not start out with Gujarat in mind. As I explored writings on Indian peasant communities, I realized how interesting Gujarat was. Gujarat became a simultaneous opening of several portals in my head — into the history of peasant nationalism, subaltern studies, the work of Gandhi, the life of Patel, contemporary politics, its complex social structures, histories of class formation, history of trade and enterprise and more. I was falling through wormholes marveling at how much was written about Gujarat and how deep the culture of writing among the people of Gujarat was. The thing about serendipity though is that it seems to travel in pairs. So close on the heels of stumbling into Gujarat through books and journals, I was granted access through a dear friend into the home of a family in Karjan, a taluka town that had come up along the Miyagam railway junction, somewhere between Bharuch and Baroda.
It was this experience of living among Gujarat’s farmers in Karjan that made me aware of several issues, many of which I was unaware of at the time. Karjan town had begun expanding beyond the old areas surrounding Juna-bazaar (old-market). Away from the railway station, closer to the Karjan exit on the highway were a set of new ‘societies’. Majority of these two-storied homes were occupied, some were under construction. These houses represented to me a shift in the mindset of farmers residing in Karjan. As I went on to discover, most of them had left their villages nearby and bought these ‘town houses.’ Some had homes in Baroda as well.
The marriage market was dictated by rules that seemed counter-intuitive, where the girl’s family deemed the groom’s land assets as inadequate for marriage and instead set the table stakes at employment in a recognized industry and a town house — in other words the basis of belonging to an urban class. Many farmers sat idle having rented out their farms, unwilling to either labor or risk further financial investments, still reeling from a series of crop failures. I spent most of my time with such groups of farmers and farm owners at a dhaba, located close to the highway’s intersection with Karjan’s Juna Bazaar Road. Its owner, a migrant from Saurashtra, had shut the dhaba. The newly built elevated highway had ended the dhaba’s prospects. Now all he served was tea, to the men who gathered — Rajput farm owners, absentee landlords, land brokers, Bharwar herdsmen / dairy owners, younger Bharwar heavy machine contractors, faculty members of Karjan’s high school and occasional audit clerks running audits at local dairies and cooperatives, among others. Mandee or recession was by popular local opinion, well into its second year. These people were confronted with the possibility of a second year of crop failures, accompanied by a stagnant land market amidst plummeting prices.
I had an interesting vantage point as an outsider in Karjan. The dhaba housed a circle of people who gathered regularly and could be loosely termed as an ‘open house’ of lords. The dhaba itself would house the senior members of the different influential groups from communities spread across Karajan and the surrounding villages. A small adjacent shack that sold cigarettes and paan, was left for the younger generation, to observe the goings-on between their patriarchs and develop their own inter-relationships.
The ‘open house’ was a blending together of local Rajput families, members of local educational institutions, as well as migrant traders, who had over time earned their place in the circle. At the time of my visit, they were engrossed in the Vyapam scandal in that had broken out in Madhya Pradesh. They all seemed to be of the view that the present ruling government both in Gandhinagar and New Delhi were decidedly pursuing anti-farmer / anti small-business policies. They were quick to point to the damaging consequences of Gujarat’s model of ‘mega development’. Three not so large transformer factories that had been operating in the area had to down shutters, following the establishment of a mega transformer factory, in the vicinity. The new mega factory had their skilled workforce brought in from China and offered very limited employment opportunities to the local populace.
They were also deeply critical of ‘reservations’ and how it denied their children a legitimate place in the starting ranks of new professional classes in India. The younger and more articulate members of the group stressed the ‘undeserving-ness’ of the ‘backward classes’ by highlighting the absence of a moral fabric that binds the so-called ‘higher classes’ to a path of righteousness.
Some of them claimed, mass production of graduates in medical and engineering, the market for college seats and the system of reservation that limits the number of jobs in the open market left them little choice but to send their sons abroad to Canada or Australia to study with the fervent hope that it eventually leads to a permanent residency. Somewhere in the near future loomed the specter of a Patel demand for reservation under OBC status. Violence was foretold, in a state that mythologizes its peace loving, crime free society. “Har state mein, aaj nahin hoga toh kal hogi! Aap paper mein toh padhtey hongey, yeh jo atankwadi group hain, is me educated varg ke log bhi chaley jaatey hain, kyon chalein jaatey hain?”(It’ll happen in every state today or tomorrow! You must have read it in the papers, how so many of these terrorists are from educated sections of society, why do they go there?) However implausible it may have seemed at that moment sitting in Karjan, the Patidar Amanat Andolon mobilized enough people to hold rallies the size that are normally reserved for eminent national leaders, soon after my return to Mumbai.
The conversations I was a part of in Karjan were across a diverse range of issues and subjects. From critiquing the education system, to questioning the impact of development, caste and reservations, anxieties about the future prospects of the next generation, masculine weakness vs. sexual freedom among women, there was very little that seemed out of bounds.
What I hope to share through posts that follow, are glimpses into life as I saw it unfold, voices that spoke from the past and the present and a strong underlying sense that for the people of Karjan and maybe for peasant communities around India, reality had shifted and they were still trying to decipher the adjustments that now had to be made.