Subhadra Khaperde selling seeds at the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) Biannual Conclave in Udaipur, 2019 – photo © Rahul Banerjee

 

Agriculture is what gave rise to civilization and it is also what is going to end it!

Assured availability of food began with the Neolithic Revolution about 10 000 years ago. At the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the start of the current Holocene epoch about 12 000 years ago, the last Ice Age came to an end, and in today’s Middle East region, the climate became conducive to food production as opposed to food gathering (Bowles and Choi, 2019). However, it took two thousand years after that for settled agriculture to emerge, because communitarian agriculture was initially not more productive than communal hunting and gathering.

Agriculture requires considerable labour in soil and water conservation and manure preparation before its productivity rises above that of wild growth of cereals and pulses. Initially, there was not enough agreement within the community to put in this preparatory work together. So, humans preferred to continue with hunting and gathering or switched back to it after trying agriculture for some time (Willcox and Stordeur, 2012). There was the problem of some members of the collectivity free riding on the labour of others and consuming the food stored by the community without working as much. But as private property emerged and attained enough critical mass to be able to change social norms and gain acceptability, people began to invest in improving their lands, and the productivity of settled agriculture increased.

The human population at the time of the Neolithic Revolution, averaging various estimates, was about 5 million, rising slowly to about 820 million by the time of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in 1760 AD (OWiD, 2021). Through the decimation of forests and pastures and the creation of new farmland, agriculture and animal husbandry continued to spread over that entire period, to cater to the food needs of the expanding human population.

 

Colonization and industrialization: converting agriculture into industry

The colonization of the two Americas, Africa and Asia began from the 16th century onwards. This led to further farmland being cultivated and to the spread of some of the most popular foods across the world – corn, potatoes, chillies, tomatoes, peanuts, avocadoes, papayas, pineapple and cocoa. However, even though there was deforestation, the ecology was not harmed much, because large areas of forest and grasslands still remained intact and the agriculture practiced was one that ploughed back most of the agri-biomass into the farms, along with the animal manure.

Things changed with the Industrial Revolution as, slowly but surely, agriculture also began to be converted into industry. In European countries and later in the United States, mechanization and land consolidation pushed farmers and farm labourers out of agriculture, forcing them to seek employment as workers in various industries.

In terms of production materials, the most important input in agriculture is manure, given that productivity tends to fall without its continuous application. As more and more farmlands were brought under the plough, there were attempts from the early 19th century on to chemically synthesize fertilizers. Gypsum began to be used, even though nitrogenous fertilizers were not easy to synthesize. The breakthrough in this regard came in 1909 when German scientists Haber and Bosch succeeded in converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. Later, phosphatic and potassium fertilizers were synthesized as well. These processes also came in handy in producing bombs and ammunition.

 

War-oriented agricultural production

Immediately following these scientific advances, World War I broke out. Since European countries were involved in the war, it was the US that provided food to Europe. American farmers expanded their production to meet wartime goals, and price support was given for the production of wheat, and pork, and other staple commodities. Once the war was over, however, farmers were producing more food than was necessary. Then came the Great Depression. The demand for food collapsed, but agricultural productivity stayed the same. The US government increased support to American farmers through guaranteed prices, crop insurance, cheap loans and direct grants (Dubner, 2019).

This was followed by World War II in which once again the US became the supplier of food for Europe, and food surpluses were utilized. However, after the end of the Second World War, the US was again faced with the problem of redirecting its massive war-oriented industry and agricultural production. The solution involved making civilian cars, trucks, planes and cargo ships instead of armoured vehicles, and transforming manufacturing units for explosives into fertilizer and pesticide-producing units.

Obviously, so many cars, planes and ships, and so much fertilizer and pesticide could not be consumed by the US population alone. And so, the high-flying consumerist lifestyle of cars and jets and the heavy reliance on processed meat and cereals was propagated all over the world, and a market was created for these products. Cattle can eat a greater volume of cereals than human beings, so the people of the developed world were encouraged to eat the former, and the people of the poorer countries (along with their cattle) were fed the excess cereals resulting from increased use of fertilizers and pesticides.

A global economy was set in motion based on the sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” (Friedmann & McMichael, 1989). A significant development was the worldwide adoption of soybean at the behest of the US, which pushed its exports and cultivation through cheap aid to developing countries, so as to provide cheap feed for beef production and cheap edible oil for processing this food into ready-to-eat marketable forms. The local farm economy was decimated and the supermarket model became the norm, with food and agricultural inputs being produced, processed and marketed by huge agribusiness corporations.

 

An artificial agricultural system takes over

The corn surpluses were still very large, and so were converted into high-fructose corn syrup and used to make sweet food in large quantities. Aggressive marketing was then used to get people to increase the proportion of sugary foods in their diet. The American Sugar Association paid scientists to falsely publish papers saying that sugar consumption had no connection to heart disease (O’Connor, 2016). Later, when a British scientist named John Yudkin questioned this fraudulent research in the early 1970s and affirmed that sugar consumption and heart disease are connected, the sugar industry ruined his reputation (Leslie, 2016).

Thus, an artificial agricultural system that was highly productive and environmentally unsustainable was established worldwide. Backed by massive state subsidies, this system devastated local farming systems and leveraged cheap transport based on fossil fuels to move food around the world. A golden era of capitalist development ensued, booming on the production and sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” by multinational corporations in the 1950s and 1960s.

In a further twist to the subplot, the US used the food industry as a weapon in conjunction with its military might, in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The heavily subsidized US food industry was much more productive than the Soviet agriculture sector, which was starved of funds. Financing was primarily used by the Soviet Union to build its military might to counter the US (Dubner, op. cit.).

 

The beginning of the end

The party came to an end in the 1970s with a triple whammy delivered by nature. Firstly, biologist Rachel Carson sounded the initial warning cry in 1962 about the way in which chemicals, and especially pesticides, were causing immense environmental and health hazards, including the emergence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides (Carson, 2002).

Secondly, there was a drastic hike in the price of crude oil, as its natural scarcity in relation to demand and its non-renewable character became clear to the producer countries. This severely impacted industrial production, especially that of motorized vehicles, and led to price hikes in the transportation and movement of goods, which had been the basis of global trade and especially the trade in food.

Finally, emissions from the use of fossil fuels in all aspects of life resulted in greater and greater global warming, with grave consequences of climate change looming in the future. Matters were compounded by the fact that deforestation had increased by leaps and bounds. To cater to industrialization and the extension of agriculture, forests – the best carbon sinks – were heavily decimated.

Nature has a system of ensuring that the ecosystem stays balanced. This is why there are many mechanisms to ensure that various living species prey on each other. Human beings broke this system and, as a result, their population slowly began to increase at the expense of other species. Even so, a huge agrobiodiversity was maintained by traditional farming. This too was adversely affected by industrialized farming, as there was a precipitate decline in agro-biodiversity with the breeding of high-yielding varieties of only a few kinds of crops suitable to the global food economy. At the same time, the demand for food continued to increase due to the huge increase in population from about 1.3 billion in 1850 to 7.8 billion now.

The industrial answer was to produce more and more, with the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, while this met the needs for food for the burgeoning population, it did so by devastating the environment, poisoning food, and leading to many new diseases. Due to the excessive application of chemical fertilizers, micro-organisms in the soil have been decimated and soil health has been impoverished, resulting in decreasing yields. Most importantly, because this food system is controlled from farm to fork by multinational corporations whose sole aim is to maximize profits, even today, 811 million people are going hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished (Welthungerhilfe, 2021).

 

The solution has always existed

The important question currently is whether there is any alternative to this poisoning of our earth and food by chemical farming, which can provide enough food to the billions of humans in an ecologically sustainable and economically equitable manner. The main problem with regard to farming is the availability of manure. Since agricultural productivity will nosedive without it, this productivity has to be ensured for food security in the future.

Here is what the father of modern organic farming, Sir Albert Howard, has to say in this regard:

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can … be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to reserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease. (Howard, 1940)

This is a labour-intensive process, which requires the whole farming community in a local area to act together to maintain this ecologically sustainable and socio-economically equitable system. This is what traditionally had been done all over the world, as Howard goes on to say about farming in India: “What is happening today in the small fields of India … took place many centuries ago. The agricultural practices of the orient have passed the supreme test, they are as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie, or of the ocean.” (Howard, op. cit.)

Thus, if subsidies had been given to farmers rather than to chemical agriculture, to compensate them for the immense labour required to extend their natural farming system to all the land being brought under cultivation, we would have had a system that was communitarian, socio-economically equitable, agriculturally diverse and productive, and ecologically sustainable – instead of the present one, which will collapse the moment the huge subsidies being given to it are withdrawn. The 54 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and the 12 largest emerging economies together provided US $700 billion in subsidies to chemical agriculture in 2019 (Calder, 2020). As Howard said:

Improvements are possible but they are not economic… In India the cultivators are mostly in debt and the holdings are small. Any capital required for developments has to be borrowed. A large number of possible improvements are barred by the fact that the extra return is not large enough to pay the high interest on the capital involved and also to yield a profit to the cultivator. (Howard, op. cit.)

The vast majority of farmers in the world cultivate small plots of land on terrain that is unsuitable for flood irrigation, and they have traditionally been driven by the desire to produce for subsistence rather than for profit. They have over thousands of years developed a system of agriculture that makes the most of the locally available resources in terms of seeds, organic fertilizers, soil moisture and natural pest management. The clever use of rotation of a bewildering variety of crops ensured that, despite flood and drought, some part of the harvest was always saved. Famines have occurred not because of the failure of agriculture but because of socio-economic factors such as excessive levies by kings and colonial rulers, or usury and hoarding by moneylender traders (Patnaik, 1991). Indeed, excessive taxation and usury have severely constrained the development of agriculture all over the world, from ancient times.

The necessary way forward is to remove the obstacles in the path of development of this traditional agriculture, and strengthen it with further research, extensive land reforms, cheap institutionalized credit and market support. Consumers also have to be subsidized and educated about the need to consume locally-sourced and sustainably produced food, instead of the poisoned stuff served by multinational corporations in supermarkets.

 

Rahul Banerjee with a sling shot to ward off birds at Pandutalab – photo © Subhadra Khaperde

 

Studies have shown that the indigenous agricultural practices of India, which have been honed by farmers over the centuries, are as productive as the high-yielding seeds and artificial-input-based chemical agriculture (Richharia & Govindaswamy, 1990). But this productivity was not to be, because the US had devised a new model of industrial agriculture in which hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, big dam irrigation and machines were used to ramp up agricultural production with huge state subsidies. These subsidies eventually went to the corporations, which not only supplied these inputs but also owned most of the farms and traded in the outputs.

This meant that farm gate prices remained low, which forced the actual small farmers in the US to gradually sell out and become unemployed, and led to tremendous destitution (Wessel & Hantman, 1983). Moreover, the post-World War II urgency to sell the excess production of fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and trucks arising from the reorientation of production in plants from explosives and armoured vehicles necessitated the replication of the US agricultural system worldwide.

So, at the behest of the research foundations set up by US multinational corporations, and with financial support provided by the US government, the US agricultural pattern was promoted worldwide in the plains areas, leaving the upper watersheds literally high and dry.

Many pilot projects in opposition to the currently prevalent destructive chemical food system are taking place around the world, to make agriculture local, equitable and sustainable. Some are in the USA itself, such as those in the traditional farming-based Amish community. These experiments remain marginal, however, as management of the global food system, based largely on chemical agriculture, remains in the hands of multinational corporations and capitalist states, which are taking humanity to its doom!

This is of course unacceptable, and worldwide pressure must be brought to bear to compel states to stop subsidizing chemical agriculture and instead fund the gradual switch to organic agriculture. The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, recognizing that this is the only way in which the present ecocidal rush can be averted.

Ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture are two sides of the same coin and must go hand in hand. Since the farming population is negligible in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, the onus is on farmers in Third World countries to mobilize and bring about this crucial change in the way agriculture is being practiced. Fortunately, such mobilization has already begun and is gaining steam around the world.

 

More information on Subhadra Khaperde is available on the following websites: Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (Society for Respect for Women and Earth), Kansari Organics, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (Dhas Rural Development Centre), in an interview with World Pulse, and on her website. Details on Rahul Banerjee’s projects are available on his website and blog.

 

 

References:

Bowles, S and Choi, J (2019): “The Neolithic Agricultural Relations and Origins of Private Property, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 127, No. 5, October.

 

Calder, A (2020): Agricultural Subsidies: Everyone’s Doing It.
https://www.hinrichfoundation.com/research/article/protectionism/agricultural-subsidies/, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Carson, R (2002): Silent Spring, Mariner Books, New York.
Dubner, S J (2019): How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War.
https://gen.medium.com/how-the-supermarket-helped-america-win-the-cold-war-59c788def3eb, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Friedmann, H & McMichael, P (1989): “Agriculture and The State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present,” Sociologia Ruralis, Vol. 29 No. 2.

 

Howard, A (1940): An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, London.

 

Leslie, I (2016): The Sugar Conspiracy.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

O’Connor, A (2016): “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat, New York Times.
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html,  accessed on 22.10.2021

 

OWid (2021): Our World in Data.
https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-population-since-10000-bce-ourworldindata-series, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Patnaik, U (1991): “Food Availability and Famine,” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 19 No. 1.

 

Richharia, R H & Govindaswamy, S (1990): Rices of India, Academy of Development Science, Karjat.

 

Willcox, G and Stordeur, D (2012): “Large-scale Cereal Processing Before Domestication During the Tenth Millennium BC in Northern Syria,” Antiquity Volume 86 Issue 331, 22nd February.

 

Welthungerhilfe (2021): Hunger: Facts and Figures.
https://www.welthungerhilfe.org/hunger/, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Wessel, J & Hantman, M (1983): Trading the Future: Farm Exports and the Concentration of Economic Power in Our Food System, Institute for Food and Development Policy, San Francisco.

 

 

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
An Adivasi man using a mobile phone hung from a post. Mobile networks are scarce in the village of Khodamba as well as in many other villages here. The phones are essential to keep in touch with family members who have migrated to Gujarat for work.

 

[Editorial note: The Serai team approached Rahul Banerjee in India for an understanding of what has transpired at Bhima Koregaon recently and to provide some perspective of British colonial rule on the west coast of India. Most readers are perhaps unaware of this town in western India and its two-century long history, especially in relation to Adivasis (Indigenous Peoples)* and the Dalit (“untouchables”) movement against the caste system. However, Bhima Koregaon today has evolved into many other things. It has become a lightning rod for discussions in India on civil liberties, the confluence of the rights of Dalits and Indigenous Peoples and the use of preventative detention to control the civil liberties of journalists, writers, poets and others who are opposed to the policies of the present government in India, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Rahul was able to collect and translate short pieces in Hindi from Shankar Tadwal and Subhadra Khaperde and round them off with comments to create a whole piece in English.

* NOTE: The term Adivasis means original inhabitants or those who were there from the very beginning. There are certain nuances involved in the use of this terminology and in understanding the Dalit-Savarnas angle, which requires further consideration. The article goes a long way in explaining these nuances.]

 

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon and the Dalit Mahars 

The Battle of Bhima Koregaon was the last battle of the Third Anglo-Maratha war on January 1, 1818. The Peshwa of Pune who was on the run with his forces, hotly chased by the British, decided to attack Pune to try and ward off the inevitable defeat. When the advance Peshwa forces neared Pune and were to cross the river Bhima (which had almost run dry at Koregaon village), they met a reinforcement contingent called in by the British to meet the threat of the Peshwa. A battle ensued that was inconclusive because the Peshwa’s troops withdrew after learning of the approach of even greater British reinforcements. About 250 of the Peshwa’s troops were killed, and 50 of the British. Eventually the Peshwa’s forces were subdued and British rule was established in Western and Central India, where the Marathas had ruled earlier.

This battle, although inconsequential at the time, assumed importance later for an entirely different reason. The British erected an obelisk in Koregaon as a memorial for their soldiers who died in the battle. Their names included 22 who were from the Dalit Mahar caste, which was considered untouchable and lowest on the caste hierarchy by the upper-caste Hindus known as the Savarnas.[1] The British used to employ Dalits as soldiers in their armies across India, as part of their policy of subduing the Savarnas. This policy changed after the revolt of 1857 (often referred to as the First Indian War of Independence), as the British thereafter decided to rely on the traditional martial castes considered more reliable.

The Dalit Mahars were obviously opposed to this change, and petitioned the British to renew their recruitment, but to no avail. Then in 1927, a Mahar leader named Ambedkar visited the Koregaon monument and held a big mass meeting, commemorating the Dalit Mahars who had died in the battle as the first martyrs of the battle against the Savarnas. Drawing on the sordid history of the oppression of the Mahars by the Peshwa’s troops, a narrative was created that the battle – instead of being one between the British and the Peshwa – was an assertion of the Dalit Mahars against the Savaranas. Since that time, the Mahars and subsequently all of the Dalits have celebrated January 1st at Bhima Koregaon as a commemoration of the first rising of the Dalits against the Savarnas.


Tribal revolts against the British

While the Dalits, as outcastes of the Hindu social system, saw it to be beneficial to their cause to serve the British as their foot soldiers, the tribespeople who were outside the Hindu social system fought fiercely against the British. From the late eighteenth century in the early years of the British rule, up to the time of independence in 1947, the tribespeople in India rose up in revolt time and time again. In fact, the Bhil people of Khandesh and Nimar in central India fought a dour battle that far outlasted the revolt of 1857 and was only quelled in 1860.

Known as the Great Bhil Rebellion, this seriously jeopardized the north to south route from Agra to Mumbai, which passed through the Bhil homeland. The exploits of Birsa, who led the Munda tribe in revolt, and Sidhu Kanu, who led the Santhal tribe in the nineteenth century, are also legendary. The other large tribe in central India, the Gonds, continually troubled the British through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to the 1930s when the Gudem Rampa rebellion took place in Andhra Pradesh. Tribespeople in the northeast remained restive as well throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the Kuki rebellion from 1917 to 1919 viewed as the most serious military challenge to the British since 1857. The main cause of this tremendous opposition among the tribespeople was the encroachment of their forested habitats by the British for the purpose of generating revenue from them in various ways.

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
The mighty river Narmada across the denuded hills of Alirajpur

 

The Indian Forest Act and how colonization got legalized

A very harmful law was the Indian Forest Act in 1864. Applying the principle of res nullius, which means that a particular property has no owner if there is no documentary evidence of ownership, the British refused to recognize the customary community rights of the tribespeople over the forests in which they resided, and turned these lands over to the Forest Department created for this purpose. Yet another law that disinherited the Adivasis from their main resource of land was the Land Acquisition Act in 1894. Using the principle of eminent domain, this law empowered the government to dispossess any given private owner of a piece of land for some public purpose, in exchange for a paltry compensation.

Once the British overcame the resistance of the tribespeople, they unleashed the non-tribespeople of Hindu society as traders and farmers into the tribal areas to facilitate their exploitation. The Hindus treated the tribespeople like they treated the Dalits – with disdain and oppression. In many tribal areas in present day Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, this invasion by non-tribals led to a demographic change, and the tribespeople became minorities in those areas in which they had once been rulers. This combined with loss of their traditional nature-dependent livelihoods adversely affected the lives of the tribespeople. Their traditional nature-centric culture, too, was devastated.

Independence from British rule did not really improve matters for either the Dalits or the tribespeople as a whole. The new constitution did provide for affirmative action in the form of “reservations” in proportion to their population for the Dalits and tribespeople in law-making bodies and government institutions. This provided some access to power and opportunities to a small number of members from these communities. However, the Constituent Assembly that finalized the new constitution was not elected by universal adult suffrage, but was the same as the one formed by the British in 1946 with members from among the elite feudal, capitalist and professional classes, mostly owing allegiance to the former. Ninety-two percent of the members of the Constituent Assemblies were from the Savarna castes.

Thus, they authored a constitution that retained the colonial and anti-people character of the 1935 Government of India Act formulated by the British, greatly discounting the new liberal democratic features such as the provision of fundamental rights and the affirmative sections for the Dalits and tribes. Approximately 250 articles out of 395 in the constitution were taken either verbatim or with minor changes in phraseology from the 1935 Government of India Act, and the basic principles remained unchanged

The independent Indian government in fact continued the policy of the British of promising liberal natural justice on paper and suppressing it in practice, to pursue a policy of extraction of resources to fuel modern industrial development. The British, when introducing the first Government of India Act in 1858, had guaranteed to the people of India inter alia that due regard would be paid to the ancient rights, usages and customs of India when framing new laws, and that these laws would be administered equally and impartially for the benefit of the people.

Almost immediately, however, these principles were breached. The Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860 and the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1861. These laws, with some minor amendments only, are still in force today and have been codified in such a manner as to provide the administration with a handy means of suppressing organized public dissent. The Indian Forest Act, too, in its 1927 version that effectively converts the tribespeople into trespassers in their own backyard, continues to be in force to this day. The Land Acquisition Act was also retained and widely used to displace people in independent India, particularly the tribespeople, in the pursuit of modern industrial development.

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
Children playing near a tree still standing on their submerged farms in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir

 

The biggest drawback of all was that grassroots democracy through the establishment of local self-governance was negated. Therefore, although the local self-governance system of Panchayati Raj was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy, these principles were non-justiciable. This meant that, unlike fundamental rights, the traditional rights and conventions of self-administration could not be enforced through the courts. Basic rights, such as for free education, health and nutrition services and the means to a dignified livelihood, were also made non-judiciable. Thus, provisions that could have created a healthy, aware and articulate population and provided people with an institutional structure for implementing their development according to their own genius and so curtail the power of the ruling classes were ignored totally by the governments, both at the centre and in the states after independence.

This paved the way for the persistence of a form of internal colonialism and feudalism. Matters were compounded by the fact that fundamental rights were not easily assured either, given the tremendous expenses involved in approaching the high courts and the Supreme Court for redress. While the erstwhile princes, landlords and the capitalists often went to court to obstruct the path of justice for the poor, the latter, especially the Dalits and tribespeople, could hardly afford to do so and thus had to bear with the illegal actions of the ruling classes enacted directly or through the organs of the state.

This in effect meant that the checks and balances forming a basic part of a liberal democratic set-up were disturbed in favour of the executive, consisting of the council of ministers and the bureaucracy. The party system ensured that the council of ministers and its leader, the prime minister, would always be much more powerful than their fellow legislators. Moreover, the “first past the post” electoral system ensured that the Indian National Congress, despite garnering only around 40 percent of the votes cast, got more than 75 percent of the seats in the law-making bodies.

In the initial years after independence, this overwhelming majority of the Congress party and the charisma of its leader, Nehru, meant that the opposition was not very vocal or effective in monitoring the actions of the government. Parliament was reduced to being as ineffectual as a debating society. Moreover, preventive detention laws were enacted to silence the protests of people’s organizations and their leaders outside parliament, and thousands of such people were jailed. To make matters worse, the press was not so combative or investigative and did not have much of a reach, given the high level of illiteracy.

Thus the government and the bureaucracy rode roughshod over democratic niceties to push through a process of modernization at the cost of the ordinary people, by using colonial repressive laws and by flouting the progressive aspects of the constitution. The bureaucracy, which continued in its colonial mindset, was a power unto itself, as it not only framed all the laws but also interpreted and administered them to the detriment of an illiterate and unaware populace. The Dalits and tribespeople, situated as they were at the bottom of Indian society, suffered the most from this oppressive and repressive dispensation.

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
Women selling sweet potatoes grown on their farms at the haat (weekly market) in Valpur village in Alirajpur. The Adivasis sell a considerable amount of local produce in these haats, including jowar, bajra, maize, sesame, groundnut, onions and potatoes. They also buy some of their household and farm items here, such as salt, sugar, cooking oil, soap, ploughs and axes.

 

Why did this happen?

It was because of Brahminism. This has been defined by the Dalits as the ideology of caste oppression codified by the Hindu Brahmin law-giver, Manu. It has been foisted by the minority 7% elite of Savarna castes on the rest of the toiling castes who identify themselves as Bahujans, including the so-called “other backward classes” (OBCs), Dalits, and tribespeople, who together constitute 75 percent of the population. The Muslims constitute 16 percent of the population, and the followers of other religions comprise the remaining 2 percent; they too, except for a few elites among them, suffer from the adverse effects of Brahminism, which has been internalized by them.

Consequently, the history of India since independence has been one of constant mass mobilization by the Bahujans against Brahminism and oppression by the Savarnas.

The acceptance by the Government of the Mandal Commission Report in 1990 brought about a major new counterthrust from the Savarnas, now solidified in a rule by an openly Brahminical party.  The so-called “Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission” headed by B P Mandal was constituted by the Government to consider whether affirmative reservations could be extended to OBCs. It had recommended in its report published in 1980 that, in addition to the Dalits and tribespeople, the “other backward classes” should also be provided reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. The government of the then Prime Minister V P Singh implemented the Mandal Commission Report, immediately arousing a huge mass backlash from the Savarnas, who resorted to arson and violence on the streets.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized this opportunity to begin its mass mobilization for the construction of the Ram Temple (at the site of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya) as a stepping stone to the establishment of a majoritarian Hindu state, which has for long been the aim of its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).  A long march across the country was launched by the BJP under the leadership of its leader L K Advani, which ultimately led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, by a mob assembled by the BJP. The BJP has bolstered its strength since then by uniting a section of the OBCs and Dalits with the Savarnas and co-opting the former into the Brahminical project of creating a Hindu majoritarian state. As was the case with the Congress earlier, the national and international capitalist class and the media are solidly behind the BJP.

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
The Adivasis save the seeds from the current crop in sacks on a tree. They use the seeds for sowing the following year and usually don’t buy any from the market.

 

Right from the time of independence, there has been considerable discontent and unrest among the popular masses, especially the Dalits and tribespeople, protesting their oppression and the devastation of their livelihoods. From the late 1960s, in tandem with protests elsewhere in the world, student unrest also added to these protests, which became more widespread. Most of this discontent has been expressed through mass protests on the streets and through the formation of political parties by oppressed sections of the population, to try and get power through the ballot. However, there have also been armed insurrectionary movements to either overthrow the capitalist state or secede from it. The former armed movements are in the tribal heartland in Central India; the latter are in the tribal areas of the northeast, which of course date from the time of independence itself. There is also the armed movement of the Kashmiris for independence.

To counter these armed movements, the Indian state has at times enacted draconian laws that violate the principles of human rights and civil liberties. The legitimacy for these draconian laws is derived from resolutions passed from time to time by the United Nations Security Council, for the suppression of terrorism. Currently, the most draconian one frequently used is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act,[2] which was initially enacted in 1967 but has been amended since – in 2004, 2008, 2013 and most recently 2019 – making it one of the most violative of the United Nations Universal Charter of Human Rights.

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
An Adivasi farmer in Attha standing amidst his resplendent crop of bajra. The productivity of the kharif crop here, grown only using cattle manure, is quite high. But the landholding is so small that the total produce is not enough to feed everyone in the village.

 

Back to Bhima Koregaon

The bicentenary of the Bhima Koregaon battle fell on January 1, 2018. Dalits from all over the country congregated in huge numbers, and some two hundred thousand people attended the commemoration ceremony at Bhima Koregaon. When returning from the event, the Dalits were set upon with stones by members of two Hindu majoritarian organizations, leading to the death of one Dalit youth and injuries to others. There were massive protests by Dalits after this in various cities of Maharashtra, which was then ruled by a BJP Government.

Afterwards the police began an investigation into this violence, and instead of indicting the Hindu majoritarian organizations and their leaders who had done the stone pelting, they came up with another story altogether. They said that the underground organizations conducting the armed movements against the state in the central Indian region had conspired to cause the violence and claimed that this was part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate the Prime Minister of the country, who was heading the BJP Government at the Centre.

Subsequently, on the basis of emails found by the police, many people have been implicated under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act as supporters of the organization engaged in armed movements in the tribal regions of Central India who were providing them with legal and communication support. The police have clamped them into prison alongside thousands of others, most of whom are tribespeople who have been accused of conducting armed movements from the central Indian and northeastern regions.

Thus, Brahminism, which has been ascendant in India from ancient times, was not only instrumental in the oppression of Dalits and tribespeople in British times – it has continued to rule this country after independence and is now openly dominating it through a Hindu majoritarian party whose goal is to establish a Hindu State. However, the mass organizations of the Dalits and tribespeople across the country are fighting this diabolical plan of the BJP and the RSS with all their might, and have not been subdued by the use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and other draconian laws designed to crush them.

 

Photo and caption from The Bhils of Alirajpur, with kind permission from Rahul Banerjee and Rohit Jain
The women of Attha village are working together to repair a farm bund made of stones. The Bhils pool labour – they work on each other’s farms to save on monetary wages. This custom is called “dhas.”

 

[1] Savarnas: The Hindu caste system in India evolved from the second millennium before the Christian era. A few Savarnas involved in religious, intellectual, military and trading pursuits began relegating the vast majority of the population, known as Shudras, to do the physical work as farmers and artisans. Some of them were labelled outcastes, relegated to do the menial work of skinning animals and cleaning toilets. The Adivasis were driven out of the plains and continued with their subsistence lives in the forested hilly areas outside the Hindu caste system.

[2] The main provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act are as follows:

  1. 1. Organizations and Individuals can be notified as unlawful and terrorist and their names put in a schedule, and any persons associated with them are culpable. Even corresponding with them is an offence. If the names of persons are mentioned in the correspondence of these organizations and individuals, then they too become culpable.
  2. Apart from such activities as counterfeiting, bombing, murdering, etc., which are patently terrorist acts, even rioting and “inciting and spreading violence, enmity and religious disharmony” are considered to be unlawful activities.
  3. Anticipatory bail is not available to the accused.
  4. The quality of evidence required to incriminate people is not required to be of a high standard, even though it may not stand scrutiny during trial. Such evidence is considered prima facie to be sufficient to arrest people and deny them bail.