Village republics, Andre Beteille

THE INDIAN intelligentsia has somewhat mixed attitudes towards the Indian village. While educated Indians are inclined to think or at least speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagers. The late Professor M. N. Srinivas, who sent me out to live in a Thanjavur village and to do fieldwork there, often pointed to this paradoxical feature of Indian life. He himself had started his fieldwork in a Mysore village by living in a cowshed to which he had been consigned by the peasant elders who felt that, being a Brahman, he would be defiled by living in their homes whereas in the cowshed his purity would remain intact. Srinivas wanted me to live in the village for a whole year so that I could learn from observation and experience that the idea of the harmonious village community was a myth.

This was a period of enthusiasm for Panchayati Raj and Community Development. Experts came from far and wide to give advice on these subjects. Srinivas heaped scorn on their research because he had found out that they went to the village by car and returned to their hotels by sundown. He believed that one could never learn about a village unless one ate and slept there, continuously for days, weeks and months at a time. I did all those things but from the modest comfort of a brick-and-tile house in the `agraharam’.

The enthusiasm for Panchayati Raj, Community Development, and what may be described as `villageism’ declined after the 1960s, but it did not die out. It has been revived with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment and the creation of a new type of panchayat in its wake. Many have come to believe that it is through these reconstituted panchayats that women, Dalits and other disadvantaged sections of society will come to take their rightful places in village India, if not in India as a whole.

Village councils in which women and Dalits have a central place will be a genuine institutional innovation and not a return to the institutions of the pre-colonial village. This must not be lost to sight in the enthusiasm for the village republics that are expected to give a new lease of life to democracy in India. It is not quite clear how far those who initiated the 73rd Constitutional Amendment were aware of the break they were seeking to introduce into India’s rural society. They appear to have genuinely believed that some kind of village democracy had been the norm in the past.

There is nothing unusual or novel in the city-bred person’s belief in the regenerative powers of the village. In a set of lectures delivered at Aligarh 30 years ago, the historian, Niharranjan Ray, drew attention to the urban Indian’s perennial nostalgia for the village. This nostalgia, he said, had been expressed since the 19th century in literary form in fiction and poetry and in political form in the slogan of `back to the villages’. He observed, “The curious aspect of the whole thing is that with but few exceptions these writers and poets and these nationalist leaders were all city-dwellers, not villagers themselves, nor were they ever thinking of trekking back to the villages to live there.”

The two most outstanding Indians of the period before Independence, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi were both actively interested in the village and in its reconstruction. Yet, as Ray pointed out, Tagore was born and brought up in the city of Calcutta. Gandhi’s family too was town based rather than village based. Neither of them had experienced at first hand the harsh realities of village life in either childhood or adolescence. They turned to the village in adult life after they had formed a view of the world in which the village stood for the core values of Indian civilisation.

Detailed and intensive research by sociologists, social anthropologists and others on the Indian village began almost immediately after Independence. Indeed, the 1950s and the 1960s may be described as the great age of village studies. These studies were made by both Indian and foreign scholars and there was genuine collaboration between them. Sociological research on the Indian village has lost some of its momentum, but it continues, and we now have restudies of villages first studied in the 1950s and 1960s. It will be safe to say that the research on the Indian village is fuller and deeper than on the village anywhere else in the world. Yet, legislators, policy makers, and activists appear to have paid very little heed to the results of this research.

The picture that we get of the Indian village from the researches conducted by sociologists and social anthropologists is very different from the village of the nationalist or literary imagination. The picture is by no means uniform, but division and hierarchy figure prominently almost everywhere. There is the division and hierarchy due to caste, but there are also deep divisions arising from inequalities in the ownership control and use of land; and men and women have different and unequal positions everywhere, including tribal villages which are relatively less hierarchical. Changes are no doubt taking place in the villages, but those changes have not led to the elimination of either division or inequality.

Village councils, no matter how they are reconstituted, will have to operate in a matrix pervaded by social divisions and social inequalities. Those divisions and inequalities cannot be conjured out of existence by an Act of Parliament, no matter how progressive, or by the zeal of social activists, no matter how deeply committed. If the Indian intelligentsia has a remarkable capacity for anything, it is the capacity for wishful thinking. It is this wishful thinking that leads them to believe that all will again be well with Indian democracy, once women and other disadvantaged members of society are made sarpanches throughout the land.

As against the benign views of the Indian village taken by Tagore and Gandhi. Dr. Ambedkar spoke about it bluntly and unsentimentally. He articulated a kind of experience that neither Tagore nor Gandhi could have possibly had in their formative years. He told the Constituent Assembly, “I hold that these villages republics have been the ruination of India,” and went on to ask, “What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” He wondered how those who were so strongly opposed to communalism, casteism and factionalism in the nation could be so blind to their presence in the village.

It is now more than 50 years since Dr. Ambedkar issued his warning in the Constituent Assembly against idealising the village community. Several institutional innovations have been attempted in the intervening years to make democracy more effective and meaningful, and several more will be attempted in the years to come. It will be imprudent to expect each successive innovation to accomplish what all previous ones have failed to do. It will be no less imprudent to write off every fresh experiment on the ground that where earlier ones have failed, later ones can never succeed. As the same time, it must not be forgotten that social and political experiments have unintended consequences, and there must be some assessment, in the light of past experience, not only of their anticipated benefits but also of their anticipated costs.

Social research conducted over a long period of time by independent institutions is invaluable in assessing long-terms trends of change. Such research must be insulated not only from bureaucratic interference but also from social advocacy. We do not as yet have reliable accounts, based on cumulative research, of how the new panchayats are working. Reports based on short-term and ad hoc studies sponsored by the advocates of the system cannot be a substitute for independent research. Social research and social advocacy need not be enemies of each other, but very often they are.

Andre Beteille
September 03, 2003
The Hindu


About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
This entry was posted in Andre Beteille, Democracy, M N Srinivas. Bookmark the permalink.

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