Life for peasants in India has always been challenging, but the developments of the last three decades, particularly the post-liberalization era, has created an existential problem for those peasant families who are solely dependent on agriculture. The Indian villages are going through a colossal change due to the impact of a constitutional decentralization mechanism (Panchayati Raj System), increasing educational level in the villages and the rise of technology driven life. The book under review presents a comprehensive anthropological study of the changing life of a village, Khanpur of Western Uttar Pradesh.
Different castes and communities constitute the site of the ethnographical study of Khanpur village. The total geographical area (including agricultural land, pastures, useless land and land of habitation) was nine hundred acres in 2015. Gujjars and Yadavs are the dominant castes of this village, their proportion in the village is nineteen percent, but they own almost 50 percent land of the village. The other thirteen castes constitute 81 percent population of this village and they have ownership over the other 50 percent agricultural land of the village (p. 4).
The book challenges the traditional colonial understanding regarding the dichotomy between urban and rural life. The author, Satendra Kumar, makes an earnest attempt to go beyond the long-established understanding regarding the difference between rural and urban areas. According to this understanding, village represents tradition and city is the expression of modern dreams and eventually all rural areas will be vanquished. However, he emphasizes that we witness a different kind of development in Indian rural areas, where traditional norms related to social life, food culture, festivals, family values and aspirations etc., are rapidly changing but they are not following the urban trajectory. The new features are not fully clear but it is neither a conventional rural set up nor carrying every feature of urban life.
Agriculture is facing a kind of stagnation in Khanpur village and most of the families have realized that dependence on agriculture only is not sufficient to fulfill their needs. The author underlines that in the last three decades, three crucial changes occurred in the agriculture of Western UP: first there has been decline in the production rate; second, different forms of non-agricultural activities have been extended in the village; and third, peasants and workers are now more dependent on urban areas for their daily needs (p. xvii). The dependence on urban areas has led to changes in the food habits and life style of the villagers, which, apart from other things, has resulted in the increase of accumulation of plastic garbage in the village.
The author presents a very grim picture of the practices of electoral democracy at the village level in Panchayati Raj elections. The candidates are using all kinds of unethical means to win elections. Indeed, one can find a clear competition between all candidates to use different means to attract and lure voters. If one candidate was providing good food and sweets to the voters, the other was trying to attract them through non-vegetarian food, and first through alcohol prepared at the local level and later with refined alcohol (Videshi Sharab). The most tragic thing was that rather than using grass-root issues for election campaigns, the local leaders also tried to mobilize lower castes and Dalits on the basis of ‘Islam-phobia’, and they succeeded in their attempt too. Perhaps the only positive thing about this whole democratic exercise was the participation of all those groups in village politics, which were earlier not active due to their marginalized socio-economic condition. Indeed, the author asserts that, ‘It is obvious from the study of Khanpur village that despite the influence of caste and economic inequalities, democracy has flourished. And Dalits, Backwards and women have secured a place for themselves in the power structure of the village and the region’ (p. 123). However, at least women representatives have not been able to develop their autonomous stature and they are largely dependent on their husbands or sons.
The situation of education has changed over the decades in the village and most of the villagers have realized the value of good education, particularly ‘English medium’ education. Satendra Kumar has underlined that many ‘English Medium’ private schools have been established in the village and its vicinity. Parents from all castes and groups want to give their children proper education, so that they could get respectable government jobs, which is the most attractive thing for all youngsters and their parents. However, in most of the castes and families, girls are still facing problems in getting an equal chance of education vis-à-vis the boys of their families. Undoubtedly there is no comparison of English medium schools of the villages and the urban private school system. Indeed, most of the village students are compelled to get low standard education and it seems that education is very low on the priority chart of the government. Satendra Kumar emphasizes that in Uttar Pradesh one can find the existence of an ‘Exam Mafia’, which has created a systematic structure of ‘cheating’ in examinations. Very few young men have been able to get jobs after much struggle and by and large in the mid-30s of their life. The one obvious reason for this situation is the limited number of government jobs and another crucial point is that due to the absence of a proper education system, most of the students are not able to compete with those students who received comparatively better education from the urban areas.
In the post-liberalization era the use of media technology has increased in India, and particularly the telecom revolution has provided phones to almost all families. In many families, most adult members have their own cell phones. The mobile phone is really useful for those persons who are doing small businesses in the villages. Now they can easily connect to their customers or order for supply to the wholesale dealer from the nearby urban area. The new technological changes, particularly the increase in the use of smart phones and the internet have also created a new space for self expression for the young people of the village, including women. Sometimes this technology has also created some problems between different castes and communities because it gave an opportunity to the youth of these communities to develop romantic relations with the boys/girls of other communities, which resulted in strife between different communities.
The author has also discussed extensively the emergence of a new kind of ‘religiosity’ in the form of different rituals. There has been a decline in the rituals and festivals related to agricultural works but a sharp increase in the family and caste based religious life in these areas. In this context he has particularly discussed the Kawand Yatras. The different expressions of new religiosity reflect bahujan religiosity and they have also presented a fertile ground for Right-Wing politics. The new religious expressions are a mixture of ‘religiosity, individualism, consumerism and entertainment’ (p. xx-x). In most of the cases it has made religious expressions more aggressive.
Though this book presents its argument very eloquently and captures many crucial aspects of the changing realities of rural India in the post-liberalization era, the book has some limitations. First, methodologically, the canvas of the book is limited and does not represent the realities of different categories of villages of India. For example, the realities of tribal dominated villages are entirely different from the village studied in the book. The author should have done some comparative study of another village of some other context to present a more comprehensive picture. Second, it seems as though the author feels that he is the first person who is arguing that the traditional understanding and desire regarding the changes in villages have been proved wrong. There are different authors who have been arguing along these lines and there are many important works, which have studied the changing realities of villages in recent years. The author has not mentioned any such work in his book. It would have been useful if he had presented a comparative study with the writings of other sociologists and underlined the uniqueness of his arguments. Third, though he claims to cover all crucial changes in the village life, there is no mention of laws like MNREGA or other ‘progressive’ laws and their impact on the lives of villagers. Many commentators and researchers have argued that the MNREGA has played a crucial role in making the landless and marginalized sections autonomous from dependence on the landed class in the village. Fourth, the author has not presented a systematic study of the impact of technology vis-à-vis the use of different social media sites. For example, it should be probed as to how the different sites of social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube etc., have played a crucial role in the spread of information/misinformation in the village.
There is, however, no doubt that this book is an important contribution to the study of an Indian village. The language of the book is lucid and the narration captures and presents the many minute aspects of different changes in villages without heavy academic jargon.
Kamal Nayan Choubey teaches Political Science at Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi, Delhi.