In 1997, the 50th year of India's independence, many commemorative volumes flooded the market. Most of these books were potted histories of the past decades and many were synoptic primers for the American and British mass market. Written from distant First World metropoli, the more serious of these writings dealt with the grand enterprise of nation-building and such concerns as the development and state of liberal democracy in India or its place in the larger commity of nations. Siddharth Dube on the other hand turned his gaze in a different direction.
Baffled by the ubiquitous poverty in India the author sought to figure out why fifty years after Independence so many endure so much deprivation. But instead of recourse to an over-arching academic analysis of the political economy, Dube examines this question through the history of one family. Thus Words Like Freedom is the compelling memoir of a poor family in Baba ka Gaon, located in Pratapgarh district in the heart of the Gangetic plain of Uttar Pradesh. Convinced "that the poor or illiterate understand their circumstances very well and that `outsiders' - however empathetic or skilled in research methods - can never comprehend realities radically different from their own", the author chronicles three generations of a poor family.
The spoken narrative of Ram Dass and his wife Prayaga Devi, their son Shrinath and his son Hansraj forms the core of this book. Their poignant story is embedded into bold swathes of a sometimes simplified narrative of national history. Enhanced by the crisp texture of Dube's writing, the book makes for an engaging, if depressing read. That Dube knows the craft of good solid story-telling with a keen eye for detail is evident in the introductory chapter itself where he deftly lays out the geography of the village and zooms in on the house of Ram Dass. Interspersed into this description is a quick introduction to the familiar litany of rural India's problems. Later he also moves seamlessly from discussing the appearance and malnourishment of children in Shrinath's school to describing Uttar Pradesh and in turn India's colossal failure to educate its poor. It's this widening of the perspective that drives home the inextricable linkages between the local fate of people and the larger context of economic changes.
In the early 1920's Pratapgarh and its neighbouring areas were the seat of a fierce rebellion of peasants against severe exploitation by the zamindars and the British administration. This revolt gained prominence with Nehru's espousal of the cause but eventually petered out as it was, according to the author, "betrayed" by the Congress. Against this backdrop of a struggle, Dube wished to see if and how five decades of freedom had affected the lives of those whose forebears had revolted many decades ago. He picks a `typical' untouchable family in a typically poor area of the country and seeks to locate their fate in the larger political economy and thereby ask why the Congress and its legatees failed to deliver justice to these desperately poor people.
An added factor is the proximity of Amethi, a town familiar to most Indians as the constituency of the Nehru-Gandhi clan. The natural question - answered in a dismal negative - to ask is whether the attention and loads of money spent on such a "star" constituency has had any ameliorative effect on the lives of the poor.
Most of the story focuses on Ram Dass who was born a few years after the agrarian revolt and spent most of his life in utter, grinding poverty. Like so many millions of Indians - illiterate, landless and at the receiving end of horrendous caste oppression in his village - in the 50's Ram Dass travelled to Bombay in search of work. To quote from the book, "The migrants are generally men, who leave behind their families in the village. Only the most desperate of families move entirely to urban areas, with every able adult and child taking up whatever work they can find. But whether single or in families, the migrants often find that because of high unemployment rates and low wages there is no relief from their poverty. Crowded into the hutments and slums that now dot every Indian town and city, or surviving on the pavements, they discover that living conditions in the urban areas are often as harsh as the deprivations of the villages they fled." (pg. 20)
Today this familiar if tragic journey is re-enacted by many more people seeking to make a better life in the city. With the rural economy in shambles and at the end of their tether, and often having no special skills to offer in the city, they join the teeming millions as wage workers; ill-paying, back-breaking labour being the only way to keep the ghosts of hunger at bay. This twin conundrum of being caught between two miserable options is particularly important in the context of the larger debate on whether urbanisation (and now globalisation) is good for Dalits.
Determined to improve his life, Ram Dass endures great deprivation but manages to educate one of his sons, Shrinath, who manages to climb out of a morass of poverty and ignorance to become a school teacher. This in the context of the family situation is a significant gain as Shrinath's monthly income is an important factor that keeps them afloat. However it only helps in a limited way since the many mouths to feed ensure that although they are somewhat better-off compared to some years ago, the family is by no means secure. Shrinath's son Hansraj is the first low-caste graduate in his village but in the book unsuccessfully looks for a job in the city and faces an uncertain future. Thus across three generations, the family fortunes which were somewhat on the upswing are now again precariously poised.
While the individual stories of each generation in the family are determined by a host of specific factors, one can clearly discern the impact of the larger political changes mirrored in the trajectories of their individual lives. The narratives of Ram Dass, Shrinath and Hansraj can in fact be read-off against the twists and turns of independent India's political economy. Buoyed by expectations raised by Independence, Ram Dass quickly finds his hopes belied. That Nehru and the Congress betrayed the poor by not delivering on their promises of social justice and equity (which to Dube is essentially land reform) is the central premise of the book.
Dube neatly interleaves Ram Dass's narrative with the unfolding of the larger political story - from the emergence of zamindari, Nehru's voice against it, to the ultimate betrayal by the Congress. A considerable part of the book discusses how the Congress right from the times of the struggle against the British managed to attract support from the poorer classes and castes by promising land reforms but was never serious about it since its political reins were firmly in the hands of the rich and in UP in particular, those who owned the land.
Broadly speaking, the zamindari system evolved out of British needs of clearly identifiable owners of land who in turn would owe them revenue. This when coupled with the gross inequities of the caste order in the village snowballed in a great exploitative mechanism where a handful of landed gentry owned vast tracts of land and thereby held thousands of poor, landless people in their thrall. The Congress managed to get the huge groundswell of popular support before Independence without actually formulating a policy of "land for the tiller" reforms. Thus while the political pressure to implement land reform could not be avoided, the Congress managed to take the sting out of the radical moves by abolishing zamindari which only demolished the massive holdings of around 300 of the largest zamindars. In the meanwhile, tenants were evicted and the net result was a weak implementation of reforms that only tackled the most egregious manifestations of zamindari without undermining the fundamental inequity that it bred.
This is familiar territory, but the politics is painted with a clarity that is often missing in the dry treatment political control that accompanies academic analysis. We are led through the raised expectations and the continual depravation of people like Ram Dass who inspite of legally owning land are never able to take possession of it. Ownership of land is central to ones well-being in a rural society and one is also able to more keenly feel the larger social exploitation in a more direct manner. Talking about caste discrimination by the zamindars in his village Ram Dass tells us that "If by mistake we touched any of their eating vessels they would throw them away, but if a dog licked the vessels they would just wash them."
The discrimination that Hansraj faced in school is that much more telling as he is of about the same age as this reviewer, a vivid reminder that caste discrimination still continues to be the lived reality for many millions in rural India.
The Congress-led path to independence won the masses the extraordinary `gift' of the vote but afforded no distributive justice in the form of land reforms and other measures. In its attempt to carry large sections of Indian society with it in a time of extreme strife and divisions, the Congress was too compromised to take on the onerous task of land reform (This and other measures were recommended by the Congress's own Agrarian Reforms Committee headed by the economic philosopher and practitioner J C Kumarappa, only to be ignored). And the focus on rapid industrialisation in turn only helped the elite to get more deeply entrenched from which it is increasingly hard to dislodge them.
Still, the author's case for betrayal of the poor of India largely by Nehru and his "political dynasty" are both somewhat contested propositions. Nehru's economic legacy is much debated and today more often than not, vilified by people right across the political spectrum. While undoubtedly Nehru and most of the Congress leadership failed on the count of vitalising agriculture and allied village industries which in turn would have provided a greater measure of social justice, the charge of "betrayal" of the poor needs somewhat greater substantiation than the bald assertions provided in this book. Also while Nehru did groom Indira in a partisan manner, laying her ignominious legacy to rest at Nehru's doorstep is also unwarranted. It is doubtful if Nehru intended to spawn a political dynasty. Nevertheless, the post-Nehru Congress having squeezed the real Left out of it managed to maintain the rhetoric of socialism and its claims of helping the down-trodden.
This is of course exemplified in Indira Gandhi's slogan "Garibi Hatao" which in the Emergency years and after perhaps transmuted to "Garibon ko Hatao". However, in my opinion what is of even more fundamental import is the seismic changes in Indian politics where land for the tiller and jobs and housing for the poor don't even impinge on the election rhetoric of today. The need for a cloak of social concerns has disappeared which is reflected in the sartorial choices of the ruling class. Erstwhile socialists who wouldn't be caught dead in anything other than white khadi now appear in dapper suits at corporate-industry pow-wows. The distance we have travelled in the past decade may well eclipse all the failures of those fifty years.
In the late 60's, the Congress rediscovered land reform since political parties promising land reforms made substantial gains in elections. To counter this, measures like a land ceiling were introduced but in true Indian style it was known how to dilute the law and eventually subvert it. Green Revolution farming also exacerbated the gap since credit and inputs were showered on medium to large size holdings in well-irrigated areas leading to a further consolidation of their power. Without fundamental land reforms in place, years later, the devolution of funds to panchayats under Rajiv Gandhi did not help either since the panchayats themselves were controlled by the upper castes and the landed. Thus the ugly gap between rhetoric and practice continued.
Nevertheless, even the marginal changes do affect people's lives in significant ways as Ram Dass and many others realise that they can finally assert their existence in social and political terms. Where they were mere serfs to the zamindar, today villagers like him are able to claim their individuality in small but substantial gestures like refusing to get up when an upper caste person passes by or provide begar (free labour) to the landlords. However this change in the social equation does not imply significant degrees of economic security. People perhaps don't starve like before but their existence is still so precarious that a single misfortune like an illness or injury can push them into a tight spiral of poverty, indebtedness and eventual destitution. The psychological devastation that accompanies such physical hunger and deprivation is brought home much more clearly when one considers the kind of life Ram Dass's family lives in Baba ka Gaon, a palpable sense that one cannot discern from a clutch of econometric measures of life-expectancy, GDP and such assorted numbers.
By the 1980's the continual rhetoric of working for the poor was replaced by chicanery in Government schemes whereby a simple stroke of the pen could change the apparent health of Indian society. This is best exemplified in the manipulation of the poverty figures of the Government whereby poverty was drastically reduced by the simple expedient of cooking the numbers. This fudging of the records is according to Dube one of the main factors in creating the impression that poverty was a thing of the past. In India all that mattered now was pushing the growth-rate skywards that would enable the middle classes to catch up with the rest of the world in its ability to consume.
This particular bit of sarkari black magic is also well addressed in P. Sainath's landmark Everyone Loves A Good Drought which is surprisingly missing from the bibliography here. This is particularly puzzling considering that Dube aims at reinserting the poor Indian into the public debate, a role that Sainath has been admirably (and depressingly, often alone) carrying out in the mainstream media that in the past decade has rapidly degenerated into a curious mixture of titillating gossip and a cheerful espousal of the Free Market mantra.
However throughout the discussions, Dube comes down heavily on successive Congress Governments without a whit of discussion on how international/multilateral agencies have had an adverse impact on India's policy-making and implementation: in particular the World Bank, an institution the author worked for at some point. Also in confining the discussion to Government policy or the lack of it on the one hand and caste-based discrimination in the village on the other, he fails to take note of how society at large (and its institutions like the media) is also complicit in keeping the poor in their place.
Two other issues of historical importance warrant mention here. In general, the author wields too broad a brush in painting Gandhi and Nehru in the same colour on the twin issues of land-reform and caste discrimination. Gandhi's relationship with both Nehru and Ambedkar were more complex than the version one encounters in this book. The author wonders about how Ambedkar was inducted into Nehru's cabinet and framed the Constitution. But this can probably be explained if one were to interpret Gandhi's reminder to Nehru that Ambedkar and other competent people ought to be drawn in since freedom was won for India, not just for the Congress (quoted in The Good Boatman by Rajmohan Gandhi). The Gandhi-Ambedkar debate itself is of fundamental importance even in the contemporary context but is marred by stances of writers who are much more sharply divided into opposing camps than is warranted by the evidence. A much more nuanced interpretation is provided in a scintillating collection of essays by D R Nagaraj called The Flaming Feet.
Even more puzzling is the omission of Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan Movement in this book. In the context of Dube's unremitting critique of how conservative elements in the Congress blunted the radical edge of land reforms which would have unleashed a dramatic transformation of rural India, an interpretation (perhaps castigation, judging by the tenor of the book) of Bhoodan would have be appropriate here.
While illuminating in certain ways, using a single family as a lens with which to examine the state of the nation has its inherent limitations too. Firstly it cannot span the spectrum of issues that affect large numbers of the rural poor, eg. displacement due to development projects, environmental degradation, problems of the urban poor, tribal communities etc. This is done much more effectively in Sainath's reporting although Dube does towards the end of the book prescribe "... the Govt would need to undertake widespread land reform, expand the rights of the poor over forests and common property resources, promote good healthcare and schools, foster gender equity, and encourage local democracy." . To Dube's credit though, fleshing out the circumstances of a single family one does get a greater and clearer sense of their lived experiences.
Undoubtedly, the national picture is too complex, varying from region to region and with time, but the focus on one family prevents the analysis of crucial regional differences which carry important lessons. For example, it is only in considering the comparative well-being of women does Dube contrast the north with the south. This and other biases in the analysis seem to also stem from an undue reliance on academic works that are not necessarily informed by the empirical experience. Also surprisingly for all the criticism of the bias towards the rural rich exhibited by the Congress, the author has nothing to say about globalisation and its impact on the rural poor. After all, by the early 1990's it was the same Congress party that had ushered in neo-liberal policies that lean heavily in favour of the urban elite and international capital flows. That these policies were to have an effect of worsening the fate of India's poor was already well established by 1997.
In a prevailing situation where the social and political changes in India are inadequate, Words Like Freedom does record the small but significant measures by which the lives of Ram Dass and others have been improved. These changes would form the basis for a renewed attempt at social transformation. Ram Dass and his people might not have reached their goal but by virtue of their hard-work have seen some glimpses of it and are determined to get there. The evolution of this struggle in the twin context of globalisation and communal conflict is sure to shape Indian society in the years to come.