Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished…

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family 1947-1997
By Siddharth Dube
Harper Collins Publishers India Rs. 395, Pp. 297, 1998

After the recent CPI(M) Congress, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus: “There has been no social reform movement in the state”. This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

However, even this recognition of the specificity of the state of Uttar Pradesh is a recent phenomenon. For a long time, its endemic poverty was perceived as not very fundamentally different in nature from that prevailing in the rest of the country. It is only very recently that attention has been drawn to the abysmally poor performance of the state in the key areas of literacy and health- care and the large- scale prevalence of casteism and traditionalism.

Jean Dreze has termed the state as India’s “burden of inertia”.

The book under review is an attempt by the young writer Siddharth Dube to understand the vertical implications of this inertia by relating the broader political economy of the state to the actual life experiences of a marginal family. It recounts the memoirs of three generations of a Dalit family from Pratapgarh district. Its narrative is an interweaving of the family’s recollections of their life stories and the writer’s own scholarly interjections. Surprisingly, the result is a stirring jugalbandi and not a cacophony of illiterate voices and noisy economic jargon, which is what it may have become in the hands of a less skilful chronicler.

The central character of the family is Ram Dass (aged about 65) of Baba Ka Gaon village in Pratapgarh district. This district has been the focus of much interest since the publication of Gyan Pandey’s impressive study on the Awadh peasant revolt (published in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies). Zamindari in this district had existed here in its extreme form. It was buttressed by a rigid caste system in which the untouchables were treated as “neither fully Hindu nor fully human”. The upper caste zamindars on the other hand, enjoying the patronage of the British colonial state, extracted many types of taxes and dues from the tenants and labourers, who without exception were untouchables or belonged to the intermediate castes.

Says Ram Dass, ” (when I was a child) If our family got a letter, we had to go and plead with the Thakur or Brahmin to read it for us. We had to wait till they were free. Or we would work extra hard and finish all their work and then beg them. Even then, they would read it if they felt like it or otherwise they would shout, ‘Get out, go away!'”

“The upper castes would treat us untouchables worse than dogs. They would at least accept water served by the middle castes, but from us they would not accept water, nor would they ever sit with us. 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”.

Ram Dass’s son today is a primary school teacher, the first scheduled caste teacher from his village. His grandson now faces an uncertain future because though he is the first of the three scheduled caste graduates from his village, he finds that he has to compete in a highly difficult job market. His degree is not of much help in the face of the demand of the few jobs that are available.

Blatant casteism over the years has slowly became less pointed- though even Ram Dass’ son Shrinath had to sit separately from high caste students in school. Nowadays, scheduled caste children even play with upper caste children”, observes Shrinath.

Ram Dass and his family are at a barely sustainable level, they are an example of a family that has risen from the lowest of the lowest to a family that is now hovering around the poverty line. Land reforms over the years have enabled the family to own 2.5 acres. It is only because of his son’s government job which pays Rs.4000/- a month, that the family of 17 manages to eek out an existence, keep hunger at bay and afford two sets of clothes. The next generation faces an uncertain future again. The gains of the seventies have not progressed linearly.

The most prosperous families in the village are, as during Ram Dass’s childhood years, still the 20 Thakur families that own most of the village land and orchards. Besides, most of them have a family member in a job- army, police or the university. Of the land that has been sold by the Thakurs over the last 50 years, the bulk was bought by the intermediate castes, with only a small amount purchased by the scheduled castes. The rest of the families in the village have been too impoverished to purchase any land at all.

The author’s prescription is what may nowadays be termed as Sen- ism (after Amartya Sen): the government should carry out land reforms, promote good health-care, foster social equity and encourage local democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav’ s 1995 act on the reservation of posts of the village pradhan for intermediate and scheduled castes is an example of empowerment of these castes. Hitherto, Baba Ka Gaon had the same Thakur pradhan since 1952 till 1995.

“The 1995 elections irrevocably changed caste equations in Baba Ka Gaon. The village Thakurs threatened to kill the former army sergeant from the Maurya middle caste who, with the backing of the scheduled castes, decided to stand for the pradhans’s post. They then burnt the crops of a particularly militant scheduled caste man. A week before the elections, in mid afternoon, a group of Thakurs entered the hut of a middle caste family and started thrashing the wife with their staffs while others pinned her down. But for the first time in the history of Baba Ka Gaon, the scheduled castes- including Prayaga Devi (Ram Dass’s wife)- and the middle castes hit back at the Thakurs and chased them away”.

The memoir is a testament against the notion that the illiterate are not capable of participating in electoral politics. The perceptive awareness that Ram Das and his family members have about the reasons responsible for their poverty is amazing.

Besides this, there are two major points that the book establishes.

First, that serious debate in the era of liberalisation is turning towards what Marxists have traditionally termed as the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. The hair splitting debates that dominated the seventies searching for that elusive algebraic equation of the balance of class forces, which in turn would decide the stage of the revolution, now belong to a bygone age. Similarly the euphoria of the liberalizers in the early nineties is giving way to more introspective studies.

The second is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as the most oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness. This has now changed, and rightly so. This was evident in another recent and comparable work that comes to mind: Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath.

Dube’s misgiving that the Congress represented the interests of the propertied classes only both before and after independence betrays a direct influence of the subaltern school of historians and indirectly that of R.P.Dutt. This is not only contestable but is the result of too narrow a perspective that students of peasant studies have usually held. The only other problem that mars the text is the author’s straight- jacket perspective that sometimes reads like the CPI(M) party programme. That towards the end of the book Ram Dass turns out to be a Communist (if not a CPI(M)) sympathiser is perhaps indicative of this bias.

December 04, 1998

Published: The Tribune 10 Jan 1999

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