The Body-politic and Death of the Farmer: R Umamaheshwari


Until now suicides happened in an almost invisible ‘intimate’ ‘psychic’ space of the farmer and his (almost always it was a male) loneliness and pain and anguish; we only got to know of it after the act was committed. But for the first time, a farmer committed suicide in full public view, and his body was consumed by the world at that moment of his committing the act. In a leading Hindi newspaper, the following day, there was a photograph, on the front page. The images showed the gradual metamorphosis of a living man, with a profession (that of a farmer), with a history and a family turning into a mere dead body. The photographer had actually recorded this metamorphosis, image by image in sequence, second by second. Not a moment had been left out. (See Amar Ujala, dated 23rd April 2015) With one loop the man, named Gajendra, became yet another body; yet another dispensable body, to be consumed by the entire nation through photographs and TV images. It was the signifier of our times: an act in the theatre of the absurd that democracy has come to be. The farmer will increasingly be ‘seen’ when he dies.

In a different context (though appropriate for the above death) Susan Sontag writes that ‘Even if incompatible with intervention in a physical sense, using a camera is still a form of participation. Although the camera is an observation station, the act of photographing is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening. To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity  with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing-including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.’ (On Photography, Image Technology and the Emergence of Mass Society, p.128)

Just as spaces have political meaning – in the nature of discourse on the significance and uselessness of it (in our case, in India today, agrarian spaces have given way to the manufacturing of ‘use’ and importance of urban spaces and rural spaces will only assume significance if they turn into “manufacturing hubs”) – bodies too, have meanings. The meaning of a body and its importance to the ‘nation’ or a society is constructed through centuries of conditioning. Ideas of ‘untouchability’, for instance, have been constructed on the body of a person born in a certain context (by itself a political-social construction of caste). The body of the indigenous American was similarly constructed and ‘worked upon’ (even done away with, towards the making of a ‘new world’) and so is the case with the body of the adivasi / tribal communities in India. Their being the bodies they were, or are, has in fact given them the place they had or have in history and continue to have in the present.

By extension, the site of both the body and the physical space of the Indian small or medium farmer, or the dalit, or the ‘untouchable’ or the adivasi (in terms of their social group), has been one of constant re-working through governancing and policying or policing, ever since we set out to construct a ‘modern’ Indian nation post-independence. Not to speak of the colonial context, which was another game, over these bodies, either of ‘reform’ or education or extreme administration.  Then there are those bodies which are seen as threats to the very existence of the nation-state and hence either incarcerated to ‘pay’ for their ‘crimes’ or done away with, in a moment of encounter (just as the poor woodcutters, branded ‘smugglers’, from Tamil Nadu, who we then saw as dead bodies in the photographs the next day).

There is yet another aspect to the politics over the body: at times the suicides have led to funded projects to understand why these suicides happen. There have also been psychological studies conducted and attempts to ‘counsel’ them. There are bodies which have become inconsequential to the politics of the nation, just as sites that are redundant to the present economic context. And then there are bodies whose accounts are settled by way of a few lakhs of rupees to remove them from sites that are immensely useful to the economic context: such as the adivasi lands by the Godavari or any other river for dams, or the for mining in Odisha or any other. These are hardworking people, with names and faces that matter, with histories and knowledge of the world they engage with, which also matter. But in the state-corporate discourse, they are mere bodies, with names only stuck to the hundred and one identity cards that assure them citizen or beneficiary status. Gajendra, through his act, in fact, exemplified this distance – between the former and the latter; a person whose face and name and knowledge matter, to another body for our death registers, whose death didn’t change a thing.

At another level, there are other questions I ask: what did the farmer, Gajendra Singh, think? He scribbled on a note, moments before dying, the words, ‘jai jawan, jai kisan’ (saluting the soldier and the farmer – a slogan coined by a former Prime Minister of our country, Lal Bahadur Shastri, many years ago). If we were to read Gajendra Singh’s act closely, instead of the sad face of a depressed farmer taking the ultimate step in deepest anguish, we might be able to find a sub-text and in fact, a person who had committed the ultimate act of protest – because he acted in full view of the people gathered, appropriately at a public gathering against the newest version of the Land Acquisition Act, now becoming an Ordinance. What did he think? Did he perhaps play a farce, hitting at the very core of the chest-beating jingoism being displayed by even the country’s Prime Minister at meetings held in foreign countries?  Was there, in Gajendra Singh’s act, a subversion of the public space addressing the very concerns of the likes of him in a distant, non-connected manner of public speaking that has become the habit of political leaders who talk about agrarian crisis while being totally removed from the lives and travails of the farmers they talk about?  The farmer in Gajendra Singh perhaps unwittingly, or perhaps intentionally, chose to play out his story for consumption in order that the public sphere itself become the theatre with the farmer as the main protagonist – for, shouldn’t the farmer / cultivator / peasant be the chief protagonist?

Instead, the entire absurdity is around economic growth in exclusion of this very protagonist. Gajendra Singh knew that we are increasingly living in a consumption-driven society; as all farmers do know. Television has reached their spaces where images are streamed or bombarded. There is non-stop consumption: of images, disasters, tragedies in the world.  With, and after, each consumption the distance between what is consumed in the nature of images and the act that was consumed or the actor of that event that was consumed widens. And that makes us go further and further away from the actual point of emergence of that act – which lies in the politics of economics unleashed at the agrarian sector which commenced about two decades ago.

It was a politics that intentionally destroyed the farming communities and Gajendra Singh emerged in that public arena to call out this message loud and clear, as an act of ultimate protest: the metamorphosis of a proud, living farmer, into a dead body, signifying the death of agriculture and the metamorphosis of the land (of millions of land-dependent proud people in India) into a dumpyard of ‘economic growth’ and global ‘manufacturing hub’. Farmers’ suicides have taken the form of a scroll that appears as a constant, moving image, at the lower end of the television screen, everyday. Their changing into a scroll of tiny alphabets against the din and bombardment of flashy images of the news-reading rooms of several TV channels, is yet another signifier of our times. There are these constants – deaths, and their numbers vis-à-vis the constant movement of events and people made larger than life, who manufacture the agendas: of media and of democracy.

Consumption of bodies has become so regular that it does not affect anybody, it seems. But we need to give our farmers the dignity instead of calling it a ‘cowardly act’ as a minister recently did. Many a times, bodies are used also as sites of protest. Where living, and not dying away, is meant to keep the protest against the system alive. I speak of the woman, Irom Sharnila, far away from the centrestage, far away from online streaming, using her body as a weapon of protest as well, but by not dying. Her body with tubes insists on living, so that the nation does not forget – a draconian Act, the hundreds of rapes, and other humiliations inflicted on bodies that refuse to give up. The farmers use the body in pain and anguish expressed time and again, similarly, so that the nation will not forget them either; and in doing so, their bodies become their only weapons. Sites, which the nation dare not forget the fact that more than six decades of independence, we only just count their numbers when they die, and of late, measure their land while they live. Those without land do not belong even in these counts.  Yet it seems to jolt very few out of the reverie which has been induced, like opium’s haze, by the vertical, notional ‘economic growth’ (in spite of the earthquakes and calamities of various kinds that add to the human-made calamities in the lives of the poor).

Cities of the nation, the new spaces for which the Prime Minister goes about globe-trotting, urging investments, ‘economic security’ of the country increasingly means protection of bodies that make billion dollar deals and wealth. These bodies understand little else than superficial ‘cleanliness’. Between January and March 2015, news reports state that 257 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra. You now have reports of farmers’ suicides from Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, too. There will be more coming. And ‘smart cities’ will be machines working overtime to erase memories, histories and create false sense of security in sites of increasing alienation. If Gajendra Singh acted in full consciousness that eventful day in Delhi, he is just one more of those who have been saying something all these years, through all their acts of giving up the mortal bodies; none listened, though many saw, and read. Since their voices and their opinions have not been listened to, in the spirit of listening, the farmers of this country are challenging us with the only thing they possess which is their own, their bodies. Dead or alive, they want to be seen, and heard. The more they lose their lands and their work and their worth, the more they will force us to see and hear. And never forget.

In Gajendra Singh’s suicide, their deaths have assumed the form of a public death this Land Ordinance will have to be answerable for outside of all the vulgar dance of democracy that political parties have reduced it all to.

I end, translating a few lines from Dalit poet Valmiki’s poem, Zyada Bure Dinon Ke Intezar Mein – Awaiting Worse Days (written in 2010) from the anthology, Shabd Jhoot Nahin Bolte (Words Don’t Lie): –

Main Us Roz bhi Chup Raha 

Jab Akhbaar ne Bataaya 

Hazaaron Tonne Anaaj 

Sad Rahe Hain

Bina Godaamon Ke 

Jabki Laakhon Log Joojh Rahe Hain 

Kar Rahe Hain Atmahatya Kisaan 

Bhookh se bilbilakar 

Main Nahin Jaanta

Kaun Hai Zimmedaar…? 

…Chaaron Or 

Chal Rahe Hain

Dharmik Pravachan 

Bakhaan Rahe Hain 

Gomootra ke Gun 

Ayruveda ka Saakshya Dekar 


Ek Ham Hain 

Jo Chup Hain ()

Aur Zyaada Bure Dinon Ke Intezar Mein! 

I remained quiet that day, too,
the day the newspaper said
Thousand tonnes of grain
are rotting
without godowns
though lakhs of people are struggling
and farmers are committing suicide
suffering from pangs of hunger
I do not know
Who is responsible…?
All around
there are religious speeches
They are eulogising
Cow’s Urine
Giving the evidence of Ayurveda
Here we are
Waiting for far worse days!

R Umamaheshwari is Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla and author of the book, When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River (Journeys in the Zone of the Dispossessed)


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