Sharad Joshi was a farmers’ leader like no other. He could hold his own among the most erudite economists as well as among the humblest farmers of India. And most importantly, what made him stand out was his conviction that farmers don’t need charity by way of subsidies, but a fair price from the market for the produce of their hard labour.
With the passing away of Sharad Joshi on December 12, farmers have lost one of their most committed and knowledgeable spokespersons and the country has lost one of the most innovative political thinkers and mass leaders of Independent India. I consider it a great privilege to have had the opportunity of working closely for several years with the farmer’s organization, Shetkari Sangathana, founded by Mr Joshi in 1980. It was an invaluable learning experience of my life.
Eighty-one-year-old Joshi was born in Satara in a Brahmin family that had no connection with agriculture. After his Masters in economics, he became a lecturer in Pune University. Soon after he joined the Indian Postal Service, followed by a job at the United Nations headquarters in Switzerland.
He resigned his UN job much against the wishes of his wife and two daughters because after exposure to the lives of European farmers, he was haunted by the question why the hard-working Indian farmers remained mired in poverty. What began as an intellectual quest turned into a life’s mission after he returned to India and decided to take to farming in order solve this puzzle. He bought some land in village Ambethan in Chakan Taluka of Pune district and invested a good part of his savings in setting up a regular farm using the best seeds, quality fertilizers and other inputs. However, year after year he found that even with a bountiful harvest, farmers could not recover the cost of production. Often, they could not even cover the cost of transport to the mandi and, therefore, ploughed back the harvest. He was deeply anguished by the fact that farmers who made India self-sufficient in food, cannot even provide adequate nutrition for their children; those who produced high-quality commercial crops for the industry, remain crushed by the burden of debt. If they produce a good harvest, market prices crash making it impossible for them to recover even their input costs. If the crop fails due to some natural calamity, there is no safety net for them.
This motivated him to organize the farmers to demand their rightful due.
His first agitation began with onion farmers of Chakan Taluka. But soon the Sangathana spread far and wide with its simple but no-nonsense slogan – Bheekh Nako, havai ghamache daam (Farmers don’t need charity by way of subsidies, all they ask for is a fair price for the produce of their hard labour)
Being a rare combination of intellectual firepower with an incredible mass appeal, Joshi taught the poor and illiterate farmers the basic lessons in economics. He taught them to calculate accurately the cost of production, which should include the cost of family labour and land, nor just seeds and fertilizers. Lakhs of farmers – cutting across party lines would gather at his public meetings without anybody even paying for their cost of transport. Even when addressing mammoth gatherings, Joshi’s speeches used to be loaded with content without any demagogic rhetoric. He rarely raised his voice unlike most mass leaders and never resorted to melodramatic or fiery rhetoric. But his speeches in chaste Marathi or Hindi (which he used to say he learnt from Bollywood songs) gripped the audiences who latched on to every word he uttered, often moving them to tears because they were charged with compassion and depth of understanding regarding the plight of farmers. His diagnosis of their woes was based on in-depth study—both in the field as well as scholarly.
Shetkari Sangathana is perhaps the only farmers’ movement whose appeal cut across caste, class, religious and regional divides. Despite being a Brahmin in caste-conscious rural Maharashtra, Joshi’s following consisted of diverse caste groups and also drew in Muslim farmers in large numbers. It did not take long for farmers’ organizations in other states of India to seek his leadership. The All India Kisan Coordination Committee of farmers he created gave a collective voice to farmers of diverse regions of India.
Joshi also succeeded in bringing together the concerns of farmers and landless poor on a common platform and demonstrated through concrete data how wages of farm labour were in direct proportion to the incomes of farmers and the prices farmers got for their produce. He emphasized that laws alone could not bring about better wages for farm labour; it is only when farming itself became remunerative that labour could hope to get its fair due.
As expected, this worldview and economic agenda of holistic approach to the challenges facing the farm sector, did not endear him to leftists who believe in pitching farm labour against farm owners, as per their obsession with creating class struggle and class war, never mind if the class war destroys the very enterprise of farming as happened in Kerala. The leftist armchair intellectuals also critiqued Joshi relentlessly calling him a “kulak leader” (Trust leftists, not only to operate with borrowed ideologies but also borrow the vocabulary they deploy for political abuses they hurl at those they target for attack). Needless to say, this description had little to do with reality. Marxists attacked him only because he didn’t wear Marxist spectacles to view Indian reality. As someone who participated in countless Sangathana meetings and large rallies, I could see the blatant malice behind this critique because the vast majority of Sharad Joshi’s following came from poor marginal farmers in unirrigated regions of Maharashtra. Their economic distress can be gauged from the fact that when they came for public meetings, the large proportion of them would carry their cooking pots and potlis of rice on their head because they couldn’t afford to eat from low priced dhabas even for a day or two.
And yet it is this segment of farmers who willingly contributed generously to Sangathana often at the great personal cost.
Another notable feature of Sangathana rallies was the extraordinary discipline of its cadre. Even when they gathered in lakhs, one never witnessed the slightest ruckus, misbehavior or mishap—something common in most political meetings in India. Sangathana rallies never really counted on police bandobast or danda wielding security guards to maintain discipline. People heard Joshi and other speakers in pin drop silence. Joshi made it a point to start his meetings—whether small or mammoth—on the dot because he was punctual to a fault.
The remarkable discipline of Shetkari Sangathana and Joshi’s commitment to Gandhian methods of non-violence also brought in a mass participation of women in all of Sangathana’s programmes. They brought in fierce energy and commitment into the movement, often exceeding that of men, especially when it came to facing police atrocities, lathi charges and arrests during their protest movements.
In 1986, Joshi created a separate platform for women named Shetkari Mahila Aghadi. That is when Joshi came to invite me to contribute to the formation of a versatile women’s front. Its vision and agenda for action was far more meaningful and rooted in ground reality than what has emerged feminist groups in India. To my mind, no other farm leader has invested as much time and energy in thinking through and acting in innovative ways on women’s issues as did Joshi.
Unfortunately, Joshi did not get his due recognition in his lifetime because:
a) He was far ahead of his time; he led the movement for liberalized starting mid-1980s when Indian intelligentsia was still not through with its romance with socialism;
b) He did not use leftist framework or jargon for framing farmers’ agenda. That becomes a huge burden given that leftist intellectuals claim an exclusive monopoly when it comes to drawing up agenda for dealing with poverty-related issues.
c) He defied the dominant discourse by rejecting statist approaches because he did not believe in relying on the benevolent crumbs thrown at the poor by mai baap sarkar by way of subsidies or puny “welfare measures”.
The crux of Shetkara Sangathan agitations was to challenge the entire range of sarkari controls over the farm sector. These included scrapping of the draconian Essential Commodities Act which is used as an instrument of economic war against farmers, civil disobedience against government forcibly acquiring farm produce at arbitrary prices that often do not cover the cost of production, denying farmers access to national and international markets in order to keep prices artificially depressed, arbitrary bans on exports, while the government freely dumps imported farm produce in India in order to depress prices of domestic produce. Joshi tried relentlessly to explain that depressed farm incomes mean low or stagnant agricultural growth because farmers lack resources for investment.
National media’s neglect and misrepresentation of these issues and hostile attitude towards Sangathana’s liberal agenda made Joshi extremely demoralized, but he never gave up. We would often laugh that 30-40 odd fashionable women from Delhi’s elite families demanding reservation for women or inconsequential change in this or that law tend to get far greater media coverage than 3 lakh farmers protesting against denial of water or power for their crops.
Joshi was among the first to point out to India’s policymakers that far from benefiting from so-called subsidies, Indian farmers were victims of negative subsidy because of arbitrary government controls that denied Indian farmers access to international markets where they could get far better prices than available at home. He welcomed globalization and WTO regime at a time when left-liberals were going hysterical against opening up of the Indian economy even though they never protested the import of farm produce from First World countries to depress the prices of domestic farm produce artificially. He was convinced that Indian farmers would come out winners if India pushed for honest implementation of WTO regime, which called for an end to farm subsidies in First World countries, because, without state support, European and American farmers would not be able to compete with Indian farmers.
Among the things I remember most fondly from my days of close association with Sangathana were the informal gatherings around Joshi after each public event or Kayakarta Sammelan. The room would be filled with roaring laughter with Joshi leading the pack in cracking jokes, poking fun, narrating hilarious incidents even while the Sangathana would be in the midst of do or die battles. He had an inimitable sense of humour and ability to play with words. He was also a deadly ego perforator, known for his hard hitting punches to demolish the opponents’ arguments. He was not the one to suffer fools gladly and spoke without mincing words. Most important of all, unlike with most current day politicians, he did not operate with any hidden agendas. He said what he meant and meant what he said. All these qualities made him the darling of the rural masses. It was common to see his photograph placed in the household shrine of farmers along with that of other deities. For lakhs, he became their chosen ishta devata (family deity).
Sharad Joshi could hold his own among the most erudite economists as well as among the humblest farmers of India. He could address academic gatherings as well as ordinary housewives with equal facility. He could write in English with as much flair as he wrote in Marathi or Hindi.
However, the very same man who won the adulation of humble farmers could not win the hearts of left and liberal intellectuals who claim to represent the interests of the poor. Nor did he ever feel comfortable in Lutyen’s Delhi’s even when he became a Rajya Sabha member.
Since Joshi played a significant role in building support for V P Singh’s movement against the Congress Party, farmers’ organizations became extremely hopeful when V P Singh became PM. VP Singh offered Joshi a Rajya Sabha seat. But at that time Joshi declined because he didn’t want to surrender his freedom to any political party.
But he nominated one of his close colleagues—Bhupender Singh Mann of Bharatiya Kisan Union in Punjab to take Rajya Sabha nomination in his stead.Joshi had pinned a lot of hopes on VP Singh to carry out a serious course correction in India’s farm policy. Unfortunately, on becoming prime minister, V P Singh had lost interest in farmers’ issues and instead went in for the disastrous Mandal Vs Kamandal politics. Joshi was sorely disappointed at this let down by the man for whom he campaigned vigorously.
In 2000, Atal Bihari Vajpayee invited Joshi to head a special Task Force on Agriculture to draft a new liberal policy framework for the farm sector. Joshi prepared the report in record time but Vajpayee too failed to implement the proposed measures of economic freedom for Indian farmers. In 2005, Joshi accepted Rajya Sabha nomination in the desperate hope that he could use parliament as a platform to raise issues of farm distress and the need to extend the agenda of economic reforms to agriculture. Once again, amidst the noise and din of parliamentary debates, often on far more flimsy issues than the ones Joshi was raising, Shetkari Sangathana’s concerns remained marginal.
It is perhaps that disappointment that led him to form a new political party – Swatantra Bharat – based on the liberal economic principles propounded by C Rajagopalachariand Minno Masani. I warned Joshi repeatedly that this would be the undoing of the farmers’ movement.
Unfortunately, my prediction proved true. Swatantra Bharat never made it good in electoral politics and left Joshi a very disheartened man in his last years. It also divided the Shetkari Sangathana along party lines. He failed to understand that the lakhs who worshipped him and who thronged to his rallies cutting across party lines, would not automatically become voters of Swatantra Bharat because electoral politics is a devious game of money, muscle power and caste blocks. His appeal lay in standing above the murky world of electoral warfare. By trying to become a part of party politics without possessing the required monetary resources, muscle power and manipulative genius, he lost his unique place and standing.
Those who credit Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao with ushering the era of liberalization and economic reforms, should remember that the current beneficiaries of liberalization – namely the corporate sector and the burgeoning middle classes of India never really fought for dismantling statist controls. Farmers of India fought the most determined battles for liberalization under the leadership of Sharad Joshi. They braved lathis and bullets, faced arrests and imprisonment, defied unjust laws through civil disobedience; Joshi himself sat on countless hunger strikes at enormous cost to his health, sacrificed personal comfort and gave his all to the movement aimed at freeing India from the tyranny of colonial minded sarkari controls.
Unfortunately, 26 years after India began its one-step forward, two steps backward journey towards dismantling the colonial-cum-socialist controls over our economy, the benefits of liberalization have not yet trickled down to the farm sector. Not surprisingly, farm farmer suicides due to indebtedness and depressed incomes continue unabated. No wonder Sharad Joshi, who lived a very full and meaningful life, died a very sad man. But I am sure if he had not been stricken with grievous health problems, he would have departed this world laughing, not just the foibles and follies of this world but also at himself!