Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 28

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Sometime before Ashok Rudra and I started on our large-scale data collection, I was already doing some theoretical and conceptual work on agrarian relations. My first, mainly theoretical, paper on share-cropping (jointly with TN) came out in American Economic Review in 1971. That paper was unsatisfactory and had quite a few loose strands, but it was one of the first papers to look theoretically into an economic-institutional arrangement of a developing country at the micro-level. This was a time when development economics was preoccupied with macro-issues like the structural transformation of the whole economy involving transition from agriculture to industrialization or problems of its aggregate interaction with more developed economies.

In a short trip abroad I presented my work on share-cropping in a seminar at Yale where my friend, Martin Weitzman who was teaching there, was present. He later told me that it made him start thinking of a more general context, that of sharing profits or revenues with workers in a modern firm that might resolve some macro-economic problems like unemployment—he later came out with a book on this titled The Share Economy.

Joe Stiglitz by that time had also moved to Yale, and asked me to stay overnight with him after my talk. That night at his home kitchen, as he was washing the dishes after our dinner, we kept on talking on various aspects of share-cropping. I told him that to me share-cropping was clearly an inefficient institution in agriculture, and yet it had been around for millennia in different parts of the world. We were both wondering why. Joe started looking at it from his point of view of imperfect information (the landlord unable to monitor how much effort the peasant put in). That led to his chain of thinking which ultimately produced his classic paper on share-cropping in 1974.

The other theoretical agrarian-relations issue I wrote about was how the landlord (sometimes also the employer and moneylender) used his interlinked transactions with the sharecropper-employee-borrower to entrench his position even as he provides some otherwise-unavailable services to the latter. But many people around me in India interpreted such interlinked relations as what they called ‘semi-feudal’ or debt-bondage relations. Even if we ignore that the term ‘feudal’ in the European sense is somewhat inappropriate in the Indian context, my hunch was that bondage-relations were not quantitatively the most important aspect of Indian agriculture, contrary to repeated assertions in leftist academic or party documents. When I said this to Ashok Rudra in our train journey, he immediately agreed, and we made this one main focus of our village surveys.

We took a random sample of 110 villages in West Bengal and collected detailed data on the typical relations in land, labor and credit markets in these villages, so that we could generalize about the whole of West Bengal. Among other things we indeed found out that debt-bondage was a relatively marginal/localized phenomenon, and we documented large varieties of effectively commercial though informal, voluntary though unequal, relations between the two sides in West Bengal.

This was a matter of some importance in West Bengal politics. By end of 1960’s a militant movement, defying the two main communist parties, had started. Because of its origin in an armed peasant revolt in an area in north Bengal called Naxalbari such movements are often called ‘Naxalite’ both in Bengal and rest of India. The usual description of the rural economy by students and intellectuals who were sympathetic with this movement largely followed the above-described ‘semi-feudal’ debt-bondage line.

The leaders of the movement declared ‘the decade of the 70’s as the decade of liberation’. In rural areas some land-grabbing and assassinations of ‘class enemies’ were carried out, and urban areas saw a great deal of terror and selective, though sometimes purposeless, killings. The government of the day then launched an operation of brutal repression, imprisonment, torture and killing. (I joined Rudra in donating money for legal defense of the Naxalite prisoners). By the middle of the 1970’s the movement was largely snuffed out in West Bengal (though embers of the fire still burn in the jungles of central India).

I had a peculiar experience of meeting a group of urban youth who described themselves as Naxalites. In Delhi in the early 70’s the eminent historian Ranajit Guha often visited us in the evenings. He was sympathetic with the Naxalite movement, and had connections with some of the active youths who were then underground. He once challenged me if I’d dare meeting these youths, and get acquainted with their ‘ground-level experience’ on land relations in India; he said that this could be a ‘learning opportunity’ for professors like me. I immediately agreed.

So I (and few other academics) were instructed to come one evening to a ‘secret’ place in Delhi. At the appointed hour we gathered in a darkened room with windows curtained and only a couple of candles lit. Soon we saw about 10 or 12 young men marching into the room, chanting the hushed greeting of ‘Red Salute’. (To me they looked like earnest young men of affluent families, possibly ex-students of St. Stephen’s College). Guha, presiding over the occasion, said that we’d have first a statement of the current land and the village revolutionary situation from those youths as they see it. Then I, as someone who had researched on the agrarian relations in India, would make a statement, and then if the other academics had anything to add they could. After that the youths would respond, and then the meeting would end.

It started with the group leader putting up a tiny map of India on the wall and pinning a little red flag at each of the places where ‘action’ was currently going on. Even though India has more than half a million villages, the map was so small that ten or so red flags were enough to make the whole map look red. The leader pointed to the map as an obvious proof that India was ‘ripe’ for revolution. Then he gave his understanding of the ground reality of land and peasants. All I heard then was a collection of clichés, as if he was just regurgitating rhetoric he had learned from some cheap pamphlet. I actually expected much better from these intelligent-looking young men. Then when my turn came I said I agreed with them that the condition of the landless peasants of India was indeed atrocious, but the nature of exploitation and the type of agrarian relations in different areas were quite complex and diverse. I then cited some simple data from my research to illustrate my points. I ended by saying that not being aware of the complexities might actually hurt their revolutionary cause. Then, after some brief comments from the other academics, Guha invited the youth leader to respond to our comments. I braced myself for being called ‘reactionary’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘class-enemy’, etc. but what happened next left me agape. The leader just repeated his initial statement, and nothing whatsoever in response to our points. It seemed to me that he had learned one statement by rote and used it for all occasions. Then they all stood up and left the room marching and chanting ‘Red Salute’. That was indeed a ‘learning experience’ for me!