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Prof. Jodhka: ‘Colonial powers produced theories of society that placed Europe at the centre of their experience and others had to follow’

‘The Indian village has been changing, connected’

Civil Society News, Gurugram

Published: Nov. 29, 2023
Updated: Feb. 29, 2024

Stimulating rural areas should be part of any script for economic growth in India. Even as younger generations seek to move on, agriculture deserves to be made more rewarding and sustainable and linked to national strategies for better nutrition. Much value awaits to be unlocked by promoting livelihoods aligned to agriculture.

Getting people off the land and out of agriculture has been shown up as being easier said than done — especially when those in rural areas account for 70 percent of the country’s population. There aren’t the cities to absorb them efficiently or the industries to provide jobs.

But a robust vision of villages begins with an understanding of what they are all about. It means going beyond the entrenched view of a rural-urban divide. Among many deleterious consequences, it has led to rural areas being environmentally exploited to serve the cause of development. Escaping from such regression is not just costly, but is mostly impossible.

So much better to see rural and urban as being interconnected in a single mosaic, transforming and prospering in tandem and to a collective advantage. Surinder S. Jodhka’s book, The Indian Village: Rural Lives in the 21st Century, encourages such fresh thinking.

Prof. Jodhka teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is  a scholar and researcher who travels extensively in rural India. His book puts many myths to rest.

Villages have never been static, he argues. Historically villages and cities were dynamic, globally connected and not backward. They have been changing and continue to do so. The city-village binary is therefore a false one thrust upon the Global South by European colonizers to assert their worldview. Civil Society spoke to Prof. Jodhka about his book and his understanding of rural India’s aspirations based on his research. An edited version of our conversation:


Q: You have said in your book that colonial powers deliberately, to a strategy, as it were, portrayed villages as being static and backward whereas cities were positioned as being forward-looking and symbols of development. Could you explain this a little?

There were many things happening at that time. With the development of capitalism in Europe and colonization of the rest of the world, Europe, in some sense, took charge of defining the world. It built narratives of what is good, what is bad, what is the future, what is the past, what is Europe and what is the rest.

India was colonized by Europe along with many countries of the Global South. The colonial powers produced theories of society which placed Europe in an advantageous position, as a region that had already developed and the rest of the world had to follow. Social theories were constructed with Europe as the centre of their experience. And then they treated all this as history.

Well, the fact is that before the 17th and 18th centuries, when Europe underwent the Industrial Revolution, the world existed in different forms. And Europe was not really ahead of other regions. China, India, the Middle East and many other regions were very advanced civilizations with a lot of wealth.

Colonial powers came to India for its wealth, which they wanted to acquire. Most of the riches of India were not being generated in Bangalore or in Hyderabad. They were being generated in villages. Just take spices as one example.

But, according to the narratives of the capitalist bourgeoisie, created by the Industrial Revolution, cities were sites of production. Orientalism, attached with the white man’s burden, generated narratives that the Global South — India, China and Africa — consisted of primitive places or traditional societies and cultures which didn’t have the capability of growing on their own.

So India got conceptualized as a land of villages, as if there were no cities here. The Indian village was shown to be kind of stuck in time and incapable of growing on its own. It needed to be disintegrated and connected with the city.

Our own nationalists bought these theories. They were mostly urban, middle-class Indians who kind of replaced the colonial elite. They felt that they now had the responsibility of developing everyone else. They regarded themselves as knowing everything because they were ‘educated’ and others were illiterate and living in primitive times or less developed.

Well, the reality is that the world was always integrated in some way or the other. And so were villages. It didn’t happen in the 21st century. Population flows were always there. There were kinship connections, people travelled from villages to cities and beyond.

Cities flourished in India. There was Agra, Delhi, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jalandhar, Amritsar. Every 100 miles there was a city, these were also centres of culture, villages were closely integrated, there were pilgrimage centres. Populations were always mobile. Obviously, there were poor people. There have always been poor people in cities.


Q: In fact, as you say in your book, at one point, India had more people living in urban spaces than Europe had, right? So, in a sense, India was more advanced. Remnants of efficient urban systems are proof. But this was not asserted, taken forward. Why?

The urban middle class began to see itself in a ‘we-know-it-all’ kind of category, that we know what is good for you. That’s what provoked me into writing this book. I started thinking about it in 2020, when farmers were sitting on the borders of Delhi. They were speaking a very cosmopolitan language. They were talking about the entire world. They were talking about the dynamics of corporate capital. They were talking about their own internal livelihood patterns and what would happen once corporations came in.

On the other hand, middle-class Indians were condescending. They had no idea what these farm laws were. People were not even looking at the texts. They were just passing judgement publicly on television channels and amongst themselves that farmers have gheraoed us and they don’t understand anything.

When I went to the farmer protests, I saw they were holding classes. They had set up libraries on the borders. They were talking about not just their agriculture, but about the world, about jurisprudence, how global flows would function after 50 years and what is happening to infrastructure. They were very sophisticated and very knowledgeable.Urban folks just assume that they know better. Privilege is hard to shed.


Q: You’ve been travelling to villages in Punjab and across the cow belt. Villages must have evolved over time?    

We now have plenty of historical work. And I have a whole chapter on this in the book which talks about actually existing villages. All these agrarian economies were constantly under transformation. You know, there were surpluses being produced. Villages were connected to cities and villages were connected to the world. There was a process of change happening all the time.

There were new communities coming in. For example, in northwest India, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan you have flows of Jats coming in.  South India was undergoing a complete change. You have canal irrigation coming in. New technologies and new crops. Potatoes, tomatoes perhaps from Brazil, Latin America. New kinds of spices too.

These were not localized economies. They were integrated into the larger world. Things were going from here to elsewhere and coming from elsewhere to here. Villages were always changing in every sense of the term.

If you look at power hierarchies, once you have new land and new systems, new rulers come, there’s a drought, people will move from one place to the other, just for the sake of livelihood. Then they have to negotiate with a new terrain. So, villages were always changing.

Secondly, in the past 100 years, particularly after Independence, villages were integrated into the systems of the nation state and democratic politics. We didn’t have that earlier. That makes a lot of difference because with democratic politics you have a representational system which didn’t exist before.

We have people voting. Votes made a lot of difference even to people who were completely marginalized whether it was in the cow belt or Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand or down South or the interiors of northeast India. There was a process of national integration in a very political sense of the term.

A new bureaucracy comes in, a developmental bureaucracy, with development programmes and electoral processes. The Green Revolution brings in a certain kind of development in some pockets. The Green Revolution was not confined to Punjab, Haryana or Western UP or parts of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.

You also have population flows. In the 1970s itself, labour begins to migrate from Bihar to Punjab. I have done field work in Bihar. You go to Madhubani district and villagers will tell you that when they began to migrate for work to Punjab they felt liberated — they were not dependent on the local landlords anymore. It gave them alternative possibilities of livelihood.

And then you have the rise of OBC politics. It played a very significant role in creating further democratic aspirations. People began to go wherever employment was available. You have taxi drivers from Punjab working in Calcutta or Bombay, early on. Security guards from all over the country. And tribal labour migrating.

But along with migration flows, there are commodity flows and a new kind of consumption culture. Take ATMs which play an important role in the lives of migrant labour and their families. Or mobile phones — you can stay in the village and work in the city. If you are, say, an electrician you don’t have to stay in a slum if your village is 10 km away.

Rural livelihoods have changed. Agriculture does not give livelihoods to more than 15 to 40 percent of rural households across the country. The remaining livelihoods come from the non-farm economy, a very generic term.

Democratic politics has played a very important role. It has produced a new local elite, which is connected, knowledgeable and linked to the developmental bureaucracy. It also then produces a kind of clientele politics where the regional political elite also develops connections with the village and forms an electoral constituency.

People don’t vote on the basis of caste identities alone. Caste is also an urban process, right? These identities are being mobilized from cities, and then you have associational formations of caste. We think of caste as a village reality. But villages also get integrated through those new caste elites, which are actually elites of our modern-day democracy.


Q: You point out in your book that the rural population has actually increased. This is contrary to what economists find desirable. Can you explain this?

Economists know this. In India, we obviously have many more people living in urban areas now than we did 100 years back. The proportion of the urban population has gone up from, say, around 10 to 11 percent in the early 20th century to perhaps 35 to 37 percent — we don’t have figures of the last Census. It’s only in relative terms that the urban population has increased. It’s still very large. I mean, India’s urban population is more than the total population of any country in the world other than India and China, right? We have nearly 400 million people living in India’s urban centres, which is larger than the total population of the United States.

But the rural population has also increased to nearly four times what it was 100 years ago. So, the absolute size of the rural population is perhaps, you know, 850 to 900 million people living in rural areas, which is obviously more than double the urban population of India.  It’s a huge number.

That’s why I keep emphasizing, look at the facts, at the ground realities. Unless you are constantly engaging with those, you will end up producing narratives and prescriptions. Not only do such narratives not work, they also create problems. They create more inequalities. We unnecessarily lose out on skills that are there in this large 70 percent of our population.

We don’t consider them worth anything. We think they’re a lag on us, the urban middle class, because we pay taxes and they don’t. Everyone pays taxes indirectly, right? They are part of the consumer economy. Also, they’re skilled people. They are knowledgeable. You need to visualize your population demographics very differently, more regionally.


Q: With connectivity, migration, Panchayati Raj, surely caste equations must have undergone change in villages? Don’t women have more agency with Panchayati Raj?

Absolutely. Caste equations have changed but caste has not disappeared. Earlier structures of hierarchy that integrated everyone are not required any longer. Rural economies are quite mechanized. People are quite mobile. Agriculture doesn’t need too many people. And not too many people work in agriculture any longer.

In some contexts, women have agency, but mostly it is nominal. It is a complicated question. My own theory is that women have been given reservations in panchayats because the erstwhile dominant sections of the village have moved out so they don’t have too much stake in rural panchayats.

Panchayats have become delivery systems of state-led development. They are not the kind of panchayats that Gandhi had visualized. These are more like bureaucratic channels to disperse developmental schemes.

That kind of representation is required but the structure of relations needs to change. There is very little discussion in villages on patriarchy, on male dominance. It varies from region to region. So Kerala is very different from Gujarat which is different from western UP. They also vary vertically. Dalit communities have a different kind of patriarchal arrangement or structure from, say, the Jats or Rajputs.

Take what happens to rural families when men move out. If you go to a village in Bihar, 75 percent of households have at least one to four persons working outside. And most of these men are actually married. Their wives stay back and run the household. What kind of empowerment does that bring to women there? Obviously, things are changing when men are not around.

Earlier, it used to be only in Kerala when men went to the Gulf. Those dynamics are also interesting. Empirically, there are varieties of processes across social stratum. We need to map those and that can happen only by taking the village seriously. 


Q: We have also had NGOs working in Rajasthan, MP, and UP telling us very bitterly that governments have deliberately not spent on rural infrastructure across the cow belt to force distress migration. How far is this true? 

Absolutely true. Both infrastructure and also in imagining rural livelihoods. Post the 1990s everything is led by corporate interests. If companies like some areas to be developed, it happens. Companies are also willing to develop infrastructure, storage facilities, provided you hand over agrarian economies to them. In parts of South India, agriculture is very well integrated because farming interests have shrunk.

I went to do field work in Bihar and travelled from Patna to Madhubani. This is a wonderful place. I mean, agriculturally this land in the Gangetic plains is one of the most fertile in the world. But there is no infrastructure and no irrigation.

There is water, it causes floods, but there’s no canalization. And it did not happen partly because the dominant agrarian interests did not want development in Bihar. And after that there was simply State neglect.

Who is going to develop this kind of infrastructure in Bihar? These are all small holdings. Why should you invest in developing irrigational networks? There is no thinking, no investment, in such regions. And agrarian plans have to be region-specific, ecology-sensitive.


Q: Why has rural India lost political heft?

Historically and sociologically, in the 1970s and post the 1980s, the local rural elite, because of democracy and the new Green Revolution technology, became prosperous. They used those channels of mobility to move out of the village. They sent their children to schools and colleges. The aspirations of their children changed. Some became MLAs or got into other political positions, which took them out of the village to the local capital city.

Even in Jharkhand you will find half the population in urban areas are new migrants from villages. Some would be poor, but many would be the erstwhile rural elite. So who will speak for the village in a loud enough voice to be heard in Parliament? You don’t have a Charan Singh or a Devi Lal any longer. You have farmer lobbies only in regions like Punjab which had relatively larger holdings.

In some sense, land reforms also made agriculture a politically unviable voice. The farmer lobby, farmer movements were very active in the 1980s. After that their children began to move out and diversified into urban occupations.

With new liberal development, the middle class began to reproduce itself in the urban corporate economy. Earlier, the Nehruvian middle class still felt it had the onus of taking everyone along. But that is not ‘in’ anymore. Villages have become unfashionable, even for academics like us. They think it is a waste of time. Why do you want to study villages, they ask, who reads about villages these days? ν 


  • Gauri

    Gauri - Dec. 15, 2023, 9:37 a.m.

    I found this interview particularly insightful. The sad reality as Prof. Jodhka put it is - 'earlier, the Nehruvian middle class still felt it had the onus of taking everyone along. But that is not ‘in’ anymore.' As a country this is shameful to say the least. Villages are the roots of any society, intrinsic to the social fabric of India.

  • Naresh Kumar

    Naresh Kumar - Dec. 6, 2023, 10:27 a.m.

    Thank you Prof Prof. Jodhka, I like your thought on rural economy, sociology and politics. The conversation highlighted a true picture - how rural India has been narrated by external socio-political thinkers and capitalists. Being part of the rural folk I completely agree with his thought of rural governance and panchayat system as well. Its a completely new insight about how migration works as a liberation for Bihar youth. Thanks again for very sound thoughts with a new perspective. We need more voices and narratives around this.

  • Kanchan Mondal

    Kanchan Mondal - Dec. 3, 2023, 8:15 a.m.

    It is a thought provoking interview.