By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi: On March 19, 1986, Sahebrao Karpe, a graduate, killed his wife and four minor children — the youngest 8-months-old — before ending his own life at their home in the Chilgavhan village of Wardha district in eastern Maharashtra. It was the first officially-recorded suicide by a farmer in India.
The National Crime Records Bureau of India has reported that a staggering 2,96,438 Indian farmers had committed suicide since 1995, the year from which records are being maintained. Of these, 60,750 suicides were in Maharashtra and the remaining in Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh.
Karpe, in his late 30s, owned a plot of agricultural land and a house, but was driven to taking the extreme measure after suffering huge crop losses and consequently defaulting on his debt payments to local loan-sharks.
Sadly, in the past 35 years, the situation “has moved only in a negative direction” and got aggravated since the early 1990s thanks to the new-liberal agriculture and agri-finance policies which have barely benefitted the peasantry, Ashok Dhawale, President of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) lamented.
“There was a steep increase in input costs as subsidies were gradually slashed, corporates and MNCs entered the agri-sector in a big way, there was no improvement in remuneration which trapped the farmers in the ‘scissors of debts’, and new policies with many changes in the credit laws by banks and financial institutions with finance largely going to the corporates,”, Dhawale explained.
And now, as tens of thousands of farmers have laid siege at the various entry points to the national capital since December 2020 to demand the repeal of three farm laws they say would leave farmers at the “mercy of corporates” an event that has attracted attention worldwide, comes a poignant new book, “The Sickle” (Juggernaut). The author, Anita Agnihotri, through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra, illuminates, with shocking clarity, a series of intersecting and overlapping events that have led to the crisis: female foeticide, sexual assault, the violence of caste, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations.
Written originally in Bengali and translated by Arunava Sinha, Agnihotri infuses a gripping fictional narrative with anthropology, geography and political economy, remaking the form of the novel as a way to bear witness to the farmers’ crisis.
From Vaishali, trying to rebuild her life after her husband’s suicide, to Yashwant, a dhaba owner driven to activism by his mother’s murder, Agnihotri’s indictment of Indian society is grounded in individual lives. Formally radical, incendiary and deeply humane, this novel tells the darkest truths about contemporary India.
How did the book come about?
“I was deeply moved by the plight of the migrant sugarcane labourers who come to western Maharashtra from Marathwada every year from late winter till monsoon, taking advances from the middlemen. The subhuman condition in which most of them are compelled to live in temporary shanties without electricity and potable water, without any arrangement for health and education for children was appalling,” Agnihotri, a 35-year veteran of the IAS, who retired as Secretary to the Government of India, told IANS in an interview.
Talking to the women and the activists working on the ground, she came to know about “the huge nexus of profit among some unscrupulous doctors and middle men for elimination of foetus of the girl children in Marathwada where sex ratio is the lowest in the country. Vulnerability of the migrant women in temporary shelters also makes them opt for removal of uterus at a young age.”
“I started with this dimension first when I was writing and then as I travelled more, studied the politics of water scarcity, poor water management in agriculture and farmers suicides, I could see all these as parts of a jigsaw puzzle, integrated at the core,” Agnihotri explained.
To this extent, “Kaste” as the book was originally titled, “was written almost in real time” as she wanted to conclude the novel with the farmers’ Long March of 2018 (repeated in 2019), “which was a non-violent protest against the government’s inaction in regularisation of tribal land and issuing them pattas (ownership documents). Farmers from Marathwada and Vidarbha also joined this March which became a symbol of farmers’ protest in neo-liberal India where the corporates dictate the government’s priorities in use of land overriding the rights of tribals and traditional cultivators,” Agnihotri pointed out.
A considerable amount of groundwork has gone into the writing of “The Sickle” — and her other books, of which there are over 30 – Agnihotri said.
“Travelling at the time of writing has been there with me for many years. I don’t sit at my desk and write. But I don’t call it research. I try to understand the real issues at the ground, talk to common people and derive warmth from their company as a writer. In almost all my novels including ‘Mahanadi’, which is coming out in English shortly, this is the process. This travel, however, has no connection with my official responsibility,” Agnihotri explained.
She visited Marathwada for the first time in 2010 and then again in 2012; then again twice in 2018. She travelled to Vidarbha in 2010 and again in 2018.
“I travel as an individual and connect with grassroots level workers and organisations wherever necessary. My understanding of Marathi has been useful though the language used in the villages is very different from the urban version of Marathi,” Agnihotri added.
What next? What’s her next project?
“After ‘The Sickle’, I wrote a short novel called ‘Labanakto’, translated as ‘Saline’ about the life of the salt makers at the Rann of Kutch intertwined with the historical Salt March to Dandi. I will shortly commence my work on a novel on the Narmada dam movement along the course of Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
“This will involve a lot of travel and interactions with the people and organisations and may take 2-3 years to complete. It’s the longest people’s movement in post independence India and should form part of the literature in Bengali. I have worked in the area of displacement caused by large dams and the rehabilitation issues. My understanding and empathy will surely help,” Agnihotri concluded.
Born in Kolkata, Agnihotri studied economics at the Universities of Calcutta and East Anglia. Her literary oeuvre spans poetry, novels, short stories, writing for children and critiques of development. She has won numerous literary awards in Bengal, including the Sarat Puraskar, the Pratibha Basu Sahitya Puraskar and the Bhuban Mohini Dasi Gold Medal from the University of Kolkata. Her collection of stories, “Seventeen”, translated by Arunava Sinha, won the Economist Crossword Book Award for Indian Language Translation in 2011. Her writing has been translated into several Indian languages and also German and Swedish.
Arunava Sinha translates Bengali fiction, poetry and non-fiction into English, and fiction from other languages into Bengali. More than 60 of his translations have been published so far in India, the UK and the US. He teaches Creative Writing at Ashoka University.