May Issue 2015

By | International News | Published 5 years ago

In March and in April, when the rains came down and city dwellers in north India (and Pakistan) luxuriated in the pleasing prospect of a delayed summer, across the countryside there was only disbelief and despair at the unseasonal downpour, days before the wheat crop was to be cut.

Less than a week after Baisakhi, the harvest festival in north India on April 14, I visited Khanna, a dusty little town in Punjab. It is like any other small aspiring urban dot on the highways in the rest of north India with its dhabas, puncher shops for truck tyres, hardware stores, foundries, clothes stores, shops selling bags and suitcases, a couple of hours drive from Chandigarh.

Khanna is also home to one of the largest grain markets in India. Here, during the harvest season, farmers drive in from the surrounding districts in trucks loaded with wheat. The trucks tip their golden load in little hills outside the offices of middlemen, and the farmers then wait by the side of the grain for the government’s procurement agencies to come and buy their harvest.

On the day that I visited, the sun was beating down, and the grain hills had an alluring shimmer to them. But there were no buyers. A lot of the wheat had water in it, and though it looked golden enough to me, it was apparently not the right colour to meet the standards set by the government. The farmers were angry and agitated. They spoke of huge losses, loans to repay and an uncaring government.

If it was like this in Punjab, where the country’s most prosperous farmers live, it was obviously terrible in the rest of the country. Two days later, the nation watched in horror as a farmer from Rajasthan hung himself from a tree in the midst of a public meeting on the farm crisis in the heart of New Delhi. When Gajendra Singh first climbed the tree on the fringes of a farmers’ rally by the Aam Admi Party (AAP), people thought it was to get a better view. But their anxiety mounted as the man climbed higher, and higher, refusing to heed the caution advised by increasingly alarmed people below.

All the while, the speeches from the stage by AAP leaders continued. And suddenly, Gajendra Singh was dead. He had committed suicide by hanging himself with his own turban. Even then, the speeches continued. No one thought to stop the rally. And, it was all on television, live.

As he died, a piece of paper that fell from the tree contained a suicide message, mentioning destroyed crops, money owed and creditors at the door,  and a family that had turned him out because he could not support them.

His death triggered a war of words between the AAP, BJP and Congress. The Delhi Police, which is an arm of the central government, filed a case against AAP leaders for not doing enough to prevent the farmer’s apparent suicide. Even if they did not, it is despicable that the macabre spectacle of a dead man hanging from a tree did not shake up the people on the spot enough for them to stop everything they were doing and make efforts to bring the body down.

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But was Gajendra Singh really an impoverished farmer in distress? In the feeding frenzy that followed, only a few media organisations reported that Gajendra Singh may not really have been that worried about his crops. In fact, in his village Dausa, 62 kms from the state capital Jaipur and less than 300 kms from Delhi, he was known less as a farmer and more as a man who earned good money in Rajasthan’s tourist trade, with his turban-tying skills. Gajendra Singh was reputed to be the fastest safa tier this side of the Thar, and his skills were much in demand in the five-star hotels of Jaipur and at weddings.

The family had less than an acre of land, but his brothers were in regular employment. As the only son without regular employment, Gajendra helped his father till the land, but what he wanted most was to stand in an election and win. Some papers reported that some time before he died, he had called his sister and said he would give her Rs 1.5 lakh for her daughter’s wedding.

Could his death have been a horrible accident? Did Gajendra Singh, in an attempt to catch the attention of those on the stage, end up dying when he actually wanted to live life, king-size? More sinister questions are also doing the rounds about the death: was it really his handwriting on the suicide note? Was he put up to suicide by anti-AAP forces? His family has alleged foul play and wants a murder investigation.

Whatever the truth behind his tragic death, Gajendra Singh is now the posthumous poster boy of India’s agrarian distress.

Just days before the Gajendra Singh incident, Rahul Gandhi slipped back into Delhi after a long ‘privilege’ leave of absence from his party and politics. As is always the case in Delhi, everyone knows (from ‘top sources,’ no less) but ‘boss, no one will confirm’ where he spent the six weeks.

My preferred unconfirmed truth about his vacation is that he was in Thailand, attending a vipassana meditation retreat (having been to one myself, I can tell you that this is the kind where you leave your mobile phones behind at the check-in counter if you have been ambitious enough to take them along; you can’t speak to anyone at all for the entire 10 days even during breaks in meditation; no food passes your lips after 6 pm; there are no newspapers, no TV). Rahul offered zero explanations himself about where he had been (What? No holiday photos on Facebook?) but he was looking trim and fit, and surprise, surprise, more confident of himself. Critics, opponents and supporters alike were taken aback by his speech in Parliament where, for the first time, he appeared surefooted as he lashed out at the Modi government for being “a suit-boot ki sarkar” that was siding with its industrialist pals against the interests of farmers. Crony capitalism was also the UPA government’s forte, but if being economical with the truth is the hallmark of a confident politician, Rahul definitely seemed to have got there.

Then he went off once again, but this time on a padayatra to Kedarnath, the Himalayan abode of Lord Shiva devastated by a flood two years ago. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt as he set off on the trek, the Congress first family scion looked every bit like the 40-year-old grown-up kid, next door. The intention seemed to be to convey that the Congress is every bit as Hindu as the BJP, make common cause with the pilgrims who trek up every year, and inspect the rehabilitation work after the destruction wrought by the 2013 disaster. The 7.9 earthquake in Nepal put his effort in the shade somewhat, and Rahul jokes once again flooded social media — the earthquake is actually Shiv ji doing the tandav because he is angry that Rahul visited the Kedarnath shrine, was one of them.

Now the word is that he is going on a countrywide padayatra to highlight the plight of farmers. The padayatra has been used as a political instrument by every political party in India (and in Pakistan too — Mama Qadeer being the most recent example, even though he is not a politician, or consider former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary’s own Gandhi moment back in 2007 when he walked to the Supreme Court from his house) at some time or the other after Gandhi (the original one) took on the British with it. As Arnab Goswami, the TV anchor who competes with Rahul as the other favourite butt of social media jokes, might say: Mr Gandhi, the nation is watching.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.

Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.