The Dawn: 17th July, 2013

Retaining the power and the art of survival Part II

Mushtaq Soofi 

Peasant family is the most productive in the sluggish socio-economic system of rural Punjab. It is normally large and of course joint. It shares some structural features with joint feudal family. ‘Three generations gathered together’ share the same roof. Head of the family is usually grandfather or father. Joint peasant family seems to be historically older than the contemporary joint feudal family which is, as was pointed out earlier, a product of colonial era designed to serve the interests of its alien masters. The fountainhead of peasant family is its skill and labour, not property as it owns little or small agricultural plot which is not sufficient enough to sustain it. To eke out its living the members of the family have to work as tenants, sharecroppers or wage workers in the fields. It will not be an exaggeration to state that the relative prosperity of the Punjab in the subcontinent, much talked about in history, is the gift of its peasant who has been and still is wretched of the earth. The exploitation of the peasant has been proportionate to his productive capability: the more he produced, the less he got, the more he toiled, the less he earned .

Way back in 13th century Baba Farid, one of the most influential saints of the subcontinent and the first great classical poet of contemporary Punjabi, graphically exposed the barbarity of predatory socio-economic system the peasant suffered from.

“O Farid, these stalks of mustard in the pan though sweet are poison Some toiled till they dropped, while others moved in plundering it”.

The family of tenants (sharecroppers) fares worst not because of any fault of its own but rather due to vicious system of tenancy that may give it some legal rights written in the law books which are rarely enforced in case there is dispute been the tenants and the landlord. They can be evicted at will. Fear of eviction hangs over tenants like Damocles’ sword, reducing them practically to serfs. One can see such families in the West and South of Punjab where big land owners hold sway. What they get as a result of their incessant toil barely allows them to live at subsistence level. The family owns little more than a thatched roof, substandard utensils, a few cots and some sacks of grain. What provides the family some relief is a buffalo or a cow that literally enables it to have buttered bread.
Some members, both male and female, may also be hired as daily workers. One can borrow Bertolt Brecht’s description of European peasants to tell what our peasants look like working in the fields, of course, to the outsiders:

“The figures in the fields, brown-chested monsters, wicked looking, work with slow movements for the pale faces in the petri facts, as laid down in the documents’.

If the family is large, some members are compelled to migrate to towns and cities in search of jobs as construction workers, drivers, security guards and housemaids adding to milling crowds condemned to live the sprawling urban slums known as ‘Kachi abadis’. And that is the reason why urban middle class families with modest income can enjoy the luxury of employing a male servant or a maid. The wages are that low!

We also come across, mostly in the central and the north Punjab, what may be described as peasant proprietor family, a rung or two up the economic and social ladder as it has a chunk of land sufficient to make it independent socially and politically to some extant but not sufficient enough to make it economically independent. Such families pretend to be ‘Zimindar’ (land owners) but in economic terms, are much less than what they think they are. They are in fact upper crust of peasantry or rural lower middle class that must constantly struggle to ensure its economic survival.

They are always caught in an unending debt circle. Cash starved, they have to borrow money for agricultural inputs from the ‘Arhti’, the commission agent ensconced in the ‘Mandi’ (grain market).
In return they have to sell their products to the same agent in addition to paying the markup on the cash they borrowed.

It can safely be claimed that there is no gender segregation in the peasant family which is of course not the result of a choice but rather a product of historical compulsion. All members of the family, both male and female, must work in order to make a living. Women work in the fields and tend a few animals the family has, to supplement their meager income. They, like urban working women, have to earn for the family as well as to look after it. Their work and the consequent unrestricted movement give them a measure of social and sexual freedom which ladies in their mansions lack. And this is how Brecht juxtaposes the peasant woman against the ladies in the European context which may help us to understand our own peasant woman’s relative freedom: “The milkmaid, famous for her capacity to feel joy in the embrace, looks up with contempt at her unhappy sisters in sables who are paid for every wriggle of their pampered bottoms”.

But one cannot say that patriarchal norms are no longer operative in the peasant family. Gender inequality is inbuilt in the family system. Wife beating is not uncommon though wives in the peasant families have some capacity to fight back.

Whether it is feudal or peasant family, the structure is patriarchal based on gender inequality. The difference between the two lies in the nature of work they do. The peasant family produces while the feudal family consumes. The former is productive and exploited, while the latter is parasitic and exploitative. The peasant fights for survival, while the lord strives for power. The class conflict remains subdued but simmering, awaiting the resolution. In Waris Shah’s words:

“The field is ablaze, let us see when the peasant comes out and fights the fire”.

Both the lord and the peasant suffer from the miasma of stagnant waters of rural society though in completely different ways. The flabby lord decries the intrusion of socio economic forces that are beyond his control, resulting in the loosening of his grip on power. The decrepit peasant resents the slow pace of changes that he cannot force to accelerate. The feudal and the peasant both are unhappy but ‘each is unhappy in his own way’.

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