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Epic markers

The return of the Mahabharata

G.N. Devy Published 16.12.20, 12:44 AM
A man from the Sikh community displays martial art skills at Ghazipur border during farmers sit-in protest against the Centres farm reform laws, in Ghaziabad, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

A man from the Sikh community displays martial art skills at Ghazipur border during farmers sit-in protest against the Centres farm reform laws, in Ghaziabad, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. PTI

“The farmers are camping along five major highways on the outskirts of New Delhi and have said they won’t leave until the government rolls back what they call the ‘black laws’.” This was the news on December 8, the day on which the nation observed a voluntary lockdown, a Bharat bandh. A group of farmers in Karnataka with whom I was talking on the day of the bandh said that these five camps are like the five Pandavas. The unexpected analogy set me thinking. Thousands of farmers had set out on an unprecedented march from Punjab, the land of five rivers. Their destination was New Delhi, which, in ancient times, was Indraprastha. Twelve days earlier, on November 27, they were stopped by the Haryana police by digging trenches in their path, using water cannons and raising massive barricades. The site of the clash was not too far from ancient Kurukshetra where the Mahabharata war took place. The time of the year too was the month of Margashirsh, intimately associated with the plot of the ancient war. From the moment the farmers arrayed themselves for the confrontation, the media gaze, the divya-chakshu, turned to the spot where the action was taking place. In the Mahabharata, Sanjaya, gifted with divine vision, was charged with the task of presenting a blow-by-blow account of the war to the blind father of the Kauravas. The initial day on the ancient Kurukshetra battlefield was spent in shouting war-slogans and blowing insignia-conches. From that day, till the tenth day, Bhishma was the general on the Kaurava side. Bhishma was shot through, but waited for his death till Margashirsh got over. Drona, who followed Bhishma as the general, lasted for five days, to be followed by Karna, who lasted for three days, finally followed by Shalya who presided over the defeat of the Kaurava army. The minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, was fielding for the government for the first ten days of the agitation. Tomar was sidelined and the action moved to the residence of the home minister, Amit Shah, on the eleventh day. Besides, there is in the background the construction of the Central Vista and its foundation laying ceremony permitted by the Supreme Court, reminiscent of the palace-building in the epic. There are also the million lamps that lit up the ghats of Ganga to mark Dev Deepavali, exactly when the ‘love jihad’ law by the Uttar Pradesh government emboldened vigilantes to swoop down on Hindu girls in love with Muslim boys, no less demeaning than Bhishma’s abduction of the unwilling daughters of the king of ancient Kashi, now famous as the constituency of Narendra Modi. Although apparently superficial, the similarities are eye-catching. The ancient epic depicts a war for protection of ‘racial purity’. ‘Kulkshya’, the loss of pure lineage, and the ‘pollution of women by others’ were among the main reasons presented by Arjuna to Krishna for his reluctance to go to war as the beginning of the Bhagwad Gita states it. Krishna’s advice was to stay steadfast in one’s duty, the dharma as the Gita described it. The Gita marks the first day of the epic war. November 26, the day of the Constitution, marked the beginning of the farmer’s march.

Indeed, the confrontation between the farmers and the government has an epic scale.


The Mahabharata was set in times that witnessed the historic transition of society from pastoralism to agriculture. The current confrontation is set in times when society is witnessing a shift from a responsible democratic State to the crony-capitalism of an authoritarian government. All that the Pandavas were asking for was their right over Hastinapur. All that the farmers are asking for is the repeal of the recent agriculture related Acts. Their argument is that if the government does not provide the minimum support price for their production, they would be rendered vulnerable to the vagaries of the open market. Those of our countrymen who are not directly connected with agriculture as a profession tend to think that if other sectors such as banking, insurance, healthcare and education have already been handed over to private players, why not agriculture? Every day, so many economists have been asking this question in television debates. The logic in this question is flawless, but the understanding of the issue is deeply flawed. The agrarian society is not ‘a sector’; it is a distinct civilization, particularly in the case of India, Iran and Egypt. These are countries, which in ancient times gave birth to distinct civilizations because they had moved from pastoralism to agriculture. Indian farmers are, if described from a comprehensive historical perspective, the true makers of India. The nation did not create Indian farmers; the farmers here created the Indian nation. Farming is not just an occupation or a livelihood but much more. It is the very basis of the village-systems, which, despite their serious drawbacks, provide Indian society its resilience and tolerance. Hence, when they are pauperized, left in a deep debt trap and forced to commit suicide, the legislators and economic planners should not look at them merely as an economic liability.

True to its characteristic habit of propaganda, the regime made it appear that the farmers’ agitation is fuelled by the separatists and by Opposition parties. The genuine concerns of farmers were sidelined and ridiculed. Many government spokespersons question why farmers should insist on getting more than what they are already getting in the form of cheap electricity and subsidized fertilizers. It is not the government that is subsidizing the farmers but it is the farmers who subsidize the nation by not demanding pension, old age allowance, annual increments and LTA. They are only asking for a guarantee that their production gets a reasonable and a minimum price.

Elaborate war-time debates form a feature of epic poems. There have been many debates within the Mahabharata as to why the war that destroyed everybody could not be prevented in the first place. Many of those discussions point to the greed, contempt and anger of Duryodhana and to his father’s turning (literally) a blind eye to evil. The ancient Mahabharata provided an occasion for a metaphysical text like the Gita. Anger towards all those who hold divergent views and contempt for constitutional norms have been the unmistakable features of the present regime. The Constitution assures us that India is and will continue to be a democracy. The directive principles in it are clear about the direction in which the State policies ought to move. Let us hope that the epic agitation by India’s farmers provides the regime with a desire to think of the constitutional norms and Bharat does not have to go through a Mahabharata-like destruction for defending democracy.

The author is a literary scholar and cultural activist

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