He was humiliated and dehumanised. He wrote four suicide notes before killing himself. One was in his pocket, another under the pillow and one more was lying on the floor of the room. The fourth and the most disturbing one was scribbled on the wall of the room. It was probably written during his last moments,” says Suman Devi, a landless Dalit peasant from Dinod village of Bhiwani district in Haryana whose husband Madan Pal who committed suicide on 7 May.
Showing the photograph of Madan’s final farewell note on the wall, Suman says, “He was passionate about farming.” The graffiti reads like this: “Bhaiyon, mein bura nahi tha… inn logon ne bana diya (Brothers, I wasn’t bad but they turned me into that).” Following that is a list of the names of the moneylenders who harassed him.
Suman was in Delhi to attend a national convention of the family members of the farmers who committed suicide. The convention was organised by All India Kisan Sabha (aiks) to “protest against neoliberal economic policies unleashed by central and state governments that are pushing farmers to suicide”.
The life and struggles of this Dalit couple, punctuated by the untimely death of the husband, is a slap on the face of the Narendra Modi government, whose Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh infamously declared that “impotency and love affairs” are significant causes of the distress suicides that are ravaging the Indian countryside. Going by the logic of the Modi regime and State agencies such as the National Crime Records Bureau (ncrb), Madan’s death may not be a “farm suicide”. Of course, like most Dalits in India, Madan, too, was landless. But does that mean Dalits are not doing farming and they are not committing suicide because of agrarian distress? Mandarins in the Niti Aayog (which has replaced the erstwhile Planning Commission) and ncrb would say yes. So, are they right?
Official statistics on suicides exclude the most oppressed sections of the peasantry — tenant farmers, sharecroppers, women farmers (In India, land titles are mostly in the name of the men) — even if they had been tilling land for years. Formal credit agencies such as banks do not give credit to tenant farmers because most tenancy contracts are oral, with no formal documents. And the deep structural inequalities prevailing in India ensure that a disproportionate number of tenants and sharecroppers belong to the lower castes.
Take the case of the Madan, who had leased in 10 acres of farm land at an annual rent of 20,000 per acre. He borrowed from three local sahukars (moneylenders) at interest rates ranging from 36 percent yearly to very high monthly rates. In these parts of Haryana, you have to pay back 1 percent of the loan to the moneylender every day. Madan had been doing this meticulously until bad luck came in the form of the hailstorm this summer. His entire crop was damaged, but he did not get a single penny as compensation. Fed up with the constant humiliation by the moneylenders, Madan hanged himself to death.
“We voted for the bjp in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections last year. But none of their leaders visited us,” says Suman.
Or take the case of the Ramendra Sharma from Pachoria village in Gwalior district of Madhya Pradesh. His father Devendra was regarded among fellow villagers as a model farmer, who died of a heart attack after severe hailstorm destroyed crops in the village and “even the buffaloes won’t touch the damaged wheat”. “On 19 March, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan visited our village with a huge contingent from the media in tow,” recalls Ramendra. “He promised ‘immediate relief’ and ‘personal attention’ to address the crisis. He also took my father to the fields and made him pose for photos. The CM’s public realtions machinery ensured that news, photos and visuals of this visit was played up in the regional media. But no relief reached us and my father died heartbroken in the first week of the April. I was outraged and decided to expose the duplicity of the government. When the local media noticed, a meagre amount, much less than what the cm had promised, was released as compensation.”
With debts piling up and the moneylenders’ hands at their throat, the Sharma family had to sell off their agricultural equipment and land. “My father always insisted that we should do farming. But what other option do we have now?” asks Ramendra.
Hailing from a remote village in Bhind district in Madhya Pradesh, Grandh, a Jatav Dalit farmer whose younger brother Janved killed himself in February after losing their crop to the hailstorm, rues that no matter how bad things get, quitting farming is not an option for people like them. “We have the title deeds to some land, but upper-caste landlords have encroached upon it,” says Grandh, “So, to make ends meet, we are forced to take land on lease from the same people and also borrow money from them or their relatives. We have no other way to fill our bellies because Dalits like us are denied access to the PDS (Public Distribution System) in our village.”