Alternatives for the Village and Rural Revival: India and China

Rural and urban divide in China and India are increasing not only in terms of material wealth but also cultural standing. In grotesque simplifications, villages signify what is "backward" or under-developed. But one should understand that this is the result of current modes of development, which disrupt village social fabric and family structures at the expense of developing cities. Many villages in both China and India experiences drops in income from farmland and a loss of village youth to city migration. Recent efforts to help the village become self-sustainable include Barefoot College, started by husband and wife Bunker Roy and Aruna Roy. This college trains villagers to become experts in their own right and resist the fetishization of credentials. As The Hindu reports,
Rajasthan’s Ajmer and Rajsamand districts have been the sites of their work for enabling the self-respecting to become self-reliant as well, the self-abnegating to become self-assured too, and the self-denying to become inspirationally self-affirming.

Aruna and Bunker Roy

I first learned about Aruna Roy and her dedication to villages and the MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakhti Sangathan —the Organisation for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants) that aims to secure the rights villagers through British journalist Edward Luce's 2006 book In Spite of the Gods--
Ms. Roy is a Gandhian to the tips of her fingers: her saris are always made of cotton; she is a vegetarian; she lives ascetically among the villagers; she uses the occasional hunger strike, and more frequently the dharna, or sit-down protest, to pressurise the authorities — both tactics Gandhi pioneered against the British. And, although she concedes that escaping your caste identity is much more difficult in the village than in the town, she sees the former as the key to India's future. 
Each meal was a nutritious vegetarian mix of rice,  roti (Indian bread),  dhal (lentils), and a variation of potatoes, aubergine and okra, with a glass of buttermilk.

Nikhil Dey, when interviewed by Luce, resists being labeled as Gandhian or Marxist, claiming to inherit the heritage of both schools of thought. "We can make the village work through better farming and cottage industries. If people leave the villages then they also lose the rootedness that comes with living where you are from and the strength you draw from your natural surroundings."

While Luce's account focuses on Aruna's collaboration with Nikhil Dey, I read about other inspiring efforts of the Roys again from a detailed 2013 Chinese report on the Barefoot College by Hong Kong journalist Susanna Chui-Yung Cheung. She also commented on the simple food and was amazed by the college's success in training of age-old grannies how to create solar panels. She interpreted the Barefoot College as Gandhian.

Solar panels and its engineers

Still, the lack of of respectable employment opportunities in the typical Rajasthani villages pose a serious problem for similar villages in developing countries. As Luce holds skepticism for Roy and Dey's efforts, he reported on the desire for migration out of the village--
(Peasants) stood up and announced their profession. It was a roll-call of agricultural failure. The first was a well-digger who travels from village to village. Another worked as a security guard for Reliance Industries, one of India's largest companies, in Delhi. The next was a cloth worker who had lost his job in the city. The fourth had been trying for years without success to join the army. The next two were both menial workers at a hotel in the city of Ahmedabad in the neighbouring state of Gujarat. And so on.  Barely any of the men remain in the village because farming is not enough to make ends meet. 
In China, many hail back to 20th century thinkers such as philosopher Liang Shuming (梁漱溟) for ideas on village reconstruction. More recently intellectuals such as Ou Ning have also tried experimenting with cultural revivals in the countryside as well. Xiong Peiyun's Seeing China Through a Village (《一个村庄里的中国) also documents social issues in an elegiac tone as a writer who left his village for the city. PhD student Yige Dong's gender analysis (《女权视角下的碧山计划》) also sheds light on how we understand the contribution of women to the village economy. India also produced many intellectual discussions surrounding the question of village economies, which I learned from reading Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire.

During roughly the same era as Liang Shuming, economist and social thinker Radhakamal Mukerjee studied the issue of village development in the 1925. He suggested that the German model of small scale industries could be emulated by India. Radhakamal argued for the power of the Indian village economy, and "the strenuous diffusion of production factors" as an alternative to "Western, city-centered, and finance-driven capitalism." Mukherjee "praised the village and handicraft economies... as well as the benefits it would bring to Indian society." This is distinctly different than a state capital-intensive model proposed by some socialists at the time.
"Radhakamal spoke of 'rurbanization' and the 'cityward drift' that would instigate 'the improvement of the technical conditions of the village, which will satisfy the more intellectual and ambitious of the village youth,'" quotes Kris Manjapura, author of Age of Entanglement. The "co-operative credit" movements in Germany also inspired Radhakamal. He regarded the Germany's model of agricultural reconstruction through decentralized network of expertise and finances was appropriate for India.
In my opinion, Radhakamal would certainly hope to see more initiatives similar to those of Bunker Roy, Aruna Roy, and Nikhil Dey's rural revival projects. In face of globalization, some people find trouble "catching up" with rising costs and standards levels of living. Migrant laborers around the world accept their dismal and disenfranchised conditions of living despite the lack of legal protection. However, one should also reflect on alternative methods, especially when current models of development exploit migrant labor and resources in atrocious ways.


The Bishan Plan is Not Elitist

Is an intellectual automatically elitist? How should a scholar engage in activism and should he or she analyze, categorize and conceptualize? What if some critique that the very conceptualization of activism creates economic inequality?

One of Ou's presentation inside the bar
In Harvard sociology PhD Ms. Zhou Yun's critique. Ms. Zhou believes that the Bishan Project in its current shape and form is an elitist one for several reasons. This claim occurred last month, in which I wrote a thought-piece acknowledging aspects of both sides of the argument. This post will target the specific issue of the language Ou Ning used when explaining the execution of the Bishan Plan. Ms. Zhou pointed to several instances in which Ou Ning distanced himself from "the people," such as conducting the presentations in a bar. Ou Ning explained that the size of the audiences required that venue. He presented the talk in the bar for pragmatic reasons rather than aiming for a bourgeois affect. Zhou Yun also critiqued Ou Ning's conceptual words such as "civil society." To quote the Chinese text,"绍理念PPT是全英文的,满是civil society、social engineering、party politics等等大词." Zhou Yun also sees this symbolic boundary between the intellectuals and the Bishan people, which recreates economic inequalities.

The latter claim that cultural boundaries recreating economic inequality cannot be substantiated in this particular case due to the lack data. This post aims to tackle the issue of the "elitist" language allegedly used by Ou Ning during Zhou's short visit organized by Nanjing University. In the presentation Ms. Zhou heard, where Ou used words such as "civil society," he was speaking to a group of out-of-town observers and scholars, not the "people of Bishan." He also explained that he did not see the need to update the English Powerpoint he used for NYU a while ago.

I believe that while some intellectuals spend a lot of time conceptualizing rather than action (which is often portrayed as the opposite of social change), using concepts during activism and projects should be encouraged rather than labeled as "elitist." Zhou is calling for what Gayatri Spivak would term as "clamoring for anti-intellectualism, a sort of complete monosyllabification of one’s vocabulary within academic enclosures." This quote is from the interview titled "The problem of self representation" collected in The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues.

Here is the excerpt from the illuminating exchange between Dr. Spivak and Dr. Walter Adamson. While Spivak calls for intellectuals' unlearning for better communication, she cautions us of anti-intellectualism. I think provides a comprehensive defense of Ou Ning and other intellectuals wishing for social engagement with the peasants or subaltern, while also using big, "fancy" concepts depending on the situation. 
Spivak: ... There is an impulse among literary critics and other kinds of intellectuals to save the masses, speak for the masses, describe the masses. On the other hand, how about attempting to learn to speak in such a way that the masses will not regard as bullshit. When I think of the masses, I think of a woman belonging to that 84% of women’s work in India, which is unorganized peasant labour. Now if I could speak in such a way that such a person would actually listen to me and not dismiss me as yet another of those many colonial missionaries, that would embody the project of unlearning. ... What can the intellectual do toward the texts of the oppressed? Represent them and analyze them, disclosing one’s own positionality for other communities in power. ... 

Adamson: Does speaking to marginalized groups and yet not “deskilling” oneself mean anything about the kinds of texts that one ought to speak about?

Spivak: When I said that one shouldn’t invite people to de-skill themselves, I was talking about a kind of anti-intellectualism that exists among academics and counter-academics. One ought not to patronize the oppressed. And that’s where the line leaves us. Unlearning one’s privileged discourse so that, in fact, one can be heard by people who are not within the academy is very different from clamoring for anti-intellectualism, a sort of complete monosyllabification of one’s vocabulary within academic enclosures. And it seems to me that one’s practice is very dependent upon one’s positionality, one’s situation. I come from a state where the illiterate--not the functionally illiterate, but the real illiterate, who can't tell the difference between one letter and another--are still possessed of a great deal of political sophistication, and are certainly not against learning a few things. I'm constantly struck by the anti-intellectualism within the most opulent university systems in the world. So that's where I was speaking about de-skilling. 
Spivak continues to explain that literary analyses of subaltern voices also depend on the situation even if she is read as "giving a voice" to the subaltern subject of study. Granted, Ou is not a literary scholar, but I find this issue very common among circles of intellectuals aiming for social change. While the flow of information and proscribed norms have been predominantly controlled by the intellectuals and distributed to the subaltern, should all efforts to communicate ideals be criticized? I think not; intervention of this flow of information, as Spivak aptly put it, depends on circumstances. The Bishan Plan may pander to the urban / bourgeoisie aesthetics in its execution, but the specific act of explaining the project in academic terms does not make it "elitist" in the sense that creates more inequalities.


The Question of Rewriting Palestinian People into History

After a summer hiatus due to my 8-week intensive Hindi language program, I am back to frequently blogging about what I have been learning. I am a listener of the excellent Ottoman History Podcast and their newest episode interviewed the author of Rediscovering Palestine, social historian . The interview is very enlightening for historians and graduate students.

I always found it difficult to explain my interests in post-colonial history and Dr. Doumani, a professor of history at Brown University, explained the mission of the contemporary historian very well. Here is an excerpt of his insight on historiography typed by me from the recorded conversation. 
Writing Palestinians into history is a very difficult theoretical problem. Because one cannot do history first without unpacking and being critical of their own identity. So if we begin from the premise that nationalist construction of the past are usually false, and predictable, and meant to bolster specific political positions, we see our missions as "professional historians" not so much to write history as it is but to ask different kinds of questions that mess up these narratives of power, really, to do a subversive history, in the good sense of the word. So does one then write people into history when the notion of peoplehood itself is subject to critique. 
The host, Chris Gratien brings up the point that Golda Meir once said,  "There were no such things as Palestinians." And Dr. Doumani continues--
When Golda Meir says there is no such thing as Palestinians, and we have slogans such as 'a land for a people for a people without a land,' then, writing those people into history becomes a nationalist act... So that is where the theoretical problems lies.
So how does one maneuver? That's a simpler proposition for people who write about an end of a conflict or when it is no longer hot. ... In the case of those who want to write Palestinians into history, but to do it in a way that is not reinforcing nationalist constructions of the past, at a time when the conflict is still hot, then it becomes a problem, because the political stakes are complicated. ... For me, I was aware that writing Palestinians into history could be seen as a nationalist act. I was determined to write it in ways to be critical of nationalist constructions of that past, not just for the sake of being critical, but because what I was finding was very different from what they were saying. 
Doumani continues to argue that the erasure of Palestinians started even before Zionism, with three different forces at play: Orientalists, Zionists, Arab Nationalists, and Islamists. They all agreed that the history (especially before the 19th century) of Palestinians were not important. Doumani continues to explain that Islamists looked at this period of golden Islamic justice that was shattered by western intervention, so the period was idealized and hard to study. Palestinian nationalists considered that the Ottoman rulers oppressed the land of milk and honey, which paved the way for British colonialists and Zionists. These narratives argue that all these forces of change were external,
...so whatever people did at that time didn't matter. They were victims or bystanders of what was being done by outsiders. And the periodization was the same. Nothing really happened until the 1880s or 20th century. These are just two of the many binaries agreed by all four narratives of the past. ... It shows the depth of the problem they face and have faced throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, which is the refusal of the world to recognize the right of Palestinians to constitute as a political community. 

We see this continue in contemporary debates that Palestinians are "Arabs" and should be able to relocate to Arab. As Doumani draws connections between the past and the present, he says, "The idea that close to 2 million people are thrown in to one big open prison... to keep them alive but not really living, it's amazing that people accept that." To declare Gaza as an ahistorical place of no connections to anyone, is another example accomplished through the erasure of the Palestinian people, he argues.

Another interesting point Doumani made in the podcast regarding the destruction of olive trees has both a material and symbolic element--
One has to do with livelihoods; the other has to do with the fact that the less a commodity becomes important in society, the more it becomes a symbol. The less the Palestinians lived off of olive trees, the more they became a symbol for what it means to be a Palestinian... I don't think it's accidental that the Israeli occupation authorities regularly resort to the cutting down  olive trees as a way of not just punishing but psychologically ruining and repressing a population.
Both Gratien and Doumani discussed the different sources emerging. As a scholar interested in material, Doumani calls for more specific studies of sources to generate new questions and insights. Still, he also values the the question of how we use our sources and political vocabulary also have to be examined carefully (reg: Edward Said / Orientalism.) Gratien also laments that many materials are often understudied, "Oral history is only when it's too late becomes important. It's when the people are about to die do they become important." Doumani counters that "Archives do not preexist the questions that we ask; it's our questions that create archives. Archives are constructed and they will never end." Still, Doumani also understands the urgency, as he regards "The land itself is the biggest archive, and it is being changed as we speak." He mentioned new technologies, such as GIS, enables historians to interpret the past.

The sources Doumani used for his book Rediscovering Palestine, such as court records and family papers of the region in question (Nablus), is also very important resources to keep in mind for (social) historians. He physically visited the West Bank for research, but he laments the lack of national resources for preserving Palestinian archives. He also observes that Israeli scholars have more access to these archives than Palestinians. Doumani considers that there is a war going on with representation in the contemporary as well as the past events. This is a universal task that conscientious historians must tackle in any area of study, but obviously should be done more actively in the case of disputed regions, such as Palestine.