In the last few days, many of us have been discussing farmers in our living rooms. They are also the dominant subject of our social media conversations. Chances are that many of us have become semi-experts in the farm laws. But this article is not about farm laws or the protests.
From the discussions around the topic, one can clearly see two dominant narratives. One, a stream of reverence and support for the farmers by people who are expressing and garnering support and putting them on a pedestal calling them “annadaata” and building from the “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” archetype.
And then, there is the other side which argues that these are not real farmers and they don’t deserve our sympathy. One defining image from this side was that of the farmers eating pizzas at the protest site. The idea that farmers could be pizza-eating and English-speaking somehow seemed to make them less worthy of our support.
What is interesting is how both the approaches were based on an oversimplified understanding of the farmer. One that borrows from kisan as the annadaata and the other that frames the farmer as gareeb kisan (poor farmer).
These archetypes of the farmer are both dated and oversimplified. But why? Because the farmer seems to have has slowly faded away from the collective consciousness and consequently conversations in this nation and more so among the urban millennial.
For a country where nearly 50% of the population still depends on agriculture as its source of livelihood, the share of farmers in our popular imagination is abysmally low. Their presence in popular culture from cinema to literature has now dwindled to almost nothing.
The first 30-35 years of our Independence, they remained central to our imagination. Among many, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin highlighted the plight of small farmers almost in the same way as Munshi Premchand, who made farmers the primary subject matter of his fiction. His short stories and novels extensively portrayed different aspects of a farmer’s life. Then came Manoj Kumar’s farmer in Upkar, (remember mere desh ki dharti ) a more heroic “Jai Jawaan” portrayal that was contributing to nation building via green revolution.
For those of us growing up in the 80s, farming and the farmers still entered our consciousness through the famous Krishi Darshan on Doordarshan every evening, which we often ended up watching as we waited for our Chitrahaars and movies that followed. And in the process, getting educated about khar patwaar (weed) and keet nashak dawaiyan (agricultural pesticides).
But since then, as the contribution of agriculture to GDP dropped from 35% to 16%, the farmer simply disappeared from out storytelling. In the last 20-25 years, the farmer has been almost absent from our imagination (except an odd Peepli Live or some regional cinema). The propellers of modern India are the shiny start-ups and BPOs and no wonder the setting of populist novels and OTT content are all about their lives.
As the wave of nationalism resurfaced in recent times, “Jai Jawan” has made a comeback in a forceful way into our storytelling. But the kisan and his life have just evaporated both as a character as well as context.
As a result, for those living in cities, the connect to the life of a farmer is through a distant and dated imagery. And hence, a limited comprehension and empathy with their lives and problems. Even in marketing, such generalisations of rural equals poor equals agrarian often are often visible.
To counter their inability to comprehend them, the sympathetic view wants to put the farmer on a pedestal and express its gratitude (annadaata who feed us) without needing to get closer and understand. By putting them on a pedestal, we distance ourselves from them and therefore not take the burden of understanding them.
The other extreme reject their identity as a farmer because they eat pizza and speak in English, which conflicts with their image of a “poor farmer” that allows them sympathy. Eating pizza makes them privileged (like them) and the privileged can’t protest about their problems.
The alarming absence of one half of our population from our collective consciousness and imagination and the consequent disconnect is dangerously unhealthy for a nation. This lack of understanding is also what creates divides where we start seeing them as stubble burning others who don’t pay income tax, etc.
Hopefully, one positive outcome of the current situation would be that the farmer would make a comeback into nations’ consciousness for us to develop a better understanding of the real farmer.

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