Scholars from varied disciplines of social science in the recent past have been engaged in revisiting the concepts of rural, urban, peasant, non-peasant, formal, informal labour, intermediaries, money-lenders, classes of labour, new forms of caste bondage, freedom and un-freedom, given the significant changes in rural and urban India. These conceptual debates have a long historical trajectory as they provide several contextual interpretations from different periods of time. At a time when it is essential to relook at the context in which some of these debates took place, Agrarian and Other Histories provides refreshing insights. By invoking the relevance of the ideas of Professor Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri on the agrarian history of eastern India, the contributors pay a rich tribute to the economic historian through this book.
The book attempts to cover four broad themes of agrarian history that Chaudhuri dealt with for about five decades: the concept of peasantry, growth of commercial agriculture in eastern India, the process of ‘de-peasantisation’ by which small and marginal peasants gradually lost their land and turned into sharecroppers or hired labourers, and finally the forcible induction of large numbers of tribes and forest dwellers into settled agriculture resulting in spates of rebellion. The introduction by Shubhra Chakrabarti provides a panoptical view of Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri’s contribution to the agrarian history of eastern India by highlighting the decisive role played by the peasant households, zamindars and the colonial state; non-peasant rural agents such as money-lenders, affluent landholders; farmers and agrarian intermediaries (Jotedars) in the rural agrarian structure.
The first section consisting of five chapters focus on the conceptual issues of agrarian studies. Dietmar Rothermund recapitulates the discussion on the definition of peasant. He has emphasized how the institutional framework was significant within which the peasants lived and worked. The crucial elements of this framework are property rights, security of tenure, the availability of credit, the law of contract and the law of inheritance. Discussing the peasant class differentiation, the author highlights the usefulness of Utsa Patnaik’s six classes of landholders. Pointing out the importance of the growth of commercial agriculture, this chapter argues that production for the market did increase peasant enterprise. This is substantiated by providing examples from specific peasant castes such as the Kammas in coastal Andhra, the Gounders of Kongunad in Tamilnadu. Rajat Datta argues that early modern Bengal was characterized by an unprecedented degree of commercialization. The critical facilitators were the webs of connected surface and river communication and a dense lattice of mercantile networks operating out of both towns and villages. While market opportunities expanded and helped in enriching many indigenous traders, it also increased the economic vulnerability of the producers.
Shinkchi Taniguchi argues that differentiation among peasantry can occur even in the absence of a land market for peasants through political processes. In fact, differentiation has accelerated by the intrusion of outsiders such as European tea planters and Indian traders from the plains by the development of commercial agriculture and by state intervention as in the case of the Princely State of Koch Bihar*. David Ludden narrates the complex process through which Sylhet was incorporated into British Bengal in 1780. Even as more local farmers bought company land rights, however, remitting Sylhet revenue posed a difficult problem as there were no metal coins, no rich merchants or big bankers in Sylhet. The strict boundary drawn at the base of the northern mountains in 1789 to settle all borders with Khasia rulers in fact defined the Bengalis and the Khasias as people with separate histories, homelands and cultural identities. Neeladri Bhattacharya points out how the colonial state embarked on one of the grandest projects of social engineering in Punjab ostensibly to ‘improve’ landscapes and modernize agrarian spaces while seeking to maximize revenue returns. This chapter highlights that conquest from above was not as easy as the British state imagined. It could not produce an ideal agrarian space, unhindered and unconstrained.
The second section discusses the social history of Bengal with the backdrop of the Bengal’s partition, the Bengal Famine of 1943-44 and the social and economic origins of the founders of Calcutta. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay talks about the participation of Dalits and Muslims in Bengal partition politics. After Partition, the Dalit peasants were displaced from their ancestral homes by Islamic nationalism in India; while it tried to appropriate them, it was not ready to offer them full citizenship. As they were dispersed in various rufugee camps throughout the country, organized Dalit voices disappeared from the Bengali public space leading to that all powerful myth that caste does not matter in Bengal. Gargi Chakravartty highlights two important points: one, that famine was a man-made calamity caused by bureaucratic corruption and the exploitative zaminari system. Poor peasants sold land worth 10 crore rupees and the displacement of the peasantry on such a large scale was unprecedented. Second, despite this volatile situation, Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti was formed for women’s self-protection, to counter Japanese aggression and to tackle the famine situation. Shubhra Chakrabarti talks about how the indigenous merchants of Bengal collaborated with the Europeans in trade and turned into business tycoons. These merchants continued to dominate the commercial world right up to the first two decades of the 19th century. She also analyses the causes that led to the decline of these commercial magnates from the mid-19th century after the transfer of the Company’s rule to the Crown.
The third section essentially analyses Rabindranath Tagore’s political vision through his writings and rural development initiatives. Uma Das Gupta highlights the ideas behind setting up of Sriniketan as a rural development wing of Visva Bharati University. Tagore did not believe that change in property relations would alter the injustice done to peasants and therefore emphasized change in human attitudes and adoption of cooperative methods. Tanika Sarkar analyses three novels of Tagore reflecting on different phases of nationalism and the contexts of class, gender and caste politics. This is quite evident from Tagore’s three passionately angry poems about untouchability and in Ghare Baire the possibility of women’s choice beyond and against conjugality. Anuradha Roy points out that Tagore’s nationalism cannot be understood in terms of stereotypical binaries that feature in most discussions of nationalism, rather in terms of its process. She concludes by saying that Tagore’s nationalism was self-reflexive and introspective.
The last section analyses the concept of poverty and the drain of wealth from India to Britain in the context of global diffusion of capitalism. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya talks about the three discursive approaches to poverty in colonial India: one, that of the colonial state’s approach, second, the nationalist view as represented by Dadabhai Naoroji and third, self-representation of poverty by the poor themselves. While the colonial approach reflected utilitarian ideas, the nationalist approach emphasized the structural conditions that sustained deprivation among the agricultural and working classes. Utsa Patnaik discusses the drain of wealth during colonial rule highlighting three propositions: one, the concept of drain and its measurement as articulated by Naoroji and RC Dutt explained the fact that India’s global capitalist export surplus earnings were entirely appropriated by Britain by ‘paying’ local producers out of their own taxes which meant not paying them at all. Second, by the end of the 19th century, the drain became very large with India posting the second largest export surplus earnings in the world for at least four decades before Depression. Third, the gold and foreign exchange earnings thus appropriated from its colonies, especially from India, allowed Britain to export capital to develop Europe, North America and other White settlement regions ensuring rapid diffusion of capitalism in these regions.
The book raises important questions on the concepts of nationalism, agrarian and non-agrarian rural world, forced commercialization of agriculture, village-town transactions relevant to the theoretical and empirical debates in contemporary India. The historical accounts and the diverse viewpoints make the book interesting reading, as it maintains consistent academic rigour in all the chapters.
Purendra Prasad is Professor and Head, Department of Sociology at the University of Hyderabad. His research focus is on agrarian relations, class-caste dynamics, forced migration, health inequalities and urban transformations.