FROM THE REVIEWS
FROM STUDIES IN HISTORY, BY JAMES C. SCOTT
Writing a nuanced and historically deep account of agrarian life while, simultaneously, never losing sight of the ideas that animate those who would shape that history, is exceptionally difficult. Neeladri Bhattacharya has done for the Punjab what Marc Bloch did for much of France, John Furnivall for Burma and Paul Gourou for Indochina, and William Cronon for colonial New England. The sweep and intellectual ambition of The Great Agrarian Conquest ensures that it will become a touchstone even for those who would nurse a divergent narrative. The touchstone status of this text is further solidified by the prodigious reading of agrarian history that Bhattacharya brings to bear in his analysis. No relevant reference appears to have escaped his attention and close reading. The setting for this inquiry is colonial Punjab.
It begins with the annexation of the Punjab in 1849 and ends with the British departure in 1947. To aesthetically unify his account, Bhattacharya ‘bookends’ his central analysis with two contrasting tours on horseback through the kingdom. The first is the fictionalized account of Henry Lawrence in Adventures of an Officer in the Punjab (1846). Bellasis, the fictional rider, is every bit the self-confident, brave, natural ruler of a backward people who recognize his horsemanship, his paternal affection for the people, and his capacity to deliver progress while respecting their customs and beliefs. His image of rule was the classic ‘round’ on horseback through the villages, settling disputes, dispensing justice and collecting taxes. The relationship to the villagers was intimate but decidedly hierarchical in the paternalist sense. ‘Paternal affection from above was conditional on submission and respect from below’.
As a romantic conservative, Lawrence fell very much out of favour with the Benthamite utilitarianism of Dalhousie for whom the transformation of local institutions and norms was the precondition of progress. Romanticism for utilitarians was expressed in relentless sacrifice to the institutional imperatives of a modernist Raj. Bhattacharya ends the book with another gallop through the Punjab: that by Malcolm Darling in 1946–47 and published in 1949 as At Freedom’s Door. Hoping to catalogue the accomplishments of British rule and point the way forward for post-independence development, Darling was brought up short by the litany of complaints about what British rule had wrought, ‘the collapse of a preferred pre-British old order of reciprocity, good will, honesty, freedom and abundance’ which compared favourably to ‘present woes about poverty, debt, hunger, high prices and taxes’ and ‘their tales of present slavery and dreams of future well-being’. Ascribing these laments to the mob psychology incited by politicians, Darling dismissed their repudiation of what he saw as beneficent paternalism and progress as mere parroting of ‘the latest shibboleth’. Gone, however, is not only the optimism and sense of paternalist mission that had animated Henry Lawrence’s Adventure but also Darling’s own optimism in his well-known earlier writings about the Punjab.
There are two books hiding between these covers: both brilliant but, at the same time, radically different; one might say even at war with one another implicitly. The first half of the book is one of the purest examples of Hegelian reasoning I have encountered. To call it Anglo-centric is an understatement; the Punjab peasant scarcely makes an appearance at all except as a blank canvas for British administrative landscape painting. As an intellectual history of British colonial thought in South Asia, it is powerful and illuminating, as it assesses the currents of thought and debate provoked by Blackstone, Maine, Bentham, Mill, Locke and Carlyle. Bhattacharya’s analysis here is quite original and deserves to be on the bookshelf with other classics such as Ranajit Guha’s A Rule of Property for Bengal (1968). The chapter titles in this section of the book, ‘How Villages were Found’, ‘In Search of Tenures’, ‘The Power of Categories’, ‘Codifying Custom’, convey the strong Hegelian flavour of the exercise. Bhattacharya stops just short of claiming that the British imaginary of social evolution, of agrarian life, of land rights and tenure, when married to administrative, coercive and taxation power could create the society that matched what they imagined.
The gap between what they imagined ought to be the case and the actual practices on the ground was, it seems, closed by the power of the state behind that imagination. This is a powerful version of the argument that Benedict Anderson made about Dutch colonial ethnic categories deployed in Batavia. Having ‘classified’—incorrectly—a portion of the population as ‘Chinese’, the Dutch proceeded to create a ‘Chinese’ administrative territory with its own schools, local officials, identity cards, courts and codified customary law. By thus radically modifying what Anderson called the ‘traffic patterns’ of this mixed population, they managed in a couple of generations to manufacture what they could not discover: a ‘self-identified’ Chinese population. In Bhattacharya’s powerful telling, the British in the Punjab, by virtue of their ability to coerce, tax and draw boundaries created villages, landlords, tenants, kinship histories and property lines that bore little or no resemblance to the actual practices on the ground. Wishing it so, if married to comprehensive power, could make it so.
Bhattacharya’s account of how the administrative imposition of the categories dominating the imperial imagination was enacted on the ground, starting from the ‘given’ that the natural unit of administration and revenue collection was ‘the village’, is convincing. In the mania for total mapping and enumeration of village tracts and arable land, it mattered little if the dwellings were concentrated or scattered, or if the inhabitants cultivated fixed fields or practiced shifting cultivation—the ‘rural’ became, by fiat, a series of village tracts. This transformation was represented on paper in the local records office; maps, cadastral surveys, property deeds and administrative boundaries. While the idée fixe of ‘the village’ derived in part from the revenue imperative, it was also seen as a unit of social evolution most appropriate to colonial Punjab. There was, for the British and Enlightenment thinkers in general, a civilizational process in which bands of hunter-gatherers were superseded by pastoralists, then by shifting cultivation and, finally, by fixed-field permanent cropping. This last form of subsistence did, in fact, favour village formation. And in doing so, it also favoured state formation by providing the geographical concentration of political subjects and staple grains that made the state itself fiscally viable. Other forms of subsistence, both because they were deemed ante-diluvian and fiscally sterile, were of no use at all as units of administration. The colonial state, Bhattacharya describes, is obsessed with revenue (‘taxophillic’) and also with proper classification (‘taxonomophillic’).
Almost precisely in the middle of the book, the author abruptly leaves the intellectual history of British imperial thinking—and Hegel—behind to address the ways in which stubborn facts on the ground amend or defeat the taxonomic impositions of the colonial rulers. The voice announcing the resistance is the peasant poet, Lalu of Dabwali Dhab whose verses are in part a lament for how British laws have damaged ancient rights and dispossessed agricultural pioneers. If the first half of the book was about what the British imagination managed to impose on the landscape, the second half is about how a recalcitrant population, going about their own business, managed to stalemate the fantasies of their colonial rulers. The chapter titles of this section convey the shift in the argument: ‘Beyond the Code’, ‘Fear of the Fragment’, ‘Colonizing the Commons’. In each case, Bhattacharya meticulously shows not only how actual practice deviated from the norm but also how the deviation, however annoying and lamentable to the administrators, made eminent sense to the ‘deviants’ themselves.
The colonizers favoured large consolidated landholdings, primogeniture and landowners with the wherewithal to pay their taxes. Consolidation was favoured not only for the ease of cadastral mapping and revenue collection but also because the colonizers reasoned that the cultivation of scattered small plots was grossly inefficient. From the cultivator’s perspective, however, a preference for partible (male!) inheritance ensured that each heir got his portion of each kind of soil (e.g. meadow, wetland, arable, hard or easy to till, gradient, etc.). As for the inefficiencies, it turned out that fragmented holdings portrayed in the records office did not necessarily imply fragmentation of cultivation, as siblings would work one another’s nearby fragments to save time and trouble. Here, the British were captives of their own paper categories of property deeds, soil types and tax units.
The culmination of the contest between the administrative norm and local practice comes in the Canal Colonies in Punjab’s pastoral highlands—the bārs of the northwest. Here there was, apparently, no pre-existing social order that had to be superseded. Instead, it approximated a blank slate (terra nullius) that ‘colonizes everywhere search for…that seem to allow unrestrained transformation’. Straight irrigation and inundation canals were dug and what the author aptly calls a ‘regime of squares’ signifying order, modernity and symmetry was laid across the landscape; villages were delimited, common property parcelled out, cropland fixed and cash crops mandated. Over the half-century from 1886 to 1933, the modernist designers of this agrarian utopia saw most of their hopes and expectations dashed—by time, by nibbling from below, by rebellion and by their own shortcomings in scientific knowledge. The canals failed to function as anticipated and the rise in the water table in permanently irrigated areas caused salinization and a decline in yields. Initial yields were favourable due to the nitrogen reserves of the previously untilled soil, but after several crop cycles depleted that nitrogen, yields fell. Dreams of consolidated holdings were undermined over time by the preference for partible inheritance and led to the fragmentation of holdings so dreaded by colonial planters. Pastoralists, regarded as backward primitives, were confined to inadequate pastures and, as a result, drove their cattle onto the croplands of the farmer-colonists, sparking open confrontations, including the Gugeira Revolt. The colonists, by transferring, renting and leasing land, by cutting down woodlands, by refusing to grow the contracted crops, made a vernacular stew out of what the planners hoped would be an austere but nutritious broth. At the end of this fluid, learned and gripping history, Hegel is totally out of sight and the vernacular society, assisted by the miscalculating hubris of the planners themselves, has, if not triumphed, held its own. Both parts of the book are brilliant and insightful. They are, at the same time, at loggerheads.
FROM ASIAN STUDIES REVIEW, BY TARIQ ALI
“The importance of Bhattacharya’s book is difficult to overstate. It is a field-defining book for agrarian histories of colonised societies during the 19th century, when vast new regions and peoples were incorporated into a global capitalist system.”
Neeladri Bhattacharya narrates the “great agrarian conquest”, the colonial transformation of variegated rural spaces into the homogenous “agrarian” space of bounded villages, settled peasants and demarcated farms. This was a “deep conquest” that not only reconstituted landscapes and peoples but also configured the very imagination of the rural, exemplified in Gandhi’s pronouncement that “India is seven hundred thousand villages”, and in generations of scholarship in “village studies” and “agrarian history”. While Bhattacharya’s book narrates the conquest of the Punjab, his insights will be indispensable to the study of agrarian conquests not only in other regions of South Asia but also across colonial Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.
Punjab’s agrarian conquest commenced immediately upon its military conquest. In April 1846, the colonial state commenced “settlement operations” in its newly conquered territories. That is, they began to assess the taxes owed by the peoples and communities of the region. Bhattacharya brilliantly reads District Settlement Reports as documents of conquest, revealing the processes through which Punjab’s peoples and lands were classified, ordered and made legible as revenue-paying units (Chapters 2 to 5). Settlement offices and subsequently census operations straightjacketed rural lands and peoples into master categories of villages, tenurial systems, property rights and customary law. Over time, through repeated enumerations and mappings, these categories gained a “corporeal existence”.
The conquest proceeded even as categories ran into a rural diversity that resisted homogenisation: most obviously in the scrublands and pastoral communities of western Punjab. Bhattacharya’s focus on scrubland pastures is an important addition to the field of South Asian environmental history. After discussing enumerative, cartographic, ethnographic and juridical techniques of the agrarian conquest, Bhattacharya turns to the inhabitants of these rural spaces. Drawing from property cases, property records, folk ballads and rural proverbs, Bhattacharya demonstrates how the settled peasant communities in central Punjab negotiated the agrarian conquest: They crafted new histories or “remembered pasts” (Chapter 6), contested inheritance claims in law courts (Chapter 7), and maintained and sometimes augmented scattered landholdings (Chapter 8). Bhattacharya’ s analysis of how peasants reconstituted familial relations in an attempt to maintain affective ties, especially for peasant women, against the colonial insistence on “unilineal agnative male descent”, is an important contribution to our understandingof gender in colonial agrarian society. Ultimately, however, peasant women’s claims and rights were eroded, as the agrarian conquest consolidated the powers of the coparcenary male brotherhoods, the bhaiachara, that came to dominate Punjab’ s tenurial landscape.
The book culminates with the canal colonies, the colonial state’s “grandest project of social engineering” (p. 385). From the 1880s, the colonial state began to irrigate millions of acres of western Punjab’ s pastures, resettling cultivators from central Punjab with farm allotments. The resultant canal colonies did not correspond to colonial fantasies of planned villages and rectangular fields. More significantly, initial productivity gains slowed down, as perennial canal irrigation ran into its ecological limits. In 1907, the colonial state attempted to impose a new disciplinary regime on canal colonists, a system of fines and confiscations for not living up to colonial ideals. The canal colonists rose up in revolt. Against narratives of British beneficence of irrigation, they crafted their own narratives of heroic labour in reclaiming scrublands, which was met with British perfidy and treachery, in changing the settlement terms. Notably, they found support from the growing nationalist movement.
The importance of Bhattacharya’s book is difficult to overstate. It is a field-defining book for agrarian histories of colonised societies during the 19th century, when vast new regions and peoples were incorporated into a global capitalist system. This incorporation, as Bhattacharya convincingly demonstrates, entailed the imposition of the “universal agrarian” of bounded villages, demarcated fields, and settled agriculturalists upon diverse landscapes and communities. Even more importantly, Bhattacharya demonstrates that this imposition cannot be seen as the straightforward imposition of colonial fantasies upon rural realities by an all-powerful imperial state. The great agrarian conquest was worked out through “contradictory dialectic” between two forces: “one that transformed society from below, and the other that sought to impose a structure from above” (p. 436).
The agrarian conquest of the Punjab is book-ended by two imperialists riding on horseback. The book opens with the fictional Bellasis, published in 1846 on the eve of conquest, and chronicling the adventures of an Englishman besting, dazzling and wooing various “natives”. The book concludes with the Punjab’ s most famous colonial official, Malcolm Darling’ s ride through the Punjab in 1946, on the eve of partition and independence. Unlike Bellasis, Darling’s ride is suff used with the pathos of loss. Instead of a population in awe of British masculinity, Darling is confronted by people eagerly anticipating freedom and impatient for the old imperialists to depart. As Bhattacharya brilliantly demonstrates, Darling’ s interlocutors had played a significant part in the agrarian conquest that the British imagined to be their parting gift.
FROM ANTIPODE, BY ADITYA RAMESH
The Great Agrarian Conquest begins and ends with a colonial official on horseback. Henry Lawrence’s book, Adventures of an Officer in the Punjaub, written in 1846, tells the story of a European traveler, Bellasis, on horseback making his way to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court at Lahore. On his travels, Bellasis is confronted by Nand Singh, the premier’s second-in-command. Bellasis easily defeats Singh, first in the open field, then in front of Ranjit Singh, demonstrating his ample talents with the horse. The European command of the horse, in the author Lawrence’s imagination, Bhattacharya argues, was a metaphor for conquest. Lawrence would later become the governor of Punjab, and Adventures explicated his ideal of governance – strong yet gentle and caring.
The book closes with another colonial official, Malcolm Darling, riding through Punjab in the 1940s where he spent most of his career as an administrator. Darling’s memoir is about anything but conquest. Instead, it reveals how grand colonial dreams of creating an ordered agrarian society founded upon secure law and property failed. The Great Agrarian Conquest is set amidst colonial dreams and tragedy, while asking a fundamental question – why and how does a colonizer attempt to take control of a complex landscape and peoples?
The book is the culmination of decades of work on the agrarian history of modern Punjab and South Asia, as well as colonialism more generally. However, Bhattacharya’s work represents much more than this, and is at once postcolonial Indian historiography and shows how the agrarian remains foundational in rethinking the nature of colonial rule. Several of the chapters have appeared in publications elsewhere, the earliest, to give the reader an indication of the timespan of production, was in 1983 (Bhattacharya 1983). The book originated through Bhattacharya’s course on agrarian structure at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1982-83 (Nair 2018). The broader historiographical claims have surfaced in Bhattacharya’s recorded lectures on “Historical Method”, delivered at the University, where Bhattacharya taught for over four decades in different forms, which has circulated far and wide.
The Great Agrarian Conquest represents an almost impossible effort to integrate these various strands, including Bhattacharya’s writings on agrarian history, teaching on historical methods, and wider engagement with education and critical history in postcolonial India.
This review essay examines The Great Agrarian Conquest and its milieu in three parts. First, it looks at the theoretical move the book makes, in its broad context, as it developed from a doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s to 2018. It shows how Bhattacharya follows the arc of Indian and global historiography in thinking through the Marxist and cultural studies frameworks. In doing so, the book attempts to rethink the rich paradigm of South Asian agrarian history.
Second, the essay shows how the book innovatively questions the very category of “the agrarian”. At its strongest, the text is a tour de force showing how colonial ideology, native structures, lived life, and temporality together forged a new form of the agrarian.
Third, the essay argues that in focusing on the twin planks of Marxist historiography at large and the “cultural turn”, Bhattacharya does not fully consider new historiographies of the agrarian order of colonialism, namely, the history of political thought, histories of science and technology, environmental history, and commodity history. While the book evidently engages all strands deeply, it doesn’t fully acknowledge the ways in which these new works put economy in conversation with cultural worlds. The essay suggests that The Great Agrarian Conquest is an effort that transcends agrarian history to uncover the roots of colonial rule. In doing so, however, it is unclear how Bhattacharya seeks to place agrarian history within 19th-century liberal political thought and increasingly global capitalist markets.
Trained in the 1970s, Bhattacharya’s own education and early scholarship was molded in the shadow of British Marxist history. Inspired by E.P. Thompson, historians in India set out to investigate the worlds of peasants and workers, who through this Marxian framework were the spearhead of social change (Sarkar 2009). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jawaharlal Nehru University was a space in which Marxist student leaders, who would go on to become leaders of the various strands of the Communist Party of India, flourished. Simultaneously, in the 1970s, there was major upheaval in the Indian countryside as traditional landlords started losing control of lands, new methods of mechanization were introduced, and foreign aid poured in, all of which culminated in India’s “Green Revolution”. In this atmosphere, scholars were interested in decentering the framework of nationalism which had emerged in the wake of Indian independence in 1947 (Seal 1968). Scholarship inevitably turned to Western Marxism for an explanation on what happened and was happening to Indian agriculture. The debates of the 1970s sought to figure Indian agrarian space within categories derived from the transition debate in Europe (Aston and Philpin 1995). The debates among scholars, taking place among the lively pages of Economic and Political Weekly among other places, included questions such as: Was Indian agriculture semi-feudal or proto-capitalist (Patnaik 1990)? How did colonialism bring about the transition to capitalism in India? Was it through colonial connection of the India peasant to global markets, lenders who created money exchange, or the introduction of private property? The scholar that Bhattacharya most closely engages with is Jairus Banaji, who refused to circumscribe Indian agrarian relations within “modes” of European transition. Banaji’s departure is to reject the idea of “stage-ism”, or the idea that the agrarian operates through modes such as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Rather, operating through the category of labor, Banaji (2010) argued that subsumption of labor existed across time, in multiple rather than singular ways. Nevertheless, Bhattacharya (2013) suggested that many of these works, including Banaji’s, did not seek to understand how the everyday world of the peasant and agrarian laborer refigured the regimes of control. “History”, in this debate, as Bhattacharya (2013: 32) powerfully argued in a review and critique of Jairus Banaji’s (2010) book History as Theory, “becomes a lineage of capital”.
It is precisely this framework, not just of Marxism, but of the rhythms of capital directing the passage of history, that The Great Agrarian Conquest seeks to escape. Deeply influenced by the writings of Bourdieu, de Certeau, Natalie Zemon Davis, and others, the book shows how economy and culture shape and sustain one another in forming the agrarian order. The first chapter sets this stage exploring the tensions present in masculine paternalism as a means of conquering the agrarian. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, viewed Henry Lawrence’s paternalism and conciliatory, even romantic, attitudes towards natives with infuriation and replaced him with his more utilitarian brother John. As Bhattacharya shows, “[i]f Henry personified the ideology of the soldier-civilian, the official on horseback dispensing quick justice, John emphasized long hours in the kutcherry [local revenue office] and the careful auditing of finance and revenue” (p.32). It is this ideological tension that animates the book, of a colonial order premised on closely engaging with the society it was entering versus one determined to transform it in its own image.
While paternalism and imposition are themes that find voice in almost every chapter of the book, they are most pertinent in chapters six, seven and eight. From the 1860s onward, colonial rule was fairly established in Punjab. Chapter seven begins with the emergence of an archetypal peasant. The colonial government slowly started displacing pastoralists and replacing them with willing settled cultivators. Yet, as Bhattacharya shows, this process was hardly linear and without contestation. Colonial ethnographies of the countryside and law, which were instruments of re-ordering agrarian society, found the native voice entering in numerous and unexpected ways. Colonial ethnographies, which sought to gather information from the institution of authority in the village, often the headman or the priest, invented tradition, as they saw it. As Bhattacharya argues, colonialism drew deeply from Punjab’s precolonial past, which was in itself often an invention, to make sense of how to conquer it. Similarly, the colonial state, often using the law, created institutions such as lambardars or village headmen, who were seen as figures of authority within the village, to be co-opted into the new rural order. Further, new laws were also a terrain of contestation, central to the making of the agrarian “habitus”.
In what is the densest part of the book, Bhattacharya shows how colonial law sought to construct patrimonial society and coparcenary brotherhood as a cornerstone of agrarian improvement. Bhattacharya uses a number of court cases to demonstrate the importance of law, mainly dealing with the division of property. While the Punjab government was fearful of land fragmentation, the colonial government sought to institute laws that codified certain forms of succession. However, these were keenly contested in the courts, and as in many parts of India agrarian land law was largely decided in courthouses. Court decisions sometimes displaced the agnates, and sometimes gave new male patriarchs power, and therefore “new strategies” were devised by peasant families to ensure control of property following the tenancy acts. Adoption, wills (as writing started to become a familiar practice), and gifts were all used to preserve the coparcenary. Delving into cases, Bhattacharya shows how “[t]he brotherhood as a collective did not struggle against the individual: individuals used the language of brotherhood to further individuated interest”(p.283). Custom was invented, entered the official colonial record, and proprietors used it to try and “play the market”.
What is the Agrarian? In the 1970s, Marxist debates around agrarian history aimed to uncover the material conditions behind India’s impoverishment. Bhattacharya’s strongest argument is to turn to cultural studies to understand how discourse, culture, and the everyday world of the agriculturalist transformed agrarian history. Chapters two, three and four are dedicated to understanding how colonial categories were produced. That is, rather than taking terms such as the “village” or “tenant” for granted, Bhattacharya asks how these emerged through the colonial record in Punjab. The tenant and landlord, for instance, were foundational categories in British society. Broadly, the colonial government in Punjab believed that in order for a productive agrarian society to emerge, the replication of these categories was essential. Some of the finest lines and chapters of this book explore how colonialism created the meaning of the Indian “agrarian”. Indeed, Bhattacharya introduces the book as unpacking the “notion of the agrarian”, which he suggests, is often “taken for granted”. The creation, consolidation, and remaking of categories such as “tenancies, tenures, properties, habitations” for Bhattacharya are critical to understand how colonialism refigured agrarian society in Punjab. The path to understanding why these categories emerged is to ask why peasant agriculture became the “norm within the rural” and “naturalised as the universal rural” (p.1).The “village”, used both by Gandhi and by postcolonial sociologists to categorize the essence of Indian society, is the most apposite example to show how categories of governance emerged. The co-constitution of these categories was at once through British ideology as well as the power of the coparcenary brotherhood. The colonial state, eager to establish settled agriculture as the normative economic and social set-up in Punjab, began to imagine and create villages even where none existed. The village surveys in Punjab began in the 1850s, with colonial officials assessing “boundaries, customs, peoples, soils, fields, rights and obligations … A register of holdings (jamabandi) was to specify the land held by each owner in a village and the rent or revenue he was expected to pay” (p.73-74). John Lawrence sought to capture every single detail, with “scientific precision”, to understand the archetypal village. Each method of survey, however, proved inaccurate on reflection, and the subsequent method was presented as an improvement on what came before. These surveys relied on ethnography and questionnaires, while ensuring that costs remained low. Therefore, at different times different officials had power and authority to present ethnographic evidence of what constituted the village. Initially, amins were replaced by patwaris, both of whom were village officials during the pre-colonial era. After the 1860s famine, questions were raised of the competence of patwaris and their training in “professional survey methods”. The village eventually emerged in the image of the “estate”, or the main fiscal and administrative unit.
Here, Bhattacharya makes an important point about how ideas in the metropole, such as the“estate”, translated on to the colony. Colonial officials were aware that the villages were loose agglomerations, often having little in common with neighbors. Yet, the idea of the village was not merely a fiscal entity, but was imbued with property relations and created new modes of proprietorial engagement within the village. It was also far from egalitarian. As they were created from image, narration, and observation, women and lower-caste tenants and laborers were denied membership in the “male coparcenary community” and the “right to be classified as proprietors”. While not directly engaging with several older and more recent works on British history that have sought to understand the colonial agrarian order as constitutive of liberal political thought in Britain, this book nevertheless is an important intervention. Scholars have dissected the governing logic of the colonial state in India, namely, the sweeping ideology of liberalism. While older scholarship examined how ideas such as British utilitarianism played out in the Indian context, new scholarship argues that colonialism was not a context where ideas were applied, but forged (Stokes 1989). Uday Mehta (1999) argued that liberal thought in the 19th century was premised on the othering of the colonial subject. This was not an aberration in British political thought, Mehta argued, but part of its constitution. Karuna Mantena (2010) sought to historicize and refine this conception in light of Henry Maine and others who believed that preserving traditional society, i.e. the Indian village, was central to governing British India. This signaled a strong impulse of paternalism within Victorian colonial governments which viewed traditional societies as both an ideal type and vulnerable to modernity. Andrew Sartori’s (2014) influential book, which deployed custom as an anchor, showed how the Bengali peasant embraced liberalism as a critique of both capitalism and colonialism. The question that Bhattacharya poses is how to move from this intellectual history of British political thought to its practical manifestations in the fields of Punjab. Yet, in uncovering how categories such as the village, tenant, and landlord emerged, The GreatAgrarian Conquest does not fully trace how this traveled into and formed the logic of metropolitan thought.
In answering how the everyday logic of colonial governance shaped its intellectual practice, or indeed understanding why it did not, would have shown how the conquest of agrarian landscapes in India shaped metropolitan attitudes and thinking (Cooper and Stoler 1997). In its treatment of the archive and sources, The Great Agrarian Conquest also differs with some of the most influential studies of South Asian peasant society, including the worksof Bernard Cohn (1996) and the Subaltern Studies Collective. Cohn’s work argued that colonial instruments such as the census reified Indian society in different ways, creating new and unfamiliar categories. Ranajit Guha (1988) and a strand of the Subaltern Studies Collective suggested that the colonial archive fundamentally mis-represented the peasant. In Guha’s methodology, the manner in which to understand peasant resistance was to subvert the colonial archive, and imbue different meanings on words that often figured as descriptors for peasants. In contrast, for Bhattacharya, it was the realm of practice where both categories of thought as well as resistance emerged in the colonial archive as an everyday phenomenon. Therefore, the colonial state itself, as Bhattacharya shows, was constantly in conflict within itself. For instance, in chapter eight, as part of an effort to map the diverse landscape of Punjab composed of grasslands, forests, and arable land, pillars were erected to demarcate what belonged to villages, pastoralists, and the state. While Baden-Powell, who served as the chief commissioner of forests, strongly argued that village officials such as tehsildars constantly shifted these pillars and had their palms greased, the Revenue Department was of the firm opinion that these officials were a representative of the state. For Bhattacharya, therefore, the colonial archive is always partial and fragmented in nature, often revealing as much about colonial logic as it did about the society it sought to govern.
The book represents is a major contribution to a long and rich debate around agrarian history and political economy of South Asia. In setting out an argument that attempts to not merely engage the agrarian history of South Asia, but history writing as such, it is difficult to place this book’s precise contribution to historiography. Surprisingly, the book does little to engage with three major themes that have given new life to agrarian history in modern South Asia, including the history of commodities, the history of science, and environmental history. All three strands are sufficiently present in the book to warrant a serious engagement with these literatures. In a riveting final two chapters, Bhattacharya turns his attention to the commons and the canals of Punjab, possibly the largest experiment in reclaiming and colonizing lands from “waste” through irrigation projects and scientific agriculture.
In 1872, a series of fires broke out across grasslands and agrarian fields in Punjab. These were difficult to control. Bhattacharya draws two conclusions from this episode. First, that it revealed the conflict between “science” and the language of paternalism. Fires were a fight for colonial terrain, between forest officials who had studied the landscape and wanted to criminalize communities they regarded as responsible for them, and revenue officials who believed that these measures were heavy-handed and antithetical to encouraging productive cultivators. Second, turning to 1970s literature in the United States, Bhattacharya (p.376) shows how science gradually recognized that fires “dehydrated clayey moist soils, encouraged bacterial activity, increased soil fertility by supplying minerals, salts, and potash, promoted nitrification, cleared debris on the floor – allowing seeds to reach the soil – destroyed weeds and gregarious plant growth that displaced timber trees”. The canal colonies were an experiment in the late 19th century to colonize forest lands, waste, and the commons to expand the arable frontier. As the American wheat market collapsed during this period, colonial officials saw Punjab as an ideal substitute. While early on colonists swarmed the region and displaced pastoral and forest-dwelling communities, by the late 1930s the colonies were beset with saline lands, insufficient nitrogen in soils, and problems of labor shortage. Science, the environment, and commodities therefore are a central part of Bhattacharya’s narrative. However, for an explanatory framework, Bhattacharya turns to Lenin’s theory of agrarian conquest. Drawing from Lenin on paths to agrarian conquest, Bhattacharya suggests that the canal colonies represented agrarian conquest from above, which sought to impose order on space. The book therefore moves from charting a paternalistic vision of ordering agrarian space to colonization of through force, law, and violence. While calling for examination of the colonial record in terms of everyday contestation in the lower courts, district and tehsil offices, no such explanation is offered to understand and place natural and non-human forces in this narrative. Perhaps even more surprising is the absence of commodity history, a field which has taken a decidedly global turn and increasingly embraced the relevance of science in shaping and being shaped by the commodities it sought to produce (Ali 2018; Beckert 2004; Kumar 2012; Woods 2017). All three historiographic strands sit at the precise intersection of “the economy” and “culture” that Bhattacharya seeks to bridge. Yet these feel like “sub-arguments” in understanding the logics of the abstract force of colonialism and history writing more broadly.
In the epilogue, the analytic moves to tragedy. Bhattacharya dwells on the final travels of Malcolm Darling – an administrator, ethnographer and chronicler of Punjab –across the state in 1947. Darling, for Bhattacharya, is the broken figure of colonial rule. Darling’s diary, At Freedom’s Door, chronicles villages yearning for independence; the major themes that animate the text are “disavowal and rejection”. The native, who Darling, on his arrival in 1926, believed wished to be governed by the British coloniser, now firmly said no. “Everywhere … [Darling] heard the cry of azadi”, or freedom (p.458). Bhattacharya’s consistent effort then is to uncover the habitus of such men, to understand what moved them and how they reacted to a new world around them. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of the book, to seamlessly move between registers as different as Marx and Bourdieu, and yet retain an enduring faithfulness to the fields of Punjab.
It is therefore difficult to place Bhattacharya within or beyond the scholarship on agrarian history. As Bhattacharya shows, a single trope or analytic framework is insufficient to bring together the variety of means used to construct, retain and fortify colonial rule. Is, then, the product of culture and economy ultimately tragedy? Bhattacharya leaves the reader with several answers, not one, to the question he powerfully poses – how was the colonial agrarian modern forged?
FROM ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, BY JAYATI GHOSH
It is a rare but exhilarating experience to realise, some way through reading a book, that you are holding what is destined to become a classic. This book is nothing less than a tour de force of the historian’s craft: making a profound point with analysis that is at once sweeping yet detailed, comprehensive and careful; filled with novel approaches and entertaining stories; and beautifully written throughout. But Neeladri Bhattacharya’s brilliant book provides much more than only historical insights: it opens up various terms, categories and analytical constructs that are regularly deployed in various social sciences, including in economics, politics and sociology, to generate a much more thoughtful and nuanced understanding of their origins and meanings.
The central argument of this book is that the colonial agrarian conquest of north India was a deep conquest in many ways, going well beyond the explicit dramatic (and often violent) assertion of control from above that could be easily observed. It operated equally and possibly more fundamentally – if more silently and over a long period – from below, “by developing a new and enabling imaginary whereby the rural universe could be made afresh: revisualised, reordered, reworked, and altogether transformed”. (page 1). This involved the introduction of new categories – property rights and tenures, habitations and villages – that were then coded through laws and established through customs. By refiguring the terms used for social relations and the ties that bound communities together, it actually altered notions of space and time, of what was legal and what was permissible. Since it posited settled peasant agriculture as the norm, over time it devalued and denied the possibility of other forms of rural livelihood and landscape.
The book deals with colonial Punjab, although it has much wider resonance in space, across different geographies, and even in time, hinting at some remarkably contemporary analogies. The account of the conquest is bookended by two evocative descriptions of journeys on horseback, the first a literary account in the early days of colonial control of the region in 1846, and the second a century later, on the very eve of Independence. The shift from the muscular and masculine paternalism of colonial conquest embodied by Henry Lawrence in the mid-19th century to the more sober and reflective journey of Malcolm Darling in the winter of 1946-47 encapsulates much more than a change in colonial attitudes. The intervening period is one in which the agrarian reality through which these men rode had been completely transformed, not only in the approach of the colonial rulers, but in the perception and understanding of the ruled.
For economists and sociologists, some of the most fascinating parts of Bhattacharya’s book are those that deal with categories and concepts that are too often simply taken for granted. As someone who decades ago researched agrarian economic change using colonial land settlement records, I realised (with some regret) how much of my analysis had been based on an over-simplistic understanding of these categories. But this flaw is indeed quite widespread among social scientists.
The “village” is one such category, unquestioningly accepted as the defining principle of the rural in India, as indeed elsewhere. Gandhi’s famous statement that “India means her seven hundred thousand villages” was for a very long time taken as both obvious and hortatory, and social scientists have generally tended to equate the rural and village residence. Yet Bhattacharya shows that in 19th century Punjab, settled agriculture within clearly demarcated villages was neither universal nor even the norm. Villages generally appeared in riverine plains, which were areas of intense cultivation. Elsewhere, there were vast stretches where neither villages nor settled agriculture were pervasive – amounting to around 60 per cent of surveyed land in 1870. Depending on the landscape (forested, semi-arid, desert, and so on) there were many different forms of both settlement and livelihood, ranging from shifting dry cultivation to pastoral. But the colonial administrators operated with an idealised notion of settled agriculture based on the village, an approach that effectively erased the legitimacy of other spaces and forms of habitation, such as forests, scrublands, pastures, deserts, meadows, hilly regions.
How was this done? The most significant instrument was the revenue settlement, which required constituting a “village” through records, and ascribing some form of property and/or occupancy right on all lands. Each set of revenue records included a “history” of the village, which validated its existence as a distinct spatial body even if that was not at all how the inhabitants or local custom perceived it. Claims to accuracy were substantiated by patwari records, even as these were sought to be “modernised” and fitted into the colonial scheme of things. They were further buttressed by the use of cartography: mapping and cadastral surveys became essential instruments of the project of ordering, appropriating and dominating the landscape. Bhattacharya provides some maps that indicate the inherent contradictions of this endeavour, as the enthusiastic British sought to impose their notion of a settled agrarian order on arid tracts with pastoral livelihoods and shifting habitations, or on hilly areas that regrouped scattered hamlets and cultivated plots into new revenue circles called mauzas, announcing boundaries where none existed in reality. The villages of the fertile plains thus became the template that all other forms of habitation had to be squeezed into.
These processes also involved asserting – and in some cases reaffirming – traditional social hierarchies. But also, local peculiarities had to be captured in more general terms that fit with colonial ideas of stratification. Colonial revenue manuals classified north Indian society into zamindari, pattidari and bhaiachara tenures, which were duly enumerated annually. While these were claimed to describe pre-existing rural realities, in effect they were colonial constructs that “redefined the meaning of custom, the shape of social relations, and the meaning of property” (page 111), effectively refiguring the entire rural landscape.
Bhattacharya describes the desperate efforts of Baden-Powell and others to translate this theory of tenures into operational reality in the face of the much greater complexity, fluidity and variation on the ground. It meant that the terms had to be stretched, redefined, forced to accommodate contrary meanings. “Yet, though the officials found them useless, the terms were retained – misleading and fictive, but in the end indispensable.” (pages 125-6). This tenurial classification became another instrument of agrarian conquest, as all rural social groups were identified not only as living in villages, but as members of communities operating with particular defined tenurial systems.
This forcible straitjacketing impacted pastoral communities in at least two distinct trajectories. In some regions, tribes were forced to settle with land revenue imposed jointly on members of a particular tribe. Elsewhere, individual holdings were brought together and declared to be a (bureaucratically instituted) village community. But the order all this supposedly imposed was fleeting and often illusory. “Exasperated officials found it impossible to classify any particular village through a single category. Different parts of the village seemed to conform to the characteristics of different tenures” (page 141) to the point where the tenurial records were often entirely misleading.
Importantly, this classification and gradation of rights based on blood and ancestry consolidated patriarchy and a male brotherhood, marginalising women and castes and groups that could not belong to the defined lineages. Since the colonial power sought to govern through local institutions, the village brotherhoods that were so created were sanctified by empowering panchayats, which could quickly dispense justice on the spot. While the attitude of the colonial state to these local panchayats went through a complex evolution, they became a crucial site for the consolidation of patriarchal power in the villages (both original and created) with long-lasting implications for the distribution of rural power as well as for women and Dalits in particular.
Just as the colonial rulers coded land into property, so they sought to codify social customs. Yet the recording of social custom that became such a feature of the politics of paternalism in Punjab was done through the prism of British perceptions, conventions and assumptions. This process, too, was rife with Orientalism, the anxiety of the rulers and associated contradictions. This was evident in the attitude to the pandits who at first were treated as the intermediaries in relaying customs to the British, even as the Company’s intellectuals increasingly laid claim to the moral authority to record and represent Indian tradition. Effectively, therefore, the rhetoric of custom became a new language of power, legitimation and ultimately control. As with land rights, this reinforced patriarchy: by emphasising agnatic descent even when cognatic practices had earlier been prevalent; by making the rights of women dependent on notions of bodily purity; and in several other ways.
However, this colonial control, though all-pervasive, was never complete. Bhattacharya notes that it was never able to create a seamless and uncontested regulatory regime that incorporated subjects within it. Instead, there were spaces of confrontation and negotiation – and several fascinating instances of such ruptures and negotiations are described, including court cases that brought out the contradictions of the colonial codifications.
These contradictions became even more significant with the emergence of the commodity economy, as claims and obligations had to be categorically stated in the language of contract, so that even affective ties acquired legal forms. Colonial administrators assumed that joint holdings would disintegrate over time, moving to partition into individual shares and then individual possession. Yet joint holdings persisted, often because they could be “the anchor around which peasant life moved” (page 310), for example by enabling migration for certain periods. Attempts to reduce fragmentation of holdings by consolidation likewise collapsed over time, as the new large holdings created through land grants were split into smaller plots and leased out for cultivation.
Bhattacharya’s description of the colonisation of pastures and other common lands has remarkable contemporary resonance. He examines the pastoral tract of the high grasslands to the west of the river Sutlej, where the colonisation began with the (artificial) marking of boundaries through placing stone pillars, which were first simply ignored by the locals because the very concept was so alien. These then became the basis for levying a tax – tirni. This became a crucial way in which colonial power announced itself, since it went beyond the revenues collected to an assertion of rights over open lands, grazing fields and even sheer wilderness. Tirni eventually became an instrument of settling nomadic groups and confining them into demarcated spaces, reinforced by the inevitable maps with often fraudulent boundaries that even some colonial officials protested against.
But this was not an easy process: the authority of the new norms was always under question and often contested. Local pushback against this was treated with fear and loathing, to the point that a spate of wild fires was ascribed to malevolent villagers, even though an official enquiry determined otherwise. But the arguments used then can still be heard today. Consider this: “forest officials saw themselves as bearers of science and truth, reason and rationality, and the villagers as primitive and irrational, ignorant and unreasonable. The project of conservation was visualised as a war again unreason and the battle against those seen as pyromaniacs was viewed as a struggle for science.”(page 372) This contradiction was intensified by something that is also still present: the mixed use of land, whereby cultivated and forested lands cannot be easily separated, rather they are “honeycombed together”.
The project of canal development in the Punjab was similarly not just about rural infrastructure, but became a grand project of social engineering, In the Canal Colonies, officials who had long despaired at the absence of order with the agrarian landscape could finally try to impose their own sense of order, such that the entire landscape was plotted with a network of straight lines: the entire area became “a regime of squares”. Villages were enclosed and bounded, with single points of entry and exit – ostensibly for their own protection, even as it made official surveillance and policing easier. This was closely associated with the enclosure and demarcation of all fields. There were of course local reactions to this, particularly from herders and other excluded by this process. But more to the point, Bhattacharya notes that the promise of much higher yields on canal tracts turned out to be a mirage, largely because of the ecological barriers presented by waterlogging, salinity and their impacts. “Science could not easily sustain the self-arrogance of modernity. The promise of modernity crumbled, afflicted by the antinomies of development.” (page 435)
The experiment in the Canal Colonies typified the top-down, overt pattern that Bhattacharya describes as one of the two paths of agrarian conquest, whereby the colonial state sought to impose an entirely new order from above. By contrast, the other path, described in much of the earlier part of the book, was one of agrarian conquest from below, which proceeded “slowly, carefully, almost surreptitiously”– one that was supposedly founded on custom and native institutions, but actually “remapped the landscape, redefined custom, refigured rights, reorganised social relations, and re-ordered agrarian regimes”. (page 436) Inevitably, the distinction between these two paths broke down over time, as the agrarian conquest from below could not proceed without state initiatives from above.
Yet the contradictions of this process – and the wider and deeper contradictions of the paternalistic ideology of colonialism in the Punjab – became only too evident from the early 20th century. While Bhattacharya does not deal with this later period at any length, his account of the many forms of contestation and rebellion, of the exercise of agency by subjects in the second half of the 19th century, enable a better understanding of how such a regime could not survive a new language of individual rights, and most of all, the hope of the universal cry of azadi.
There is of course much more in this wonderful book than can be captured by a short attempt at summary. But the most important takeaway for this reader – beyond the unpacking of widely used concepts that are too often inadequately understood – is that a conquest of deep, profound and even phenomenal, proportions need not always be grand and dramatic; it can occur through “the seemingly routine, the undramatic, the everyday, (through) acts that organise life and institutionalise practices”. (pages 2-3). As we live another period of conquest today, possibly even more complex, this insight is all the more powerful.
"The Great Agrarian Conquest is at once deeply theoretical as well as solidly empirical. It elegantly bridges different fields and approaches generally treated in a segmented manner by less accomplished (or less ambitious) historians. It integrates texts with contexts, discursive practices with material reality. This is a history of ideas and of institutions, of livelihood practices and of everyday social relations. It investigates both structure and agency, the reshaping of rural Punjab by a colonial ideology of codification and improvement as well as the actions of individual officials which were often at variance with each other. At the level of method, the great achievement of Bhattacharya’s book is that it successfully brings together agrarian history and environmental history, two sub-disciplines that have tended to work separately and in isolation from one another...The Great Agrarian Conquest is a subtle and substantial work of scholarship. If there is one book Indians need to read to understand how colonialism actually worked (or did not work), this is it" Ramachandra Guha in WIRE
Neeladri Bhattacharya's "path-breaking monograph on significant transformations in Punjab under British rule (1849-1947) adds to his legendary reputation of a teacher" Razi Aquil in Sunday Guardian
To listen to TWO excellent discussions on this book,
the first including Romila Thapar,
and the second including Partha Chatterjee,
This book examines how, over colonial times, the diverse practices and customs of an existing rural universe – with its many forms of livelihood – were reshaped to create a new agrarian world of settled farming. While focusing on Punjab, this pathbreaking analysis offers a broad argument about the workings of colonial power: the fantasy of imperialism, it says, is to make the universe afresh.
Such radical change, Bhattacharya shows, is as much conceptual as material. Agrarian colonisation was a process of creating spaces that conformed to the demands of colonial rule. It entailed establishing a regime of categories – tenancies, tenures, properties, habitations – and a framework of laws that made the change possible. Agrarian colonisation was in this sense a deep conquest.
Colonialism, the book suggests, has the power to revisualise and reorder social relations and bonds of community. It alters the world radically, even when it seeks to preserve elements of the old. The changes it brings about are simultaneously cultural, discursive, legal, linguistic, spatial, social, and economic. Moving from intent to action, concepts to practices, legal enactments to court battles, official discourses to folklore, this book explores the conflicted and dialogic nature of a transformative process.
By analysing this great conquest, and the often silent ways in which it unfolds, the book asks every historian to rethink the practice of writing agrarian history and reflect on the larger issues of doing history.
NEELADRI BHATTACHARYA taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University for forty-one years, from where he retired in 2017 as Professor of History. He has been a Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and has held visiting professorships in Europe, South Africa, and the USA.
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