11 November 2020

The Unfamiliarity of the Past

Joya Chatterji's most recent book is PARTITION’S LEGACIES . It was published by Permanent Black in June 2019. 

In this wide-ranging conversation about her books and her career as a teacher, she begins with talking about what drew her to history in the first place.

She answers questions put to her by Uttara Shahani (a research scholar at Cambridge University) and Sohini Chattopadhyay (a history researcher at Columbia University)

1. Why did you become a historian? Let’s start at the very beginning . . .

. . . A very good place to start. But before I launch into my answer, I want to thank you both for such excellent questions. They all force (or encourage) me to reflect on a lifetime of work. From a personal standpoint, this is a great moment for me to think backwards and ask myself: what did it all add up to? So I am grateful for your critical but generous-spirited questions.

Why History? Why indeed. My relationship with the subject is best likened to a love affair. I was introduced to a primary source at an impressionable age, and that was that. I read science and mathematics at school, with enjoyment mind you, but my passion for History was already so serious that during the break I would ask my friend who had gone to History lessons what she had learned that day. I am not joking, even though it’s hilarious in retrospect.

Who can explain an attraction of this intensity? It had something to do with the unfamiliarity of the past: it involved a sense of travel of a different kind, the sudden access to a novel, jaw-dropping, fascinating, vistas. That is all I can say. I don’t understand it myself. But it has been a steadfast companion, the most constant of friends.

2. How did you come to choose what you would focus on for your doctoral thesis, which became the basis of your first book Bengal Divided, now a canonical text in Partition Studies? The book questioned several decades of existing historiography that had disproportionately made the Muslim League the sole arbiter of Partition. Why Hindu bhadralok communalism in Bengal and why Partition?

That was, to begin with, an accident of research. I started off on my PhD intending to investigate a (perceived) decline in the influence of Bengal in India’s politics after the 1920s. It was, after all, the largest province/presidency, so there seemed to be a question to answer. (I turned back to it later, in The Spoils of Partition.)

But then I stumbled across some files in Teen Murti Library’s research room, in my second year of research. They were mislabelled, or rather the index entry was misleading, (probably because the material was mainly in cursive Bangla). The index entry was unexciting, but I thought I would requisition some of these files, just because there were so many of them. These contained thousands of letters and petitions signed by Hindus, all demanding the partition of Bengal. In a word, the opposite of what I had expected to find.

So then I changed direction in my PhD research – it happens all the time, I have since realized! I tried to dig for the roots of this movement. And Bengal Divided was the outcome of my research, and of mulling over my sources. You must understand, I was as surprised by what I learnt as those Hindu, and Hindu Bengali readers who have been furious with me ever since. (I am not generalising here, don’t get me wrong. But I have experienced verbal attacks, deaths threats, and a more insidious forms of academic marginalisation since the book was published. I continue to receive threats to this day.) But I paid attention, then, to the sources, not least because it was part of my training to be as true as one can possibly be to the voices of the past; even if what they are saying makes one uncomfortable and forces us to question everything we thought we ‘knew’.

That’s why I am always buried in files, (or photographs, or maps, or paintings, or interview transcripts) myself; and why I encourage my students to have the same deep engagement with those traces of the past, above all when they challenge us.

As for my method of engagement with sources: I was trained (at Cambridge) to read to pay attention to context, authorship, type of source, self-representation, who was trying to influence who and how, their relationship to power, and so on. I had read Marx, Althusser, Hegel, E.P. Thompson, Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Foucault and Hayden White, Pierre Bourdieu, James Scott, the Frankfurt School and a lot of Hannah Arendt by the time I started my PhD, and was much influenced by them as a young scholar. (Spoils’s architecture is in fact based on Hayden White’s notion of tropes – you might have noticed it’s used the trope of irony.) But I was not trained to position myself theoretically (or at least to trumpet that location) as historians are under pressure to do now. My line is quite simple here. History challenges theory, however great. History is messy whereas theory is tidy, and, for the most part, seamless. History has its own work to do, and that is, fundamentally, to stand in opposition to, and in a critical location towards, theory. We must allow the ‘mess’ to come through. If I have grown ever more concerned with chaotic agency, this is the reason why.

The other ‘method’ I pursue, and encourage students to pursue, is to recognise the importance of the variety of types of sources. No single source (or run of sources of the same type) represents the ‘truth’: it only represents what appears to be true from one angle of vision. The juxtaposition of a range sources reveals a variety of views about ‘what is going on’. Then you, as a historian, try to make sense of the babel of voices to impose something like a pattern that feels true to the sound, and the sudden silences. That’s my ‘method’.

I should admit that in my process of listening to the sounds of the past, I have a politics. I am attentive, and I hope sensitive, to the weak, the marginalised, those whose sounds are barely discernible. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in my work in The Bengal Diaspora and the recent articles on immobility, but it has been there from the start. You will find that every historian has a politics, however quiet or understated. Even those whose only claim is to be ‘impartial’ are locating themselves, willy nilly, within the politics of knowledge.

3. Could you reflect on the significance on the work you did on Hindu nationalism and Partition to where India finds itself today?

Hindu nationalism dates back at least to the 1880s. Its political influence has waxed and waned, but Hindu nationalist organisations have been with us for over a century (while by no means remaining static in their ideology or structures.) I did not discover them: I merely showed how influential they became at a time and in a place: Bengal in the run up to Partition.

I have not studied Hindu nationalism in its more recent iteration. My hunch, though, is that we are not talking about exactly the same phenomenon. Its new leadership in the late 20th century represents sections of the elite and middle classes - often trading and mercantile groups – which have been around for a long time but have grown more powerful and influential with the liberalisation of the economy and the shrinking of the state. If I am correct, the very meaning of Hindutva today is not the same thing as the sentiment expressed by say, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in the 1930s and 40s. It is important to consider the shifts and realignments of a (changing) ideology as well as its bases of support.

But the fact that Hindu nationalists were powerful enough in the 1940s to support the partition and even take on (and kill) Gandhi, indicates a hubris at the core of the ideology that is palpable today; the hubris of ‘majoritarianism’; it is as dangerous for the country, its social fabric and above all its minorities, as it was in the 1940s.

4. Was the interest in refugees and migration a natural progression from Partition?

Yes, it was. I pursued it in The Spoils of Partition, and in articles. I was a historical interloper, then, in the field of refugee studies, which had until then been the arena of sociologists such as Aristide Zolberg. In the 1990s I would find myself at large conferences at which there were only one or two historians amongst dozens of sociologists and anthropologists. But this was good for my intellectual growth – it was the start of a period when I began to dive deep into other disciplines and learn from them. I am still learning.

5. Your anger at the harsh conditions Partition’s refugees had to confront and what passed for government ‘relief and rehabilitation’ policy is palpable. At the same time, you refuse to ever see refugees as passive victims. Apart from demonstrating how caste, class, and gender mediated the experience of migration at Partition, you show how refugees were always doing something, even if refugee agency was never completely free. They participated in street battles to win ‘rehabilitation’ as a right, resisted government attempts to ‘disperse’ them and occupied evacuee property. You demonstrate how refugees changed and shaped a rapidly changing legal, social, and political landscape ‘from below’, sometimes violently. This persistent emphasis of yours, on refugees as active and not always sympathetic characters can be at odds with other accounts of Partition. Why do you think that the Partition refugee is so often cast as a passive subject?

Partition refugees suffered a great deal due to ‘critical events’ over which they had little control. One must recognise that suffering and bewilderment, and the sense they shared of a loss of grip over their own lives. Refugees often (though not always) represent their histories in this way: Partition happened to them. In that sentence, the refugee is not a subject. The refugee herself is denying her agency to convey to the researcher her sense of confusion, her loss of control. Historians have listened to that, and paid great attention to it. It is very important, and I give credit to all the scholars who have made that the focus of their story. My anger derives from my empathy with that subjectivity.

But that was the personal narrative of the refugee. It has come to us through the memoir, or the personal interview (as in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence.) These represent only one kind of source. Going back to my ‘method’, I have always tried to gather a variety of types of sources, and their ‘truth’ was different. In those sources I saw refugees at their angriest, most belligerent and violent. I don’t think it’s an either/or: a sense of lost of control can make one not just, or not only, a passive object, but an angry citizen, demanding a particular type of citizenship. That’s what I have been trying to get at.

6. Some might take exception to your assertion that ‘forced migrations’ caused by political upheavals such as Partition are not fundamentally different phenomena from the ‘economic migrations’ driven by the demands of labour markets. They might point to situations such as communal riots that force people to move. Why and how did it become clear to you that there are no definite conceptual divides between ‘economic’ and ‘political’ migrants - between ‘illegal immigrants’ and refugees and between ‘economic’ migration and ‘forced migration’?

My argument is a little more subtle than the way you put it, and perhaps that’s why it has sometimes been misunderstood. I suggest that people who later became refugees or ‘forced migrants’ were often the very same people who moved, historically, in response to labour markets (in the broadest sense.) These people already had in place the physical capacity, intellectual capital and social networks needed to move when they faced political upheavals and violence. They had what I describe as mobility capital already in reserve. This allowed them to flee and become refugees in response to persecution. Those who did not have such capital to begin with were in a far more precarious position, because they could not leave sites of violence: they lacked the wherewithal so to do. They were ‘stuck’.

That’s the nub of the argument. It links the study of migrants with refugees over a longer durèe, not just at the moment of crisis. I think if you shift your focus of study from crisis to crisis, or study only critical events (as many sociologists and aid organisations are prone to do) without seeing the place and people through the historical lens, you miss this other, and quite critical, dimension.

7. In ‘Migration Myths’ you critically analyse two histories ‘written with a view to enabling the ‘assimilation’ of the community they claimed to speak for, and to seek rights and recognition for that ‘community’ in its place of settlement’. Those histories are very different from the ones you write. Yet, as a historian of migration, frontiers, minority-formation, and citizenship, you are, albeit from a significantly different angle, also constantly striving for a sort of recognition for your subjects whether migrated or stuck. Your work seems to be driven by an intense impulse to enrich your readers’ understanding of why people are where they are. What drives this impulse? Do you see in your oeuvre an ongoing argument against the modern nation-state that seeks to control movement and render certain categories of people lesser citizens or ‘illegal’?

You are right. This is what I meant by my politics: I have been drawn to certain themes for much of my academic life. Yes, there is an ongoing critique in my work of the modern nation state and its relationship to equality and dignity. I am no fan of ‘national sovereignty’ which expresses itself by putting people in cages at borders, ghettoising religious (or other) minorities and pitting them against (constantly constructed) majorities. I was disillusioned by nationalism long before most of my contemporaries. Moving from India to Britain to live with a ‘brown’ son, I experienced, in my gut, what it meant to be seen as ‘lesser’ every day, having to talk to my son gently about how to negotiate this landscape, and to live in a society that condoned this. So my intellectual preoccupations were further energised by personal experience. It has driven not only my academic work, to date, but also my public engagement activities (e.g. the ‘Bangla Stories’ and ‘Our Migration Stories’ work on curriculum development). I felt it was vital for British children of all stripes to learn ‘why people are why they are’ from a very young age, before they learnt the harsh stereotypes about migrants and are immersed in the discourses about migration that waft around them.

If I have achieved anything tangible in my life, it is this work, I believe, that will count.

8. You have written about how the concept of an inclusive, territorially defined India emerged alongside communal nationalisms and other ‘ethnic’ ideas of nationhood and nationalism, but pointed out it was never inevitable that this ‘civic’ notion of nationalism would triumph over these other ideas of India. A malevolent and authoritarian brand of nationalism commands India today. Both the executive and the highest levels of the judiciary are invested in perpetuating it. What does this latest authoritarian turn tell us about the process of decolonisation in South Asia? Do you think Indians can resist it with resources from their own nationalist and constitutional traditions or does one reject nationalist frames altogether?

India is not the only country that is undergoing this shift: India does not exist in isolation. So there’s a danger in assuming that those who wish to resist this form of authoritarian Hindutva nationalism can do so solely by drawing ‘from within’. There’s a problem with such notions of authenticity: there never was a ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ Hindu/Indian past which has its ‘own’ intellectual traditions or laws – we cannot draw upon this ‘thing’ because it does not exist. Even the Constitution is a hybrid construct – it’s our own in a limited sense. So yes, I do think we have to reject nationalist frames in thinking this through as a problem. In addressing the challenge of the present moment, though, we need to use a whole bag of tools - some of which have some potency because of their association with the fight against imperialism (e.g. constitutional and case law – as you have shown, Uttara - and later writ petitions; rallies, strikes, dharnas, and fasts, for instance). But this will not be enough. There is a whole new arsenal of tools, a whole new arena of politics, which is the web. The Hindutva brigade, scholars have shown, has invested huge resources in mobilising it. Its opposition must fight back in this area too. There should also be a more conscious effort to include the diaspora (whose numbers rival those of the Chinese diaspora) in this fight-back: again, let’s act outside nationalist frames.

9. You point out "Partition’s effect on the minorities it created on both sides of the border – minorities who for a variety of reasons chose not to emigrate to the ‘right’ new nation – has not often been examined." Scholars predominantly analyse Partition as involving the mass movement of people across international borders, but, as you have shown, there was also a significant level of internal displacement (often caused by incoming refugees) leading to clustering around the borders and ghettoization among national minorities. Reading social media at the time of the anti-CAA protests I was struck by how little is known about how these phenomena affected internal communal topographies. I kept thinking about your essays on clustering, ghettoization, ‘mobility capital’ and ‘being stuck’ that discuss internal displacement and the processes of economic and social minoritisation bound up with it. Do you think clustering and immobility have been given the attention they deserve in Partition histories? How do you think historians can build on your work on the Eastern border to understand that region better but also South Asia and minoritisation more widely?

I do think that this could, and should, grow into a huge field. My hunch is that ‘stuck people’, who lacked the wherewithal to flee violence, outnumber the world’s refugee population. They are to be found everywhere in violence-torn (or partition-scarred) nations, from South Asia, (Sri Lanka included) China, South-East Asia, Cyprus, Turkey, Bosnia, Serbia, the Middle East and North Africa. But it’s not just the scale of the problem that makes it as important to study as mobility. It reveals much about the way nation states work. The concept of immobility itself must be refined, critiqued and developed. (Scholars like Humaira Chowdhury are now developing a thesis on ‘immobilty capital’ that shows great potential.) The ingredients that make up the glue of stickiness need to be better understood. I have only scratched at the surface.

Here again, a quick return to your question about my ‘method’. I started this work (on The Bengal Diaspora and related articles) searching for migrants and refugees. Everywhere I found people who were ‘stuck’. Given that I believe that it is the historian’s duty to listen to voices of every kind, even when they are shadows, or silent presences, I began to be drawn deeper into that history. It was not part of the plan. Yet it produced something more novel, perhaps, than the project’s initial goals.

10 The West has been the focus of new theories of diaspora, but it is in the global south that the vast majority of the world’s migrants live. What are some of the implications of this focus on the West for research on migration and what are some of the questions you think scholars of diaspora and the global south should be addressing?

I have found it very hard, even without my own University, to raise funds for a ‘strategic research initiative’ tackling this problem; this reality, and the series of questions it raises. The West seems obsessed by what it sees as its own ‘migrant crisis’, and to have little concern, even at an intellectual level, in ‘elsewhere’. Some of us located here will continue to try to put together a global team to work on this problem. I hope, going forward, that it will include me. Until such bids succeed, scholars must start working on their own patch on this subject, but in conversation with colleagues around the world.

I cannot draw up a manifesto for such research at this stage. But my own questions – those that intrigue me – are about issues of physical debility and mental health, as well as provision of care to persons and places, which I concluded were vital elements of ‘being stuck’. There are ways in which, therefore, this research has connections with the history of medicine in the global South, and also the growing field of the economy and cultures of ‘care-work’.

11. The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and the National Register of Citizens are seen as tectonic shifts in Indian citizenship law moving away from the criteria of birth and residence to a religion and descent-based conception of citizenship. However, Indian citizenship law has been moving in this direction for a while, particularly with the amendments of 1985 and 2004 to the Citizenship Act. You have argued that after the mass migrations of Partition, minorities emerged as a distinct legal category. They endured a peculiar form of citizenship you call ‘partial citizenship’, where ‘the ‘the minority citizen’ was neither citizen nor alien, but a hybrid subject of new national regimes of identification and law’. Is jus sanguinis now finally triumphing over jus soli, challenging even the limited safeguards of citizenship attached to the hybrid status of partial citizenship?

Yes, that would be my initial response. There was much wrong with the hybrid model, but it is far better than the jus sanguinus model India now, under its leaders, is seeking to embrace. Israel is one country which has a full-blown jus sanguinus model of citizenship based on blood, religion and ethnicity. I urge every concerned citizen to look at its citizenship laws.

12. After the Indian prime minister announced the Covid-19 lockdown with very little notice, streams of migrant labourers began to walk across the country to get home and others are stuck in cities living in inadequate accommodation or suffering from starvation and homelessness. Jean Drèze suggests that one of the reasons behind the resistance to allow migrant workers to return home was that employers in host states did not want to lose their ‘pool of cheap labour’. As a historian of Partition, migration, and immobility how do you see this crisis?

When governments prevent ‘exit’, it often has to do with the need to hold on to labour of a particular kind. (In South Asia’s Partition, we saw this in the Sindh government efforts to stop the departure of sanitation workers from Karachi.) But whether the ‘West’ acted in a concerted manner to protect its cheap labour supplies is far from plain. Every government has produced its own plan, all of them pretty incoherent. You could argue that the British government’s furlough schemes have been designed to help employers as much as workers, but that it has protected the latter to a degree in a harsh economic climate. (As I write this, the politics of furlough, voluntary and involuntary redundancy are being played out in my own College. It’s clear in this context that government furlough schemes have offered workers protections too.)

Coming to your larger question, the crisis has challenged me to think harder about immobility. At a time when Covid-19 immobilized even those with private jets, and whole cities (and their elites) were locked down overnight, I think there’s more work to be done on what the state does, or fails to do (on exit). My original thesis must be reworked to ‘bring the state back in’ in a more careful and serious way. It also needs to consider how quickly health can dissolve into poverty and debility, as with the migrant workers. That’s the next article…

13. Your histories are rich in economic, social, and political analyses. Although it does subtly weave in and out of your observations you don’t seem that keen on cultural history. Why?

Really? I think there’s quite a lot of cultural history in Bengal Divided! That may have been written before ‘the cultural turn’, but it worked with a notion of the ‘construction of culture’ well before the ‘constructivist turn’, if my timeline is correct. And then there have been essays like ‘Migration Myths’. Surely that’s full-blown cultural history? Perhaps because it engages with arguments that differ from the Chicago-Columbia-Columbia-Kolkata view of Indian cultural history, it has fallen beneath the radar? Since my work on migration began, I have been more in conversation with sociologists (e.g. Zolberg) and anthropologists (Pierre Bourdieu) who work on other parts of the world…. But still? The very word ‘Disposition’ in the title of an essay surely gives the game away? Who but a self-conscious cultural historian (steeped in the anthropological work of Bourdieu) would use this word? Which other brand of historian would go wandering about graveyards in Kolkata in July and August, and interviewing custodians of shrines? Who would take Sunni practices of Moharram so seriously? Surely that’s grist to the mill of cultural history?

Let’s put it another way. I get curious about subjects. Questions pop up, unbidden. I follow the trail in whichever direction in takes me, to an Imambara in Dhaka, a graveyard in Kolkata or a restaurant in Brick Lane. The terms ‘cultural’, economic’, and ‘social’ history are just heuristic tools. Life does not work like that, ergo, the historian must use the techniques and archives that all of these types of history have deployed, while recognising that they are just that – tools – incapable of grasping and making sense of the mess of lived and felt history. ‘Lived and felt’ history is cultural history. It takes on board the meaning people ascribe to their own, or others’, actions: it is the opposite of the ‘dry fact’. I think I have always been attentive to cultural history. My colleagues laugh at me these days, questioning whether I am a historian or a cultural anthropologist! So your question surprises me.

14. You are profoundly aware of general historical patterns and links across time and space; indeed, you seem to have an uncanny ability to sniff them out. But as David Washbrook says in his introduction to Partition’s Legacies, your eye keeps coming back to Bengal, ‘Divided, Spoiled, or Migrated’. What is your relationship to Bengal? Have you recently started migrating away from Bengal? How does your work on Bengal inform what you are working on now?

That’s a witty line by David Washbrook!

I was curious about Bengal as a probashi Bangali - a (‘lesser’) Bengali, in exile. My father spoke about it a lot, and I had a hunger to understand more about this place where I spent summer holidays, which was both strange and familiar. My ‘ancestral home’ was in Siliguri, in the district of Darjeeling. I never once saw a Muslim enter the compound of our household. My father had plenty of Muslim friends, but few in Calcutta. A thought bubble began to grow in my head, and I grew curious about society in Bengal before Partition. I think most first books start out with autobiographical questions.

By the time I co-wrote The Bengal Diaspora, though, my questions were larger, and less intrinsically located in Bengal, or in my own history. I had questions which had been thrown up by Spoils, but which resonated with migration theory more broadly speaking. I located the project – sprawling, multi-sited, multi-disciplinary and transnational though it was – in Bengal and Bengalis, only because I had a reasonable grounding in the region’s history. It would have been a challenge to bring as much historical knowledge to the project if I started afresh in say, Punjab. It was a practical decision.

There are two books on the boil at the moment, neither of which are rooted in Bengal. The first is a history of South Asian citizenship, which travels the whole of the subcontinent, Ceylon/Sri Lanka. East and South Africa, and Britain. I hope I will be able to finish it. I did most of the archival work for this work without setting foot into my familiar haunts in the Writer’s Building, although my old notebooks will come in handy. Bengal (and Assam) do figure, since they represented, for a long time, a hybrid within the hybrid mode of citizenship that existed from 1950-1965.

The second is a most peculiar ‘general work’ on ‘South Asia’s twentieth century’. Obviously it is not, and cannot be, focussed on Bengal.

Nonetheless, while writing these different works (and indeed the work on migration), it has been very useful to have a deep knowledge of one region of the world. It need not make you narrow. It can give you a secure perch from which to view the wider world, moving forward. (And as I am fond of reminding my readers, Bengal in 1947 was the size of France; there’s no reason for anyone to be ashamed of gaining a level of expertise about a place of considerable size for a significant chunk of time.) The pressure to go ‘global’, and to become ‘world historians’ before one knows any history at all is building up in many departments, not least at Cambridge. Its effect has not been salutary.

15. There is a deep empirical granularity to your writing and underlying your theoretical insights, indicating many hours spent in the archive. You do not do history without the evidence. Yet, you have always pushed us, your students, not to write like our sources and assume the official passive voice. This isn’t just a stylistic warning you issue periodically to your brood – you want us to read against the grain and embed our archival work in an analytically rich framework. Could you reflect on your own historiographical practice, both on the stress you lay on archival research but on how you read your sources against the grain?

I have said something about this above, but I will go further, since you press me to.

Let’s just look at some of the archives created by the state. They tend to exist because the state (or its local bureaucratic representative) is threatened by a person or a movement. One can see a lot through that archive, because it tells us what the state is worried about and why. (We can get a good view of these anxieties, represented without much bias other than – perhaps – a junior official’s wish to get ‘noticed’ or promoted.) States have their internal structures, and they create little whirlpools and eddies through which information of this type can get over-amplified or distorted. Aim off, just a bit, for such whirlpools.

Take with large grains of rock salt the ‘information’ they throw up about the person/movement under scrutiny. (It is useful, if inaccurate and limited, so don’t bin it.) Usually bureaucrats get their information about otherwise unknown actors through police intelligence. This is apt to be flawed by reliance on paid informers. Informers had to generate something, so they might be prone to exaggerating, and sometimes even to inventing.

The nature of ‘facts’ at the disposal of the state are always thus unreliable. The historian would do well to aim off for the structural problems (for instance by cross-checking with sources that might have different biases) as well for ‘institutional bias’, (e.g. racist), imperial and casteist projections that colour the vision of the author of the reports.

It is not really that difficult, once you have studied a great number of sources of different kinds and gained an instinctive understanding of the limitations inherent to that type of source. Every source has limitations of bias, positionality and emphasis. The more you work, the better you ‘read’.

Then there’s another kind of problem, where there are few, or no, written sources available. Or when you personally, or scholars in general, are denied access to official sources. Here I have resorted to taking life histories and interviews, looking at photograph albums and framed pictures on walls, deciphering genealogies. Historical anthropology – which Nick Dirks pioneered and Aye Ikegama continues to practice – has good ‘tool-boxes’. Oral history has come a long way since Jan Vansina. I use its methods when I need to.

That said, I am sure you have even surer techniques; this is just how I, personally, have approached it. I tend to encourage my PhD students to adopt this approach too, because it is far from unfathomable. They are already daunted by the time they start out at Cambridge; and my aim as a supervisor is to be supportive and explain how they can develop this ‘mysterious’ skill just by using their considerable intelligence and common sense.

16. What has always leapt out at me is your ability to arrive at a fundamental, unasked question in what is now the crowded field of Partition studies. With the benefit of hindsight, it always seems to be an obvious question, but no one has thought to ask before. For instance, I remember when I had gathered all this archival material on Sindhi Partition refugees going to the princely states and was trying to make sense of it; fortunately for me, you had started writing your B.R. Nanda Memorial Lecture which turned into the essay ‘Princes, Subjects and Gandhi: Alternatives to Citizenship at the End of Empire.’ In that essay, you showed that thousands of people chose not to go to India or Pakistan but to a princely state, challenging the long-held assumption that people faced a binary choice between migrating to the two republics and that there was a history behind why they should make the choice to go to a princely state and choose subjecthood instead of citizenship. This is the crucial part of the historian’s craft – asking good questions leading to insights that we did not have before – even on a seemingly well-documented subject. How do you arrive at your questions?

Most of my questions, good or not so good, have arrived just by going through materials. Sometimes you notice something that isn’t a part of any story you know. To begin with, your tendency might be to say to yourself ‘file for another time’. But then more and more of these strange signs come up so that you feel that you would be doing an injustice to the subjects in question if you ignored the questions they raised. That was the case with princes (and rani sahibas), and the migrants who flocked to their states. They (the princelings) may be unpopular people whom history has passed by, and whom historians have damned. But if there were migrations to princely states, and floods of petitions to rajas and jam sahebs from artisans guilds and leatherworkers, how can you not ask yourself what they mean?

So sources of all kinds have provided my best questions. I am not sure the answers are great, but I keep at it and do my best. Sometimes you get the ‘answer’ by hard work; more usually you work hard and then it arrives when you are having a (brief) break. I insist that my ‘answers’ are provisional. I always hope someone will come along and provide better ones. My PhD students have cut gaping holes through my arguments. It’s been, and continues to be, the best part of teaching.

17. You are a much-loved teacher and have lectured and supervised undergraduates for several years. You have supervised over thirty PhD theses on a huge range of topics. You have also been involved in projects on teaching the history of empire and migration in British schools and helped to conceptualise the ‘Our Migration Story’ website which has won several awards. It has been a long career of dedication to teaching. What were the challenges you faced, teaching South Asian history in the UK? How have your pedagogical methods evolved over the years? How does your life as a teacher relate to your life as a historian and a writer?

Teaching South Asian history in Britain has been both challenging and easy. It is easy because there is already a considerable appetite to learn among the university students I have had the privilege to teach. My courses have always been options, rather than core courses, so people were there because they had chosen to be there.

The challenge comes from the unfamiliarity of the material. Some students start out with only the vaguest idea of South Asian history, never having learnt any at school. (This is beginning to change, thank goodness.) Others know something, but through the prism of their grandparents’ personal histories of migration to Britain, or to India. (‘Sikhs did terrible things to our family’, or ‘Grandpa Washbrook served in India in World War II’.) You cannot even depend on students knowing where Kanyakumari is in relation to Karachi. So there has to be a steep learning curve, but the ease comes in because most students start with little baggage of preconceived ‘truths’. I usually encourage students to find large maps of the region and pin them up in their rooms, and absorb, almost by osmosis, its geography by glancing at the map a few times each day.

The London School of Economics taught me the rudiments of pedagogy when they hired me to teach (I feel fortunate to have had that training). I learnt that students are different; they rely to different extents to oral, visual, and auditory stimuli, to you had to mix it up, providing all kinds of stimuli through a lecture or seminar. I learnt about concentration spans: the dreaded five minutes; and how to break a class down into five-minute bites by pivoting (to a slide or film) or asking a question, or even leaving the room. But I loved teaching, and never stopped being excited by the moment when I could see students sit up, their eyes sparkling with questions. Sometimes ‘research questions’ popped into my head while I was giving an undergraduate lecture – you make freer links as you are ‘winging it’. I can say, looking back with some sadness, that after each day of teaching I felt uplifted, even ecstatic (in the deep meaning of the word). I remember my last undergraduate lecture at Cambridge before my sudden and premature retirement: I announced at the end, ‘thank you everyone, you have made my last class a joy’. The students looked at each other bemused, and at me in a concerned way: my illness was of the barely visible variety. That was a year ago. I will miss undergraduate teaching, going forward. It enriched my life by allowing me to give to others, to pay careful attention to them, to focus all my concentration on them.

From the school teachers who helped us with Bangla Stories and Our Migration Stories, I gleaned the bare bones of pedagogy for teaching younger people. I tried to integrate some of this into my own teaching, and though I never was anything close to perfect, students appreciated the effort. The basic rule is that if you respect students enough to put all of yourself into making something happen in the classroom, they will respond well. Be honest with them.

My PhD students taught me far, far, more than I taught them. It has been a great pleasure learning and growing alongside them.

In terms of my writing, I suppose that when you have had to teach thirty PhD students and at least twice as many MPhil and MSc students to write dissertations, helping them with issues of structure, flow of arguments, and elements of style, you raise your own game on these fronts. My experience as editor of Modern Asian Studies also made me more aware of issues of readability; of the need to show concern for the reading experience.

18. Could you speak about the work of some other historians, or scholars from any field, you think your writing is in conversation with or building upon?

This is tricky territory. It’s been so long, so I will talk about on-going work only, if I may. I am lucky to have had the most generous and critical of sounding boards: Tanika Sarkar, David Washbrook, Prasannan Parthasarathi and Peter Mandler have read each chapter or essay I thrust upon them and told me what was wrong with it.

My work on citizenship is in conversation with that of legal historians, not only of South Asia but of Africa and the old White Dominions, or settler colonies, as well as historians of immigration to Britain. I would not describe myself as a legal historian though, and in that tension lies the trade-off, in my view. Off the top of my head, there’s Rohit De and you yourself, Uttara, as well as Emma Hunter, Caitlin Anderson, Adam McKeown, David Feldman and Keechang Kim, and – since citizenship and sovereignty are so intimately connected – Lauren Benton. More recently, the contribution of Alison Bashford, Lake and Reynolds, M. Karatani and Radhika Mongia has been useful for me to think with, and around. And then there’s always the majestic Zolberg.

On the chaotic resistance of the refugees, we could start with Partha Chatterjee (although I have been having a conversation with him in my head since I was writing Bengal Divided. I am not sure he has participated in it, though!). Hannah Arendt was a huge influence here. Vazira Zamindar, Uditi Sen, and Anjali Bhardwaj Datta each put forward different and exciting models of refugee agency, and they have helped inform my notion of mobility capital.

On the immobile, I have drawn on the work of historians and anthropologists of medicine in sub-Saharan Africa, (Julie Livingstone and Megan Vaughan) and on ‘care-work’ (Samita Sen). This is still a conversation waiting to develop, I think. Thinking about its converse, mobility, the work of labour historians has been an influence, Ravi Ahuja and Raj Chandavarkar in their different ways, as also Henri Lefebvre. Willem van Schendel has been a constant interlocutor: we seem to be drawn to the same subject from different perspectives.

The sociologist Claire Alexander has been my comrade-in-arms for many years; together we have tried to bring to history of ‘the migration crisis’ in Britain together with the study of migration in the ‘source’ regions, in the same analytical framework. We have also been collaborators in public engagement and curriculum development in Britain, although since I grew more ill, Claire has borne more and more of the load. Working with her for fifteen years has changed me. I leave you to judge whether that change has been for the better or the worse!

19. You read a lot of fiction. Could you name six literary works you have particularly enjoyed reading?

Oh dear. I am a ‘constant reader’ and have been one since I could read, this is a hard question. I can give you an answer that is whimsical at best, since it reflects only my most recent bout of (re-) reading. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea probably rises to the top of that particular pile. Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a triumph, and I rate Vivek Shanbagh’s Ghachar Ghochar as a masterpiece. No lover of books and life could fail to be captivated by Jonathon Franzen. I love Alice Munro: every writer should be required to read her. I return again and again to Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien and Margaret Drabble.

20. Sohini: My personal favourite is ‘Of Graveyards and Ghettos’, and it has been an important springboard to my own research. So, from extremely selfish reasons I want to ask, how does one write the material history of death, when the stories must be wrapped in such sensitivity and empathy? Like the hour-glass and the peeling of the onion that you describe in your introduction, what metaphoric methodology did you use to write this essay?

In writing ‘Of Graveyards’, my intention was to describe what I saw and felt. The serenity, indeed beauty, of these graveyards took me aback. Like many an ignoramus, I had until that point thought of graveyards as macabre places. I was concerned to conjure up for readers the very different feelings that pervaded these ‘social spaces’. I thought that this affect was generated by the custodians of graveyards and the ancestors of the dead, who tended the graves so that they maintained some of their majesty, even if the physical fabric of grave stones was eroding and the space occupied by graveyards shrinking.

Here I was trying to capture both the (surprising) visual quality of the graveyard itself, as well as the depth of feeling it conjured up in an observer who had no relationship to those departed.

I head read Jon Parry on death rituals, (Heonik Kwon’s masterpiece had not yet come my way). But I had not given serious thought to how the death of a loved person changes one, filling the bereaved with new feelings of responsibility and intense attachment to the community of mourners. Death is a creative force, I sensed. The relationship between the bereaved and the dead is powerful; often more powerful than relationships between the living.

I am seeing these things far more clearly in hindsight, I must admit. Then I only ‘sensed’ them. Sometimes historians must pay heed to their instincts and intuitions. (This was a case when I did.) Pulling those glimmers (rather than ideas) down to the page is not easy, unless you adopt some of the tools of the participant observer. That is how I approached the writing; at least for the first part of the essay.

I hope this answers your question, at least in part!

21. Your projects are deeply marked by the ‘minutiae of events’, as David Washbrook has characterized it. What global parallels have the minutiae revealed? I am thinking of historians on citizenship and refugee making such as Frederick Cooper (whom you cite on p. 492) Zolberg and Benda, (p. 222), Engseng Ho (p. 226) in other decolonized countries. What makes the South Asian case study distinct?

The obvious factor in the South Asian case is Partition. In this sense its closest parallel is with Israel. Students of mine who have worked on refugee camps in Israel have observed similar dynamics within them. (One observes similar processes of minority formation post-Partition with respect to the Arab population that stayed on: Arab–Israeli scholars have noted a similar grab of ‘evacuee property’ and ghettoization of Arab communities). Lisa Malkki’s work on Hutu refugees in Tanzania is most revealing too. South Sudan and divided Eritrea may well be witnessing similar processes on the ground. I have not yet seen any granular study of the horn of Africa, perhaps it is still too early and unsafe.

That is not often the realm of historians, amongst whom only a handful examine the ‘minutiae of events’ with as much zeal as I do. Anthropologists, like Malkki, do stay close to the ground, attending to little people and every acts; so it will take scholars working in many fields to build up meaningful comparisons. I am talking of early signs here – conference papers still unpublished – on Israel, and so on.

But I think that if you were to read these studies together, the South Asian example will not appear so distinct after all. Several post-colonial nation states were born while societies were being ripped apart: they bear similar (though not identical) scars.

22. You have noted how the terms of transnationalism, hybridity and networks cloud the increasingly firm clasp of nation-states in sealing and controlling its borders. As someone living in New York at the time of the coronavirus pandemic, I have noticed how nation-states micro-manage their immigrant population even within their borders: through policing, counting, and withholding access to basic health rights and economic resources. Simultaneously, migrants evade the state by giving up on resources and evading documentations. Migrants slip out of official records, only captured in our archives when the nation-state reigns them back in. Are they then the true transnational subjects, the exception to the rule? How does one write these slippery characters back into history?

There’s been excellent work on the paperwork of citizenship and access to its goods (for instance Kamal Sadiq’s Paper Citizens). He finds that ‘paper’ is quite easy to get, forged documents can be bought all the time. (I found the same with the permit papers issues for cross-border movement between India and Pakistan.) But do not over-emphasise official bureacratic paperwork if you want to ‘see’ these migrants, particularly those the state is trying to get rid of, and those who are trying to evade its clutches. For the very reasons that you suggest, the state’s ‘biopolitics’ can never be as powerful as some believe it to be, because ‘little people’ are resourceful and determined. You might see them in news coverage of small skirmishes at borders, where say, India, is trying to push ‘East Bengali (read Muslim)’ ‘migrants’ across the border. These people often have all the papers, they even have graves, to prove domicile. The state disregards this. See court cases, which often yield rich personal biographies of ‘absconders’. Go to borderlands, where they tend to cluster: take life histories. These people are the transnational subjects of our time, since most have far-flung networks and attachments in all sorts of places. You are right, and courageous, to be pushing at this question. The study of elite transnational sojourners continues to throw up much to think about, (see, for instance Tim Harper’s recent Underground Asia). But without unearthing the transnational lives of the poorer migrants, who are a vast and ballooning population, we are never going to get our heads around this subject.

23. You note how the Bengal Government after Partition expressed the need for able-bodied men to work and not subsist on charity. This resonates with famine relief programs of the colonial government in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies in the late nineteenth century where able-bodied men came to cities to work in the factories. These parallels tell us about the enduring relationship between famine, labour history and citizenship (or claims to urban spaces). The desire to pick able-bodied men of course tells us about how famine set in mass debility among others, particularly women and children. How does one accommodate the history of debility, ‘weakness’ and morbidity into the history of citizenship in postcolonial India and Pakistan?

There are many ways to approach this. Note the rights (or lack of them) of people with certain listed diseases to travel, or marry, and to exert other forms of autonomy. Epilepsy and leprosy still figure as barriers to mobility, in and of themselves. It gives you an idea of what manner of ‘rights-bearing subject’ the disabled person is, and has been for centuries. (Bashford is illuminating on this point.) Note the access to the ‘goods’ of citizenship: the right to serve in the army (height and weight rules have applied, and continue to apply), or access to rations at low prices (proof of identity and place of residence are needed to avail these provisions). How does a displaced and disabled woman vote? (It is hard enough for the elite woman to exercise this right freely.) How does an orphan child, displaced by riots in Gujarat, say, gain access to these goods (or ‘BPL’ provisions) since she cannot prove either her identity or place of residence? This child will become weaker, and ever more debilitated, to the point that she cannot even do days of work now guaranteed by the NREGA scheme.

If you throw caste into this mix, which you must, one can begin to build up a picture of what it is to be a ‘bare citizen’ (or something close to that). Citizenship is not an either/or quality but a spectrum of rights and capabilities. Many people find themselves on the wrong end of this spectrum, because of their gender, disability, debility or history of displacement.


10 November 2020


 When two young women are hired to carry out conservation research, they discover that India is a large jungle – larger than they ever imagined. Their study of trees reveals a complex world in which the greatest threat to pangolins and imperilled species is
Indian men and patriarchy. 

Tramping across North India, the women encounter men, man-made obstacles, and bureaucratic corruption, but forge ahead with satire and self-deprecating humour. Their many stories give us the voices of people and species oppressed or marginalised. Several anecdotes show daily battles against research methods and policies that bury lived
life in dry data.
Environmental research is more about lives and livelihoods than data, says Aditi Patil. She makes us feel the pulse of life hidden by statistics. Women farmers, forest dwellers, rustics, and researchers come exquisitely alive in this entertaining and persuasive book.

“a great mix of humour and reflective seriousness.”

“Under the cover of irresistible humour, Patriarchy and the Pangolin ambushes the reader with unsettling questions about Indian society and the world of research.  A bittersweet delight.”

ADITI PATIL was born in Mumbai. She has worked on diverse conservation projects with WWF India, Columbia University, and the Gujarat Forest Department.

The cover was specially hand-painted by the artist Sheela Roy. Based in Calcutta, she was born in 1937 and works with acrylic, watercolours and pastel. The painting for the cover of Patriarchy and the Pangolin is done in ink and acrylic.




Published by BLACK KITE 

an imprint of Permanent Black

in collaboration with HACHETTE INDIA 


08 November 2020


Indians have been writing prose for 200 years, and yet when we think of literary prose we think of the novel. The “essay”  brings only the school essay to mind. Those of us who read and write English in India might find it hard to name an essay even by someone like R.K. Narayan as easily as we would one of his novels, say Swami and Friends or The Guide. Our inability to recall essays is largely due to the strange paradox that while the form itself remains invisible, it is everywhere present. The paradox becomes even more strange when we realise that some of our finest writers of English prose did not write novels at all, they wrote essays. The anthology is an attempt at making what has always been present also permanently visible. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

• A collection of the finest essays written in English by Indians over the past two hundred

The Book of Indian Essays is a wide-ranging historical anthology of the Indian essay in
English – the first of its kind.

• This collection starts with Derozio in the 1820s and ends with writers admired for their prose in
the twenty-first century.

• The forty-five essayists in this anthology include some of the best-known Indian writers of English, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Aubrey Menen, G.V. Desani, Dom Moraes, Sheila Dhar, Madhur Jaffrey, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Chitrita Banerji, Mukul Kesavan, Pankaj Mishra, and many others.


Indians have been writing prose and poetry in English for the past two centuries. Anthologies of the country’s poets and poems have appeared regularly, but it is difficult to come across a wide-ranging historical anthology of the Indian essay in English. This collection starts with Derozio in the 1820s and ends with writers admired for their prose in the twenty-first century.

This pioneering assemblage – of great Indian short prose within a single volume – is equally impressive for its range. The reflective essay, the luminous memoir, the essay disguised as a story, the memorable prefatory article, the newspaper column that transcends its humdrum origins, the gossip piece that oozes literariness, the forgotten flower in the long-dead magazine, the satirical putdown – all these find place here.

A literary anthology also works as an alternative history. This volume resembles a map of middle-class India’s social life and aesthetic sensibilities from hybrid perspectives – Indian and Western, feminine and masculine, anti-colonial and anti-nationalist. To be found in it are diverse characters in scattered locations – including Victorian Calcutta, modern America, village Egypt, cloistered Oxford, feudal Kerala, cosmopolitan Bombay, Lutyens’ Delhi, Buddhist Benares, Civil Lines Allahabad, and small-town India.

The essays amuse, surprise, edify. The feelings and ideas in them provoke thought, compassion, and a sense of the wonder that was India.

ARVIND KRISHNA MEHROTRA is one of India’s finest poets. He is also an internationally reputed translator and the country’s most respected anthologist. Collections of his essays, Partial Recall and Translating the Indian Past, have been published to wide critical acclaim and his latest book, Selected Poems and Translations (NYRB), was shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry.

The meditative cover photo is by Priya Jain, and Arvind loved it for the sense it gives of travelling through Indian prose not at the hectic pace of a plane or train or car, but meandering, ambling, stopping wherever you please, wandering into bylanes that are unpaved and unexplored.
Enjoy the book!

Hardback/ Rs 699/ BUY

09 October 2020





In this groundbreaking study, SherAli Tareen offers the most comprehensive account of the longest running dispute in modern Islam: the Barelvī–Deobandī polemic. The Barelvī and Deobandī groups are two normative orientations with beginnings in colonial South Asia almost two hundred years ago, yet their differences haunt the religious sensibilities of South Asian Muslims even today.

Tareen challenges those who see intra-Muslim contest through the prism of liberal-secular binaries like legal/mystical, moderate/extremist, and reformist/traditionalist. He argues that the Barelvī–Deobandī polemic was animated by “competing political theologies” – contrasting visions of the normative relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic charisma, and the practice of everyday life. Based on a close reading of unexplored print and manuscript sources in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, his book marks a major intervention in the fields of Islamic Studies, South Asian Studies, and Political Theology.

“. . . beautifully written in a language accessible for students and colleagues . . . If you can only read three books on Islam in South Asia, Defending Muhammad in Modernity needs to be one of them”
Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute

“No book offers a richer, more illuminating guide to the origins and the complex theological relationship of the Barelvi and the Deobandi orientations . . . [a] remarkably accessible study . . .”
Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton University

“. . . a major contribution to the literature on the history of Muslims (and Islam) in South Asia . . . The book is also noteworthy for its deep engagement with Urdu, Persian, and Arabic sources”
David Gilmartin, North Carolina State University





SherAli Tareen is associate professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College. He is co-editor of Imagining the Public in Modern South Asia.

Hedgehog and fox series; series editor: Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Paperback/ Rs 795/  

09 August 2020



by Benjamin Siegel

The Great Agrarian Conquest represents a massive intervention into the contemporary historiography of South Asia, elaborating upon some conventional wisdom but upending a great deal more of it. Readers might well place this book in conversation with works like Ranajit Guhas A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963) and Bernard Cohns Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what Bhattacharya oers is a wholly original account of the transformation to agrarian colonialism . . .


Few volumes in South Asian history have been more awaited than this monograph, Neeladri Bhattacharyas first. One of the most celebrated mentors and researchers at New Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University, Bhattacharya retired in 2017 after a decades-long career. His formal scholarly output, limited to several important edited volumes and shorter publications, had hitherto been dwarfed by his immense historiographic influence on several generations of scholars now working in the Indian, British and American academies. Few scholars working in South Asian agrarian and environmental history have not been influenced by Bhattacharyas original and learned interpretations of colonialism in rural India. The Great Agrarian Conquest represents the first time that Bhattacharyas thinking has been worked into a single volume: a magisterial and immense account of the creation of rural India itself as a coherent space of governance and economic life. 

Rooted in the particulars of colonial Punjab arguably the paradigmatic site of agrarian colonization itself The Great Agrarian Conquest spans historiographic approaches. Taking cues from social, agrarian, environmental and legal history, and harnessing many of the enduring lessons of certain subaltern approaches, Bhattacharya seeks to chronicle the development of a new and enabling imaginary whereby the rural universe could be made afresh: revisualised, reordered, reworked, and altogether transformed. Throughout the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Bhattacharya shows, the agrarian order of India was naturalized as the totalizing landscape and structure of rural life. Indias land, British administrators came to posit, was organized into cohesive villages, each governed by timeless traditions of property, custom and rule.

Bhattacharya divides this expansive text into ten chapters organized into four conceptual sections. The first section, comprising a single chapter, chronicles the rise of masculine paternalism as a dominant mode of colonial governance in nineteenth-century Punjab. Through figures like Henry Lawrence, John Lawrence and the Marquess of Dalhousie, Bhattacharya charts the embattled negotiations over the nature of Punjabs agrarian society which underwrote the rise of a particular model of rule.

The conceptual establishment of a colonial society governed through masculine paternalism is the prerequisite for understanding the rapid development of the agrarian imaginary in Punjab: a coterie of categories and institutions which helped to create and bind together social groups and relations between people in the rural world. These categories are the subject of The Great Agrarian Conquests second section. Bhattacharya explores the discovery of the Indian village as the indispensable unit of South Asian society. He shows how the village a category repeatedly armed as the core of Indian society by colonial and Indian thinkers emerged from the earlier category of the estate, slowly encompassing all rural settlements in an expanding range of environmental zones, from alluvial plains to semi-arid regions of pastoral farming. In a similarly radical intervention, Bhattacharya demonstrates how the division of North Indian rural society into three categories of landholding zamindari, pattidari, and bhaiachara sprung to life from the imagination of nineteenth-century revenue ocers, even as conditions on the land continued to defy their stated tenurial terms. He shows, in the subsequent chapter, how categories of landlord and tenant grew hegemonic in colonial Punjab: ocials could debate the role of each, but not the fundamental accuracy of these terms. Finally, Bhattacharya shows how in Punjab, a region conquered almost ninety years after the first British possession in Bengal, paternalist ocials became preoccupied with the notion of rural custom and its concomitant codification.

The third part of The Great Agrarian Conquest, From Code to Practice, is given over to the question of everyday practices of colonial law and administration, oering three interlinked investigations into rights, inheritance and the remaking of agrarian property. Demonstrating how codes were reordered through practices and were embedded within specific discursive and legal paradigms, Bhattacharya shows how colonial law was scaolded upon the dynamic worlds of agrarian life, familial networks and the particulars of Punjabi life cycles. In the first chapter, Bhattacharya juxtaposes a verse written by a peasant poet against an interpretation of the poem proered by a settlement ocer, who transforms a poem decrying a loss of rights and the past order into a piece of evidence to support the rights-centred nature of colonial rule. In a second chapter, Bhattacharya shows how marginal groups pastoralists, women, lower castes and merchantmoneylenders used novel strategies to contest new patriarchal brotherhoods. Wills, adoption, gifts and other legal tricks help show the limits of the settled agrarian order and its capitalist logic, and oer historiographic evidence that colonial law was neither totalizing nor pluralist. Finally, Bhattacharya explores the colonial bogey of land fragmentation, a purported defect in holding structures said to hamper agrarian improvement, but which in fact appealed to aective and practical logics beyond the ocial mind of agrarian colonialism.

In a final section, Bhattacharya chronicles the rise of agrarian modernity in Punjab. He located this upon the bārs of Punjab: scrublands and grasslands which remained beyond the boundaries of the agrarian order (and, subsequently, beyond historians moving too quickly between field and forest). Bhattacharya shows how the tribal and nomadic pastoralists grazing these lands were incorporated unevenly into the settled order through practices of mapping and taxation, and eorts to eliminate burning and swidden agriculture. He shows how a more ambitious project of agrarian conquest came in the form of Punjabs canal colonies: massive development projects, undertaken on the former bār tracts, representing agrarian conquest from above, fundamentally displacing earlier rural life-worlds.

The Great Agrarian Conquest represents a massive intervention into the contemporary historiography of South Asia, elaborating upon some conventional wisdom but upending a great deal more of it. Readers might well place this book in conversation with works like Ranajit Guhas A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963) and Bernard Cohns Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what Bhattacharya oers is a wholly original account of the transformation to agrarian colonialism. The books long gestation also has also allowed Bhattacharya to situate his expansive intervention within four tumultuous decades of South Asian historiography: a concise account of agrarian historys predominance and splintering since the 1970s (57) presages a book-long engagement with some of the fields most important debates and turns. This is a complicated volume that asks a great deal of its reader, but what it oers is immense: a full and magisterial account of the colonial transformation from the rural to the agrarian, and in it, a radical rethinking of the history of colonial rule itself.



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.


“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.


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 Great Agrarian 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?


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 as a teacher" Razi Aquil in Sunday Guardian

To listen to TWO excellent discussions on this book,

the first including Romila Thapar,

click here

and the second including Partha Chatterjee,

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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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