by Benjamin Siegel
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 Guha’s
A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963)
and Bernard Cohn’s Colonialism and Its
Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The
Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what
Bhattacharya oﬀers 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 Bhattacharya’s first. One of the most celebrated mentors and researchers at New Delhi’s 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 Bhattacharya’s original and learned interpretations of colonialism in rural India. The Great Agrarian Conquest represents the first time that Bhattacharya’s 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. India’s 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 Punjab’s 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 Conquest’s 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 aﬃrmed 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 oﬃcers, 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: oﬃcials 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 oﬃcials 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, oﬀering 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 scaﬀolded 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 proﬀered by a settlement oﬃcer, 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 merchant–moneylenders – 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 oﬀer 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 aﬀective and practical logics beyond the oﬃcial 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 eﬀorts to eliminate burning and swidden agriculture. He shows how a more ambitious project of agrarian conquest came in the form of Punjab’s 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 Guha’s A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963) and Bernard Cohn’s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what Bhattacharya oﬀers is a wholly original account of the transformation to agrarian colonialism. The book’s 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 history’s predominance and splintering since the 1970s (5–7) presages a book-long engagement with some of the field’s most important debates and turns. This is a complicated volume that asks a great deal of its reader, but what it oﬀers 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.
FROM ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, BY JAYATI GHOSH