13 January 2020

THE GREAT AGRARIAN CONQUEST by NEELADRI BHATTACHARYA



The EPW Review of
Neeladri Bhattacharya
The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World

Jayati Ghosh

It is a rare but exhilarating experience to realise, some way through reading a book, that you are holding what is destined to become a classic. This book is nothing less than a tour de force of the historian’s craft: making a profound point with analysis that is at once sweeping yet detailed, comprehensive and careful; filled with novel approaches and entertaining stories; and beautifully written throughout. But Neeladri Bhattacharya’s brilliant book provides much more than only historical insights: it opens up various terms, categories and analytical constructs that are regularly deployed in various social sciences, including in economics, politics and sociology, to generate a much more thoughtful and nuanced understanding of their origins and meanings.
The central argument of this book is that the colonial agrarian conquest of north India was a deep conquest in many ways, going well beyond the explicit dramatic (and often violent) assertion of control from above that could be easily observed. It operated equally and possibly more fundamentally – if more silently and over a long period – from below, “by developing a new and enabling imaginary whereby the rural universe could be made afresh: revisualised, reordered, reworked, and altogether transformed”. (page 1).  This involved the introduction of new categories – property rights and tenures, habitations and villages – that were then coded through laws and established through customs. By refiguring the terms used for social relations and the ties that bound communities together, it actually altered notions of space and time, of what was legal and what was permissible. Since it posited settled peasant agriculture as the norm, over time it devalued and denied the possibility of other forms of rural livelihood and landscape.
The book deals with colonial Punjab, although it has much wider resonance in space, across different geographies, and even in time, hinting at some remarkably contemporary analogies.  The account of the conquest is bookended by two evocative descriptions of journeys on horseback, the first a literary account in the early days of colonial control of the region in 1846, and the second a century later, on the very eve of Independence. The shift from the muscular and masculine paternalism of colonial conquest embodied by Henry Lawrence in the mid-19th century to the more sober and reflective journey of Malcolm Darling in the winter of 1946-47 encapsulates much more than a change in colonial attitudes. The intervening period is one in which the agrarian reality through which these men rode had been completely transformed, not only in the approach of the colonial rulers, but in the perception and understanding of the ruled.
For economists and sociologists, some of the most fascinating parts of Bhattacharya’s book are those that deal with categories and concepts that are too often simply taken for granted. As someone who decades ago researched agrarian economic change using colonial land settlement records, I realised (with some regret) how much of my analysis had been based on an over-simplistic understanding of these categories. But this flaw is indeed quite widespread among social scientists.
The “village” is one such category, unquestioningly accepted as the defining principle of the rural in India, as indeed elsewhere. Gandhi’s famous statement that “India means her seven hundred thousand villages” was for a very long time taken as both obvious and hortatory, and social scientists have generally tended to equate the rural and village residence. Yet Bhattacharya shows that in 19th century Punjab, settled agriculture within clearly demarcated villages was neither universal nor even the norm. Villages generally appeared in riverine plains, which were areas of intense cultivation. Elsewhere, there were vast stretches where neither villages nor settled agriculture were pervasive – amounting to around 60 per cent of surveyed land in 1870.  Depending on the landscape (forested, semi-arid, desert, and so on) there were many different forms of both settlement and livelihood, ranging from shifting dry cultivation to pastoral. But the colonial administrators operated with an idealised notion of settled agriculture based on the village, an approach that effectively erased the legitimacy of other spaces and forms of habitation, such as forests, scrublands, pastures, deserts, meadows, hilly regions.
How was this done? The most significant instrument was the revenue settlement, which required constituting a “village” through records, and ascribing some form of property and/or occupancy right on all lands. Each set of revenue records included a “history” of the village, which validated its existence as a distinct spatial body even if that was not at all how the inhabitants or local custom perceived it. Claims to accuracy were substantiated by patwari records, even as these were sought to be “modernised” and fitted into the colonial scheme of things. They were further buttressed by the use of cartography: mapping and cadastral surveys became essential instruments of the project of ordering, appropriating and dominating the landscape. Bhattacharya provides some maps that indicate the inherent contradictions of this endeavour, as the enthusiastic British sought to impose their notion of a settled agrarian order on arid tracts with pastoral livelihoods and shifting habitations, or on hilly areas that regrouped scattered hamlets and cultivated plots into new revenue circles called mauzas, announcing boundaries where none existed in reality. The villages of the fertile plains thus became the template that all other forms of habitation had to be squeezed into.
These processes also involved asserting – and in some cases reaffirming – traditional social hierarchies. But also, local peculiarities had to be captured in more general terms that fit with colonial ideas of stratification. Colonial revenue manuals classified north Indian society into zamindari, pattidari and bhaiachara tenures, which were duly enumerated annually. While these were claimed to describe pre-existing rural realities, in effect they were colonial constructs that “redefined the meaning of custom, the shape of social relations, and the meaning of property” (page 111), effectively refiguring the entire rural landscape.
Bhattacharya describes the desperate efforts of Baden-Powell and others to translate this theory of tenures into operational reality in the face of the much greater complexity, fluidity and variation on the ground. It meant that the terms had to be stretched, redefined, forced to accommodate contrary meanings. “Yet, though the officials found them useless, the terms were retained – misleading and fictive, but in the end indispensable.” (pages 125-6). This tenurial classification became another instrument of agrarian conquest, as all rural social groups were identified not only as living in villages, but as members of communities operating with particular defined tenurial systems.
This forcible straitjacketing impacted pastoral communities in at least two distinct trajectories. In some regions, tribes were forced to settle with land revenue imposed jointly on members of a particular tribe. Elsewhere, individual holdings were brought together and declared to be a (bureaucratically instituted) village community. But the order all this supposedly imposed was fleeting and often illusory. “Exasperated officials found it impossible to classify any particular village through a single category. Different parts of the village seemed to conform to the characteristics of different tenures” (page 141) to the point where the tenurial records were often entirely misleading.
Importantly, this classification and gradation of rights based on blood and ancestry consolidated patriarchy and a male brotherhood, marginalising women and castes and groups that could not belong to the defined lineages. Since the colonial power sought to govern through local institutions, the village brotherhoods that were so created were sanctified by empowering panchayats, which could quickly dispense justice on the spot. While the attitude of the colonial state to these local panchayats went through a complex evolution, they became a crucial site for the consolidation of patriarchal power in the villages (both original and created) with long-lasting implications for the distribution of rural power as well as for women and Dalits in particular.
Just as the colonial rulers coded land into property, so they sought to codify social customs. Yet the recording of social custom that became such a feature of the politics of paternalism in Punjab was done through the prism of British perceptions, conventions and assumptions. This process, too, was rife with Orientalism, the anxiety of the rulers and associated contradictions. This was evident in the attitude to the pandits who at first were treated as the intermediaries in relaying customs to the British, even as the Company’s intellectuals increasingly laid claim to the moral authority to record and represent Indian tradition. Effectively, therefore, the rhetoric of custom became a new language of power, legitimation and ultimately control. As with land rights, this reinforced patriarchy: by emphasising agnatic descent even when cognatic practices had earlier been prevalent; by making the rights of women dependent on notions of bodily purity; and in several other ways.
However, this colonial control, though all-pervasive, was never complete. Bhattacharya notes that it was never able to create a seamless and uncontested regulatory regime that incorporated subjects within it. Instead, there were spaces of confrontation and negotiation – and several fascinating instances of such ruptures and negotiations are described, including court cases that brought out the contradictions of the colonial codifications.
These contradictions became even more significant with the emergence of the commodity economy, as claims and obligations had to be categorically stated in the language of contract, so that even affective ties acquired legal forms. Colonial administrators assumed that joint holdings would disintegrate over time, moving to partition into individual shares and then individual possession. Yet joint holdings persisted, often because they could be “the anchor around which peasant life moved” (page 310), for example by enabling migration for certain periods. Attempts to reduce fragmentation of holdings by consolidation likewise collapsed over time, as the new large holdings created through land grants were split into smaller plots and leased out for cultivation.
Bhattacharya’s description of the colonisation of pastures and other common lands has remarkable contemporary resonance. He examines the pastoral tract of the high grasslands to the west of the river Sutlej, where the colonisation began with the (artificial) marking of boundaries through placing stone pillars, which were first simply ignored by the locals because the very concept was so alien. These then became the basis for levying a tax – tirni. This became a crucial way in which colonial power announced itself, since it went beyond the revenues collected to an assertion of rights over open lands, grazing fields and even sheer wilderness. Tirni eventually became an instrument of settling nomadic groups and confining them into demarcated spaces, reinforced by the inevitable maps with often fraudulent boundaries that even some colonial officials protested against.
But this was not an easy process: the authority of the new norms was always under question and often contested. Local pushback against this was treated with fear and loathing, to the point that a spate of wild fires was ascribed to malevolent villagers, even though an official enquiry determined otherwise. But the arguments used then can still be heard today. Consider this: “forest officials saw themselves as bearers of science and truth, reason and rationality, and the villagers as primitive and irrational, ignorant and unreasonable. The project of conservation was visualised as a war again unreason and the battle against those seen as pyromaniacs was viewed as a struggle for science.”(page 372) This contradiction was intensified by something that is also still present: the mixed use of land, whereby cultivated and forested lands cannot be easily separated, rather they are “honeycombed together”.
The project of canal development in the Punjab was similarly not just about rural infrastructure, but became a grand project of social engineering, In the Canal Colonies, officials who had long despaired at the absence of order with the agrarian landscape could finally try to impose their own sense of order, such that the entire landscape was plotted with a network of straight lines: the entire area became “a regime of squares”. Villages were enclosed and bounded, with single points of entry and exit – ostensibly for their own protection, even as it made official surveillance and policing easier. This was closely associated with the enclosure and demarcation of all fields. There were of course local reactions to this, particularly from herders and other excluded by this process. But more to the point, Bhattacharya notes that the promise of much higher yields on canal tracts turned out to be a mirage, largely because of the ecological barriers presented by waterlogging, salinity and their impacts. “Science could not easily sustain the self-arrogance of modernity. The promise of modernity crumbled, afflicted by the antinomies of development.” (page 435)
The experiment in the Canal Colonies typified the top-down, overt pattern that Bhattacharya describes as one of the two paths of agrarian conquest, whereby the colonial state sought to impose an entirely new order from above. By contrast, the other path, described in much of the earlier part of the book, was one of agrarian conquest from below, which proceeded “slowly, carefully, almost surreptitiously”– one that was supposedly founded on custom and native institutions, but actually “remapped the landscape, redefined custom, refigured rights, reorganised social relations, and re-ordered agrarian regimes”. (page 436) Inevitably, the distinction between these two paths broke down over time, as the agrarian conquest from below could not proceed without state initiatives from above.
Yet the contradictions of this process – and the wider and deeper contradictions of the paternalistic ideology of colonialism in the Punjab – became only too evident from the early 20th century. While Bhattacharya does not deal with this later period at any length, his account of the many forms of contestation and rebellion, of the exercise of agency by subjects in the second half of the 19th century, enable a better understanding of how such a regime could not survive a new language of individual rights, and most of all, the hope of the universal cry of azadi.
There is of course much more in this wonderful book than can be captured by a short attempt at summary. But the most important takeaway for this reader – beyond the unpacking of widely used concepts that are too often inadequately understood – is that a conquest of deep, profound and even phenomenal, proportions need not always be grand and dramatic; it can occur through “the seemingly routine, the undramatic, the everyday, (through) acts that organise life and institutionalise practices”. (pages 2-3).  As we live another period of conquest today, possibly even more complex, this insight is all the more powerful.


To listen to TWO excellent discussions on this book,
the first including Romila Thapar,
click here

and the second including Partha Chatterjee,
click here






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.

FROM THE REVIEWS:
 "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. says Ramachandra Guha, in WIRE

Neeladri Bhattacharya's "path-breaking monograph on significant transformations  in Punjab under British rule (1849-1947) adds to his legendary  reputation of a teacher" says Razi Aquil in Sunday Guardian

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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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